Friends, welcome to the third and last installment of these notes from our recent cruise in Portugal — and when I say “our,” I mean National Review’s. “Are you a magazine or a cruise line?” someone once asked, not too politely. We are a magazine that lives it up on a cruise once or twice a year. For Parts I and II of this journal, go here and here.
Where did we leave off? I think I was talking about Paul Johnson, the great historian, essayist, and critic who is one of our guest speakers on this ship. In our final session, which is about the future — of America, of Britain, of the world, etc. — I ask him about the future of art. One of his points: “There will always be a craving for beauty.”
‐You know what American politician he really, really loves? Sarah Palin. Thinks the world of her. I think I know why: Paul Johnson loves America — appreciates America, understands America — to a very unusual degree. He loves America as much as anyone I have ever known. And Palin is very, very American. You might even say classically American, or hyper-American. (The same is true of George W. Bush, who is a favorite of Johnson’s, as Johnson is a favorite of his.)
In one session, Rich Lowry and I are talking American politics. And, at the end, we take a little survey of the room — on preferences for the ’12 Republican nominee. When we get to Palin, Johnson puts both of his hands up, high. That’s enthusiasm. That’s support.
But remember, only stupid people support Palin or enthuse over her. You’ve heard that over and over, right? Paul Johnson must be quite the stupe. What’d he ever write, anyway? What does he know about liberal democracy: what makes it tick, what it needs to survive and thrive?
‐One night, onboard, there is a Portuguese troupe — a fado troupe. I think to myself, “This is the Portuguese version of Preservation Hall.” Before a mandolin player beings to sing, someone — a fellow member of the troupe — puts a black cape over him, with ceremonial solemnity. When the player ceases to sing, returning to the role of player, alone, the black cape is removed.
‐At dinner in a monastery one night, I have a jerk moment, I’m afraid. I’ll report it to you, because it’s kind of fun. A diner asks, “Did you read that review in National Review of George Gilder’s book on Israel?” I say, “Not only did I read it, I wrote it!” I am reminded of an eternal truth: Normal people — normal readers (i.e., ones who don’t work in the journalism business) — don’t look at bylines. Who cares who wrote the articles? We’re only interested in whether we’re interested in the articles.
Years ago, a colleague told me that his mother had enthused to him about a piece in a magazine or newspaper, on a topic he would appreciate. He himself had written it.
‐When we arrive in Porto — Portugal’s second city (after Lisbon, of course) — Pope Benedict XVI does as well. He is conducting mass in the central square. The atmosphere in town reminds me of a college-football Saturday. I don’t mean to be profane here, I promise you, but it does. I come from a town where college-football Saturdays are huge: Ann Arbor, Mich. (The town is a strange mixture of leftism, jockomania, and normalcy.)
Many streets are blocked off. People park far away, and then walk. They have come from far and wide. They are united in their purpose, and their enthusiasm. They wave pennants and sport buttons. Vendors hawk these items. And so on. The only thing missing is tailgating — plus drunkenness. College football is nothing without drunkenness, right?
‐Everyone says that Portuguese people are exceptionally friendly, and everyone is right. I hate to generalize, or condescend, but . . . the Portuguese, I have found, are really pleasant to be around. I need directions from a policeman. He is pleased to show off his English — which is quite good. I tell him how good it is. He says, “I’m afraid not.” I say, “If it weren’t, you wouldn’t be able to say, ‘I’m afraid not.’” He grins.
I ask him to point me to the river, please. “Do you feel like a swim?” he says. No, I’m simply looking to return to my cruise ship. More grins.
‐Stop signs everywhere — all over the world — say “Stop.” Suppose that Anglo-American civilization tumbles. Just goes belly up. China will be the top dog (or someone else will). Will signs saying “Stop” be thought of as a relic, or souvenir, from the age of Anglo-American dominance? “Oh, the word ‘Stop’ comes from English. It used to be the lingua franca of the world, you know. Hard to believe now, huh?”
Shudders . . .
‐On the shores of the river as far as it runs, men fish — men, boys, women, and girls fish. (Mainly men and boys.) I wish I could take pleasure in fishing. Those who do, really do. I am almost envious of people’s love of fishing. They seem like the most content people in the world.
‐Mind if I go back to Paul Johnson for a second? One afternoon, talking about America, he says there are three institutions we’d be much better off without – three institutions without which the country would be healthier, wiser, and more progressive: Hollywood, Harvard, and the New York Times. Have to say, I’m with him on the first and the third of those; Harvard, I think we can keep.
‐In our group, as we cruise the Douro, we have two pairs of top-notch dancers: Kim Ruska and Steve Warshawsky, and Margarita and Ron Farmer. There may well be other couples, but I’ve only noticed those two. Man, can they dance: the cha-cha, the rumba, the jitterbug, what have you. It’s like watching professionals. You — or at least I — can only look on, admire, and applaud.
‐We have regular cruisers who come from La Crosse, Wis. Boy, do they love the Packers; man, do they not love the Vikings. In any case, they have ten children, some of whom come, too. Eight are true-blue conservatives; the oldest and the youngest are liberals. Well, you can’t win ’em all. Also, one son-in-law — whom we have met on a previous cruise — is a Minnesotan and a devoted Viking fan. Agony. From the ten children come 30 grandchildren. At dinner one night, I ask the patriarch about the college tuitions he paid. He says that, from the ten kids, he paid for 58 years of higher ed: college and grad school. Fifty-eight years.
Great stuff. Great family.
‐Another night, at another dinner, I sit next to maybe the youngest person on the ship — just out of college, I think. Not sure. I ask whether she has enjoyed the cruise. Very much, she says. What has she liked best? I ask. The Portuguese countryside, the vineyards? She answers, “The people on the ship, without a doubt. Mingling with them, getting to know them. They are really nice and fun and interesting.”
You know, most everyone says that. Another cruiser says to me, “You’ve gotten me where I can’t travel any other way. I don’t want to go on a vacation without National Review people. It seems to me a waste of time.”
Care to see a few cruisers? Okay, here’s a snap: of Janet, Mike, and Kim. (Photo used without permission — like all the photos in this journal. My apologies to the people involved, and to the wildflowers as well.) Just so you know, Mike’s mother sometimes still calls him “Little Mike.” And he is a great storyteller — earthier than Paul Johnson or David Pryce-Jones, maybe, but great.
‐Let’s wind this baby up (or is it down?). In the Porto airport, the TSA workers — or whatever they’re called here — look like fashion models. They’re also a little nicer — a lot nicer — than the ones I’m used to, back in the dear old U.S.A. One girl — am I allowed to say “girl”? — looks like she stepped out of a Pedro Almodóvar movie. (Wrong country, I know.)
‐Right country: In the Barcelona airport, I see, and use, escalators that are not staircases but ramps. Escalating ramps. I’m pretty much the last to notice these, right?
‐The personnel in the airport, especially on the phone, say “Vale” constantly: “Vale, vale,” “Okay, okay, fine, fine.” Vale, vale. Vale, vale . . .
‐A passenger wears a jacket that says “Junta de Andalucia” — kind of interesting to see “junta” used in a non-condemnatory, neutral way!
‐In due course (as WFB would say), I arrive in Oslo, which, as I write, I’m departing. I’ll scribble you a journal about things Norwegian sometime soon. Thanks, guys, and see you.