“It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to,” wrote Borges. This is a statement that makes me think of my other self, the other Laughlin who lived in another world, another time, as another self in another country—as we’re always another when we live outside our native land.
It’s Thanksgiving Day across the Atlantic in Massachusetts, where I live. There, among my American family and friends, it’s a quiet, contemplative day, but here in the Chiado, the heart of downtown Lisbon and the city’s oldest shopping district, everything is bustling, as if the Portuguese are scurrying to get a one-day head start on Black Friday. It’s a raw, drizzly day, a sign of winter’s approach, and the cobbled sidewalks are slippery. I’ve walked these hilly streets for 35-plus years, often darting from one bookstore to the next—new, used, rare—flipping through the pages of everything from current bestsellers, to obscure dime-store colonial-era comics, to rare folios of brightly-colored, highly inaccurate antique maps. That’s what I’m doing today, I’m book shopping.
How can you tell a modern, Western country is in the midst of an existential economic crisis? Bread lines? People begging in suits? Garbage and vermin? Tumbleweed? Packs of feral youth and stray dogs?
I’m in gorgeous, light-drenched Lisbon for a two-week literary conference, staying at a residence in a drab suburb near the huge, green-and-yellow-tiled Campo Grande stadium. I ride the subways, walk up and down the hilly, chipped-stone streets, poke my nose in stores, people-watch in cafés. I try to see people’s expressions in their cars. Portugal’s economy is at its worst since 1945, its central bank says, and one of the worst-off countries in the euro zone. Yet people here go about business purposefully. They look calm, dignified, not conspicuously depressed. They dress nicely though not as expensively as Parisians or Romans.