Twirling towards freedom

Waiting on the Barbarians

I’ve been traveling for almost two months now. My boyfriend and I joke that we’re on a tour of economic ruin; the United States, now Portugal, next stop Greece.

Now, I’m not the kind of traveler who pretends to learn the local customs or the ‘language’ before I head out. This has proved problematic at times, but on my latest grand tour of Europe, it’s been nullified by the fact that every waiter speaks five languages. More in countries hit harder by the GFC – they work hard for their euro, and I’m happy to oblige them, with the Australian dollar hovering just above the US dollar like a lord.

In Lisbon there are enough tourist traps that it doesn’t seem as if our dollar stretches particularly far, but head out of the centre and you quickly see that the city is only putting on an act. Buildings constructed when the Portuguese empire was strong are crumbling, on every second block there’s a potential entry to the ubiquitous Buzzfeed lists of ‘World’s 33 Most Beautiful Abandoned Buildings.’ 

Lisbon is no longer a city for the young; it seems that everyone with the means to has left, following the jobs, following the money. The unemployment rate in Portugal is rising steadily, nudging 20%. In Spain, it’s higher. 

After decades of European fiscal superiority, it’s strange to be a tourist with a wallet full of one of the world’s stronger currencies. We spend a fortnight in a small town in the Algarve, nestled at the bottom of the country, a short hop from the Spanish border. Our brand new apartment, wherein everything from the cutlery to the bedspread originates from Ikea, rents out for $38 a night. In wintertime, for $12. Dozens of For Sale signs flutter from the balconies of empty apartment blocks.

It’s not yet peak tourist season, but there are more English people here than Portuguese, and the place still seems half-deserted. At one beachside restaurant that does not accept Visa, the owner drove my boyfriend 500m down the promenade to the nearest ATM, fearful that we would choose somewhere else to eat if we walked. While we ate our lunch we listened to a pair of middle-aged English women complain about the rate at which their pensions will one day be taxed. 

The thing is though, if you look beyond the crumbling splendour of the country that was built on the gold from the long-gone Portuguese empire, there’s life in the old girl yet. Medieval buildings are gutted and retrofitted with solar panels and other green technology, restaurants are cheaper but portions are smaller and healthier than we find at home.

As we take to the air on a flight packed with Australians, Brits and Northern Europeans, the hills across Portugal are scattered with windmills – Portugal meets 70% of its energy needs from renewable sources. It’s a stark contrast to the economy that allows me these holidays, the hubris provided by our miraculous dollar. While the upstart economy of mineral-boom Australia is busy blowing our inheritance on baubles and trips overseas, Portugal is, after the empire, learning to downsize, conserve, survive. At least, that’s how it looks from the window of this plane.

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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