You can read about My First Two Hours in Portugal here. It isn’t socio-political enough for publication in The Brisbane Line . . .

Strictly speaking this recollection of events is about the two hours which began when I walked out of the arrivals hall in Lisbon airport into the harsh light of a bright summer day in 2000 and scanned the long queue of people waiting to be put into a taxi by an official, presumably there to ensure fair play. As I pondered the queue’s slow progress, I made eye contact with the driver of a lone taxi, which was parked against the opposite curb. The driver gestured towards me and I made my way through the queue to his vehicle, relieved that I had found a quick way out of the crowded airport. I was in Portugal to spend a week with my oldest friend, David White, and his wife Fernanda, at their holiday home in Coimbra. It was my first visit to the country and the first time during decades of travel that I felt unable to communicate with anyone.

David had instructed me in a letter to catch a train at Estacao Oriente rather than the terminus, because it was closer to the airport. I told the driver as best I could where I wanted to go. He seemed to want to take me to the terminus, but I showed him the letter and insisted that he take me to the nearer station. Many years before on my travels, I had got into trouble by making eye contact with a driver and I sensed this was about to happen again. It was when I was visiting the Red Fort in Delhi, having hired a motorised rickshaw for the day. We arrived at the Lahori Gate, one of the vast entrances to the fort. The driver, a Sikh, said he would wait for me there. On my way to our rendezvous, having spent two or three happy hours exploring the fort, I caught the eye of a Sikh I took to be my driver, parked in a line of rickshaws inside the Delhi Gate, thinking he had somehow anticipated my route and had decided to head me off so that I would not have so far to walk before we continued our tour. Except that this was not my driver. While I was being taken to parts of Delhi I had never visited before and immensely enjoying the experience, he was waiting for a fare who never turned up and to whom anything might have happened. All this was revealed hours later when he rang the doorbell of my then father-in-law’s flat, whence I had departed with him that morning, irately demanding payment for his time. I was appalled at my blunder, profusely apologetic and coughed up without demur, much to the amusement of my wife and in-laws.

On our way to the station, which was downhill from the airport, the driver was stopped by the police for speeding and fined on the spot. Smarting from being penalised, he suggested he drive me to Coimbra. I pointed out that I was being met at the station there and again insisted he take me to Estacao Oriente. By now he was overtly surly. He screeched to a halt in the station’s vast and empty forecourt and demanded three times the usual fare. I meekly paid him, not wanting to risk a confrontation with no one nearby to help me. He had decided that he would recoup the fine from me and robbed me of almost all my euros.

So agitated was I by this encounter that I failed to register the station’s striking modern appearance, something totally out of character, and considering David and I had first met at architecture school in Manchester.

I booked my ticket and ascended to the platform. I enquired about the train for Coimbra and understood it to be the next one to arrive. A short while later I was aboard the train in an old-style compartment carriage. To my shame and embarrassment I struggled to lift my case onto the luggage rack and had to accept the help of a kindly man in his forties. On one side, the train was making its leisurely way along the Tagus estuary, a broad expanse of water, the view soon obstructed by a succession of large industrial works next to the track. On the other side, were Lisbon’s northern suburbs. I settled down to appreciate the passing scene from the unrivalled view that a railway carriage offers the traveller on land.

The ticket inspector opened the compartment door. He looked at my ticket and shook his head. I was on the wrong train. The inspector said I would have to get out at the next stop and return to my point of departure and that I would just be in time for the Coimbra Express. I did not like the sound of this at all. In due course the train stopped. The inspector could not have been more helpful. He saw me off the train and into the hands of an equally helpful colleague who accompanied me across the tracks to a waiting two-carriage unit for my return journey. To my horror, this was a stopping train. At one station, the driver left his seat and climbed down to the platform for a smoke. He then occupied himself by tapping the wheels. After what was an excruciating wait, we were on our way once more, past the industrial works and the river, arriving at the furthest platform from the one for trains to Coimbra. I was waiting at the door as we pulled into the station. I sped along the platform to the underpass linking all the platforms. Lugging my heavy suitcase, I ran the length of the underpass as fast as I could, cursing the fate that forced me to thus exert myself, and ascended to a busy platform 1, huffing and puffing amongst the waiting crowd. I had no time to draw breath before the express came to a halt. It was right up there with the crack European trains, bullet-shaped, gleaming and glisteningly new, a far cry from the sedate country train I had mistakenly caught from that very platform over an hour before.

The train was already full. I struggled to stow my case, found an aisle seat and sat down, feeling that I could now relax and at last enjoy the journey. My musings were abruptly halted by an elderly man who claimed I was sitting in his seat. He showed me his ticket and I showed him mine. I raised my voice in general complaint of the difficulties I had endured on the Portuguese rail system, omitting to state that they were largely of my own making, and pointed out that I was a visitor from England. I did not go quite so far as to invoke the 14th century Anglo-Portuguese Treaty. People nearby, including the elderly man, shrugged their shoulders. I resumed my seat and the elderly man, having wandered off along the carriage, sat down. A few minutes later there was a further altercation involving him. He was sitting in someone else’s seat. For the second time that afternoon he was turfed out and sent on his way.

What the person at the ticket counter had failed to tell me was that I needed to reserve a seat . . . I had bought a first class ticket on the Coimbra Express, but that did not guarantee me a seat. It was not obvious that I was sitting in a reserved seat, but I was – the elderly man’s, poor chap. Inadvertently I had behaved no better towards him than the taxi driver had towards me. When the awful truth dawned on me, I fervently hoped he had managed to find a seat.

Truly, I was not seeking revenge. I just wanted to get on the train to Coimbra, make myself comfortable, enjoy the journey, phone David to tell him when I was due to arrive and recover from the drama and intensity of my first two hours in Portugal

Peter Kuttner
July 2010