Over the Golden
Ricardo Borges, a Colombian citizen, now an incoming Professor at the
International University of Portugal, tap his fingertips over the
Portuguese-English dictionary hard cover. The night over the
fields of Cataluña and Extremadura had been tense. After
six hours of sleep he was awakened by the vivid conversation of his
chamber mates: a woman in her forties, an old man, two children and a
"We were in the Paris-Marseille TGV train. We paid three thousand
francs for the tickets," bragged the woman to an old man. She went on
in a swift voice.
"The French want to build a new line between Madrid and Lisbon,"
giggled the youngster.
"Think on all the advantages of the European Union: the independence of
Timor, Expo 98, Porto 2001, a Nobel Prize of literature, Figo, the
football player sold for 10 millions of contos to the Spaniards.
We are getting a lot of attention. And let's not talk of all those kids
brought up by Portuguese emigrants overseas. What's his name? The
director of Sleeping Beauty? He won an Oscar."
"A film where moral values are inverted," was Ricardo’s judgment about
that film, "In it heterosexuals are presented as psychotic characters
who can only be redeemed by non-psychotic gay men."
He sprawled in his litter, craned his neck over the sallow pillow and
laid his head against the wooden wall to peruse the imprecise pages of
a French-Portuguese grammar.
"I am a mathematician, you are an accountant, he is a foreigner." An
alien, according to the law. Bucaramanga, Bogotá, New Orleans,
Chicago, cities bygone.
Ricardo muttered two verse from the Portuguese bard: "A citizen of the
world under the tyranny of the nations.’
The local landscape glimmered through the window; yellow and green
houses built next to the railroad. Peeping over the windows' sills,
children and women look at the crossing train. Ricardo recognized the
burden of poverty on their faces, opaque eyes and mouths blurred by
"Which is your number?" the woman had asked him the night before, as
soon as he stalked into the cabin.
"Would you mind to sleep on litter thirty-three? I would like to check
on my children." Ricardo smiled and climbed up to the upper litter.
Almost immediately a toothless kid popped up from the edge of his bed.
"Don't bother our Spanish guest," rattled her mother.
Ricardo twitched his body around and dropped his jaw to correct her.
Then an old man wearing a white linen suit entered. Fretful thoughts on
his inaccurate pronunciation of Portuguese and the ill reputation of
his country of birth hindered his tongue. As the old man
introduced himself, Ricardo thumbed briskly the pages of his books. He
pondered on the history of Spain, a head swallowing that inedible worm
called Portugal. Four centuries ago, after King Sebastian died in North
Africa, Philip of Spain claimed the crown and invaded Portugal. A
meagre triumph that proved to be the doom of the Spanish Empire.
The recriminations of his Godmother returned vividly as he dozed off.
"What do you expect from Portugal?" whined her on the phone from Las
Vegas. "They are far more screwed up than you are. Do you watch TV?
Lisbon is not only a tourist resort, but also the favourite weekend
house of third-world dictators. I have seen their architecture, full of
statues of warlike heroes. Did you ever ask your great-grandfather why
did he abandon Porto fifty years ago? Portugal was a enslaved country.
You are a promising and capable film director, least you sink your
career in oblivion. The only Portuguese prominent figures are those
brought up outside the nation. Yes! I know Portugal has smoothly
undergone a revolt of roses. So, what? Its beaches, of course.
They are owned by German, French and British tourists. Whom are you
going to teach, anyway? A bunch of cookers and peasants? Politicians'
children? Listen to my advise and stay in the States till you get a
"I will learn Portuguese," he dryly replied.
Ricardo sat on the bed as the train crossed the bridge over the Rio
Douro , (Golden River.) The woven metallic structure preserved the
parsimony of fin de siècle. At that time Portugal was a British
ally, ruled by politicians and bishops. Casks of Porto wine were
shipped downstream from the upper mountains of the Douro region. Every
morning, even on Sundays, a multitude of dirty and illiterate peasants
used to gather before the city wine cellars. Their paid was scanty: ten
shillings per cask of wine. "It was not heroism, my son, but poverty,
that brought me down here", droned Don Edelmiro, his great-grandfather
days before his death.
The old man grumbled about the weather.
"Have you gone to Algarve?" asked the woman. "It's the best place of
the world. Sunny and warm."
"I hate the south," screeched the old man. "It has been taken over by
Brazilians. To the hell with all of them! Why do you look at me like
that? We are not amongst Spaniards, are we?"
Ricardo heard a whiff followed by quick whispers. The woman was most
probably talking about him. He stretched out and step down on the brim
of the youngster's couch. He stood up before the old man, a rounded
face with podgy cheeks, and yanked his eyes up to the window. He felt
the old man's body fidgeting on his seat. "An inauspicious welcome," he
"I'm from Colombia," he said firmly. The old man cough nervously. Next
to him Ricardo saw the angry face of a teenager. The train slowed down
and puffed out. "How long are they going to make us wait?," said the
woman, "I have an appointment with my sister in Vila de Gaia early in
the morning". Ricardo went to the bathroom for about five minutes. When
he came back everybody else appeared to have fallen sleep.
That night he dreamed with two lions.
The morning was disturbed by the view of crowded neighbourhoods, and
promiscuous-weed bushes hanging here and there from rocky steeps.
The picturesque view of half-naked children jumping from the Río
Douro's bridges disquiet him.
The train stopped and Ricardo hauled down three heavy suitcases. He
stood over the platform for about ten minutes, until a short
blue-jean-and-T-shirt youngster approached him; his hair was short and
greasy, his flesh, taunted by a yellow colour, evinced the abuse of
nicotine or drugs. Ricardo looked baffled at his clothes. Would he be
"And you are…"
"Professor Aaron Guerra," his vowels were carefully pronounced.
He fixed his eyes over an old man and jerked his head backwards.
A middle-aged bald man carrying a dolly approached them .
"I can carry them," suggested Ricardo.
"It won't cost you an American dollar."
The old man weighted the suitcases.
"What do you hide here? Stones?," the middle-aged man chuckled and
lifted the suitcases over the dolly.
"Where is your car?"
"On the parking lot."
They walked over one hundred yards, crossing the abandoned rail tracks
of the station.
"Why did you decide to travel to Oporto?" mumbled Aaron.
"I wanted to leave the United States."
Ricardo perceived a hint of reproach on his voice.
"I just couldn't fit in," Ricardo made up.
"This is my car," Aaron smirked pointing out to a new jeep. Ricardo
stood for a second Aaron's scrutinizing look. He felt Aaron was
expecting a shallow line from him, such as: "Is this your car?," or
"Nice toy". But he wasn't impressed at all. Months before his
departure, Ricardo had been asked to receive an Indonesian video maker
at the airport. Ricardo, who back then was merely a student, picked him
up on his new car. From then on he had had to stand his guest's
comments on cars, money and women. Besides, three years in the
United States were enough to devaluate his sense of property. An
open credit might be the American dream; the possibility to acquire
debts without discrimination. After all banks needed to circulate their
Ricardo turned around and offered two hundred escudos to the old man.
"It will cost you one thousand escudos, Sir."
Ricardo looked at Aaron.
"It was a short walk", retorted Aaron "two hundred should be fine."
"You heard what I said: it was too heavy."
Aaron shrugged his shoulders, as if saying: "I did what I could".
Ricardo paid the old man and went into the car.