Settling an Old Score with Lisbon — and Learning from Portugal’s Religious Toleration

In 1984, I had a great but somewhat disastrous trip to Portugal. A few things went terribly wrong on that first international trip on my own. My earlier mission to Switzerland had abundant support that spared me from some but not all of the problems I encountered in Portugal. In both cases, I ran out of money quickly and had to scrape by for a while with inadequate resources. In both cases a little more information or more accurate information from people I had relied on would have been helpful, and better preparation on my part would have averted trouble. But this week, I settled my old score with Portugal as my wife and I spent several days here, allowing me to see how much nicer it can be here when one isn’t trying to live off a cheap bag of green olives. I also learned some valuable lessons about this grand country, its religious toleration, and the way its Muslim community helps keep this country perhaps the safest place in Europe.

In 1984 I was a poor graduate student at BYU going to Lisbon to present a paper at an international conference on Laser Doppler Anemometry, a fancy way of saying Laser Doppler Velocimetry, which is a fancy way of saying measuring velocity with laser beams. Brigham Young University’s Chemical Engineering Department was sending me, courtesy of funds my advisor had for the R&D project he and I were pursuing related to the fluid dynamics of entrained coal particles in a combustor with swirling flow. I was so excited to go. The BYU travel office, working with a major travel agency in Utah, handled my arrangements. I had applied for them to provide tickets to and from Lisbon and to also book and pay for my hotel in Lisbon. I took what I thought was plenty of cash to handle taxis, meals, a few souvenirs, and a stack of books that the student editor of a BYU publication had asked me to buy for him to assist his studies in Portuguese literature.

The first red flag came when the travel office sent me my tickets and told me that I was flying into Madrid, not Portugal. They told me that they weren’t able to get any flights to Lisbon. What?? I was young and trusting and while that sounded ridiculous, who was I to challenge them and demand anything better? Going to Europe to present a paper was such a gift, so I just accepted this. Crazy.

I communicated with the mysterious travel office mostly by voice mail. It was hard to reach people there. I should have found the office and gone in to check on all the details, but I trusted that this was the only feasible booking for me, assumed it was too late to change, and also trusted that they had properly handled the booking and payment of my hotel room. Foolish!

Getting to Lisbon from Madrid required taking a taxi to the train station and spending a good deal of time trying to figure out how to book a train to Lisbon. The train ride ended up being a 10-hour journey — in a cabin with sealed windows and a chain smoker sitting across from me. I was exhausted after the long flight and really wanted to rest, but I couldn’t breathe in all the smoke and so spent much of the 10 hours standing in the open space between train cabins where there was fresh air. By the time I got to Lisbon, around 6 pm in the evening before my big conference, I was so exhausted and really looked forward to just checking in at my hotel.

When I finally reached the hotel, I handed them my passport and yearned for the key so I could rest. “Sorry, sir, we don’t have a reservation for you.” What? I was sure that the BYU travel office had arranged my hotel. But wait, this one was my top choice, but I had listed a few others in the area as alternates in case there was trouble. Sigh — which one had they booked for me? And why hadn’t they told me of the change in plans? I spent roughly the next two hours wandering from hotel to hotel in the area to see if they had a reservation in my name. No. No. No. Exhausted and desperate, I returned to the one where I had started and asked what I could do? “Well, we do have openings, so you could stay here.” Oh, great! I asked if they accepted American credit cards. No, they didn’t. Oh, of course. This was Europe. American credit cards won’t work here — so I assumed. But now I would have to pay for my room in cash. Cash that I had planned for niceties like food. But I still had plenty, I thought.

The next problem occurred when I finally got to a book store to buy the books of poetry that another BYU student had asked me to buy. I felt obligated to but them and figured I still had enough to be OK. I presented the list to the store managed, who found most of the requested books. Each time he found one of the books, he tore a little card that was sticking out of the books, indicating that the book had been sold. When he summed them it, it was much more than I had expected. It would leave me with almost nothing. Um, that’s too much I tried to explain. Can we put some of these books back? “No, senor, we cannot. The cards are torn. You have purchased these and have to pay.” At this point I should have said that’s ridiculous and just walked out, but I felt obliged to buy them and did so. Ouch. In a last effort to stave off trouble, I asked if they accepted credit cards. No. Of course not. There went a big chunk of my cash.

Fortunately my conference provided a nice reception with abundant food one night (grilled sardines was the main attraction there) and there were some things to eat at other times, and I was able to eat a once or twice at cheap little mom-and-pop places (good food, just not much). But the last couple days of my trip were spent trying to live off of a bag of olives and some bread bought at a grocery store. As a valuable health tip for my readers, the human body is not designed for a diet based primarily on olives. I can share details offline if you need to know more.

On my last day in Lisbon, I still had saved enough to perhaps buy a cheap souvenir or two, so I strolled into a touristy market area. There I noticed a shop with a Visa/Mastercard sign. Hmm. I pulled out my American credit card and asked if these could work here. “Of course!” he explained. I could have been using my credit card all along. The fact that my hotel would not accept them had misled me for the entire journey.

Have you heard the story of the poor woman who always wanted to go on a cruise, so she saved for years to be able to afford a ticket, but to save money brought a bag of crackers and cheese and lived off that for most of the cruise? On her last day, she finally went into the ship’s restaurant to splurge on one nice meal with the money she still had. After feasting, she asked for the bill. “There’s no bill — the meals are included in your ticket.” I can relate that story. 

The 1984 conference I attended was great, Lisbon was beautiful, the people were wonderful, and I even got to attend LDS services at a branch in Lisbon, but in spite of all the excitement and fun, my diet really was inadequate for a significant part of the trip and I couldn’t do or see many interesting things that might have been possible with a little more cash. (Cash is something we need to save and have for times of trouble, and that’s a lesson still important today. Have some on hand at home and when you travel.) Poor preparation, poor decisions, and inadequate research left me in a bind.

After all these years, I have finally settled my old score with Lisbon. After attending a conference in Amsterdam last week, my wife joined me there for a couple of days and then we celebrated the Chinese National Week holiday and Mid-Autumn Festival by staying in Europe and coming to Lisbon. This time, we had opportunities to enjoy the remarkable food of Portugal. Some of the best food in the world. Hearty, healthy, delicious. We still ate fairly cheaply, but it wasn’t just olives.

One important thing I learned is that Portugal is arguably Europe’s safest location due in part to its Muslim community. In spite of terrible religious persecution centuries ago, Portugal now seems to be  model for religious toleration. Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims live and working together in peace. According to one guide we spoke to, it is the support of the Muslim community in Portugal that helps keep Portugal so safe. When radical elements try to stir up violence, Portugal’s established Muslim community won’t stand for that and works with authorities to prevent trouble. I hope that’s accurate. I love communities where religious toleration flourishes. The sense of safety here and the kindness of its diverse people deeply impressed me — along with its great food that I finally tasted abundance. Portugal, what a great place!

Here are a few of my photos from this visit to Lisbon and nearby areas, including Pena Palace at Sintra.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

1 thought on “Settling an Old Score with Lisbon — and Learning from Portugal’s Religious Toleration

  1. You did not put in your article any links to back up your claim that Moslems living in Portugal help squash any Moslem that tries to stir up trouble. The "Islam is a religion of peace" BS.

    The Moslems (mainly Shia and Sunni…violent sects) in Portugal are few in number. Where ever Moslems are few in number, regardless of which country or city, they lay low and do not cause problems. It is in the Koran for them to do this.

    Many people who are experts on Islam and lived among Moslems say this very thing. Like Moshe Sharon. Like many who were kidnapped and made slaves. I believe them over you and others who are so blatantly biased. Being a scholar on Islam does not make one an expert on Islam, especially if said scholar never grew up with Moslems or interacted with Moslems their entire lives.

    Where ever Moslems have high populations they cause all kinds of problems. And when governments protect Moslems to the detriment of the rest of society, the Moslems really cause problems because they know they are protected. And this protection is happening in every Western country on Earth.
    And yes, there is plenty of evidence of this very thing going on.

    So far it appears that Moslems are not being coddled by the Portugese government…..yet….because the Moslem population is very small in size.

    You and other Islam apologists lump ALL Islamic sects together. That is wrong and deceitful. I bet you don't like being lumped in with the polygamist Mormons in Colorado City! Or other weird offshoots of Mormons.
    It should not be done to the minority Muslim sects because the majority of people have no idea there are different Islam sects.

    There are minority Muslim sects that are very peaceful and are persecuted and killed by the majority Moslem sects. These minority Muslim sects need protection and help. And these minority Muslim sects are not getting any help. The minority Muslim sects are the ones you and so called Islam scholars should be speaking out for, calling for help for them. These peaceful minority Muslim sects are nothing like warring, terrorist mainstream Islam.

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