Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lisbon: lost luggage, mummies, and cigars - oh my!

So I bid goodbye to our coordinator and travelmates in Copenhagen and made my way to Lisbon, Portugal, by way of Milan to hook up with a new crop of GMF fellows. It was a tight connection, but I arrived in Lisbon without incident. Almost.

After my flight, I walked the gauntlet of smokers IN THE AIRPORT (!) to stand alone at the baggage claim in a foreign country where I could not speak the language and watched as everyone from my flight retrieved their bags and took off. As the number of bags and passengers dwindled, I tried to reassure myself: "At least the belt is still moving. I'm sure mine will be out soon." Then the belt stopped. And I suddenly started sweating. I had nothing but the clothes on my back, a laptop, and a small carryon bag of reading material and must-have toiletries.

I looked around trudged towards a pictogram that seemed to indicate lost luggage. I think it was an airline employee-shaped stick figure kicking a luggage-like object into an abyss. Okay, I made that up in my frustration, but it wasn't far off. I found a line of people in a chair-less waiting area also having luggage problems and took a number: 194. The sign indicated they were now serving number 178. I kid you not.

Nearly an hour later, after growing so tired I grabbed and sprawled out on a luggage rack, I filed a missing luggage report and made my way to a taxi and on to the hotel.

It would be three days before I had my luggage in hand again. Three days of handwashing my clothes, blowing them dry each night with a hair dryer, and calling Portugal Airlines every few hours for updates. And I use that term loosely, since their "update" consisted of telling me the bag had made it to Milan, but they "could not confirm that it was on its way to Lisbon."

They couldn't confirm this because they had no phone contact with the airport authorities: they only worked by Telex. Not e-mail. Not fax. Telex, which is a computer networking system first used in the late 1930s and which is the same system used for TELEGRAMS. No [STOP] stinkin'[STOP] way [STOP].

On day three, I'd had enough. I showered, put on my slightly damp clothes, and took a taxi to the airport. At the lost and found, a woman looked up my missing bag report and led me down a hallway to a secure area that looked like the dingy evidence locker on old police shows: a warehouse-like room accessed through a chainlink gate with a surly uniformed guy out front checking people in and out.

After being security wanded, the airline lady took me inside a room that had literally HUNDREDS of missing luggage lined up. On carts, on the floor, piled in pyramids, and lined up in rows that stretched out for yards on the cement floor. "Do you see your bag anywhere?" she asked. Uh, I'll need a minute, I thought.

So I dived in. Stepping over luggage, poking my head under the cart shelves, pulling bags aside, searching for MY black suitcase among the hundreds gathering dust in the room. Growing discourage and rounding my third large pile, I spotted it, sitting there with the others. I snagged the handle, double checked the tags, signed the release form and headed out. But first I snapped this shot with my cell phone.

I think my thumb got in the way but you get the gist. Imagine these bags times 30 to get an idea of the scope. Unbelievable.

I loaded my bag into a cab and settled back for the ride to the hotel (and cleaner clothes) reassured in my belief that ultimately, I know I can always depend on myself to get stuff done right. Take that TAP Airlines. I'd insert a 'flipping the bird' symbol if I could find one. ;-)

So despite the bag snafu, at least we had great rooms at the Hotel Tivoli Lisbon. This doesn't quite do it justice but it was big, with a king size bed, fresh fruit and bottled water awaiting us on arrival, and this great view.
The picture below is our first night in Lisbon.

Jeff from NC, Carrie from Chicago, Shyam from Atlanta, Tracy from Cleveland, and me, rounding out the Lisbon Crew.
Our first night, we were invited to visit a pharmacy museum after hours, which seemed quirky but turned out to be fascinating.

We learned that French royals took mummies from Egypt and crushed them to make face cream because the oils used in the mummification process were beneficial to the skin. At one point, they commissioned Napolean to handle this task and he brought back 30,000! It's a wonder there were any left for archeologists.
Ancient medical texts.
Our group with the museum director, who was a wonderful host and who had staff prepare a sumptuous dinner in the museum dining room. I think I ate too fast to get pix.
The streets of Lisbon at night.
An amazing and informative lunch during out stay with the president of the Portuguese Parliament and several political party leaders. That's Carrie to the right of the President of the Parliament.

Check out the waiters in tuxes serving us delicious food off silver trays. Tracy, a vegetarian, is being stoic about the rack of lamb on display before her.One thing that took a lot of getting used to for us Americans was the amount of smoking in Europe. There were ashtrays on the tables in meetings and restaurants. At this lunch, after plying guests with food, wine, cognac and brandy, cigars were offered to finish of the meal.
As you can see, the president of the Parliament puffed away, as Tracy and Carrie tried to find pockets of fresh air to either side. I was lucky: only one of my lunch companions lit up and it was just a cigarette. See: I can find the bright side. :-)

But I went through a lot of Febreze in Lisbon trying to rid my clothes and coat of smoke after meals and even some meetings. Europe is apparently changing, but smoking is still alive and well in most cities.

Last night in Copenhagen: what’s with the gravy?

On our last night in Copenhagen, we had dinner at the home of a TV news anchor from one of the two national stations in Denmark. He invited several of his friends who are also in the news business. They were all incredibly fun, smart and welcoming and provided a perfect end to our visit.

One of them had studied at an Ivy League schools in the U.S. for undergrad and when asked what he remembered most about living in the U.S. compared to Denmark, he said, “The food commercials. In America, commercials never had a simple picture of food, it was always an incredible amount of it.”

I completely agreed. The next time you're watching food commercials, check out the proportion of the screen filled with closeups and oversized portions. They don’t just show a small trickle of gravy; there’s a wave of it washing over mountains of mashed potatoes big enough to ski down.

Saturday Night Live did a great parody of this phenomenon with a skit called "Taco Town", which featured a trio of hungry guys raving about their "awesome" favorite order, which grew more awesome every minute with additional ingredients until it was comprised of:

a crunchy all beef taco smothered in nacho cheese, lettuce, tomato, and special Southwestern sauce; wrapped in a soft flour tortilla with a layer of re-fried beans in between; wrapped in a savory corn tortilla with a middle layer of Monterrey jack cheese; wrapped in a deep fried gordita shell smeared with a layer of special 'guacomolito' sauce; wrapped in a corn husk filled with pico de gallo; wrapped in an authentic Parisian crepe filled with egg, gruyere, sausage and portobello mushrooms; wrapped in a Chicago-style, deep-dish, meat lover's pizza; rolled up in a blueberry pancake; dipped in batter and deep fried until it's golden brown; and served in a commemorative tote bag filled with spicy vegetarian chili.

It was ridiculously hilarious, because we're already subjected to fast food items that are not far off from this fictitious gut buster. Case in point: the KFC Famous Bowl. Ingredients, copied from the KFC website: a generous serving of our creamy mashed potatoes, layered with sweet corn and loaded with bite-sized pieces of crispy chicken. Then we drizzle it all with our signature home-style gravy and top it off with a shredded three-cheese blend.
Mmmm. Pass the defibrillator...

Freedom of speech, cartoons and media

On our last day, we met with the editor whose paper sparked the Mohammed cartoon crisis that landed Denmark among the small group of countries to have its flag burned and reviled by international protestors. BBC overview available here.

Given its small size and relatively innocuous activities around the world, many Danes were shocked by the response from Islamic communities around the world to its printing of cartoons considered blasphemous to many Muslims. We sat down with the editor to get the back story, which involved a discussion of increasing censorship pressures and even self-censoring related to Islamic issues in the press. Meaning people choosing not to run articles, images or artwork about or critical of Islam out of fear of repercussions. The response to the cartoons and accompanying/edifying article (which was given short shrift in most coverage) seemed to validate these concerns.

Although the editor, paper and cartoonists did receive support from some Muslims, most of the response was negative, fanned apparently in some cases by activists who used the controversy to raise the profile of their organization or themselves: guess that happens worldwide.

Now, more than a year later, some of the cartoonists whose art accompanied the censorship article still live under protective measures (!) and threats continue to come to the newspaper periodically.

In addition to the obvious questions this issue raised about censorship and media coverage of religious issues, it also again pointed up the shortcomings in U.S. media coverage. While this was a HUGE issue for Denmark and the Muslim community worldwide, the coverage it received in the U.S. focused almost exclusively on the protests that erupted across the Muslim world. There was very little analysis of the issue or explanation of the backstory on the matter.

The lack of U.S. media coverage of international news came up for discussion in each city we visited. Thus, many of us will be returning home with an vow for more diverse news consumption from international media outlets, such as, which is pretty universally praised in Europe for its in-depth, balanced coverage of world events.

Danish immigration debate from the other side

In each city, the German Marshall Foundation provides us with a city coordinator who plans our schedule and group meetings, sets up personal appointments with people in our areas of interest, helps us get to and from each appointment and generally serves as our cultural guide and point of contact. In Copenhagen, our coordinator Kristina did a great job of connecting us with interesting people, taking or pointing us to notable local sites, and generally making our visit productive, informative and useful.

Our last two days, she set up meetings for us on the topics of immigration and freedom of speech. The same day as the embassy protest, we met with Danish Red Cross officials and representatives of several other organizations working with immigrants and refugees to improve integration through access to services such as job training and community involvement. Interestingly, the overall numbers of people immigrating to Denmark hasn’t changed much in the past 10 years, but where they’re coming from has.
  • 1995 – 37,879 - mostly refugees and asylum seekers
  • 2005 – 40,392 – mostly EU transplants and people coming for employment from Eastern Europe.

These are a couple of the speakers, who both came to Denmark in the last 25 years. They provided wonderful insight on the issue from an insider's point of view.

Currently, the largest group of immigrants comes from Turkey (18%). The next largest group influx to Denmark came from Iraq (8%) and Lebanon (7%). Despite this growth, the country still has just 3.7% unemployment.

There were lots of factoids flying during this discussion, but the main takeaways for me were that many Danes and government officials feel they’re already doing a lot to integrate newcomers and that the immigrants are somewhat “ungrateful.”

But the newcomers feel that for those who are really trying to integrate and become full-fledge residents/citizens, Danes still hold them at arms-length and lump all immigrants together, whether they’re productive contributing residents or not. As an outsider, it’s clear both sides are talking past each other on many levels and simply have different views of the same situation. Clearly the U.S. is not alone in trying to find a better solution to the complex issues surrounding immigration.

For these last Copenhagen meetings, we especially appreciated the speakers' time since they met with us for a few hours on a Saturday. Also, it was much more edifying than our discussions on the same topic in Paris because we heard directly from people who had come to the country from elsewhere. This would be taken a step further (and to even greater effect) in Lisbon.

On a completely unrelated note, after several sunny but nearly warm days, we got a taste of Denmark's true weather on this last day: cold temperatures, some snow/rain mix, and winds so strong they blew one of my gloves away as I rushed to capture the embassy protestors. Although it seems counterintuitive, it turns out that one glove is not almost as warm as two. One is like having none, a problem I would need to rectify in Lisbon, Portugal.