91 Excellent Years, And Counting

I can remember at the end of every summer when I was kid, having to wake up before the sun came up, to get a ride from the town’s lone taxi driver, who would take us on the long journey via the treacherous and twisty national roads of Portugal before the dawn of highways, to catch the plane back to New Jersey.  Right before my brother and I would get in the car, my grandparents would do the routine: wish us a good trip and ask us if we forgot anything. Then my grandmother, who even back then never had trouble speaking her mind, would speak a dramatic line like she was rehearsing for a very poor rendition of McBeth, “I probably won’t see you next year, as I’m old and I probably won’t survive til next summer.” This would be followed by us half-laughing at her over-dramatic delivery as we’re trying to focus on the journey ahead, and the traditional, “oh be quiet with that stuff” from my grandfather.  More than 20 years later, I’ve noticed my grandmother no longer says it, as I guess around the age of 90 it is simply implied.

The beauty of having grandparents around the age of 90, who are still of mostly sound mind, is that you can ask all the questions many people never get to.  Instead of learning about your family based on second or third hand stories, you have the very people who lived unbelievable moments and did the kind of hard work that seems impossible for any modern day work-from-anywhere self-employed person. You also get to watch them reflect on a world that they have observed for almost 100 years… even if they were too busy or napping for many of those years.  In an era where we stash our elderly out of sight and praise the virtues of being young, I’ve had the good fortune of never losing touch, and always being enlightened/entertained by one set of my grandparents.  Even better, throughout my life, I’ve gotten to help my grandfather in his orchards, listen to my grandmother in the kitchen, and laugh at the cold weather while sitting with them around a fireplace.

Not everyone gets to do this. That truth never eludes me. It is a rare treasure that no one is guaranteed and many are denied. I would call that one of the main reasons I would share stories about them, to share the wealth in some tiny and perhaps naive way.

Today my grandfather, José da Fonseca Jr. turned 91 years old. Whatever his age, however different my world might be from his, he is a part of everything I do and the way that I do it. Parabens Avô!


Education, Portugal, and the World

JHWJohn Howard Wolf doesn’t know how to fix the global economy, but he can teach us a thing or two about education. Its been his business and passion for most of his adult life.  Having immigrated from the US to Portugal in the late 1970’s, even back then he was a swimming against the current, setting up a primary school in a country still getting over its post-fascist hangover.  As a Americano-Luso (American-Portuguese) he has a unique perspective based on the kind of experiences most of us only wish we could have. John Howard Wolf knows literature and he knows history, but what he knows that the world would be lucky to hear about, is another way to approach life and human relations on this planet.  For one great hour on the last days of summer in Lisbon, we sat together watching the world go by during a financial crisis, and talking about how this all happened and what is to come.

Read John’s piece in the Portuguese-American Journal

His article on Rural Development and Portugal from January 1992 (note – academic journal paywall)

Something more than selling fruit

The navigation system is scolding me with its female voice in Portuguese, I missed yet another turn as I cruise passed yet another apple orchard. It’s the end of September and I’m in what feels like the middle of nowhere Portugal, late for my appointment to visit the Frubaça Fruit Company. As a fruit producer and juice maker their products have caught my attention over the last few years when I am in Portugal. Besides their fruit, their fresh juices have this great combination of simple ingredients (just the fruit) and what seemed to be this ethical business philosophy that I wanted to examine first-hand.   So there I am, sort of lost but hoping that just beyond this next beautiful hill I will find what I’m looking for. Suddenly as I’m giving up hope, there it is, with stacks and stacks of fruit crates lining the outside, I’ve arrived at the Coppa (Cooperative that grows the fruit) facility.

CrateThings are extra busy inside Frubaça, it feels like the high season for apples as they roll passed me on the conveyer belt. At one stage they go under a large machine that shines a light on them, “Infrared Scanning,” Jorge Periquito, president of Frubaça, explains as we walk passed extremely long assembly lines. I can barely hear him over the sound of so many devices and machines as he explains the details of this state-of-the-art infrared scanner that detects any damage or defects to the apples.  We go on to see several other fruits being sorted and packaged for sending out to supermarkets and other places throughout the country. Some of the labels are even printed in Spanish and I learn later that beyond Spain the company sends their products to France as well.  Hard to believe this modest facility is serving up fruit even beyond the borders of Portugal, but the more I learned about Frubaça, the more I understood, this is no ordinary operation.

First there’s the technology: GPS, RFID, Infrared, High Pressure Processing  (HPP) Machines, are just some of the tools that play a critical role in how this natural fruit company functions.  In the case of the HPP machine, we’re talking about a device with few equals anywhere in the world, a piece of technology based on an old idea (pressure), that isn’t even known by most other companies out there.  It simulates the pressure equal to 60 kilometers under the sea, a pressure at which microrganisms are destroyed but the integrity of the juice remains in tact.

PlantJorge and I walk up the stairs to the giant metal tube where  small bottles of mango juice are being loaded in. This new room we’re in has a fantastic scent of fruit that hits you like the freshest mountain breeze imaginable.  As the process begins as we watch the digital display of the pressure meter rise. Nearby another version of the same machine is being loaded up with little packs of apple sauce.  Again, all around us, conveyer belts carry bottles of juice to their next destination.  Near the juicing machines I’m asked not to take any pictures as the machine manufacturers are very protective of their technology, I leave the camera off and focus my eyes on the apple foam flowing into a nearby drain. I’m temped to cup my two hands together and drink some delicious looking foam.

During my two hours at the plant Jorge explains the company, cooperative actually, from the beginning. He is one of 5 people that, since 1992, oversee the cooperative, all of which are from this rural community. They invested heavily in technology and go regularly to trade fairs and conferences all over the world, in an effort to know all the latest methods for handling the growing of fruit and production process. They’re not trying to be organic, their intention is to only use pesticides when it is absolutely necessary, a system of evaluation known as “integrated pest management.

At some point I asked Jorge about business, his approach to the global demand that says – a company must grow and make more profit year after year.  His response was that the company is not interested in growth for the sake of growth. They won’t try to fight price wars to sell the cheapest fruit, choosing instead to offer the best quality, in hopes that customers recognize the value. They won’t move or expand, this is their community and their intention is to keep it healthy and working. Then, a conversation topic I never expected to arise – arose: “The socioeconomic model of the urban setting is finished.” Technology from the city applied back in the countryside can help create a healthy and sustainable life in a way that is increasingly hard to achieve in the urban setting.

For a moment I though Jorge must have been listening to my latest podcasts or reading my tweets. But then I realized the connection- sustainable business. Quality food with real ingredients produced by a proud community that has been there for generations.  Using the latest in technology and applying it to old fashion ideas. It all connects back to the theme of doing things differently then the conventional way. Taking steps to build lives that are about something other than making money and consuming as much as possible.  Once again I had stumbled upon the kind of ideas and practices that have the power to change our world.

Global Disease Infects Portugal

Abandoned Lisbon, March 2011

Thats how it feels when everywhere you turn there are victims of some rapidly spreading phenomenon that leaves dispair and suffering in its wake.  Here in Lisbon the headlines read “Nation Reduces Its Deficit By 22%” with a sort of pride; the demands of the global bankers are being met.  But if you flip the pages of the newspaper, talk to the taxi driver, or the women on her way to work in Lisbon this morning, you’ll hear the painful details: Energy company privatized, raising prices by 30% next year.  Most salaries in public and private sector slashed by 8% and higher. Elimination of holiday pay, a yearly bit of income most mid and low income families count on to get by. Government programs for career development, cut. – Everywhere you look it is the average citizen, who for decades has survived on one of the lowest wages in Europe, that now literally pays to get the government out of its massive financial hole.

Somehow the bankers, governments, and many citizens in the rest of Europe will call it a success if Portugal manages to keep reducing its deficit. Many of the same people who,  over the past decade, helped plunge the country into its current crisis. The government in Brussels and here in Lisbon will probably pat itself on the back when the good numbers are announced in a few months or (more likely) years.

But what is left of a nation when everything has been cut or sold, and people have been squeezed to a breaking point?

I digress, this is not supposed to be a list of what does or doesn’t need to be done to save Portugal or save the Portuguese economy. This is an open question about the working of the global and European economy. About how we measure what is good and what is bad. While government and financial leaders act as if this is the medicine to cure the country of its ills, they bleed and beat the country through their actions. No I suppose not literally, but if you look around, there is a country full of afflicted people here.

Adventures in Poultry Farming

“I was here til 4am this morning, one of the stove’s was acting up” Jorge points to the extremely long 2 story orange brick building in front of us.  As he slides back a massive rust colored door he tells us to step inside and immediately our lungs are filled with the cozy smell of burning saw dust.  It feels like a cross between a giant bakery and a disturbing dream, with the bright Portuguese sun filtering in through the diffused windows, the numerous stoves used for heating this huge space, and all over the floor like a moving ocean of yellow,  thousands of baby chicks are heading our way.  Actually they’re heading in every which way as if they have so much energy they need to move as often as possible. Elsewhere against the walls and nearer to the stove hundreds of chicks pack themselves into one giant mass as if they’re trying to stay as close together as possible. Some even seem to be forming some kind of chicken pyramid as a game.  Besides the smell that makes you oddly comfortable, the sounds are this constant, though not deafening, it’s a chirping combined with traditional Portuguese folklore coming from a radio. At first I thought the music was for the chicks, they seemed to move to and fro depending on the rhythm, but Jorge crushes my theory about chicks and music “oh that’s just for me, I like having music on.” I tell him I think the chicks like it. He shoots me a look of possibility -maybe they do.

Spending time with the chicks

“By tonight this entire floor will be covered, they will move around and take over even more” I look left and right and notice the long pipeline that connects food and water, then there are the pillar-stoves every few steps that seem to be almost all generating warmth.  Jorge watches me take pictures, he seems to understand how beautiful this workplace of his can be, he talks about how he usually starts out on the first day and how he gradually moves through the building making space for more chicks.  “So last night one of the stoves went out, I had to be here to make sure the temperature stayed right.. if anything goes wrong.. It will cost me dearly.”  Indeed I can only imagine as I stand there in a sea of yellow, that this is not a labor of love, but in fact his business.. and making sure these little guys live.. is tantamount to doing good business.

“Can you check the temperature remotely, like through a computer” I ask, trying to find some hope for a social life for someone in such a sensitive line of work. – Jorge seems to only hear the beginning of my question, “Oh I had a machine that would regulate the temperature.. a sort of thermostat that I could set to maintain the warmth that they need…. but it broke.. and the repairs and problems ended up costing me 2,000 euro so I gave up on it.” He takes us outside and in the open drunk of a rusting little toyota van is the small german engine, on top of a rusting pile of what looks like might have once been parts for a time saving innovation.

“Some months in the winter especially, when its too cold, I shut the place down.  This year I shut down in December and I just started again a few weeks ago… its just too expensive to keep this place heated when the weather doesn’t cooperate.” I ask him how the last years have been and he indicates he has shut down at least one month every year for the past 3+ years.  “I also shut down for 15 days in the summer last year.” he half smiles. I presumed he was talking about a vacation and didn’t press the issue to not look like I missed his joke.

When I met Jorge during Carnival the day before, he was wearing neat clothes and a smile, with his wife by his side greeting what seemed to be the entire town.  Hearing I was a visiting journalist, he immediately invited me to come see his work. It wasn’t an overconfident invitation, it had the tone of a man who knows not everyone out there knows or see’s what he does on a regular basis. “I had to sleep there last night… had to make sure the little one’s made it through the night.. otherwise we’d be in trouble.” He explained this story to every neighbor that walked up to him and asked how he has been doing.  It was like listening to a doctor who had to stay late at the hospital last night.  Everyone responded with a look of respect for the good doctor.

Casa do Passal 2011

Artistides de Sousa Mendes saved the lives of over 30,000 people in Southern France in 1940. He did so in defiance of orders from the Portuguese Dictator who in turn disgraced him and blacklisted him, eventually leaving him in poverty. This included the loss of Casa do Passal his iconic family home in Cabanas de Viriato.

Only decades later was his name restored and the story of his heroic deed recognized throughout the world. However at this very moment his magnificent home continues to be neglected and teeters on the brink of collapse, waiting for a plan to be approved and carried out, to restore it as a symbol and tribute to those in this world who don’t just follow orders and who take action to help others regardless of the risk to themselves.

I had a chance to visit Casa do Passal during Carnaval in Cabanas over the past few days.  The following video contains moments from that visit.