Friday, 18 October 2013

A scene from a Portuguese holiday that still troubles my conscience

It’s 30 years ago and my girlfriend and I are walking along the beach at Cascais, a former fishing village, then a fairly upmarket holiday town on Portugal’s West Coast. We’re heading for a beer at a nice café up the hill, overlooking the bay. It’s sunny and the place is packed. There’s a small crowd gathered at the entrance to one of the subterranean walkways that lead up to the coast road that runs all the way to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost tip of mainland Europe, in one direction, and Lisbon, about a 30 minute drive away, in the other. We stop to see what the crowd is gawking at.

There’s a ghetto-blaster on the sand, playing rhythmic Arabic music. Next to it is a wrinkled old man, his face blackened by the sun, dressed in standard-issue Portguese peasant gear, plus a pork-pie hat. I think it’s the roguish grin that makes me think “gypsy” and “up to no good”.

A few yards away is the object of the crowd’s attention: a boy about ten years old is dancing to the music, but not in a nice way – he’s practically bump-and-grinding, doing belly-dancer stuff with his stomach muscles. He’s smiling, but it looks forced, put on to please the  tourists. The really creepy thing about the scene is that the boy isn’t a classic skinny little Portuguese kid. He has a bit of a tan, but he doesn’t have the sort of skin that tans easily. He’s fair-haired and a bit pudgy, and he definitely isn’t from around these parts - in fact, he could have been me at that age.

Something is definitely wrong with this scene. I study my fellow-onlookers. They’re mostly Northern European. A few of them are clapping along to the music, smiling, encouraging the boy. But quite a few are looking uneasy, no doubt wondering what the hell a little boy who looks like he's from Uppsala or Hamburg or West Wittering is doing making money for a leering old goblin to whom he cannot possibly be related.

The music stops, the boys switches his smile off and his minder takes off his hat and starts to moves through the audience, collecting escudo coins, muttering “obregado” and touching his forelock.

My girlfriend and I walk away.

Now, I’m probably making too much of this. There are quite a few fair-haired Portuguese, especially in the north of the country around Porto, where Vikings landed, pillaged - and stayed – a thousand years ago. And Portugal was surprisingly Third World back then (as the English friend whose Estoril apartment we were staying in had warned us). The old guy might not have been a Romany huckster. There may have been nothing sinister about the little boy’s colouring (he was nowhere near as blond as the little girl recently removed by Greek police from a Roma camp earlier this week when it was discovered that she had no biological link to the couple claining to be her parents). And, given their performance in the case of Madeleine McCann, I can imagine the sort of reaction we’d have got from the Portuguese police if we’d suggested they check out the boy’s origins.

Still, from the fact I’ve remembered such a minor incident for nearly three decades you can infer that I still feel guilty that, instead of acting on instinct, I just headed on up that hill for a welcome bottle of chilled Sagres, a bowl of olives, and a glorious view.

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