|Square outside the International Hotel, Lisboa, Portugal|
My wife, Nancy, and I had just visited the Museu Colecção Berardo (1960-2010) in the Belem section of Lisbon, Portugal and were on our way back to the hotel. In the tram Nancy sat opposite a young couple while I stood a few feet away struggling with a vending machine. It took me five minutes to wrestle tickets out of it.
When I sat down, the couple were trying not to smile at my awkwardness. The woman couldn't have been more that 25, the man, 27. They had the look of a pair who had lived together half a lifetime, not the year and a half that they had, in fact, been a couple.
They told me this themselves. The conversation started this way.
"Be careful what you say to me," I had said to Nancy in a loud voice nodding in their direction. "They look as if they speak English."
"We do," offered the young woman.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Right here," the young woman replied.
"But your English is so good. How did that happen?"
It's amazing how little of your language you need to hear to make an accurate assessment of someone's competence. Theirs was excellent.
"We work for a British company here in Lisbon," she said taking in her companion with a tiny circling gesture of her head. "We're computer technicians."
I took it that this meant she and her partner were help-desk people.
She was tiny, with well-tended fingernails painted a deep purple, but no lipstick. He was much taller, thin, with a two-day beard and an earring in each ear. Their hands seemed to be permanently intertwined. She had a huge mood ring on her left hand, the one holding her companion's. He had one, too. He dug it out of his wallet to show us. In a word the two of them were sweet. It made you feel good to chat with them.
I mentioned that I had read in the newspaper that morning that 30% of Portugal’s young people were out of work, compared to 50% in Spain. I wondered what they made of that statistic.
“I think it is misleading,” the young woman said. “There are jobs, but young people don’t want them. They graduate from college and are not about to work in a gasoline station or a supermarket.”
“Most people go to college in Portugal for a good time,” the boy added. “They aren’t really serious about work. But that is going to change.”
“How so?” I asked.
“In the past everyone could borrow money just like that,” he snapped his fingers. “They never worried about paying it back and there was so much money sloshing around that the banks didn’t either. But all that’s over. Now everyone is going to have to learn to live within their means and that means working in a gasoline station even if you have a college degree.”
They got off the same stop we did. We said goodbye, exchanged e-mail addresses, embraced one another as if we were old friends. As I watched them walk away, I had the feeling we were looking at Portugal’s future. It could be worse.