Facing the ocean and thinking about fish, August 2017

There’s a brightly painted mobile with wooden tropical fish hanging from the ceiling in our sitting room. When our grandson Carl – still a baby – comes to visit he gets very excited gazing at the multi-coloured fishes swinging in the air and as we lift him up to look closer he grabs at the little pieces of wood with determined movements of his tiny fists. He has recently learnt how to hold on to and then throw away objects… In an attempt to introduce him to the English language I whisper the word “fish” in his ear as he tries to catch them.

I thought a lot about fish during travels in August 2017. We spent a week in Lisbon – facing towards the Atlantic Ocean – a city where cod and sardines are on the menu at almost every restaurant. We stayed in a little flat close to the Castelo Sao Jorge on a hill in the old city overlooking Baixa (the lower centre) to the west and the Rio Tejo to the south. It was particularly enjoyable to stroll in the Alfama district, descending the steep hills and staircases by foot and then using the public ”elevadores” (lifts) to regain height without effort. There are tramlines crossing the city centre and it is fun to watch the old machines – the Portuguese call them “elétricos” – trundle along the narrow streets, sometimes getting stuck.

The fishing settlement of Cascais thirty kilometres west of Lisbon is an attractive destination and an ideal location to get fresh air when the temperatures soar. We joined the crowds on the suburban trains escaping the sweaty city to sprawl on beaches and sample the marine delicacies cooked up at eateries along the shoreline. Cascais is a surprisingly multi-faceted town divided between a quiet maze of seemingly deserted colourful backstreets and a hectic shopping zone packed with people. Next to an up-market modern marina is an old harbour where there are fishing boats moored as well as nets and lobster pots on the quayside.

From the train passing through Belém en route to and from Cascais there are good views of the monument to the ”discoveries”: huge figures of Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and the other explorers who sailed south around the African coast in the 15th and 16th centuries, charting the route to the unknown East, where there were spices and peoples ”without history.” They also crossed the Atlantic to “discover” Brazil. In those days Lisbon and the southern Spanish ports were at the centre of an expanding world of European voyagers and colonisers. Fishing in the Atlantic wasn’t enough for those guys… The imagined riches of El Dorado were just beyond the horizon.[1]

On our last day in Lisbon we sailed across the river and walked around the town called Almada where we found a good restaurant serving a classic: ”bacalhau con todo” (cod with everything). Returning to the north bank, we took the underground across the city to the Park of Nations and the Oceanarium. It was a very hot day and hard to walk the un-shaded stretches of the concrete pavements to get to the exhibition centre. But it was worth the effort as the numerous tanks are full of every marine animal imaginable: from octopus to sharks, from eels to sea otters. It’s a hugely popular exhibit, crowded with groups of kids and families.[2] I took a few ’photos of some small creatures in one of the tanks: sea dragons!

In somewhat dramatic contrast, a week after returning from Lisbon I flew north to Bergen, to attend a three-day conference of European development researchers.[3] Again I found myself facing west towards the Atlantic and I soon found out that fish have been prominent in the history of the Norwegian coast too. Nowadays the most notable industries in Bergen are associated with North Sea oil. But in the days of the Hanseatic traders, the city’s fish market was the vital centre of the economy and it seems that there were many intrigues and battles for control of the marine produce, involving various levies and price wars, as well as widespread exploitation of the fishing communities by the powerful merchants.

It was good to have an opportunity to wander around Bergen. Like many European cities it has become a popular destination for Asian tourists. There are huge crowds along the famous Bryggen quayside and in the queues for the rack railway connection to the Fløyen mountain from which there are tremendous views towards the western islands and the ocean.

Very good meals were available at the hotel where the conference was held, with salmon, herring and other Norwegian seafood specialities appetisingly laid out on buffet tables. But one evening I had to find somewhere to eat in downtown Bergen and I opted for a Thai restaurant with several fish dishes on the menu. The excellent grilled tilapia I ate was served with ginger and fresh vegetables. May the oceans, rivers and lakes of the world continue to provide us with such fantastic foodstuffs!

An elétrico stuck in a winding street near the Alfama, Lisbon

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An impression of the empire in a picture at the Gulbenkian Modern Art Museum

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Old fish merchant’s houses at Bryggen in Bergen

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Sunset looking west across the city towards the Atlantic Ocean from Fløyen

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[1] Much has been written about the Portuguese colonial adventure and the rise and fall of the empire between the 15th and 20th centuries. In the end, the costs of containing uprisings and guerrilla wars in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique were too high and the soldiers were demoralized after years of struggle. I distinctly remember the revolt of the armed forces to overthrow the Salazar dictatorship in 1974 (the Carnation Revolution), although it was overshadowed by the closing acts of the Viet Nam war.

[2] Check out https://www.oceanario.pt

[3] The EADI-Nordic conference dealt with “globalization at the crossroads” and there were sessions on inequality, humanitarian assistance and migration, international tax justice and the “green shift.” The plenary speakers at the conference were a largely insightful and highly articulate bunch: http://eadi-nordic2017.org/2017/08/28/re-watch-the-keynotes/

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