Last month I was enjoying the sun in Portugal. Here’s what happened when I was leaving…
My nephew Nikita had warned me about the metro system in Porto. He had just spent a weekend in Portugal’s second city, recording some songs with his band, and he told me “the ticket inspectors on the Metro system in Porto will charge you 80 Euro if they catch you without a ticket.” Interesting information but surely not of relevance to me, a good upstanding citizen who always (well, mostly) pays his tickets on public transport.
I was in northern Portugal visiting my brother and his family who are in the process of building the best looking eco house I’ve ever seen. I wanted to see their underfloor heating system, their cork and straw insulation, their sewage system that produces cooking gas – before it was all finished. The best time to visit a new building is when it’s being built as then you can see how it all fits together.
They are located right up in the north of the country, on the Minho River which marks the frontier with Spain. It’s beautiful land but it’s at risk because it hasn’t rained at all during their 6 month long rainy season (“usually it rains for months without end” said my little brother Moona). The weather was like an English summer – cool and dry.
The best way to reach this part of Portugal is via the big airport of Porto, which is located 120 km to the south, and that was the route I took. I came up by bus and left by train. But when I reached the centre of the city, on my way home, and tried to get into the metro I was faced with a problem: the ticket machine wouldn’t take coins, notes or my debit card (or was I being a moron?)
Forgetting my nephew’s warning I said to myself “sod it! Who’s going to be inspecting tickets at this time of night? In Romania the ticket inspectors are never seen in the evening.” And unlike in Bucharest or London there were no barriers where you have to swipe your ticket. This was tempting. So I wandered onto the platform and headed out to the airport.
There were a couple of tough looking lads hanging around in my carriage (“British, Romanian or local?” I wondered). I started reading a book and when I next looked up there were a couple of inspectors (young, slim and sharp, not old and fat as in Romania) arguing with the tough guys – who obviously didn’t have tickets.
It was then I woke up to the fact that an 80 Euro fine was heading my way. Evasive action was needed. Fortunately they don’t follow the Romanian system of flooding the carriage with a team of fat inspectors – so they can stop people from fleeing – and there were only two of them.
As soon as the train stopped I was off and away, counting my blessings. But when I looked round I noticed with horror that the inspectors had also got off – with the tough guys (were they about to be dragged off to a cellar?). Time to disappear. So I wandered off round the block and came into the station via another entrance, but they were still there (waiting for me?)
I walked further, found a pub and changed some Euros into smaller notes. This time I walked right onto the platform where the inspectors were (still) hanging around. Or were they other ticket inspectors? I tried the ticket machine, praying they didn’t recognise me. But the machine was broken and the inspectors explained in Portuguese that I should cross the line and use the one on the opposite platform. I nodded gratefully, pretending I had understood everything, muttered “obrigado” (thanks) — the one word I do know in their language — and crossed over to get a ticket. This time it worded! Hooray, I was finally safe.
The inspectors disappeared – they got on the first train that came along – and I got on the following one, which was heading for the airport. This time I was a legit traveller and I was very impressed to see that there were another pair of inspectors patrolling this train. How many of these people are there? No wonder Portugal’s going bankrupt (I read once in The Economist that public employees in Portugal can’t be fired, their jobs are protected by the constitution. Is this a nation of ticket inspectors?) I also heard that the average public servant in Portugal gets about 500 Euro a month, compared to 2000 Euro in Greece.
I reached the airport, checked into my hotel and by 5 o’clock the following morning I was faced with more uniformed inspectors – this time customs inspectors. With a curse I realised that in my pocket was an incriminating Swiss Army Knife, a gadget that had cost me 40 Euro in Vienna, but hadn’t impressed my brother who pulled out a chunky Leatherman, which is a much more impressive array of tools and knives (and macho holster).
How was I going to smuggle it through? How could I convince them that I didn’t want to hijack the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt? Should I throw it in the bin now? Or declare it?
How about some diversionary tactics? I bought a bottle of mineral water and put that in my bag, convinced that this would make them think they had caught me for something and then not bother looking properly in my hand luggage, where the offending knife was now hidden. Similar tactics are used by Romanian accountants, who encourage the Garda Financiar to find small mistakes that will result in a small fine – enabling them to hide the really big problems.
But the Portuguese seem to be smart (as well as hardworking) and they found my knife immediately. Out it came, the blade was measured and the customs officer said politely “you can go and leave it with someone or it goes in the bin.” I was running late and so I chose the bin option.
And now my fingernails are too long – because I no longer have those superb little scissors that come with the Swiss Army Knife. But at least my fingernails are clean, which is more than they were in Portugal where I was working as a gardener and labourer and was unable to stay clean for more than a few minutes.