Guimarães

Guimarães

JUNE

Dear Pongrác, I’m in Portugal, I’m in Guimarães, on the fifth-floor terrace of a shabby hotel on the outskirts of the historical town center overlooking a traffic circle, not far from the place where they shot that film, the film that brought me here and which bore the title, “Centro Histórico”, historical town center, and now I’m here because I’d seen this beautiful short film past winter in Asia on the terrace of my bungalow and I promised myself that once I was back in Europe, I’d visit this city and find out why Aki Kaurismäki spends the winter here, what this Finn is doing in Portugal. I came here from Porto by train, and the day previous to my departure, I saw the last of the Kaurismäki films I had not seen before, the film that bears the title “Shadows in Paradise”, it’s about a lonely sanitation truck driver who fall in love with a supermarket check-out girl. This film, too, is about losers, as we call them; Kaurismäki always makes films about losers. The winners are generally blind, who move forward with self-assurance, trying to get their bearings in the same darkness as the rest of us, except while the losers are feeling their way cautiously, because they see the dark, they, at least, see the dark, the winner moves forward in his excitement, forges ahead towards some sort of light in the dark, where he sees only himself, he sees only his own success. In short, this sanitation truck driver falls in love with the check-out girl, asks her out to a bingo hall, the movies, to dinner, and looks her up repeatedly in her new workplace, a boutique, where, and you won’t believe this, Pongrác, he shows up with the garbage truck in his garbage man’s overalls, and he just stands there looking at the girl with his melancholy eyes while people whisper behind his back, because it’s unheard of, showing up at a boutique in a sanitation truck, it’s an outrage, Pongrác.

This Kaurismäki likes to say that people’s eyes intrigue him, the sadness in their eyes, and that an actor must play not with his body and not with his face and not with his voice, but first of all with his eyes, and I wanted to see what Kaurismäki is looking for in the eyes of the Portuguese, because I couldn’t help thinking, I couldn’t think otherwise, that there had to be a special sadness in the eyes of the Portuguese that he doesn’t understand, like in the eyes of the Finns, in the eyes of Finns on the periphery, and then I came here, to this other periphery, the Portuguese periphery, to take a good look at the eyes of the Portuguese in search of the place, the terrain, where Kaurismäki’s other hero, that unfortunate, stupid waiter, another loser fumbled about, I wanted to see the city, to see whether I could live here, because as you know, I don’t really want a home.

As soon as I arrived, I started wandering around the old town, eager to find the locations, and I immediately fell under the spell of this quiet, tranquil little town, but then I made an awful mistake, Pongrác, a mistake I haven’t made in a long time, I got carried away and let my imagination soar, like a stupid teenager, I let myself fall under a spell, and my good mood turned so foul, I haven’t recovered since, and I think back on the restaurant in a small alley with something like abhorrence, the restaurant where, silly that I was, and surrounded by singing elderly men, I became an active participant in this small town medicine-handout and got carried away, and the moment I left the restaurant I felt ill because out on the cobble stoned streets the people went about their business so sad for lack of the melody, for lack of life, that I had to go back to my hotel and hide in my hotel room, because I had let myself be carried away, and there was such sadness in my eyes, the sadness of the losers, that it veritably begged to be put on celluloid.

The next day, on Saturday night, I went and sat out on the square again and watched these small-town people weave their way along this labyrinth, all the bedecked residents of Guimarães setting out for a stroll in this beautiful maze as if they had an aim, whereas they’re just binding their time, circulating along the narrow inner city streets and handkerchief-sized squares in their leather coats and leather shoes, hands folded behind their backs, as if they were strolling through the halls of a museum, yes, with the elegant measure so typical of museum visitors progressing from one hall to the next. This small town lifestyle is, how shall I put it, the least pleasant of lifestyles, because its scale makes you believe that something might actually happen, whereas nothing ever happens. You either feel the need that nothing should happen, as in a village, or else you feel the need for the unpredictable, as in a city, and a small town is so horrible because in the illusion of possibilities, the transparency and opaqueness of its limits, the familiarity you feel and the impossibility of becoming familiar with it, materialize simultaneously; small town life is like a TV series that is repeated over and over, Marika watches it, whereas she’s seen it, she even remembers something, but in truth she remembers nothing, because there’s nothing to remember. I’ll tell you frankly, Pongrác, though I’m not your typical friendly person, still, it bothered me that in this town no one ever asked me anything, that these Portuguese look through me like through the sprays of a fountain, only a transvestite smiled at me on Sunday morning as I walked through a small park by the side of a chapel, the transvestite sat there with his dog in the chiming of the bell, and only in his eyes did I seem to glimpse a modicum of curiosity and interest, but this transvestite was blond and I only like brown transvestites, you know, it’s one of those visceral things; in short I didn’t stop and I didn’t talk to him, and so Guimarães will in all likelihood be the only place in the world where I didn’t get to say that I’m from Budapest, I’m from Hungary, because nobody cared, not even the bartenders, and I can’t understand it, I’ve never seen anything like it, whereas I’ve been to a pub or two in my time.

So then, the day prior to my departure, before I came to Guimarães, I saw the film “Shades in Paradise” in my hotel room, then went for a walk in the part of town they call Porto Cedofeita, and what else could I have done, I sat down on the terrace of a restaurant to watch the world go by, eat Porto tripe and drink red wine. I sat there peacefully, eating this sausage, shank, tripe and bean dish, this light summer fare on the first of June, sipping the full bodied (I think it was full bodied) red wine and watching the people, the elderly Portuguese passing by at their leisure; I looked at their eyes, those gloomy-brown, big eyes and tried to figure out what ailed them, but got no further than the cliché that it must be the sadness of loss, the loss of an empire that’s nestled in their eyes, and as I sat there in the dusk, all of a sudden, well, Pongrác, what do you think, what stopped short on the sidewalk, but a huge sanitation truck that parked itself on the sidewalk, and yes, a sanitation truck driver got out, and you won’t believe what this sanitation truck driver did, not in a million years, he walked into the restaurant in his filthy, stinking overalls, he walked all the way to the kitchen in the back and kissed the dishwasher girl on the lips, then he had a beer, and the sanitation truck stood there on the corner, as large as the small restaurant, and the driver of the sanitation truck stood by the counter, drinking his beer and looking into space with those big, brown, melancholy Portuguese eyes, and people didn’t whisper behind his back, they didn’t say what an outrage, and as for me, I thought yes, this Portuguese garbage man is an upright Finn, as well as a fine actor.

Translated by Judith Sollosy