A Conference in Portugal

Article excerpt

'There are various ways of mending a broken heart,' begins a novel by Barbara Pym, 'but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual.' I didn't have a broken heart, but neither was I a practising academic. Mixed motives took me to a conference at Coimbra University, which was founded in 1290, and was for almost seven centuries not just Portugal's only university but the only one in the Portuguese-speaking world.

Coimbra (pronounced 'Queem-boro') is a famously beautiful, romantic town. My mother is from Portugal, a country about which, in England, information is far to seek. This was the annual conference of ACIS, the Association of Contemporary Iberian Studies, and it was to be held in Portugal for the first time at the end of last year. I would attend a fair sprinkling of the Portuguese lectures, and patriotically avoid all the Spanish ones.

I did attend one Spanish lecture, given by a dictionary publisher, whom I hoped to interest in a comprehensive Portuguese-English dictionary (no such thing exists). He was predictably discouraging. I would have known it was a Spanish gathering, because when I entered the lecture-hall, the first word I heard was cojones ('balls'). And I experienced a shudder of distaste for the ebullient, fiercely liberated Spaniards. In a Portuguese lecture, the equivalent word, tomates ('tomatoes'), would only figure in a list of agricultural exports.

Not that this is an unmixed blessing. The Portuguese lectures were mainly very specialist, sparsely attended, and occasionally tinged with that bizarre eccentricity which can set the Portuguese and Brazilians off from their overshadowing neighbours. One talk, by a visiting lecturer, was so hilariously bad it seemed likely that even in Britain in the 1960s he wouldn't have got an academic post.

But at least he spoke. Portuguese academics, poorly enough paid, are regular moonlighters between the state and private universities, and all those speakers who had been booked to travel from other Portuguese universities failed to attend. But I was told that this was nothing compared with the average Latin American academic conference, where you may be lucky to get any talks at all.

Perhaps the Portuguese academics were put off by the lack of famous names. Many of those addressing the conference were British lecturers who were under pressure to give a talk or be fired. One or two quickly fulfilled their duty and were off in a touring car. On the other hand, there was a lively talk about television soaps in a Gramscian perspective, and I missed what I was told was a particularly good lecture about the obscure plays written by the celebrated novelist Jose Saramago.

But Coimbra, an inland city, has all the pleasing melancholy of ancient university backwaters. My hotel evoked the late nineteenth century (dark rooms, high ceilings, vast breakfasts seeming to consist mainly of egg-rich sweets), and four days spent in a strange town, with people who likewise may never be further encountered, has a unique interest and charm.

Although it was mid-September, many students were already up, perhaps seeking accommodation or retaking their exams. The student union looked a lively place, and at least one of their restaurants served wonderful, breathtakingly cheap food. These must be the fittest undergraduates in the world, because Coimbra, like almost all cities built by the Portuguese, is set on a particularly steep hill, and the university is right at the top.

In medieval times, it was a strong defensive site on the river Mondego, and changed hands many times between Christians and Moors, as well as being the first capital of the nascent Portuguese state, between 1139 and 1385. The court was regularly on the move to Lisbon and other places, of course, and the university also shuttled between Lisbon and Coimbra, only being definitively established at the latter in 1537.

The historic buildings date partly from that time, and very lovely they are. …