Gulbenkian & Borrow

The first I heard of  Calouste Gulbenkian was when I read Saroyan, a biography of William Saroyan written by Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford. In 1949 Saroyan flew to Lisbon as his marriage was crumbling. He told a taxi driver to take him to the best hotel in town. It turns out the only Armenian on the planet who was more famous than Saroyan at the time – Calouste Gulbenkian – was living in a suite at the hotel, the Aviz Hotel. Gulbenkian was then in his seventies and one of the world’s wealthiest men. He was a billionaire who had made a fortune out of oil and shipping. Shortly after their meeting in Lisbon, Saroyan went to Paris where he wrote his novella The Assyrian which tells the story of a billionaire and an aging writer past his prime who has travelled to Europe after his marriage has crumbled. (I wonder where he got the idea for that one?)


Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian

Lola has been studying Portuguese for the past four years and in November of 2013 we travelled to Lisbon with the local language school. This was our fifth or sixth visit to the city, but it was our first time going with a group on a bus. It eliminated the hassle of finding and paying for parking, and since we booked 30 hotel rooms together we got a really cheap deal. The hotel was located a bit out of the center, but it was only a five minute walk to the Gulbenkian Museum.

Apart from being a very shrewd businessman – his nickname was “Mr. Five Percent” due to his habit of retaining 5% of the shares of the companies he took over – Calouste Gulbenkian was also a philanthropist and an art collector. The art collection filled his seven-story house in Paris by the mid-1930s. Calouste left France in the early 1940s and made Lisbon his new home. Upon his death in 1955 he left instructions in his will that one of the most impressive private art collections in the world be made available for public viewing.

The collection contains roughly 6,000 items, only 1,000 of which are on permanent display. There are pieces ranging from ancient to modern art. The permanent galleries are set up in chronological and geographical order. There are pieces of Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, Persian, Armenian and Far Eastern art, presented in chronological order, in the first section of the museum. There are pieces of European art (covering the art of the book, painting, sculpture and decorative arts) set up in geographical order in the second section of the museum. The European section has works ranging from the 11th to the 20th century and contains pieces by pretty much every great European artist that ever lived. Gulbenkian’s motto was, “Only the best”.

The highlights for me were the illuminated manuscript books, the Art Nouveau jewellery and glass creations of French artist René Lalique and the collection of 18th and 19th century inro. An inro is a small, traditional Japanese case which contains tiny, nested boxes for holding medicine, tobacco, a writing brush and ink, etc. It was hung from a cord since traditional Japanese clothing apparently didn’t have pockets. These small cases were originally created to serve as strictly functional objects, but they evolved over time to become insanely beautiful miniature works of art.

“All great art has madness, and quite a lot of bad art has it, too.” – William Saroyan


Dragonfly by René Lalique

We always spend a full morning in Lisbon checking out the second hand / antiquarian bookstores of which there are many. After spending a few hours in the Gulbenkian Museum I was getting a bit nervous that the shops were going to close before I got my rummaging fix out of the way. I’ve become used to the Spanish timetable where everything closes down at 2 pm and doesn’t open again until 5 pm. And it was a Saturday… On a Saturday in Plasencia everything closes down at 2 pm and doesn’t open up again until Monday morning. In the end there was nothing to worry about, but that didn’t stop me from being a complete pain in the ass.

We left the museum and Lola and our friend Alberto wanted to stop at a café and have a drink. (Typical Spaniards.) I checked the time: 1:15 pm. I protested. I lost the argument. Then, after 45 minutes in a smoke-filled café, Alberto proposed we take the metro into the center instead of grabbing a taxi. I protested. I lost again. The three of us walked to the metro. Along the way at least half a dozen empty taxis flew past. None of us had any idea how the metro worked. So, there was a lot of time wasted figuring out the ticket machines, trying to read the metro map, asking questions and receiving answers in a foreign language, and then there was a confusing change of trains involved. Alberto attempted to calm me down by reminding me that we were saving quite a bit of money by taking public transportation. Bollocks. In the end, three metro tickets cost €4.50. The previous night we had taken a taxi from the center back to the hotel after dinner and it had only cost €6.50.

I was losing my patience, but I was outvoted 2-to-1. (Thus proving that democracy is just another word for mob rule…) But when all was said and done, I had the last laugh. The metro left us off at the bottom of el Bairro Alto (literally the upper quarter in Portuguese) which is an enormous hill. A taxi would have taken us right to the top and dropped us at the end of the street where all the good bookstores are located. By the time we got up to el Bairro Alto my wife and Alberto were huffing and puffing and looking a bit pale. As I stepped into the first bookstore I gave the two knuckleheads my best “maybe next time you’ll listen to me” look.


George Borrow

Anyway… it’s time to lock the grumpy old man back up in the closet. I was in that first bookstore less than thirty seconds when I spotted a 1930 hardcover copy of George Borrow’s The Bible in Spain: or the Journey, Adventures, and Imprisonment of an Englishman in an Attempt to Circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula (originally published in 1843) for only €4. This copy contained all three volumes – nearly 850 pages – under one cover. I was ecstatic. Alberto was laughing to himself over in a corner of the shop. He called us over and showed us a book entitled Fado Alexandrino by the Portuguese writer António Lobo Antunes. He proceeded to tell us a funny story about a previous trip to Lisbon with J.J. – another one of our Portuphile friends from Plasencia.

J.J. had bought a copy of Fado Alexandrino in one of the bookstores in el Bairro Alto a few years ago. When he returned to the hotel that afternoon he noticed something as he was flipping through the pages. The book didn’t make much sense. A character would be speaking in the present tense and in the first person, but then the story would randomly switch to the past tense and to the third person.  There wasn’t just one incidence of this chaos; the entire book was like this. That night at dinner J.J. mentioned his problem to everybody and a decision was made (after a few bottles of wine) that he had to return to the shop the following day and return the book. There was obviously something wrong with it. Maybe it was an editing problem. Maybe he had purchased a printer’s test pressing that wasn’t intended to be sold.  So, the next day after breakfast they returned to the shop and J.J. showed the book to the owner.

“It’s very strange. You see?” he said, pointing to one of the pages. “There must have been a problem during the printing process. There are no punctuation marks! It doesn’t make any sense!”

The owner smiled. “I suppose this is the first António Lobo Antunes book you’ve ever purchased?”

J.J. thought for a second. “Yes, it is.”

“Well, you’d better get used to it,” said the bookseller. “They are all like this. Dense, confusing, Faulkner meets Celine stream-of-consciousness, narratives blending into one another, paranoia, obsession… Welcome to the world of Antunes!”

J.J. took the book in his hands and flipped through the pages with a blank look on his face.

“Do you want a refund? Or maybe you would like to exchange it for something else?”

“No, thanks. I’ll give it a try.” He put the book under his arm and slinked out of the shop.

J.J.’s birthday was coming up soon. As a joke the three of us bought him another Antunes book. When J.J. opened the gift at his birthday party he yelled, “Sois unos cabrones!”  (“You’re a bunch of arseholes!”) Apparently he hadn’t exactly enjoyed Fado Alexandrino.

Later that day while looking through our purchases and sipping hidromel (a mead-like beer/honey hybrid) in a crusty old tavern, Lola noticed there was a beautiful fold-out color map attached to the inside back cover of The Bible in Spain. It traces Borrow’s steps as he criss-crossed the Iberian Peninsula. In my excitement I hadn’t even noticed it was there.


George Henry Borrow was born in Norfolk, England in 1803. He studied law, but his real talents were in literature and languages. He wrote novels and travelogues based on his European travels. He was fascinated by nomadic people and he wrote extensively about gypsies. He published a dictionary of the Romany language and two books specifically about his experiences with gypsies: The Zincali – An Account of the Gypsies of Spain and his semi-autobiographical novel The Romany Rye.

Borrow spent many years working for the British and Foreign Bible Society whose purpose was (and still is, I suppose, as the organization still exists today) to make the Bible available worldwide. After Borrow ended his career with the Bible Society in 1840 he married and began writing his books. The Bible in Spain was his second book. It was a huge success – selling more copies than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol published the same year. The book made Borrow an instant celebrity.

I first saw Borrow’s book mentioned in a Lonely Planet Spain  guidebook I bought in 2003 – the year I moved over here. Listed under “Books” in the “Facts for the Visitor” section it is described as “an amusing read” and “an English clergyman’s view of 19th century Spain in which he tried to spread the Protestant word.” A couple of years ago I bought a facsimile of the 1843 edition online. I was under the impression I was buying the entire three volume set, but when the book arrived it was only the first volume. Instead of dealing with the hassle of sending it back, I sat down and read it. Unfortunately, it was interesting enough that I wanted to read the second and third volumes.

“I am invariably of the politics of the people at whose table I sit, or beneath whose roof I sleep; I never say anything which can lead them to suspect the contrary; by pursuing which system I have more than once escaped a bloody pillow, and having the wine I drank spiced with sublimate.” – George Borrow

When I read the facsimile of the 1843 edition I wrote down all the names of the towns and villages he passed through so that Lola and I could explore some new places on our weekend excursions. Flipping through the 1930 edition of the book I found that the editors had listed all of the places Borrow visited at the beginning of the book. They even added the exact dates that Borrow stayed in the places he visited. The editors also included an introduction explaining the dire political situation (the Carlist Wars) that was taking place during Borrow’s travels. There is also a glossary containing Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, Romany and Basque words. And due to the inclusion of additional footnotes in the 1930 edition, we learn that while in Madrid Borrow rode around town on a beautiful, black Andalusian horse with a Russian saddle and no stirrups. Why hadn’t I found this edition of the book earlier?!

The word “Portugal” should have been added to the book’s title since Borrow doesn’t reach Spain until 135 pages into his adventure. He spends the first part of the book travelling mostly by horse, mule and boat as he attempts to interest the Portuguese in copies of his Bible. He gets into a lot of trouble along the way and has basically nothing good to say about anybody he meets. Borrow doesn’t try to be humorous, but he is so grumpy and cantankerous that I found myself laughing quite a few times. When the owner of the inn where he is spending the night doesn’t give him what he considers to be a reasonable price for the use of a donkey for the following day’s journey, Borrow goes door to door through the entire village at 5 am in search of a better deal. And the cheap bastard gets a slightly better deal!

Borrow gets his first glimpse of Spain from the Portuguese town of Elvas where he has a run-in with a guard that won’t allow him to visit the local fortress because he is a foreigner. This sets him off on a full page rant against the Portuguese and their “filthy wines”. From the castle atop the town he sees the Spanish village of Alburquerque (Latin: alba quercus, or “the white oak”) off in the distance. 165 years later, in the terrible heat of a typical Extremeñan summer, Lola and I rented a house with some friends just outside of Alburquerque. We were attending the ContemPOPranea music festival. The house had no electricity and, while there was running water, it wasn’t heated. My wife and two of her girlfriends took the master bedroom. A couple visiting from the UK took the other bedroom and a Spanish couple from Plasencia took the sofa bed in the living room. I set up my little one man tent in the garden under the grape vines. This was apparently the best option as everybody else spent sleepless nights sweltering inside the house. The only problem with sleeping in the garden was the rooster making a racket in the early morning shortly after we had returned from the festival. Then, on the last day as we were getting ready to leave, the water tank went dry. I was the only one who hadn’t taken a shower yet. So we took the few remaining bottles of beer out of the big cooler, I put on my bathing suit, stepped into the melted ice water and splashed it all over myself as best I could under one of the olive trees. It did wonders for my hangover. But I digress…

When Borrow does finally enter Spain at Badajoz the first person he comes across is a local drunk begging for spare change so he can get some wine. We go to Badajoz quite frequently as one of Lola’s sisters is living there. Whenever you attempt to park on the street in the center of town, the first person that greets you, without fail, is one of the many local heroin addicts begging for money. Change comes slowly to these parts.

Two of the most memorable scenes in the book take place in Madrid. In one scene Borrow witnesses the public execution of two young criminals. The two were brothers and their crime was murdering an elderly man as they robbed his house.

“Criminals in Spain are not hanged as they are in England, or guillotined as in France, but strangled upon a wooden stage. They sit down on a kind of chair with a post behind, to which is affixed an iron collar with a screw; this iron collar is made to clasp the neck of the prisoner, and on a certain signal it is drawn tighter and tighter by means of the screw, until life becomes extinct.”

In another scene Borrow describes the aftermath of military riots which were repressed by one General Quesada who didn’t live to see another day.

“There is a celebrated coffee-house in the Calle del Alcalá, at Madrid, capable of holding several hundred individuals. On the evening of the day in question, I was seated there, sipping a cup of the brown beverage, when I heard a prodigious noise and clamour in the street; it proceeded from the nationals, who were returning from their expedition. […] A huge bowl of coffee was then called for, which was placed upon a table, around which gathered the national soldiers. There was silence for a moment, which was interrupted by a voice roaring out, “El pañuelo!”  A blue kerchief was forthwith produced, which appeared to contain a substance of some kind; it was untied, and a gory hand and three or four dissevered fingers made their appearance, and with these the contents of the bowl were stirred up. ‘Cups! Cups!’ cried the nationals….”

Quesada may not have survived the night, but his fingers managed to stir one last cup of coffee from beyond the grave.


“Two great talkers will not travel far together.” –George Borrow

Pretty much everything Borrow ever wrote is available free of charge at Project Gutenberg ( if your eyes can handle reading all of that tightly packed, single-spaced text on a computer screen. ¡Buena suerte!


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