This weekend I traveled North to the special and charming city of Oporto for the city’s Book Fair. My publisher had me come in for a book signing and there I went. The Oporto Book Fair is not a big event, we’re talking of about 130 exhibitors, but I’m certainly not one to complain, I’m happy to stage any book signing, of course – and don’t think many people came, I’m not that known of a writer. But still, I signed a couple of books and had fans come in with previous publications, happy to meet me almost as much as I was happy to meet them. I was also happy to return to this city, the one they call The Undefeated. Been there a few times and I love to go back.
Oporto is the second largest Portuguese city. Which isn’t saying much. It harbors around 1 million people overall. And it is a special city, completely different from Lisbon. Lisbon is built around seven hills, but they are low hills and the city is wide and the proximity of the sea and the wide exit of the Tagus have a peculiar effect on the light. Oporto is also built around hills, near the sea and next to the lovely Douro River. But it’s very different: the streets are narrower, the hills are steeper, the river is closer and narrower as well and the dark stones of the old streets and houses make it a darker city, somehow. And people are different – more gentle and well dressed, less urban. That’s part of the charm of Portugal: you just travel a dozen miles in any direction and it’s like you’re in a completely different country – beaches, mountains, deserts, old cities and new. You just have it all in a small piece of land.
But here’s something I noticed as I walked through these streets: everywhere I went I picked up many different sounds and languages. I heard people talking in Italian, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese, etc. I didn’t even need to walk. As soon as I opened the window of the flat I rented for a couple of nights I could hear the sounds of all around the globe – as if Oporto had become suddenly much more cosmopolitan than I remembered. This diversity, if you think about it, is a sign of progress, prosperity, evolution and even wealth. Think about it. When you imagine New York or London, or Ancient Rome or Ancient Beijing, or Napoleonic Paris or even Colonial Lisbon, you must imagine these places filled with all kinds of culture, languages, customs, diversity.
It’s not just the depictions of a great metropolis as Rome in films like GLADIATOR or BEN HUR. In these pictures, it always seems that the diversity of every part of the Empire makes the city greater and more sophisticated. But there are other less… shall we say commercial views? See, for instance, the old painting of 16th century Lisbon, then one of the greatest cities in the world, called THE KING’S FOUNTAIN – see how it depicts knights and other African characters, as well as Jewish merchants and different artisans – they were part of the city’s regular life. Also, here’s how Marco Polo described the capital of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century: «To the city also are brought articles of greater cost and rarity, and in greater abundance of all kinds, than to any other city in the world. For people of every description, from every region bring things (including all the costly wares of India, as well as the fine and precious goods of Cathay itself), some for the sovereign, some for the court, some for the city which is so great, some for the crowds of barons and knights, some for the great hosts of the emperor which are quartered round about; and thus between court and city the quantity brought in is endless.» As in other descriptions, diversity is mentioned as a sign of prosperity and wealth and significance.
So it’s easy to equate the phenomenon of immigration with progress and prosperity. It seems they come hand in hand. Actually, I remember meeting a Swedish professor that showed me how the USA had built its success around immigration. He said something like this: «If you emigrate to Sweden or Portugal or France, you will never be a Swede or a Portuguese or a French. Maybe your children, having been born in these countries, can have the chance of being considered native – if they’re lucky and they don’t have a different tone of skin or their names don’t give them up. If you emigrate to America, though, you can legally become a citizen after five years. You just become an American like any other. That’s the biggest competitive advantage the Americans have over everybody else.» A place where you can converge a vast amount of points of views, cultures and customs is a place of great learning and adaptation, becoming strong and sophisticated. Places that remain closed and homogeneous and bare eventually fall sick and poor and die.
That is exactly the main strength of cities, as a matter of fact. Cities are in fact the most durable and resilient of entities, more resilient than countries or even civilizations and empires. Paris, for instance, has seen the rise and fall of different tribes, the Roman Empire, the Frankish Empire, and Nazi Germany and many others, and it still remains the City of Paris. Something similar can be said of Rome, London, Lisbon or New York. That happens because cities, those legendary undefeated entities, are the poles of diversity, they adapt and they integrate many different cultures and customs and races and culinary delicacies and colorful games and art forms. They are a phenomenon of integration and resilience.
Let me say as well that it baffles me that the very same people that are scared and dismissive of immigration are the same that deny the massive happening of Climate Change. Because, as many have been saying for years, Climate Change itself, if not addressed and faced, will definitely cause or is already causing massive migratory phenomena around the world. So facing Climate Change and working to stop it is a much more effective remedy for migratory ‘invasions’, real or imaginary, than any wall whatsoever.
If you ever read Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow and/or Adrian Goldsworthy you might know that Oporto is a city where the brilliant general Arthur Wellesley, the Irish Duke of Wellington, and his red-coats faced the great armies of Napoleon and defeated them. As I crossed the Douro River on a train, heading back home to the South, I remembered those incredible battles fought by, among others, expatriated soldiers. Part of Wellington’s genius was the creation of integrated battalions, with both British and Portuguese nationals, and later Spanish, Dutch and Germans as well, if I recall. Diversity, he seemed to notice, make us all stronger. We should all notice it too. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.