West Meets East

This story begins where it ends, as it should, because it has something to say about the often circular nature of experience and the lesson we might learn—if we pay attention. Not too long ago I was in Brasov, Romania, and the proud signs of Western prosperity were everywhere: parks that were neatly manicured, buses that whisked along smoothly paved streets, a pedestrian shopping district that showcased designer-brand stores. The scent of prosperity was stronger than the aroma of the flowers the filled the city’s central garden.

Ever since the implosion of communism in 1989, the countries of eastern Europe have been tripping over each other to join any exclusively “Western” club, all in a rush to shrug off the stigma of drab, dowdy “Eastern Europe” and lay claim to the “freedom and prosperity” of the West. And to a degree they have succeeded. Romania made the leap to the European Union in 2007 and has long had its eye on dumping its national currency, the lei, in favor of the euro. Supermarkets are now stocked with feta cheese and imported wines and chocolates, luxuries unthinkable in the days when all but the party elite queued for meat and bread.

But as the country watches the rise and fall of its economy, for some Romanians the glam of western Europe has lost a little of its gloss. Despite the meteoric rise in living standards, for some Romanians it brings to mind the wise adage: Be careful what you wish for.

“What’s the point of all these products in the supermarkets if so few people can afford them?” said Silviu, sitting at a cafe on Brasov’s medieval square, claimed to be the site of Europe’s last witch burning, in 1465, when Romania made another leap into the modern era. His companion, Irina, was a little more circumspect: “Life is certainly better in many ways,” she said, “but we’ve also become more money-driven, looking out for ourselves. We’re not as close or as caring as we used to be.”

Not long ago any EU country going through hard times was referred to as the “sick man of Europe,” but for the last few years Europe has been carrying a lot of “sick men,” enough to fill a hospital ward. Unemployment in Spain has topped 20 percent. France and Austria have lost their Standard & Poor’s triple-A rating. An Italian economy in free fall finished off Berlusconi when a carnival of personal scandals could not. And debt-ridden, poorly managed Greece needed a second bailout from an already overstretched European Union, lest it bring down the euro zone and with it the reputation of Europe as an economic powerhouse.

Again, not long ago, I spent the year-end holidays in Lisbon, Portugal, a city (and country) that hasn’t boasted the panache of “Western Europe” at any time in recent memory. The symbols of Western prosperity are hard to find in Lisbon, but what is open to view is a city that embraces the beauty of the commonplace. Age-old trams groan and rumble over hills speckled with small plazas where neighborhood boys use church doorways as football goals. Laundry hangs out to dry on iron balconies in the crumbling warrens of the Al Fama, and the pavement, almost everywhere, could use a little patching.

"Age-old trams groan and rumble . . ."

“Take Avenue do Libertade,” the desk clerk at the hotel directed when I asked the way to the Lisbon waterfront. And he added with a hint of sarcasm: “Lisbon’s Champs-Élysées.”

I shrugged off the comparison as I strode along the slowly sloping boulevard, enjoying the winter chill and morning sunlight that poured cheerily through the trees. For two weeks I climbed the narrow streets and poked into centuries-old monasteries, gazed out at the Atlantic from panoramic viewpoints that cling to winding streets rounding steep, cliff-like hills.

The entire time the weather was unseasonably warm and sunny, drawing patrons to the outdoor cafes, and at night they huddled close and pulled their scarves a little tighter to ward off the evening chill. This was as far west as one could go, the westest “West” of Western Europe, but I felt I was, well, back “East,” but an “East” still untouched by the more garish excesses of Western capitalism, an “East” that had been compelled to appreciate the joys of simple pleasures.

It was not always this way, it should be remembered. Lisbon has seen glory days. Through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries its ships, returning from far-flung colonies in Africa, India, and China, unloaded their booty on Lisbon’s docks, and the profit from the maritime trade built such ostentatious showpieces as the Monasterio dos Jeronimos in Belem and the lavishly baroque Igreja de São Roque in Chiado. But like all good times, they were not to last. By the end of the nineteenth century the bittersweet strains of fado—Portugal’s traditional songs of nostalgia and loss—were drifting through the hard-bitten districts of Graça and Baixa. Their echoes can be heard again today, as the economic pains have bitten Portugal as meanly as the rest of Europe.

“Usually there’s a big fireworks display near the port, but I’ve heard there may not be one this year . . . the economic situation,” a woman in the Praça do Comércio told me when I asked about New Year’s Eve celebrations. But even in these tough times the city would not allow New Year’s Eve to go utterly forlorn. At midnight the sky over the waterfront was alight, if a little more modestly than in years past, and for hours afterward merrymakers sipped one-euro shots of ginjinha, Portugal’s popular cherry liqueur, outside streetfront bars.

"A city that embraces the beauty of the commonplace."

Given the economic trends of the last few years, the sound of fado may be heard not only across Europe but much of the world for some time to come. But as long as the cafes are full, the winter air is fresh and crisp, and we can enjoy a burst of sunshine, should it really matter?