I have been back from my Portuguese fishing trip for some time, and the doctor says I will recover my wits any day now, "just as soon as we stop hallucinating about taking dogs to dinner and swordfish chasing us," as he put it in his usual first-person medical. He wouldn't be so flip about my mental condition if he had met Senhor Parreira or that Frenchman we called "The Body Beautiful" or the Swiss countess with the brassiere problem. Or if he ever got the evil eye from an Atlantic cutlass fish. Or ate mussels.
It started innocently enough. There is this old fortress on the mile-long island of Berlenga, see, about eight miles off the mainland of Portugal, and the government has made it into a fishing lodge where you can catch fish till your arms are ready to fall off, and you can stoke up on ragout, bouillabaisse, lobster, oysters, curry, rabbit, lamb, green wine and 92-year-old brandy. Altogether, a week on Berlenga is guaranteed to put 10 pounds on you. And you can sleep in quaint rooms with 30-foot ceilings and pirate ghosts and native atmosphere, including the fact that there is no hot water, which is a little more native atmosphere than I usually would go all the way to Portugal to seek.
Photographer Jerry Cooke and I assembled in Lisbon, rented a taxi and buzzed up the coast to the jumping-off town of Peniche, a fishing community where women walk around with boxes of fish balanced on their heads, grown men actually sit in the square mending fishing nets, and boats loaded with tuna and mackerel come into the harbor under sail while wives and children run down to embrace their loved ones back safely from the deeps. As we lolled around Peniche for half a day, waiting for the boat that would take us out to Berlenga, I kept having a repetitive fantasy: this colorful native scene was being staged for our eyes only, and the minute we got out of sight over the horizon somebody would jump on a box, shout "Cut!" through a megaphone, and all the extras would go home till the next journalists appeared.
I felt much the same about our luncheon scene, acted out on a restaurant balcony overlooking the harbor of Peniche. We vanquished successive courses of leek soup, tomato salad, homemade bread, creamy butter, boiled potatoes, zucchini, baked sea bass with a light-green sauce, milk, coffee, cr√®me caramel and two bottles of vinho verde—the bubbly green wine of northern Portugal. The total bill for the two of us was 40 escudos, or $1.40. "Forty escudos!" exclaimed the inevitable American expatriate who manages to be around whenever I approach a cash register abroad. "Boy, they must of seen you coming!" I wondered how much Central Casting was paying him.
On the way to Berlenga, across a wild reach of white-capped ocean which we renamed Dramamine Strait, a friendly crew member answered our preliminary questions, the first of which turned out to be a trifle undiplomatic. "What is that beautiful castle overlooking the harbor of Peniche?" I asked.
"Ees political prison."
"What do you do to get thrown in there?"
"Say wrong thing, and zeeeeep!"
"Do people discuss politics much in Portugal?"
"Ees no politics in Portugal."
I shifted gracefully to another subject—the fortress we were heading for—and the crewman explained that King Manuel of Portugal had built it in the 16th century to control the raiding activities of pirates who roamed the seas in that area. Then some years later a monastery was built on Berlenga to take advantage of both the island's isolation and the protection of the fort. As the centuries went by, the monastery crumbled into the earth, but the fort remained perched atop its rock slab, connected to the main island by a narrow stone bridge. Eleven years ago the Portuguese government decided to open the fortress to the public, hiring the champion amateur fisherman of Portugal, Senhor Antonio Parreira, to run the place. What could my new Portuguese friend tell me about Senhor Parreira? "A worry brave man," he said, and that was all I could get out of him.
My first conversation with Parreira proved to be a harbinger. He spoke only Portuguese and French, not two of my better languages, and we talked through a pair of interpreters and a few hangers-on. "These are certainly heavy," I said as I tried to pull out a square-cut chair in the reception room. "Why are they so heavy? Why? Porque? Pourquoi? Warum?"
"They are heavy because they belong to the government," Senhor Parreira answered. "The silverware is heavy, too."
"Why is that?"
"Because it belongs to the government also."
"Why does that make it heavy?"
Parreira looked at me as if I were an idiot. "Everything that belongs to the government is heavy," he said.
"Oh," I said. He picked up my rod and reel and began shaking his head dolefully. "No good," he said. He just happened to be looking at my Ambassadeur 6000, my second most valuable possession, a small jewel of a reel made in Sweden and loaded with 17-pound-test line and, as far as I was concerned, capable of handling anything up to whales.
"Too small," he said. "This will not catch the fish."
"I caught a 42-pound striped bass with it," I said.
"American fish are not Portuguese fish."
"Hmph!" I said cleverly.
Apparently Parreira brooded over my superior attitude toward his superior attitude, because he never wasted a chance after that to try to prove to me that he was the consummate angler. Once he nonchalantly dumped out a box of some six dozen medals and ribbons: prizes he had won in Portuguese fishing contests. I said they were beautiful. Another time he announced that he had caught about 125,000 fish in his life. "The fish must hate you," Photographer Cooke told him in French.
"Oui!" said Parreira. "Je suis Dillinger!" He explained to me, the ignorant nonlinguist, that he was Public Enemy No. 1 to the fish and "their FBI," which he pronounced "eff bay ee."
Nevertheless, I learned to like Sr. Parreira as the days wore on. He is a handsome man in his mid-50s, with a reddish-brown complexion, black wavy hair and perpetually sleepy eyes (because, I found out later, he is perpetually sleepy). He is a man who tends to see life solely in terms of fishing (a definite plus on his record). One day he explained to me that the Americans and the Russians were crazy for wanting to go to the moon. "I could understand it," he said, "if there were fish in the Sea of Tranquility." He is something of a student of women, because he frequently finds himself teaching them to fish in the troubled waters around Berlenga, and he feels that he has come to understand the women of all countries except England. "What puzzles me," he explained, "is that some of the English movies have very beautiful women in them, but the Englishwomen who come here to fish don't look like the movies. I have come to the conclusion that England must have special girls for export."
Years of dealing with foreigners have taught Parreira to speak with his hands. His most frequent comment is hands flat, palms upraised and pushing upwards, accompanied by lifting eyebrows and a slightly tilting head. Anyone who has had experience with gestures will recognize instantly that this means: "Who knows?" which proved to be a very useful set of gestures, because at the Pousada de S√£o Jo√£o Baptista nobody knows when meals are served, when boats are leaving or arriving, when the generator is going to cut out and dump the whole place into darkness, or even what day of the week it is. And after one taste of Portuguese fishing at Berlenga nobody much cares.
In the waters surrounding Berlenga Island there are so many fish of so many sizes and shapes that the only problem confronting the angler is fatigue. There are excellent food fish like gray bass, Allison tuna, pollack and blues; ferocious fish like the Atlantic cutlass, conger eel, dusky shark and moray; and fish with odd names like the wrasse, gurnard and St. Peter's fish. There are so many fish that the inmates of Pousada de Sao Joao Baptista disdain the use of bait. The customary terminal tackle consists of a heavy metal plug called the zagaia and, a few feet up the line, a plastic worm. One casts this rig from a drifting dory, lets it sink 100 to 300 feet to the bottom, then retrieves it in jerks. If the fish are running, one hauls up "doubles"—one fish on each hook—almost invariably. Singles are left in the water until they become doubles. Now and then a school of Atlantic cutlass fish comes through and terrifies the women—and some of the men—on board; the other men just get annoyed, because the cutlass wrecks so much tackle. He is a ferocious-looking devil who lives only in the eastern Atlantic and the Mediterranean—which is a good thing, because if he lived in U.S. waters Atlantic City would be a ghost town.
At first glance the cutlass fish (poissonsabre in French, espada in Portuguese) looks like a flattened eel. He is about one and a half inches thick, four or five inches high and six or seven feet long, with a translucent fin about an inch wide down his back. His skin is exactly the color of chromium and flashes accordingly. His head is triangular and his teeth are shaped like needles, and his disposition is vintage Rogers Hornsby. If an Atlantic cutlass fish manages to throw a lure, he will not skulk off to safety like a largemouth bass or a tarpon; he will come right back to smack that lure again and again. Battling in water discolored by his own blood, the cutlass does not quit until he is caught or the lure is snapped off the line. Experienced fishermen like Parreira believe that the locally designed zagaia plug is the best lure for the cutlass, but when a school of them moves in they will hit anything. As a French fishing editor wrote: "One has the impression that a collar button, a mustard-pot lid or the metatarsal of a cavalryman would produce the same result: an immediate and brutal attack."
Perhaps the best way to describe the profusion of cutlass and other fish in Berlenga waters is to recount three hours in the life of Senhor Parreira several years ago. As an experiment, he decided to find out how many fish one man could catch if he were freed from time-consuming tasks like taking fish off the hook and changing lures. So out he sailed with two extra rods and two assistants to handle the menial chores, and started hauling in fish as fast as was humanly possible. At the end of an exhausting three hours, using the zagaia and plastic worm, Parreira had landed 75 sea bass, 24 sea bream, 16 pollack, 92 mackerel and 36 cutlass fish for a grand total of 243 fish weighing 1,289 pounds. He could not go on with the experiment because he could no longer raise his arms.
After that feat Parreira became famous all over Europe, but especially in France, through the medium of fishing journals like Toute la P√™che and Plaisirs de la P√™che, which not only told of his fishing skill but also how to get to the pousada and how inexpensive it was. As a final blandishment the articles stressed that Parreira spoke excellent French, and the invasion was on. Nowadays the Pousada de Sao Joao Baptista has been so thoroughly Gallicized that it is practically indistinguishable from any old garden-variety castle in Brittany—which is both good and bad. The appearance of wholesale numbers of Frenchmen means that the food must be better than average, that the beds must be reasonably comfortable and that there must be an adequate wine list. But it also means that you will eat with dogs. This is a new hobby in France: gussying up your dog and taking him to dinner with you. Cooke and I were halfway through our first soup course when a French party arrived: two men, a woman, a wire-haired dachshund and a boxer. The boxer crawled under the table and the dachshund climbed onto a pillow (placed lovingly on the chair by his master) and began studying the house, including me and my soup, neither of which seemed to smell good to him. Cooke smiled politely at the dog and asked the master,-'What is his name?"
"Etienne," said the Frenchman, "and he is not familiar."
I ate a total of seven lunches and seven dinners seated next to Etienne, and after a while he didn't seem to mind me so much. One night Cooke and I suddenly realized that the dog had been coming to dinner in different collars. This time he was wearing a green leather model with encrusted gold shells and a tiny green purse dangling from it.
"What does he keep in the purse?" Cooke asked the Frenchman.
"What else? Monnaie!"
The boxer turned out to have a name unpronounceable to anyone but a Frenchman, containing as it did a triple vowel such as the ones in impossible words like fauteuil and oeil. He was a well-behaved dog, curling up under the table at mealtime, but his problem was that he suffered from a separation neurosis, and so did his master. Neither could leave the other. This meant that the boxer had to be taken out on the bounding waves every day when the master fished. There never had been any overabundance of fishing-boat space at the pousada; normally one traveled to the fishing hole in a powerboat that dragged two dories, then transferred to a dory and spent the rest of the day trying to keep from capsizing along with three or four boatmates.
Mix a 75-pound salivating boxer into this recipe and imagine the result. The happiest person I saw on the island was a German who came rushing up to me one night at dinner and said, "Dey got seasick, da two of 'em! Oh, wunderbar!" Who got seasick? "Der Franzose und der Boxer Hund!" It was, to hear the German tell it, the most rewarding angling experience of his life.
I asked Parreira what years of studying such situations had taught him about national characteristics, if any, of fishermen. "I explain," he explained through his usual muddle of interpreters. "The English fisherman wants to impose his will on the fish, and he comes here, like you, with tackle that he insists on using. I have in my house a museum of useless fishing tackle, and most of it was left here by Englishmen. The Italians are mainly fishermen of lakes and rivers; there are no fish left in the Mediterranean, and so they are willing to learn and they present no problems. The Germans are more adaptable than the English and they know more than the Italians, but they get mad. Whenever anybody loses his temper around here, it's always a German. But the Frenchman! He is wonderful and crazy. The Frenchman catches a fish this long and when he gets back to the pousada it's this long and when he gets back to France it's THIS long. But he adapts himself well to changing conditions."
"And brings his dog along," I interjected.
"And he will fish for anything, day and night. In France are four million fishermen and only eight or nine fish; so when he comes here the Frenchman cannot stop fishing. If it is blowing outside, he goes down to the dock and fishes for sardines. We have here a French woman from Évreux who hurries her dinner every night so she can finish her evening by sitting up on the ramparts fishing for eels.
"And when we are fishing for the swordfish, only the Frenchman is not afraid. Sometimes the swordfish will rush the boat and try to stick his sword through the side. While everybody else is screaming, the Frenchman is standing up and shouting, 'Trés amusante! Beaucoup de sport!' "
Even on land, the Frenchman at Berlenga managed to be the center of attention. Seated near us in the restaurant was a Parisian we came to know as The Body Beautiful because he strutted about in short shorts showing off what he quite clearly imagined were handsome legs. Personally I felt they were just average. All day long he would fish in old denim slacks, and then he would come to dinner in short shorts: the only person I have known who undressed for dinner. One day he was to be found wading about in the seaweed-strewn rocky shallows with what looked like a butterfly net, and at lunchtime he came back with a few small shrimp and a bagful of mussels, which he consumed as a prelunch appetizer with a bottle of white wine. He invited me to taste a mussel, and all I could make out from the thin slurpy meat was the essence of seawater and the grit of sand: it was like a sip of the Jersey flats at low tide. At least I recognized his gesture as a friendly act, which is more than I can say for any of the gestures made by his buxom, adolescent wife during our visit. She used to keep everyone waiting at dawn while she tried to decide whether to go fishing or sleep some more. At sea, she kept pointing to her mouth and saying to Parreira, "Mangiare! Mangiare!" whether it was time to return for a meal or not. One day the placid Parreira told her off. "You wait till we Ye finished fishing!" he said. "You kept us all waiting this morning. Now you just wait!"
The woman turned to The Body Beautiful and kept repeating. "On veut la soupe! On veut la soupe!"
"What means 'On veut la soupe?' " I whispered to Cooke.
"She wants her soup," he explained.
Not that all the entertainment at Pousada de S√£o Jo√£o Baptista was provided by the French. A Swiss woman, rumored to be some sort of countess, arrived with her husband and a bagful of table scraps which she had carried in from Zurich to feed to the Portuguese dogs. "It's a cruel country," she said to me, her green eyes focused a foot above and beyond my head. "They abandon dogs on the beaches here." Each day as her husband fished she assembled the various dogs of the castle about her and fed them Swiss table scraps, which went over big with all the dogs except Etienne. The countess made a favorite of one of the castle's mutts, picking him up and squeezing him so hard that he would yelp to be liberated. "What is she trying to teach him?" Parreira asked me.
"She's trying to teach him to bite her," I said, just as the dog snapped at her hand.
"What a good teacher she is!" Parreira said.
Each night when the catch was unloaded, the Swiss lady would stand around wringing her hands. "Oh, those poor things!" she said. "They're dead!"
"We've all got to go sometime, my dear," her husband said one night, striking a new low in banality, even for a Swiss, and to the woman's eternal credit she did not agree with him. I wonder about the "countess" even now. She had that faraway look in her eye; she enjoyed posturing about the castle courtyard, drying her waist-length hair, and she always seemed to have something wrong with her brassiere. This is not my own conclusion but one based on an overheard conversation between two Frenchwomen while fishing one day. They seemed alternately angry and puzzled by the Swiss woman's brassiere; I could not gather whether they thought it was too tight or too loose or what, but certainly it was not the sort of brassiere that a Parisian gentlewoman would wear, one could be sure of that, certainement! There was also some prolonged discussion about the lady's nationality and accent and aristocratic standing, if any. "Well!" said one of the women. "I'm sure you know: a Swiss passport means nothing, absolutely nothing!" An Englishman nudged me, pointed to the two fishwives, and said, "Crackers!"
This Englishman was no bargain himself, if you want to know the truth. He arrived unheralded one morning, looking exactly like James Joyce in some of those old pictures in Trieste: short tie Happing out the front of his jacket, steel-rimmed glasses, sandals on his feet and a bemused smile playing about the corner of his mouth, as though he had something on everyone of us. He spent most of his time hiking around the parapets with a jaunty step like those old folks who stride briskly past one's window on cruise ships, doing the mile-a-day that the doctor prescribed to ward off ultimate justice. When I asked him what he did for a living (a typical American question), he put me in my place properly. "I'm a spy," he said. The next day he loosened up a bit and confided to me, "I'm beginning to feel these bloody prison walls pressing in on me." The following day he announced, in that public-school accent of his that made every word sound like a Sacheverell Sitwell production: "I do prefer Madeira, r'ally I do. It's a ravishing island, not like this at all." Then, lowering his voice, he told me that he was frankly annoyed with all the Frenchmen in the pousada. "It's that bloody language of theirs," he said. "They can be saying the most puerile things, and they sound intelligent. The poor Portuguese can be saying the most intelligent things, and they sound puerile. Ever so unfair, wouldn't you say, old fellow?"
There was, for a fact so much of this Ship of Fools byplay going on all around us that Cooke and I were hard pressed to go about our appointed task, which was to learn about the fishing on the island. For my own part, I was also slow to get started because of stark terror. The Portuguese fisherman does not curry the favor of the sea; he attacks it. In all kinds of weather the boats of the pousada put out, dragging faithful dories behind. The prospect of being cut loose from the mother boat in heavy water out of sight of land, and smack in the middle of the shipping lanes, and with a boxer dog lapping at my eyes, did not appeal to my basically gentle nature. I felt at one with the Englishman who had staggered to the dock at dawn, dressed to the ears in the latest angling togs from Harrods, clambered on board the crowded boat and then scuttled back to the shore. "What are you doing?" Parreira asked.
"I'm not going," the Englishman said.
"I'm scared," the Englishman said.
My own natural feeling of cowardice was not allayed by the story Parreira told me one night through an interpreter who was even less ept than the customary ones. Parreira spoke for about 30 minutes, a short peroration for a Portuguese, whereupon the interpreter interpreted:
"He say he go one time to the Farilh√µes Islands near here with a party of French peoples—a father, a mother, an old lady of 70 was a grandmother, and a little boy. They are towed to this little tiny island to fish, and the fisherman who tows them he is going to come back in three hours and pick them up. Soon comes up the sea, a bitter squall, and the sea it pounds over this little rock and sweeps away the picnic baskets and the rods and everything. And Senhor Par-reira and the French peoples all is standing in their necks in water and praying for the fisherman to come back and pick them up. Now the old lady was smart, because she thought perfectly what is going to happen. She sees the tide is rising, and she sank to make things easier to the others. She sank to don't make things worse."
"She sank?" I asked.
"Yes," said the interpreter. "To keep them the spirits up. First she sank a French song, and then she sank some songs the senhor no more remembers."
Finally the fisherman arrived in his large boat and dispatched his son in a skiff to recover the beleaguered anglers. But when Parreira climbed into the skiff, the father shouted to the boy (according to the interpreter), "Now row back! Don't taking no more peoples! Is too dangerous!" Parreira pulled a knife on the boy and said, "You die with me if you don't save those people." All were saved in a chilling adventure featuring a leap from the rock to the boat by the old lady, who landed square on Parreira's leg and broke it.
Such mishaps were as invigorating to Parreira as they were dismaying to me. One day while we were at the pousada a wind came up, and the seas churned into 20-foot waves and troughs. Parreira and a Frenchman, far at sea in a dory, discussed the worsening blow. "There are two possibilities," the Frenchman said. "One, that we will turn back and catch no fish. Two, that we will go ahead and be drowned."
"Quite so," said Parreira. "The first possibility is therefore out of the question."
Another day during our tenure at Berlenga, Parreira went out in a larger boat, and his companion, a fellow Portuguese, was overcome by a carbon-monoxide leak in the cabin. The poor man's skin turned green, his eyes reddened and watered and his face began to bloat out of shape. Just as they were about to run for help, Parreira hauled up a double. His sick companion revived, grabbed a rod and, alternately hauling up fish and retching, joined Parreira in landing 125 in two hours. On the way home the motor conked out, and Parreira caught 30 more. The Portuguese attitude toward life was summed up by the grizzled old sailor who rowed the sick man from the larger boat to the dock at the. pousada later. "Hurry," said the victim. "Make your arms go fast. I am very ill."
"So what?" said the ancient mariner. "If you die it means nothing."
By the end of a week of such happenings at the pousada, the visitor has hauled in so many fish of so many species that the thrill is sharply diminished, like the second week of a marriage. This is the time to go hiking across the reddish granite roof of the island or for a cruise through the island's spectacular grottoes—some 200 of them. One watery path threads its way for 400 yards, black and silent, through the rocks, and when you put your hand in the water it glows green and gold from phosphorescence. Another grotto leads to a natural amphitheater, 500 feet high and acoustically sound, where you can make yourself sound like the Robert Shaw Chorale by humming a few bars of Chopsticks. When such sights and sounds pall, you can always study the fortress with its secret passageways and gunports and rusty cannon lying disused on the roof, and its old iron rings sticking out of solid rock, making you wonder what they tethered, or whom. You can even do a modest Hamlet; the resemblance to Elsinore, with waves pounding against the rocks far below, is spooky, and I must confess I got carried away late one dark and windy night, all alone and striding the ramparts like my ancestral countryman, the prince of Denmark. Looking furtively to left and right, I stalked out on the watchtower and struck a heroic pose. "To be," I cried, "or not to be."
I heard a cough. It was the Frenchwoman going about her nightly task of fishing for eels de France. She was sitting in shadow at the other parapet and looking at me strangely. "Bon soir!" I said ebulliently, as though I had known she was there all the time. She turned back to her fishing. I can hear her now, telling her friends in Évreux what nuts the Americans are.