I took the bus home the other day, just before Christmas. It was a miserable sort of evening, both cold and blustery, and I was laden down with bags and a cheap cup of tea. The bus was more or less full, but an older gentleman cleared his own parcels off of the seat next to him so I could sit down.
The bus covered several blocks very slowly, and not without some suspense; another bus on the same route had broken down on the hill leading uptown earlier that day, and there were some on the bus who, having had to put up with that once already, did not fancy the prospect of doing it again. It did not seem unlikely, either; the roads were terrible, and the driver, though over-cautious, seemed at times to be having difficulties.
The man sitting next to me prodded me on the shoulder. “Reserves?” he asked, his voice thickly accented. I looked at him without comprehension and he poked the shoulder again, this time rubbing the material of the jacket between his fingers. It was an old army jacket (distantly visible in the picture attached to this post) picked up at a surplus store in London, chosen more on account of it being cheap and sturdy and loaded with pockets than for any intention to pass as a military man, but in this time of war against the savages intent on reconquering Afghanistan it would seem that the public awareness of such things has increased, somewhat, and the question did not seem unreasonable.
Anyway; no, I said, I was not a reservist. I was just cheap. He smiled and said that he understood this very well, being thrifty himself. He added that he did not often see reservists around, or soldiers of any kind, for it was not like in his own country. This was revealed to be Portugal, and he announced that he had been in the navy himself. He had been forced to, in fact; everyone his age was, for a brief period, though they need not necessarily have been in the navy. He hadn’t seen action during his period of service, he said, though he had taken part in a number of nerve-wracking war games over the course of the four years he wore the uniform. That all seemed very fitting, I replied, given Portugal’s long and storied naval history and the supremacy in their field of figures like Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama. I remarked further that I had greatly enjoyed Camoens’ Lusiads, and he replied, “ah, thank you” with as much gratification as if he had written them personally.
But his service was ages ago, he continued; he was born just a few miles from Lisbon in 1940, and as a result his earliest memories were of a world at war. I asked him what this had been like, and he replied that it really wasn’t so very awful, though he was candid in admitting that this was likely because of Portugal’s studied non-involvement in the war (or so he described it). He took great pride in placing his country alongside Switzerland in this regard; I did not have the heart to ask questions about whether or not we could look upon the so-called Swiss neutrality with as much sunshine as we might once have done. Still, he insisted that Portugal had been quite firm in resisting the fascist tendencies of her less robust neighbour, and that he had been glad at the time, though young, to hear of the end met by Mussolini and his gang in Italy.
His most distinct memory, however, was of the war’s end. It was the strangest thing, he said; for his whole young life up until that point every good thing, from bananas to meat to chocolate, had been scarce. But the moment the war had ended all of these things suddenly appeared again immediately, as though they had just been waiting for the opportunity. He had never seen anything like the abundance that swiftly came over his homeland, and to this day he is still not entirely sure how it could all have come back so quickly. His countrymen were delirious with pleasure, but he was too often sick to his stomach (from too much chocolate) to properly join in the festivities. But the chocolate was a festivity unto itself, and he regrets nothing.
The bus had made it up the hill without incident, and his stop had been reached. We shook hands hurriedly over an exchange of names and he stepped out into the roaring darkness.