When I was 17, I became friends with another girl from Famalicão, a city between Porto’s metropolitan area and Braga. It is an economically prosperous part of the country, and much of Portugal’s industrial fabric is found there.
As such, there is a greater flow of young people, businesses, and means of transportation. Medium-sized cities proliferate, all part of the fabric of the Oporto metropolitan area.
And if all these words are used to describe it, all its antonyms could be used about Portugal’s Interior. A place that is economically stagnant, aging in age and mentality, and where only the wheels of a car or someone’s legs are used as a means of transportation.
But, unlike me, who only had the deserted streets of my village to roam after school, my friend had more options. She could leave school and go to McDonald’s, to the mall, or better yet, hop on a train and go for a walk in Oporto.
Although we were the same age and lived in the same country, our lives could not be more different.
From my small village to the city where she lived was only 90 miles away. An irrelevant distance in miles, but essential in Portuguese culture and what it means to grow up on the coast or in the Interior.
And I, who was young in the Interior, one day, attacked by the typical anxiety of a teenager who wants to have fun, I told her how much I wanted to travel, even if it was just for an afternoon.
What she next said to me would remain engraved in my memory forever. “Why don’t you go to a station, get on the train, and go somewhere with no destination? I do that all the time.”
I remember being as jealous as I was angry.
I was jealous that I didn’t have that opportunity, the one of just letting myself go on a train to a random city, and mad at her ignorance for not knowing there wasn’t even a train in the area where I lived.
I was irritated by the petulance in her statement, which represented the entire voice of a coastline and that of a country that ignored itself, like a vain and wealthy son who is ashamed of his parents of humble origins and does everything to avoid mentioning them.
And I was also annoyed by her historical ignorance, amazed by the lack of trains, disregarding that we once had some of the most beautiful trips one could make in Portugal by train.
Once, the old and beautiful Vouga line crossed my town, São Pedro do Sul, considered one of the most attractive trips in Portugal.
In the village of Vouzela, just before the millenary bridge, little remains of the black locomotive that used to tear through the forests of the Lafões region in the direction of Aveiro But the journey only exists in the memories of those who lived during that time.
But, I, born in 1990, never witnessed that old, still steam-powered train that crossed my town. And as such, it is almost as if it never existed.
The time of my birth meant quite the opposite. The railway lines were demolished. Instead, with funds coming from the newly-entered European Union, the investment was made in highways, often unnecessary.
The car seemed to be the future, and the train the past. We could not see then how much we were going backward, especially on a planet heading to a climate disaster. And we could also not see how unjust it was to destroy such a perfect and clean means of transportation.
And I, as a teenager, had been caught up in these bad decisions. I was neither licensed nor old enough to drive. Thus, I was limited to wandering around and staying in my village.
And just like me were all my classmates and everyone who lived in this region, most of them even less privileged than me, with families that didn’t own a car and didn’t even consider taking vacations outside their birthplace.
In contrast, the same generation that had grown up on the coast had greater freedom of choice, of movement, and a more prosperous life that was never offered to us as an option.
Our lives, my friends and I’s, couldn’t be more different than that of my friend in Famalicão. We were both Portuguese, but that didn’t necessarily mean we had similar lives or even the same opportunities.
She went to an excellent public school but could attend a private one if she wanted to. Not only because she had that option but because her parents, who were my parent’s age, had also had different lives than mine.
They all lived better, were better educated, and had better incomes. I, in turn, had no other option but to go to the only public school available; whether it was good or bad, it was all I had.
But at that time, even more than that, I envied her freedom and her range of options. I would have to wait a few years before I left my town and went to live in Porto.
She didn’t know that the biggest and closest city to me, Viseu, was and still is the biggest city in continental Europe that is not served by train. Meanwhile, politicians talk about high-speed projects and TGV lines connecting the two Iberian capitals, while here, there isn’t even a railway line.
All this is a tragedy in several aspects. It is an environmental catastrophe that constantly forces us to drive our cars, which is responsible for many fossil fuel emissions contributing to climate change.
It is a tremendous injustice to the Portuguese, who pay the same taxes but are not served equally, in having access to different means of transportation. And considering all the costs of owning a car, from mechanical repairs, taxes, and insurance to increasing fuel prices, one can only feel how unjust this is.
It’s a social injustice also because those who can’t afford a car don’t commute, don’t travel, and don’t experience different ways of life.
All this raises social and economic justice problems, favoring one social class more privileged than another. Ultimately, it is a tragedy in the cultural development of land.
One of these days, I was commenting on this affliction with my father, the lack of trains. But he has lived here all his life, never got on a train, and has always used the car to get around.
I told him the wonders about Italy, where I lived for a good part of my adult life, how even the smallest villages have railway lines and how easy it is to get in, get out, travel, and get to know other places.
And as such, how wonderful it is for your spirit to experience that freedom and how much you learn and grow. But unfortunately, he didn’t understand. How could he? And like him, almost everyone doesn’t get it because when we don’t know a better reality, we often accept the world as it is offered to us.
Until my friend suggested I get on a train and go for a ride, I had no other option but to walk and take the same routes in my city repeatedly. A light was shed when I realized not only the injustice and inequalities between Portugal and other more developed European countries but even more significantly, the injustices within the same country.
Poor mobility may be the first point of discussion among the many problems that plague the Interior. And in a country full of tourism, both the country and the tourists would benefit from a decentration of the tourism focus, which would bring money and different forms of life here.
In other words, the Portuguese Interior would witness a cultural revolution in a part of the country that has been waiting so long for a change that insists on not arriving.
I guess we will keep waiting, but for how long?