Tuesday, 22 August 2017
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JamesSaoBentoA few weeks ago, some of Lisbon’s official buildings held an open day, to welcome members of the public. I visited one of them: the Prime Minister’s residence.

We were standing in a line of well-dressed Portuguese waiting to go through a metal detector. Apparently this appliance wasn’t functioning correctly as a friendly policeman was waving people through without any further security check. This laid back attitude could almost be taken as a metaphor for the current Portuguese administration, in which empathy and confidence-building are both playing an important part.

The Portuguese Prime Minister’s official residence and office is housed in a modest-sized early 19th century neo-classical villa. The nerve centre of the Portuguese state is entirely unpretentious, its reception rooms almost cosy, in the image of the present incumbent of the Prime Ministerial office, the jovial António Costa.

The only room in the house which could possibly be described as formal is the dining room. Dining is a serious matter for the Portuguese and, in this official context, it is easy to imagine gastronomy serving as a seductive diplomatic tool.

By the time we had visited the ground floor of the villa and emerged into the garden, the Republican party was in full swing. The Portuguese are always up for a party and entire families had turned out for the occasion, bringing children and grandparents with them.

Most of the guests appeared to be middle class and many what the French call bobo or even gauche caviar – António Costa himself is a Socialist – and there seemed to be a shortage of more popular types among the crowd. My companion pointed out a well-known actress, sitting on the lawn smoking a cigarette.

António Costa unveiled a piece of sculpture which, deprived of its covering sheet, looked like someone had abandoned a pile of construction material in the garden. The Prime Minister gave a speech, beaming from beginning to end, and the artist was congratulated for his work.

Not much of what the PM was saying was audible as some people were continuing their individual conversations, showing a typically Portuguese disregard for officialdom. Small groups began to detach themselves from the main event as someone had discovered a food alley and soon everyone appeared to be clutching a hotdog or an ice cream.

The culminating moment of the evening was a performance by the Portuguese pianist and singer Jorge Palma given on a grand piano which had been installed on the villa’s terrace. Now in his late sixties, Palma has long grey hair and cuts a fairly corpulent figure. Although some members of the audience might have been forgiven for thinking that Palma is also past his musical prime, he remains immensely popular and each of the well-known melodies Palma thumped out on the keys was greeted with delighted applause, the audience singing along with the musician.

Finally it was time for everyone to disperse. The evening air was cooling and the ice cream stall had closed. The party had been an impressive exercise in political communication.

 

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The author, James Mayor, is the founder of Grape Discoveries, a wine and culture boutique travel company

See the 'Grape Discoveries' website