Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
“You know the Japanese word for ‘thank you’?” Ricardo asked me.
He was missing a surprising number of teeth given that he was four years younger than I. And his hair was already verging on salt-and-pepper. But he spoke with youthful enthusiasm on behalf of all things Azorean. Azorean, not necessarily Portuguese — he favored independence for the islands. His own darker skin tone he attributed to Moroccan descent. The other side of his family was Dutch, he said, reflecting the complex ethnic mixture here.
“Yes?” I said. “Arigato.”
“You know it’s borrowed from Portuguese ‘obrigado’? Apparently the Japanese didn’t have a word for ‘thank you’ until they met the Portuguese.”
This is false. “Arigato” derives from “arigatai,” which appeared in Japanese sources as far back as 759 A.D., long before Portuguese contact. The similarity between the words is pure coincidence.
“You know we Azoreans invented the Hawaiian pizza?” he said. “We grew pineapples here, and we had so much we had to put them on something. So when Azoreans went to Hawaii, they introduced the idea of pineapple on pizza.”
This is false. A Greek-Canadian restaurateur in Toronto invented the Hawaiian pizza.
“You know how English got the word ‘tea’?” he asked. The Portuguese word for tea is “cha,” from Mandarin Chinese. “It was because the Portuguese introduced the English to tea. When Catherine [of Braganza] went to England [to marry King Charles II in 1662], she brought tea in chests marked ‘Transporte de Ervas Aromaticas’ — transport of aromatic herbs — T.E.A.”
This is false. It’s true that Catherine helped to popularize the custom of drinking tea, now inextricably associated with the British. But the English already had tea before Catherine, and the word came from southern Chinese dialects.
“You know if it wasn’t for the Azores,” he said, “all of Portugal would be speaking Spanish now.” He was referring to the Iberian Union starting in 1580, when Philip II of Spain claimed the Portuguese crown after the death of King Sebastian of Portugal in a foolish war in Morocco. Sebastian had no clear heir, which gave Philip the opportunity to make his claim. “The king moved out here to the Azores to keep fighting the Spanish,” Ricardo said. He meant António, Prior of Crato, who also made a claim to the throne. But Philip immediately defeated him on the mainland, forcing António to flee to the Azores, where he set up a loyalist government that lasted until 1583.
All of this is true enough, but it seems very tenuous to claim that, but for these three years of unsuccessful if valiant resistance, the Portuguese would have all switched to speaking Spanish. The Iberian Union lasted until 1640.
Ricardo was like this, full of historical tidbits that ranged from somewhat misleading to totally false. So it surprised me that he failed to touch on the crucial role that the Azores played in WWII.
In the earlier years of the war, German U-boats haunted Allied ships, particularly in “the Mid-Atlantic Gap,” the portion of the Atlantic Ocean out of reach of British and American airpower. As American merchant ships sought to supply Allied forces in Europe and North Africa, German submarines sank them more quickly than Americans could build new ones. The answer, in the eyes of the British and American governments, was the Azores: if the Allies could take control of the strategically located islands, then they could extend the range of their air forces to close the Mid-Atlantic Gap. The Germans had the same idea and drew up plans to invade the Azores as well.
Portugal was officially neutral. Despite being a dictator himself, Portuguese ruler Salazar disliked the Nazi regime. But at the same time, he feared giving Hitler a pretext for overrunning all of the Iberian Peninsula.
Finally in 1943, after Allied victories in North Africa reduced the chances of a German assault on Portugal, Salazar dusted off the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373 and the Treaty of Windsor of 1386. Affirming that the ancient alliance between Portugal and England was still in effect, Salazar invited the British and later the Americans to set up a military base in the Azores. The Allies were now finally able to protect their ships.
The American base is still there on the island of Terceira, the same island where António, Prior of Crato, had headquartered his government in exile.
And that, unlike one of Ricardo’s stories, is all true.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."