Last man standing

By Skip Bandele

To the legions of football fans glued to their television screens everywhere in the world but Manchester itself, the sprawling city in the north west of England must appear to be a glamorous place – but then the followers of United and City’s local knowledge probably does not extend beyond the confines of the magnificent Old Trafford or Itihad arenas.

I have friends from Manchester who, much as every Liverpudlian of my acquaintance, insists that they are actually from the Wirral, stress that their place of residence is well outside the metropolitan area, “Cheshire really”. Contrary to what one might conclude from this state of denial conjuring up grim images of wet and windy urban decay, Manchester is now claimed to be one of the most exotic cities in the world.

More than a million miles away from the drab but homely fictional setting of Coronation Street, today’s Manchester represents a cosmopolitan cultural hub boasting at least 153 spoken languages – not bad for an estimated population of 500,000 as opposed to London’s eight million.

Its ethnic linguistic mix, which includes anything from Afrikaans, Bengali or Creole to Xhosa, Yiddish and Zulu, spans the alphabet placing the city at the top of the list for diversity in Europe when compared to urban centres of a similar size. In fact, two-thirds of Mancunian school children are bilingual (I am assuming English is one of the two!) with the number of languages spoken likely to increase over the next 10 years.

I have always enjoyed different cultures – at school in London my three best friends were Iranian, Ghanaian and British – and especially tongues, word games and the various meanings revealed within terms and expressions once syntax, vocabulary and emphasis are mastered.

My German heritage, together with the English acquired during a 16-year ‘education’ anywhere between London, Bedfordshire and Newcastle-under-Lyme (duck!), gave me a good foundation to add spoken French, Greek and lastly Portuguese to my linguistic armoury outside the classroom.

According to one Lisbon taxi driver, I have an Algarvean accent, which I am not sure I should be proud of, but nonetheless goes well with the inexplicable decision by the local Portimão SEF immigration office to change my place of birth from Lagos, Nigeria, to Lagos, Portugal, on my permanent residency document – he pá! Agora eu sou português!

That very handily takes me from rainy – yes, it is! – Manchester to the sunny Algarve as far as this article is concerned.

The weather apart, the region in particular and the country in general is still in the dumps with no signs of an imminent recovery. The population, at least the proportion still lucky enough to be in work, is being taxed to the hilt which, coupled with steadily rising inflation, has placed Portugal in the bottom third of the European purchasing power (or rather lack of it) table.

To make things worse, the very people responsible for this malaise, the politicians, elected representatives of the people, are still lining their pockets at the taxpayer’s expense, of which the current corruption scandal in Portimão is only a small example.

On a different level, arresting British tourists for playing Bingo does not help either and raises the question that police resources should be put to better use catching those stealing millions rather than innocents playing for peanuts.

Speaking as a visitor to the western Algarve a decade before becoming a resident here 17 years ago, there are many things I no longer recognise. Portimão, for instance, during many centuries at the forefront of the resistance to the advances of barbarism in the ‘Al-Gharb’ (land of the west), has replaced its former vibrancy with Praia da Rocha’s concrete jungle, while across the Arade estuary only Ferragudo has miraculously managed to preserve its quaint old world charm.

I miss the outdoor cinema, reminiscent of my childhood in Africa, often enjoyed during my early visits, now a car park, the market in the middle of town currently housed in an anonymous concrete structure on the outskirts and the numerous now closed bars, restaurants and little shops which have given way to McDonalds, Pizza Hut and an endless string of commercial centres and retail parks.

Another worrying aspect of the changing times becomes apparent when studying the country’s demography. Until 2010, the population of Portugal was growing every year, a continuous influx from former colonies in Africa, Asia and Brazil combined with more recent arrivals from Eastern Europe, adding to the rich cultural mix.

Almost touching 11 million inhabitants at one point despite the gradually decreasing birth rate, post revolution Portugal seemed to be booming – unfortunately the bubble burst as suddenly as did the transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1974, only not nearly as un-bloody.

Under the current draconian austerity measures, couples, perhaps shocked by images of Greek middle-class families sending their offspring to orphanages in order to get regular meals, are not having children, immigrants are returning to their now prospering countries of origin and Portugal’s youth is fleeing abroad in droves in search of a better life.

For the first time since records began, 2012 saw fewer than 90,000 babies being born, a negative birth rate only exceeded by Bosnia-Herzegovina. Last year the population of Portugal shrunk by 55,000, exactly the number of people registered in Portimão after the last Census.

The government needs to realise that enough is enough – basta! – the electorate is voting with its feet and I fear that, at this rate, I will be left the last man standing in our tainted paradise.

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Skip Bandele moved to the Algarve 15 years ago and has been with the Algarve Resident since 2003. His writing reflects views and opinions formed while living in Africa, Germany and England as well as Portugal.