Eduardo Leal: Coming Home to Porto
This week on The Trip podcast: Photojournalist Eduardo Leal on his hometown of Porto, his international photography career, and Porto’s formidable giant sandwich, the franceshina.
The sound of rolling luggage on cobblestone, a nightmarish ostinato soundtrack of thunka thunka thunka that is practically the national anthem of half of Western Europe. It’s been a little over 40 years since a Northwest Airlines pilot named Bob Plath, in a moment of inspiration, jammed wheels on a standing suitcase like peanut butter and chocolate and created the first Rollaboard. In the beginning he just sold them to flight crews, but then passengers to see those crews, as the NY Times put it, gliding through the terminal. And a huge market was born. And that’s we get here now, in an AirBnB outside of Porto, Portugal, where my old friend the photojournalist Eduardo Leal is telling me about how the Rodinhas, the rolling-luggage-people, have changed his hometown.
We have three episodes here in Porto, and it seems natural to start by talking tourism. I am, as usual in this stuff, part of the problem. I’m here in Porto because I’m talking about Roads & Kingdoms at a travel film festival in Matosinhos, a roughhewn and delightful harbor town just north of Porto, full of good people and fried foods and low-rent lapdance emporia like Club Macau. Tourism has helped and hit this part of northern Portugal particularly hard. It saved this region’s ass during the economic crisis. But it is also extremely dangerous to the culture of this place. Imagine, there are 10 million people in Portugal, and it saw almost 23 million visitors last year alone.
One of those visitors is actually a native son of Porto. Eduardo left, like the Portuguese have been doing ever since they figured out how to make a fucking boat, which was kind of before everyone else, to find his fortune outside of his native country. I first met him out yonder, in South America. He had started his international photojournalism career by shooting for Roads & Kingdoms in Venezuela, and I traveled and worked with him in Brazil, in Petrópolis and Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. But here in my time in Porto, he is both host and guest, from this place but no longer of it. And in his stead, in the apartments and restaurants and bars where he and the other vanished and emigrated young Portuenses should be, are now tourists. In this episode, we’re talking about all that, about his life and career, about the mountains of cheese and meat called Francesinhas, and more.
Before we get into that, though, just one thing about those rolling bags, though, and you know that I have traveled with one. It’s a plea. A simple sane request. For gods sake, roll those things on pavement, concrete, asphalt, tarmac, bamboo, bitumen. But do not, when the sun is softly swanning between two bell towers in the old city of Porto and the white wine is arriving by the carafe at the small metal tables lining the alley, do not roll that fucking thing down the middle of the cobblestone street. If you do, you will be a Rodinha, and that we do not forgive.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Eduardo. You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Nathan Thornburgh: I think we should open this wine. Your wine.
Eduardo Leal: You’ve never had green wine?
Thornburgh: I have never had green wine in the home of green wine. Okay, so here’s the label. Walk me through what we’re pouring here.
Leal: Alvarinho comes from a really specific region. It’s north of Portugal, but it’s made around the borders with Spain into small towns called Moncao and Melgaco. So basically this is a monocast. It’s a white wine, it’s really specific for white wine. But in this region they call a green wine. It’s a dry wine, and it has a fruity flavor. It’s a bit sparkling, so it’s a bit different from the normal white wine that you usually drink.
Thornburgh: And that’s why they call it green, because it’s got a little bubble to it?
Thornburgh: Yeah, and I do love it. They’ve got this on tap in bars around here. And it’s just very bubbly, maybe a couple of euros for a small pitcher of it. It’s devastatingly cheap.
Leal: Alvarinho is a bit more expensive, because it’s the supreme of the green wine.
Thornburgh: This is like the leader. The supreme leader of all of our green wines.
Leal: Because it’s all of it with one vine in a specific place. So, you don’t have a big region to produce this wine, it’s extremely good quality, but also you don’t have a big production of it.
Thornburgh: Where, and how far away from Porto does this stuff come from?
Leal: I will say around, well I can say two hours, more or less. It’s up north with the border with Spain. Actually my grandma comes form Melgaco.
Thornburgh: Your grandmother’s from Melgaco.
Leal: Yeah, she’s from one of the towns where they still produce this wine.
Thornburgh: So you have an inside connection to the green wine. Well here’s to Grandma, man. Her health, and all the green wine she can metabolize at her age.
Thornburgh: That’s great.
Leal: Like it?
Thornburgh: I’m not against this at all. No part of me is unhappy about any part of that.
It’s like a religion, or your own chapel: the place where you eat your francesinha.
Thornburgh: I mean, the sun is shining outside, this is a wickedly cold bottle that you got, here, and it’s just constant refreshment. From a wine.
Leal: The problem with this is that it goes really easily down, and you drink it like it’s a juice.
Thornburgh: It’s the old Zima problem.
Leal: And then you get to a point that you drank too much and your head is already spinning.
Thornburgh: Great. That’ll be a minute 32 of this podcast.
Leal: Well, let’s get to that.
Thornburgh: I have a combination always of jetlag, maybe lack of food, and high alcohol. Makes for great podcasting. Tremendous podcast conditions. So, I would say lack of food for us, but I’m still full from the meal that we had last night. Yeah, it’s now 3:15 p.m. I haven’t had a thing to eat, and it’s like I had three meals already today. There’s something that’s feeding me like I’ve an IV. And I think it’s the francesinha. I think, yesterday, you were kind of pissed that the very first meal that I had in Porto was not the francesinha. You were pouting through a soup that we had, because it was the food that was right there, and we were going to save it. Why does everybody need to have a francesinha as the very first thing they eat in Porto?
Leal: Well, I don’t know if should be the first meal, but you cannot miss it. The thing with yesterday, it was that you had come from so far, it is the first time you’re in Portugal, and we’re not going to take you to a proper place. And we care about food in this country, so for me it was like, okay. We go to a more normal place, where it’s not like the food isn’t nice, but you can have that almost anywhere. You could have that in New York, for example.
Thornburgh: It was a quiche and vegetable soup kind of spot. So it was more the paranoia that the schedule of that his festival that we’re at and stuff will catch up with me, I will be forced to leave on Sunday, not having had a francesinha.
Thornburgh: And therefore anger the Gods and…
Leal: And you will never be allowed again in Porto.
Thornburgh: That’s right. Just destroy my good standing in the country. Fortunately we don’t have to worry about that. We got the francesinha. But that wasn’t your place, yesterday.
Leal: No. But since I don’t live in Portugal anymore, it’s difficult for me, because I’m a bit of an orphan of my francesinha place, because unfortunately that place went a bit downhill in the last few years, at least in my standards. So I’m moving from place to place and still trying to find exactly the one that satisfies me the most. As we were saying, it’s like a religion, or your own chapel, the place where you eat your own francesinha. And I used to have one specific place, and I think it’s because it got bigger and everything, more pressure from tourism to serve much more, and it’s only two people working there. I feel that they had to cut some corners, and I think the quality down.
Thornburgh: So now you’re a man without a country, a man without a faith. A weird Unitarian of francesinhas. Do you need to find a home? Because I noticed we were out with a group of people from Porto last night, and there was a lot of arguing about which place to go to, and maybe you can’t be as forceful in that argument as someone from here needs to be until you find that one place, that you’ll then just beat up your friends about.
Leal: Yeah, you need your own. And it’s an awesome neighborhood. We are neighborhood people. We call Porto a nation. Porto is a nation, because we have this kind of thing with the capital in Lisbon, but I think there is this thing more in Spain with Barcelona and Madrid. And we are the second city, and we have this rivalry, and we always try to push ourselves up, and we are different from the rest.
Leave your fucking rolly bag at home.
Thornburgh: So we are going to talk a little bit about Porto. And your job as a journalist, and international photojournalist who works by and large overseas, but tell me a little bit, using those fine international photojournalism skills. Tell me a little bit about Porto and growing up here.
Leal: Well one thing is that the city changed a lot. I say that Porto city now is not the city I left 16 years ago. Porto is a lively, gray city, usually surrounded by fog.
Thornburgh: A lively, gray city. That’s interesting.
Leal: Lively, because people of Porto, they wear, as you say, wear their hearts as a sleeve.
Thornburgh: Yeah, they wear their hearts on their sleeves.
Leal: And they are quite rowdy, lively, swear a lot. And then you have the gray. And the gray comes not just from the weather, but the architecture. And if you walk in the center of the city, and in the old town, you will understand that. There are a lot of shades, and small, narrow alleys. And then the color of the buildings, they are, well, not dirty—now they are clean. That’s why I said the city is a bit different now, that it’s not my city.
Thornburgh: You motherfuckers went and cleaned the buildings, and now Eduardo doesn’t even know where he is anymore.
Leal: But this gray thing, is that it’s the passage of time. Porto has been a city for around 800 years. So the old buildings, they have this gray of the passage of time, and I love that. I think it tells so much about it. And I think the difference now is it’s so clean that it doesn’t seem the same place anymore.
Thornburgh: Man, progress sucks. That’s actually true for Porto. Porto is a city, like I think a lot of Portugal, in a time of economic crisis has turned to tourism as a major component of its economy, and you see it here in Porto and I think you had been talking about central Porto, where you grew up in, as a place that is now dominated by the wheel people.
Leal: The Rodinhas.
Thornburgh: You got to tell me about the wheel people. Who are they, and how can I avoid being one of them?
Leal: Well, first don’t carry luggage with the small wheels around the city.
Thornburgh: Fair enough. Leave your fucking rolly bag at home.
Leal: And try to be maybe a bit quiet when you move around with the luggage. Bring a backpack, I think. A light backpack will be easier.
Thornburgh: Oh, but then you’re stuck, because maybe you’re one of the wheel people, or the only other option is to be a backpacker? I got to be something else. There’s got to be another way. After we had talked about that yesterday, I went down to central Porto, in the center, and was outside having some Vinho Verde on tap, and immediately three northern Europeans came down a fully cobblestoned street, in the middle of the street. And the cobblestones are legit, they’re not meant for easy… this is no slicked tramway. And they were all rolling bags behind them. And it sounded… I mean the clacking was incredible. So who told you this name of the Rodinha, the wheel people?
Leal: A long time ago I used to go to this tasca. And a tasca is like a small, old restaurant, usually it’s not even frequented, but inhabited by local people who spend all their time there.
Thornburgh: They’re not clients, they’re like tenants.
Leal: Yeah, they are tenants, exactly. And basically, this tasca, it’s in the old part of town, in Ribeira, and it’s run by two women, a mother and the daughter. The mother is 90 years old, she’s been running the restaurant for 70 years. And the daughter is around 50-something years old. And I used to go there a lot, and the last time I was there she was complaining that the neighborhood was dying, because she said, “Look to the buildings around us, there’s no one living there, when before you had women shouting from window to window, and you had the clothes hanging. Now, you look and you don’t see anything.”
It’s quite beautiful now, because it’s all arranged, the buildings, some were collapsing, which for me gave it some charm. It’s like going back to Havana and it’s all brand new. In a way it gave some charm, but the reality is that the people, because of all makeover, can’t afford the rent.
Thornburgh: And Ribeira used to be a tough neighborhood.
Leal: A tough neighborhood.
Thornburgh: A very real neighborhood.
Thornburgh: There was some story about, what was it? The British soccer hooligans were trying to start some shit in Ribeira, and they were fighting the cops off and actually winning. I think this was Tiago, whose brother was a cop, telling this story—and that the police started to lose, and then all of the men of Ribeira came out and just started kicking the shit out of the British hooligans on behalf of the police, I guess, and maybe on behalf of the pride of the neighborhood, that they weren’t going to see a beatdown happen on their watch.
Thornburgh: I doubt that the rolly people, the wheel people, would have done the same, in part because they’re probably all Liverpool fans.
Leal: Well yeah, and people in Ribeira were always hardcore and tough and everything, but they were also the soul, I think, of the city. That’s the reality, and I think this evacuation, like I say, of people from the old town, is also taking a bit of that. It’s losing its soul. It’s almost a metaphor of these people leaving and how this city’s transforming. And the woman was telling me that yeah, this is changing so much, and the Rodinha, the wheely?
Thornburgh: The rolly people, the wheel people, I don’t know.
Leal: The wheel people, the rodinha I think it sounds much better in Portuguese, the name. So I will say Rodinha. And basically she was saying, “Yeah, it’s nice that they can come here, because obviously they give some business, but the problem is when there’s no one here, and who are they going to see? The Rodinhas come to see Rodinhas.” So wheel people come to see wheel people, because there’s no more to see, other than buildings.
Leal: But the soul, the social fabric of what was Ribeira and the old town, has ceased to exist, basically.
Thornburgh: Let’s get back into the Vinho Verde. The Alvarinho. What is the difference between an Alvarinho like this, and there’s an Albarino from Spain, which is maybe a little better known?
Leal: Unfortunately… well, I don’t think it’s unfortunate, but the reality is that it’s not just with Alvarinho but with all the Portuguese wines, is that we lack marketing. We don’t lack quality comparing with French wines, or California, Australians, but we lack the marketing for outside. But also because we are such a small country, that the production is not that big. Here in Portugal, you don’t see a foreign wines, almost. It’s almost impossible for you to find a French wine in a supermarket or Argentinian wine. You don’t find it.
Well, some places they still have a small section, but it’s not a common thing. Because for our size, we have a large production of wine, but not to export, except port wine and the rose.
Thornburgh: Well, that’s a little fucked up. If you were going to be bringing a bunch of foreign wine in here, it’d be like bringing some deli takeout to Grandma’s house, after she cooked you a meal. It’s here already. You got the good stuff, why pay money for the rest? But also, I mean in particular when you’re talking about Albarino or Alvarinho, you have a very large neighbor who just has much more resources to capture mental mind share across the globe for their wines and their foods, some of which, whether it’s conservas, the tinned seafood, or whether it’s the amazing, fresh white wines that they have in northern Spain, and then up here in northern Portugal. You guys are in the same area doing sort of the same thing, they’re just doing it with a lot more recognition.
Leal: Same thing happens with olive oil, and what is the other one? And Parma ham. Because we produce really good Parma ham, and sauce, and olive oil, we have exceptional olive oil, but you’ve never heard about olive oil from Portugal, probably.
Thornburgh: Not to bag on the Spaniards, because I have a special connection. I’ve got friends, and family, my partner, all of this stuff. But I think at least one of the most memorable early pieces that we published from you was about forcados, which is a long-running obsession of yours, and you made this incredible work of photography around them. And if there was something that just struck me as a difference between two countries on the same peninsula, that a lot of people, myself included, are not great at differentiating distinctly from. The difference between forcados and real bullfighter culture in Spain seems instructive. I don’t know if there’s anything else we can extrapolate, but tell me about the forcados, and who they are, and what they do, and what makes them unique.
Leal: Well, to start with, to give a bit of context, in Portugal you cannot kill the bull in the arena. That’s illegal. There’s only one small town on the border with Spain that still has that tradition, that’s fought over the law, and this is respected. So basically, they still-
Thornburgh: It’s like the Texarcana of the Iberian peninsula? They’re going to be fucking Texans.
Leal: Exactly. But other than that, since the 1850s, it’s not legal to kill the bull in the arena in Portugal.
Thornburgh: 1850, that’s a long time before PETA and general animal welfare.
Leal: Yeah, it is. But all happened because of a Queen who was ruling Portugal, she didn’t like to see that. Because bullfighting was always connected to the aristocracy and noblemen and everything. Because to raise horses and bulls is not cheap.
Thornburgh: Right. So it was from a Queen.
Leal: A Queen, that didn’t like how the bullfight ended, and she basically outlawed the killing of the bull.
Thornburgh: That’s why I’m so excited we’re going to elect a woman for President next year.
Thornburgh: Amen. Because right, she was 150 years ahead of her time, with just a shred of human compassion for these animals. So she didn’t like to see it, and she outlawed…
Leal: Outlawed, yeah. And they had to find a replacement to finish, let’s say the party, the bullfight. And there was already tradition that these men that used to, in the village, grab the bulls by the horns, fight them. And they would finish the bullfight.
And so what happens is that you still have the horseman running around and putting sticks on the bull, and then instead of killing the bull, what they do is, a group of men go to the arena, and they wrestle the bull. So the bull runs to them, and they have to grab the bull with their bare hands, with no protection, nothing. They only have a waist-band that they put around their chest to protect the internal organs. And other than that, it’s crazy. You have 15-year-olds, men, or kids basically. And just jumping to them, 600-kilogram bulls, running towards you. And it’s quite scary, but it’s quite interesting because it’s a tradition that you don’t have anywhere else. But we actually managed to export it to Mexico.
Thornburgh: So they now have forcado culture there?
Leal: Yeah. There was a group of bullfighters that came to Portugal and they were amazed with it, and they decide to start their own group in Mexico.
Thornburgh: We’re all trying to prove ourselves as macho motherfuckers. Like going without a blade, or without a spear, and taking on a bull, who is going to remain at full strength until you tire it out with your body, seems very masculine. And at the end of the day, the bull lives. It’s just maybe a little punked, a little defeated, a little tired, a little humiliated, but it gets to go and eat and screw and run like bulls do.
Leal: The bull doesn’t have usually a nice end, is all. Because bulls only live after the bullfight here, if they prove that they really are amazing bulls.
Thornburgh: So this is not a detail that I had remembered. Okay.
Leal: If they give a proper fight, and it’s like, “Oh, this is a remarkable bull,” he will have the life that you’re describing, he’s just going to eat and screw and reproduce himself, and he’s going to be the king with our-
Thornburgh: He’ll be a stud.
Leal: But if it doesn’t prove itself, what it does, because bulls cannot return to the bullfight, or the arena. They only do it once, because they are quite smart and they learn how things work. So they become even more dangerous.
Thornburgh: God love them, they’re smart enough to realize, “Oh, I remember this bullshit from last time. 15 men jumping on top of me to wrestle me down, no thank you.”
Leal: So basically what they do usually, and now it’s a law, is that when the bull retires from the arena, usually they kill it for steaks and everything.
Leal: But it’s a more… it goes to a slaughterhouse. Actually, I think it was ruled last year or two years ago, is that the arenas have to have a slaughterhouse.
Thornburgh: Really? Right there?
Leal: Yes, because the problem, and this is now with animal rights and everything, is that before, if you have a bullfight let’s say on a Friday or Saturday, the bull stays there, suffering until Monday, when the slaughterhouse opens to kill the bull.
Thornburgh: Got it. So the bull’s tired, and he’s been defeated
Leal: And bleeding, and everything.
Leal: And so people understood that that was a bit not nice to the animal, so what they tried to do was to, okay, if we put a facility to kill the bull in the place, as soon as he leaves the arena they can kill it, and the animal doesn’t suffer any more.
Thornburgh: So you grew up here, but somehow decided, 16 years ago, that your life, at least thus far, is not going to be lived here. So what’s that like, and how did you end up going overseas and why, and where does it go from here?
Leal: Well, I always had this thing that I wanted to be abroad. Even when I didn’t travel at all. I always had this thing, I wanted to see the world. A lot fueled by my grandfather. He was a Colonel in the army. And he was an amateur photographer, and he traveled all over the world. He was a captain of police in Macau in 1952, which is quite funny, because nowadays I live there.
Thornburgh: You’re retracing the journey.
Leal: Yeah. And he lived in Angola, in the time of the Colonial War. And because I grew up with him, and I remember he always pushed this to me and my brother, but obviously influenced me much more because I took off on that path. I usually say that he gave me the wheels of my life, which is travel and photography. And I remember, we were kids, and it was like imagining the news on TV, and it was a bomb in Islamabad or something, and he’s like, “Where is Islamabad?” And then basically he would open the atlas, and he would show us the maps, and start teaching us about the partition of India, and things like that.
So that was something common at his house and at the dinner or lunch table. And with that, I got this curiosity about the world. And when I was 23, I just finished my journalism degree here in Portugal, and I had set already in my mind that I don’t want to be a journalist who doesn’t know about the world. Because I had basically never traveled before, except a small trip to Morocco with some friends.
So I just decided to leave, and go live life. And not working as a journalist. I went to wash dishes. I drove a rickshaw in Edinburgh, cleaned mussels, did telephone surveys for the government. I did, I think, everything. Bartending, all these things. And slowly building up my career as a photographer. That’s what I want to do, but I didn’t want to do it here. I always look to my life, and I always wanted to be part of a bigger world than Portugal. And so it was.
I always took my life a bit like, I go with the flow. Or be like water, and adapt to the circumstances, and what it shows to you. Opportunities, just take it and see where it takes you in the end, and go to the next one and things. I lived in Scotland, in London, in Peru, in Colombia. I spent a lot of time in South America. And now, mostly because of love, I moved to China. So from Colombia I moved to Macau, which have nothing to do with each other.
Thornburgh: That is true. Very, very different destinations.
Leal: But because of this particular reason, I thought maybe life was throwing me a sign. And I always had this curiosity about Asia. I traveled in Asia for one year as a backpacker while I was discovering the world between these odd jobs that I used to have. And well, I always had this dream that one day I would like to go to Asia, and maybe life put my girlfriend in the way, and I was like, okay, maybe this is the call for Asia now.
Thornburgh: There it is. As me personally not believing in God, but definitely believing in the church of francesinha sandwiches…
Leal: Much better church.
Thornburgh: Maybe francesinha put this woman in your path, and that’s led you to Macau. You talked about your grandfather before, I knew that he’d been in the army, but it’s interesting that a Colonial time had led to your own wanderlust or something. Because one of the things that immediately… and we’re talking very long ago now, like six years ago, that I might have first seen your work. But one of the things that really struck me was that you were on the team of the people who you shot, in a way. It’s very compassionate, it’s very humanistic work, which is not something that I think, in my mind, describes the Colonial period. It feels very anti-Colonial, or un-Colonial, the work that you do and the way for you to live and work in South America. Like you really wanted to immerse yourself and be there. And the stuff that you did in Venezuela, for example, during some of their many crises. It’s very compassionate. It’s dangerous work, but it’s really like being with the people, in and among them. Which, maybe it’s table stakes for photojournalism at the level you’re doing it, but it feels particularly pronounced with your work.
Now living in Macau, in a former Portuguese colony. What is that like for you, as someone who’s clearly Portuguese, and now living in this place that had once been a territory of Portugal? How is that experience for you?
Leal: Truly, it’s quite odd, because you have this reminiscent of the old past and you have a lot of the community that still believes that they live in the old times. And in some way they don’t want to accept it.
Thornburgh: These are Portuguese, or Chinese, mostly?
Leal: Portuguese. They still stayed behind and they behave a bit like the old times, and they feel that they have the right to live as they live, and everything.
Thornburgh: This is something I get more than enough as a white guy in the U.S., but I’m sure you as a Portuguese person then become a vessel in which they can spit all of their weird bullshit and racist ideas or whatever. They’re like, “Oh, he’s Portuguese.”
Leal: Yes, Portuguese, and then I take it wrongly because I don’t see the world that way. And for me, it’s quite odd, because in a way, when I went to Macao I was quite excited to be a bit closer to home, because it’s been 16 years that I’ve been completely outside of Portugal. Well I come here sometimes to see family, but it’s a minimum amount of time I pass here, and I was like, “Oh, for the first time I will have a bit of home next to me.”
And I’m still traveling on the other side of the world, but at the same time I start discovering that, well, I don’t think maybe this is so great. Because some things are, well I could eat a francesinha there, but it’s not the same, and I’m betraying my own church, let’s say.
Thornburgh: Right. And maybe it’s true that the thing that travels better out of maybe a Colonial mentality isn’t the food, because the products aren’t the same, but maybe that just weird bullshit. I can imagine for myself, go to Guam or somewhere, there’s places in the Caribbean also, shit, San Miguel Allende, where you’ll have Americans who are just like… I recognize that mentality, and I wish it hadn’t followed me here.
But there are those little touches, right? There’s francesinha, there’s a guy from Porto who’s making francesinha sandwiches.
Leal: He has his own restaurant, and he cooks other dishes. So it’s nice to have those things. But in some ways it’s weird. I think it’s a mix of a feeling. In a way, it’s nice that I have some things from home, but I don’t want too much, because I also… for that I will return home. I don’t want too much because I still want to feel that I’m somewhere far, far, far from home, and having this life experience that I will not have it here. Because if it’s to stay in my own bubble, let’s say, my Portuguese bubble, well I will come back home and live in Portugal.
Leal: And that’s what it took me to go outside these walls. Not that I was angry with the country, or nothing. I just want to have completely different experience that I will never have here.
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