4 May 2009

Suddenly, in a past May

by Kathleen Gomes

It’s not possible to enter Praia da Luz in a straight line. The road ahead is not for those who arrive, but rather for those who leave. The signs tell us to turn right, which is up. It’s as if we went around the back before we enter, and the view is nothing like a postcard: a string of buildings that look little used, without life, literally on display for the English. They call this Praia da Luz, but the beach [praia] can’t be seen from here. It’s not visible yet, despite the natural inclination of the terrain being favourable. The buildings have blocked the sea out of view.

At the hotel, we ask for a map that we’ll never use. Luz is only this: a village to which tourism happened. Manuel Borba, aged 72, the mayor for the last 16 years, corrects us with more bonhomie than impatience: the journalists have always mentioned a village, but Luz was upgraded to a small town in 2002. He didn’t insist on it anyway. A journalist, nowadays, is a ‘persona non grata’ in Luz, a foreboding bird. Before the evening of the 3rd of May 2007, it’s unlikely that the locals had ever seen one up close.

Luz is a quiet place – tourists use to praise it for that -, without the minimum requisites for exceptional events (despite Paul McCartney’s visit in 1969). But after a four-year-old English girl disappeared mysteriously, journalists and television crews from all over the world converged there over the following weeks. “Even a television from Chile!”, says the mayor. Luz had its equivalent of a barbarian invasion. “There was an assault by the media”, says Hanna Rio da Silva, aged 48, a self-titled Portuguese-New Zealander who has been living in the small town for six-and-a-half years and sells self-made jewellery in front of the beach. “One day, the beach was full, a group of reporters arrived and I saw people running away. What happened here was Hollywood. The treatment of the issue was revolting. Unfortunately, it was the investigation that suffered.”

Maybe the inhabitants started out by becoming fascinated with the journalists’ presence, or felt genuine pleasure in working with faces that they knew from national newscasts (“when they were here, I only spoke to the Portuguese, never to the English”, a member of staff at the Luz Ocean Club, who wants to remain anonymous, states proudly). But the journalists ended up leaving, and Luz must have felt like a peasant girl that had been seduced and dumped by a city boy, her reputation shattered. It’s still a quiet place, but it was never the same again.

“I went to Seville last year, and when I said that I came from Praia da Luz, everyone did: ‘Oh.’ If I said Portimão, Albufeira or Faro, they’d be none the wiser”, explains Luc St John Webb, during a momentary break in his British sarcasm. Young Luc left Paris to head the Fortaleza Restaurant in Praia da Luz. “I thought I’d be bored after one week, but I’ve discovered that running a restaurant is exciting.” The town’s most pleasant terrace, overlooking the sea, is here. At the entrance, the blackboards call the customers in English (“Watch the furious waves from our covered terrace”), the same language that the waiters use to greet those who enter. Luc confirms that customers are almost all English.

English is also the common, and dominating, language at the Baptista Supermarket, which is more select that one usually finds outside big cities. The customers make their requests in English, there is a vast amount of English brands, and the British tabloids stand out more than the Portuguese press, at the news stand. On a Thursday morning, three English women looking like toxic Golden Girls smoke in front of their milk coffees, at a table on the supermarket’s terrace. Jacqueline Taylor joins them – she’s the only non-smoker. She exchanged Birmingham for Luz, seven years ago. In the 80s, she and her husband came to Albufeira and discovered Praia da Luz “accidentally” and “fell in love with it”. “It was much smaller and very picturesque”, she says. “People were charming. It looked like the right place.” When he marriage ended, she moved over for good. Two years ago, she was a neighbour of Robert Murat, the first suspect in the case of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. She’s 66, with golden hair and small eyes, as if they’d been sucked in by the surrounding skin. Edna Craddock, who has extinguished her cigarette: “It’s cheaper to holiday here than in England.” Jacqueline notices that her friend’s sentence has generated a question mark. “In England, if the weather is bad, which happens all the time, one has to pay for entertainment, so one is not left with nothing to do. And hotels are more expensive than here.”

The English

The presence of the English in Luz dates back at least to the end of the 19th century. Of the three canned goods’ factories that existed in the settlement, at least one would have been owned by English people as they were active in the Lagos area. Luc St John Webb also theorises that English families that had connections with the production and sales of Port wine found their way South, during the summer season. But it was in the 60s that the flow intensified and that which was happening in the Algarve could be called tourism. That flow remained in the families’ DNA, passing on from one generation to the next. It’s common to meet English tourists who knew Praia da Luz in their infancy, with their parents, and returned – now they are the parents themselves.

The first tourist resort, Luz Bay, was built by Portuguese, in the seventies. “It was the first to be built in the Algarve, possibly in the country”, explains Porfírio Neto, the director’s assistant at Luz Bay Hotel, which belongs to the same group. “Many famous people spent their holidays here. Amália…” This is the resort that is closest to the beach, two storey houses, with Algarvian barbecues and a Greek whiteness. In the morning and at the end of the day, the streets denounce the sweet smell of honeysuckles. The fashion stuck: in 1982, three English partners living in Portugal, one of whom from an ancient Port wine producing family, opened the Ocean Club. The most recent resort, which was developed by an Irish company, opened in 2007. A post-modern Pompey in terracotta hues. “Luxury villas” 200 metres away from the beach.

“There is no urban development plan. There was some lack of coordination”, the mayor recognises. According to him, the last population census, in 2001, showed that 70 percent of the houses are not inhabited for most part of the year.

“Do you think these buildings are ugly?”, Luc St John Webb asks, intrigued, as if the idea was inedited. “You should see Portimão or Albufeira.

Jacqueline Taylor, on another terrace: “The construction here is horrendous. The firms are so greedy, they seem to be grasping all the land that they can. And many of those houses remain empty.”

An Oscar for the McCanns

The Ocean Club is going through its most desolate period. There are three, maybe four bodies in the sun – the rest is empty sun chairs around the empty pool. The poolside bar where Gerry and Kate McCann dined with their friends on the night that their daughter disappeared looks inactive. A customer asks in English: “Can we eat something?” because it’s doubtful that one can eat anything. The back of the apartment that was hired by the McCanns is visible from here. Closed shutters, the ground floor looks like an armour, closed upon itself.

The Ocean Club was once one of the major employers in the area. In 2007 it had 130 staff members, in 2008 it had 60. Presently they are 48, but around a month ago the management announced the dismissal of 21 workers, by letter, mentioning the impact that the Maddie case had on occupancy rates. Some of those who are leaving told the papers that they are considering the possibility of suing the McCanns. But for the moment they make a vow of silence. “They don’t speak before they receive their compensations”, an employee explains. Those who are staying don’t talk, fearing reprisals.

In early April, Gerry McCann returned to Praia da Luz to film the reconstruction of the night of his daughter’s disappearance for Channel Four, and was jeered by locals. “Yes, there was great solidarity [with the couple] at the beginning, but then people started realising that there was something weird”, the Ocean Club worker says. Suspicion towards the McCanns now seems to be a collective activity in Luz, even as every person alleges individual proof, his or her own version of what someone describes as “the McCanns’ puppet acts”.

The Ocean Club member of staff: “Their daughter disappeared on a Thursday and on Monday he was already playing tennis with his friends, very happy. She would go jogging, and the journalists all went after her. She did it on purpose.”

Cândida Domingos, a member of staff at the primary school: “There was never a tear. It’s very suspicious for a mother who loses a child to be in television talking at one hundred percent. I think she is more of a suspect than him.”

A woman who reads Correio da Manhã at the café table: “After that happened, I saw her eating on the terrace of the Chinese restaurant. If it was me, I think I’d stay at home, covering my face. And I don’t even have children. But I do have nephews.”

Another local witness: “They’re great actors. I don’t know how they missed the Oscar. After two days, my theory wasn’t that of other people anymore. I walked by Gerry McCann and he was laughing his head off, on the phone.”

Two years later

With the second anniversary of Maddie’s disappearance drawing closer, the campaign that appeals to information that may lead to her whereabouts has been renewed. The posters that were put up in Luz were torn down and the outdoor on the road that leads into the small town, with the child’s face and a piercing “Help me!”, has been tinted with white paint. The local population received a letter that is related to that same campaign, with questions about the disappearance – “On the night of Madeleine’s disappearance, did you see or hear anything strange?” “At the time, did you contact the police and tell what you knew?” “Do you know someone who might hold information that could help?” – and asserting “total secrecy and anonymity” to anyone who gives information. “God forgive me, but I shredded the letter at once”, says the woman who was reading Correio da Manhã. “now they want us to search, after two years?”

“There are many things that they do now which make no sense”, says Maria, aged 74. “They should have done it right away. Now, it’s nothing but soup after the main course.” The local pronunciation is a sort of more agile Alentejo accent; here, some vowels are opened like it’s done on the islands.

Scenes of class fighting in Praia da Luz: “If this happened to a Portuguese, there wouldn’t have been this turmoil. If it had been my child, this wouldn’t have been like it was. Because I’m poor and they are rich”, Cândida Domingos concludes.

The mayor, sitting in his office, which was headquarters for the joint searches: “The investigation should have gone through until the end. But, so much television, so much ink, and this is the result?”

The only place where the appeal to find Maddie persists inside the small town is the Duke of Holland, a restaurant/bar that smells like an English pub. A poster on the window: “Please find our Madeleine.” It’s one of those places that seem to have been made to exist only at night, because the light of day has a hard time getting in and the air never recovers, as if it was hung over. The English employee consults the manager and then calls the owner saying that there is a journalist that saw the poster and came in asking questions. Official position, dictated by the blonde employee, after hanging up: “The reason why the poster is there is because a child hasn’t been found yet”. No journalists, please. “There was lots of bad press and people are tired”, the employee closes, and kills, the subject. There is another place where Maddie’s image remains affixed: near the church altar, glued to a red heart and a hand-written bilingual pledge: “Rezem por mim pray for me”. Underneath, two lights are lit in a sort of jukebox of artificial candles.

Less tourists

Praia da Luz was always chosen by families, the locals say. As distances are village sized, the car is not needed, “one just walks down to the beach”, someone says. “It’s not the tourist that wants discos, noise”, Porfírio Neto notes, tracing the profile of the summer tourist that comes here. “It’s more of the tourist that comes for a rest.”

On the first year after the events, less children could be seen in Luz, Jacqueline Taylor recalls. “In the early days, parents walked around holding their children all the time”, says a resident who wishes to remain anonymous. “They had them on a leash!”, Luc St John Webb says with irony.

Kelly Fisher, aged 26, a supermarket cashier in Somerset, walks her six month old son in a baby buggy at the beachfront. “I was here with my parents when I was small. The environment is nice. What happened was a rare event, once in a lifetime. All that one has to do is to watch over the children.” A young German couple carrying a baby is coming out of the church: “Yes, friends of us mentioned that [Maddie’s disappearance], but we had already booked”, she says. “But I don’t even know where that happened. Was it here in town?” We say yes and she looks incredulous.

“There’s still people who say: ‘Praia da Luz? Isn’t that where that thing happened to Maddie? Then we’re going elsewhere”, the Ocean Club worker says. It’s a “black cloud” that won’t dissipate.

“Many people in England had never heard about Praia da Luz”, says Jacqueline Taylor. “It didn’t become known overnight for being a beautiful, quiet holiday spot. It became famous for the wrong reasons.” And does that have negative consequences on the tourist flow? “It’s not because of Maddie that the tourists won’t come”, suggests shop owner Gabriela Silva, aged 43. “Business is low, but we’re also in a crisis”, says the owner of a restaurant where English people are 90 percent of customers. “And before the Maddie case, we were stagnant already.”

The inflow is “slightly lower” at this time of year because the pound has devalued, defends Luc St John Webb. “The pound was at 1,60 [euros] and now it’s 1,06 [euros].” At the toxic English women’s table, under the midday sun, the cadavers of recession in their country are counted: supermarket chain Woolworths, the historic auto industry. They unburden: “We’ll be poor in a short while.”

At Luz Bay, Porfírio Neto asserts that the effect is zero. “We’ve had the hotel always full. Many of our customers return, they know the area well, they know that the case had nothing to do with the locals.”

And does anyone still ask questions about Maddie? “Nobody. As if nothing had happened.”


source: Público, 03.05.2009

7 comments:

  1. Muito interessante este artigo até porque ouvi hoje D.L. que assistiu ao showOprah e observou bem.diz que K. está realmente escanzelada. Mas a tristeza foi bem treinada e induzida(vai ao encontro do que pensso "ou te portas bem ou levas no focinho).Chorou,sim. Mas num dos vários intervalos,tomando café,estava sorridente.

    E o que é aqui descrito,bem.Que cinismo atroz.Não sofreram afinal. Como é isto possível? Comer,correr...para desviar atenções? " Olhem para aqui pois para ali não nos interessa".

    E eu que já me tenho rendido ao olhar de dor e ainda por cima a acreditar.
    Não sofreram! Mas porque NÃO SOFRERAM?

    Queriam mesmo que a Maddie desaparecesse de vez? PORQUÊ?

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  2. Very,very sad and totally unfair

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  3. Amigos, nao se esqueçam de uma observaç de Goncalo Amaral no inicio da investigacao: " em primeiro lugar, diz ele, vamos ver se houve uma briga de familia pois esta é muitas vezes o motivo do desaparecimento de um filho" . Dois dias depois Kate declara que havia dormido no quarto das crinças pois Gerry havia lhe ignorado na noite anterior.Eu pensei Bingo! Dr. Amaral está na pista certa.
    Claro, Gerry saiu desta história dizendo que roncava alto e Kate nao conseguia dormir.
    De todas as minhas mais desumanas teorias.se Madeleine lhes dava muito trabalho e nao dormia bem quem sabe, ele sentem um alívio com a ausencia dela e por cima ainda estao ganhando dinheiro.

    Viram a cada em Rothely? Paga com o dinheiro do fundo?
    Claro que eles nao reconheceriam Madeleine se ela aparecesse, se calhar nem querem mesmo que ela apareça. OU só em visöes como Kate contou a mae: " Eu vejo Madeleine descendo a escada...etc blablabla".

    cheers!

    Maria

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  4. Que palavra é esta "escanzelada"?

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  5. We are watching what is happening in Luz, without taking any mesures.

    What about sending Amaral's documentary to tourism agencies in the UK?
    Eventual clients could receive a coppy of it and decide himself to go or not to Luz.
    Joana, Astro, I don't live in Portugal and I wonder if you both could contact a "chief" tourism agency and suggest them to take this mesure against the fall of Luz, caused by the Mccanns.
    Please ask them to join together with British tourism offices and to inform and send them the documentary.
    Thank you!

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  6. Maria from Brasil, o caso da Maddie pode ser uma mistura de sentimento de culpa, saudades e alívio ao mesmo tempo.
    A Kate continua super arrumada,empetecada, parece que a tragédia não a abala.
    Vai ver que está mais descansada, depois de anos de a menina ter gritado.
    Há crianças difíceis, super difíceis, mas eu acho que os pais a empurraram demais para livrarem-se de fatiga eventual: creche e Calpol. Isto desequilibra os nervos de qualquer criança.
    E o Gerry não pensou em ajudar a Kate. Foi jogar tênis em vez de ajudar a dar-lhes banho.

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  7. Another local witness: “They’re great actors. I don’t know how they missed the Oscar. After two days, my theory wasn’t that of other people anymore. I walked by Gerry McCann and he was laughing his head off, on the phone.”

    This makes me feel sick. Those photos of the radiantly happy couple on Madeleine's fourth birthday, just twelve days after she went missing, are what really made me start questioning the supposed abduction. It's good to know that people on the scene also noticed such things.

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