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A small city throws a big party

July 7, 2019

It started with a three-page letter from the municipality in our mailbox. Painstaking translation revealed that there was to be a party, the streets would be closed, and those unfortunate enough to own cars would have to move them for the festivities. There was an offer of alternative parking, for the night.

Then I noticed that the shops along my usual stroll to work were turning white. White pompoms appeared and window displays developed a white theme. White clothing, white stationery, white jewellery, white shoes, white hats, white furnishings. Round signs appeared in the windows: Noite Branca.

I checked online and found pictures of the streets teeming with people, all dressed in white, drinks in hand. Videos confirmed music. I wondered if I could book accommodation in the next town at short notice. Crowds. Noise. Not my scene. But, being recently returned from a trip to Aveiro, I decided that I wanted to be at home. Our apartment faces away from the street. I have earplugs.

Saturday morning, the preparations began in earnest. Men with really long ladders were stringing white balloons across the street as I walked back from the supermarket. Apartment balconies were festooned with white ribbons, cloth, more balloons. The streets were emptying. Restaurants were setting up stands along the pavement. The chains between the bollards that keep the cars off the pedestrians were unlocked and rolled up.

The party was billed to start at 8 pm, so after dinner, we took a stroll around the town. It was about 8:30 pm. There was a festive air. Families were about, dressed in white finery. The children looked especially fine, in new outfits, being posed and photographed against the prettier than usual old city setting. Restaurants revealed large tables, crowded with families and friends, all dressed in white, dining enthusiastically and noisily. Groups in the street were greeting, kissing, laughing, hugging.

Mime artists were setting up, with elaborate outfits and props. I thought the operatic music added to the one performance was a great touch. It certainly drew attention. Hopeful vendors laden with balloons, white hats, and headbands twined white flowers and flashing lights paced expectantly. A couple crossed our path, dressed in black. Was it a protest? Or were they just tourists who packed light and didn’t have anything white?

There were three big stages set up, one for a live band, the other two with screens and sound systems. Music was playing, accompanied by advertising on big screens. The McDonald’s ad seemed really out of place. I am not aware of a McDonald’s here in Guimarães, although there is one, no doubt. It just seems such a remove from the little restaurants with their excellent meals. Fully-stocked bars had appeared on the streets.

We sat on the side of a fountain for a bit, until the relentless bass wore me down and we strolled home for a cup of tea, deciding that the party wasn’t going to start for some time.

IMG_20190706_215126On our second foray, things were hotting up. The streets were full, with groups of teenagers running across our path, parents dancing with smaller kids in the square, and lots of people moving from one square to the next. Shiny balloons with flashing lights distracted me. On the steps of a church a graffiti artist had set up shop, with a crate of spray-paint and paper, he was producing, and selling paintings, on the spot. Twenty Euros each. On a street corner a group of small boys hunched over a file full of Pokemon cards, oblivious. The bars were busy. So were the stands selling food.

At ten, we faded. The bands had not yet emerged. I’m sure they played. The party was billed to last until 3am. I’m sure there was dancing. I was in bed, with my earplugs in.

So here is what I am thinking this morning…

How cool is it that public parties here are for everyone, from the kids we saw everywhere to the ancient woman being pushed in a wheelchair, greeting an equally ancient man and summoning him across the road to talk?

How cool is it that the town puts on a public party? There is no entrance fee. Yes, there are vendors and local businesses all trying to sell something, but the atmosphere, the decorations, the music are all free. What a good way to spend taxes.

I try to think of analogous public events in Johannesburg and I can only think of sports events and music events; mostly with controlled access and appeal to a narrow sliver of the population. Sunday markets perhaps? Again, a particular demographic. Perhaps size has something to do with it? Perhaps it is easier to have wide appeal in a smaller city with less diversity.

And safety of course. In South Africa we’d never let our kids roam free they way they do here. I learned this week that Portugal has been ranked the third safest country in the world. Maybe it’s the frequent partying that engenders good will, fellow feeling and that elusive social cohesion. Imagine tackling crime by throwing parties.

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