10 Reflections on Civilized Societies – My trip to Lisbon

When my Very dear friend Raed Charafeddine accomplished his quest to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, he came back to us with something much more than what we expect that courageous individuals like him will bring. He came back not only with a story, but also with ten mindful and deep lessons that only wise people would be able to deduce from a journey that apparently seems a very difficult hike of a pro-caliber.

I was lucky this week to visit Lisbon to attend an International Conference on Human Resources Development. Lisbon is a nice city, civilized and calm, urban and young, though in a reserved manner. As I was walking with my friend professor Khalil Dirani in the old town of Lisbon, it occurred to me that it would be nice to reflect on my observation of Lisbon and deduce some points that seemed to be worth reflecting, regarding the characteristics of Civilization.

I wouldn’t dare to compare what I merely observed to what my fried Raed went through, but it is by all means a call to look beyond the obvious, and try to intentionally learn from every experience.

The first thing that struck me in Lisbon is the unanimous national workforce. Living in Lebanon and traveling to the GCC most of the time, I forgot how it is to have nationals happily serving you at all levels of the hierarchy. I mean from the pilot, to the hotel receptionist, to the taxi driver, to the waiter, to the janitor, and the kind people who keep the restrooms clean; all and I mean all were Portuguese. Touched by a feel of sadness and another of aspiration for our nation that had become so good at assigning varying values to the dignity of jobs, whereas dignity is a constant no matter what the job is.

The second observation that I experienced from the moment I stepped into Lisbon’s Airport, is the elegant balance of visual stimulation. When my dear Argentinian friend Dr. Javier Bajer first visited Lebanon in 2010, he told me that he was shocked at the level of visual stimulus in Lebanon, otherwise known as Advertising pollution. At the time I couldn’t easily associate with his comment nor was I able to grasp the concept of visual pollution.

Yet, interesting enough, I felt this reverse shock in Lisbon, when I saw the humble and balanced level of visual stimulus in this city, and how relaxing it is to feel that not every large, medium, and small shop in the farthest corner of the country is trying to sell you something. Another sad moment about how much consumerism has overtaken our communication, and the extent to which it hijacked our enjoyment of a smart elegant Ad.

What took me a couple of days to grasp is my third observation. You know when you’re used to the noise of the train passing by your home, and then one day when it doesn’t pass, you wake up in the middle of the night feeling there’s something missing. Well this is exactly what I experienced in my third observation. No exaggeration of emotions, or over-expressive welcomes, or an amplified fake sense of glorification for guests of the country (me being the guest).

Does that ring a bell? For me it does. Don’t a lot of us feel that in as much as emotional expressions and glorification dominate our language, they seem overly amplified and less genuine and true?

The fourth observation I noticed in Lisbon, is the extent of respect for the national language. I’m not a promotor of isolation, but one cannot but appreciate how everything in Portugal is in Portuguese. Now hotels were the only exception, but even the University I was visiting had all its signs in Portuguese. We have one of the most beautiful, elegant, diversified, sophisticated, expressive, musical, emotions-friendly language in the world, but what have we brought it down to “kifak 7abibi inshallah mni7?”… That makes me sad too.

As I spent my few days there, i was able to make my fifth observation, namely “No examining”. It is a bit more than ‘everyone is minding his own business’, a kind of an elegant version of it, topped with noticeable respect. With a clearly dominant young population, from what I saw, one would expect that some kind of examining would happen between people. A young man examining a fair lady, or a fair lady examining the purse of another fair lady, yet I barely saw anyone doing so. Unfortunately, if you take an informal experiment in our country and watch how people stare at each other in restaurants and shopping malls, you would know what I’m talking about.

The sixth observation that I noticed is the good grip of naturalism with a twist of urbanism. No exaggerated outfits, significantly decent dresses for ladies, and sober outfits for men. No awkward hair styles, most ladies had a natural hair color and accessories were light and to the minimum. Now I know that we are a Fashion and life-loving nation; embrace trends and even bring them one step further, but why the exaggeration? Why the self-worth of our youth is is becoming more and more linked to what they wear, how they look, and where they go. Why the dress that we wear became the value, and the person who’s wearing it became the mannequin? Something worth reflecting on as well.

It is wonderfully clean. That was my seventh observation. The sense of cleanliness that you experience led me to think that there is a psychological cost for dirtiness. Unclean and untidy places are not attractive. We experience the world through our multiple senses simultaneously. It is not only what we see that matters, but also what we smell, hear, touch and taste all at the moment we are seeing the thing. This is what defines our experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if we all feel so tired sometimes for no obvious reasons, but come to think of it, cleanliness – or its absence – could be one reason. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still Charles the positive influencer, but change can only start by becoming aware and accepting that you can be better, then we can talk about change.

The eighth observation was quite interesting. Well I am fond of cars, and I especially admire large engines and their proud sound ( mind you that I’m not talking about race cars and their roaring engines, rather 6 or 8 cylinder engines). Well, those of you who are frequently visiting Europe might know about it, but for those who are not as familiar, for three consecutive days I didn’t hear a single big engine sound, not even one.
Almost all cars have four cylinder engines, and the majority of those run on diesel. Now this was really intriguing to understand. Is it a gas issue, a cost issue, a tax issue, I wouldn’t know exactly, but those people love four cylinders.

Now although the small engine market has been steadily growing for the past few years in Lebanon, large engines continue to be a major attraction for quite a significant number people in our nation.

The ninth observation is the absence of any explicit military presence, and except for few policemen I spotted inside the Airport, I didn’t see any.

Of course it’s normal to see this in a developed county, yet my observation is actually about how much has our mindset become familiar with military presence all around us, that if it is not there we’d become anxious. Normal behavior suggests the opposite though. Imagine how you would feel if you are in Paris and on your way you pass through two checkpoints within five kilometers. We do not feel at ease with it outside our country, but when we pass tens of check points in Lebanon, everything feels normal and under control. Strange right?

My tenth and last observation is absence of a tacit sense of negativity in Lisbon. Walking around in the conference premises, at the hotel, and on the streets of the city, I was feeling something I’m not used to in Lebanon. I use ‘feeling’ because this is what it was. I felt the total absence of negative vibes. You know that feel we live with every day in Lebanon, the feel that wherever you look, you’re faced with latent negative waves springing from the faces of people, or from the radio speakers and TV screens; this silent poison that you experience internally without being able to point a finger at. All those visual ques that enter directly into your mind and soul, and act like a heavy block of concrete on your chest, all those are non-existent out there.

Bottom line, there are many tangible aspects that define civilization. Technology, Laws, Cleanliness, Order, and Respectful manners are but few. Yet, if we really think of it a bit deeper, we’ll notice that civilization is a sense, a feeling that a certain place have the power to give to you. Civilization is a common conscience that people voluntarily subscribe to; not by virtue of law and obligation, not by virtue of fear, but by virtue of the common good and abundance that a clear sense of civilization can bring to the heart and mind of a human being.

I sincerely yearn that each one of us takes a little initiative to support civilization in our country. The least is to stop sharing negative news in a frenzy manner every time we receive it from social media (no body likes negative scoops, and people will start associating you with bad news), and concentrate on being messengers of good news and positivity instead. It will be hard in the beginning, but then it will turn into a roaring positive lifestyle.