That Smell

My year started with a talk in Caldas da Rainha presenting The India Road to the local branch of the British Historical Society of Portugal. In my talk, I describe the four pillars that formed the basis for the Portuguese discoveries: Exploration, Science, Politics, and Trade.

I don’t reveal the plot (there are no spoiler alerts), and don’t focus on narrative aspects—those are for the reader to enjoy. More than a few people tell me they miss maps to help them follow the sea road, and I agree it makes life more difficult for the reader. The book was published in 2009, and opportunities for providing richer content in digital formats were different then.

One of the new images I showed last Thursday was from the Ribeira das Naus, the River of Ships where the main naval shipyard of Lisbon was located.

The picture was published two years ago in a Portuguese newspaper, and it shows an area of over three thousand square feet, superbly kept, that was used to launch vessels into the Tagus Estuary five centuries ago. The area was being excavated for the foundations of a new building.

This XVIth century slipway was uncovered in 2012, in downtown Lisbon. Unfortunately, it might not survive as an artifact, due to the combination of pressure from developers and lack of Portuguese government funds to relocate or conserve it. If this beautifully kept evidence of the 'Descobertas' is lost, it will be a national shame.

This XVIth century slipway was uncovered in 2012, in downtown Lisbon. Unfortunately, it might not survive as an artifact, due to the combination of pressure from developers and lack of Portuguese government funds to relocate or conserve it. If this beautifully kept evidence of the ‘Descobertas’ is lost, it will be a national shame.

Rainha means queen in Portuguese, and Caldas da Rainha is named after the wife of the Perfect Prince. I wasn’t aware of that, but neither did I see anything particularly interesting when researching the story, apart from the fact that Leonor discovered the virtues of the area (caldas means spa) when she passed some peasants bathing in foul-smelling water. I suspected sulfur, and my suspicions proved correct.

I always learn from the people at these sessions: usually they are challenging audiences—some are map makers, some historians, others scientists and mathematicians…

Over a glass of wine, we discussed Portugal then and now. My view is that the country is not sufficiently disruptive—its people are too accommodating, but I suppose that’s what makes them so nice. Bureaucracy, the beast of burden of Southern Europe, came up.

This tragicomedy of Spanish bureaucracy is disastrously close to the truth of Southern Europe.

Of course things are far worse in Africa, Latin America, and China—by comparison, Italy is a paragon for simplicity.

At the start of the year, Greece received the rotating presidency of the European Union—some would say the lunatics have taken over the asylum. But the Greeks are consummate politicians (arguably, they invented politics) and the next six months will definitely work in their favor.

Europe’s history, as you know, is more foul-smelling than the spa at Caldas. To that end, I’ve started reading a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf—just as I’ve read the Communist Manifesto, the Bible, the Kama Sutra, Das Kapital, and the mental meanderings of L. Ron Hubbard.

There are German readers of my texts, and I know Mein Kampf is illegal in Germany, but hopefully reading someone who’s read that book is not a criminal offense.

The early parts of the book sidetracked me from the latest (and last) Tom Clancy—Ryan et al’s meanderings in the Ukraine are becoming highly improbable, the story flips thirty years in alternate chapters, and because both main characters are called Jack Ryan (ok, one is Jr.), the parental ones always begin with ‘CIA Analyst Jack Ryan.’

So far the boy Adolf’s life doesn’t seem like much of a struggle. My Rabbit had a much harsher upbringing, but she didn’t feel a pressing need to murder six million Jews. The English translation dates from 1939, but I’m unsure if it precedes the start of the Second World War.

What does emerge is a history around a history. At school I learnt about the Great War, but not about the Franco-Prussian one before it. And there was no mention of the French and Belgian occupation of the Ruhr Valley in 1923, after the treaty of Versailles.

The German kids born then spent their formative years being told about all these iniquities, and entered military service just before 1939. They will have been raring to go.

I never saw Mein Kampf for sale in any bookstore anywhere in the world—I’m sure there was curiosity and discussion, but I imagine no bookseller wanted to be seen displaying the book, or customer heard enquiring about it.

Over the last year, digital sales of Hitler’s book (actually two volumes) have skyrocketed.

The theory is that anonymous readers avoid the shame of a face-to-face purchase, a bit like teenagers buying condoms before the era of vending machines. I remember stress-testing the little devices, and they do hold a monumental volume of water before finally exploding.

In my endeavour to expand your mind, let me tell you that in Portuguese a condom is called the ‘chemise of Venus’, which attests to the romantic nature of the people. The Brazilians abbreviate their good friend to ‘camisinha’, or little shirt, a charming diminutive.

Given that Emperor Charles V once stated that German was the language he spoke to his horse, in contrast with Italian to his mistresses and French at court, I wondered what the German word for condom is. Could it be as romantic as the British term ‘rubber’?

I was delighted to stumble across the German Institute for Condom Consultancy. They’re working (beavering, even) on a spray-on camisinha, for the penile (and thus presumably vaginal) pleasure of the planet.

I don’t want to leave you high and dry, so I’ll share the rather Teutonic description of the mechanics of the device—after all, sex is serious business.

We the Institute for Condom Consultancy in cooperation with Vinico and Qualo Design plan to launch a spray-on condom tailor-made for all sizes. The product aimed to help people enjoy better and safer sex lives. We’re trying to develop the perfect condom for men that’s suited to every size of penis.

Our team is developing a type of spray can into which man inserts his penis first. By pushing a button it the penis is coated with a rubber condom. It works by spraying on latex from nozzles on all sides. We call it the ‘360 degree procedure’ — once round and from top to bottom. It’s a bit like a car wash. It’s planned to make the product ready for use in about five seconds. We believe it would function more effectively as a contraceptive because it would fit better and not slip. However, before the new condom can be sold in shops, the firm must ensure that the latex is evenly spread when sprayed, as well as optimise the vulcanization process. We had hit upon the idea when considering the difficulties some people faced using condoms, and drew inspiration from spray-on plasters now used in medicine.

I had hoped to resume My Struggle after this detour, but I’ve lost all sense of purpose. I had a puncture in Caldas prior to my talk, and all this talk of vulcanization of the penile protuberance has got my head spinning.

I’m fascinated by the professional avenues of consulting on condoms, the product description, and I wonder how many engineers have been recruited from the German automotive industry to work on ‘It The Penis’ (sic). I recall from schoolboy classes, shortly after the blowing-up-condoms-in-the-park era, that the German language is fond of capitalizing common nouns.

‘Like a car wash?’

How is the testing done? Are there volunteer programs? How do you de-vulcanize (I accidentally wrote de-vulvanize, a truly Freudian slip) the damn thing? Can you select different treads, perhaps rain tires in particularly wet conditions? Oh, and there’s a diagram.

I’m afraid I’ll never be able to see the word Mannschaft in the same light again.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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