First up: Seniors, Disabled Citizens, Pregnant women, and Parents with Babies
Prioritizing the needs of all starts at the top in Portugal.
We arrived at Lisbon airport at 8A Lisbon time after a grueling overnight flight with the contents of our New York apartment and 18-month-old baby girl. My husband’s back was shattered and we’d slept four hours collectively. We felt we were dreaming when greeted by double rainbows on our descent to Lisbon. We were anticipating our sunny new life in Portugal, but it would have to wait a few more hours until we could make it past customs along with the hundreds of other travelers who were packed in shoulder to shoulder during a pandemic.
To our astonishment, the sole guard on duty waved us off the crowded line and onto a priority line where we joined a few other young parents, their babies, and several senior citizens with limited mobility. It seemed had gotten away with something, we’d jumped the line. As it turned out, we were within limits and were the benefactors of the fairly recent Priority Law.
In 2016, Portugal mandated that all establishments that provide personal attendance let pregnant women, the elderly, disabled citizens, and parents carrying young children, pass ahead of other customers or face fines of up to €1,000.
Speaking to the newspaper Público, when the law was first announced, Ana Soria Antunes, State Secretary for the Inclusion of People with Disabilities, said “this legislation would be unnecessary if we could apply something simple, called common sense, in our day-to-day… It turns out that common sense is not cross-cutting and therefore it was necessary for us to define [the priority rule] with law.”
In a top-down fashion, the Portuguese state defined a new status quo. It was too early for me to tell if the law was enforced and if people generally abided, but after a cantankerous 2021, common sense was a welcomed change. An agreement to be honest, courteous, and law-abiding, even at the level of daily ritual and public code was out of fashion back in the United States. Individual freedoms and being able to say anything to anyone at anytime had come with the exhausting by-product of living in society where people seemed to be up in arms with such regularity, agreeing to disagree was the only normal. Every institution seemed to roll over as American after American, particularly Black and Brown people, were killed by public health, state security, the military, and many commercial entities. Religious sanctuary had sheltered too few and the education system was burying the youth under a lifetime of university debt. We’d all become accustomed to stepping over the Americans in the street who existed just barely on the edge of this circus; the addicts, homeless, disabled, and anarchists. Visibility and resulting compassion were reserved for faces on glowing screens.
At seven and eight months pregnant, it shocked me to have nowhere to sit on the New York City train and when I received kind deference, it typically came from a woman. Where do we receive our understanding of a common code and of concern for others? When I was growing up, our parents made it clear that we said things like ma’am or Mr., Good Morning. As crushing then as it is now, there was a veneer of reverence for the community. We had words in our daily language that shaped our ideas of ourselves in relationship to others. Somewhere we’d lost our words, in fact, we stopped talking, we texted and emailed, and then the public rituals were abandoned.
What was uncovered was the naked truth of a brutalized nation, all under the gun of economic demands. We had no time to eat lunch with friends. We had no time to christen babies. We buckled at the idea of attending weddings or even worse being part of the wedding party. We made friends and lovers out of geographic convenience, we dodged neighbors wary of the time it takes to stop and chat. We went to yoga for scheduled exhalation otherwise too busy to breathe. If the capital riots were any confirmation, we were breaking down as a nation. As far a courtesy and prioritizing the needs of all, we were all just too tired to care.
As I cleared customs in Lisbon with a new stamp in my passport, babe in stroller, four large suitcases, and a husband in crippling back pain, I was grateful for what felt like decency. If the state decides to tell people how to behave in public, it can flex that muscle. In this case, where one-fifth of the population is over the age of 65, it didn’t feel like overreach, just blessed common sense.