words and photos KEITH HENRY
It’d been about seven years or so since I was last in Europe. My mind started racing and my hands started to sweat when I got the call from Kevin to do a trip to Portugal with the Adidas Canada team consisting of Kevin Lowry, Jay Brown, Andrew McGraw, Charles Rivard, Mike Campbell, Ryan Witt, Cory McNeil on video and myself shooting. I feel like going to the U.S., you have a general idea of what it might be like, regardless of whether you’ve been there or not. In the States, they speak English, and in Portugal they speak Portuguese (obviously). I didn’t realize how difficult of a language it actually is to comprehend until I was thrown right into it. It sounds almost Russian to me, the way things are pronounced and accents are made with the mouth rather than English, Spanish and French. I didn’t know what the climate was like, what their traditional food consisted of, or how the locals would react to a group of mostly English-speaking Canadians. I was worried they’d take us all for Americans, shun us and ignore the fact that we existed and would maybe like a sweet treat with our coffees in the morning. I tried not to over-think too many things like I tend to do, and take everything in-stride.
We arrived in Portugal to some sunny but chillier weather than I expected. We packed our mass amounts of luggage into an eight-passenger vehicle which we became very familiar with on our ten-day adventure. Mac DeMarco was playing on the radio; which I was puzzled by considering he’s Canadian and doesn’t even get much airplay back home. I guess he’s huge over there…who would’ve known? Let me reiterate by saying I knew nothing about Portugal before I went there. Usually I try to associate certain things or people with countries they’re from. I knew Christiano Ronaldo was from there, and that he’s massive in the soccer world and womens’ hearts globally. Don’t hate me, I don’t watch soccer, these are just things you gather from watching sports highlights. I came to find out that the Portuguese are incredible brick layers; which makes for great, aesthetically pleasing roads and sidewalks, but not necessarily the best for skating through the city. I learned that the people are called Tuga’s, as in Por-Tuga-l. I also learned that they’re very proud of their language, and being Canadian, most of us spoke only English with the exception of Drew and Chuck speaking French. In the entire ten days we spent there, I learned only one word – “Obrigado”, meaning “Thank you”. Pathetic, yes, but I still tried to say it in my best Portuguese accent. I feel like people there were friendlier to us after finding out we were Canadian and even though none of us made any attempt to learn more than a single word, they still seemed pretty stoked on us and were quite hospitable. I’ve been in some sketchy places on skate trips, and I always like to find out what kind of areas I’m in if we’re with a local; not even for my safety, just out of curiosity. We definitely ended up in some ghetto areas, but it seemed like everyone around was really interested in skateboarding. They would come over to us, and the English-speaking guys would offer us smokes, some of their Portuguese liquor, or even offer to keep the peace if we ran into trouble.
We rolled by a bump-to-bar one afternoon, which happened to be at an apartment complex in a lower-income area. The first day we spotted it, we drove past and got the death glare from about 15 guys in their mid twenties staring at our convoy. I asked if the area was a bit dodgy, to which our friend Pedro replied “Yes”. We wanted to check it out, so we ended up going back about a week later, just as the sun was setting. I felt a bit uneasy because the run-up to the thing was made of diamond board metal. It sounded like someone banging a cymbal every time you’d ride up the kicker. Organizing a group of skaters and watching over my gear while trying to get a photo isn’t the most desirable situation to be in when you could potentially have to grab your gear and dip the spot at any time, but I hoped for the best. The building manager came out as groups of men started to gather around the run-up and the landing. Crowds started to peer out the window, and everyone seemed to be pretty stoked on the situation, except for the building manager. The neighborhood guys were pretty amped and backed us up by telling the guy to “die” in Portuguese, which we all thought was pretty nice of them. We didn’t overstay our welcome thankfully and got back into the car after the cops came and politely kicked us out, and a few of the locals got our Instagram, so they could follow along with our trip. It’s humbling knowing that skateboarding can transcend language and almost act like a hall-pass to get you out of a situation that could otherwise be dangerous; this isn’t always the case though.
As the Portuguese leg of the trip came to a close, I was excited to do some exploring around Spain. I’d never been, but had heard from both skateboarding and non-skateboarding friends that it’s “the place to be” as far as art, food, and creative culture in general goes. The initial impression I got from Spain was that there were a lot more English speaking people and making a sentence in Spanish was a bit easier to obtain than trying to brokenly explain yourself in Portuguese. The first city we explored, Malaga, was the birthplace of Picasso, and a very touristy city in the south. We stayed only a few blocks from the house he grew up in. so things were a bit pricey around those parts. A few days into our stay, we were skating and drinking in a plaza where Picasso was believed by Chuck to have had his first make-out session. I don’t doubt it either, other than the fact that the park looked rather new; it was literally on his doorstep. We noticed a sketchy looking guy with his hood up lurking around the area, so we decided to quickly finish our drinks and head to the bar on the other side of the plaza. We came to a hault when a rather large undercover cop flashed his badge and began demanding our ID’s. Cory wasn’t having it, pointed out the sketchy guy from earlier standing behind us, and the cop using a burner phone. Could he be right? Could we be getting set-up to get robbed? All these thoughts crossed my mind and my legs started to shake. It was either the fear of going to Spanish jail, or the fact that I had to pee worse than I care to remember and wasn’t sure when I would be able to. After a longwinded phone call, nothing ended up happening, other than our names being run, and a warning that drinking in a public place earned you a 200 Euro fine.
So things were a bit pricey around those parts. A few days into our stay, we were skating and drinking in a plaza where Picasso was believed by Chuck to have had his first make-out session. I don’t doubt it either, other than the fact that the park looked rather new; it was literally on his doorstep. We noticed a sketchy looking guy with his hood up lurking around the area, so we decided to quickly finish our drinks and head to the bar on the other side of the plaza. We came to a halt when a rather large undercover cop flashed his badge and began demanding our ID’s. Cory wasn’t having it, pointed out the sketchy guy from earlier standing behind us, and the cop using a burner phone. Could he be right? Could we be getting set-up to get robbed? All these thoughts crossed my mind and my legs started to shake. It was either the fear of going to Spanish jail, or the fact that I had to pee worse than I care to remember and wasn’t sure when I would be able to. After a longwinded phone call, nothing ended up happening, other than our names being run, and a warning that drinking in a public place earned you a 200 Euro fine.
For the next city on our journey, Alicante, we had a tour guide planned, which I was excited about. Having someone who knows the local language and how to maneuver throughout is a big plus when trying to navigate your way around. The first spot we went to, an older man started yelling phrases at the group around the corner from me. On the other side of the building, Kevin and I tried to shoot a photo where the same guy noticed us. We watched him call the cops, so I figured we had about 10 or so minutes before they got there; but I felt comfortable knowing our guide would talk our way out of it if we needed him to. When the cops arrived though, I look up to see our guide gather his things and bolt down the street, meandering through traffic, streets and alleyways to which I followed suit. I didn’t know what else to do. I had a big bag of camera equipment so my main priority was watching over that. If my guide can’t talk his way out of it, then I sure as hell can’t.
Kevin hid his board behind a scooter; Tyler and Bacon hid behind cars and the rest of the crew met up at the nearby train station. We escaped that time, but nearing the end of our stay in Alicante, we got cornered by two police officers on bikes at the same spot. Besides the two incidents here, we got talked to on three separate occasions and had to leave two other spots because cops were on their way. Alicante is a small city so there’s really no escaping. The cops will eventually figure out who you are and give you a hefty ticket, like the 600 Euro one they threatened us with this time. Word has it that a group of Finnish skateboarders got caught and followed for two weeks straight, busted at every spot they tried to skate. That almost seemed like it happened to us, and I was starting to get pretty tired of being on edge all the time. Barcelona wasn’t that much better as far as police are concerned. I was really stoked to check out MACBA for the first time at night and maybe having a few drinks somewhere.
We were stoked on buying beer from the street-vendors until some undercover officers came up and did the same drill: empty your pockets, show me your ID’s, where are you staying. It is safe to say that Spanish police are the most unfriendly cops I’ve met in my life, and I got pretty used to running or skating away from them every night at MACBA. The police there have been dealing with skateboarders for years and they’re definitely aware that we’re here to skate, so they feel the need to cash-in. The country is going through a massive recession at the moment and nearly 60 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 25 are unemployed. With a few pickpocket attempts, I’m just glad nothing major happened to our squad. With how mellow the police officers were in Portugal, I’m glad I got to see the Spanish side of things. It makes you appreciate being in Canada, or Vancouver especially, where the cops really don’t pay much mind to street skating. I felt blessed to be home, and then of course, as usual, about a week later I want to pack my life away and travel again.
‘Till next time!