Artistic cutting into hard currency keeps bailout country running along electric rails
Porto letter:Magda is engaged in a battle against coins. It’s earning a living, yes, but you have to look beyond the euro. She takes the metal discs of exotic and depleted currencies and goes to work on them, defacing them, hacking them with a blade. Using a fine fretsaw, she turns them into something of decorative, jewel-functioning worth.
For almost a decade now, by the banks of the Douro as it carves Portugal’s second city in two, she sculpts foreign and out-of-circulation coins.
Trimming out great men on horses and freeing
side-profiled, pre-EU nationalists gazing at horizons devoid of the common zone, she sits by the waterfront carving the coins.
It’s getting dark. Reflections of people on the Dom Luís I bridge wobble on the river, appearing to walk across it. Groups gaze over at the illuminated boutique port distilleries.
But Magda is sawing away into multiples of zloty, forints and half-crowns, into guilders and the banished Portuguese escudo.
Deftly, she springs the figurative shapes, sometimes keeping the backdrop, sometimes the foreground. The results are pendants and medallions through which she laces a light chain.
A miniature miner’s light strapped to her head, she is a craft worker, a one-person extractive industry mining money and art from metal currency.
Away from euro zone crises and EU summit meetings, her work is a creative alchemy in a beleaguered corner of the 27-state empire.
Behind the port distilleries on the Vila Nova de Gaia hill, a steep road leads down from the police station. It cuts through a riverside zone of commerce, a pleasing scene that testifies to the city’s famed product. Cellars with names such as Fonseca, Sandeman and Cálem will give you a crash course in port production.
Outside, squeaky new Teleférico cable cars are winched up to the cliff. They afford a helicopter-like view of the river and the towering bridge composed of broken pieces of the Eiffel Tower.
“We started up about two years ago,” says a smiling uniformed ticket seller. “It is doing very well.”
One by one, the cars leave empty as they cut across the sky to Jardim do Morro. Today must be an off-day.
Follow the Douro a few miles and you arrive at the museum of transport. Once a power station for converting voltage, it offers the fluid ideas of locomotion and electricity but ones in which its collection of tramway carriages is incarcerated.
Docile after careers rattling up and down to Foz and Matosinhos market, they are fascinating things, taunted by the tracks that scar the hangar floor. Freed of the blur in which they would normally pass, they become curated toy trains, but magnified. Some were horse-drawn, others are prototypes that never made it beyond the test track.
The museum walls are lined with images of early 20th-century transport staff. Framed on high, they look down like the mugshots of working saints whose labour kept the whole show from going off the rails.
A man eating an inch of fresh pineapple laced with the local liquid waves out at people who jump on a working ancient wooden tram and rattle to Foz.
At the start of a seafront lashed by Atlantic waves and speckled by hotels, restaurants and high-end shops, there is an exclusive club. Its door bears a warning: minimum expenditure €250. Three-hundred yards away, unemployed guys play cards and others poke rods into the river, waiting for the bream to bite.
The tram driver straightens his cap and jumps out to reverse the conducting aerial – time to get back to town.
Magda slaps down an intact coin on a zinc bar and raises her wine. A pensioner is peering through bifocals at a month of prescriptions and receipts. He has just reconciled some sort of balance. He waves to the barman to put the young woman’s drink on his tab. No, she says. But he insists. Okay.
An older guy in the corner fumbles to pay for coffee. So she slides her unspent coin across to him. Its bland design may one day pass as jewellery. But for now it is the euro doing what it does best: it’s just a coin serving as a medium of exchange.