Around the holidays, I like to share some uplifting stories or inspiring ideas to round off the year and bring in the new year with a positive start.
Like many other people, I’m not spending the holidays at home as I usually would this year, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Nothing in life is constant, change is inevitable, and new experiences are always valuable.
With that in mind, the story I want to share is about a man I met recently: my 70 year old Portuguese airbnb host, Fernando. Staying with Fernando for a couple of months this autumn/winter has been a wonderful experience. Entering someone else’s world takes you out of your own: as the Disney lyrics go, “if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you’ll learn things you never knew you never knew”.
Trendsetting while jetsetting
At the age of 70, Fernando has lived a long and colourful life, and is full of fascinating stories. Born in Lisbon, Portugal, he moved to Brazil in his late teens and worked as a flight attendant for around 10 years for Braniff International Airways, which he was proud to tell me about, explaining how it was one of the best times of his life. At first I thought it was just a nice story, but later realised how much of a big deal it was in terms of culture and society.
During the 60s and 70s the airline became an iconic brand, collaborating with several high profile artists, designers and architects. In 1968, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dalí acted in TV commercials for the airline. The famous slogan “when you’ve got it, flaunt it” originated from one of their marketing campaigns, perpetuating the sexualisation of stewardesses.
Hiring Mary Wells Lawrence, to run the advertising campaign “The End of the Plain Plane” was revolutionary for the brand. The success of her career didn’t end there: the advertising company she founded, Wells, Rich, Greene, became the world’s 8th largest advertising company, and Lawrence became the first female CEO of a New York Stock Exchange listed company. Modern audiences might say her legacy lives on today in the form of the Mad Men character Peggy Olsen.
One day, Fernando dug out some of his old black and white photos to show me the uniforms he and his colleagues wore. His photos were very faded but the glamorous cabin crew uniforms — created by Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci in the 1960s, and by American couturier Halston later in the 1970s — were clearly distinguishable. On further research, I discovered that the female stewardesses wearing Pucci’s uniforms were so over-sexualised, it prompted them to be nicknamed “Pucci Galore”, inspired by the James Bond character.
Bespoke exterior design
In 1973, American sculptor Alexander Calder, famous for his kinetic mobile sculptures, was commissioned to paint the exterior of the Douglas DC-8 plane for the airline, and in 1975 the Boeing 727-200 model also. Fernando was excited to show me his photos of these unique planes, while sharing anecdotes from his time working with the airline and living in South America.
Although slightly taboo, he also brought back a little collection of rare artefacts from the Inca civilisation in Peru, which he’s now arranged in an understated display on one wall in his apartment.
Jack of all trades
After working at the airline, Fernando moved back to Lisbon where he continued working in various different fields, including modelling and even a spot of acting for Portuguese films and TV shows. If that wasn’t all cool enough already, Fernando is also an accomplished artist. Painting was only ever a hobby for him, but he finally held his first public exhibition a few years ago.
He also told me about one time many years ago, when he was commissioned to create 200 paintings in 1.5 years for a new hotel being built at the time. For some reason, the building was never completed and although Fernando was paid for his work, he still doesn’t know what happened to all of those paintings he did for the project. His apartment today, with double storey ceilings, is filled with dark, dramatic paintings and line sketches he’s created.
Living a fulfilled life
Fernando lives alone with his cat. He’s never been married and has no children. Although some people might automatically assume this means he’s lonely or missing something in life, it’s quite the contrary.
He works at a café down the street two days a week, just for the fun of it as well as to keep himself busy. He cooks a main dish and bakes desserts to sell at the cafe on the days he’s working, and it’s always something different each week. While I was living with him, he would generously leave a portion at home for me so I was able to try all of the wonderful traditional Portuguese specialities he enjoyed making.
Three times a week Fernando also goes to his local gym, making sure to stay fit and healthy. He has a close group of friends that live nearby and that he spends time with daily, sharing meals together, or going to concerts, exhibitions or the cinema with. And of course, he lets out his spare room on airbnb, so he regularly meets different people like myself from around the world, each with their own story to share with him too.
When I look at someone like Fernando, I see a life well lived. Even in his old age, he stays active both mentally and physically every day, continuing to learn new things, grow and improve himself. He surrounds himself with a supportive community, and makes time for the things he enjoys. It’s so uplifting to meet people like Fernando, and uncover a glimpse into their lives, while also reminding us that the moment we’re living in is temporary and there are plenty more chapters to add to our own life stories.