Food for Thought in Portugal
From 10 June 2010
Saturday night on the dance floor in Salamanca, Spain came and went, and I managed to make it until 4:30 a.m. running on pure adrenaline. I’ve been visiting my friend, Marcos, a friend I met at Ohio Wesleyan who lives here. There’s a big festival going on, and Marcos insisted I stay awake until seven a.m. on Saturday. Sorry my friend, I couldn’t make it any later.
Perhaps the lack of sleep was catching up to us the following evening. While cooking dinner, Marcos and I examined–for lack of a better word–the English and Spanish languages, enjoying each other’s non-native accents. I received a lesson on when to roll my R‘s, but sometimes, I still manage to let my tongue get a little carried away, as does any normal person upon the discovery of something new. (I couldn’t roll my R‘s until halfway through last summer in Ecuador. One day, it just clicked!)
The next day, I said my goodbyes to Marcos and his mom, and I headed by bus from Spain to Portugal. Traveling in Europe is often like going from one state to the next in the U.S., and public transportation is big in Europe. Consequently, hopping from one country to another is quite affordable for a recent college graduate like me. My destination was Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, with a population of over 200,000. I later learned that one of Portugal’s most famous exports, Port wine, is produced and shipped from here, making its namesake the city of Porto.
Stepping off the bus, I found my way to Oporto Poet’s Hostel by putting my rusty, novice Portuguese language skills to the test. Pronunciation aside, it was a success, and I booked three nights in the modern-mixed-with-retro hostel.
Still accustomed to the Spanish meal schedule, I relaxed with a light late dinner on the Douro River. The following morning, I quickly realized I was ill prepared for rain. When I could no longer bare the cool weather and drizzle, I put down three Euros for a bright yellow poncho. That certainly didn’t make me stand out as a tourist! I spent the rest of the day navigating the alleyways of Portugal’s second largest city without a map. At times, I had no destination in mind. Instead, I let curiosity lead me up and down homey and abandoned side streets.
When I want to get to know a place, I spend a day walking around more-or-less aimlessly finding my own sights worth seeing. In Porto, I found the facade of every door was worth paying attention to. Call me crazy, but now and then I began imagining what lie behind each door. Behind the hunter green, brass handle door with an array of potted plants out front was, in my mind, a comfortable home for a young, single, working woman.
Adjacent to that home, my brain conjured the image of an elderly couple that cared only about what was on the inside; hence the chipping brown paint on the old (and probably creaky) wooden door. Just when my mind jumped to the conclusion that the unpainted, dried out, cracked door with a broken knob was nothing more than a forsaken hardware store, the door slowly opened and out came a father with a toddler in tow.
How quick we are to make assumptions. I don’t think there are any limits to the imagination, but perhaps breaking free from the chains that bind us to our presumptive instincts is more difficult than we expect, especially because imagination seems to be linked so strongly yet subconsciously to our past experiences.
One afternoon, I crossed the bridge over the Douro River in search of a quaint local cafe. Voila, I came across a number of options. Settling on a sandwich joint run by a young Portuguese couple, I took a seat at a table with a decent view of the river. A little girl who I guessed was the daughter of the couple that ran the restaurant brought me a placemat and silverware.
“Obrigada,” I thanked her. She scurried off to engage in a game of tag with an elderly man–Grandpa, perhaps. Soon after, she carried out my food, chatting away in Portuguese to me, to herself, to whomever. When I finished, she came over to take my plate, again talking away. Unable to understand her, I smiled and thanked her. A minute later, she was back, and this time I was sure she was attempting conversation. I still don’t know if she recognized that I was a non-Portuguese-speaking foreigner. It didn’t matter. She told me to wait a moment and ran to the back of the cafe. When she returned, she dumped the contents of a plastic grocery bag onto the table. Out poured enough Hello Kitty merchandise to make an entire class of kindergarten girls merrier than Christmas morning or trick-or-treat–bracelets, key chains, mini purses, figurines, necklaces.
“Me dê sua mão,” she demanded, and I held out my palm. She wrapped her hand around my index finger, pulling it toward the now categorized nation of Hello Kitties. “Um.” She scanned my face for some sign, but what I didn’t know. “Dois,” she continued.
“Um, dois,” I repeated the counting. She nodded. “Três,” I said, pointing to the third bracelet in line.
“Muito bom,” she praised me.
We spent the next half hour rearranging the Hello Kitty display, at one point engaging in a race to see who could count the kittens fastest. Though I never learned the girl’s name, she unknowingly gave me food for thought. To her, there was no language barrier. She
talked whether or not I acknowledged that I understood. For her, communication had no boundaries. I realized then that communication doesn’t always require understanding. What it requires most is a commitment between two people to simply try and understand one another through means sometimes other than language.
After lunch, I crossed over the upper part of the two-level bridge. Approaching the end, my eyes were drawn to a landscape of green, ivy that seemed to roll in pleasant, dominating waves over the buildings below. Here was a silent competition of man versus nature. And nature surely was winning.
After exploring the Crystal Palace Park where I had a run-in with peacocks galore, I ate a home cooked pre-paid meal at the hostel, one of the many perks of this place. The past few days, I’d been feeling a bit lonely. Talking to myself offered minimal, short-lived entertainment. (Surprising, I know.) The alone time was good and necessary, especially as I sought this Euro trip for self-reflection. However, I wanted this trip to result in new friendships as well. I made a resolution to myself that I would indeed meet new people. Without forgetting to make time for myself, I dug inside of me for the outgoing girl who talks to strangers (in addition to herself). On my last night in Porto, I started to make friends, moving past the small talk of backpackers coming and going.
Lagos, Portugal was next. But that story comes with one heck of an ending, so I’ll save it for another day.
Until the next time I have access to a computer with cheap Internet and time to sit down and share my journey with you…