Written by audreymei on 11 Mar, 2005
After fourteen trains, seven buses, three boats, and twelve airplanes (including later this morning), it is finally the last day of my insane three-month Portugal trip through Europe. I’m officially cultured, having learned about Renaissance art, Moorish history, and the Hanseatic trade routes. I’ve gotten…Read More
After fourteen trains, seven buses, three boats, and twelve airplanes (including later this morning), it is finally the last day of my insane three-month Portugal trip through Europe. I’m officially cultured, having learned about Renaissance art, Moorish history, and the Hanseatic trade routes. I’ve gotten so much Iberian sun that if it weren’t for Lavera’s Kinder Sonnenschutz SPF 30, a German military-grade sunscreen for babies, I would be so wrinkled that I’d be in danger of winning as the next U.S. Democratic President. But alas, the end of the adventure has come, and this little crab is now trembling in dreaded anticipation of going home to be hurled back into the meat grinder of Plutonian emotional turmoil, be that as it may...
On Deutsche Welle TV, there was a short documentary two weeks ago about the safety of passenger ships sailing in the Mediterranean. And of all the 35 ships, the ferry named Flaminia, operated by the Italian company Tirrenia, ranked at the very bottom, failing all possible safety tests. The life jackets were inaccessibly double-bolted, shut inside metal closets, and emergency rafts were rusted onto their pulleys. Okay, so this happened to be the ship I rode from Sardinia to Civitavecchia, north of Rome, last May. But the overnight journey on that boat, full of two hundred screaming Italian teenagers, proceeded without incident, and aside from the close call with Nicoló the Rapist in Florence, which some of you know about already, this trip has been safe and well-survivable.
And now I am back in Portugal, comfortable and in the safe hands of Susana and Arménio. The tiny fireball Susana is still toiling away at the language school in Porto, that famous town where the old ladies in black sing doop-dee-doop under the bridge. She was bummed about being dumped by her long-time boyfriend Hugo (another Hugo, Miss Rock) but then discovered that now is actually a very opportune time to be single because, with the Euro 2004 soccer championship exploding across the country, there’s apparently been a deluge of handsome Swedish men visiting. "Every time you turn the corner, there’s one standing, with face and body like handmade, you know!!" says Susana. Let’s all wish her luck.
Now I’m in Coimbra. Indeed, the whole of Europe, but especially my host country, Portugal, is wild with Soccer-Rausch, to the point that the Portuguese have momentarily forgotten that there is a war in Iraq going on involving their soldiers; the very recent appointment of Portuguese Prime Minister Durrão Barroso as President of the E.U. Commission just made a dent in the news. And on the streets, the official fashion has become soccer jerseys and David Beckham hairdos, with the entire continent speaking the language of team colors, names, and numbers. Jersey sales have shot through the roof. But topping the list of profit-makers this summer are the Brazilian jerseys, strangely enough, considering that Brazil is not participating in the Euro 2004 games. It just happens to be that the whole of Europe, from Örnsköldsvik to Palermo, suffers from severe country-envy regarding Brazil. The appeal of the silicone bikini-butt implants and cute Ronaldos hypnotizes the Europeans who bundle up in the winters.
However, this country benefited from the Brazilian soccer finesse this evening when the Portuguese team, led by a Brazilian coach, won against Holland (2:1) to qualify for the Finals of Euro 2004!! You wouldn’t believe the drone of revelry outside. We watched the game in Coimbra at Praça da Repubblica tonight on a large outdoor screen. I wanted to cry when I heard the crowd singing the national anthem, but then I dried my tears when I remembered that it wasn’t my country. The crowd was mostly full of students, this being a university town, and at one point during the game, someone got the bright idea to order a pizza from the middle of the masses, and thus the large brown square of a pizza box was seen floating across the people to reach its intended customers somewhere in the middle, somehow intact. And when the game ended with Portugal ahead of Holland (who didn’t even score their own goal, as they also benefited from the Brazilian finesse when Portugal accidentally shot a goal passed their own Ricardo), you can imagine the excitement that burst out in the country as the clock ticked down to zero. It was the first time ever that Portugal reached the European finals, and the streets are now full of green and red flags, cars honking with face-painted Portuguese hanging out the windows. One farmer even brought in his tractor from the fields and was honking his horn and simulating daylight with his ultra-bright agricultural fog lamps. This will go on all night, and the government may as well declare tomorrow a national work holiday.
My plane is leaving in ten hours, and I have to pack with the whistles and cheers rumbling in the distance outside the window. I don’t know what to say; I’m not really thinking about anything. This last week in Portugal flashed past me like a howling streak through a time warp in one minute, and one thing I realized from this trip is that there is lots of love in the world, and one last final time, in seven hours, it will truly be, "Não temos tempo mais..."
Written by Rucas on 03 Jan, 2001
The mysterious black capes of the students can always be seen on the courtyard, the garb of students radiant with joy during the Queima das Fitas - the major academic festivity, or passionately and nostalgically grouped together during the romantic serenades of Fado de Coimbra.…Read More
The mysterious black capes of the students can always be seen on the courtyard, the garb of students radiant with joy during the Queima das Fitas - the major academic festivity, or passionately and nostalgically grouped together during the romantic serenades of Fado de Coimbra.
Even today Coimbra´s life is much influenced by student life at the university, plenty of tradition. Students used to wear black frock coats and capes adorned with colored ribbons, representing their faculties. Fado de Coimbra is a special kind of Fado, usually sung by students, always a male voice with romantic lyrics acompained by the traditional 12-string Coimbra guitar.
From the distant past the students still indicate the faculty they belong to by the colour of a ribbon they attach to their gowns. Every year in May when the academic year ends they ceremonially burn these ribbons and duly celebrate. This event is named Queima das Fitas. The students also reflect their optimistic sense of life and culture by singing a lighter and happier version of the tragic national songs and these are generally referred to as Fados da Coimbra.
The presence of so many students guarantees a college-town atmosphere like that of any other university town, with plenty of traditional coffeehouses and spots to enjoy a cool beer. Close
The University buildings are situated on the top of a hill, which overlooks the city. It is well worth a visit. You enter the old part of the University through an Iron Gate. Inside the gate is the enormous University Patio, with a large statute…Read More
The University buildings are situated on the top of a hill, which overlooks the city. It is well worth a visit. You enter the old part of the University through an Iron Gate. Inside the gate is the enormous University Patio, with a large statute of João III. Beside the gate, to the left when entering, you will see the long low palace wing. The University Library is in the far-left corner and is well worth taking the tours that are provided. It is fascinating, very large and very old. If you're here in the end of April or beginning of May make it a point to see the students singing Fado and burning their ribbons at the end of the school year.
The University's eighteenth-century clock stands in the right hand corner of the courtyard, domineering the skyline. The high-reaching, elegant tower, in its erudite baroque, stands as a symbol of the University and of the city itself. The Sala dos Capelos or Sala Grande dos Actos, form the sumptuous backdrop to the solemn academic rights held here. Capela de S. Miguel (Saint Michael's Chapel) has a welcoming atmosphere with its fine altars and baroque organ.
The Via Latina recalls the procession of graduates, the opening of the school year and the investiture of the Rector. The splendid Baroque library Biblioteca Joanina (King John's Library) dazzles visitors with its gold leaf work and its amazing treasury of books of universal value.
Since the introduction of the euro in Portugal in January of 2002, the questions for the game show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" have gotten significantly more difficult. Before 2002, the maximum winnings in the former Portuguese currency were 1,000,000 escudos, equivalent to €457.14,…Read More
Since the introduction of the euro in Portugal in January of 2002, the questions for the game show "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" have gotten significantly more difficult. Before 2002, the maximum winnings in the former Portuguese currency were 1,000,000 escudos, equivalent to €457.14, or $571.43. Obviously, it wasn't acceptable to rename the show "Who Wants To Win €457.14?", and thus the show's producers made the landmark decision to increase the prize money by 175 times, for a grand total of €1,000,000. Of course, additional support had to be solicited from abroad, namely in Germany and the UK, where the show originated and where, with its value in British pounds, the winnings are the most coveted in Europe. However, to deal with the sky-rocketing number of show applicants, the producers also had to increase the difficulty of the questions, ranging from Cambodian architecture to 18th-century Irish poetry to the adverse health affects of second-hand smoke. (Okay, this is not exactly how Arménio, who worked at the Pension, explained it. Although he did have the most amazing Moroccan hashish I´ve ever smoked...).
But a quick digression to Easter two weeks ago... I didn't write about the red Renault in Braga because it wasn't important back then. As some of you know, I spent Easter in Braga, in the north of northern Portugal. The day consisted of a prolonged overdose of Catholic Easter Masses. At one point, I spotted a dusty old red Renault, which stood out not only because it sounded and looked like it was going to give up its ghost, but also by the big round "A" sticker in the rear window, indicating loud and clear that this car was from Austria. And the letter W to the left of the Austrian shield on the license plate announced that this vehicle originated from Vienna. Through the cloudy windows, I saw two very old women in the car—Austrian, I supposed. I'll get back to this later.
Anyway, I arrived in Lisbon, the glamorous capital city of Portugal, on Tuesday afternoon. I'll write more about this city when I've been here longer. Yesterday, however, I went to Sintra, about 25 kilometers from Lisbon. Sintra is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and upon arriving here, the resemblance of this town to an absolute fairytale land is striking. This was once the favorite summer retreat for the kings of Portugal, and although it is rich in sights to see, the two royal palaces are its main magnets.
The first palace is the Palácio Nacional de Sintra, in the middle of the old town. Built in the late 14th century by João I, this palace is unmistakably identified in the valley by two giant, white, conical chimneys atop the kitchen. The interior of the palace is an immaculate collage of Moorish and Manueline styles, and its floor plan snakes from one exotically tiled room to the next.
A long hike up the hill, past the ramparts of the 8th-century Moorish castle, is the Palácio da Pena, perched like a bubble gum-colored wedding cake on the mountain top, overlooking the distant Atlantic coast. Arriving at this building never fails to stoke the childish imagination of any visitor. It is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, much more far-fetched than its sister in the valley—fun, charming, and delightful are the words inevitably used to describe it. But if this palace reminds one of the castle in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which was filmed at Neuschwanstein in Bavaria (I know you Germans don't know this children's movie; it was basically banned there, due to Ian Fleming's distinct anti-Germanism, more successfully propagated in his James Bond series), it is because it was built for the husband of Queen Maria II, King Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was, as his name suggests, German. He appointed a German architect, Baron Von Eschwege, to build this summer palace to house his collection of oddities from all over the world. And filled to the brim with objects of mastery and tackiness it is, looking a little like what Dietmar’s would be if those ladies ever got their act together. Anyway, I highly recommend visiting this town if you ever have the opportunity.
So after frolicking in the castle with the other tourists, I embarked on the lonesome decent down the hill. Approaching the old town, I heard a vehicle behind me, driving so slowly I thought I was being followed. But then I turned around and recognized the car behind me as the same red Renault I had spotted in Braga two weeks ago! The old woman driving wasn't tailing me; she was driving her "normal" speed, and there was a huge back-up of cars, disappearing into the forest behind her. I could see that the car was slowly heading for an empty parking space in front of the toy museum, so I decided to wait in the cafe on the corner and say something when they walked by. This coincidence was too lovely to pass up. So I sat there and waited and waited while the red Renault did a three-point parallel job like a snail. Seven minutes later, the doors opened and two very old, very fat, but very proper ladies gingerly climbed out of the car. They were wearing wool suits from the ‘50s, complete with ruffled collars. Eventually, the quicker of the two passed the cafe where I was sitting (okay, not too fast dear, almost, almost...), and I stood up and approached her. The conversation went like this (here in English):
Me: "Excuse me, do you speak German?"
Ms. Vienna: "Yes...?"
Me: "Did you happen to be in Braga for Easter?"
Ms. Vienna: "Yes...?"
Me: "I was there too. I saw you there!"
Ms. Vienna: "Yes..." blink, blink, she’s a little confused.
"Yes, but... it’s not that easy to find parking here in Sintra..." It takes her a few seconds to figure out what I’m telling her, and then she laughs and says, "Could you tell me, what palace is that?" pointing to the Palácio Nacional de Sintra.
Me: "That’s the National Palace."
Ms. Vienna: "Ah ha! I´ve been trying to find that one. We have to hurry because they’re going to close soon. See you later!"
The second old lady shook my hand and also said "Aufwiedersehen!", but it was clear she had no idea what was going on. What these two old Viennese dames were doing, slamming the pedal to the metal down the coast of Portugal, I'll never know. It was probably one of those "It's now or never, honey" situations which inspired them to pack their Renault full and head to the Wild West.
Now, my more savvy readers will have noticed that there are four days between Porto and Lisbon which remain unaccounted for... my two words regarding that are "Ah, Coimbra."
It's now or never, kids.
The Portuguese Ministry of Public Health made a public announcement in 1998 for the citizens to drink less coffee--no more than five cups a day--down from the average twelve to thirteen. They had determined that the excessive amounts of caffeine were causing a minor…Read More
The Portuguese Ministry of Public Health made a public announcement in 1998 for the citizens to drink less coffee--no more than five cups a day--down from the average twelve to thirteen. They had determined that the excessive amounts of caffeine were causing a minor epidemic of anxiety and migraines, and furthermore, corporate honchos of Phillip Morris and Reemtsma were complaining that their monopoly over national addiction was being threatened.
The Portuguese, like the Spanish, primarily drink espresso, so every kitchen has a Bialetti cooker either cooling on the stove or drying, dismantled, next to the sink.
"Escorpião é um signo mutavel" means "Scorpio is a mutable sign." I was trying to explain to my Portuguese teacher that it could be advantageous to have a strong ascendant (like Leo) when the sun is in Scorpio because, being a mutable water sign, Scorpio could benefit from its strength. My teacher, Ângela, was born on October 24--Scorpio on the cusp of Libra. She had heard that hers was the worst sign of the zodiac and wanted to know if this was true. "No," I said from experience. "Only if you´re born on the other cusp..."
At this moment, the director of the language school, Susana, knocked on the door and wanted to have a word with me. Dona Cândida had called the school. It took me a while to realize that Dona Cândida was Maria Rosa Cândida Bandeira Azevedo, the silver-haired grandma I've been living with, and whom I had resorted to calling merely "A Senhora", like Dr. Evil´s "Frau" from Austin Powers. Anyway, I was worried now that Dona Cândida was kicking me out because I had forgotten to clean my loose hair from the shower. But then Susana decided to test out my Portuguese and spoke with ultra-diction: "A DONA CÂNDIDA NOTOU QUE TU NÃO BEBES TODO O CAFÈ CON O PEQUENO ALMOÇO E QUER SABER, SÉ TU PREFERES CHÁ." Dona Cândida was apparently worried that I wasn't satisfied with the breakfast she was offering because I wasn't finishing off the 20 ounces of espresso in the coffee pot every morning. So she had called the school to ask if I preferred tea. "Eu prefero sím café," I replied, "mas não um litro inteiro, obrigada." ("Yes, coffee is okay, but not a whole pint, thanks.")
Coffee is cheap in the chic cafés, about 75 cents, the same price as the Styrofoam coffee at the Shell station off Highway 1 in Half Moon Bay. But of course, things are cheap here. The country was in a recession for over 300 years, and between 1910 and 1968, they were downright poverty-stricken while their dictator, António Salazar, tightened the country’s belt to resolve its centuries-old debts. Democratic Portugal as we know it only came about with the Carnation Revolution, A Revoluçao dos Cravos, in 1974 (okay, kids, raise your hands if you were born before this year...). The struggle for democracy was eventually rewarded in 1986, when Portugal was granted membership to the European Union.
Since the national epidemic of anxiety and migraines has subsided, the Ministry of Public Health has started to turn its attention to the profusion of stray cats and dogs, with the hope of catching up to the model presence of its competition, Italy. As Venice has pigeons, Porto has cats and dogs, sometimes big ones, who beg shamelessly and occasionally stop traffic by flopping themselves in the middle of a busy intersection for a spontaneous nap. One cat even laid itself down on the doorstep across the street last week and died there. Commuters waiting at the nearby bus stop noticed this the next morning by the cat's unusual stillness and its glassy, open eyes. Flies were circling its ears, and it had this freaky fangy smile as if to say "Ah, this was a life, a stray cat in Porto..."
AND NOW something really delicious... A Francesinha is a thick slice of white bread topped with a fat slab of roast beef, a thin slice of ham, and a chunk of cooked salted pork, splattered with Tabasco sauce and sprinkled with dried garlic bits, then topped with another slice of white bread with goopy cheese melted on top. This whole thing, about the thickness of three paperback books, is floating like a turtle in a viscous, starchy, brown, salty meat sauce and comes by request with a fried egg on top. I ordered mine on the Ribeira in Porto, and it was tempting to order a tall, cool Bavarian Franziskaner to go with the Francesinha, but my good friends know that I have renounced sex, drugs, and alcohol. A big stray dog, probably sensing that I was a tourist who was not going to finish my Francesinha, laid itself down under my chair while I ate. After about half an hour, I kicked it to make sure that it wasn't dead.
I think that, for shock value in California, Peet’s Coffee should serve Francesinhas along with their soy chai lattes as a special at Passover.
The University of Coimbra has played a major role in the social, economic, and political life of Portugal for over 700 years. The University was officially founded on August 9, 1290 by the Bull of Papa Nicolau, IV. The University's home alternated between Coimbra and…Read More
The University of Coimbra has played a major role in the social, economic, and political life of Portugal for over 700 years. The University was officially founded on August 9, 1290 by the Bull of Papa Nicolau, IV. The University's home alternated between Coimbra and Lisbon until 1537 when King D. Joao III established it permanently in Coimbra. Although new complexes now house the Faculties of Economics, Engineering, and Medicine, the historic core of the University remains atop the city with several buildings that date to the 1700's and earlier. Today the University is a vibrant institution of 25,000 students. Close
At 9:30am on Sunday, November 1, 1755, Lisbon was struck by the first of three earthquakes, the third of which succeeded in reducing the bustling town, center of wealth and culture, to rubble. The stone roofs of the churches came tumbling down onto the thousands…Read More
At 9:30am on Sunday, November 1, 1755, Lisbon was struck by the first of three earthquakes, the third of which succeeded in reducing the bustling town, center of wealth and culture, to rubble. The stone roofs of the churches came tumbling down onto the thousands of churchgoers who had congregated to worship for All Saint's Day, and fires started to break out throughout the city. Survivors of the quake headed for the river for refuge, but then, at 11:30am, the river flooded, and the city was battered by a series of tidal waves, wrecking the ships, which were packed with citizens fleeing the fires. Although the epicenter was in Algarve in the south, shocks were felt as far away as Italy, and an estimated 15,000 people died in Lisbon alone.
But thanks to immediate planning by Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, later to become the Marquês de Pombal, the city was rapidly rebuilt in a surprisingly modern fashion, and thus the efficient grid design of the downtown, in contrast to the winding tangle of alleys of pre-earthquake Lisbon. In fact, Lisbon became one of the first cities to have the European Avenue plan, with commercial concentrations along elegant "Avenidas" with parks of grass and fountains lining the middle. However, parts of Lisbon, namely, the Alfama district, retain some of the old tangle of alleys. One of these streets in the Alfama is the Rua da Madelena, which I have nicknamed "Gasse der Sanitätshäuser," Alley of the Orthopedics. On this street, one after another, is a shockingly large array of orthopedic boutiques, with specialties ranging from custom-made rubber walking-stick tips to plus-size orthopedic support hose. Store owners and customers alike, with luxury upholstered wheelchairs and hip MRI scans proudly in hand, clunk and rattle up and down this dark, cobblestoned alley late into the afternoon.
And for those of you who watch the international news, you may have caught the blurb about Sunday being the 30th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, the end of 60 years of dictatorship in Portugal, which transpired on April 25, 1974. The run-up to this day was filled with special exhibitions, lectures and cultural events, and on the day itself, the Portuguese Fado singer Marisa sang the national anthem in the parliament and there was a procession through the city.
But I didn't wake up to the sounds of commemorative marches streaming past my hotel room on the Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon on Sunday morning. I was awakened in the countryside by the most biological alarm clock: a flock of roosters and a screaming swine directly outside the bedroom window. I had spent the night in Mira, where Arménio had invited me to stay the weekend at his mother's house. Mira is a tiny beach town on Portugal's northern coast, a town so small it doesn't even get its own dot on the map.
Yes, girls, I know... the guy, the town... The image that Arménio gives of being a clean-cut, responsible, viciously intelligent mechanical engineer is just a cover-up for the happy-go-lucky, pot-smoking hedonist that he really is. I met him in Coimbra, where our conversation began about the Portuguese version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" And for those of you who worry, rest assured that I only smoke things when it makes for good writing material. Anyway, Arménio showed me around this tiny speck called Mira and brought me to the local hang-out, Tosta Mista Café, a café-bar with a pinball machine and a TV silently flickering the FC Porto game. This bar was filled with familiar faces from Arménio´s youth, young small-town faces which are somehow attractive, but then again, some look like they've been narrowly grazed. The handsome fellow behind the bar is hunchbacked, and the pretty girl sitting with her friends has crossed eyes. There were nice people here, and one loquacious English-speaking man explained the entire history of late colonial Portugal to me, using cigarette cartons and lighters to represent the African continent and delineate Angola, Mozambique, and Madagascar, respectively.
Arménio’s drivers license was temporarily revoked two months ago after a car accident, so I was surprised when he said, "Let's drive to the beach!" When I asked him about it, he said, "It's okay! The policeman in Mira is my cousin." And the mayor? I asked, half-jokingly, "Is he your uncle?" "No," he answered matter-of-factly. "The last mayor was my neighbor, a really nice guy--intelligent. The new mayor was our family doctor. But he stopped practicing when he became mayor." Arménio also told me about the current infestation of drugs in tiny little Mira. Portugal, being entirely coastal, has become an active gateway for drug traffic primarily from Africa into the European continent. Although the situation is much worse in the beach resort zones of the South, Mira also sees plenty of action. Boats delivering drugs arrive regularly during the night to be picked up on a relay to Spain. But once or twice a month, the deliveries are aborted for various reasons, and packages of cocaine are abandoned on the sand. So, before Fisherman José calls the police (Arménio´s cousin), the residents inevitably catch wind of the shipment, and the goods are distributed amongst them.
But that is only the dark side of reality in Portugal and alas, come Saturday, my journey will take me to Sardinia in the Mediterranean. I wish I had a video camera or something more to capture my experience here, the language, the smells. The singing voice of a woman from a smoky, crowded cellar; the quiet whisper of "Não quero que tu hoje vais" at daybreak which gets forever emblazoned into your memory...
And the old dames in black will sing Doo Wop all night long.
On the day before Easter, I took a bus ride through the valley behind the
back of the world in the north of northern Portugal to a place called Bom
Jesus do Monte. The trip took two hours but cost only about $1.75 because,
aside from the aforementioned…Read More
On the day before Easter, I took a bus ride through the valley behind the
back of the world in the north of northern Portugal to a place called Bom
Jesus do Monte. The trip took two hours but cost only about $1.75 because,
aside from the aforementioned 300-year-long recession, even in Portugal,
time is money. And this particular bus stopped at every doghouse between
Nowhere and Not Much More, snaking through the valley and wheezing up narrow
village alleys, chipping corners off the little Portuguese houses from the
1800s. We reached modern civilization around midday, but on the edge of
some town on an empty lot with weeds growing between the cobblestones where
I realized that I was lost.
I started walking in the direction I thought was toward Bom Jesus, but for
the first half-hour or so, I was being relentlessly pursued by a disgusting
bum who kept trying to touch my butt. I had the urge to bash him over the
head with a glass bottle, but being that there was no such weapon in sight, I
wanted to just cry. I finally managed to get rid of him by running through
the parking lot of a dusty little amusement park where parents were doting
over their kids. So, Béatrice, I think we see how sometimes children are the
ones who protect us.
The architecture of the Portuguese countryside is distinctly Asian, with
terracotta roof tiles that cascade downwards and turn up at the corners,
like those of Chinese temples. However, there are no native dragons here,
so rooftops are decorated with figures of cats and roosters instead. This
style serves as a reminder of Portugal's glory days as a great colonial
power, rivaled only by Spain, with its bases in Asia, Africa, and of course
Brazil. But that was over 300 years ago, and now the coffee is cheap.
So was it worth getting lost in the forest with a disgusting bum’s hand
glued to my ass to get to Bom Jesus do Monte? Of course it was! Bom Jesus
is not so much a town as a religious destination, consisting of a spectacular
staircase nestled among the trees, leading up to a church which overlooks
the valley town of Braga. Built in 1722 by the Archbishop of Braga, these
stairs are made of granite, accentuated with whitewashed walls, making this
sparkling 750-meter hilltop ascent visible for miles away. Within the
staircase are fountains depicting the five senses, the five wounds of
Christ, and the Three Virtues. The same hydraulic system that operates the
fountains also powers O Elevador, or a funicular, which is a cable car
dating back to 1882 that runs alongside the stairs and makes the ascent to
the church in 3 minutes. I didn't take the funicular, as I was determined to
walk off the daily pastries that I've learned to order in Portuguese. In
any case, O Elevador is a rickety, wide version of our San Francisco cable
cars, but of course, it doesn't stop at Whole Foods on California Street.
Speaking of which, my secret agent, Goldilocks, who recently relocated to the
Papa Bear Suite, Floor 7 1/2 at Woodruff & Sawyer on Montgomery Street,
informed me that not only was there a suicidal egomaniac climbing the Bay
Bridge two weekends ago, but also, a thirsty cougar was shot outside Lawrence
Livermore by anti-fur protestors. I didn't get this through the wire, as I
am forced to watch the Portuguese news every morning as part of this
language program. A Senhora had turned on the news one morning, and I was
admiring the handsome Portuguese soccer players (who look taller than me on
TV) when suddenly the picture turned to a mass of Taiwanese people marching
the streets, holding balloons with a face magic-markered on them—the face
of my uncle! Apparently, the protests over last month’s elections are
still going on, and I am eagerly awaiting the return of Jupiter to direct
motion on May 5 to see how this stalemate situation will be affected.
Anyway, I tried hastily to explain that this particular news was a family
affair to A Senhora, but it took too long, and she only understood, "Sim,
sim, a sua mãe está na Japão." (No, my mother is not in Japan, but oh
A tiny little crab slowly making its way across the sand, the vast beach of
the world, in search of a new home because the last place it called home
caused too many heartbreaks... This particular reality of my purpose in
Southern Europe caught up to me last Wednesday, and I found myself in bed
that afternoon, simultaneously nursing a cold and a sunburn—the sunburn from
my trek to Bom Jesus, which left my lips swollen like Angelina Jolie’s after
eating a cherry popsicle. It was the first day when the flood of
information of being in a completely foreign country caught up with me. And
the following two days went by quickly because this morning, I had the last
of my Portuguese lessons. The first chapter of my trip has concluded. It
was sad to say goodbye to Susana today. She works at the language school,
and we had become close friends from our bi-weekly afternoon activities,
which were supposed to widen my perspective about the culture of Porto and
the Portuguese language. But instead, Susana and I had discovered that we
had much more in common, and thus found ourselves whiling the hours away in
cafés doing girl-talk about men and relationships, that ubiquitous topic
which I've decided is the true binding agent between all countries. In any
case, Susana is a tiny little Taurus with a Leo ascendant, and although
she's an entire head shorter than me, I think her personality is about three
I’ve been instructed to try to return to Porto for O Dia do São João, which
is St. John’s Day in this city, June 23. St. John is Porto’s saint, and on
this day, a giant city-wide party takes place. It would depend on if
Southern Spain steals my heart the same way this city has. In any case, I
am taking a train tomorrow to Coimbra in Central Portugal, so for now it’s
Adéus Oporto e obrigada... até logo.
Air Portugal gets only one star from me for friendliness and excellent service, but the rest is Monty Python-meets-Afghan Air. Besides that, my flight to Lisbon left three hours before me, and my luggage arrived in Porto two hours after me, the TV screens mostly…Read More
Air Portugal gets only one star from me for friendliness and excellent service, but the rest is Monty Python-meets-Afghan Air. Besides that, my flight to Lisbon left three hours before me, and my luggage arrived in Porto two hours after me, the TV screens mostly displayed "This is a test" stripes, and a fire alarm kept going off during the flight. The alarm caused a scare the first few times until it was determined that it came from a broken smoke detector in a defective lavatory whose door was jammed shut. The flight attendants struggled to flip the door's emergency latch with the screw of an ashtray drawer, and judging from the small round dents on the shield around the latch, this was obviously standard practice...
I met Luis da Cruz on that flight to Lisbon, and FYI Stefanie and Pattie, we parted ways in Lisbon, and I’ll never see him again unless I call him in New York. He is much older than he looks on his website (www.luisdacruz.com). We were sharing the middle section alone together, and although he was by far the best-dressed passenger on the plane, I was offended when he kicked off his shoes immediately after take-off and spread himself over the empty seats like a starfish and fell asleep nearly with his head on my lap. But about two hours before landing, he regained consciousness, and this cocky jerk proved to be a sweet, fascinating, well-traveled, artistic, and mature person. The Portuguese apparently really make themselves at home when they’re on their own turf. Anyway, Luis told me a few observations which I’ve discovered to be true so far.
Firstly, as expected, everyone smokes *everywhere*. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen. Parents smoke with babies on their laps. The person selling you clothes in the store may light up. The man next to me in this cafe is smoking up a storm. Basically, smoking is allowed everywhere. However, if the Portuguese have not achieved anything significant in the past century, their ventilation systems kick ass, because even I can see the computer screen and write this email without suffocating.
Secondly, for some odd reason, Portuguese men are noticeably better-looking than the women, and Luis didn’t just say this because he’s a Portuguese guy. But, Stefanie, as I thought, they’re all about my height. The Portuguese appear to be a very purebred nationality, and they tend to have very heavy facial bone structure, along with the unibrow, which makes the Frida Kahlo look very popular, even among children. For obvious reasons, this works better for men.
Thirdly, the stereotype that the Portuguese are hospitable is, of course, very true. It’s a small country that feels like one big family. Senhora Maria Candeida Rosa Bandeira Azevedo, the grandma with whom I’m staying, took me on like family although we have no common language and she still can’t pronounce my name. It’s cute seeing her stand mornings in front of the TV in her bathrobe to watch the weather report. Then, when sports comes on, she shrugs her shoulders and shuffles away, mumbling "Desporto..." I think I’m pretty lucky, considering that I checked off "non-smoker" under Homestay Special Requests. She’s forgiven for having no hot running water in her apartment.
Otherwise, all other expected comments about Portugal barely need mention. The north is cold, Porto is gorgeous, Portuguese is a difficult language, but sounds thick and sensuous, just like their food. And the people love to eat decadent food. Everything that isn’t sweet and fatty is deep-fried with potatoes, thus it’s no wonder that "svelt" is not a Portuguese word...
I hope everyone is doing well, and just in case you’re wondering, I do feel terribly guilty for not working.