Last Wednesday I hopped on a midnight bus to Lisbon to spend a long weekend with my Portuguese family. Well, if we're going to get technical, they are not "real" family, but Ana Margarida and Rita are the sister and niece (respectively) of a family that is as good as my own, the Martins, and they have never failed to make me feel that way on the various occasions that we have spent holidays or celebrations as one big, well, family. This time was no exception.
I emailed Ana Margarida on Monday of last week, having just been told that I would have a 4 day weekend for some Spanish holiday of no particular importance, hoping to seize this opportunity to visit the Portuguese Martins in Lisbon. Thankfully, Margarida, ever warm, inviting, and enthusiastic, embraced my spontaneity and booked me a hotel straight away, saying "Come to Lisbon, we are waiting for you!"
I took a midnight train two days later to Lisbon, arriving at 6am, and wandered to find a taxi to my hotel. I try to make a point of utilizing whatever meager amounts of a language I may have in my repertoire in each new cultural exchange, probably because of my perpetual fear of linguicentrism (I think I made that word up, i.e. expecting everyone to speak english), and this pre-dawn taxi-ride was to be no exception, no matter how tired I was. I managed a "Bom dia", the address of my hotel and an "Obrigada," which I thought was pretty good, considering how tired I was, but my taxi driver cocked his head up and took one glance at me through the rearview mirror and said, "You're English, aren't you?" "Americana," I responded. "Well then, speak English!" as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Despite my disheveled appearance and bleary eyes, my taxi driver saw my brief presence in his cab as an opportunity to practice his English and bestow upon me, what I later found to be, a characteristic Portuguese perspective. After relaying to him my current occupation in Spain he said, not without an air of disdain, "And how are your students?" I hemmed and hawed a bit, giving them a gracious report only to be met with what resembles a "Guffaw" and a small rant regarding the inferiority of the Spanish, them...and the French. For the remainder of the trip, almost without fail, I was met with Portuguese who could not only speak English proficiently but also Spanish, French and/or German, and this ubiquitous opinion of the Spanish.
On Thursday I wandered the streets of Lisbon, full of hills, taking in the plethora of awe-inspiring vistas, classic Portuguese white buildings with yellow or blue trim, castles, bridges, the vast river (often mistaken for the sea) and dined with the happy couple and the beautiful Mika in their flat in Cascais. On Friday I made a day trip to Sintra where I saw the most unique and exquisite palace, perched on the top of a hill overlooking the city, the forest, and the sea.
From Palacio Pena I decided to wander of in the direction of a convent, aided only by one road sign about 3km down with an arrow down a simple road. My fascination with convents and monasteries began not too long ago when I was sitting and talking and dreaming with my dear friend Abby about the adventures we were about to embark upon and she showed me a book of Monasteries in Italy that allow you to stay in them for a nominal fee. Intrigued, I did some research and found that the same was true in Spain, although the actual ones are not listed online. I inquired in the tourist office in Sevilla only to be told that "No hay en Andalusia." Bummer. I'm going to do it though, only a matter of time. Anyway....
I walked for about 30 minutes in that direction, perfectly content with earbuds tucked in and my "iphone glory" playlist of worship songs playing, imagining myself on a mini-pilgrimage, a sort of practice round for the somewhat longer pilgrimage I will take in May (more on that later). Not long after walking I noticed little posts on the side of the road marking the distance, 8.6, 8.5, 8.4km...and thought, perhaps this is to show how far the historic convent is from here. 8.6km, well, that's quite far...but no matter, I have all day and there is really nothing I enjoy more than walking through a new country, especially off a beaten path. And, let me tell you, this was an unbeaten path. Well, at least for a couple centuries. I came upon several dilapidated estates and only dared to enter one that was very near the road. There is something so enchanting and eery about abandoned buildings, especially ones that have been overtaken by vines and moss and trees and that now barely resemble a human abode.
I kept walking for miles, every once in a while being passed by a curious car, to which I paid no attention because I was set on walking the whole way there. As I reached the top of each new hill I found a new village nestled among the trees below or a clearer view of the sea and reveled in the beauty of this little storybook land. As I saw the numbers 3.2, 2.4, 1.1 pass by I began to walk a bit faster with excitement and anticipation in each step. Then, all of a sudden, I was at the end of the road, looking at another sign, just like the first one I had seen over 10km back, except this time, with one marked difference- note the distance: "Convento Capuchos 4". What? 4km back?? How did I miss it? Besides the obvious disappointment, now I was a bit worried. It was about 4:30 and I knew I had about an hour and a half before dark and I was well away from the town, not to mention the Convent would probably be closing soon. I knew I was going to have to hitch-hike back to Sintra either way so rather than walk down into another town to find my way back, I head back up into the hills to complete my quest.
This time, I decided, I would not be against a little help, so I decided to petition a small coupe coming up the road for a short ride. An old man named Grecia, the one Portuguese I met during my whole trip who did not speak English (or Spanish) opened the passenger door for me gruffly without saying a word. I just kept saying "convento" and he tried to speak German and we were a goofy lot for the 5 minute ride to his natural spring well. He stopped, said, "Agua" and pointed me in the direction of the Convent...okay, 1km to go. As I walked a blue BMW drove up next to me, rolled down the window and motioned me inside. I remembered seeing it parked in front of a glorious mansion at the end of the road. I shook my head and smiled, "Solomente un kilometer" (resorting to Spanish), and the man nodded reluctantly and drove on. Two minutes later the same car came back the opposite direction and stopped to inquire what (the heck) I was doing because apparently he saw me walking a couple hours ago. Refraining from just calling myself loco, I explained my destination and declined help again (I can walk the last km, claro!). He drove off only to return, once again, going my way, and insisting on driving me the remainder. The Portuguese are incessantly accommodating! ;)
I found myself at the convent, 10 minutes before it was to close, buying a ticket and appeasing the perplexed woman at the desk explaining that I would find some way down the big hill to town (I did concede that I was a little loco this time), and finally venturing into see the place I had walked over 14km to reach. I will explain it with photos only, but suffice to say, I was satisfied and once again enchanted by the history and beauty of the country. The ticket woman convinced me to drive to Capuchos with her and take a bus back to Sintra, so I agreed, happy to not have to hitch a ride in the dark and happier to set this poor woman's mind at ease (and my dad's too, because I knew he'd be reading this ;).
Once back in Sintra, I ran to catch the train, stopping in the station cafe for a hunk of chocolate salami for the road, realizing that I hadn't eaten since breakfast at the hotel. Chocolate salami is one of Portugal's mythic treats for me because Giselle and I were obsessed with it when we came 5 years ago and I hadn't had it since. That night, I met Margarida for dinner, exuberant, exhausted, and famished. We feasted on cod fish (also very Portuguese), wine, and a boiled egg dessert down by the docks.
Saturday Margarida and I took a long scenic drive down the coast to the Troia peninsula, where a lot of families from Lisbon have summer homes. On the way she stopped to show me a beautiful convent nestled up in the canyon overlooking the crystal blue water of the Atlantic. A colleague of hers was married here a few years ago...a new dream of mine! :) We took a ferry across the river and spent hours relaxing on the beach and eating a late lunch in a small fishing village. That night, we strolled through Barrio Alto, a four-street neighborhood of funky bars and restaurants with tons of people hanging out and drinking in the streets until the wee hours (which, like a lot of Lisbon, resembles San Francisco). I met some of Rita's friends and they took me in like one of their own and treat me to a great night in the Barrio and later at the best disco in Lisbon, called Lux. It was truly impressive, and was made all that much more so because we walked right to the front, greeted the doorman with a hug and handshake and passed well over a block of people waiting in the freezing cold of 4am. Yet another way I was happily spoiled in Lisbon. :)
On Sunday Rita and Luis had all of their friends over for a bbq and we spent the whole afternoon playing with the beautiful baby and chatting and gazing out on the Atlantic (and NATO headquarters) right from their balcony. Their friends were delightful and warm and I was so sad to leave, but I have been entreated to return in June for a big festival called Santos, so I hope to make it back before I head back to the states.
More than anything, spending time with Margarida and getting to know her better and Portugal through her eyes was such a wonderful experience. I told her and Rita that the thing I looked forward to most about coming to visit was the normalcy and comfort of being with a family and I enjoyed that time immensely. In some ways, coming back to Sevilla, I feel as if I have left my heart in Portugal...yet another place it now resides, as with all of you.