Thursday, December 10, 2009
Portugal, Part I
My roommate's alarm went off at 7. She hit the snooze, then got up when it sounded a second time. "Hi J," she said.
"Hi," I said from underneath my bedsheets, "you must be Frances, it's nice to meet you." Frances was the team leader from Habitat, I'd sent her a photo and bio of myself so she could compile it into a document along with the rest of the team's information and email it to us before the trip. I wrote about myself using the third person, and felt like a tool when I saw that everyone else had written about themselves using the first. Secretly I was hoping that I would be paired up with Frances as a roommate, I'd considered a few different Habitat trips before committing to this one, and her easy going manner and Midwestern hominess had sold me. She's originally from Michigan, and I have a soft spot for America's high-five. Some of the best people I've ever met are from Michigan, and every summer M and I spend time at my in-laws' summer cottage in a town called Dowagiac; maybe choosing a trip based on the regional familiarity of the team leader isn't the best way to make a decision, but its not the worst either.
Frances hadn't heard me enter the room the night before, so I explained my unintended late-night check-in, and told her I'd be joining the group later with another team member who hadn't yet arrived. After Frances left the room I could hear the other team members gathering in the hallway, snippets of conversation as they made their way out of their rooms and down the stairs, and wondered which bios matched the voices I was hearing. At 8a.m. church bells rang out, first from one church, then another and another. I lost track of how many, and wondered if this would be an hourly occurrence. Just when I thought I'd never get back to sleep I drifted off.
I woke at 10, ravenous. I descended a flight of stairs to the breakfast room, where evidence that other guests had recently dined surrounded me; empty coffee cups and crumb-filled dishes populated the tabletops in pairs. I approached the buffet table and picked up what I thought was a coffee mug and realized was a cereal bowl only after I'd poured instant coffee into it. The food selection was spare: cereal in plastic dispensers; a few lonely yogurts in a bowl of melted ice; bread rolls; and a couple slices of ham and cheese. I ate a roll with butter and jam, and two pieces of something that looked like zwieback crackers. Then I went back to my room and, Portuguese glossary in hand, walked out of the hotel onto the cobblestone street.
It was raining a little, not enough to really be called rain. Misty drops of condensation landed on my face and darkened the cobblestones, creating a high-contrast tone reminiscent of an old black and white photo. A hundred feet to my left was a cathedral, twenty feet to my right was something that looked like a diner called Refrigerador da Sé . I walked to the cathedral in time to see a group of Asian tourists approach the edifice in silent observation, guidebooks in their hands and cameras around their necks. I followed them into the cathedral and looked inside, then walked back up the street past my hotel, and crossed the street into new territory. I walked past a school where the voices of young students singing in unison could be heard, and further along the narrow street the proprietor of a bar stood outside his establishment and silently watched me walk past him until I rounded the corner to a wide avenue that led to residential buildings and a dead end. I was hungry; I retraced my steps to Refrigerador da Sé, and opened my glossary to the food page.
"Sandsh?" I asked the young, dark-haired woman behind the counter while pointing to the word sandes, which according to my glossary meant sandwich. She called over an older woman, who pointed to all the words in my glossary that were available at the Refrigerador, and said them out loud to me. Then she opened a menu and pointed to the various items available; when her finger hovered over the word omelete, I made a happy sound and nodded my head. "Café?" I asked, the woman nodded and said: "sim" (sounds like si). "Can I sit here?" I asked, pointing to a small round table by the window. She held her hand out towards the table, indicating that the table was available. A few minutes later a delectably strong cappuccino and a ham and cheese omelet served with rice and fries was delivered to me. It was a small victory, but I was extraordinarily pleased with myself. I ate everything on my plate. "Obrigado," I said to the woman as I left, "Obrigado, bom dia," she replied.
Later I was driven to the job site by Irène, a Habitat Portugal staffer, along with the team member whose flight had landed earlier that day. We drove through the town and up into green hills, and parked near the small building we'd be working in for the next week. I walked in and immediately saw Frances.
"There's J!" She said. I was directed to the basement where I put on the construction gloves M had insisted on buying me at Menards, picked out a hard hat, and was assigned to a room in the back of the building to apply cement to the walls. The foreman demonstrated, slopping a pile of cement from a bucket using a trowel, and heaping it onto a flat rectangular plate with a handle on the underside. With the plate in his left hand, he scooped up several ounces of cement onto the back of the trowel with his right, and spread it onto the wall as easily as if he were icing a cake. It was much harder and went much slower when I did it. When the foreman stopped by my station to see how I was doing, he held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart and said "Mais." It sounded like maish, and I knew from context that he was telling me to apply more cement.
By the time we called it a day and walked to the bus stop a few blocks from the job site my wrist was sore from the repeated motion and effort of spreading cement. I had finally met my fellow team members, and if I were to cast celebrities in the movie version of this trip it would break down like this: there was a mother of two from Minneapolis who could be portrayed by Bebe Neuwirth; a woman from California who worked in the film industry who might be played by Lili Taylor; a young ad exec from New York City who could possibly be portrayed by Cher circa 1968; a viola player from New Jersey with a resemblance to Shirley MacLaine; an outdoors-man from Vermont who had a passing resemblance to John Malkovich; an attorney from Utah who could easily be played by Catherine O'Hara; the Habitat team leader, who reminded me of Frances McDormand circa Fargo; and a young man who lived with his parents in southern France, who could be played variously by Nicholas Cage circa Valley Girl or Leaving Las Vegas, depending on the situation. Over the next week or so I would come to know these people, but for now all I knew of them was what I'd read in their bios, and the few hours we'd spent working together.