Monday, February 1, 2010

Portugal, Part II

Braga was the perfect antidote to Barcelona; it was small, quiet, and there was no chance I could get lost - all I had to do was look for the top of the cathedral that was half a block from my hotel to get back home. I couldn't speak the language but that didn't seem to matter much, people went out of their way to help me with whatever minuscule task I was attempting. I took to exploring in the afternoons after returning from the Habitat job site, walking along narrow cobbled streets and picking out my next coffee spot. The breakfast buffet at the hotel left something to be desired, and I quickly discovered that I loved the local coffee, so I began a solo ritual of leaving the hotel in the morning and getting an espresso and pastry before meeting the others. Braga was cheap too, I could get the best espresso of my life and a croissant that was barely three hours old for less than €2. In the evenings we'd go to dinner as a group. The food was always delicious, and frequently involved seafood. We'd all paid a participation fee in advance that covered everything but drinks, and frequently we'd finish three or four bottles of wine among the ten of us, then split the cost; it never came to more than €2.50 each.

An innate level of trust accompanied me on my solo wanderings, I bought hot chestnuts from an elderly woman wearing a kerchief on her head one evening, and I didn't understand how much it cost so I simply held a few coins out in my hand, and trusted that she'd take only what I owed her. Shop owners typed the cost of my purchases into a pocket calculator, or into the register, and then tilted the screen towards me so I could see what to pay. "Nobody understands us," Irène said when I told her about these transactions, "we're used to it. We understand Spanish speakers, but they don't understand us, we travel to Brazil and understand the Portuguese they speak there, but they don't understand a word of what we say."

On TV, foreign-language shows were subtitled; I watched Zoolander in English in my hotel room one night, scanning the subtitles from time to time to see if I could pick up any new words in the process. Portugal was a linguistic island, at once related to the language of its closest neighbors and completely on its own in a way I hadn't expected. English words were used to create ambiance, I walked past stores with names like: Remember The Last Summer; Pic-Pic; Women's Secret; and Closed. A store named Casa das Bananas sold penis and breast shaped coffee mugs and liquor bottles, right next to a store called Casa St. Antonio where you could buy Christmas creches and images of various saints.

Our hotel was quasi self-service, the front desk was manned only 12 hours a day, and it took me a while to figure out how to open the front door before 10am. By way of explanation, a sign in Portuguese, French and English was posted by the door reading:

Dear Guests,

The reception of this hotel closes everyday at 10 p.m. until 10 a.m. of the other day. If you arrive later, you must use the key of the front door that you have received with the room key, when you made the check-in.

Thank you

There was a TV lounge next to the breakfast room, with piles of outdated reading materials for guests. I picked up a 1997 issue of a Scottish publication called The Lady that had a feature called Holidays in Cornwall and read about events that were current a dozen years earlier.

Our group quickly established a routine; in the morning we gathered in the lobby at about 8:30 and walked the four blocks to our bus stop, where we took the same bus, driven by the same elderly driver, every day. The same passengers rode the bus - the two young brothers, who looked about six and eight years old, who rode the bus to school; the woman who yelled at the bus driver from the front door but never boarded, prompting the driver to catch my eye in his rear-view mirror, turn his index finger in a circle next to his ear in the universal sign of "crazy person" and mutter "ah, Port-you-gahl, Port-you-gahl, Port-you-gahl"; and the Habitat group, dressed in construction clothes, our somewhat disheveled and loud presence attracting the attention of locals.

At the job site, a small house in a hilly neighborhood called Gondizalves, we quickly specialized into jobs that suited our talents - Nicholas Cage had the loud, dirty job of mixing cement; Catherine O'Hara carried buckets of fresh cement to those of us charged with spreading cement on the walls, replenishing our supply; and John Malkovich was forever standing on a ladder and finishing walls at an alarming pace. We broke for lunch at the same time every day, and walked to the same restaurant, where aside from a few regulars - a handful of quiet men in work clothes standing at the bar, sipping espresso and watching the news, we were the only patrons.

The restaurant was run by two sisters, one cooked and the other served. We ate huge heaping piles of food: cabbage soup, salad, fried chicken, sardines, perch, pasta, sometimes all in the same meal. There was always a TV on at the bar, and though I couldn't understand what was being said, I glanced over at it every once in a while anyway. On a show that looked very similar to American Idol, a man sang I Did It My Way in Portuguese; on another, people danced competitively; and on a show called Insólito, a screen caption reading: Usava vagina para escondar jóias overlay a story that I tried my best to understand. I figured the word vagina had to mean the same thing it did in English, but the rest escaped me. It stayed onscreen long enough for everyone at the table to see it. Finally Catherine O'Hara, who was ashamed of nothing, asked João to translate. He read the text and his face fell in on itself, like a cartoon character who's just eaten an entire lemon. "Its about a woman who stole jewelry from a store by putting it in her vagina," he said, his voice heavy with resignation, just as a dramatic re-enactment of the theft was unfolding onscreen. A camera at floor level showed the back of a pair of legs standing a foot or so apart. In the middle distance sat an official, presumably the security guard who suspected the theft. The legs shook momentarily, and some jewelry fell from above the camera shot, into a little pile between them.