Friday, March 12, 2010

Portugal Part IV - The Day Off

When Frances first mentioned there was a day off worked into the project itinerary, I thought it was bizarre. We were only here for a week, why on earth would we take an entire day out of such a short stay to be tourists? By the time our day off arrived I had changed my mind; my right arm positively ached with the stress of willing cement onto walls all day long, I was popping ibuprofen like they were mints, and I was dog tired.

We slept in that morning, and the eight of us and Irène from the Habitat Portugal office piled onto a tour bus, and headed for a town called Barcelos, where we strolled through a market that sold everything from live chickens to second hand clothing. On one end of the market vendors sold olives that were stacked impossibly high, crates of dried fish, and cheese. In other corners were housewares, clothing, furniture and CDs. In one spot a woman holding a microphone seemed to be conducting a live auction for used clothing, and in another was a stall that sold handmade folkloric clothing in children's sizes. I bought several miniature hand-painted roosters (the national symbol of Portugal), that had the word "Portugal" painted in script on the base of each one. I told the aging vendor how many I wanted to buy, in broken Spanish, and he lined them up in front of me for inspection before wrapping each one individually in tissue paper. Then he typed what I owed him into a hand calculator. I bought four tablecloths printed with the rooster motif from a vendor who spoke French, and a top that looked a lot like a dreidel from a man selling handmade wooden items. He painstakingly explained what the letter on each side of the top was, and I repeated after him. Then he tried to explain what the object was, or perhaps how it was used. I nodded and smiled, but I could see in his eyes that he knew I didn't understand a thing he'd said to me. Finally I bought a second hand soccer jersey with Christiano Ronaldo's name and number on it for my brother in law. I'd started a precedent a few years ago when I bought him a soccer jersey in Marrakesh; virtually every time he wears it in Boston someone yells "Aaaaaaay Morocco!" to him. He's the kind of man who looks like he could be from one of a hundred countries, and I was sure he'd get a similar reaction wearing Ronaldo's number.

The day had started out rainy, but by noon the sun broke through the clouds and I was squinting. We ate lunch at a restaurant in Barcelos where I ordered a dish that included dried cod. My friend Muggy, who lives on Cape Cod, had recently given me a book titled Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, which contains detailed descriptions of the cod trading route, ancient recipes for dried salted cod, and descriptions of Cape Cod that made me wish I could travel back in time. Among the many facts I learned reading that book is that Portugal and Spain are the largest consumers of dried cod in the world. I'd tried making an old cod recipe from the book at home, with limited success, and was determined to try it while I was in Portugal. As with all the seafood I'd eaten on this trip, it was better than anything I could get back home.

After lunch we piled back onto the bus and drove to a small beach town called Ofir, where I rolled up my pant legs and strolled along the oceanfront with Frances. We were drawn to the perfectly round, smooth stones on the shoreline. I picked one out of the sand, rinsed it in the wake of a broken wave, and dropped it in my pocket. As the tide receded with each wave, more perfectly round stones emerged, cold, wet and gleaming in the sun. I picked up one after another, soon my pockets grew heavy from their weight, and my jeans sagged. Frances was just as into it as I was, "oooh, look at this one," she said, showing me a translucent white stone sitting in the center of her open palm. We were the only ones on the beach, and I felt like a kid walking in the wind with my jeans rolled up to my knees, the pressure of my body weight causing the sand beneath me to pucker against the sides of my feet when I plunked one down, and pool with water when I lifted it up again. Time stretched, it seemed we spent an entire summer picking up stones and looking out onto the ocean. I imagined what I'd be looking at if I could see around the earth's curvature, and all the way across the ocean. What American city was I lined up with at this moment? Baltimore? We walked back to the boardwalk where the others were lounging, and boarded the bus - shoes in one hand and pebbles in the other.

From there we returned to Braga and drove to a hilltop to see a church whose name was Bom Jesus, and was pronounced Bom Shush in Portuguese. From the top of the hill we could see the city, and Irène pointed out where we were in relation to the hotel and the job site. I walked through the church quietly, a service was in progress, and hovered silently by the vestry, where a heavy wooden door opened onto a scene of a priest sitting at a desk, lost in an oversized book. It looked like a paper advent calendar window.

Below the church was a series of stairs with seven landings running down the length of the hilltop, a fountain at each one. The fountains on the second through sixth landings were dedicated to the senses; the fountain dedicated to sight had a sculpture of a woman with water flowing through her eyes, the one dedicated to hearing had a sculpture of a figure with water flowing through its ears. There was something delectable about seeing something that I knew absolutely nothing about, in preparing for this trip I hadn't read anything touristy because I didn't think I'd be doing much touring, so I was seeing everything for the very first time - unfiltered by guide books or must-see lists. So often by the time I see a monument in person I've seen it a thousand times already in pictures and in movies, or had the experience described to me by someone who's been there. Everything Irène showed us on our day off was brand new to me, I had no preconceptions of what it would be like, or how I would feel when I got there. It was liberating.

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