Friday, March 26, 2010

Portugal Part VI - If this were a movie, this would be the part where the camera pans around a dinner table, zooms in on each character, and lingers.

On our final night as a team, we ate fried cod at a hole in the wall restaurant favored by the local Habitat office, watched Portugal play Bosnia in the first of two qualifying games that would determine which team would make it to the 2010 World Cup games in South Africa, and drank Super Bock, the local beer. The restaurant was the size of an American living room, our waiter negotiated around the half dozen wooden tables like the steel marble in a pinball machine, and conversation was secondary to watching the soccer game. When the week began I thought I knew who my teammates were based solely on their brief bios and my first impressions of them, my opinions had changed over the course of our time together.

I’d always liked Frances, on the phone she’d come across as a down to earth Mid-Westerner, and she didn’t disappoint. If anything, she was even more folksy than I could have imagined, delighting in small observations in an almost childlike fashion (“oh look, there’s a cow!” she’d once said as our bus passed along the route to the job site one morning). Her speech patterns and word choices - “oh yeah” and “you betcha”, had grown on all of us, becoming so familiar that I began to hear them in my thoughts. We made gentle fun of her folksy ways, but it was that very quality that made her a great team leader; she didn’t force group participation through the use of ice breakers, or lead us in prayer every morning - which could easily have happened. Habitat is a Christian organization, and while they tolerate people from all walks of life, the prospect of daily prayer is spelled out in their literature. I’d expected to run up against it at some point, and try to use the time to reflect in my own way. When it never happened I asked Frances about it over dinner one night. She explained that every group was different, and trip leaders took the pulse of the team to determine how to handle this aspect of Habitat. If we’d been a church group this trip would have had a more spiritual bent, but since none of us had expressed a deep connection to religious beliefs, it wasn’t part of our itinerary.

I’d genuinely enjoyed being roommates with Frances, we’d shared more than one funny moment together - the time I was on the hotel room phone with M (using a calling card), and told him about the bidet in our bathroom. He said that was the first thing he would have checked out, which I relayed to Frances, and we laughed good and hard together in Braga while M waxed poetic in Chicago about how he wished America had picked up on the bidet traditions of the old world. We’d talked about the team, had conversations about what her job entailed when she wasn’t leading teams, and waxed rhapsodic about Michigan. When I’d first asked her how she’d made roommate selections she told me it had been luck of the draw - she’d pulled names out of a hat. Later she confessed that she’d matched people together, and purposely picked me as a roommate.

Frances was the only woman on the team besides me who hadn’t packed evening clothes, so I never felt too out of place going to dinner in a clean t-shirt and R.E.I. pants. Frances’ wardrobe seemed to contain an endless supply of workpants and t-shirts from Habitat events dating back to 2000, when she first started working there.

Bebe Neuwirth had come across to me at first as a bit tight-lipped, but her wry sense of humor seeped through her quiet ways as we worked together. She spoke to Luis and Mario in full English sentences before anyone else did. “Oh, you want this?” she’d say to Mario when he approached her with urgency in his stride, pointing to the bucket she’d been using, or the ladder she was standing on, “I don’t see your name on it.” Something about Bebe made me feel like she’d lived a hundred different lives, and the only way to find out about them all was by spending time with her.

The photo that Catherine O’Hara included in her bio had instilled fear in me; it was an arty self-portrait in bluish tones, hair spiked dramatically on top of her head, and a thousand yard stare accompanied by a slack, unsmiling face. Frances explained to me that it was a passport photo, which accounted for the giant patriotic star superimposed across the top left quadrant of the image, and that Catherine claimed not to have any other photos of herself so Frances used a copy of the passport photo that she’d included in her application. Catherine was a little quirky, but she had become endeared to me. When she wasn’t having loud, animated conversations with her teammates there was always one happening in her head - I could tell by the way her head tipped up at odd angles from time to time, and her facial muscles expanded and contracted in response to whatever piece of dialogue she was keeping to herself at that particular moment. When I told her I was too chicken to go into Casa das Bananas by myself to buy a penis shaped mug, she was more than happy to go with me and do all the talking. I never did take her up on it, but it was enough to know she’d have done it if I’d asked.

Shirley MacLaine and I had more in common that I’d first expected, she was a violinist with a subtle sense of humor and a manner that was completely free of vanity. She and Catherine were roommates, and the three of us spent an evening sitting at an outdoor cafĂ© drinking hot chocolate - if you can call it drinking, the stuff was so thick it required a spoon, while they asked me about my station in life. I’d said in my bio that I was an unemployed writer, and they were curious to hear more. Shirley and Catherine were like aunts to me, and had only supportive things to say about the path I’d chosen after losing my job. “Good for you,” I heard each of them say more than once as I recounted the events that led to my decision to travel while I had the chance. It was like having my own private cheering section, and I loved it.

Lili Taylor’s bio and photo gave me the impression of a new agey, free spirited woman who lived within the confines of her own world, and for some reason the fact that she was a vegetarian only reinforced this view in my mind. I passed by her one evening during my walks around Braga and she was so completely absorbed in whatever visions had conjured themselves in front of her eyes that she walked right past me without actually seeing me. Tiling the bathroom with her I saw a different side of her - one of attention to details and pushing through to see a project to completion. She had a laugh that was so loud I could hear it from anywhere on the job site, and a sense of humor that was much more wicked than I’d expected.

John Malkovich was about how I’d expected him to be; he looked like a rugged outdoorsman in his photo, and in his bio he described himself as a Vermonter who enjoyed building things. He had a surprisingly high pitched laugh that always caught me off guard, and told me stories about previous Habitat trips that he’d been on, including a two week project in Vietnam where the accommodations had been very basic and every meal was spent on-site with the family whose house was being built.

I struggled with Cher. Because of my adventures getting to Braga I wasn’t present when she descended from the airplane wearing a fur-lined coat, lugging an oversized suitcase stuffed with party clothes, but the image has been seared into my memory nonetheless. She tried to include me in her incessant patter about New York, Florida, and the stepmother who was only about a decade older than she was and had breast implants, but to me it all just sounded like so much noise. The New York I knew in my youth was so far from the one she lived in now that it was near pointless trying to connect over it. I did my best to overcome my dim view of her, succeeding in some measure, but there were key moments that kept me firmly planted in my first impression of the recent college grad: the moment I walked into the basement of the job site to find her hunched over a bucket of cement, jeans riding low enough on her ass that the top of her black thong underwear was visible; her expression of amazement when I told her I’d been married for eight years - maybe it wasn’t quite amazement, “that’s so weird that you’ve been married so long” is how she put it; and the plunging necklines and copious makeup that she insisted on wearing to dinner every night. I’d like to think that the experience broadened her worldview, and I can only hope that it did.

And then there was Nicholas Cage. Of all my team members, my connection to him was the most difficult. He initially struck me as a spoiled rich kid, born to parents of means who had traveled the world and taken him along for the ride. At 24 years old he lived with his parents in the south of France, and had participated in a number of experiences designed to broaden his worldview - Outward Bound, backpacking across Europe, and now Habitat for Humanity. His unwavering focus on mixing cement during the day was matched only by his nightly mission to find watering holes during his off-hours; every day he told us about the bars he’d been to the night before - with Cher in tow, and every night he stayed up later than he had the night before. Nicholas and Cher created a fast bond: leaning into each other on the couch of the hotel rec. room as they watched reruns of Dallas; staying up late; and making playful jokes about the relative age of the rest of us with regard to our self-imposed bedtimes. Over time we found common ground - a mutual interest in the music and lyrics of Leonard Cohen, a shared appreciation of unpasteurized French cheese and of the French language. My opinion of him had improved just enough by the end of the week to be completely destroyed by the events that would soon follow.

Portugal beat Bosnia 1-0, and we settled the check. Having come to the end of our time in Braga, and having enjoyed several pints of Super Bock, we were all in a giddy mood. Tomorrow we were scheduled to take a charter bus to Porto for one last day together before heading home. We stepped out into the rainy night and made our way back to the hotel, walking in hurried pairs under cheap umbrellas, steadying ourselves against each other as we negotiated the wet cobblestones under our feet.

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