Saturday, March 27, 2010

Portugal Part VII - A Series Of Unfortunate Events

It took a few minutes for Frances to discover that her wallet was missing. Cher, Nicholas, João and I were waiting in the lobby of the hotel for her. It was our last night in Braga, and Portugal had just beaten Bosnia in soccer; we were heading out to a bar to celebrate.

Frances descended the stairs looking harried. “My wallet’s missing,” she said, and in just three words an evening that was destined to become fodder for nostalgic trips down memory lane instantly dissolved into a searing reminder of our status as outsiders. We had all felt so relaxed, since arriving in Braga I hadn’t checked for my wallet once in all my wanderings. Not even the nights that I’d called M from a dark public payphone, street sounds entering the mouthpiece, traveling up into space, feeding their way through a satellite, and finally beaming back to earth and into M’s ear canal in Chicago. I’d never felt the need to watch my back, not once.

Cher and Nicholas headed to the bar as Frances, João and I retraced our steps. Frances had settled the bill at the restaurant, and not five minutes later we’d stepped out the door into the rainy night. We scanned the cobblestones beneath us with intensity, and at the restaurant João spoke to the manager in hushed tones. Nothing had turned up, the wallet was nowhere to be found. I offered her what I could only hope was supporting patter. “It’s just money,” I said, “nobody got hurt.” And then: “you have to take it like wasabi - it stings for just a second, then you breathe and let it pass. Don’t let it ruin the whole trip for you.”

Earlier in the day Frances had paid the restaurant where we’d enjoyed our team lunches, and the bill had been surprisingly low. She’d withdrawn extra money just in case; when the bill came to just shy of €150, she offered to pay a tip to the sisters who ran the restaurant. They refused, insisting that whatever we’d intended to pay them as tip should be donated to the Habitat Portugal office. In all, Frances was carrying around €400 when her wallet was stolen. She felt responsible for the theft, I could see it in the tightness of her jaw, in the shortness of her step, and the fix in her eye. In the end there was nothing to be done but move on. We gave up the search, and I convinced her to come out for the celebratory drinks that we’d intended. I told her that just going home and going to bed would only make her think about the unfortunate incident more.

Frances, João and I caught up with Cher and Nicholas, and we shared a couple beers. We traded stories of being pick pocketed, it was hard to stay away from the subject. At 1am Frances and I called it a night, and went back to the hotel. We slept, but not well. Outside the rain grew harder, and I could hear Frances tossing in her narrow bed, the scene of the theft replaying in her mind. She gave up the fight for sleep before sunrise, showered, packed, and left the room.

A while later I went downstairs for breakfast and came across the figure of Nicholas asleep on the couch in the rec. room, facing the back of the couch like an Andy Capp cartoon. Frances was sitting across from him near the computer, where she was catching up on emails. We exchanged glances and she told me how she’d heard his sodden footsteps coming up the stairs as she sat up in the wee hours with insomnia. He’d been out all night, his clothes were completely soaked through with rain, and his mind was completely soaked through with alcohol. He’d pulled off his clothes and fallen asleep on the couch in his boxers. “I covered him up,” she said. In the breakfast room all conversation surrounded the drunken 24 year-old on the couch. In an hour we were scheduled to get on a charter bus headed for Porto, and Nicholas showed no signs of reviving. Just leave him here, I thought, but I didn’t say it out loud.

I headed back upstairs to get my bags, and piled into the bus with the others. Frances headed back to the hotel to see what she could about Nicholas. Five minutes passed, then ten, then twenty. João hadn’t shown up yet, he’d been assigned to ride with us to Porto so he could give directions to the bus driver. “There they are,” someone said, and I looked out the window to see Nicholas being supported like an injured football player coming off the field, his right arm around Frances, and his left around one of the hotel employees. He was stumbling, his feet barely making contact with the pavement, his eyes were half open slits, and his mouth hung open. A chill ran down my spine as I realized the only open seats were directly behind me.

I grew up in an alcoholic household, and nothing makes me want to jump out of a moving vehicle faster than having to sit right next to, or right in front of, someone who’s so drunk that he can’t stand on his own two feet. I have nothing against drinking in principle, and enjoy sharing alcohol with friends, but I cannot tolerate drunkards. Unfortunately for me, my reaction to drunkards tends to be that of a possum, particularly when I’m in a strange land, surrounded by people who are essentially strangers.

Frances piled onto the bus with Nicholas hanging onto her, and he slouched his way to the back of the bus. “Where’s João?” he asked loudly. “ João didn’t show up,” came the reply. “What? No way! He’s cheating,” Nicholas said, tipping his head back. “He’s cheating, he’s cheating, he’s cheating,” he repeated, as if it were new and hilarious each time. His already slow gait became even slower as he approached me. “Get back,” I said to him, a little more sharply than I’d intended. “You go all the way back, through that curtain,” I said, pointing to an orange curtain that separated the sleeping quarters intended for the bus driver on his off hours. “Whaaaat?” Nicholas said, his brow furrowing as the sharpness of my tone began to register in his soaked brain. “No way, you want me to go all the way back there?” “Yes,” I said. Nicholas planted himself into the seat behind mine. “Who wants company?” he asked, sticking his head into the aisle. No one answered. “We’re fine Nicholas, nobody needs company,” I said. He went quiet and my spine tensed, every muscle in my body readying for flight. All I could think was that he was going to stand up and vomit all over my head. I craned my neck behind my seat and our eyes met, and I quickly turned back around. The next time I checked, he was asleep.

Without João, we had no one to translate with the bus driver, and no one who knew the way to Porto if we got lost. Frances had the address of the hotel in Porto where we had reservations, I hoped that would be enough information.

We descended the bus in Porto, and waited on the sidewalk as Frances revived Nicholas and removed him from the bus. The hotel clerk couldn’t find our reservation, Frances used the lobby phone to call Irène, who was scheduled to meet us at the hotel. There had been a last minute change in hotels, we trudged the few blocks to the right address and checked in.

Its hard for me to explain the paralysis that sets in when I’m confronted with a drunkard, but I wasn’t able to speak up. I so badly wanted Frances to leave Nicholas at the hotel, but he ambled down the stairs to the lobby and joined us as we walked to the waterfront to meet Irène and to take a riverboat tour. Everyone was avoiding him, not just me. Cher gave him the cold shoulder, and I got up and moved to another table when he sat near me on the boat. Snippets of hushed conversation took place in corners as we reacted, each in our own way, to the situation. For the next several hours we were dragged through what would have been a pleasant afternoon: a boat tour on the Douro River; lunch at a restaurant where Nicholas fell asleep in his chair; and of all things, a tour of a port wine manufacturer that featured a tasting at the end.

From there we went to dinner, where a somewhat sobered Nicholas sat at the end of the table and made penitent eye contact with the rest of us. Cher continued to ignore him, but somehow by the time we made it back to the hotel they had reconciled. We gathered in a living room and began recounting highlights of the trip. We went around in a circle, each of us saying what the best part of the trip was for us. When my turn came I took a pass, in that moment I couldn’t think of one pleasant memory that still sat with me. I wanted to scream.

Finally we got up from our seats. I’d told Irène that I was interested in hearing some live music, and she’d found a place. Nicholas and Cher had decided to accompany her, and were waiting on the stairs for Irène and me. With tears in my eyes, I told her I was just too tired and to go ahead without me. It was all I could do to hold back until I walked through the door of my room, errant tears slipping past my resolve as I climbed the stairs, until the door opened and I sobbed in front of Frances. We talked for two hours that night about everything that had gone wrong in the last 24 hours, and what steps could be taken next. Finally, having exorcised our bad fortune, she asked me to show her the antique tiles I’d bought in Braga. I was so taken by all the gorgeous tile around us, and felt a special connection to it now that I’d done some tiling myself. On one of my walks through town I’d stopped into an antique shop that had its doors propped open and boxes of tiles set up on the sidewalk - just to look of course, and an hour later had left with 13 tiles weighing me down. I spread them across the bedspread and Frances picked each one up and turned it over in her hands, marveling at their beauty.

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