Sunday, March 28, 2010

Portugal Part VIII - Epilogue

I. Porto

By the time Frances and I had woken up the next morning and gotten ourselves ready to explore Porto, half the team had already begun their journeys home. Cher was in the lobby with her copious luggage when we descended the staircase, and moments later a cab arrived to whisk her off to the airport. John had left a few hours earlier, as had Bebe and Catherine. Nicholas was scheduled to take a train heading north back to his parents' house in France. I wasn't leaving until the next day, as was Frances, and Lili had scheduled three extra days in a bed & breakfast on the Rua de S. Nicolau near the river. The participation fee I'd paid only covered one night's stay in the Porto hotel, but Frances let me share her room an additional night without charging me.

We handed our heavy room key to the grumpy desk clerk and walked out into the drizzling city to find breakfast. The rain had slowed, but it had been a near-constant for two days now. We settled on a cafe that had a pastry display in the window, and enjoyed the novelty of what felt like big-city bustle. On the street, people walked past the cafe at a brisk clip, and inside customers engaged each other in lively conversation. I looked out the window I saw the familiar figure of Shirley blending in with the locals, and waved to her. She smiled, waved back, and approached us.

"I'm glad I ran into you," she said, "I have something for you, and I was going to leave it at the front desk - my flight leaves in a couple hours and I'm heading out soon." Shirley had spent the past couple hours shopping for a gift for Frances; back in Braga, before watching the soccer game, we'd decided to pitch in €5 each and buy a gift for Frances as a gesture of our appreciation for leading the team. Frances had been just as taken with tile as I was, and we'd planned on buying her some as our group gift to her. Unfortunately, by the time we got to Porto there hadn't been time for shopping, and since today was Sunday hardly anything was open. Shirley had settled on a hand painted ceramic platter instead. I decided then that once I got home I would send Frances one of my tiles - I'd accidentally bought two of the same kind, and while the platter was nice, it wasn't the same as a piece of antique Portuguese tile.

We met up with Lili for lunch at the Majestic Cafe, a belle epoque building that featured leather seats, mirrored walls, and served expensive tea in fine china. We split up for the afternoon, each of us exploring our own interests. I spent some time at an Internet cafe that had reasonable rates and explored the city on foot, marveling at the buildings, and naturally, the tiles that covered them. We connected again at dinner, meeting at a three table restaurant called A Grade (pronounced ah grahday) that was owned by the B&B where Lili was staying. We dined on the most exquisite cod, squid, and Portuguese wine I've ever tasted. It was easily the best food and most fun meal of the entire trip.

Unsolicited, the owner of the restaurant came out from behind his station at the bar, approached our table with an ornate looking bottle and three shot glasses, and poured us all a serving. We toasted each other and downed the shots. It was surprisingly pleasant, whatever it was, and a moment later the owner returned and served us a second round. We hesitated, and finally Frances said "Oh alright." I lifted my glass up and said "If Frances is having one, I'm having one." A small boy at the next table began to parrot me: "If Frances is having one, I'm having one," he said, and then repeated the phrase. I took out my notepad to write down the name on the bottle label when a man at the next table - the father of the little boy who was parroting me, turned in his seat and began speaking to us in perfect English. He explained that the owner of the restaurant used old bottles for his own homemade hooch, and I'd only be writing down the name of what was originally in the bottle. By the time we left the restaurant we'd regained our sense of wonder that had been lost the day before. I was grateful for the chance to recuperate after the miserable day we'd just survived, and couldn't have found two better people to spend an extra day in Porto with than Frances and Lili.

II. The Journey Home

When Frances and I arrived at the airport in the wee hours of the morning, it appeared to be closed. "Cerrado", the taxi driver had said to us after unloading our luggage from the trunk, and "cinco horas". It seemed he was speaking Spanish. The lights were off inside the airport, and a few people were waiting outside on benches. We sat down, and peered through the glass walls into the darkened airport. After a few minutes I saw movement, there were a couple guards walking around, and I thought I saw the figures of people sleeping on the floor here and there. We tried the sliding doors and they opened, inside the only sound was the squeaky wheel of a cart piled with luggage that a lone traveler was pushing across the floor in slow motion, like a zombie in a horror movie. A flashing green pharmacy sign was the only source of light. As our eyes adjusted to the dark I began to make out the figures of more people sitting on benches, or asleep on the floor. The lights came on at about 5am. My flight was first, Frances and I said our goodbyes and I went through the security checkpoint.

I had a four hour layover in Frankfurt, where I experienced severe sticker shock. I'd become so used to Portuguese prices that €3 for an individual serving of yogurt and €16 an hour to use an Internet kiosk seemed beyond outrageous. I sent M the most expensive email of my life, struggling to use the German keyboard that seemed to be nothing but W and Z keys. A timer counted down the minutes of Internet access that I'd paid €2.50 for, so I didn't bother trying to spell anything correctly. The resulting communication was as follows:

Im in the Frankfiurt airport using a kiosk that costs 16 euros an hour, and II onli paid for 15 mins. the kezuboard is messed up so I cant spell. Mzu phone card ran out of minutes while we were talking in Portugal. Whz does the German kezboard have a Z where a Y should be? Annozing.

See zou soon, love zou, miss zou,


I had coffee at Starbucks because it was the cheapest thing I could find, and ate granola bars that I'd brought with me from Chicago and were still in my luggage. Looking around I couldn't help noticing that I was the worst dressed person in the airport. Everyone around me was neatly dressed and coiffed, I had a red bandanna on my head and wore the same underwear I had on the day before. I smelled a little ripe too. Whoever sits next to me is going to wish they paid for an upgrade, I thought as I lifted my €3.80 latte to my lips.

Before I could present my information at the check-in counter a woman with excessive mascara and white eyeliner rimming the inside of her lids asked me a barrage of questions: where had I traveled - Marseilles, Barcelona and Porto; how did I get from Marseilles to Barcelona - by train; did I have any checked luggage - no; who had I visited - my father, a high school friend, and a Habitat for Humanity project; why did I say I'd flown from Barcelona to Porto, but the records indicated that I'd flown to Lisbon - because I missed the flight to Porto; and did I have access to laundry facilities? When I answered affirmatively to the laundry question the woman relaxed a degree and said "That explains it, no woman would travel with such little luggage."

From there I searched the mammoth airport for my gate, stopping to ask directions from a stout, mustachioed man dressed in a security uniform and carrying an assault weapon. When he didn't understand my question he looked me in the eye and said simply: "a-gaaaain" in a flat tone that reminded me of Lurch from The Addams Family. Behind him a photocopied flier with names and mug shots of wanted terrorists was fixed to a pole.

At the gate all passengers went through security twice, once on entering the gate area and again before boarding the plane. There were two aging stewardesses on board, one had bleached blonde hair and a ponytail extension, and wore bright red lipstick. The other reminded me of Selma Diamond from Night Court. The aircraft was strangely empty, no one sat next to me, I spread out and slept most of the way home.

III. Chicago

Back home, things were pretty much as I'd left them. There was only one voicemail waiting for me on my cell phone - my chiropractor's office had called to remind me of an appointment I'd scheduled for the day after my return. I was so used to straining to understand what people were saying around me that it was an assault on my ears to hear English being spoken everywhere, on the train to my appointment I felt as though people were speaking two inches from my head. Michigan Avenue seemed ridiculously wide, the sidewalk a massive platform of cement under my feet. In addition to a chiropractic adjustment, I had a massage scheduled with Chris, one of the Romanian masseuses on staff. He asked me what was new, I told him I'd just returned from Portugal, and our conversation turned to soccer. I've never heard Chris say so much in all the years I've been going to that office. The second qualifying game between Portugal and Bosnia was in progress, and Chris had been checking the score (Portugal won). We discussed Portugal's chances at making it to the World Cup, the team's star player Christian Ronaldo, and how nice it would be if the office installed an espresso maker in the waiting area.

I stopped by a drug store before getting back on the train, and overheard a cashier say: "the penny is the brown one" to a customer. A wave of sympathy came over me as I realized the customer was a guest from another country, trying to figure out what all the coins in his pocket represented.

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