Today I left my lovely little guest house in Sintra soon to drive south to Rogil, and moved into a tiny house in the countryside for the month. It’s kind of tucked away in between Rogil and Aljezur on a dirt road about a kilometer away from the main road. I wanted to get away from it all and, well, mission accomplished.
The place is owned and maintained by a woman named Irma from Germany who has two dogs and a 25-year-old son but pretty much lives here alone, and has for about 24 years. She’s friendly and blonde, with a weather-beaten face and that no-nonsense, efficient, German sensibility. My guest house is just behind hers and there is another one adjacent to hers where a German couple and their two young boys are staying as well.
I managed to sleep fairly well last night after a hot bath, although I did wake up in the middle of the night once. At the guest house in Sintra before going to bed I chatted with this lovely woman Maria, the Portuguese caretaker of the place. It brightened my jet-lagged spirits and reminded me why I am drawn to the Portuguese–they are both provincial, with the intuitive, open-heartedness and warmth country people often have, and worldly at the same time.
Maria, a petite, well-preserved woman of 50 with maroon highlights in her hair (she said they were “a little crazy” when I told her I liked them), doesn’t get to travel very much but she is well-read, talking to me about authors like John Steinbeck, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ernest Hemingway. She said that reading is how she travels because “I can’t go by my feet.” (I love the just slightly misspoken colloquialisms uttered by non-native English speakers when they speak English; I find them so charming. Let’s hope the Portuguese will find my botching of their language equally charming.) She said her job is not work because it means she gets to meet a lot of travelers and in that way she, too, can see the world.
I got to practice my Portuguese a little with Maria, mixed with Spanish because we were joined in conversation by a woman from Seville. (Funny thing–I would have pronounced it “Seh-vee-ya” but the woman actually from there pronounced it, “Seh-bee-cha.” Shows you what I know.) It was fun and Maria was very sweet and patient. She actually seemed to take a liking to me, telling me I was “muito linda” (very pretty) and acting in general very motherly toward me. When I said goodbye to her she said that she was sad we didn’t get to talk more about writers and common interests, and that next time I have to come back and stay for longer.
It’s interesting–I find that since I lost my mom, I tend to be a magnet for and in fact probably do seek out motherly types when I’m feeling fragile. I was feeling that jet-lagged sense of dislocation and loneliness last night after wandering around Sintra and dining alone on prawns at a local restaurant, which probably explains why Maria and I were drawn into conversation. (As an aside here, yes the prawns were delicious and probably fresh from the Atlantic, but I’m picky and squeamish about my seafood and they came whole and unpeeled, with their little legs practically still waving around. I was game and peeled them, but I admit I did have a fussy private moment of recoil when the server put my plate down in front of me. Being a good little traveler, I did not react, and ate nearly all of them.)
Maria also reminded me of another thing about the Portuguese that I really like–they are generally very in-the-moment and are not afraid to express whatever emotion they’re having at a particular time. I can of course totally relate to that; I’m pretty sure it’s a southern European thing in general, though of course I can’t speak for everyone. But my emotions can come and go as quickly as summer thunderstorms, but when I feel them I think they are absolutely sincere in that moment. (Sometimes I find out later I was being a little dramatic, however.) I get that same sense from the people here.
When Maria said goodbye to me and I mentioned that next time we would have to talk about “Steinbeck” and “Hemingway,” she dramatically put out her arm and said the Portuguese expression for “goosebumps.” (Forgive, me, I’m too tired to remember it here.) Then she kissed me on both cheeks twice and reiterated how sad she was I was going. It was sweet because it made me feel special and on one hand was entirely sincere, bu I also knew it wasn’t like she wanted us to be best friends or anything.
Of course the danger of that is mistaking such intense emotion for something lasting; that is where you can err with the Portuguese (with anyone, really), which I realized with my friend David in November. Don’t mistake a shared camaraderie in the moment for true friendship or affection; as friendly as the Portuguese are, there is a distance, too, that they put between themselves and strangers, a wall that does not come down easily. Rest assured, you will not be looked kindly upon if you try to smash it.
But how I found that out the hard way is a whole other story. And speaking of David, I did actually see him tonight when I went to Odeceixe to use the cash machine. He seemed neither surprised nor displeased to see me, but it was pretty much an accident (well, a sort of accidentally-on-purpose situation, really).
It happened like this: When I got to the town, there was some kind of street fair going on. Let me first say, don’t imagine some kind of New York City-styled street fair; there were probably like 30 people there, tops, and that’s probably the entire population of the town. I drove past it and went to park my car, which I did but only after a brief interlude in which somehow I went down a one-way street and then got stuck in this small area where I was surrounded by heavy cement flower boxes that completely blocked my way, and the street was too narrow for me to turn around.
While I was sitting there trying to figure out what to do (and cursing myself because I was trying to make an obtrusive appearance in Odeceixe, as I am still totally exhausted and jet-lagged and didn’t want to cause any scenes), a tiny old Portuguese woman came up to my car. I rolled down the window and said “Sinto muito” (“I’m sorry” in Portuguese) and tried to look as pathetic as possible, with an “oh my god, I’m so stupid” expression on my face.
Somehow she managed to convey to me through sign language that we could move one of the flower boxes, so I got out of the car, did that, moved my car out of its unfortunate position, and then parked it and walked back to put the heavy flower box back into its rightful place. By this point a man who was probably her husband had come to see what was going on. I can only imagine what they were saying to each other in Portuguese about the idiot American who drove the wrong way down the street and had to move the damned flowerbox.
Anyway, after that I was thoroughly mortified and drove out to Odeceixe beach just to check it out and regain my composure; it’s one of my favorite and the scene of some of my best moments in this country so far. On the way back I realized I didn’t do what I set out to do in Odeceixe–get money from the cash machine–so I went back to town, parked without incident this time, and went to the cash machines. That’s where the street fair was, and on the way I saw David’s van so I knew he was somewhere around. I was sort of hoping to run into him and terrified of an impromptu meeting at the same time. I did plan to call him but after I got settled and was feeling more like myself and not totally freaked out about being here alone.
I went to the cash machine and got money, and as I was looking around the street fair I saw David across the street in one of the tents talking to a bunch of people. This is where the stalking part comes in, sort of. (Yes, I can fly 5,000 miles and stalk someone. I am a master stalker, apparently.) He fortunately didn’t see me, and I wanted to sort of assess the situation before I decided if I should make my presence known.
I checked it out, and I didn’t see anyone I knew in the tent, and they were mostly male, so I figured it would be safe to try to catch his eye. Then again, I didn’t want to disturb him at what was obviously the Easter celebration of his town. I had emailed him to say I was coming and when but I didn’t hear back from him (that’s not unusual) and like I said, I planned to call him at some point anyway.
I decided after a bit I was feeling cowardly, so I walked back to my car with my money. Then I felt kind of lame for being such a wimp, and walked back to the street fair. I kind of wanted to be there anyway, to catch a glimpse of the local scene. I stood at the bottom of the street at the end of the fair and listened to the music for a bit, watching a few people dance to a guy standing on a platform singing alone to pre-recorded music. That was pretty funny, actually, I have to say. The guy was on this huge stage like Metallica was set to go on or something. But no, it was just one Portuguese dude singing along to local folk favorites. And there were maybe five people dancing, and they were probably the only ones paying attention.
I occasionally would glance over at David and at one point our eyes finally met. He smiled and I smiled back and he walked away from the people he was talking to, gave me the customary “Tudo bom?” and kisses on both cheeks. It was as if he’d seen me last week, as if it wasn’t totally bizarre for an American woman who lives 5,000 miles away — with whom he got crazy drunk with for two weeks in November and whose crazy Irish then-friend-now-ex-friend he likely shagged and could still be shagging for all I know — to show up in his hometown, at his humble Easter street fair, and give him the eye from across the street.
We exchanged the usual pleasantries in both English and Portuguese and I told him that I had arrived that day, where I was staying and I was totally jetlagged and needed to sleep but planned to call him. He actually sincerely seemed happy to see me, but not effusively happy. You have to admit, it’s kind of weird, and I felt weird so of course I didn’t act effusively happy to see him, either. But since tourism is his business, I guess it’s not that big a deal for people to just show up in his town and want to hang out with him, so whatever.
He said he was working now (god knows at what…serving people vihno?) and asked me if I had his number. I said that I did and that I wanted to surf and I would text him so he would have my local number. I also said, “Estou aqui sozinho,” which means “I’m here on my own,” and he asked me in Portuguese how long I was here for. (At least I think that’s what he asked.) I answered in English that I was here for a month and I was working part of the time, and that my friend was coming for a week and we were going to travel, too. He didn’t correct me, so I think I translated his Portuguese right. Yay, me.
And that was pretty much it. I really didn’t want to interfere with whatever he had going on, and he had to get back to it. He clasped my shoulder goodbye and gave me a big smile before walking back to the tent. I got a couple of beers and snapped some photos (which I’ll post on Flickr) of the wild street-fair action, and then I drove back to my little house, where I sit now watching movies in German. Yes, the TV stations are all in German, as far as I can tell. So much for watching TV to help me learn Portuguese.
Anyway, I texted him tonight as promised so he would have my number and figure I will leave it up to him whether he wants to get in touch. I really do want to surf, though, so once I get back to regular strength (I’m still totally exhausted) and if it’s good weather and I’m up for it, I can always go down to the beach and see if he has his teachers set up, or find someone else to rent me a surfboard. There are plenty of those people around here.
I can barely see straight and it’s 10:30 local time (late on a school night for these parts) and I want to try to get up early and get some sunshine and beach time before starting work at 2 pm (East Coast hours this week), so I’m going to sign off now. Check out my Flickr feed (I’m “lizoleeta”) for photo updates, and boa noite, amigos e amigas!