It’s been a busy few days here in the southwest Algarve. When last I posted, I was about to host a Thanksgiving dinner for some people here at my friend K’s house. Well I did host that dinner, and it was a smashing success, thanks in part to my impulsive idea to invite a surfer from Cornwall, M, who I met in the surf line-up at the Sagres beach Mareta a week ago.
He had offered me some words of encouragement after I had a particularly jarring wipeout in the water that day, and then I ran into him at Arrifana a couple of days in a row. The second day, when I was in good spirits, I told him to come to dinner and bring some of his mates to help a homesick American celebrate Thanksgiving. He did — five of them to be exact, including one half-English, half-Italian beauty that took my breath away when he walked in the door (more on that later).
With them, K, her two friends and me, there were a total of 10 of us at dinner, which was great fun and lasted into the wee hours of the morning.
Before I could host dinner, however, I ran into a bit of a car snafu. On Wednesday night, I went to pick up K to shop for the meal on our way to our Portuguese class in Portimao. She lives a few kilometers off the main road along a rather bumpy, mostly unpaved road in the country south of Aljezur.
It was raining quite hard that night and on our way back to the road, one of her neighbors came down the road in the other direction. It’s too narrow for two cars to cross at the same time, so I had to pull over to the side to let the neighbor — an elderly Portuguese man named Manuel — to pass.
Unfortunately, I ran the car aground on the end of a drop-off I didn’t see (it was dark by then) and couldn’t get it back on the road again because there wasn’t enough traction in the tires and the wet gravel and because of the position the car was in — tipped precariously as if it might topple over down the slight embankment.
K and several of her Portuguese neighbors, bless them — all over 60, mind you — stood out in the road in the pouring rain for the better part of an hour trying to figure out if there was a way to hook a rope to the car so someone’s truck or tractor (it’s an agricultural area) could pull the car up and back onto the road. The problem is, we couldn’t seem to locate the hook that should be under the front of the car to hook it up for a tow.
The car happens to be a Spanish car with the name of “Ibiza,” so there was a lot of joking about how the car was a piece of “merda” because it came from Spain. If you ever want to endear yourself to the Portuguese — especially when standing out in the pouring rain trying to tow your car out of a ditch near their house — blame Spain for whatever it is that ails you.
When it seemed that we couldn’t figure out the problem, we left the car until morning and called a proper tow truck driver — or rather, my rental-car company called a tow truck driver — and he easily steered the car out attached to his truck in about five minutes.
Aside from the time we spent meeting the tow truck driver and getting the car out of the ditch, K and I spent all of Thursday cooking up a feast for our guests. Besides turkey and stuffing, there were two kinds of potatoes (mashed and sweet), green beans, carmelized carrots, black bean soup, bread, cheese, homemade pumpkin pie and many bottles of vinho.
Besides the surfers, our guests included C and M, a couple of K’s friends who live in Silves. C is German while his wife M is Portuguese and German and grew up in both Brazil and Germany, and they are both lovely people.
The surfer crew arrived a bit later than C and M and made quite an entrance when they did. They are all caravaning around Europe looking for the best surf in their uniquely outfitted camper vans. (This is a trend around here and at surf spots around the world.) They all drove separately to K’s house figuring they would camp out there for the night, so the line of vans (and one mini-bus) coming down the nearly always deserted road was quite a funny sight when they arrived.
Five of the guys are British and one is Australian but has been living in the U.K. for many years. He was also the oldest — probably around 40 or so — while the others were younger. M, a tall, strong-looking carpenter with long strawberry-blonde hair, was 31, and the rest were all in their 20s if they were a day.
I rather liked M when I met him and I think he rather liked me, and I believe he thought dinner was a date of sorts. On Tuesday, the day I invited him to dinner, we had lunch together — or, rather, I ate lunch while he sat with me and drank a couple of coffees, since he’d just eaten in his van — and we had a lively chat about a range of topics, including books, bordellos and following your bliss.
He’s very funny and easy to get along with, and although he wasn’t usually the physical type I go for (the big and strong carpenter type, yes; the long reddish hair, no), I found myself thinking I might get something going with him. We even had tried to meet up later that night but the whole incident with my car and the rain sort of torpedoed our plans to meet up and drink some beers together.
When M showed up he had shaved his beard for the occasion and automatically came over to me, told me I looked nice (I wore a skirt and put on makeup for the occasion) and kissed me on both cheeks. He was very sweet and I liked the attention, but once I set eyes on A, who I pretty much half fell in love with the second he walked in K’s door, I knew I wouldn’t be getting together with M.
This is despite the fact that I also knew I had no chance with A, who was probably in his early 20s and so beautiful that in my real life back in New York a boy that gorgeous wouldn’t even talk to me, let alone come to my Thanksgiving dinner.
But it didn’t matter. Throughout the course of the night I found myself absolutely enchanted by this stunning half-Italian young man from Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands in the English Channel off the coast of France.
He’s tall — over 6 feet — with disheveled blonde hair and blue eyes. He is one of those quiet, unassuming men with deliberate, cat-like grace in his movements and watchful eyes. He misses nothing and when he speaks it’s usually thoughtful and observant, even though he doesn’t say as much as the others. He is well-bred and polite, and quick to smile but slow to laugh. As you can tell, I was completely smitten with him.
Though most of the evening I was content to banter with the more boisterous boys — who were all really good company and great fun — I did manage to talk to him alone a few times. I learned he did a photography degree at university in England (my key to knowing how young he is — you don’t talk about “uni” unless you have only just graduated!) but now works at the airport just to fund his surfing holidays.
He’d been on the road about two months and was in his last week here in Portugal; he’s got a ferry to catch in the north of France on Dec. 4 and planned to rush the trip back because it was too cold to surf up north this time of year.
I spoke with a friend recently who characterized some people (including me) as “lovers” who in general are in love with life and can become very passionate in the moment about ideas, people and the like without it meaning anything more than it does right then and there.
I’m going to attribute the feeling I had on Thanksgiving night and in the last couple of days about this young man who came into my life out of nowhere — and who likely has no idea that he had such an effect on a nearly middle-aged woman with the heart of someone much younger and the soul of someone much older — to the lover in me. (I like to think of it this way so I don’t think of myself as some old pervert!)
I stayed up until nearly 4 a.m. with A, my friend K and three of the other surfer boys — two Ps and C, all from Devon and one of whom went to university with A and also did a photography degree. We drank wine, medronha, coffee and tea, and I can’t now remember everything that was said but I do remember laughing a lot, marveling once again at my good fortune and thinking how it was one of the best Thanksgivings in memory.
I felt a little odd about the situation with M at one point, who left the table earlier than the rest of us and gave me a bit of a look as he was going out to his van. I didn’t follow him there, even though C made mention several times of me going out to knock on M’s door — I think the boys all thought he and I had something going, which of course made perfect sense and, had he not brought A to dinner, would probably have been the case.
When time came to go to sleep I stayed in the house and slept in a spare bed in K’s house, even though a part of me desperately wanted to follow A out to his van and stay there until the next morning. It wasn’t even about sex, really — though of course who wouldn’t want to sleep with such a gorgeous young man?
But for me actually getting too close to him might have ruined the enchantment I felt, and I knew it was highly unlikely something like that was possible anyway, so out of my league (not to mention age range) he was.
It was more like now that I knew that a person who stirred such a feeling inside of me — however fleeting — actually existed, I wanted to spend as much time near him as possible, even if it just meant I got to look at him for awhile. I suppose I now know what it means to have a mid-life crisis — to have forgotten what the first blush of infatuation feels like and to be reminded of it in such a way that you’d be willing to drop your entire life for another chance just to feel that way for a little while longer again.
In my conversations with him about photography and constellations (it was a clear night, and we were outside for awhile), I also gleaned that he had the soul of an artist, and I wanted the chance to talk more with him one on one. I didn’t dare take a chance, however — drunk and foolish a woman I was by this point — and went to bed alone. The surfers all slept in their separate vans outside in K’s driveway and across the way in a grassy spot on her mostly unoccupied neighbor’s house.
The next morning, I went out around 10 to buy breakfast fixings while M one of the Ps — the first two of the surfers up — did the washing up. When I got back from the market in Aljezur A also was awake and washing dishes at the sink.
I was a little embarrassed about how strongly he affected me and the thoughts I’d had the night before about going out to his van, so I barely looked at him; I felt like such a lecherous dirty old woman for being so infatuated that his mere presence made my hands shake.
To occupy myself, I began cooking breakfast at K’s tiny little stove, which sits in a corner of the room in a rather small concrete enclosure that anyone taller than 5’5″ will hit one’s head on if one isn’t careful (I speak from experience). I started olive oil heating in a pan for scrambled eggs and began cooking bacon in another, while warming up the night before’s mashed potatoes on a back burner.
Suddenly, A appeared at my side to help, taking over the eggs while I dealt with the bacon and the fried tomatoes (the latter an English breakfast specialty that was new to me). He was so close I could barely breathe, and we stood there side by side in that small space fixing breakfast, speaking a bit but mostly cooking together as if we’d done it a thousand times before.
In fact, he took over his portion of the task so deftly and with such authority I asked him if he had worked as a cook in a restaurant. He said no, but his father had an Italian restaurant on Guernsey and we spoke a bit about that for awhile.
I wish I could accurately explain how lovely it was just to stand there and fry bacon with this person next to me, as if we hadn’t just met in a stranger’s dining room the night before, as if it wasn’t completely bizarre that an American woman in her late 30s would impulsively invite a bunch of young surfers and other strangers — none of them American — to Thanksgiving dinner in a country that was not her own nor one that celebrates the holiday, in a house that is not her own and in fact belongs to a woman she’d met only a week before.
I actually took a moment to stand there and breathe in deeply, inhaling the mix of frying and our own slightly sour, hungover smells, silently thanking the universe for giving me such a simple pleasure, knowing that the feeling I had then would be something I would return to again in my life, especially in a dark time, as a reason to be grateful for living.
And so we cooked breakfast, and then we all ate, and then the surfers returned to their vans and to their camping spot in the parking lot on a cliff above Arrifana. I followed them there a bit later to look at the surf, and watched as one after the other they all went down to surf — all but A, who stood there with me and talked to me about the beach’s various breaks.
He showed me a famous right break with rock hazards where he’d surfed the night before and had a few close calls — and showed me the best place to paddle out to the right beach break that I have so far been afraid to try.
I told him I would never paddle out there alone and he said that if I had my gear (which I didn’t) I could paddle out with him right then. I mentally cursed myself for not having my surfboard and wetsuit with me at all times, but then figured I would probably be too nervous in his presence to paddle out with him anyway, and would probably panic and make a fool of myself.
He also said that he was glad the vicious right break wasn’t working on that particular day, because if it was he would have to go out and surf it again, even though it would scare him to do so. I immediately understood that feeling, and told him how sometimes we’re lucky that nature makes decisions for us that we can’t make for ourselves.
We stood there silently for a moment looking out over the ocean, and again I had that warm feeling I’d had when we stood together cooking breakfast over that tiny stove.
I’m going to end this story here even though it’s not really the end, because the rest of what happened between A and me on Saturday doesn’t matter. (And no, it was nothing romantic or anything like that — just a chance meeting, a quick trip to the Aljezur farmers’ market, some text messages and a possible night out with the boys in Sagres that never quite materialized.)
What matters, at least to me, is this: for a few hours, based on a random meeting in a country that I have no business being in, I fell in unlikely infatuation with a beautiful boy from Guernsey, a place that I had scarcely heard of until a few weeks ago when I met a couple from its neighbor Jersey (the island, not the state) who were also vanning around Portugal looking for waves.
In this life where people sometimes forget or are afraid to love, I am happy for the few hours I remembered what it is like to feel that mix of awe and hope stirred within me again.
What doesn’t matter is that A likely has already forgotten about me (or perhaps is wondering why some shameless American cougar was salivating after him); what doesn’t matter is that we most likely would have never crossed paths or even spoken had it not been for surfing, or for Portugal.
Being alone here is not always easy, and it is especially hard when you don’t speak the language. (I’m learning, yes, but very slowly.)
Still, the unexpected and beautiful encounters that this adventure has provided me — each one that reminds me why I will continue to lead with an open heart over and over again despite the enormous potential for rejection or heartbreak — make it all worthwhile.