Still waking up after our big night out last night. After a quiet day, we went out in the early evening and caught the strangely caterpillar-like tram down to Belem, where we went to see Gal Costa, a Brazilian bossa nova singer who was a staple of Gabe’s teenage years in Rio.

This was the second time we’d been to Belem, and once again, we managed to go when all the museums and the famous monastery were closed. Go figure. But we did arrive early enough to ruin our dinner with a few pasteis de Belem, which we did as soon as we got off the tram for fear that we wouldn’t have time later on. It was simply inconceivable that we’d go all the way to Belem without eating a pastel, which I’d been dreaming of ever since our first experience.

We’ve had other pasteis since then, but nothing comes close to the real thing. I can say no to most sweets, and even if you put a big hunk of delicious chocolate cake in front of me, willpower usually wins out after a bite or two. But these things are like a drug — once you start eating that gooey cripsy creamy goodness, you just can’t stop. I tried my best to only eat half of my pastel, but with a word of prompting from Gabe, the rest quickly went down the hatch. Seriously. Those things are amazing.

Full up with cinnamony custardy wonder, we rolled our way back down the street to a small restaurant I’d spotted on our last visit. For once appearances did not lead us astray, as we were rewarded with attentive waiters, excellent food, good atmosphere, and even some fellow diners who were not tourists — all at the ungodly hour of 7:30 PM. We even got to listen to Christmas carols as we ate, which was slightly incongruous in this rustically charming little spot, with its exposed beams and dried hams and gourds hanging from every square inch of the ceiling.

After dinner, we made our way over to the Cultural Center of Belem, a gigantic, gorgeous modern music and art complex close to the waterfront. We climbed up to our seats on the balcony, and settled into the perfume-scented darkness to share 90 minutes of amazing music with a packed audience made up mostly of 50- and 60-year-old women. This concert was definitely not aimed at newcomers to Brazilian bossa nova, but rather at the people who had been listening to these songs for the past forty years and knew every note, word, and intonation — even down to the Brazilian accent on their Portuguese.

The concern soon became more of a group singalong, including a loud accompaniment by the guy sitting right behind us, who luckily had a very nice voice. At regular intervals, Gal would stop singing and hold up the mike to amplify the crowd’s voices, acknowledging their praise and inviting them into her performance. If I’d been there for the music alone, this probably would’ve bugged me, but as it was, I found it enchanting, and somehow very, very Portuguese. The whole community participation thing seemed so fitting in this setting, and the obvious joy that both the audience and the singer took in these old songs was infectious, even if I didn’t understand a word of the lyrics.

So I leaned on Gabe’s shoulder and took in the whole thing, audience, singer, guitar, and all. I particularly enjoyed the way that the singing man behind us completely ignored the dirty looks he received from the very prim and proper old lady sitting next to me. She was there with her grown daughter, who took great care of her, constantly tucking her jacket around her shoulders and directing interpretive comments her way. The daughter apologized profusely to me after I had to climb up and over the back of our row to visit the toilet, and I assured her repeatedly that I didn’t mind. Honestly, I’m not about to make your poor old mom laboriously get up and down five times just to accommodate my tiny bladder.

Again, the facets of Portuguese community and culture I saw through this performance — the group ownership of the songs, the dynamic between the old lady and her daughter — were worth far more to me than the price of the ticket itself. Although the language barrier does isolate me, it also gives me a unique perspective: that of a silent observer looking in at the warm, bustling, chaotic world of Portuguese life. It makes me miss my own society a great deal, where I can be a participant rather than merely a witness, but it is fascinating all the same. (Funny what it takes to finally overcome my introversion and make me crave interaction!)

As it turned out though, the cultural highlight of the evening was yet to come. Instead of spending at least an hour waiting for the tram and then walking back to the flat, we decided to treat ourselves to a cab ride home. After missing two cabs in a row, Gabe very cleverly (or so we thought) finagled his way into the next one by standing in front of a girl who was already waiting. In retrospect, we would’ve been better off letting her take it, as it turned out to be one of the most hair-raising experiences of my life.

Immediately after we got into the cab, the driver popped the hood and jumped out to check something in the engine. Off to a good start, clearly. But we took off without further incident, and careened our way through the crowded Friday night streets of Lisbon, going no faster or more haphazardly than any other cab ride we’ve had here.

At one point though, we were waiting for another car to finish pulling out of a parking space. As is usual for cabbies the world over, any obstruction or momentary hesitation in their way merits a honk or at least an engine rev, but this guy just sat there. And kept sitting there, waiting, even after the cars in front of us had gone. Surprised, Gabe shook his arm and asked if everything was OK.

Everything was not OK. The man was fast asleep. We had been stopped for a total of 10 seconds, and the guy fell asleep. Holy crap. We were still far from home, however, so we let him continue on his way… and then he fell asleep yet again, this time while stopped at a stop light. He woke up when it turned green, but our eyes were getting wider and wider in utter disbelief. After completely missing the turn down to our street, he asked if we wouldn’t mind if he smoked a cigarette. Although I was already feeling sick from the guy’s jerky driving, I thought it might just be worth the added stink if it meant he didn’t fall asleep again!

By this point I was ready to walk any distance just to get away from this guy, so once he’d zoomed down yet another street in the general direction of our house, I said, “Let’s just walk from here! Please!” I didn’t think my stomach — or my nerves — could take any more. We got out with great relief and walked home through the refreshingly cool night air, glad to be on solid ground once more and laughing at our surreal experience with the narcoleptic cab driver.

All in all, a night full of enriching and sometimes hair-raising cultural experience, from pasteis to bossa nova to crazy cab drivers. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Lisboa.

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