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We spent the most part of the last two days outside, wandering the streets and soaking in the sunshine before the rain we’ve been promised begins to fall once more. Dangit! I knew I shouldn’t have bought those new sandals yesterday. I totally jinxed our nice weather.

As you saw, Sunday was our road trip up to Obidos, a little walled town about an hour’s drive north of Lisbon. We’d been told it was very pretty and quaint, but were totally unprepared for just how pretty and quaint it actually was. Almost every building had a rose, wisteria, or grape vine espaliered up the wall, all of which were nicely pruned, some of which were thicker than my torso and probably older than all of us combined. Their colors offset the red, blue, and yellow highlights on the buildings, and the bright blue sky of the warmest day we’ve had this year provided the perfect backdrop. I took a disproportionate number of photos for a town of its size, as every street we turned down had too marvelous a combination of blossoms, buildings, and fields in the background not to take another photo.

As usual, the main street running through town had lots of tourists and lovely little shops on it, but the side streets were Sunday quiet and largely deserted. We wandered around, stopping for lunch, looking in the ornately tiled churches, and peering over stone walls into charmingly overgrown gardens (why is it that my garden always just looks overgrown and not at all charming?) The whole thing was encircled by a medieval castle wall, which Gabe of course had to go up and run around.

Before leaving, we ducked down a set of stairs into a store that promised us hand-painted tiles, which was surrounded by yet another tauntingly charming little garden. There we finally bought our first set of Portuguese tiles to bring home with us in August. This entire time, we’ve been saying, “Oh yes, we must get some tiles before we leave,” but that time is now approaching, and as yet we have bought no tiles. So we picked out our house number in pretty blue numerals surrounded by leaves and flowers, and this time we actually purchased them instead of putting it off for later. Now we have some tiles to show for our time in Lisbon, even if we can’t decide on any others.

We left Obidos behind and continued on down the coast to Cascais, a very Santa Cruz-esque town closer to Lisbon. We had dinner at a greasy spoon cafe perched over a small inlet by the harbor, and watched the sun set behind the lighthouse. When Gabe and I had walked by that same point back in the fall, the waves had been so massive that they threw up huge sprays of water when they hit the retaining wall around the harbor — and soaked Gabe when we visited the Boca de Inferno further up the coast.

Now, the sea looked like a bathtub, calm and placid, deceptive in its peacefulness. Even the Mouth of Hell looked more like the Mouth of Purgatory, with no spumes of water reaching up to grab unsuspecting tourists. Disappointing, but fascinating in the difference between the two.

The entire coast was also far more crowded than we’d ever seen it before, as foreigners and Lisboans alike were flocking to the seaside on this first really hot day of the year. So we spent just long in Cascais to outwait the crowds, then headed back to Lisbon without having to sit in the long lines of traffic we’d seen leaving town when we arrived. There are benefits to running late.

Yesterday we again spent mostly outside, to make the most of yet another gorgeous day. We made a long, meandering circuit through town, via foot, tram, and numerous way points for shopping, coffee, and finally wine. We were joined at every point along the way by many, many tourists, especially on the tram.

As we made our rickety way around the castle, an older German couple got on, and immediately proclaimed a sleazy-looking Portuguese man standing next to us to be a pickpocket. He pretended not to understand, but they made their beliefs apparent by pointing at the large sign saying to watch out for pickpockets, after which he quickly made his way off the tram at the next stop. I was relieved, as I thought violence would soon ensue, and I really didn’t want to be a witness to that particular face-off.

We also saw many children and dogs on our tour yesterday, who seemed to be blooming in almost as great a profusion as the plants and trees. At the cafe where we stopped for coffee, we sat next to a chocolate lab puppy named Kafka, who despite being leashed to his owner’s chair still managed to wreak total havoc. He pulled apart plants, stood directly in front of passersby in hopes they might be his friend, and of course he ate everything in sight, just in case it might turn out to be tasty.

At one point, a man came by with his toddler, who was making his ponderous, unsteady way toward the duck pond (which also included a black swan, whose constant efforts to either woo, chase, or herd two nervous-looking ducks gave us great amusement.) The father pointed the puppy out to the baby, whose eyes grew wide with wonder as he turned around and saw his new best friend. Kafka had of course already set his sights on this likely-looking small person, and they met in an eruption of cuteness and slobber. The father soon extricated his son from the tangle, leaving Kafka to wag his tail longingly after them.

Also in the park, we witnessed another slightly older toddler encountering her first butterfly. When her mother pointed it out to her, she ran and hid behind her leg, peering out at this strange winged beast that moved so erratically. She was clearly both fascinated and afraid, wanting to get closer but dreading to do so without the shelter of her mother’s leg. Her mom, trying to show her it was all right, walked closer to the butterfly, who of course flew away. The little girl ducked in fear, then immediately ran over to where it had been, looking around her wildly to see if it might be coming back for her. Clearly, all of these small animals have been cooped up inside for far too long.

Further along on our trip, after much walking and shopping and browsing, we stopped at the mirador for a drink before going home. There we witnessed many the odd duo, made all the more so by my extremely generous glass of vinho verde. Next to us sat two beautiful young ladies in their early twenties, who I noticed were dressed identically — baggy khaki shorts with pleats, flip flops, white tank tops, and grey sweaters. It wasn’t til I looked closer that I realized they actually were twins, or at least sisters. I thought it odd that they would continue to dress the same on their own, but hey, maybe it’s the thing to do.

At the next table over sat another duo of young women, these dressed like something straight out of The Breakfast Club. Both were wearing the big, square sunglasses that are making an unfortunate reappearance here in Europe. One girl accompanied these with high-waisted acid-washed jeans, white Keds, a tucked-in striped shirt, an awkward, blunt haircut, and a mannish brown briefcase — much like an outfit I would’ve worn when I was about ten years old. The other had the same bangs with a black bow in her hair, a short black skirt over black nylons, and a cropped black leather jacket. Both smoked cigarettes as if they were going out of style. I was fascinated by these two very well-thought out and painfully contrived looks that I thought went out of style when I was still a kid.

Continuing on my survey of our fellow customers, I saw two earnest looking tourists lighting up their pipes on a bench nearby. Now, I don’t believe I have ever seen a woman smoking a pipe before. At first I thought she was getting it started for her husband, who was rummaging in his backpack. But he turned out to be rummaging for his own pipe, which he proceeded to light up and accompany his wife. What a random thing to see!

Before any even stranger people could come by — or before we could drink any more — we made our way home for a short while before going back out again to try the sushi place that recently opened just up the street from us. It was nearly 7:30 when we went in, which is almost an acceptable time to eat dinner, but nonetheless the staff was amazed to see us. The waitress, who was eating a hand roll before starting her shift, almost choked when I walked around the corner of the cavernous downstairs dining room. I’m guessing they don’t get many customers for dinner.

Thus we were slightly dubious of the copious all you can eat sushi buffet, but it seemed fresh enough, so we dug in. It proved to be quite good, and so far hasn’t poisoned any of us — although I did have to point out that it would be hugely ironic if we’d made it through Morocco without food poisoning, only to be felled not half a block from our house in Lisbon.

So ended our luxurious day of sunshine, shopping, drinking, and eating. What a rough life we lead. From the start, I have always felt blessed to be having this experience, but all the more so now that the long, warm days of summer are back and our city is returning to its vibrant, open-air lifestyle.

I felt all the more lucky this morning, when I read a brief news piece about a Cuban blogger whose compiled works were confiscated by customs on the eve of their presentation in Chile. Although I stopped my academic study of Cuba after grad school, it remains near and dear to my heart, and I always pay close attention when I see it in the news.

This woman writes her truth, despite living in a country where the truth is actively discouraged, and I admire her deeply for doing so. It is one thing to keep a blog when you write about only sunshine, food, and travel, but it is another thing entirely to write a blog that speaks truth to power in the face of great adversity. As a writer and as a human being, I am humbled by her efforts and courage, and am reminded to enjoy the life I lead to the fullest.


After a productive morning’s work (and a quick workout for me), we went out into the sunny afternoon for a tour of our immediate neighborhood. We were hoping for something more sedate and less exhausting than the day before, so none of the places we visited were more than fifteen minutes’ walk from our flat. Even within those parameters, our tour encompassed a variety of places and people only possible in a capital city with hundreds of years of history.

We started by taking a stroll around the shabtastic botanical gardens, where we were joined by a flock of noisy green parrots in the treetops and one of equally squawky old Portuguese women. I spotted my first wisteria blooms of the year, and all of the other trees were just on the edge of leafing out and/or blooming, many of them displaying large spiky thorns along with their delicate blossoms. I appreciated the cautionary message: I may look pretty, but I also have sharp edges.

After touring the jumbled botanical history of the Portuguese empire, we sampled a bit of its confectionary history in the 200 year old pasteleria across the street. Confronted with approximately 25 linear feet of sweet sticky goodness, we pointed at a few appealing things and asked the guy to wrap some of them up for us to take home. Or rather, I asked for them “to arrive” (chegar) instead of “to go” (levar), but the man understood what I meant, and waved away my apologies at not being better able to express myself. Unlike some countries, the Portuguese seem to be extremely tolerant of tourists running elephant-like through their language. I think they are just appreciative when you speak it at all.

Next, we took a stroll through the antique tile store down the street, ogling the stacks of tiles dating as far back as the sixteenth century and laughing over some of the antiques they had for sale. A huge wooden door for 3000 euros? No problem! Cheap at the price. I even managed to hold my own with the tiny and very chatty lady working there, although judging by her greetings as people walked into the store, she was perfectly content to chatter away at you in any number of languages. Despite my assurances that we were just looking, she insisted on holding various tiles up against the wall to show us how they can be combined, almost dropping them in her enthusiasm. Luckily, just then a crew of French tourists came in to the store, so we were able to extract ourselves from her attention before she had to buy any of her own broken or chipped wares.

Continuing on, we took a peek at the view from the mirador, then dove into the back streets of Barrio Alto in search of supplies. There we bought vibrant bouquets at a tiny florist shop crammed with blossoms and colors, followed by two kinds of pumpkin jam from a gourmet food store nestled in between shuttered bars and nightclubs. (After debating the difference between the two jams with the guy working there in both English and Portuguese, we solved the question by simply buying both.) Last, we stopped at a fruteria to fill a bag with fresh fruit and veggies for dinner, then turned for home.

On the way, I noticed that the doors to the ornate Sao Roque church were open, so we ducked inside. There we admired the various elaborately decorated naves, including one made entirely of lapis lazuli and marble, which was built in Rome, consecrated by the Pope, then dismantled and reassembled stone by stone in Lisbon. What can I say — there was a lot of wealth rolling around here in the hey day of the empire.

So ended our tour of the neighborhood, delicious and widely varied in both taste, sight, and personalities. Best of all, I managed to convey all of our needs in adequate if not 100% grammatically correct Portuguese. Since Gabe handles most of my interactions outside of the gym and the grocery store, this was a great opportunity for me to test my Portuguese skills, and I was surprised to find them up to the task. A rampant success, all around.

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Sunday started clear and warm, with the early morning’s thick fog receding gradually back over the river. To take advantage of both the weather and the fact that all the tourists would be heading south for the annual half-marathon over the bridge, we decided to conquer the castle.

As usual, we did so via a meandering and roundabout route, starting with the little yellow 28 tram up the hill and ending with a stroll down through the cramped winding streets of the Alfama district. The entire expedition took us about six hours to complete, and we returned to the flat exhausted and ready for refreshment. In the end, I think the castle just about conquered us. But we made a valiant effort.

Our first stop was at the highest mirador of the city, which as we learned last time, is much easier to get to via tram. There a Punjabi man tried to sell us his artwork, saying that he’d give us a discount for being his first customers of the day. He claimed that his paintings were all hand made and unique, which I know is a lie because there are guys selling the exact same paintings at nearly every other mirador in the city. In fact, we saw at least three more sets of identical “original” paintings by the end of the day. Nice try, guy.

After much wandering, we stopped for lunch at the hillside cafe that Gabe and I stumbled upon a while back. There is a small terrace there, crammed with tables and people, all jostling for a lunchtime view over the jumbled red roofs of the Alfama and on into the distance to the bridge. We got a table further back on the patio, which had less of a view but slightly more breathing room (when the people around us weren’t smoking their hand-rolled cigarettes, of course.)

Toward the end of our meal, we heard an enormous glassy crash coming from the kitchen inside, and as one, everyone’s heads whipped around at the terrible sound. A little while later, I could hear large piles of broken glass being swept up. It sounded like someone had dropped an entire dishwasher tray full of glasses. That someone was not having a good day.

We continued on up to the castle, which luckily was not as crowded as I thought it would be. Even so, I stood at the bottom of the stairs leading to the castle walls for quite some time, waiting for a big enough break in the line of people coming down that I could scramble my way up. Once I finally made it up there, we were joined on the walls by lots of French people, which was a break from the Spanish and British accents we’ve been hearing all weekend. I think most of Europe has a four day weekend, so clearly everyone thought it was a great idea to make a quick getaway to Portugal.

No matter their nationality, there were two things in the castle that fascinated all of the tourists, including myself. The first was a large herd of well-fed and docile cats, all of whom had fat bellies and well-tattered ears. They really did own the place. Perched on the castle walls and well out of the cats’ reach, there was a smaller but equally impressive flock of peacocks, whose raucous screams periodically split the air. Must be spring time.

Far more entertaining than either of these animals was the crowd of small schoolchildren having a medieval day at the castle. They were dressed as knights and ladies, in plastic helmets and tunics that came down their knees, learning how to shoot little plastic bows and playing with plastic swords. Two little boys had escaped further up the terrace, where they were turning pieces of tree bark into grenades and machine guns, counting “Un, deux, trois” and then mimicking a huge explosion. I didn’t dare point out that those weapons were slightly anachronistic for their costumes. Instead, I enjoyed their less structured play just as much as I did their fellows, who shouted, “On est pret, chevalier!” (We are ready, chevalier!) as they prepared to shoot their plastic arrows in the general direction of the target. I’m sure no siege of the castle was ever that cute.

Bidding adieu to the chevaliers, we continued back down the hill, via the crooked streets of the former Jewish and Arab district, the Alfama. This area was one of the few to survive the 1755 earthquake, so the architecture and streets are very old indeed. By necessity it’s mostly a pedestrian area, largely because the streets just weren’t designed to accommodate anything larger than a well-fed horse. One can easily spend an entire day lost in the maze of tiny streets, undisturbed by either cars or other tourists. That made it all the more jarring when a pair of smelly yellow GoCars came panting up the hill, their recorded English directions echoing cheerfully off the walls of the alleyways. I’m sure the neighbors love those things.

As we were going down one set of stairs, we saw a little old lady making her slow way up. Gabe greeted her in Portuguese, so she evidently decided we were OK, and proudly told me that the balcony I was peering up at through the tangle of wires, plants, and laundry was in fact hers. She was about a foot and a half shorter than me, but even so, she grabbed my arm in an iron grip and cheerfully started exhorting me to go see some gathering down the street. Apparently she thought these strange giant people could not miss such an event. Mystified by thoroughly charmed, I agreed that we would go, and we continued on our separate ways.

Soon we could hear what she’d been telling us about, a swelling of people and voices with one amplified above them all. We rounded the corner to find a big crowd of people filling a square, with a big purple banner and life size statues of both Mary and Jesus lifted on people’s shoulders above the crowd. The amplified voice we heard was a priest intoning prayers, which were then broadcast out of a handheld speaker held by a man on the other side of the square. The juxtaposition of new technology being used to amplify very old prayers was a beautiful one.

After a while, the entire gathering started moving off up the hill, led by the statues and aided by a rather rotund old dog, whom we’d spotted hanging around the edges of the crowd. I suspect he was in charge of the whole thing.

Once they’d left, we wandered on ourselves, rather bemused by the entire affair. We never did figure out what the gathering had been for — a saint’s day, presumably, or perhaps something to do with Easter? Who knows. Whatever it was, it was vastly entertaining, especially as we found this very Catholic event almost immediately before walking down a street named Rua da Judaria, or Jewry Street. Oh, the re-appropriation. It never ends.

Slowly, we made our way through the outskirts of the Alfama back to Baixa, where we caught the metro and limped our way home. It was tiring, but so wonderful to crawl around our city with two of my very favorite people. I love living in a place where simply turning a corner can elicit a “Wow” from all of our mouths, we who are a particularly well-traveled group of people. It never gets old.

At one point, we ran into a couple of Canadian ladies who were lost and trying to work up the courage to go up a dark staircase to the street above. We said they’d be fine and offered to go up with them, then stopped to chat for a while at the top. We told them we were living here for a year, and their response was, “You are so lucky! How did you manage that?”

An excellent question, and one I am starting to ask myself nearly every day.

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The great thing about longer-term guests is that you don’t have to explore everything all at once — unlike with my half-brother last month, when we fit the entire city and parts of the surrounding area into four days of non-stop walking. When you aren’t under pressure to give a condensed capsule of experience though, you’re more at leisure to wander and explore, and even go home for a while if that’s what you feel like doing.

Yesterday we explored the fancy shopping district of Chiado, where you can find all manner of odd places to peruse. Right down the street from the gigantic H&M I raided last week, we came across a minuscule booth of a shop selling beautifully crafted leather gloves, or luvaria, which has been there since 1925.

On the next block over, we passed a store selling Geox air shoes and a fancy Parisian boutique, then stopped for a coffee in the ornate and multi-colored interior of A Brasileira, the favorite haunt of my homeboy Fernando Pessoa and all his myriad personalities.

After browsing through my favorite 500-year old bookstore and a place down the street that sells reproductions of vintage postcards, soaps, and even cans of sardines, we found a tiny old coffee and candy store tucked between two more overpriced designer stores. As soon as we started talking coffee in serious terms, the old man working there perked right up, clearly appreciative of a break from the candy-buying hordes he’d been helping all day. (Easter candy is appearing in all the stores now, and true to their overzealous religious holiday form, the Portuguese are already stocking up in a serious way.)

While the coffee talk continued, I perused the candy, displayed in rows and rows of bins all along the counter and up and down the walls. On offer were at least twenty different kinds of chocolate covered almonds, all with different colored and flavored coatings on the outside, ranging from Easter pastels to a mottled brown one that promised to be cinnamon (or shin, although I don’t think that would be as appealing.) There was also a bin of ornately decorated licorice bits, and case after case of chocolate, bars and bits and other dark brown delicacies.

The man’s expertise on coffee was just as thorough and wide-ranging as their candy selection, and as he packaged up the grounds and poked a hole in the corner to let out the gases, he gave us a history of the beans we were buying. Until independence, you could only get coffee grown in the colonies, which explained the array of beans on offer from such exotic places as Sao Tome and Cabo Verde. They could get other kinds after independence was declared, but these were the older and more traditional Portuguese coffees. I was blown away — history and good coffee, all in one sweet-smelling, chocolate-drenched place! I could’ve died happy right then.

That evening, we added to the pleasure of our palates by visiting our now-regular local wine bar down the street. Again, the Brazilian waitress greeted us with pleasure and kisses on the cheek, and we gladly seated ourselves outside in their small back patio. As we discovered the place in January, we have long looked out their back window at the tree-covered patio and yearned for the return of the long, warm Lisboan evenings we had when we first got here. For the first time, the mild night allowed us to sit at one of the small wooden tables, softly illuminated by with a tea light lantern on the table and a rope of Christmas lights around the outside of the small graveled seating area.

We asked the waitress to surprise us with three different glasses of dessert wines, and she brought us a a red port, a tawny port, and a sauterne to accompany our chocolate mousse and passionfruit cheesecake. This time she was busy with other customers, but when we’d finished and asked for the check, she exclaimed, “Oh no, you’re leaving already? Let me sit and chat for a minute.” But of course, we said, please do!

Among other things, we got a full update on the lovely owner and her new baby. Ebullient as ever, our waitress said that they were doing great, she had seen them the day before, and he was so cute that he warmed her heart, or coraçao. Since she accompanied this statement with a rounded arm that looked like she was holding or rocking a baby, I thought she said he is cute like a snail, or caracol. When I gave this translation to my mom, Gabe laughed at me and said no, not snail, heart! Oh well. I kind of liked the description “cute like a snail.” I think I’ll keep it.

On that high note of misinterpretation, we ended our very strenuous day of coffee shopping and wine drinking, street wandering and chatting. Rough life, my friends, rough life!

We fit in another quick walkabout yesterday, as our afternoon was somewhat abridged: we got a late start, and we had plans to see a movie with our French friends later in the day. (Which felt like sacrilege on such a nice day, but since I’m hoping we’ll have mostly nice weather from here on out, I didn’t feel too bad.)

For our Sunday walkabout, we went back to the area around the ferry terminal, which we hadn’t really explored before. We wanted to check out the Mercado da Ribeira, a huge market building across the street from the Cais do Sodre train station, which features food all week and collectibles on Sunday mornings. We were disappointed to find that “collectibles” meant exclusively coins and stamps, not antiques and other oddities, as we’d hoped. But as usual, our destination was chosen merely to provide us with an excuse to wander, which we happily did anyway.

We walked down through the streets of Barrio Alto, stopping to admire the Ascensor da Bica, the little tram on that side of the hill, which has been newly recovered in shiny aluminum siding as an art project. After musing over the odd wares on display in the Mercado da Ribeira, we went back up the hill — since all roads lead to a hill here — and back through the winding streets of Bica.

Among other amusements, we passed a guy grilling bell peppers over a barbeque right out on the street, surrounded by scaffolding, laundry, and of course graffiti. Close by sat his car, windows open, music on, a small boy playing in the back seat. The best part was that the peppers were intended not for his own consumption, but rather for the restaurant on the corner. Talk about curbside service!

Just after the outdoor kitchen, we walked down a street where an old lady was throwing crumbs out her third-story window to feed a huge flock of pigeons on the street below. As we picked our way past them, I noticed that you could actually hear the small crackling, crunching sounds as the pigeons gorged themselves. That’s how quiet it is here on Sundays — literally no one is around. It’s like a ghost town.

Slightly further up the hill, we saw a girl with a small Pomeranian tumbling around her feet, whose bushy fur rather resembled the post-Saturday night tangle of hair on its owners head. As they walked by, a much bigger dog started barking at this transgression on its territory — luckily it was restrained by a fence, because otherwise the Pomeranian might have become a snack. The Pomeranian, blissfully unaware of its inferior size, started to bark back in a tiny but valiant defense of its mistress. We couldn’t help but laugh at its ferocity, especially when it finally got smart and scudded on down the street like a red furry tumbleweed. Oh, such a brave little thing!

Somehow our feet once again took us to the mirador of Santa Catarina, where we’d stopped for a drink on the day we were both sick a few weeks back. What a difference the sun makes! Both cafes up there were packed, and the mirador itself was filled with the vagrants and other unsavory characters we remembered from our visits there last summer.

Of course we couldn’t just pass it by, so we grabbed a table and spent a good half hour basking in the warm sunshine, letting the flow of other people’s conversations and colorful personas wash over us. We’re already seeing a lot more tourists, mostly French and British, which I know will only increase exponentially as the summer goes on. It makes me feel as though I have to justify our presence in some way, or wear a sign that says, “No really, we live here!” But then, I often feel that way in Santa Cruz too.

So ended our short but sweet walkabout, and we came home for an hour or so of work (with the windows thrown wide open!) before meeting up with our friends for the movie. We saw The Hurt Locker, which came out here a couple of weeks ago. Initially it only had two show times, but after it won the Oscar last week, they magically added more showings! Apparently both the theater and the Portuguese decided this movie about an American war might be worth seeing after all, since the theater was packed when we went in. (Movie going on Sunday afternoons really is the thing to do here.)

We have a running joke with our French friends that any movie they like, we don’t, and vice versa. They loved A Serious Man, which we weren’t crazy about. We loved Alice, which they didn’t like. So we were hoping that maybe this would be one movie we could all agree on.

And we were right. None of us could say that we liked it, exactly, as it was too powerful and difficult a movie to really be able to like. But it was an important one, and extremely well done, so much so that I almost couldn’t finish watching it. I know at least two people who have been to Iraq, and I have never been able to contemplate what they must have seen there. This movie held it up in front of me and wouldn’t let me avert my eyes. Like I said — an important movie to see, but one that I can’t claim to have liked per se.

After that intense experience, some alcohol was definitely required, so we went back to our friends’ beautiful, lofty-ceilinged flat for some port and petiscos, or snacks. The good wine, food, and company did much to push away the ghosts of the movie for a while, and we were soon laughing and talking in a fluid mixture of French and English.

The more time we spend with this couple, the more we discover that they are scarily similar to ourselves: the girl is slender, stylish, and dark-haired, introverted yet quietly funny, and loves books and words as much as I do. (I came away from their flat with a huge stack of English language books — so excited!) Her partner is outgoing and talkative, laughs a lot, works in education, and is extremely good at what he does. Hmm… sound familiar? I’m pretty sure they are the French version of us!

So ended another in our recent string of good, sunny, active days. Today it’s back to work for a while, but at least the sun continues!

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To make the most of the beautiful afternoon yesterday, we decided to hop a ferry and venture to the other side of the Tejo river, with the eventual goal of visiting the Cristo Rei statue on the cliffs overlooking the 25th of April bridge. To get from the ferry stop to the statue, we took a long and meandering route along the waterfront and then up and up through the streets of the little town above.

This area proved to be a slower, seedier sibling of Lisbon, with all of the graffiti and shabby apartment buildings and none of the older architecture that makes up for it in Lisbon proper. Once upon a time I would’ve found the crumbling high rises of the town and deserted warehouses by the river ugly. Now I know where to look for beauty.

Find it I did, in the once-grand tiled facades of the riverfront, the enormous stands of fig trees and brambles growing where there once were roofs, the charming addition of graffiti to a tall door carefully framed by seashells. Even in the town itself, there was much to admire — we were particularly taken by the clever addition of mesh cages set between the balconies of one apartment complex, which allowed people to hang their laundry without it falling four stories to the ground. Very inventive.

For lunch, we stopped at a Brazilian restaurant by the river, which had been recommended by the guidebook. We found it nestled in a corner next to another small restaurant named Ponto Final, the final point, which underscored its name by perching a table right at the end of the pier, two feet from the water. I also liked the pedestrian bridge nearby, which may have originally provided access to a boat or ferry from the pier but now led straight down into the water. Doh! Final point indeed.

Our restaurant was equally whimsically named: Atira-te ao Rio, or throw yourself in the river — a suggestion that was luckily not made necessary by their delicious food and great service. There we ate one of the more original meals we’ve had here, which was a huge relief to palates grown used to fried cod, chicken salads (or worse, plain mixed salads), and vegetable soup made of mostly potatoes and cabbage.

Gabe had an excellent fish moqueqa, a spicy Brazilian dish made with coconut milk. I had fennel soup to start, and then a shrimp salad with palm hearts and so much fruit on it that it looked more like my breakfast than my lunch. Hands down the best salad I’ve had here to date, served by some of the friendliest staff we’ve encountered. A wonderful break from our culinary routine.

The entertainment value was also high, mostly provided by the weekend feijoada buffet. There were three big terra cotta pots on the side bar, one each of rice, black beans with pork, and greens, which Gabe told me were kale. On a plate to the right of the pots, there were entire peeled oranges to put on top. It looked delicious, but since I could never do it justice and Gabe couldn’t eat the pork, we contented ourselves with watching our fellow patrons load their plates high.

That included a little girl of about ten years old, who finished one plate of food and then decided that her dad’s feijoada looked good. She was too shy to brave the buffet herself, but the waitress helped her pick out the good bits and put them on a plate for her. The girl looked delighted, and finished every bite, then embarked on a big dessert just as we were leaving.

From the restaurant, we continued up the hill towards the Christ statue, which we thought we could access by means of a huge elevator running up the cliff. When we got there though, the elevator was at the top of the shaft, and our attempts to call it back down to the bottom didn’t result in any movement. We figured it was broken, and embarked on the long roundabout road up (and up and up!) instead. About half way there, we saw some people get in the elevator at the top and take it down to the bottom. Doh! So much for that idea.

We had thought that the elevator was there to provide you access to the Christ statue, but we were still quite far away. On our meandering route up and through the city, we had to stop and ask for directions twice, guided all the way by the gigantic yet unattainable statue just on the horizon. Finally we made it into the park surrounding the statue, where we were rewarded by amazing views of the city and the bridge below us. That’s right, the bridge was below us. I hadn’t realized we’d gained quite that much elevation!

To our relief, the elevator in the statue was working, and up we rode, accompanied by two Portuguese families. One little boy refused to believe his mother when she promised he could see his house from the top of the statue. “No way,” he said, “that’s impossible.” Turned out it was in fact too hazy to see as far as Estoril, where they were from, but I think it must have been a close call.

The view was stupendous, once we finally got up there — the elevator didn’t quite take you to the top, so you had to climb a few flights of stairs and then run the gauntlet of a small chapel and a gift store before you finally got to the viewing platform. (I was sorely tempted by the glow in the dark Jesus statue in the gift shop, but the 18 euro price tag deterred me.) We duly admired the panorama, along with a few more Portuguese families and a flock of nuns, and then returned to the elevator for the long trip back down.

Having achieved our goal, we bussed it back to the ferry stop. We arrived just in time to catch a car ferry, which allowed us to stand outside on the deck alongside a scooter and a Smart car that were making the trip across the river. The Smart looked especially funny, all alone on the huge ferry deck.

We came home long enough to change, relax a bit, and eat dinner before going out for our now-customary dessert and glass of wine at our local wine bar. In case you didn’t see it, the lovely pregnant proprietor found and commented on my blog post about our last visit there, saying that we’d have the welcome of the house next time. We hadn’t been in since then, so I didn’t know if they’d remember who we were.

No to worry though — the Brazilian waitress greeted us as old friends, with a delighted hello, a kiss on the cheek, and the news that the owner gave birth to a big, healthy son last Tuesday. His name? Gabriel. How fitting! She chose some excellent sweet wine for us, light and full of pears, then ran over to the restaurant next door for our desserts.

The place was strangely empty for a Saturday night, but that allowed us to sit and chat with her for a good hour or so til another couple came in. Between their Brazilian accents and the speed of their conversation, I only understood about half of what she and Gabe said, but I didn’t mind. I loved watching the way she talked, her animated descriptions of anything from food and music to to punks in the neighborhood. No matter the topic, her dark eyes lit up, her hands waved, and her sweet musical voice lilted up and down as she warmed to her subject. After we discussed the racism her African boyfriend encounters here, the way people look at him suspiciously as if he’s about to rob them, I noticed tears standing out in her eyes.

Her warmth and enthusiasm were so enchanting to watch that I was startled when she started speaking to me in French (she lived in Paris for eight years before coming here.) In an attempt to include me in the conversation, she asked me about what I do, which only succeeded in completely flustering me. I have a hard enough time explaining what I do in English, and my exhaustion from that day’s walking combined with the amazing wine I’d guzzled far too quickly rendered me speechless, in any language. My reply came out as a hideous hybrid monster of Portuguese and French, and she must have thought me a complete idiot. Oh well.

It was a delightful evening, and contributed again to my growing sense of belonging. We have been to so many cafes and restaurants here where the servers greet their customers as old friends, or sit down and talk with them when things get slow. So when the next customers poked their heads in to ask if they were open, I realized that we were now those people, sitting and chatting with the waitress on a slow, quiet night.

The lesson to be learned for the next time we do this: it takes about six months to really start feeling comfortable and making friends. And yes, that is just when you’re getting ready to leave. But so be it.

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Since the rain has kept us indoors and in town for most of the past six weeks, we decided to brave the dubious skies yesterday and get the heck out of town. Instead of doing one of our usual epic excursions on foot though, we rented a car for the day, which seemed like a better idea given the state of my health and the weather. It was a good thing we did, too, as by the time we got ready and reached the car rental place, I was already exhausted. No hiking around for me!

We set a general goal for the day, this time being the walled town of Obidos, which is about 120 km to the north of Lisbon. And as usual, we took our time getting there, following a circuitous route half set by the GPS and half by Gabe turning down random streets and making the GPS scurry to recalculate. And oh, what adventures we had.

Our drive started on the new, fast toll highway out of Lisbon. As we zoomed across the countryside, music turned up, I was struck once again by the giant contrasts embodied in this very small country. Hills are prime real estate here, and have always been in constant use and reuse, so you see modern windmills sitting next to ancient tumbledown ones, and Christian churches perched outside of Moorish castle walls, which in turn replaced Roman forts.

Even the sky was full of contrasting colors and textures: black storm clouds stacked high on the horizon, forming a dramatic backdrop to the frosting of white clouds on top of them, topped by a blinding blue sky right above us. It made for some great photos — see below!

After a while, we turned away from the highway and struck out through the countryside towards the coast, which always provides for more interesting, if slower, driving. We ended up at a small fishing port on the coast named Peniche, which despite its size and the earliness of the season, was still swamped by tourists and tour buses. The car had by then lulled me into a sleepy haze, so we chose the first restaurant we found, which afforded us great views of the harbor and the castle keep nearby.

After our meal of fresh grilled fish, I felt energetic enough to walk out to the end of the harbor wall, risking the occasional sprays of water as the waves crashed against it. We passed a huge herd of feral cats along the way, who lived in the walls of the keep, blending in perfectly with the gray and orange stone. A lady was feeding them kitchen scraps when we came back, and making a futile effort to shoo away the seagulls that were inevitably drawn to the feast. No wonder those cats looked so fat.

Back in the car, we continued on our way to Obidos, but were brought to a sudden halt by a long line of traffic on the highway — all of it waiting to get off at our exit. Hmm. The only thing I could think of that would create such traffic in Obidos was the International Chocolate Festival, which is held there every year, but my guidebook (which I’d consulted that morning) said it happened in February.

We looked it up when we got home, and it turned out that it was the Chocolate Festival, which is in March this year. Too bad, because I’d kind of wanted to see what the fuss was about. Even had we known though, it still wouldn’t have made the wait worth it, as the line of traffic extended from the highway all the way up and around the offramp and onto the main road leading to the city. No thank you!

So in the end we bypassed Obidos and turned around, deciding instead to take the coastal route back to Lisbon. We drove through deserted towns with crumbling buildings and past fields of grape vines made thick and gnarled by age. Many of the fields were swamped with water from the recent storms, which I think will not do their crops much good.

In one town, we passed another wonderful juxtaposition of old and new: a jolly old man in a cap struggled to keep his ancient bike upright and moving, while coming up behind him at a massive speed was a Spandex-clad, fancy-helmeted younger man on a very expensive racing bike. It was a beautiful — and very Portuguese — moment of contradiction.

That road eventually took us to Ericeira, another small town on the sea, this time a resort town rather than a port. We parked and got out for a late afternoon coffee and a wander around the small cobblestone streets of what turned out to be a really lovely little town. It’s almost daunting to think of the number of picturesque streets in tiny towns that are possible to explore here, and to know that one could never hope to see even a small percentage of them. That doesn’t stop us from trying though…

… except when I’ve spent the previous two days in bed. I was definitely flagging by this point, so we cut our meandering short and turned our heads for home. Even though the chocolate celebration prevented us from reaching our goal for the day, it was a great excursion nonetheless, if only because we got out of town while still allowing for my low energy levels and the weather.

Now it’s time to catch up on the work I didn’t do during my sick days last week. We’re promised yet another day of rain today — although theoretically, the next two days will be clear. Since we haven’t had two clear days in a row since January, almost six weeks ago, I won’t hold my breath (primarily because right now doing so would give me a coughing fit.)

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Raining again, and feeling even crappier than I did yesterday. Huh? Not exactly the progression I was hoping for.

Yesterday gave us a welcome break from the rain at any rate — not so much from my cold. That didn’t deter us from getting outside though, as I literally felt like if I didn’t get outside, I would scream. Gabe didn’t seem to look too favorably on that idea, so out we went for a short wander. We soon discovered that it was not only was sunny, it was actually warm! Hooray! Had I been feeling better, I would’ve frolicked like a lamb.

Instead, we chose a more sedate celebration and sat down at a cafe to enjoy some beverages and our books in the sunshine. It was by then midday, but the river was still cloaked in heavy fog, and the Golden Gate look-a-like rose up out of the fog bank just as it does in San Francisco… with the slight addition of a giant statue of Jesus just to the left of it. There was a even a foghorn to complete the picture of home, which sounded just like the ones we can hear from our house in Santa Cruz. Ahh.

Near the cafe, we saw a stylish young European couple speaking a language neither of us recognized (Dutch? Norwegian?), with two of the most fabulously dressed little girls I’ve ever seen. They were probably about 18 months and 2 and a half years old, both towheaded, and dressed in slightly different but complementary outfits: both wore silver rain boots, with a bright red dress for the littler one, and a tan cotton dress for the older girl.

On top of that, the older one had a fantastic long coat with big mod-style black and white flowers on it, and they both had cool silver shades on — which of course matched their mum’s. The crowning glory was the older one’s über stylish haircut: a short pixie with baby bangs and longer curly bits at the ears. Wow. I tried to take a picture of how fabulous they were, but as I didn’t want to seem like a total stalker, I don’t know if it came out or not. (It did! See below for proof of my sly stalker skills!)

After our fellow cafe denizens had lit up one too many cigarettes for my lungs, we beat a hasty retreat back out into the streets. The cafe we’d chosen was at one of the miradouros overlooking the river on the south side of Lisbon, which we hadn’t been to since we first arrived here and were looking at flats nearby. It was sweltering then, and we couldn’t possibly have sat outside at this cafe without dying of heatstroke. Everything looked so different now, and I’m not sure if that was because of the change in weather or the change in my perspective. Back then, I just found it hot and sweaty, and all I could see were the graffiti and the unsavory characters loitering around the statue in the middle of the miradouro. I didn’t even notice the statue itself, which turned out to be quite lovely. Why did I not see all of this at first? What was I thinking?

On our slow wander home, we stopped at a fruiteria to stock up on various things we needed. The inside of the store was buzzing with a cloud of flies, but instead of being grossed out by them as I would’ve been six months ago, instead I just waved them aside and picked out what we needed. Every fruiteria here has flies in it, and you just have to wash your stuff off really well. Oh, how times have changed. (We will see just how much when we go to Africa in a few weeks’ time… that will be the true test of my supposed ruggedness! Ha!)

Later in the afternoon, after lunch and the siesta my cold has been requiring of me this week, I went back out again for my Portuguese lesson. My progress has certainly slowed in the past month, as I am feeling more and more like a short-timer and less compelled to master the language — especially now that I have enough to get by in any but the most dire of circumstances (i.e. post office incidents #s 1 through 20, or the grocery store with no money.)

Our next round of visitors and trips starts in about two weeks, at which point I’ll stop my lessons, perhaps for good. That thought makes me quite sad, as aside from Gabe and a quick hello to the people working at the gym, my tutor has become the main social interaction of my week. (Yes, I pay for my friends. I ain’t proud.) The saddest part of all is that she just adopted a cat over the weekend, so after studying with her for nearly four months, now she gets a cute cuddly animal for me to visit. Dangit. And yes, it is all about me. In case you didn’t know.

At some point during our lesson, we were talking about caretakers for sick people, and I said something about my dad having been sick. My tutor asked me how old my dad is, and when I started to say, “He was…” in Portuguese, she corrected me to “He IS.” I said, “No, WAS,” and explained that he had passed away last year. Really, honey. For once, that tense was not a mistake. She was quite embarrassed. Oh, the fun with language barriers continues!

So there you go — a random and unrelated set of snapshots from my day. Make of it what you will, as I am too stuffy headed to make it coherent in any way…

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Since we were out of town last weekend, we decided to stay closer to home for this week’s exploration. In looking through the guidebook though, we discovered that our walkabout options are becoming increasingly limited — we have already covered a great deal of ground!

Luckily, a different map gave us our goal for the day: the house of Fernando Pessoa, the national poet of Portugal. I’ve been looking into this odd little bespectacled character lately, and wanted to see the house in which he and his many personalities had lived.

So we set out in that general direction, though as always we reached it by a very long and circuitous route — which of course necessitated a stop for refreshment at a nice little sidewalk cafe around the corner from our destination. It was warm enough for us to sit outside and consume our coffees and pastries, both sweet and savory, which we did with gusto.

As soon as we were ready to pay, Gabe once again disappeared from the waiter’s view, so it took us about as long to get and pay the check as it had to consume our snack. Luckily, we were in no hurry, content to wait and watch the world go by.

This place was quite the social center: people stopping on the street to say hello, customers greeting the waiter and teasing him as they would an old friend, kids running in and out, and people generally enjoying their Saturday afternoon. Now that I’m more familiar with both the language and the body language of the Portuguese people, I am noticing more and more how warm and friendly and downright sociable they all are. Everywhere I looked yesterday, it seemed like they were chatting it up on one corner or another. I still feel very much the outsider, but I enjoy even that role, as being outside allows me to look in.

Once we’d finally managed to wrest the bill from the waiter and pay it (Gabe eventually had to go inside, after asking for the check twice and getting nothing but a nod in return), we walked around the corner to Fernando Pessoa’s house. I was expecting some small, dark little monument to his life, carefully preserved with his writing desk and implements all dustily intact, which is what you typically find at this kind of place.

To our astonishment though, his house has been turned into a bright, airy, modern community center, with a library, a small bookstore, what looked like a children’s education center, and a room where they host all kinds of talks and readings. All the walls, including the exterior, are emblazoned with one of his poems written in various different fonts, which Gabe remarked made it look like a crazy person’s house. Well yes, it kind of was, but shh, don’t mention it to our host or his many different personas.

They did have two of Pessoa’s rooms preserved, with his writing desk and implements immaculately arranged on top of it, and tall windows open to admit bright sunlight onto an equally yellow bedspread. They even had a case displaying the haircutting tools used by Pessoa’s barber during the 15 years he lived in this house — always an important addition to the collection.

What’s more, all of this was free. It was a delightful and surprisingly innovative way of using the space, as it became much more than a relic of a life once great. Innovation in any form is startling here, where most organizations and individuals seem content to look backward at former glory rather than pushing forwards to find a new spot in the sun.

We left Pessoa’s house behind, and continued to the end of street we had been on before, which ended in a massive, marble-bound cemetery. Conveniently, that was also the end point for the 28 tram, that rickety relic of the early 20th century, which twists and turns up and through the castle district.

We hopped on and rode it all the way to the end, as it always provides excellent people watching: German tourists giving up their seats to little old ladies with shopping bags, kids sitting on grandmothers’ laps, teenagers listening to loud music or jabbering on their phones. Predictably, the tram empties out almost entirely when you reach the castle, and I laughed when the little old man sitting in front of us called out “Castelo!” at the relevant stop, knowing that this was where everyone wanted to get off. He was very helpful.

Despite its entertainment value, the tram isn’t exactly the fastest method of transportation, and it was nearing sunset by the time we reached the other end of the tram line. So we again ended our day by strolling home through the pink-lit cobblestone streets of our city, down what we call restaurant row, a long line of mainly touristy places that all look more or less identical. We thoroughly confused the restaurant touts, who spoke to us in English and were startled when we replied in Portuguese — they were sure that we looked like tourists!

After running the food gauntlet, we stopped to pet a 3 month old beagle puppy, who was busily playing with an equally adorable young girl in the middle of the street. We also bypassed a huge line outside the former Roman coliseum, which appropriately enough is now a concert venue. Judging by what the touts there were selling and the predominance of women and teenage girls in the line, it was some boy band performing last night. One lady tried to sell me a giant banner with his face and name on it, and in response, I could only throw up my hands and shrug — entirely lost on me lady, trust me.

Moral of the story is: even though we have covered a lot of ground on the map and in the guidebook, every time we set foot out of our door, a whole new set of experiences await us. No two blocks or even buildings are alike, and all of the myriad sidewalk cafes or corner bars are totally different. Every street might contain a new kind of tile we’ve never seen before, or a famous poet’s house, or cute puppy, or a new church we hadn’t spotted the other fifty times we’d walked by it. It’s kind of exhausting, but also wholly exhilarating.

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“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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