Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Evidence

The crowds in Arlanda

Ian showing off his new "backpack"

Ian wearing one of his new T-shirts and brushing his hair with his new collapsible brush (for the full effect, it would've been necessary to post all 13 pictures Ian took of himself brushing his hair and wearing his new T-shirt, while I was writing a post. This is just the last one.)

In Latvia

We're here in Riga, comfortably ensconced in our hotel room at the Baltpark (breakfast included!), which is decorated in a pseudo-Chinese style, I would say. Very red and gold and textured. We're back to being 10 hours away from Seattle, so think about that if you're trying to call us.

Our trip here was lengthy, and relatively uneventful. We took a bus then the Tube to Heathrow and waited in a line to drop off our bags (once we'd checked in) that would undoubtedly have been included in the Inferno if Dante were to write it today, but still made it to our flight on time. And then the flight was late, but only 30 minutes (whereas our flight to Lisbon earlier in the summer took off at the time it was supposed to be landing). We still had enough time in Stockholm to enter the country, collect our bags, then walk the mile and a half through eerily empty Arlanda (we were, literally, one of three flights taking off from the 56 gates in terminal five) to check in at the opposite end of the opposite end of the airport for our flight to here, even notwithstanding this flight was late too. Ian had to check his rucksack in at a different counter than me because of the straps . . . and herein lies the event. When we made it through customs (last in line, somehow) here in Riga, my bag was waiting for us, but his was not.

The lady at lost luggage was very helpful, and very organized, and although there was no sign of the lost bag in the system (i.e. it certainly didn't board the plane in Stockholm . . . because there was so much traffic, I'm sure. It must just have gotten lost in the shuffle.), she promised to find it and deliver it to our hotel. And she handed us two night packs as a consolation prize, each of which has a large T-shirt in it, so Ian now has 3 times as many as before, which is nice, actually.

The only thing we're really missing is our power adapters . . . I've got some 55 minutes left on my computer, but Ian's down to a mere 7.

But, warnings from the Lonely Planet proved, at least for us, unfounded--the taxi driver immediately turned the meter on upon entering and we had a wild ride (not a CHANCE I am renting a car here) in the 11:30pm ends-of-sunset-and-full-moon light into town, without being cheated.

Overall, thumbs up on Latvia so far.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Buses Done Right

I hate taking the bus. In part this is because, in Seattle, the bus comes about once every half hour, and from where I lived, I could be downtown in 1/3 the time it took for me to wait for the next bus. Also, I tend to get motion sickness on buses. I don’t know why, but I have to steel myself for the experience every time I go. Our three days in Italy and the winding, sheer-drop roads of the Amalfi coast were difficult for me (and the bus catching fire on the motorway didn't really instill confidence in me, either). Pretty much as soon as I sit down on a bus I start to feel ill. Clearly there is something psychological about this, because the seats aren’t necessarily less comfortable, nor the motion necessarily more pronounced, than many of the trains I ride. But psychological or not, it’s difficult.

One of the joys of London is the Underground. Trains are fun, and the Tube goes everywhere. You can ride the Tube for hours, for days even, and continue to see new places. Or maybe not, because it’s mostly underground. But you’ll be in new places.

Ian, being the clever, technology-oriented guy that he is, insisted we buy transit passes last time we were in London. I have no idea why they’re called this, but we each bought Oystercards, and they’ve helped to entirely change the way I feel about buses, as it turns out.

They’re an excellent deal, first of all. A one-day travelcard for the Tube costs something like £6, but if you have an Oystercard, you only pay up to £4.50 per day, and it’s good on buses too. And then, suddenly, here we were in a far reach of Islington and the closest Tube station is a 30-minute walk away—completely negating my previous statement that everywhere in London is on the Tube.

I’m not against walking 30 minutes—in fact, I frequently enjoy it, and London is a place I walk a lot. But London is, just by the sheer scale of it, a place most people end up having to walk regardless, and so it’s nice to be able to go around the corner and pop on the #38 bus to the Angel Tube station.

The recent floods have messed up the Tube tubes, too, and have shorted out signals and whatnot, so buses have been all the more necessary for getting around. Ian mentioned the other day that no matter what the scale of your map is, London is so huge that you find yourself walking 3 or 4 times as long as you’d thought, so a bus is frequently welcome—and welcomingly frequent. During the day, most routes seem to run in 8-10 minute intervals (more often during rush hours). Buses run all night, in 20-30 minute intervals from midnight to 4:00am. So you know you can catch one when you need it.

And finally, London buses are just fun. Many of them, even most, really are still double-decker buses. And the thrill of sitting flush up against the windscreen on the upper deck definitely makes up for, and even distracts from, any feelings of motion-sickness.

But the Oystercard, the transit pass, is the icing on the cake. All you need to do is swipe it over the reader and continue on your merry way. No need to search for an unknown amount of change or worry about whether you pay at the beginning or the end of the trip. Buses are clean, buses are fun, buses are convenient. I could become a convert.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Just a Friendly Dinner Party

We’re in London right now, staying with our friends J&C in their lovely garden flat. They have full exclusive use of the garden, and turned the mud pit they inherited back in February into a sylvan glade in the middle of Islington. They have resident squirrels, of course (all called Roscoe, because it’s a bit difficult to distinguish between them, much like the squirrels all called Gerard who lived in the garden of our friends G&A in Ann Arbor, who are now our friends in Härnösand, Sweden, and so more about them in the near future), and a visiting black and while cat called Penelope, and even a raggedy little fox called Felix. We attempted to stay with them when we were first in London last June but they were having an unfortunate infestation of bedbugs (picked up in San Francisco, so beware if you’re visiting the Bay Area, because they are the second case we’ve heard of). Our vagabond life this summer would be paradise for bed bugs, so we didn’t even come to the apartment to visit, but rather made them meet us on the neutral territory of Hampstead Heath.

Anyway, bedbugs have been successfully eradicated, so here we are, eating tasty home-cooked food—pasta and veggies and beans our first night, brownies that Ian made for dessert the second night, crepes with Greek yoghurt and apricots and bananas or raspberry jam for breakfast yesterday morning, and so far the piéce de resistance: last night’s dinner of chicken fajitas.

J grew up in Arizona cooking Southwest food, so even in London the fajitas were pretty authentic, and the company—us, them, and five others of their friends—made us feel right at home, as if we, too, had just stopped by for dinner. The generosity of our friends on this trip has been so appreciated—it really makes a huge difference to feel so welcomed and so at home all over this continent. And our clothes have stayed pretty clean.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

That’s How They Getcha

note: 2nd post today! Be sure to read on . . .

We’ve just arrived back in London today, and our summer seems to be over. There’s been a lot of rain here recently (including right now)—not sure if any of you Americans have heard this on the news, but it’s actually been pretty serious here in the UK. Lots of people without water (the great irony of floods, but, as with Katrina back home, beer tankers have been coming to the rescue and delivering emergency H2O), transportation messed up (Heathrow and the Tube), and various other issues. Welcome to Prime Ministerhood, Gordon Brown.

So, as usual, we purchased a case of port in Porto. Not only is it a family tradition now; it’s really, really good. I’m not sure if I mentioned that Ian and I sampled some other 20-year tawnies the day that we bought ours—I’m pleased to report that Calém is, in both our opinions, still the best (and no, not because the name sort of resembles mine). It’s always an issue transporting the port, though. It’s heavy, and evidently no one in Portugal will ship alcohol privately to the States (since each state has its own liquor importation laws, customs and tariffs and whatnot are complicated, so Portugal just doesn’t play). We can’t carry it on to planes either, not anymore, so we purchased a new bag (a bright orange roller), and thought that three checked bags between the two of us would be more or less manageable to get out of Portugal, and ultimately back to the US (we’re staying with friends in London right now, and will again at the end of August, so Big Orange will stay here while we continue our journeys. We’re not going to be popping on and off of buses and trains with giant rucksacks, heavy computer bags, and a large orange roller suitcase carrying twelve bottles of port. That’s just ridiculous.).

Anyway, first stop at the airport this morning was the car rental agency to drop off our car. This one, too, was an Opel Corsa, and brand-spanking-new. I think it had 26 kms on it when we picked it up. It had an even more useless engine, though, than the last one. On the motorway, we could more or less almost maintain 100 kph (speed limit was 120) going up a slight incline, if we downshifted to 4th and floored it. More or less. But back to my story.

I reserved the car online, and we got a pretty good deal for it—€236 or something for 9 days—and then when we picked it up, evidently the rate had changed, and they dropped the total cost down to €226. That’s at least one lunch, so we didn’t argue (okay, anyone who argues with a multinational corporation about a €10 discount is crazy, anyway).

Sometime while we were in Trás os Montes, my credit card stopped working. When I called to find out why, it seemed that the rental car company had, instead of charging me €226, charged me about €1,000 instead. That looked suspicious, so VISA had put a hold on my account. I did not authorize them to pay the charge, figuring it would all get worked out when I returned the car.

So this morning at the agency I waited patiently while they checked me in on the computer, then found my initial paperwork and perused that, then looked over everything again (seriously, it was a 20 minute process), then finally went into the back. I assumed they would come back with some notice that I hadn’t paid, but no. The agent handed me €6, said “Obrigado,” and sent me on my way.

So, it would seem that, instead of paying €226 for our 9-day rental, we actually got paid €6. Okay . . . (note: since writing this, I've accessed my CC records and they did, in fact, charge me for the car. Still, a discount of €16 is nothing to thumb your nose at.)

So off to the terminal to check in for our flight, on TAP. We handed over our two rucksacks, then started to haul Big Orange onto the scale.

“Oh no,” said the agent. “Is that yours too?”

“Yes . . .”

“Because you’re only allowed 20 kgs each on this flight.”

“Can we pay for the extra bag?” asked Ian.

“Yes,” said Claudia, our agent, “but I’m afraid it’s very expensive. It’s €50 per 5 kgs over the total.”

“What?” we gasped, shocked. “FIFTY EUROS for every extra five kilos?!?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” she replied. “That would be about €360 for this extra bag.”

I explained that it was port, and we couldn’t send it, and we couldn’t carry it on, so what should we do? Our tickets, both of them together, had cost less than €200. Could we just buy another plane ticket, and its attendant 20 kg, and call it good? But of course we couldn’t—tickets purchased one hour before the flight are much more expensive.

“You could try air cargo,” Claudia suggested. “You can walk there—it’s not far. I’ll check in all three bags just in case, but as cargo it will probably arrive sometime today, and it will probably be cheaper. Try it, and come back to see me and let me know if it works. But see me only, okay?”

So, off we went to air cargo, which is in the old terminal of Porto’s airport, from which I actually flew several times 10 years ago. We were able to send Big Orange to London (Heathrow instead of Gatwick, where we were flying, and so obviously not on our same plane), arriving this evening, for only €93, which, if you divide by two and add it to the tickets we’d already purchased, really didn’t end up being that much more. Our toiletries are in Big Orange, but I think we’ll live without them tonight and go collect them in the morning. I'd like to note that our flight from Porto to London wasn't even 1/5 full, so it definitely wasn't a space or weight issue. On the other hand, they clearly weren't making much money on our flight.

Back in the fancy new terminal, we waved at Claudia We made it! from across a crowd of new checker-inners, and negotiated security and passport control with a minimum of fuss.

The only bad part of the journey (as opposed to the cargo part, which was a somewhat bemusing novelty and, ultimately, only a bit irritating) was landing at Gatwick, where there were still rainstorms, and after descending for some unknown amount of altitude through choppy, gray clouds, we put the landing gear down, saw some green pastures near below us, and suddenly did one of those reverse descents (read: very labored and speedy ascents) back up into the misty turbulent closeness. We bumped around for another 15 minutes before attempting to land again (Ian and I tried to distract ourselves with Tintin and the Broken Ear, in Portuguese, with nominal success). This time we came down completely, but several times we wondered if one of the turbulent drops was going to slam us into the ground just a little too hard for the landing gear to handle.

Five days here, then off to Latvia! The adventure continues . . .

The Internet: Our Succor, Our Downfall

Note: As my friend Chiara might put it, Bragança’s Cyber Center found out I was going to break up with it and broke up with me first. I attempted to send this post the morning I picked up our car, but alas failed.

The first day we were in Bragança, we discovered the modern (and modernly architected) Mercado Municipal and our favorite part of it: the Cyber Center. As you know, the WiFi there wasn’t compatible with my computer, but the cord plugging me directly into their network functioned just fine. Anyway, we went every day, and even when we agreed, more or less, that one hour would be enough, we usually stayed two or three.

Well, last night, this inability to control ourselves in the virtual world took its toll.

There’s a parking garage under the Mercado Municipal. The first day we paused as we entered and took a ticket. We discussed whether or not to leave it on the dash or take it with us when we went upstairs; I eventually saw that it said to take it, not leave it in the car. When it came time to leave, we looked around, and realized that the exit gate was open. Then we realized that the entrance gate was open as well, and that evidently all that had led us to take a ticket was our inability to pass a button without pushing it.

Ever after, we entered without taking a ticket.

Last night, several days after our first visit, I noticed that the “Caixa para pagar (box for payment)” wasn’t there under its sign on the wall. Even though there were several signs detailing how much you were to pay for the privilege of parking a mere elevator’s ride from the Cyber Center, there didn’t seem to be any way to do so. Anyway, up we merrily went and spent probably two hours futzing around.

When we were finally done, and, at 9:00pm, starting to get hungry for dinner (I tell you, we have embraced the European eating habits) we went to the elevator to go back down to our car. Even though the elevator was clearly visible on our floor, the door just cracked, it didn’t work.

“I’m not actually sure I’d want to get in it, even if the doors did open,” I said to Ian after we’d pushed the button several times. “But there are some stairs that I saw back this way.”

We took the stairs down, two floors, all the way to the parking garage, and when we arrived there we found—yes, you’re very smart, and you guessed correctly—the garage was closed. Our car was locked in.

In Seattle, when garages are locked at night, either the door will open from the inside when you’re driving out (the Cost Plus garage is an example of this—if you wait until after the attendants go home, you don’t have to pay), or there’s an emergency after hours number you can call that will get your car out (although you have to pay a fine). We looked everywhere; nothing.

I had dimly remembered that the garage was open until 22:00 hours . . . but I had remembered wrong. It was only open until 20:30, and we would’ve made it if we hadn’t been obsessed with gmail and latviarooms.com. We went back upstairs (fortunately the interior fire doors weren’t locked) and the attendant at the Cyber Center directed us to a taxi rank, and we made our way back to our village by taxi (only €10, including tip).

The driver picked me up this morning and brought me back to the Mercado. It seems that our car wasn’t, in fact, ticketed, and so, after all, no fine!

Unless, of course, you count the €20 taxi fare. I couldn’t tell if the driver was amused, or sorry for us.

Anyway, endless adventures.

By the way, the hotel/salsicharia/restaurant complex where we’ve been staying has been great, even including the weird kitchen. For dinner tonight we had three different sausages and prosciutto, cheese, bread, and a sort of rabbit risotto, and a bottle of excellent red wine. Dessert was homemade blackberry ice cream and samples of different homemade liqueurs—cherry, raspberry, and orange. Yum!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Note About the Kitchen

I realized making sandwiches yesterday that the problem isn't that the cabinets are only two feet above the countertops, but rather that they are the exact same depth as the counter tops. Really, it's very strange.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Art or Life?

Horse Pics

The horses coming in from turnout.

Huna leading the pack (she was a bit chunky).

Boy Do I Love the Horses

Horse riding on vacation is a bit strange. I’ve now ridden five times, and aside from the first time, each experience has evidently been a bit of a surprise to the people offering it. When we were in Naxos, where I first rode, every time we turned a corner we came upon a sign posted for Naxos Horse Riding. They were stuck on phone booths, which made sense, and on the side of the thousand-year-old Kastro, which didn’t so much. And when I called to book, Iris Neuberger (or whatever her last name was), being German, was very organized and business-like, as was the entire experience.

Ever since Naxos, even though people have advertised, or posted a big sign next to their farms, or been listed in the Lonely Planet, they’ve been surprised, and even a little bemused, when I’ve called to ride. My calls, in English or Portuguese, go something like this:

Them: “Hello?”

Me: “Is this the horse riding?”

Them: “Yes . . .”

Me: “Um, I’d like to go riding.”

Them: “Okay . . .”

Me: “Um, how about tomorrow?”

Them: “How many people?”

Me: “Well, just me.”

Them: “Okay. How long have you ridden?”

Me: “About 30 years.”

Them: “Okay.”

Me: “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow, say, 3 pm?”

Them: “Okay, 3pm. (click)”

Me: Okay . . .

In Orkney, the girl who guided me was great—I liked her a lot—but she had just started guiding (although she rode well) and didn’t know where the trails went (although I enjoyed just being out on a horse . . . in the thick, trail-obscuring mist).

In Porto Côvo, since we were there 11 days, I thought I would ride twice. The first time, I had the above conversation, only they asked me to call back the next day to set a time (to weed out the people who weren’t, in fact, that serious about it?). The guide I had was a Belgian girl, from the Flemish part of Belgium, who spoke Portuguese and Flemish and English. The second time I tried to ride, I was given a number to call and was told, again, to call the next day to schedule . . . only after that, no one ever answered any of the phones again, so I only rode the once.

In Évora, of course, it was all organized by the Dutch owner of the house and I had that great experience riding through the Alentejo for a couple hours.

Horse riding in Montesinho Park is listed as an activity in the Lonely Planet. They say that there are stables in França, and you have to book through one of the park offices, either in Bragança, or Vinhais (a city on the western edge of the park). When I asked at the park office in Bragança, the ranger lady looked a bit confused, then said I’d have to go directly to the Centro Hipico in França. I asked if she had a phone number for the center (if they’re supposed to be making reservations for riding . . . ), and she did eventually dig one up. Nevertheless, Ian and I felt it would be easier to just go directly to the Centro Hipico.

We stopped a few days ago, on our way to the aborted fly walk. A groom named Mario was doing some horse care when we arrived—bringing in four horses who were in turnout, and letting out two young stallions (separately), changing bedding, feeding, grooming. He invited me to groom one of the horses, a lovely and sweet Lusitano named Huna (Oona), who clearly loved being scraped and polished. Fun for me, less work for him—a perfect setup.

After I’d had enough of horse-pampering, Mario found us the phone number of the center and the cell number of a guy named Paolo, who was in charge while the other manager, someone who spoke English, was in England, at Exmoor, either at a show or buying horses or something. My Portuguese isn’t that good at speed.

Later that afternoon I called the center and asked for Paolo; no, he wasn’t in yet. Later yet I called again, half-expecting a repeat of the Porto Côvo no-one-answers-the-phone-ever-again situation, but I managed to reach Paolo, and he invited me to ride today, from 4 to 5.


So when I arrived today, it turned out that none of the horses have shoes, so they couldn’t be ridden on the gravel roads running through the park. Instead, I would be able to ride in the small round arena, and in one of the pastures, if that would be okay. Since riding was what I wanted to do, and trail riding wasn’t absolutely necessary, I said sure, that would be fine.

Paolo handed me a helmet and put me on Huna, and then let me go to have my fun. And you know, it was great!

I’ve never yet had enough time in my riding lesson schedule to come up with a day for hacking (riding without an instructor—a practice session where you work, on your own, on things you’ve been learning in lessons), but when I start up lessons again I’m definitely going to make time for a hack. Huna and I circled around the arena for awhile, practicing sitting trot and leg yields and bending and cantering each direction (she preferred cantering left), then we went out into the pasture and tooled around there, doing extended trots and more cantering, and practicing turning away from the barn even though she didn’t want to. There were a few jumps set up, and I was tempted to do a couple, but decided that new horse, wrong boots (i.e. a pair of Puma sneakers—bright red, really cute), new field, and permanent jumps (they were made out of logs, not bars that can just be kicked away) were enough reasons for discretion to win. I rode a little over an hour, loving it the whole time, and at the end Paolo apologized to me for me having to work on the horse (because, I guess, she wanted to go back to her stall?). Anyway, absolutely no apology necessary. Huna and I each got some schooling, and I got some time in the saddle, and it all reminded me, yet again, that I love riding. I drove home listening to Free to Be You and Me, and grinning the whole time.

And Ian got some good work done.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Some Pics of Northeast Portugal

Me crossing the river in Chaves. I love these "bridges", and they're very popular out here.
Ian caught up with me.
On the road to Gimonde, where we're staying.
The ridiculous kitchen.
Beautiful bridge in the middle of our walk today. Some flies, but not too many.

The Kindness of Strangers

It seems that my last two posts were a little crabby, so let me take a moment to write about something a lot sweeter.

We're staying in a refurbished house on the edge of the Parque Natural de Montesinhos, complete with a shared kitchen (of a weird, weird, inconvenient design--the cabinets come down to about two feet over the counters, so when you're doing anything with your hands--cutting, stirring a boiling pot--you can't see anything but the blank white cabinet door in front of your nose and so you feel a bit like the hands in one of those old skits from camp where you're the hands feeding someone else's face cereal or brushing someone else's teeth. But, of course, you have the knives and the boiling. But I wasn't going to complain . . . that's right . . . ), so it's pretty convenient. We had dinner last night with two other guests, or, at least, we all ate at the same time, although two different dinners. But afterwards we shared their port and our port, and talked long into the late evening (almost midnight, which would be late night in other parts of the world but is evening in Iberia).

There is also a restaurant, in the next building over, owned by the same folks who run the inn. We ate there our first two nights, and enjoyed it very much. The woman who served us is very sweet, and spoke to me in Portuguese, and asked if we wanted the TV on (we said no, because we have no resistance whatsoever and it's nice to at least look at each other once in awhile while eating, and taste the food), and served us only one Javali (wild pig) dinner instead of two, which meant that we only had a little left over, which she wrapped for us to take home.

On Friday we went again and had goat, which was also good, and potatoes and salad and a cornmeal pudding with amazing fig compote for dessert, and some local walnut liqueur. We were the only people in the restaurant when we arrived, but it was only 8:30 so this didn't strike us as particularly odd. Also, she put us in a different room than the first night, but we assumed it was because the room didn't have a TV, and we hadn't wanted to watch it (other people came in after us the first night and turned on the TV). Anyway, it all seemed like a perfectly normal dining experience. She wrapped our extra meat for us to take home--I explained that I'd used the Javali in sandwiches and would do the same with the Cabrito--and we left.

The next morning, yesterday, when I opened the Cabrito to make the sandwiches, I saw that she had put in extra meat. She was afraid that what we'd had left wouldn't have been enough to feed us, so she gave us more. Very, very sweet.

Then, last night at dinner when we were talking with our fellow guests, I told the story of the extra meat.

"But the restaurant wasn't open last night," said the man.

"What?" said we.

"It's closed on Friday nights," he said. "We went over to get a coffee after dinner and it was definitely closed."

So there you have it. The restaurant was closed, but without hesitation the lady gave us a lovely dinner anyway, and not only that, extra food so we could have a lovely lunch the next day.

The world is a wonderful place, flies and all.


I used to think that mosquitoes were the worst insect scourge in the world, but in the absence of mosquitoes, flies will do quite well. They seem to love me, these flies, no matter how much I swear and wave my arms around and stomp and behave like vinegar. They were so bad on our walk yesterday that, in a very un-Mathewson show of defeat, I agreed to turn back before we'd even gone 1/3 of the 8 kilometers. This is practically unheard of--Mathewsons, as you know, never stop doing something they want to do, even if they're exhausted and sweaty and looking like Pig-Pen (which Ian didn't deny, when I asked. In fact, he said "yes, you do!"). IRRITATING.

We had some in our room, too, for about 24 hours. It's not so bad at night, when they sleep too, but they wake up with the sun (read: a couple hours earlier than I want to) and find any bit of exposed flesh that they can, and perch there with their shit feet. They even flew up my little breathing tunnel when I covered my head with the sheet. DISGUSTING. And we couldn't find a flyswatter anywhere.

Anyway, after our aborted walk yesterday, I went home, rage in my heart, and with a brochure for the park, killed every last one of the two flies in our room (there had been three, but Ian had managed to catch one in one hand in a weird pseudo-Karate Kid move. But, I tell you, they seem like hundreds when they're flying into your nose and landing on your lips). And they haven't been back since.

Friday, July 20, 2007

New Technology=New Frustrations

Here we are in beautiful Bragança, in far northeastern Portugal in the mountains, in an area where several times on the “highway” we passed people going to or from fields on horse-drawn carts. We’re sitting in the CyberCenter, looking out over steep, golden-and-green hills and an ancient city with a medieval stone fortress at the center, which is still inhabited. Idyllic, no? No. Of course, for some reason, I couldn’t get the WiFi to work on my computer (this is almost unheard of for me—my computer has the best, in general, antenna of any laptop I’ve encountered. Perhaps the antenna is too good—I think maybe the signal was being crossed by another signal, but who knows. Certainly not me.), and then the Cat5 cable didn’t work for awhile, and so I’ve spent at least 30 minutes treading water. Or not even that, because at least when you’re treading water you’re getting some exercise.

ANYway. Enough complaining. It’s working now, so I’ll be able to tell you that we’re staying on the edge of the Parque Natural de Montezinhos, where we’re going to go hiking over the next several days when we’re not working, and maybe see wild boar (which we know from dinner last night is quite tasty), and maybe start to work off all the sausage we’ve eaten in the last month or so.

Someone told my Porto friend F that Portugal is either up to the minute, or medieval. It’s really true.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Guimarães and Barcelos

We’re sitting in the mostly dark bar of our hotel right now, side by side on a surprisingly right-angled (and therefore rather more surprisingly comfortable), shiny black leather loveseat with white stitching. There’s an orange plastic vase with two sprigs of lucky bamboo in it on a rectangular black table in front of us, and a dim floor lamp with a cubic shade to my left. The open hours for the bar are 4pm to midnight, and we’re well within those hours right now. Nowhere is it posted that the bar shouldn’t be open on a Wednesday night, and since we’ve been sitting here (almost an hour now, I should think), several couples have come around the corner, seen only the two of us side by side in a square pool of light with our laptops on our laps, and gone away again, confused. There’s nothing, actually (from what we can see), to keep us from just pouring ourselves some drinks—the bottles are out on a shelf behind the bar, the glasses are clean and within reach, we know from the regular chilly tumble that ice is plentiful in the machine. But for some reason (morals, maybe?), we’ve stayed primly in the public area. We’re only here at all, and not in our clean, Ikea-esque room, because we’ve found that we can access somebody’s unsecured wireless here. It is very Portugal, the whole scene.

We hiked today outside Guimarães, through invasive eucalyptus forests (which nevertheless smell good when the sun hits them) and along a river, up to an ancient (maybe 2300 to 2400-year-old) city. Alongside the river for part of the way up the hill ran a brisk watercourse—I’m assuming a several-centuries-old irrigation system (although the current channel is lined with concrete halfpipes instead of the marble or granite slabs you’d expect). The ancient city was, well, very old. In the beginning, I’m always interested in seeing these ancient things . . . but then, once I’m there, I lose interest pretty quickly. Yeah, okay, a bunch of old stone walls, or not even that, just old stone squares laid out on the ground. In ten minutes I’m done, and ready for refreshment (in this case a “red fruits” juice). I always wonder uncomfortably just how long I’m supposed to be interested in ruins. I suspect it’s longer than ten minutes, but that’s almost universally all I can muster. I’m much more interested in things maybe 300 years old, which we encountered aplenty near the end of our walk, down at the bottom of the hill, crumbling and covered with vines, old irrigation ditches still flowing with water along the edge of houses and in narrow cascades over walls, feeding a corn patch here, a plot of flowers there.

Then we drove to Barcelos, which is a fine town (although no Guimarães for sheer picturesqueness), but we’re really only here because of tomorrow’s market. It’s just the weekly market, but supposedly it’s the best in Portugal, with everything from chickens to vegetables to pottery or embroidery to Romany selling secondhand clothes (most likely from Americans). Dinner was tasty (pig in the fashion of the Minho, which included liver and some sort of tripe sausage as well as regular old recognizable meat . . . I admit I stuck to the recognizable . . . boiled with olives and potatoes and pickled carrots and cauliflower), and the wine, a red vinho verde, was only €4 for the bottle.

And now it’s 11:15 and time for bed. Tomorrow we head east, over the mountains, to Trás os Montes.

Some Pictures of Towns

Below are some pictures from Porto and Guimarães. Of course the pictures can't capture the atmosphere, but they do give a dim sense of the gorgeous visual cacophony. Porto, with its steep, narrow, winding cobbled streets and its soaring homes, with occasional hints of the courtyards and gardens hidden from the noise and grime of the streets, is one of my favorite cities to walk around in (and of course one can always stop for a glass of port and some briny cheese if one is fatigued). And Guimaraes, much the same but on a smaller scale, has one of the most beautiful town centers I've seen.

A street in Porto, in the Rebeira
Another street in the Ribeira (the Riverside)
The Ribeira seen from one of the many bridges.
The view from our attic window in Guimarães. The view was great, the smell (or rather the STENCH) of the room was not. With the rooftop doors open and the fan on, we were able to sleep. But it smelled like sewage and dead, rotten animals. Particularly one of the closets, although Ian said he looked and didn't see anything. Anyway. Pee-you.
The central square in Guimarães.

Another Picture Post

The truly peerless Pasteis de Belem. Warm custard tarts in a flaky, filo-type pastry, with cinnamon and powdered sugar to dust on top. We each had three, and then we took home a dozen, of which I had, like, another five. It's no secret why my pants aren't getting any looser.
C and me in this very cool toy at the playground (A commented: "Looks like they had the architect design this, instead of the parent."). It spins around pretty fluidly, and you feel like you're going to fall out, but you don't quite. When Ian tried to get out, though, he somehow got into a position where he was crouched, and running toward the edge, which of course was going to be endlessly just out of reach. I eventually came to his rescue and stopped the thing. Although it looks like you'll fall out onto asphalt, it's actually rubber mats.
Porto at night (or, actually, Vila Nova da Gaia, which is just across the Douro from Porto), from the balcony where we were enjoying one of many stops for ice creams and coffees.
Sand Angels.

Rainy Sunday

(written a couple days ago)

It’s raining right now, thick heavy drops dinging out of the sky into the gutters in a minor third bom bim bom bim bom as I lie in my bed. Behind the marimba dinging is the dull applause splatter of water on granite cobblestones, and the occasional bug-flying-into-the-side-of-the-tent sound of larger drops dripping onto lemon leaves in the garden. We won’t be going to the British Club today for a barbecue, and A is probably off the hook for cricket.

This is our first rain since leaving Scotland a month ago, and as such it’s more of a novelty than a disappointment. A says that the weather in Portugal, at least northern Portugal, has been ideal for growing this year—rain, then hot sun, then rain again. There was a lot of rain in the spring on the Alentejan grapes, though, too, and they of course prefer to be tortured by drought. It certainly has been ideal for keeping down the fires, though, which raged through the country all last summer.

We’re staying with our northern Portugal friends A&F, whose names are almost as similar to Lisbon A&F as their initials are which causes problems when I try to tell stories about them, except for the important fact that Northern A&F have two daughters, C&B. C is seven and I’ve met her several times (including in utero), and B is four and I’ve met her twice before (including, again, in utero). Both girls are gorgeous, and energetic, and very different from each other. Each is at an age when she is discovering her power over the other and so, while they get along pretty well most of the time, there are also frequent fracases.

Staying with A, F, C &B is always a pleasure. The food is good and plentiful, the bed is comfortable, there’s a piano for me to play and an accordion for Ian. We’re more or less adopted into the family for the time that we’re there, spending some time watching movies or drinking beers with A&F, and some time dressing dolls (me) or swinging (Ian) with the little girls. It feels a lot like another home away from home.

But, I have to say, it’s surprising how little kids can suck the energy right out of you. We love them, yes, but boy are they exhausting!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Cultural Experiences

We’re in Lisbon right now, capital of Portugal and home, for the next six months, of the President of the EU. We’re staying with our friends A&F, who are living in a lovely apartment with a view of the very Golden Gate-esque 25th of April Bridge across the Tejo (Tagus), Lisbon’s river (Ian pointed out the other day that Portugal has a lot of streets and bridges and what not named after dates, and it’s true. In addition to 25th of April Bridge, there’s also 1 of October Street and some other October date).

Here we were finally able to coordinate all the remaining pieces of Ian’s new application for residency in New Zealand (thank you, everyone, for all your help collecting and official-stamping and priority-mailing all sorts of documents from three households and several discrete storage spaces). For the last two days this has been our primary goal, and has encompassed everything from going to the post office to get certified copies of our passports, finding an internet café to print out pictures, scans, and a letter or two, buying a cell phone so that we can actually answer calls from the consulate, getting more passport photos done (and Ian getting a haircut before the photos . . . more on that haircut soon . . .), buying staples, going to the post office again to post the letter and finding we had to register it with a Portuguese address and so just buying the envelope and coming back to the apartment, then going back to the post office for the third time and finally getting everything sealed, paid, and mailed off.

On our way back to the apartment to pick up the address of the apartment, Ian’s hat blew off and in frustration he picked it up and flung it violently to the marble-paved sidewalk where, because of a trick of the wind and the slickness of the paving, it scuttled away up the hill from him as if it were running away. We laughed hysterically and were able to find the strength of mind to collect the address and get back to the post office without any more difficulty.

After the PO, though, we definitely needed some sustenance, so we went to the first available café, a little place right next door. It was about 4:00pm, so the lunch crowd was long gone and, in fact, the people there seemed to be regulars. We came in and I asked if they had sandwiches (sandes) or grilled sandwiches (tostas), yes they did, so we ordered tostas mixtas (grilled with ham and cheese) and sparkling mineral water and sat down.

There was a man at the table closest to the door, a little bit portly, maybe in his 60s, who appeared to be a little bit drunk, and perhaps a little bit the irritating soused neighborhood boor.

It soon became clear that he was indeed soused, but was evidently much beloved. About five minutes after we arrived, the first little old gray-haired Portuguese lady appeared outside in the street. When she tried the door, he held it closed and pretended not to notice her pounding and pushing on it. He eventually relented though, and she came in and sat down at his table, and ordered an ice cream cone.

Now, the ice cream cone was interesting in and of itself—it’s like a pre-packed ice cream cone that you’d get in any convenience store freezer, except that the cone part isn’t frozen, so it’s not soggy. So the proprietor (a young Indian woman—perhaps from Goa?) collected the cone and the frozen ice cream filling from the back room, then loaded the cone and the ice cream filling into a sort of drill press-type machine made specifically for this purpose, and pressed the ice cream filling through a star-shaped hole in its container into the cone, pulling down on a large handle to do so. I realize this isn’t that clear of a description, but it’s all you’re getting right now. Anyway, the little old lady settled in and really enjoyed her cone.

Over the next 40 minutes, another three little old ladies came into the café. Each was barred at the door, until the proprietor went over and, under the cover of clearing the table, stole the soused man’s cell phone and pretended to throw it away with the trash. One of the ladies didn’t stay, but the other two also ordered ice cream cones, which were pressed into the cones with the machine.

And our tostas were excellent—made in a sandwich toasting machine, but then buttered on the outsides before they were served. And then we also had a large piece of an excellent flan.

There are these little cafés all over Portugal—they each have a lager on tap, a few spirits, a sandwich or two, a couple non-alcoholic beverages, a couple sweets, and coffee. At lunch they usually also serve two or three “pratos do dia”, or dishes of the day. Simple, tasty, friendly, charming.

The barber Ian saw yesterday was also a lovely cultural experience, although for very different reasons. When we asked F for a barber recommendation, she told us that A goes once a month to a man not far from the apartment, who’s elderly and inexpensive (only € 7—the cheapest haircut Ian’s had yet), and whom he refers to as “the Brazilian Butcher.”

Evidently, this old man tells A stories about how he murdered people in Brazil 60 years ago, while he’s cutting A’s hair or, more alarmingly, shaving his neck with a very, very sharp straight razor. And if you go for your cut after lunch, don’t expect it to be very symmetrical, because he tends to drink quite a bit. But € 7—who can beat it? So A goes back, once every 4 to 6 weeks.

When we went in, an attractive older man with a short cut and a tidy, silvery goatee, who looked like he’d be perfect on horseback in a movie set in colonial Brazil, was just getting his hair finished (including a quick snip-snip of the eyebrows). And while we waited, a college kid with studiously untidy hair came in and sat, too. I felt a bit out of place—it was obvious women did not spend much time there. But Ian doesn’t speak any Portuguese and I wanted to make sure he didn’t end up with a Vin Diesel. So I stayed.

When the elderly man got up to go and the Brazilian Butcher motioned Ian toward the chair, I said “Il não fala Português, mas eu falou um pouco.”

“Okay,” said the BB in enthusiastic Portuguese, “then let’s talk!” Which of course shut me up completely.

The BB pulled out his clippers questioningly and Ian nodded.

“Numero um,” he said carefully, sitting down.

“Il fala Português!” the BB said to me, and we all laughed.

The cut proceeded swiftly and well after that. We were asked if we were German and said no, American. The BB then told us that he’d been in the Marines (presumably Brazilian Marines) for ten years, and had traveled all over the US when they did training with US Marines. He told us he was 80, and when I said that was impossible, he explained that the secret to long life was good wine (we were there before lunch, fortunately).

Somewhere along the time he picked up the straight razor to shave Ian’s neck and shape the back of his hair (perfectly, I might add), he started saying something about “boosh”, and “embraço”. I got the verb pretty quickly—something about hugging—but it took me a bit for “boosh,” until someone—Ian perhaps? Explained that he was talking about Bush. I can only assume, given his descriptions of multiple past murders, that he was wanting to hug Bush with his razor in hand. Anyway, he went on to tell us that first of all, the US was the source of the Atomic Bomb and the Bush Bomb—both of which were pretty much equally bad, of course—then he said, much more seriously now—that Bush is the most hated leader in the world right now. I said “Em o país também. Finalmente.” And the young kid cracked up, and the BB cracked up too. After a sobering discussion of just how much longer Bush will be in office, Ian was finally done, with military precision, and we took our leave.

My Portuguese skills are far from perfect, and I seem to be able to produce a lot more words and, evidently, sensical sentences, than I can understand (at least judging by the rapid responses I get). But I am understanding a lot, and it’s a great pleasure to be able to do so. Everyone in Portugal speaks English; at least everyone younger than 50, so the easy thing to do would, of course, be to just speak English. And I admit, when we got to the complicated part of buying the cell phone yesterday, I did ask if the salesman spoke English. I even know how to say in Portuguese “it would be much faster in English,” in a self-deprecating way, when I get a bit stuck. But I try not to give into the temptation too often.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

More Pictures of the Atlantic Coast

Be sure to scroll down--there are a couple new entries, too, below the pics!The long cave tunnel to our beach.
Me, a cow, and our car, which has stopped whining.
A typical scene of the big waves and rocky shore.
Porto Covo's fishing port. Those boats are pretty small, considering the size of the waves.
Looking through some windows in an old fort, probably about 500 years old. There's a similar fort in Mombasa, also Portuguese, from about the same time period. The one in Mombasa definitely had some bad, post-slavery energy, though, and this one just felt old.


Within five minutes of arriving here ten days ago A, the mother of Ian's former office mate A and one of our hosts, took off one of her sandals and smashed a spider inside near the door, and quickly cleaned it away. “I hope you are not afraid of spiders,” she said, somewhat embarrassedly. “There are some.”

Although having a serious arachnophobe friend has rubbed off on me a little, I'm not generally that afraid of spiders, although admittedly I'm not particularly fond of the large, hairy-legged ones we get in our houses in the Northwest come fall. So I've more or less kept my eyes open here, since the element of surprise is a bad element when spiders are involved. There was one big spider in the kitchen the other evening which Ian smashed with the lid of the garbage can (my hero), and another one in a bedroom we're not using, so I pretended it was just a shadow. And then I assumed that, since we'd been here a week and a half already, the spiders had probably cleared out.

So this afternoon I was sitting on the couch feeling sad and missing our friends. I had just written my blog entry about how much fun it was to host some people, and then a Dave Matthews song came on the iPod and I suddenly felt very, very homesick for people, and I admit I sniffled a little and cried a tear or two. Ian was sitting on the bean bag on the floor watching me and looking a little sad himself. I reached up behind me to the windowsill and grabbed the roll of TP we've been using as Kleenex and pulled it into my lap, and at the same time pulled the huge spider that had been lodging there into my lap as well, where it crouched on the pocket of my shorts, inches from the hem of my very loose shirt, up which it would undoubtedly have scampered for cover if I hadn't shrieked and leapt up from the couch, batting frantically at my front. “What? WHAT?” Ian screamed, levitating up from the beanbag on the floor as I leapt across the living room and behind him, clutching at his arm.
“Spider . . .” I choked out, “big spider, on my pocket!”
“Where did it go?!”
“I think under the rug!”
Ian, my knight in a strange outfit of patchwork Hawaiian print swim trunks, short-sleeved tan and blue plaid button-down shirt and grass-green sweater, came to my rescue and walked carefully all over the rug, while I laughed hysterically. He then slowly peeled it back and saw that yes, indeed, he had been successful in slaying my dragon.

And then he took this picture of it.

On the Road Again

Ian and I are leaving Porto Cǒvo tomorrow for Evora, a walled Roman town in the central Alentejo (the region where we've been). It's been a well-appreciated gift, this eleven nights, for free, at a little country house on the Atlantic coast. We did laundry not only when it was needed but also when we felt like it (that is, when I felt like it. I'm a pretty liberated woman in lots of ways, but I trust very few people to do my laundry the way I like it.). We shopped at a supermarket—the same one more than once! We eased into a comfortable schedule of breakfast outside, a stroll around the country or the shore, work for Ian and whatever I felt like for me (the aforementioned laundry, or reading, or writing, or riding), lunch, an afternoon nap, another stroll, dinner, and a stroll to town to make use of the WiFi in the main square.

But the most appreciated benefit of being in a home for awhile was that we were actually able to have guests, instead of just being guests! My friends A&F, from Lisbon, came down for the weekend and joined us in our leisurely lifestyle, and gave us a much-needed infusion of conversation topics. They're European, our age, and have traveled a lot and lived all over the world, and even though I see them on average once every three years and this was Ian's first time meeting them, we all got along immediately. The great thing about keeping in touch with people all over the world, of course, is that you have an excuse to visit them (we'll spend four days at their home next week). The thing that sucks is that I know all my friends would love each other . . . but it's so hard to get everyone together! I'll just have to make it a goal sometime in the future—Internation House Party at the Taylor's. Has a nice ring to it.

In addition to the Buffet de Gelato, there are a few other things we've enjoyed about being back in Portugal and here in particular. One is, of course, the bafflingly cheap wine. I bought two bottles of red at the supermarket the other day, both from the Alentejo, both very drinkable, for €1.39 each (which is around $1.95 each). We've got a herd of cows just outside our house, and their bells in the afternoons are a charmingly musical accompaniment to Ian's snores (ha ha—no, when he snores, I poke him until he stops). Two nights ago, one night after full moon, we took a late stroll along the beaches. The tide was out, so we felt our way along the dark, wet tunnel to our little private beach and splashed around for a few minutes, then climbed back up over the bluffs and down onto Praia Grande, the big beach. We went around one headland, between the cliffs and a wet pile of boulders glistening in the lights reflected from Porto Cǒvo and from Sines up to the north. I convinced Ian that we should return on the water side of the boulders, where I thought I could tell, from the splash of the waves, that it was shallow enough to make it even though the tide had turned. “We're either going to get very wet or dashed on the rocks,” Ian informed me, making it clear that those were our only two options and neither was a very good one, but he started off gamely enough anyway. About midway along the boulders we decided it was, in fact, too dark and too deep and the danger of dashing too great, so Ian turned and started over the top of the boulders. We were, of course, barefoot, and I'm sure I stepped on any number of things I wouldn't have considered touching with my bare foot if I could see them. In fact, I stopped in the middle and, balancing precariously on the dark, rough, and mysteriously slimy rocks, put my shoes on. But nevertheless, we made it, and had a good time.

Unlike Portugal's leeward coast, in the Algarve in the south, the Atlantic coast is pretty empty. There are no major resorts, and certainly no golf courses. The Lonely Planet calls the Alentejo “Portugal's poorest region,” which it is, sure, but only because it's primarily agricultural; not because the people are in poverty as we've come to think of it in the US. It is much more our speed than the flashy Algarve, and most of the tourists we've seen here have been Portuguese, which makes me feel more like a local than a traveler, somehow.

We'll be sad to go, but I know that the Capela dos Ossos in Evora will make up for a lot.