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.


Laura who matches her socks said...

I really enjoy your humor Calin. I'm so happy you have this blog. I'm at yo mama's house right now : ) I miss you!

KateMV said...

Just want to say how much I love reading about your adventures. I got a bit behind with the start of summer school, but I'm all caught up now, and I'll be looking forward to more!