Summer 2016: Part 2

I might as well start off by saying that there was no goddamn smoking room in the Porto airport either.  (I know I am sounding like a desperate chain-smoker, but I'm not, well, not really. I'm just choosing to Observe the Little Things.)

"This is Europe, for crying out loud," I grumbled o Mawii, who was busily and unsubtly looking the other way. "Aren't cigarettes supposed to be an integral part of the local culture or something?"

Another frustrating moment occurred when I tried getting my travel card from the ticket machine. I hate ticket machines. They're so stressful. First of all, there are usually three or four people behind you, sighing and tapping their feet and definitely Judging your complete ineptness. Then there's the machine itself, with all its buttons and signs and press-this-for-that and press-that-for-this, and a limited time you can do it in. And to top it all off, all my coins fell out of my wallet. But while I was was scrabbling around on the floor trying to collect them, red-faced and squirming under the cold glances I sensed from the people around me, Mawii wordlessly stepped in front of the machine and got my card for me.

I may be hopeless at many things, but not when it comes to choosing my friends.

We took an escalator up, out of the airport, and reached the platform where the train that would take us into town was due to pull up.

As we came up the escalator, I saw a middle-aged man in a tweed cap leaning over the rails, watching everyone, smoking a cigarette furiously.

So when I reached the platform, I lit one.

The man - who'd finished his cigarette by then - came up to me and said, very earnestly, "No, no, don't smoke here. They'll catch you." And he pointed to a no smoking sign that I hadn't seen.

I looked at the sign, and then looked at the ground which was littered with cigarette stubs, and then looked at the man who'd been blatantly poisoning all the escalator passengers with second-hand cigarette smoke.

But since I am an easy going person, I said, oh thank you very much, and when he started walking a few steps away, surreptitiously gesturing for me to follow him, I obliged. It wasn't to a dark and shady passageway, obviously, it was just a few steps, but those steps took us behind a big signboard so only our legs were visible to other people on the platform.

Mawii was with me, of course, and he turned to her and said: "You're from Germany, yes?"

We looked at each other and I imagined Hitler indignantly choking on hell-fire.

Mawii is from Mizoram. People might think she's Japanese, or Vietnamese, or Thai, or - you get the picture - but German definitely doesn't come to mind.

"No," said Mawii. "I'm from India."

"Oh. You look German."

God knows what sort Germans this man had seen or interacted with, but our train arrived at that point, so we abandoned contemplation, bid him a hasty goodbye, and got on it. Our last glimpse was of him slinking off to an old man who'd just lit up a cigarette; presumably our friend's intention was to guide the geriatric gentleman to the spot behind the sign and ask him whether he was from Japan since he was blue-eyed and Caucasian. 

Mawii had organised a B&B for us, of course, and our landlady asked us to meet her at a cafe. We found our way there. It was airy and sunlit with white iron-wrought furniture. We decided to order something to eat while we waited for her. The menu was in Portuguese. 

"Why is the menu in Portuguese?" I hissed.

"Because we're in Portugal," said Mawii, rather unkindly.

"Yeah, but why don't they have English translations? Don't all places all over the world have menus with an English translation?"

"No," said Mawii, probably wondering why she was friends with me.

I went to the counter and I saw someone being handed a bowl of soup so I wisely pointed at the soup and said, "I'll have that."

It turned out to be green pea soup. Divine.

Our landlady turned up then, and we realised that the Air B&B was right above the cafe. 

The layout is something like this: you enter the building and as you step through the door, a corridor stretches out ahead of you. To your right, is the cafe. Next to it are a pair of French doors, with a broad wooden staircase behind them. The corridor continues towards another room - part of the cafe - which in turn leads to a narrow and charming garden. 

The lodgings are at the top of the staircase, behind those French doors. You reach a landing which has, to one side, a dim room, with a desk and some chairs - a study, really. And that opens out on to a sunny little kitchen, which in turn, leads to a room that's been partitioned into neat little bathrooms for guests. That is the first floor. The second is reached through steep and cramped winding stairs - so steep that your knees reach your stomach as you climb up. There are two small rooms at the top. One of the rooms was ours. I am going to put up photos of everything (watch this space) which has just led me to the realisation that this entire paragraph has been unnecessary, but since I've written it, I'll be damned if I'm going to delete it now. Tough luck, but anyway. Moving on. 

The landlady had maps - as would the landlady in Lisbon. These maps, in Mawii's hands, were going to be the bane of my existence, but I didn't know it then. Since we had the evening ahead of us, we decided to walk to the sea. 

The landlady told us it was a short walk, and bid us farewell. She was wrong, it was not a short walk, on the contrary, it was extremely long, but halfway there, we found - okay, Mawii found - a park we could walk through to reach the seaside. My god, it was so beautiful. Winding paths framed by trees, stretches of flat green grass, and mini-hills, and lakes, and wild flowers. Again, I will put up some of the photos I took. 

And finally we reached the sea. There was no beach, really, just rock, and it was grey and wild with white-tipped waves, and rolling grey-white clouds overhead. After some trouble, we found our way to a bar that had an outdoor seating area, and despite the cold wind shooting its way from the water, we sat outside and ordered chilled beer and toasted the beginning of our holiday.

Half an hour later, I managed doing something that unleashed a hidden pissed-offness in Mawii, and she started shouting at me. I know how to handle her though, so I listened meekly, and agreed that she was justified, and I really had been impossible in the months leading up to the holiday, leaving her to do all the organising while I just passively floated along, and I apologised sincerely, and so, it ended with her feeling terribly guilty and trying to get me to wear her sunglasses (which were the source of her diatribe) to protect my eyes from the sun (which had come out by now). And then she bought me a beer.

We sat there for hours. It's strange, we really shouldn't have had much to catch up on, because we talk so often, but we did have a lot to catch up on. We blabbered away until dark and then realised we needed to get back. 

"I can't walk back," I said to Mawii. "I'll die."

She nodded in agreement. 

So we went inside and asked the people there how to get back to where we lived. They told us we could catch a bus and gave us the number. I vaguely remember standing at the wrong bus stop, and then nearly crossing over to another bus stop that was also the wrong bus stop, and then finally asking a parked taxi (the man inside it, not the taxi itself obviously) where we could find the right bus stop. He pointed the way and we trudged its path wearily. It had started raining. 

"We could always take the taxi," I said to Mawii.


"But -" 


A pause and then, "At least not on our first day," 

I subsided meekly. 

We stood under the bus shelter and the rain came pouring down and after a few moments, we looked at each other and started howling with laughter because it seemed so typical, somehow, that we were stranded under a bus stop, lost and cold and slightly drunk, on our first night in Portugal. 

But luckily the bus arrived before our laughter became tinged with hysterics and despair, and we got on it. We went past our B&B, but we realised our mistake before we got too far so it was just a ten minute walk back towards it in the rain. 

The cafe was open. We had hot soup and hot bread and dragged our weary bodies off to bed.

And so endeth the first day. 


The kitchen had a balcony adjacent to it. A small one, with a round table and two chairs and a potted plant on the table, overlooking the garden. I woke up early the next morning and took myself off there, with a mug of hot water (I couldn’t figure out how to work the coffee machine, but I figured that Mawii would be able to work it once she was up) and a cigarette and a book that I didn’t read because thinking High Thoughts (“I can’t believe I’m here. Oh gosh, everything’s so pretty. Oh jeez, I wish I lived here. Oh man, how can I live here, is there someone I can con into marrying?) and watching the sunlight dancing on the damp garden, and the breeze ruffling the leafy trees, seemed infinitely more preferable just then. 

It’s funny how it’s always the most insignificant moments you carry with you. I remember the half-hour on the balcony so well. The fresh scent of the air - and you never really realise how painfully absent it is from daily life until you breathe it in somewhere else - and the glistening wet grass, and above all, a sense of peace, and of contentment. Kind of like the air I was talking about, come to think of it. It had been a turbulent few months, sadness alternating with boredom, and it was only at that moment, that I realised what I’d been missing, and I was grateful that, temporarily at least, I’d found it.

And then obviously I spilled the mug of hot water on myself because that is what I do, and life returned to normal. 

Mawii joined me, and the genius figured out how to work the coffee machine as well. 

Although - 

“You realise that any duffer can do this, right?” She said to me, as one of the mugs filled. 

I made no protest. I have long ago made peace with the fact that regarding some things I am somewhat less than a duffer and duffers are no great shakes obviously. 

The plan was to start the day with breakfast at a well-known food market our landlady had told us about, to visit the famous Livraria Lello library that is featured on Buzzed as one of the world’s most beautiful, and to explore Porto in general. 

We got dressed and I put on my new red sneakers and admired myself in the mirror. Months have passed since that moment, and I still heartily regret it. I wake up sometimes at night, in a cold sweat, re-living the experience of those shoes. Many things, during the course of my life, have caused me to suffer. Death, injury (such as the time I fell off a wall and broke my teeth), evil persons determined to ruin my reputation, heartbreak, and other miscellaneous life-altering incidents that would have put a lesser human being in a mental hospital have all played a role in these sufferings. But none of them have come close to inflicting upon me what those shoes did. More on that later however. 

We set out, bright and early: Mawii, myself, and Mawii’s Map which was to play almost as big a role as the shoes in contributing towards the tally of my life’s suffering. 

“This is the way we need to go,” said Mawii, turning right, soon after we’d turned left. 

I dutifully followed her. 

“No, wait, it’s this way,” she said, and turned tail. 

I timidly made the suggestion that we ought to ask someone else for directions, but she ignored me. So we doubled back, took a right, then turned around again, and walked straight, and then we took a left, and then I looked at the map and said, oh, maybe we should go this way, but Mawii dismissed me with one of the coldest looks I have ever been given, and so we went a different way, and then when that way turned out to be wrong, we tried a few other ways, before heading back in the direction I originally suggested. 

I wanted to crow with glee, I really did, but something in Mawii’s face made me stay silent. I am very glad I did. 

We went past some fruit and vegetable stalls. They looked colourful and beautiful, artistically arranged. Mawii stopped to take photographs with her camera. I didn’t have a camera, just an old and cracked iPhone that has seen better days many days ago, but I wasn’t going to be left behind so I took a photograph too. The photo, strangely enough, didn’t show fruit and vegetables; it just showed a blur of colour. I sighed and tried once more. The result was the same, except this time, the photo was even blurrier than before. I studied it and wondered whether I could pass it off as something artsy and new-age, or if not, something reminiscent of the Impressionist era. I decided that it wouldn’t be possible. There was no possible way the photograph could be passed off as a deliberate artistic impression of anything. So I sighed once more and deleted it. 

We reached the food market forty minutes after we’d left the cafe. It was actually ten minutes away, but these things happen on holiday and there is no point regretting them. At least we’d seen more of Porto. 

The food market wasn’t so much a market as a mall dedicated to food. And oh, the food. Some stalls were devoted to special sandwiches, others to pastries. Mawii pointed out a small yellow tart, a custard tart, and told me that it was a Portuguese specialty. We were to see it practically everywhere we went. There were stalls devoted to cured meats, and traditional Portuguese food, and non-traditional Portuguese food (“deconstructed fusion”), and traditional non-Portuguese food, and…you get the picture. 

I regret to say that I don’t remember what I ate. It just had lots of meat in it - lots and lots and lots of meat. Mawii was eating something else at another stall. I joined her. My feet had started to hurt - New Shoe Syndrome. 

“These shoes are killing me,” I said to her. 

I surreptitiously took them off under the table and was alarmed to see red welts at the back of both my heels. 

“Look at this,” I hissed. 

Mawii looked. 

“Are those brand new shoes?” She asked. 


“You haven’t worn them before?”

“Nope,” I said, missing the incredulity in her voice. 


“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you know that you’re not supposed to wear new shoes for hours on end when you’re walking? You need to break them in first,”

“How do you break them in if you don’t wear them?” I said. 

She rolled her eyes and took out a couple of band-aids from her bag. 

I put them on. And then I put my socks on. And then I put my shoes on.

“Better?” She asked. 

“Yes, yes,” I said. 

“Do you want to go back quickly before we set off and change them?”

“No, of course not,” I said airily. “It’s fine now. No problem.”

“Are you sure?”

Blissfully unaware of the agony that was to dog my heels (haha, get it?) for the rest of the day, I said that I was quite sure.

Oh, how I was to regret and berate my surety in the hours to come. 


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Nicole said...

Mawii sounds like the Mom Friend! I love your writing!And your humour! So tempted to book a trip to Porto!