After leaving the food market, we decided to walk to Livraria Lello, and from there, to the river. The plan was to cross the river and go across to some vineyards before going back home.
“It’s a good plan because it’ll take us pretty much all over Porto. We’ll probably be able to make an entire day out of it.”
“Yay,” I replied dutifully, and we set off.
After about half-an-hour, Mawii realised I was hobbling.
She stopped. She sighed. She said: “Trish, maybe you should go back to the guesthouse and change your shoes.”
She stopped. She sighed. She said: “Trish, maybe you should go back to the guesthouse and change your shoes.”
“I’ll get lost,” I said helplessly.
Mawii couldn’t argue with that one.
“And I won’t have time to cross the river if I do that, it’ll probably take me an hour or more to join you wherever you’ll be, and our mobiles aren’t working anyway.”
“We could do it the old-fashioned way and meet somewhere at a specific time,” Mawii said, slightly doubtfully.
“What are the chances I’ll find my way there?” I said scornfully. “I’ll probably end up having to go back to the guesthouse and spending the day there. Or I’ll never get back at all. I’ll end up a beggar on the streets or something.”
Mawii sighed once more, this time in agreement.
“I’ll manage,” I said confidently. “I’m breaking them in. Therefore, they’ll soon be broken, and everything’s going to be just dandy.”
“All right,” said Mawii.
And so she continued walking and I continued hobbling.
After ten minutes -
“MAWII! WAIT!” I shrieked.
“There’s a lizard here eating another lizard!”
“Why would you want to see that?” said Mawii curiously, walking back towards me.
I wasn’t sure, except I’ve never seen a lizard eat another lizard. I think they were lizards, but they didn’t look like Indian lizards. They were much smaller, and a very bright green. Half of one of the lizards was inside the mouth of the other and they were both very still. Only their tails beat occasionally. It was like the lizard-being-eaten was waiting to see what would happen next, trying to formulate a plan, or maybe it was exhausted, or maybe it was even headless by now, come to think of it, and the moving tail was just dead lizard talking. The second lizard looked like it was biding its time. Or maybe it was just lazy.
I kneeled down and took a photograph (which I promise to put up here). Mawii’d walked away.
“Don’t you want to take a photo?” I asked since she’d been taking photos of pretty much everything.
Porto is such a pretty city. Lisbon was going to be like that too, except I didn’t know it yet. The houses there bear a startling resemblance to the old houses of Goa - not surprising, I suppose - except, obviously, the ones in Portugal are better maintained. It’s still very much part of the contemporary local architecture. The houses are a riot of colour, each unconcerned about matching its neighbour, but it just works somehow. They are pink and yellow and blue and red, and some of them are tiled. Most of them have red roofs, but not all. And nearly all of them have flowers at the window-sills, or plants on the balconies, so each street is framed by them. One house, I remember, had flowers that hung over the sills, so when I stood below and looked up, I saw a canopy of riotous red and purple, with bits of sky peering through. The main roads are like any other, but the smaller streets are cobbled. There are trees everywhere, many of them are flowering trees, a few others grow fruit like clementines. The public buildings - the railway station for instance, or a church, or a museum - are reminiscent of an age gone by. I didn’t see any square, geometric, impersonal buildings. I saw towers and arches and columns. Just walking around is a pleasure.
I felt a pang when I saw what I did, because it brought home to me the ugliness of home. I don’t mean the squalor or the poverty or even the dust. I mean the buildings we see, the old ones that are decrepit, and the new ones which are impersonal boxes, often with some sort of ostentatious feature thrown in that makes them even uglier than they otherwise would be. The dearth of trees and flowers in many places. The cars that crowd absolutely everything. In Portugal, attempts have been made to make even the most banal things pretty. The dustbins, for instance, are painted in startling patterns. The lamp posts on the streets have flower baskets. And I felt slightly depressed, comparing the ugliness I see everyday with what Portugal had to offer.
What was causing me more depression, though, was the fact that I was nowhere close to conquering the shoes. On the contrary, they seemed to be conquering me. We had to keep stopping every twenty minutes so I could rest. I toyed with the idea of taking them off and walking barefoot, but I decided against it. Porto seemed clean, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t that clean. I was also pretty sure that if there was a single piece of glass, or something similarly sharp, lying anywhere in the city, I’d find a way to step on it. And so the agony continued.
During one of the stops, we saw a very pretty street with a church at the end.
“Do you think you’ll manage to walk there?” Asked Mawii.
“No,” I said firmly.
And then I saw a patch of grass with trees and I told her to carry on, and that I’d sit there with my book and wait for her. I took off my shoes and breathed a sigh of relief. I took out my book but I didn’t read it. I just sort of revelled in the feeling of being in a strange city, watching it go by, sitting on damp grass under a tree that gave me protection from a sun that was so gentle, protection wasn’t really required. But a stronger reason for my, er, revelling was, of course, the fact that I had an excuse to take off the damn shoes for a short while. I looked at them with distaste.
“I will conquer you,” I said to them. “I spent money on you, and you’re not all that bad to look at, I’ll give you that, and I will wear you and you will do what I say, and aid me in my movements, not hinder me.”
The shoes looked back at me, distressingly unconcerned.
“Just you wait,” I said.
They looked content to wait.
Mawii came back after fifteen minutes, carrying two of those custard tarts that we’d heard were a Portuguese specialty. Porto and Lisbon both have cafes all over the place (and all of them, interestingly enough, serve alcoholic beverages - but more on the drinking culture later) and each and every single one sells those tarts. I bit into mine. It was piping hot, and very sweet, and the crust was golden, and it was very delicious. We’d moved to a bench and we sat there for a while, eating the tarts, and talking about how far the bookshop was.
“I think the most sensible thing to do,” I said to Mawii, “is to just buy a pair of new shoes.”
“Because buying new shoes has worked for you so far?” She said.
“That was below the belt,” I replied sternly. “No, I’ll get sandals that won’t cut into my feet.”
She agreed that it wasn’t a terrible idea and we started off again. We passed all sorts of shops but not a single damn shoe shop. Oh, except one. I darted in, and so did Mawii, and we looked at the shoes, and Mawii looked like she was having an orgasm, because the shoes were so pretty. I picked one up and looked at the price tag. More than a 100 euros. I sighed and picked up another one. More than 200 euros. Mawii and I looked at each other regretfully and exited.
“We need to come back one day when we’re the sort of people who can buy expensive shoes the way we buy, like, an ice-cream now.”
“Do you think we’ll ever be those sort of people?”
“There are two of us,” I said encouragingly. “Even if one of us turns out to be wealthy, the other can sponge off. I promise to always let you sponge off me, Mawii.”
I didn’t bring up the fact that, taking probabilities into account, I will probably end up being the sponger: the eccentric spinster who lives in Mawii’s attic in her charming little house, smoking out the window, watching her play with her seven children wearing aprons in the garden, not even allowed to babysit them in case I set one of them (or all of them) on fire or something.
After a very painful forty-five minutes though, we reached an area that were full of inexpensive looking shops. I darted - well, okay, limped - into the first shoe store I saw. I tried on the cheapest pair of sandals I saw (15 euros, enough for two meals, but worth the sacrifice) and they didn’t cut into my feet, they were soft, and I promptly plonked the money down and walked out wearing them.
My god, the relief.
And then we came across a vintage store selling clothes. (Which really means secondhand.) I really needed - okay, wanted - some new (figuratively speaking) clothes, and Mawii is always happy to shop, so we went in. I bought two dresses, and insisted on walking out wearing one of them, much to Mawii’s horror.
“It probably hasn’t been washed since it was last worn.”
“Of course it’s been washed,” I said, “no shop would sell unwashed clothes.”
“These shops do! You have to soak them overnight! You’re probably wearing all sorts of germs and disease.”
“Rubbish,” I said gaily, suppressing a small qualm that had arisen within me.
I have since regretted buying those damn dresses. I have worn the one that I was wearing that day just twice since, and I have worn the other one not at all. This always happens to me. I go to a shop and I try on the clothes and I’m like, whoa Trisha, you look so good, and they genuinely do look nice on me in the store. But then I get home, and I try them on, and I end up looking terrible, and they join a pile of clothes that I have bought and will never wear, and it makes me very sad.
But oh well.
We found our way to a cafe, and we ordered a sandwich and a pastry and some coffee, and we sat outside in the sun. There was a beautiful clock tower to the right. There were quite a few people sitting outside, all taking advantage of the gorgeous weather, and it struck me that everyone looked very happy.
For a moment I wondered whether it was because they were all tourists and on holiday, but the people at the next table were speaking in Portuguese, and they looked happy, so I convinced myself that in a place like this, even the locals were happy, and it gave validity to my own happiness.
After that, we followed Mawii’s map to Livraria Lello - which is something I’d been looking forward to for the past six weeks, ever since I saw photos of the bookshop online. There is no point describing how beautiful it looked, I will not be able to do justice to it. So once again, watch this space for photographs.
But real life often falls short of the expected (unless you train yourself to expect misery and disappointment which is my expertise; unfortunately I had not indulged in it in this time). And that is what was going to happen with Livraria Lello: a place of astounding beauty, one of the most magnificent bookshops in the world, ruined, as are many things, by People.