Summer 2016: Part 4

The first inkling I got that Livraria Lello wasn’t so much a bookshop as a tourist attraction was when I found myself standing in line to buy a ticket to enter. 

As we crossed the threshold, my heart sank. There were hordes, hosts, and herds of humans. If it weren't for the fact that they were mostly Caucasian, it could have easily been any given place in India.

I kept - through no fault of my own - bumping elbows with Europeans who all seemed to have a propensity for hissing at me. But the bookshop itself was very lovely - what I could see of it, over people's heads. I browsed round the ground floor for a bit, and then climbed the grand staircase to the first floor - narrowly avoiding a middle-aged couple and their selfie stick. Upstairs was as crowded. I looked at a few books: all too expensive for me to buy. Real bookshops let you pick books off the shelves and sit there and read for a bit, and then choose another book, and do some more reading. But both space and atmosphere were not conducive to that essential activity and so, after ten minutes, Mawii and I left. It was all so disappointing. 

“Let’s forget about it,” said Mawii. “We’ll walk to the river and have a drink somewhere and then cross over to visit the vineyards,”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said. 

We walked and walked (and believe me, my appreciation for my new sandals grew with each painless step I took), and we soon ended up by the railway station (probably one of the most beautiful station I’ve ever seen, from the outside at least). 

“If we keep walking straight,” said Mawii, consulting her map, “we’ll hit the river. But we can take that little street as well and it should get us there,”

I looked towards the street she was talking about - it was the sort of street you just have to walk down. We could just see its beginnings from where we stood, but that was enough to gauge the flower baskets and little shops and its general air of liveliness. 

“Let’s take it,” I said. 

Sometimes, the most ordinary things - in this case, strolling down a street - make you realise that you really are in a foreign land, because the ordinary is so different from what you’re used to. The street was decked with paper lanterns - they hung like little balloons over our heads. I regretted the fact that it wasn’t dark and that they weren’t lit; it would have been a fantastic sight. We had time and we meandered. I moved ahead of Mawii at some point, and I was gazing at a shop selling crystals when I heard her call my name. 

“What is it?” I asked turning. 

Her eyes were very wide. 

“A man just randomly came up to me and asked if I wanted weed.”

“Did you take it?” I said eagerly (and stupidly). 

“It was probably oregano or something so no I didn’t.”

“No one’s offered me weed yet,” I said in an injured tone. 

“I’m sure your time will come,” said Mawii, rolling her eyes. 

(It did.) 

We took a left up an intriguing looking lane. It was very steep, bordered by tall houses with minuscule doors. There was also a cycle workshop that we passed: the sign outside was made of a real cycle. That’s what I mean when I say people there take pains to make even the most banal things attractive or interesting. 

We eventually reached a sort of hill which was evidently a viewing point since there was a small tour group there as well. There, before us, lay the red roofs of Portugal, under an intensely blue sky. Beyond them was the river, with the bridge to the left. 

“It was built by the same guy who built the Eiffel Tower,” Mawii told me. And there was a faint resemblance to the old Eiffel in the way that bridge was wrought. 

We could see that once we left the viewing point, we needed to walk straight to reach the river and from there, turn left to get to the bridge. This is what we preceded to do. 

Although, by the time we crawled towards the river, looking for the bridge didn’t seem as appealing as looking for a glass of crisp wine. I vaguely remember attempting to search for the bridge nonetheless, but it seemed to have disappeared. 

“I don’t understand,” said Mawii in despair, “it was right there. Wasn’t it right there?”

“It was right there,” I agreed. “But look, there’s a little restaurant right here which is more important.” 

Mawii conceded that it was indeed more important and we started walking towards it. A moment later, I was to have a near death experience. Mawii is the reason I am alive today. 

I have this tendency to blank out occasionally, to become completely oblivious to what’s going around me. It’s actually quite incredible. Here’s an example. It’s only happened to me thrice, the last time was about four years ago, when I was in college. I was standing in the garden of my PG and looking at a tree. I have no clue why, maybe it was flowering or something. And my brain stopped registering that I was standing, so my legs just crumpled under me, and I fell over. It wasn’t cramp or anything. I simply forgot I was standing and when you forget you’re standing, you fall, as it turns out. It’s very strange. For a long time, I hoped that it was a sign that the flame of genius burned within me, but I am twenty-five now, and I have finally accepted that it has nothing to do with genius and everything to do with being weird. 

I was walking on a tramline, and I suppose I was thinking about something or the other, because a tram was heading straight for me and though I was facing it, I didn’t see it, not even when it was a few feet away. The fact that something unusual had happened only dawned on me when Mawii shrieked, leaped towards me, grabbed me by the arm, and pulled me away, just as it sped by. My mouth fell open. The tram’s occupants had their faces pressed against the windows, their mouths were hanging open too, some of them were pointing at me and saying things - presumably nothing flattering.

“How did you not see that?” Asked Mawii incredulously. 

“I don’t know,” I said, awed by my idiocy. 

“There are like fifty people in this city who think I’m a complete moron,” I added, after a reflective pause. 

“Well, they’re right,” snorted Mawii.

I nodded amiably. 

We’d sat ourselves down at a table outside the restaurant we’d seen. It overlooked the river. A waiter hurried up to us and suggested the Sangria. Mawii said she’d try it, I said I’d prefer a glass of white wine. 

“It’s very good Sangria,” he said persuasively. 

“I’m not a huge fan of Sangria,” I said. “All that fruit makes me nervous.” 

“I’ll put less fruit in for you, I’ll put just the right amount of fruit. It truly is excellent Sangria.” His earnestness was overwhelming but I refused to be overwhelmed. 

“No,” I said, smiling as charmingly as I could to offset the crime of refusing his Sangria. “I’ll stick to the wine.”

“Are you sure?” He said, sounding heartbroken. 

“I’m sure.”

His eyes glistened with what I suspect were tears so I kindly told him that maybe I’d order one after my glass of wine. It seemed to cheer him slightly: he blinked several times and managed a watery smile and when he walked away, he did not look like he was going to jump into the river after going off duty. So that was okay then. 

Our drinks arrived and I didn’t regret my decision: the wine was delicious. I took a sip of Mawii’s Sangria, it was pretty good, but nothing to get weepy over. 

We sat there for more than two hours, but I don’t think we had more than two drinks. And that is something that is remarkable about Europe’s drinking culture. You can sit in one place for hours, and whereas in Bangalore or Calcutta or even London, you’d get totally hammered, there, somehow, you find yourself drinking very slowly, making conversation, enjoying your surroundings: sophisticated drinking, as Mawii correctly pointed out. And there is alcohol everywhere, even more than London. The coffee shops serve alcohol. You can walk into a coffee shop at nine in the morning and order a beer instead of a coffee or tea. And yet, though I saw plenty of people sitting around, enjoying their drinks and making merry, I didn’t see any crude raucousness, or drunken stumbling. The drinking there is slow, it is peaceful, it is easygoing. It is delightful. 

A very good looking man was sitting on his own at a table near us. He didn’t have a laptop, or a book, or a phone out: just a beer that he was drinking contemplatively. Actually, good looking doesn’t cut it. He was more than that. He was superb. 

I put on my sunglasses (three hours old and already showing scratches) and, along with Mawii, indulged in some shady, shameless staring, worthy of my Indian brothers. 

After we were done, we went for a walk alongside the river. There were plenty of wine bars with tables and chairs spilling outdoors, and different kinds of music, intermingling and mellow, and quaint little shops selling cork magnets and bags and belts and hats. Portugal is the world’s biggest exporter of cork. I found a beautiful cork belt, and the minute I saw it, I knew Amar would love it. But it was so expensive, so expensive. I stood there for about ten minutes debating whether to buy it or not, and then recklessly put the money down and went off with it. 

We continued walking along the river bank, and by sheer accident, found that goddamn bridge. But we decided not to cross it, mainly because there was a very pretty looking wine bar that looked infinitely more interesting. We went in, and I’m glad we did, because I discovered white wine port. I didn’t even know white port existed. It was extremely expensive, but Mawii, already sympathetic to my recent purchase, bought me a drink as well as herself. That port was so good. It was like dessert wine, really, but less heavy. 

We had a second glass and I was feeling slightly light-headed. I was also very worried about the belt. I took out my wallet and did some calculations.

“Mawii,” I said, after a pause. “If I skip dinner tonight, and breakfast and lunch tomorrow, I’ll still be short of a couple of Euros.”

“Couple of Euros for what?”

“To get to Lisbon tomorrow,”

We looked at each other in silence. 

“I could always just stay here,” I said, breaking it. “Throw away my passport. Become an illegal refugee.”

“What’s the point of buying the belt for Amar then?” Said Mawii. “It’s not like you’ll be able to give it to him, and the belt is the reason you’ll have to be a refugee in the first place.”

“Good point,” I conceded.

Another pause. 

“You know what you have to do, right?” Said Mawii. 

“No, no, no,” I said desperately. “I’m useless at buying presents. This is something he’s going to love.”

“Either way he’s not going to see it because you won’t be able to afford to get back home,”

I sighed and told her to wait there for me, and then I darted out of the bar. I sprinted down the bank, desperately hoping I’d recognise the shop I’d bought the belt from (there were many and they all looked similar). I did. 

“Excuse me, Ma’am,” I said to the proprietress. “I bought this belt from you half an hour ago, do you remember?”

“Yes,” She said suspiciously. Experience had obviously taught her this was not going to be a welcome conversation. 

“The thing is,” I said, taking a deep breath, “I can’t afford it. I thought I could, but I can’t. And I’m a tourist here and I have to go to Lisbon tomorrow, but unless you take this and give me my money back, I won’t be able to go to Lisbon.”

She looked very disapproving. 

“Please, Ma’am. I’m so so sorry.” 

Thank god I’d drunk the wine because without it, I’d never have been able to squeeze a couple of tears out. Those tears are what saved me. She melted visibly and told me it was alright (“be careful next time though”) and she took the belt and gave me my money back. 

As I sprinted back to Mawii, I shed a few more tears. This was for three reasons. The first was because a part of me really did feel terrible that I couldn’t give Amar a present he would have really loved. The second was because of sheer relief. And the third was because of the sharp cold wind that was blowing in from the river and stinging my eyes. 

I was glad to get back to the warmth of the bar. 

We wisely decided not to have a third glass of wine and decided to go and get dinner. It was about nine by then, and the sky was getting ready for nightfall. There was a particular restaurant that we wanted to go to, Mawii had marked it out on the map, so naturally we walked around for about an hour attempting to find it. When we did find it, it was very crowded, and there was another restaurant next to it that looked quieter and more appealing. So we went in for some hot soup. We were both exhausted by then. The thought of a long walk home was daunting, but it’s not like we had a choice. 

We followed Mawii’s map home, which basically meant we spent forty minutes walking around in circles before finally asking a police-officer how to get back. It turned out we were just a ten minute walk away from where we were staying. 

I wisely refrained from referring to the map which had proven to be more unhelpful than otherwise. I had already learnt that Mawii is a map nazi. She refuses to ask for directions (I am amazed that she condescended to ask the policeman; she must have been seriously exhausted), she throws a tantrum if you tentatively suggest asking for directions, and then she throws the map at you and tells you to read it. (This didn’t happen that day, but it would happen soon.) 

Anyway, we finally managed getting back, and we crawled thankfully into bed. 

A single day in Porto and it felt like three days rolled into one. I’d experienced physical agony, moderate disappointment, intense peace and contentment, riotous happiness, and a sense of wonder. All these experiences were very tiring - experiences usually are - and I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. Also, the next day was going to take me to Lisbon, so I suppose my subconscious realised I needed all the rest I could get. 

1 comment:

Nicole said...

I am sorry about the library! Maybe really early in the morning it wouldn be that crowded but the fact that you have to pay an entrance fee for a bookshop is so off-putting. You did well returning the belt!YOu could seize the day and explore Lisbon with that money!