Arriving in Portugal, or, “Is this Really Happening?”

Portugal is certainly a confusing place.  From the mosaic tiled walls of the airport that remind me of the locker room of a public pool to the fact that classical music seems to be narrating our journey from the tarmac to the hotel elevators.

We deplane, and our luggage is the first to come off the conveyor belt (a first in my travel experiences to date.)  We take a cab to the hotel, and are only slightly ripped off by the cab driver.  We’re shocked to see how beautiful our hotel is – we booked it based on a flight/hotel package we found on Expedia (my first time doing so), and never imagined it’d actually be close to luxurious.  But it is – sprawling lobby with cherub statues, a spiral staircase leading up to the second floor and a friendly concierge staff eager to help us out.

It’s 6 a.m., and we know we can’t check in until after 2 p.m.  But we plan to drop off our bags at the front desk for them to hold until we check in.  We’re dreading this sleepy, delirious part of the trip, where we picture ourselves wandering the streets of Lisbon, tired and jetlagged, searching for pastries and coffee.   So when our concierge tells us he has a room available right away, we’re overjoyed.  They take our bags up to the room, and Randi and I collapse onto our beds, where we sleep for the next seven hours.  We’re both happy and completely horrified when we wake up at 1:30 p.m. and realize we’ve slept through our first morning in Portugal.

We shower and get dressed immediately and head down to the lobby, asking the helpful concierge where we can get a bite to eat near the Gulbenkian Museum, which we’ve deemed as our first stop due to the ominous rain clouds we see outside.  They recommend a bierhaus right near the museum, and when we arrive, we ask the uniformed guards standing outside the museum to help direct us to the restaurant, but they shake their heads and suggest a better restaurant.  In fact, they’ll lead us there themselves.  Now, I realize this might not be the best idea, two American girls gleefully following the young (and handsome) Portugese men, but remember – they had uniforms on, were on duty…

and it was broad daylight.  We follow them through the museum grounds, comprised of beautiful gardens, stepping stones, trees that make natural archways that seemingly lead to secret gardens but just keep opening up into sprawling greenery all around.  We step out of the gardens and are back in the city, and after passing a bride taking photos in front of the garden, we cross the street and arrive at the restaurant.  We are seated while the guards talk to the owners and help translate for us.   By translate, I mean they simply order for us.  I am told I’ll have the cod, the national fish of Portugal, and Randi will have the pork.  They also give us a bottle of white wine, which feels strange because we just woke up, but we go with it since we are, in fact, on vacation.

One of the guards, Ricardo, sits down with us and tells us all about his recent trip to New York, showing us photos on his cell phone.  Then he asks if we’re on Facebook.  The guards have to go do their rounds, but tell us to stay put.  This shouldn’t be a problem, since we haven’t gotten our food yet.  It’s interesting how we thought we were picking up a coffee and pastry for breakfast and yet, here we are, two glasses of wine deep and about to devour a meal of fish and meat.  They serve us delicious appetizers of bread and prosciutto.  I’ve been told to say no when they put extra food down on your table because they’ll make you pay for it, but I’m so hungry I just let them – and it seems rude to say no.

We never denied the food they offered in the beginning throughout the whole trip for fear of being rude – I suspect we probably paid a lot for that, but it was worth it.  I can barely speak the language; I can’t afford to be rude.  By the time my cod arrives, I’m too full of prosciutto to eat anything, but this ends up being a good thing because the cod isn’t very tasty.   The owner comes over, looking disappointed as he picks up our not entirely finished plates of food. He shakes his head to signify that we didn’t like the food.  We respond by rubbing our stomachs, trying to communicate that we were too full – but giving an “mmm” noise, to show that we really did enjoy the meal (lie.)  Still looking disappointed, the owner brings our plates to the kitchen.

The guards come back, carrying with them two tickets for the museum.  They speak with the owners, and then translate to us in a very stern voice, “They said you didn’t like the meal.” Again, we tell them how we were just too full to finish it.  After a series of eye rolls and back and forth between the guards and the owners in Portugese, we’ve clearly communicated our message, but no one seems any less disappointed in us.  We feel like we’ve represented America poorly here – aren’t we supposed to be obese and clean our plates?  Randi tells me that I simply need to lick my plate clean for the rest of the meals we have in this country (something I will fail to do, leading to more scolding and disappointment from restaurant owners all over Portugal.)  It really is a testament to how wasteful we are in America, the fact that we don’t even think twice about sending a plate back to the kitchen if it has some remnants of our meal left on it.


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