Today we’re going to the Alfama neighborhood and starting our day at Castelo San Jorge. Our cab driver asks where we’re from, and when we tell him America, he says it’s a good day for us. We ask why, and he tells us Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed by American troops. We’ve hit possibly the most major turning point in the war on terror, and Randi and I are in Portugal. But on a positive note, we get the BBC here, so we’re getting a global perspective on the situation versus a skewed view from American media.
We’re told to take the tram to Belem, where Portugal’s most famous piece of architecture lives. After boarding the crowded tram, we realize the machine accepts coins only, of which we have none. We desperately ask people to make change for our paper money, but no one has any. We notice that they really do make a valiant effort to look – very unlike what we’re used to in America. After giving up and simply hoping we won’t be kicked off this tram, we notice that one of the men we originally asked for change had made his way to the front of the crowded tram, and is now pushing his way back in our direction. He gives us coins, and it’s apparent that his trek through the crowd to the front of the tram was solely a mission to get us the change we needed. We’re astounded by his kindness.
When we return to the hotel after our first meal debacle and admiring a fusion of Asian, European, Egyptian and Persian art at the Gulbenkian, there is a message for us in our room. The hotel has to move us out of the room they originally put us in when we arrived at 6 a.m. that morning, because they’re doing renovations on the floor. We’re just happy they were able to accommodate us at that early hour, so we don’t mind moving rooms at all. When we go to the front desk to exchange our keys, we’re told that we are being upgraded to the top floor, with windows that overlook a sprawling view of the entire city of Lisbon. And for our inconvenience of having to switch rooms, we’ll be granted VIP spa access. Again, Portugal, is this REALLY happening? You really love us, don’t you?
We move to our new room and get dressed for dinner. We’re feeling really special here, so we decide to continue with this theme and eat dinner at a five star restaurant that came highly recommended. Our cab driver can’t find the restaurant. He pulls the cab over not once but three times to look at a map, get out of the cab and ask pedestrians for directions, while leaving the meter running. Not knowing our way around this city yet, we don’t have much choice but to wait for him to return to the cab and try to find his way to our destination. Eventually, we find the restaurant, which was supposed to only be five minutes from the hotel.
The doors are closed, and we have to ring a buzzer to get in. A uniformed woman retrieves us at the door and escorts us down some stairs to a regal looking couch adjacent to a small coffee table, the whole setup overlooking an outdoor garden with palm trees and greenery. We’re again, confused in Portugal. Is this where we’ll be eating our dinner? Why do other people seem to be at normal looking dinner tables? Are they simply placing us in this strange situation because we’re two seemingly naïve American girls? The waitress finally comes over and takes our order. We order two entrees, but there is no wine on the menu, so she asks if we like white or red wine. We respond with white, completely unsure of what she’ll come back with or how much we’ll be paying for this bottle. Meanwhile, we’re served appertifs upon appertifs, which were all delicious, but now I’m growing concerned about what kind of appetite I’ll have for the main course, and will I be scolded again for not eating it all, and is our entire meal going to be eaten while bending over this coffee table, and is there any more of this ridiculously ornate restaurant that we haven’t seen yet, and also, what the hell are we even eating right now? Just as maximum levels of confusion overwhelm, our waitress comes over and in a chipper, pleasant voice, asks, “Shall we go?” She motions to one of the tables with normal dinner chairs and silverware, similar to the tables the other Portugese patrons are sitting at. We’re pleased to see that we haven’t been pushed into a corner because we’re two American girls, not because they’re shunning or tricking us, but this is simply the process in which this particular restaurant serves dinner. So if anyone goes to the Casa de Comida restaurant in Lisbon, just enjoy the unique progression of your meal. By the way, it was delicious. And yes, they were disappointed because I didn’t lick my plate clean.
After dinner, we head to the Al Canterra neighborhood, with the waitress telling us to go to the “docas.” The docks? We pull up to a roundabout and are greeted by a swimming pool on its side, lit up like a sculpture at night. The “docas” remind us a bit of South Street Seaport, a line of bars along the water, with a mix of American pop music and Portugese dance music blaring out of every nightclub we pass. We take a video of two couples dancing beautifully to Portugese music, and one of the women comes up to me and says, “This is not photo for YouTube.” Laughing a little, I shake my head and wildly stress to her that no, no, I’m just taking photos from my vacation, not for YouTube. She eases my concern by putting her hand on my shoulder, saying, “It is only to laugh.” I know she meant to say she’s only kidding, but I really like this new expression. Because so many times in life, “it is only to laugh.”
After making our way through a few of these nightclubs and enjoying the nighttime waterfront scenery and carefree culture, we are ready to head back to the hotel. It’s around 1:30 a.m., and our taxi driver’s name is Marco. He was a law student who had to stop his studies to go back to work, because of Portugal’s current financial crisis. He’s determined to go back to finish his law degree in the fall, and wants to visit New York as soon as he gets his life in order. We’re stopped at a red light when out of nowhere, Randi and I hear whistling and a voice yelling “taxi, taxi!” over and over again. We look all around us to see where this voice is coming from. Turns out, it is Marco’s cell phone ringtone.
Portugal – utter confusion followed by laughter and delight.
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.