Portugal! (aka, Wandering Jews Installment #1)

I recently spent eight days and eight nights in Portugal. It only occurred to me upon my return that this amount of time could not be a coincidence, especially considering that I was traveling with my Jewish mother.


Yes, I am also Jewish. It’s just that I have never heard anyone refer to mothers from other cultures in the same vein as we tend toward in Judaism. Also, one of the few empowering components of Judaism for women is that it is matrilineal, though I have other issues with what this means for the poor kids who are not considered “real” Jews because their moms weren’t Jewish or adults who convert. Seriously, for a people who have been persecuted pretty much forever, should we really deny anyone who wants to join the ranks? But I digress…


I was in the middle of doing a deep clean of the house post-trip when the number hit me. I always deep clean before I leave for a trip and after I return; the after part makes more sense than the before (unless I am leaving a clean house for a prophet who might stop by? But then, life doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and cleaning is an activity I can engage in with an attainable, tangible goal in the midst of a universe of chaos. Cleaning helps me feel more relaxed as well because I am able to purge excess adrenaline and energy from anxiety, which my system produces at an alarming rate.


Having spent the past eight days as navigator on my trip with mom, I suddenly felt completely aimless, so I vacuumed, dusted, scrubbed, laundried (is that a word?), went grocery shopping, returned to the grocery store because a loaf of bread I had bought was already moldy and I noticed on two of my receipts that I had not received the promo (I have already established that I am a Jew, and discounts are a big a deal to my people).


Our trip took on a rhythm. Humans are creatures of habit, and I am definitely one to create some elements of structure anywhere I go. I studied the guidebook and guided us around, periodically checking in to see what Rick (Steve’s) had to say about our surroundings and/or itinerary. I documented the trip by taking a thousand photos a day. In the evenings, we crashed at the hotel. I instantly shed my clothes, took a shower, poured a glass of port, got under the covers, and began the process of going through the thousand photos I had taken while my mom reviewed each photo I posted on Facebook and watched CNN.


My meditation teachers have said that it takes 30 to 40 days to create a habit, but I got quite accustomed to this routine, so much so that when I arrived home I had no idea what to do with myself (hence the previously mentioned cleaning ritual).


I met mom at the airport in Lisbon. We took turns watching the bags and using the rest room (I always pee if there is a bathroom because my bladder is the size of a thimble, and in European cities especially you never know if/when you might find a public restroom). I had brought one bag with hardly anything packed into it because I knew (from previous years of experience and the fact that I live overseas and order stuff that I can only find in the US for my parents to bring when they come to visit) that my mom would be bringing a flotilla of suitcases. We are both tiny and have back issues, so I was already nervous about portering (also maybe not a word) said suitcases around the country, but travel with mom turned out to be smoother than my usual budget will allow. We took cabs between airport and train station, which helped tremendously with managing the suitcase situation. It also reduced my anxiety over figuring out the logistics of transit, which my husband regularly reminds me is my path to enlightenment practice.


AND mom paid for everything, and I mean everything. As I have spent the past two years living in Brussels on my husband’s unfunded doctoral student budget and my own mostly pro bono “make the world a better place” career, this was an incredible gift. For eight days (and eight nights, as previously mentioned), I didn’t worry about the cost of trains, metro, bus, meals, trinkets, lodging. I didn’t agonize over every receipt or dread looking at my credit card statement.


I did feel like a complete American idiot for at least the first half of the trip because I did not speak a word of Portuguese and I couldn’t seem to understand any of the systems set up in Portugal daily life. It has been a while since I traveled in a place where I didn’t speak the language. I downloaded the Duolingo app about a week before leaving and used it once. The only phrase I could remember was “I am a young boy,” which was not particularly helpful for my role as tourist/navigator.


After a couple of days, I learned the basic greetings (Olá, Bom dia) and was handsomely rewarded for my efforts. People were really appreciative of my minimal effort to speak their language. They also seemed to think I was Mediterranean, which I found hilarious and preferable to being mistaken for a US American. People in stores and restaurants spoke to me in Spanish and Portuguese, and one waiter turned to the Italian translation page of the menu and was really miffed when I said, “ingles” (I wondered after if he had a habit of guessing the origin of tourists and I had botched his perfect record).


When we arrived at Lisbon Oriente from the airport, we were guided to a café near the train platforms by a couple of New Yorkers who had retired to Portugal seven years earlier. They were just returning from a trip back east and had an entire rolling suitcase devoted to carrying bagels. There advice was really helpful, particularly upon our return to Lisbon several days later when we employed the tip that you can buy a 24-hour transit pass that can be refilled. I welcome any information that makes transit less stressful.


The trip to find the restroom was a journey in and of itself. It was so poorly marked that I gave up, a gentleman who guessed what I searching for pointed me back in the direction I had already looked, I finally found a door down a hallway with a tiny woman in a dress symbol on the top right, tried to pull and found the door wouldn’t open and assumed it was locked, felt like a moron when a woman walked up and pushed the door open, went in and waited, then went into the stall to find there was no toilet paper, and returned to the café with full bladder.


I drew a map to help my mom find the toilet and was informed upon her eventual return (it was a labyrinthine process just to find the bathroom, even with a map) that the toilet paper dispenser was located on the wall just outside of the stall.


When I went back, there it was, clear as day. Good times. The other bathroom confusion was fairly minimal. On the train from Lisbon to Porto, I could not figure out how to get the water faucet to turn on to wash my hands. I waved my hands everywhere possible, stepped on the floor where a pedal might be (these are prevalent in France and Belgium), and finally opened the door and asked a staff person pushing a food cart by. He pretty much rolled his eyes, leaned in, waved his hands, and voila. Water began flowing from the faucet.


At the Campañha train station in Porto, we joined a long line to wait for a taxi beneath the sun. Every taxi except ours was of the shiny black with green top variety, which we later learned were the ones that accept credit cards and are overall a bit less sketchy. Forty minutes later, we arrived at our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express (my mom had points…remember, Jews). The taxi drivers in Portugal add a supplemental fee for bags. I wouldn’t know if this is standard practice because I don’t ever take taxis when I travel, but I thought I would mention it for those of you readers who might and have plans to journey to Portugal (which I heartily recommend).


The hotel was pretty far out from central Porto, but in the end it turned out to be a great choice. The area was quiet (apart from what I swear was an evening of Nascar racing across the street from us on our last night in the city); the bus stop was right next to the hotel, which did wonders for reducing my transit anxiety; and the ride into Porto proper was pretty short, depending on traffic. I generally am not the biggest fan of Brussels transit, but I will say that it runs closer to schedule than the bus in Porto. There was one trip back when I thought I was not going to make it (thimble bladder-wise) because the bus was a half an hour late, then just stopped for what seemed like the longest shift change in history a few meters before the stop, and then was stuck in traffic for the most of the return trip to the hotel.


I love giving and receiving gifts, which I am certain I inherited from my mom. Every time I return home from a trip, I pretty much force my husband to open all of his presents immediately. Within the first 30 seconds of my arrival, I have opened every bag and found every surprise and then sit excitedly on the edge of my seat as he opens/tries on each one.


My mom is exactly the same. She was practically bursting with excitement for me to see all of the surprises she had tucked into every possible nook and cranny in the three suitcases she brought. I was impressed that she didn’t break open the bags on the train to Porto. She was pretty restrained, all things considered, but the instant we set our stuff down in our hotel room they were opened and a wild and colorful assortment of trinkets came pouring out.


This assortment included a full pharmacy of items and edibles I had ordered and shipped to my parents’ house, requested they find, and not necessarily requested but was thankful to receive (I no longer turn away any gift).


The spread on the desk was quite impressive and included a large tin of matzo meal (for matzo balls…again, Jews), which I had requested as I have not been able to find any in the grocery stores in Brussels. The Jewish sections of the international aisle are pretty sad in their representation of what I would consider staples for any Jewish kitchen. Clearly, ingredients for matzo balls should be a top priority.


In addition to the mountain of items on the desk, there was a small wardrobe to try on of articles of clothing my cousin had sent, stuff I had ordered, and various items my mom had brought for me.


After dress up, we went down to the hotel desk to ask for a dinner recommendation and followed Google maps to a place on the water where the seafood had to be fresh because you could smell it from all of the packaging facilities lining the street. We were so early for dinner that the wait staff was all seated for their meal before business started rolling, but there was a local couple nearby so I didn’t feel too embarrassed. To be honest, I didn’t worry too much about eating early or being a tourist for most of the trip because I was, authentically, a hungry tourist.


When I taught English in France years (and years) ago, I remember being very concerned that I fit in. I would even joke with other US Americans that we should tell people we were from Canada instead of the United States. In hindsight, I recognize that I should not be ashamed of who I am and where I am from. These days, I am still thrilled when locals and tourists ask me for directions, which happens frequently, but I don’t spend as much time worrying about whether I will appear like a US American because I am wearing sneakers and practical travel clothes. Europeans seem to roll out of bed looking fashionable and fabulous, but I know that there is maintenance involved and I have finally accepted that I am just not a high maintenance kind of gal (at least where fashion is involved…my husband will tell you a different story about the energy it takes to “maintain” me).


Because we were tourists (and Jewish tourists to boot), we brought our free drink coupon from the hotel staff, who had recommended the restaurant. And because my mom is a total lightweight, I got to drink both white (blanco) and red (tinto) glasses of port. Super yum!


It was from this and the next several more formal meals that we learned about the additional cost of appetizers at Portugal restaurants. When a waiter brings you bread and olives at the start of a meal, it isn’t solely a gesture kindness. These items will be added to the bill at the end of the meal. We found that you can either request not to be brought these items or simply wave them away. It was about four or five days into our trip that I found the little side note in Rick Steve’s, explaining the deal with starters at restaurants.


We didn’t frequent too many formal restaurants because we were so crashed out in the evenings that we couldn’t motivate to go out to dinner and didn’t really need to after eating enormous late lunches (even I wasn’t overly hungry, and I have the metabolism of a chickadee).


Breakfast was included at our first hotel, which was fantastic. We could wander down first thing in our pajamas and make picnic lunches for later.


We spent all day Thursday through Saturday exploring the city of Porto. I loved it, though my buns and thighs were definitely not anticipating the many series of stairs and hills. As I designated myself official photographer of the trip, I took several photos along the way as we climbed (timed for taking a break, of course).


One morning, we walked to the beach from our hotel. The water was freezing, but we had a lovely little walk and sat for a while, watching the surf. I was super impressed with the abundance of trash and recycling stations that lined the beach. There were stations with three separate bags for trash, paper, and plastic. It was amazing, and there was hardly any trash to be found on the beach.


In addition to seeing little trash on the beach, there was not a lot of litter around the cities we visited either. I saw a lot of city employees, cleaning different areas: metro, street, around monuments, etc. I also noticed a dearth of dog poop in Portugal. Stepping in dog shit is a fairly regular occurrence in Belgium, so it was a bit surreal to realize I could walk through a grassy field without having to watch my every step.


To be continued…dun dun dun

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