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Lisboa: Last day, summing up

Friday, August 11th, 2006

OK, this is it. I spent four hours this morning riding trams, taking in the life, the azulejos (tiles), the monuments, the apartments with and without metal shades on the outsides, the flowers, the safety–have I talked about this before? I have never felt so safe. There just doesn´t seem to be any crime. That´s puzzling, considering that there is so much financial need. But everywhere I go, I see people leaving their backpacks, their digital cameras, even their laptop computers, lying around: on picnic tables, in the hostels, in city parks. And nobody bothers them. Last night I had a dinner of clams cooked in garlic and coriander, which I shared with a German woman married to a French man. I had seen them at the monastery earlier in the day, and we recognized each other when I entered the restaurant, and they insisted I come sit with them. We gabbled in several languages, laughing and comparing notes on Portugal, politics, and the difficulty, for them, of negotiating their lives between France and Germany. We didn´t finish dinner till after 11 p.m., and then I had a long walk home, alone, as they were staying in the opposite direction. I felt absolutely fine. The streets were full of people hanging out, listening to the music that filtered through windows, drinking at sidewalk bars and cafés. At one point I approached a group of young men with beers in their hands on an otherwise deserted street. If I´d been in the USA, I´d have crossed to the other side of the street. I felt that impulse. But just to see what it would feel like, I kept walking. They stepped aside on the sidewalk but otherwise completely ignored me. It was wonderful. [read on]

Bela Lisboa!

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

I LOVE THIS COUNTRY! Portugal is everything anybody ever wanted a country to be except, of course, a place where the average person can “make ends meet,” according to Leo, the castle guard in Leiria. That is an important exception, but the LIFE here vibrates with beauty, vitality, and gentle awareness. I left Sintra this morning with no regrets, felt I had been as charitable toward it as possible, and maybe more than it deserved. As I got off the subway, I saw a wall of posters with G.W. Bush´s face on them and the word TERRORIST at the top, and (in Portuguese) WANTED at the bottom. OK, you two Bush-lovers out there, I´m just reporting what I saw, OK. But it made me laugh, and I took a picture. Lisbon moves in a dancing motion. [read on]

Another View of Sintra

Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

I just spent a couple of hours sitting on the miradouro at the bottom of the mountain, and I realized what a sour old putz I have been about this city. From the miradouro, all I could see was the beauty, and the whole spectacle was laid out for my eyes, from the many-colored houses at the bottom of the hill, to the Pena Palace with its smudged chimney cones, to the tiled and glistening turrets, towers, and trim, and on up the hill to the very top, where the crenellated granite towers of the Castelo do Mouros tops it all. This city has been a playground for architects since the early kings and queens of Portugal started building palaces in this crystalline air. In and around all these visual marvels are the trees: thousands of trees, first the trees that were on the mountain before the royals and the millionaires came, and then trees from every corner of the world, imported from the colonies and planted here, where they have taken root and grown for several hundred years: evergreens from Newfoundland next to magnolias from Brazil, every kind of poplar and cedar and juniper, Indian trees, Asian trees, African trees, all thanks to those who brought them to their gardens in Sintra. If I look with the eyes of a child, what I see is fairy-tale stuff. And it´s NOT a theme park. It´s a living city, older than any theme park and full of history. From the miradouro, I could not see a single person–just the trees and the rooftops, the towers and the colors of the mansions, the palaces, and the Quintas that glint between the trees. [read on]

Portugal Restored

Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

I feel like I´m back in Portugal. Of course I haven´t left yet, but for a couple of days I felt I had landed in a slightly run-down theme park with no particular language or culture. This morning the smoke had cleared away, the day was gorgeous, hot, and clear, and I boarded the first bus for Cabo da Roca, the geographically western-most point in Europe, and therefore in some sense the real European End of the World. The bus headed down the hill to a little community of apartment blocks and picked up a number of women who must have been the maids to people living between Sintra and Cascais. Surrounded by these women, chatting laughing and nibbling bread and sweetcakes on their way to work, I knew I was in Portugal again. They got off the bus in ones and twos before the bus reached Cabo da Roca, and there was nobody left on the bus but me and a few hardy early-morning tourists. Cabo da Roca is NOTHING like Finisterre. [read on]


Tuesday, August 8th, 2006

Sintra does not feel like Portugal. For one thing, it´s overrun with tourists, many of whom have brought their cars. There is gridlock so bad that the mounted police can´t even get their horses between the cars to direct traffic. The tourists are bad-tempered. Maybe it´s the heat. Maybe it´s the crowding. But I´ve seen people hit their kids, drivers shout at each other and curse and make ugly hand-signals, and lovers yell at each other and walk off in different directions. The gardens at the Regaleira Palace are magnificent, just as the websites I studied before I left showed them to be. My cold is going away, thanks to some magical potion I got at the Farmacia called Cêgripe. I´m back to being myself and full of good cheer and wonder, but the press of people around me is not a happy press. [read on]

In Vigo with a Better Plan

Sunday, August 6th, 2006

I woke with a sore throat and am coming down with a ferocious cold, so spending the whole night on a series of trains and ending up in Lisbon at 5 a.m. was definitely a bad idea. Instead I hopped a two-hour train to Vigo, where I can get a luxurious night´s sleep and then catch a train tomorrow at the reasonable hour of 7:45 a.m., getting to Lisbon around 3 p.m., then catching a half-hour train to Sintra. All it took was letting go of the money for the hostel, letting go of Santiago de Compostela (that was hard), and then springing some fairly big bucks (for me) on a credit card for the Hotel Mexico, located a short walk from the train station in Vigo (pronounced BE-go). On my way from the train station to the hotel I passed this internet station, two doors before the hotel door, so here I am again, after a couple of hours of lying in bed, sneezing and blowing my nose, and watching CNN. [read on]

Compostela Interrupted

Sunday, August 6th, 2006

One of the differences between Portugal and Spain is that Spain is far more prosperous, and I suppose one bit of fallout from that is the fact that public transportation is not what it was, now that so many people own their own cars. As a result, the train from Santiago that used to leave for Lisbon at 6:25 a.m. has been cancelled. I am booked in a hostel in Santiago for tonight and in another one in Sintra, Portugal (near Lisbon) tomorrow. The only way I can get to Sintra tomorrow is to leave Santiago today, in a couple of hours, forfeiting my night in the hostel here and forfeiting the remainder of my second day in Santiago. I then ride the trains all night, with various layovers and changes. I arrive in Lisbon at 5:15 tomorrow morning, wait around for a couple of hours, and finally get another train for Sintra. Migraine material, and not as I hoped it would be, but so it is. I went to the Cathedral this morning. There is a Pilgrim Mass at noon, and at 11 a.m., every seat in the house was taken already. The queue for the Tree of Jesse had over 200 people in it. There are large tour groups being led by people who speak very loudly and carry umbrellas so their tour group can see where they are. The energy has a wa-WAH-wwwwaaaaa quality, like deep feedback from a sound system. The stores selling tourist junk were open at dawn: hats and sticks with pilgrim shells on them, shell necklaces, shell earrings, shell purses, shell shoes, shell ashtrays, shell dishes, shell T-shirts of many varieties, shell candy, shell sandwiches, backpacks with shells on them (for pilgrims who may have met bed-bugs on the way and had to throw their old backpacks away, I suppose), and the beat goes on. It´s a beautiful, beautiful city, and early August is probably its busiest time of the year. I loved it. I got the book. I´m leaving it. No more time for blogging today.

Santiago de Compostela

Saturday, August 5th, 2006

This incredibly beautiful city is altogether too much to take in. Even if I had a week, a month, a year, I would still be taking it in. I bought a book about it to take home, and I am not even trying to take pictures. The most surprising thing so far is that when I got to the Cathedral, I staggered around for a few minutes, and then I began to cry. I didn´t mean to cry. Nobody else I saw, of all the hordes of people, was crying. In fact they were shooting pictures and videos, talking, chewing gum, whistling, cajoling their kids into paying attention, lining up to touch the Tree of Jesse or to see the relics, kissing, holding hands, helping their aged mothers and grannies, and doing all the things that people do. I was shocked at myself, sobbing. I couldn´t help it. My sense of privilege was overwhelming. My awe was overwhelming. My sense of history is overwhelming: I feel the energies of the many people who have come here on foot, on their knees, as penance or as praise, hundreds of thousands of people for more years than I can imagine, many of whom must have died on the way. This is where they were trying to get to. And here I am. Not even a Christian. Did not follow the golden arrows. Sobbing. I found myself gazing into the eyes of a beautiful little figure of Santa Nossa Señora Salome. Salome was made into a saint? Wasn´t she the one who asked for the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter? The one Oscar Wilde wrote about? They made her a saint? Well, no matter. Obviously it is not her legend that moved me, since I don´t really know what her legend is. It is her stillness. The statue has a great stillness and presence to it that moves me. I did take a picture of her. I could wrap my spirit around her. She was the one presence in that vast and unimaginably complex cathedral that I could wrap my spirit around, and I put my hand on one of her little feet for a while, till I felt grounded enough to move again. If anybody knows anything about how she became a saint or what her story is, do tell me. But more about Finisterre, and more about this place. [read on]

At the End of the World!

Friday, August 4th, 2006

After trains and buses from 8 a.m. till 7 p.m. yesterday, including a two-hour layover in Santiago de Compostela, where the action at the bus station is better than an erotic movie (more on that another time, but let me say now that Chaucer was not wrong about the Camino and its affect on the lusts of the pilgrims)–after all that long schlep, I finally got to the End of the Earth, Finisterre. Fisterre. Finis Terra. I am here with the warm sun, a blasting fierce wind, more seagulls than I thought possible in one place, and many young pilgrims with shaggy heads, walking sticks, hiking boots, and wild joy. As I was walking the 6 km road up to the lighthouse at the end of the world just before sunset yesterday, a young man with a lean face, glasses, and blonde curly hair was walking down the road barefoot, carrying his shoes, smiling. I beamed a great smile at him, and he burst into English (so much for my thinking I am not instantly recognizable as an English-speaker): “I am enjoy life this moment. Everything is beautiful. I am beautiful this moment!” I opened my arms to him and shouted, “Yes, you are beautiful!” He rushed into my arms, gave me a long hug, and then backed off, his eyes full of tears, and kissed my hand. It was that kind of afternoon. [read on]

In Viana: The Texture of Exile, the Practice of Hanging Out

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

I have acquired the coolest flip-flops in the universe (Brazilian Havaianas; even movie stars wear them, and I got them on sale for 11.90 Euros), a tan, and a little less of myself (the result, I suppose, of all this walking). When I catch my reflection in shop windows, I don´t recognize that woman. Could she be French? No. But Belgian, possibly, or German. The longer I stay here, the less often people recognize me as American on sight. Getting rid of the Beppis was a good move. I have also been turning over in my mind a braid of four conversations on the subject of exile. I have been observing and even practicing the Portuguese art of hanging out. I am so happy, the radiance has completely reordered my aura, I´m sure. I will have to ask Lola, who sees auras, when I get back to Texas. But about exile, wanderlust, and degrees of separation…. [read on]