Wednesday, August 21, 2013


The other day when I was writing about Disneyland I mentioned my trip to Portugal in 2001 and said I should tell that story. Today seems like as good a day as any for that. Originally, the trip was my friend's idea. It was when I was living in Philadelphia and smoking pot with the Duchess of Broad St. (not his real name) every day. When I say we smoked every day, I'm exaggerating of course. It couldn't have been more than six nights a week at most. I know that because I remember smoking pot with other people when the Duchess wasn't around.

Anyway, it really just started as a story he was telling me about when he went to Portugal and there were all these people on the street trying to sell him hash, but he had been told that you couldn't trust them because they would really just sell you elephant shit. Obviously, having been forewarned, the Duchess was being extra careful; so, he ended up in a hotel room with a stranger trying to smoke elephant shit. We were friends for a reason.

Out of that story came a plan to go to Portugal together. We had everything all figured out. He even sent me an email with the airline information so we could both book the same flight. Then, about an hour later he backed out. I hadn't yet booked the airfare so it wasn't the end of the world, but I was definitely disappointed. I'd never been to Europe. I was really excited to go. I don't remember how it all went down now, but somehow someone talked me into going by myself. When I say I don't remember how it went down, I mean that I can't quite figure out what convinced me. I don't remember doing a whole lot of planning or prepping before I left. I know I bought a Portuguese-English phrase book. I know because in the introduction, the author gave the best description of what Portuguese sounds like. I was stumbling over the pronunciations with my friend and told him that it sounded more Slavic then Romantic. Then when we were thumbing through the intro, I read this: to many people, Portuguese sounds like a drunk Frenchman is trying to speak Spanish. Bingo! So I left Philadelphia only knowing for certain how to say thank you in Portuguese.

Next thing I know I'm in the airport in Paris trying to get my connecting flight. I don't speak French. I took four years of it in high school and another semester in college, but I didn't retain a lot. I can ask you if the nose is a part of the face (Est le nez par partie du visage?) and what's in the box (ce qu'il ya dans la boĆ®te?), but “what gate does the flight to Lisbon leave from” was completely beyond me. On top of that, I had dollars and whatever Portugal's currency was at the time on me (a quick Google search told me that it was the escudo), but no French Francs. That meant no coffee, no croissant, no newspaper. I don't know why this brief experience in France didn't tip me off, but I went merrily and cluelessly on my way to Lisbon (once I stumbled on to the gate I was looking for).

It wasn't until I got off the plane in Lisbon that it all started to sink in. I didn't know where baggage claim was, because I didn't know the words for baggage or claim in Portuguese. Panic took over. I had a brief moment of relief when I found the luggage carousel and there was a woman standing in front of it smoking a cigarette. What a civilized country! They let us smoke in the airport. I loved it already.

Cigarette in one hand, suitcase in the other I confidently headed out to the curb. I figured even without a two year old's basic grasp of the language I could figure out what a taxicab looked like. I was right. What I didn't account for was the utter absence of words that would direct the driver as to where I was going. Of course, that hardly mattered when I realized after I crudely communicated “how much will it be” that I didn't even know how to count to ten in Portuguese and I had no idea which of these escudos I was supposed to give him in exchange for my ride to god knows where.

By the time I got to the hotel I had pretty much decided that I would be spending the next eight days in my hotel room ordering room service and hoping that whatever I ordered was actually food. There was no way I was going outside because I might as well have been on another planet. I decided to just lie down and take a nap. I woke up at 10 pm, completely refreshed. Fuck. Now what was I going to do? I certainly didn't want to sit up all night watching CNN (one of only two channels in English on the TV in my room). I went down to the hotel restaurant to see if they were still open. Of course they were. People were just starting to think about eating dinner at 10 pm in Portugal. The waiter was very kind and assured me that I could go out to the city without too much problem. I didn't really believe him, but I didn't have much choice. I had to at least try. So off I went. It was amazing. I don't know if all Europeans are this friendly, but the people in Lisbon were awesome. The only time they seem even remotely annoyed by me was when I tried to say something in Portuguese. “English please, English.” The looks on their faces let me know that I was all but physically assaulting them with my pronunciations. Other than that, it was the best trip ever.

The first day out I went sight seeing to the ruins of some castle. Lisbon is literally littered with castles. There is rubble that used to be royal everywhere. At least that's how I remember it. I was wandering through when this really hot blond guy smiled and presented his camera to me, as if a gift. We took each other's picture and then went on our way. Ten minutes later I ran into him again. And then about 15 minutes after that. At this point we struck up a conversation. His name was Torsten. He was in the German Air Force, but for some reason traveling with the German Navy. This is why he was off on his own apparently. I guess the Navy boys had their own clique and it was No Air Force Allowed.
Here's the picture Torsten took of me

Well, that was the German Navy's loss and my gain. We ended up spending that whole day hanging out, then we met up again for dinner that night. Same thing the next day. I don't think I've ever had that much to say to a perfect stranger before. I'm pretty sure he was straight, but none of that ever really came up. We just had a really good time hanging out and talking. (As an aside, this trip was in April of 2001; the last time I remember hearing from Torsten was on September 12, 2001 when he emailed me to say he and all his friends were thinking of us here in the US and praying for us.)

After he and I went our separate ways the second night (he was leaving in the morning), I was feeling particularly confident and independent. So off I went to a gay nightclub I'd read about in one of my guidebooks. I don't remember the name. I don't remember much about it at all except this couple named Alexander and (I think) Paul. Paul spoke English, but Alexander spoke nothing but Portuguese. We started talking because they smiled at me and I wanted to find someone who could get ecstasy for me. We ended up hanging out until about 5 am (they knew where to get the ecstasy). Then they offered to give me a ride back to my hotel. Awesome. On the way, I was telling Paul (who was translating for Alexander) that I wanted to go to Sintra (to see more castles) in the morning (or I guess later that morning) but I didn't have a way out there so it probably wasn't going to happen.

Paul: I have to go to work in a few hours, but Alex says he'll take you.

Me: Ummmm. If you won't be there, how is that going to happen? We can't communicate with each other.

Paul: Don't worry about that. Just be outside the hotel at 10 am and Alex will pick you up.

I was more than skeptical, but I figured worst case scenario I'd jump out of a speeding car somewhere in the Lisbon countryside and find my way back. Alex and I spent the whole day wandering around castles in Sintra. We had the best time. We laughed like idiots most of the day trying to get our points across. But when it came right down to it, we understand almost everything the other was trying to say. Ironically, the only word I had to get Paul to translate to Alex for me when we met up for dinner was “boyfriend”. I tried just about every gesture I could think of, but I couldn't convey that.

I kept in touch with Paul and Alex for a little while after I got back home, but I knew I wasn't going to Portugal again anytime soon and they weren't coming to Philly, so eventually we lost touch.

It's a shame though. The two of them and Torsten are indelibly etched in my memory. It'd be cool if there was some way to say thanks again for helping me have one of the best vacations of my life in a country where I knew no one and couldn't speak the language. If anyone out there reading this knows any of them, tell them I said, “Obrigado”!!

No comments:

Post a Comment