Rain, Rain, Rain, Ra . . . . 21 Mar ’18

It’s the rainy season in Portugal, which may have something to do with why we haven’t posted anything this year.  They fooled us when we first came to the country last year because the season was unusually mild.  Of course, that was all part of a drought that covered most of southern Europe, which in turn led to those terrible wildfires last summer.  So, I guess we’re better off this way.  Nevertheless, our brains have gotten waterlogged or something, because we’ve been unable to do anything but hunker down, watch TV, and hide under our blankets.

On several days we’ve had complete whiteouts, the rain so heavy it formed a solid screen covering our vision. Sometimes it tricks us — stops for awhile, the sun comes out in all that spectacular brilliance unique to Portugal.  The birds start up, it gets warm.  Then, just when the rain seems done with, the dark clouds swoop down and it starts again.

One day last week, Barbara and I went to our swimming pool right next door.  We can see it from our veranda right below us, the glass wall faces us so we can tell before going over there whether anyone’s in the water or not.  On this particular day, we no sooner walked outside before it started a downpour.  In the five minutes it took us to walk  there, we were completely soaked. “Oh sure,” you say, “you’re complaining about getting wet when going to a swimming pool.”  But we hadn’t counted on having to wear drenched clothing back home when we were done.

In the rainy season, which has lasted about eighteen months so far this year, it can start off bright and sunny and then by two o’ clock a gray curtain has descended everywhere you look.    Time to get inside because it’s about to get very very wet.

We lie awake at night listening to the rain pounding on the roof.  I swear the raindrops  must be the size of wrecking balls.  Here, it doesn’t rain cats and dogs; it’s more like taxicabs and refrigerators.  On the other hand, I take comfort we’re on the ninth floor.  In the dark of  night, I imagine that everyone below the seventh floor is completely submerged.  They probably have to wear SCUBA gear to bed.

Meteorology is a pretty accurate science in Portugal, unlike most everything else. Probably because it’s a small country.  In the USA, It’s hard to predict what will happen in your area, since the weather pattern is forming two thousand miles away.  It can change all kinds of ways before it gets to you.  In Portugal, the weather report doesn’t come in until it’s almost on your doorstep.

Having an accurate forecast is important in a country with a deluge almost every day for three months.  You want to know when it’ll start and when it’ll stop.  Just out of frustration we play this game of chicken in which we go out, maybe down to the river  to touch base, pick up a few things at the grocery store — planning our trip to get back just when the weather report says it’s supposed to start raining.  There’s about a half-hour fudge factor in the prediction, so we’re betting on getting back just in time.  Like the man said, some we win, some we lose and some get rained out.

On a recent afternoon, we came out of a supermarket that’s a bit of a hike from us but we go to because they have things none of the others do.  So, we were pretty loaded down with backpacks and tote bags. We walked out under direct and blinding sunlight, and guess what?  It started to pour before we had gotten ten steps.  We lucked out on that one because the bus going to our neighborhood was sitting right at the curb. We jumped on and settled in since it didn’t leave for another twenty minutes — but we were DRY!

You’ve seen photos of those kinky European clotheslines all the apartments buildings have.  That’s because there are no clothes dryers in private homes here. Even people who could easily afford them do their washing at home and then take the wet laundry to laundromats to use the dryers while they sit and drink coffee on Sunday afternoons.  Barbara’s gone a little psycho about the laundry since we now have to hang everything indoors and it takes 2 days for it to dry.  It’s best for me if I don’t mention the effect of the humidity on her curly hair.

The other thing about this season is the cold. They don’t have central heating to speak of in Portugal, and the buildings are pretty much all made of concrete. Added to the damp kind of cold in this climate and it can feel pretty uncomfortable even in the low fifties (F).

We’ve discovered there’s a whole different winter wardrobe the Portuguese wear.  That is, outdoor clothing for indoor use. We’d heard about people wearing knit caps and gloves indoors; in the past couple months, we’ve seen the proof when they open their windows to hang the laundry out.  Of course, that was before the relentless rain.

We’ve learned a lot about space heaters in the past few months.  We went shopping for them after the first cold snap when we got tired of walking around the apartment wearing every item of clothing we owned.  Bought a couple and cranked them up.  It wasn’t enough, we were still suffering.  So, out we went to get a couple more.  Still not enough.

In the process we were learning the differences in types of heaters and what we needed. The little blowers are pretty much useless. There are significant differences in types of radiant heaters, so we wasted our money on the first couple of those.  Those with thermostats are the way to go.  All in all, we bought about fifty of the darn things. By the time we finally began to feel comfortable in our own home, the coldest part of the season was over.  Looks like we’ll just have to wait and try again next year.

Supposedly, places like Scandinavia and Seattle,Washington have the highest suicide rates because of their bad weather. Frankly, Portugal is also pretty depressing after three months of this.  Everyone says the end of March holds the magic date when it stops raining.  We certainly hope so.  Otherwise, we might be booking flights out of here.

There are some really good deals to Sweden. It can’t possibly be any worse.


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You can’t go home again

I live in Portugal.  An ocean away from my native country, customs and language.  After a year, I was weary of not knowing anything – or that’s how I felt.  I had acute sensations of separation, isolation and loneliness.  I wanted the ease that familiarity brings – language, people, places.  Time for a trip home.

I haven’t lived in my hometown for 38 years.  But, until 2011, I never lived more than two hours away.  In 2012, Wayne and I moved to Denver, my parents were now in a care facility, and the family home had been sold. My visits from Denver still followed a familiar ritual.  One night with sister, Gwen, visit the folks at their facility, transfer to sister Karen, with a smattering of short visits elsewhere. In 2016, we moved to Portugal.  Both my parents have since died, Gwen has moved to Florida and Karen has downsized into a different home.  Things had changed radically since my last visit home.

My trip’s official purpose was two-fold. I had some administrative items and shopping to take care of and the balance of time was for visits to friends and family.  As I mapped out my agenda, I realized that most items in my habitual routine were gone.  No visits to Mom and Dad, Gwen doesn’t live there anymore, I don’t know where Karen lives.  It was confusing to sort out my schedule.

My friend, Jane, whom I’ve known since age 5, picked me up at the Newark airport and took me back to her place.  This is a 3-hour drive (one way), so it rates more than just “favor” points.  Jane lives on a heritage farm (circa 1850) in Sunbury, Pa.  Her maternal aunt had lived there and Jane visited often as a child.  She had always loved the house and the farm.  When her aunt passed away, Jane was able to buy it and has lived there with her husband, Mike, for a couple of decades.  I love visiting there; it whispers of the past. There’s a sunroom off the back of the kitchen that overlooks their pond and a mountain behind them.  It’s a haven, a respite.  I woke up early the next morning (5-hour time difference), took my coffee outside and soaked in the magnificent show of stars!  It’s been a long time since I’ve been in that remote a location at 4:30am.  The quiet, and I don’t mean silence because the country is anything but silent, was comforting.  We had a great girlfriend visit (Mike was out of town) chatting and raiding the local fabric store.  My chauffeur then delivered me to Mechanicsburg – about 1½ hours away.

One of my stops was with friends Ann and Chris in their wonderful RV.  They have lived in their house in the woods for a couple of decades, and I helped them move in.  If push came to shove (we would have to shove a few things), a guest could stay in their house.  A few years ago, though, they bought a super duper mega Winnebago for their month-long vacations.  They now also use it as their guest house.  It’s got it all – bedroom, bathroom/kitchen water hookup, fridge, reclining chairs, electric and wifi.  The only price they charge is the ten-minute drive back up their driveway; and the payoff is worth it!

I had wanted to take a hike in the woods with these two, but somewhere around 5pm of evening two, my body had decided to contract a helluva cold (I blame the flight).  By the time I reached them, I was a slobbering, snottering, slithery mess.  Chris promptly issued me sweat pants and shirt, a full tub of Vicks Vaporub and a generous supply of Mucilax.  Also, plenty of alcohol! They are goooood hosts. In between my 4 hour naps and 10 hour sleeps, we were still able to visit a little and recount old times.

After I singlehandedly supported the facial tissue industry with my sinus drainage and gut-coughing, Ann and Chris carted me to Lititz for my next stop. This was a re-think of staying with Karen and her husband, Bob.  Although their new place is quite spacious, it has no spare bedroom and my big sister wanted me nearby.  As I write this, I am touched by that.  They put me up in a nearby hotel, allowing me to swim and have some time to myself.  I am blessed.  So, Karen and I did girlie sister stuff, a cocktail lunch, shopping thrift stores and a couple of bank/PennDot errands.  Our older brother, Warren, came up from DC one afternoon, too.

And then it was time to deliver me to the Lancaster train station and my journey home to Wayne and to Portugal.  Of course, first we had a farm breakfast including scrapple!  We were plenty early for the train, so Karen stayed, waited with me and watched over me in a big sister kind of way, then stood to wave as we pulled out. I felt like I was in a movie scene.  The train connections at Philadelphia and Newark, were the expected saga, the flight was long and uneventful.  After customs and a cab ride, I arrived into the arms of Wayne and home in Setúbal.

It was a good visit and yet I stayed in a bit of a funk for a while because my visit “home” was unlike any of my previous hundreds of visits home.  I know I’m not the first to feel this disorientation.  It’s just that it’s new to me.  I was never much of a person to feel homesick no matter how far or how long I traveled.  Then again, I knew that home was always preserved for me, waiting for me to stop by.  The changes in that reality are disconcerting.  Rhythms and rituals are no longer possible – replaced by loss and newness.  What I remind myself of is all the people who make up my sense of going home.  They have known me for decades, we’ve experienced so much together, and we love each other despite all that! They are still there for me – for now.  I am profoundly aware of how this too can change.  I am stumbling and bumbling through this phase of my life.  While trying to adjust to change, to aging, to losing people and things, I reach out for new…friends, skills, experiences and places.  I do my best to live for today, allowing joy into my heart and reflecting it back to the people I touch.

I’m at home in my heart and it turns out I never left.


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(Our bike buying adventure)

Short backstory here.  I have wanted to love riding a bike for some time.  I learned to ride on “the” family bike.  Of course, it was a boy’s bike and way too big for me.  We lived in a very hilly countryside, so if I tried riding the bike to a friend’s house, I had to walk it up the hills half of the time (it had zero gears).  I was never comfortable on it and certainly couldn’t let go of the handlebars like my brother did.  I quickly became disillusioned with riding a bike since it was not a lot of fun.  Even then, I envied the kids that did love to ride.

Fast forward several decades and I’m in bike-centric Denver.  Bike lanes, bike trails, bike laws, bike advocates – bikes are Bikingan accepted and expected mode of transport in Denver.  It was then that I decided I shall love to bike.  I took a couple of classes and rode borrowed bikes only to be thwarted by an arthritic hip in need of replacement.  Fast forward to now in Portugal.  I have a new hip, we don’t have a car, walking everywhere is getting old.  I remember my declaration that I shall love to ride bike.

Wayne and I decided that folding bikes were a must.  We have visions of taking our bikes on the train to other cities that we can then explore by bike.  We can also take them with us wherever we should make our home in the future.  Reality hit us as we climbed the hills on foot in most of the towns we have visited.  Hmmmm.  Electric assist sounds good too.  Wayne found the bikes we wanted online and available at our local Decathlon (sporting goods) store.  Google Maps said the store was an hour walk away.  The online bus schedule said there was a bus that stopped nearby.

I have to take a moment to tell you about my relationship with the local bus company website.  I always get it wrong.  I really do know how to read a bus/train schedule.  I used the Light Rail in Denver all the time…and a few buses.  Anyway, I thought we were on the bus that we needed, only to be dropped off about a 30 min walk from our destination.  Cab stand nearby – we cabbed it.

I don’t think either of us set out to make a purchase that day.  Perhaps the adventure of getting there convinced us we may not take the trouble to return, and if we didn’t buy them that day, then we’d still have no bikes.  We looked at non-electric folding bikes, but, ultimately decided to get the combos.  They were not in stock but were expected within a couple of days.  The store was nice enough to check the bus schedule for us – next bus 1½ hours from now, they called a cab for us but as soon as we got outside, the bus pulled up!

A few days later our bikes are in and we have to get back there.  Arrrgh!  Cab!  Our bike guy, Mario assembled them, we got some quick instructions, bought some cheap locks, and were out the door.  We are riding these puppies home!

I hadn’t been on a bike for about three years – and it wasn’t fun then.  The wheels on folding bikes are smaller, so the turning radius is a bit wonky from full size wheels.  We exit the store driveway, I ride across the walkway (no traffic), attempt to turn left up the ramp on to the sidewalk.  WIPEOUT!  That didn’t take long.  Shake it off and keep going, riding the sidewalk and using electric assist to go up the hills.  Uh-oh.  The sidewalk disappears, no bike lane and not much of a shoulder.  Bravely onward to the next roundabout…panting heavily (I’ve been holding my breath), we walk across and travel the next sidewalk.  We know at the next roundabout, there is a bike lane on the far side of the right turn we need to make.  Okay, that’s our objective.  Not only is there no crosswalk at the roundabout, the sidewalk quickly narrows to nothing, and it’s a very busy intersection.  How the H are bikes supposed to get over there? We tried going through a grocery store parking lot – no throughway.  Dang.  Walked the bikes to the roundabout and made our right turn, and now the electric assist is a lifesaver.  Haul ass with traffic to the next crosswalk, get on to the bike path, and finally b.r.e.a.t.h.e.  We were not quite home yet, but the rest was not nearly as perilous.  Upon arrival at our building and some learning curve frustration as we figured out how to fold the bikes, we got them into the elevator and then collapsed in our apartment.

That should be the end of my story.  We both had considered that we would need better locks and probably helmets.  Then the value of the bikes prompted that they be insured against theft.  My efforts to find theft insurance for bikes netted futile online searches, unanswered emails and ignored messages. If I were in the UK, I could get coverage.  It seemed pretty impossible to get bike theft insurance in Portugal.  The Decathlon website had a reference to insurance, but I couldn’t complete a purchase.  A reminder lesson to me –  always ASK.  I emailed customer service; they answered that you can only buy the insurance at the store at the time of purchase.  Whaaaaa?  No one had ever mentioned it…in any language.  I pleaded my case and, since the purchase was recent, coverage was allowed. I called our bike guy to ask if he could just write it up since he assembled them.  No, he had to take pictures, verify serial number, etc.   Then the dark tunnel of dread overcame me. Dunh dunh dunh.  You mean we have to go back there –  with the bikes?  Yup.

This time we were a tad smarter.  I called a cab and told her we needed a bigger car for 2 bikes.  The normal size cab pulls up, puts my bike in and realizes that Wayne’s must go, too.  No can do.  I tried in vain to explain in my pig-Portuguese that I had asked for a bigger car.  He called the office and assured us a cab was on its way.  Another 8 or so minutes, so not that long really, our cab pulls up and delivers us to Decathlon.  While there, we also got our better locks – the insurance required it, and our helmets.  Take a deep breath…it’s time to ride these puppies home again!

I had checked Google Maps and found some alternate routes.  There was no inkling as to the condition of these roads.  The first victory was that I did not wipeout where I had before, or at all.  We took a right turn a little sooner this time and that road was less harrowing.  A left and then a right and we were on the lovely bike path.  Okay, this could be getting easier – or maybe just less terrifying.

Since then, we’ve made a few round-trips down to the river side of town.  Challenges persist amidst the combination of bike paths, crowded rough tile sidewalks, bumpy plazas and busy roadways.  My attitude is to take my time and stop whenever I feel I need to.  I learned to love both swimming and singing since turning 60.  I know I can learn to love biking.  I’m not there yet, but I have had moments where I catch myself relaxing enough to enjoy my surroundings.  I don’t care what they say, old dogs can learn new tricks!


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Dia de Peru (Turkey Day): 10 Dec ’17

The holiday season hath descended upon us.  It’s time for my favorite Christmas decoration of all time – the hanging Santas.  Everywhere we turn effigies of Santa have been hung from balconies by the neck, hands tied behind backs, in one great national holiday lynching.  It warms my heart no end.

We recently spent our first Thanksgiving in Portugal.  OK, so technically that’s a fib; we were in Portugal last Thanksgiving.  But that one doesn’t really count because back then we were still trying to figure out where we were.  Last Thanksgiving, we still considered ourselves as on a little holiday vacation trip.  Now, we live here and it’s already time for nostalgia.

Actually,  according to the North American tradition (including Canada which also has a T-day though not on the same day) the first colonists and explorers had harvest festivals to celebrate surviving the year in what was to them a foreign country, so it seems appropriate to have celebrations on foreign shores.  Maybe the tradition should be for Americans to fan out across the world and cook dinner for the residents of other countries.  We’d have to bring frozen Butterballs and cans of Ocean Spray gelatinized cranberry, Del Monte green beans and French’s fried onions, but we can get beer over there.  We’d also need to explain it to them in advance so they didn’t think they were being invaded.

We told our Portuguese teacher Hellena about Thanksgiving, referring to it with the Google translation, Dia de Ação do Graças Americana, but she didn’t understand what we were talking about.  We assumed Portugal has a Thanksgiving Day of its own, but maybe not.  She wasn’t clear whether they have one and she misunderstood or maybe she just hadn’t heard of one.  There seems to be a possible candidate in May but it might be confused with May Day or Mother’s Day, hard to tell. 

Her confusion is certainly understandable.  Portugal has more holidays than non-holidays, so even the Portuguese get confused about which one is which.  In America, Thanksgiving Day was established by Abe Lincoln to celebrate victory in the Civil War; that and the 4th of July are pretty much it for us. 

By contrast, the Portuguese celebrate victory over the Spanish in the 700’s, the Moors in the 12th century, a couple of disputes  down the centuries about who was going to be king, victory over Napolean in the 1800’s, establishment of a republic in 1908, overthrow of the fascist dictatorship in 1974-76, and a few other things I probably left out.  They even have something called Restoration of Independence Day, which means they celebrate an independence day they already celebrated that year. 


In addition, there are the Roman Catholic holidays, feast days and saints’ days.  Every day of the year is the birthday of some saint.   Then there’s the fact that the month of August is the official summer vacation.  Everybody takes off and everything shuts down.  Overall, you wonder how they get anything done; a lot of the time, they don’t.

I’ve asked Portuguese friends about a couple holidays that have come up, and even they aren’t sure what they are.  I don’t know who’s in charge of remembering them; I’d be surprised to find anyone who can keep track of them all.

Ironically, even though Portugal doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, they do celebrate Black Friday as the beginning of Christmas season.  They put up billboards and turn on the garish lighting just like us.  Americans can be proud that our devotion to retail shopping has spread around the world

So anyway, our friend Rita decided to host a Thanksgiving dinner at her place in Cascais.  Cascais is the beach resort town a little bit West of Lisbon that’s virtually an English speaking enclave.  It was taken over a couple dozen years ago by British tourists and more recently invaded by Americans, who didn’t let the language barrier between the US and UK get in the way.  Cascais probably ought to be administered by the EU as a joint international tourist trap. 

Barbara and I were the only foreigners, AKA non-Cascais residents, among those invited.  Rita ordered a freshly killed turkey from the local butcher and assigned dishes to the rest of us.  Various people got dibs on potatoes, liquor and desserts.  Since we were last in line, we got stuck with preparing a green vegetable dish.

I tried to get out of that one.  I couldn’t figure out how we were going to carry a dozen servings worth of fresh vegetables on the bus to Lisbon then changing to the Cascais train.  I suggested I make a batch of seviche, the classic South American seafood dish. I figured a sealed container of marinated fish and shrimp could be more easily corralled and wouldn’t go bad since it was already pickled.

Rita wouldn’t have it.  She insisted specifically that we had to have something green.  I suggested  making the seviche out of older fish, but she didn’t think that was funny. 

Looking at the menu, it struck me that what we were lacking was the classic Thanksgiving green bean  casserole.  Being pretty much flat vegetables, green beans wouldn’t take up much room. Furthermore, I didn’t have to care if it tasted awful, since the traditional version was supposed to be that way.  Since I always hated it, I wouldn’t be emotionally invested in it.

This isn’t a cooking blog so I’ll just give an overview without too much detail.  I didn’t have access to the traditional canned ingredients, so I improvised using a recipe from Alton Brown.  My version used the large flat, thick, tough Portuguese beans.  They actually look more like a small reptile than a vegetable,  which made me think again of the seviche idea, but they actually taste good once they’re captured and beaten into submission.  Instead of the canned onions, Alton roasts fresh onions in a bread crumb coating; and instead of the condensed mushroom soup, he makes a cream and chicken gravy with fresh mushrooms. Consulting another recipe I added shredded Spanish ham and pecan pieces.

Preparing the dish took the better part of a day; but at the end, we had only a plastic container of bean mixture, a separate bag of crisped onions and two jars of gravy mix.  We bought an insulated picnic bag to carry the stuff;  I mixed it all in one of Rita’s baking dishes when we got there.

The trip to Cascais was mostly uneventful, except for one problem.  The bus to Lisbon dropped us off in an industrial suburb near a small old railway substation – with no bathroom.  At our advanced age, restroom facilities are a must.  (I could say that necessaries are a necessity.  Try saying it five times real fast).  We found ourselves wandering around the neighborhood becoming increasingly desperate, and finally opted for going into the district police station.  The uniformed duty officer took pity on us; instead of putting us in a cell, he let us use the staff bathroom.  I guess he figured it was better to help us out than to have to arrest us for public urination.  Barbara has never felt safer being privy to the privy.

We managed to get to Cascais without any leakage, either personally or from the food; and made our way to Rita’s and the company of seven other Americans and a Portuguese couple who had lived in the US for several years.  It was a delightful gathering of lovely people bound together by a shared sensibility, and frankly a lot more fun than the traditional family feasts where everybody ends up arguing all day. 

There were several variations on the expat theme among the group.  Up until then, Barbara and I had prided ourselves on how adventurous we were coming to live for a year in a foreign country; but we were quickly disabused of that notion.  Compared to these people, we were dull homebodies. 

The most extreme example was the couple who had been traveling the world for several years living out of the proverbial two suitcases.  They would go somewhere new to live for awhile, then think of somewhere else and go there.  I asked the husband of the two how long they usually stayed.  His answer was, “Depends on how well we like it where we are.”  Fair enough.

Another couple had lived in Ireland for five years until the climate began to interfere with the woman’s asthma.  They met someone who suggested they try Portugal, so they did.

The husband of another couple had worked for General Motors, first in the aerospace division, then transferred to automobiles because the new job would move them to Germany.  About that time, the recession hit, GM ran into trouble and cancelled the position.  At that point they decided he would take early retirement and came to Europe on their own.  They backpacked around the world for a couple years, including Nepal and the Himalayas, before settling in Portugal. 

They were one of two couples who had spent time living in Asia.  There were also the Portuguese couple who had spent forty years in the US, and a very charming single lady who, like our hostess Rita, had come to live here on her own. 

The dinner was wonderfully traditional.  Rita’s turkey was perfectly roasted and free range so it tasted like meat instead of baked fat as do many birds in the US.  She also found whole cranberries somewhere.  There were delicious roast sweet potatoes, mango mousse, pecan and apple pies – and of course the green beans.

We had a bottomless pitcher of red wine, several bottles of white and a superior white port, the classic aperitif that requires a visit to Portugal to experience at its best.

The group were uniformly delightful.  We shared a common bond, the desire to view life and the world from a different perspective than that with which we were familiar, and the act of doing that had given us new insights.    We were absent the divisiveness that’s causing such enmity back home.  Nobody got into tirades about whichever faction they were for or against.  We all just want a gentle, sane world in which to live out this phase of our lives.  For now, Portugal seems to serve the purpose.



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Oporto Me Oh My Oh: 10 Outobro ’17

There were hordes of people in Oporto.  I mean hordes.  Germans and Brits and French and Spanish and at least one Estonian, we know because she told us so in very good English; and I’m sure there were other nationalities I didn’t recognize.  Now I know what the Roman Empire looked like when the barbarians overran it.  Crowds and crowds of people wearing Bermuda shorts and helmets with horns sticking out, carrying battle axes in one hand and iPhones in the other to take pictures.

Lots of Americans were included, more than I imagined were ever in Portugal considering the number who asked me before we left the US where Portugal is.  Either they found it on a map somehow or they all got on the wrong plane thinking they were going to Hawaii and were dumped here by mistake.


Porto is a tale of two cities. The one tourists visit is plastered against the cliffs overlooking the Douro River.  Wherever you walk, you’re going straight up.  Even when you walk back down you’re going up; don’t ask me how it happens, I don’t know, but it’s true.  On one side of the river is Oporto, and on the other Vila Nova de Gaia which exists solely for the reason of selling port wine. 

To get from one side to the other you walk across a bridge.  To get to the bridge, pedestrians climb about 15 flights of rough, irregular stone steps dating back to the 12th century.  From the top, you can see young men on the upper bridge spans hanging out (literally) and diving into the water.  It’s sort of Portugal’s answer to the Acapulco cliff divers; but, in this case, I think they’re all searching for a way to get across the river besides climbing more steps. 


The riverfront along Vila Nova de Gaia is lined with the cellars of every major vintner of Port wine in existence.  There are names like Sandeman, Taylor, Cockburn, Graham’s and Croft’s, which I’ve seen on labels in the liquor store but never bought any because I didn’t know what the heck they were.  Well, they all make Port wine and they’re all British companies


Back in the 17th century England (they called it England back then, none of that Great Britain or UK stuff) went to war with France, it never occurring to them they might have a problem importing French wine.  They had to change to Portuguese wine instead, which in those days must have tasted somewhere between Gatorade and cleaning vinegar.  To keep it from spoiling on the ship over they laced it with brandy which stopped the fermentation process and kept it sweet.  They decided they like it that way and an accident of history was born. 

So now you visit the town for tastings of port, which you can do in any number of ways from a tour of the cellar to an elaborate dinner and show featuring non-stop pouring.  We chose the simplest way, sitting at a café and paying 25 euros for several glasses of different types of the stuff.  It tasted pretty good, a lot better than the version they bottle in the US, and helped us face the prospect of climbing up to the bridge to go back across the river.


The Douro part of Oporto is a closely packed area built over several centuries of the city’s existence.  Like most urban areas in Europe, the buildings have been gutted and renovated so many times it’s hard to tell where one rebuilding leaves off and the next one begins.  Even the most modern hotels and office buildings are constructed within the confines of structures going back hundreds of years. 

Looking at it from a distance — say, while sitting at a table in Vila Nova de Gaia drinking your third glass of port — the view is of a hodgepodge of buildings with traditional clay tile roofs leaning against each other all over the river bluffs.  At several points along the way there are sections of the original medieval stone walls of the city.  There’s a model of the old city in the Casa de Infante, a museum built over the ruins of an original Roman building and said to have more recently been the birthplace of Prince Henry the Navigator.  For those whose European history is shaky, he’s the guy who invented Europe’s worldwide exploration to South America, India, Japan and Southeast Asia.

The model shows where the city walls were in the 12th century and then expanded in the fourteenth, as well as those enclosing the old Jewish ghetto.  It’s impressive to then go out and visit scraps of walls that still exist from the Middle Ages.


The other city in Oporto is laid out on the flat land to the North of the river reaching westward to the sea.  It’s a modern metropolis of wide boulevards and high rises which serves as Portugal’s industrial center.  With its ultra-modern architecture and palm trees lining the avenues, this part of Oporto looks like a city in South America. 


Oporto is defined by its six bridges spanning the Douro.  The oldest is the railroad bridge from the eighteen eighties designed  by students of Gustav Eiffel, he of the famous tower in Paris.  That’s the one you have to climb up to walk across.  Not to be outdone, a later one that looks quite similar was designed by Monsieur Eiffel himself. The newest is a modern suspension bridge that sits just inside the river mouth spilling into the Atlantic ocean. All told, Oporto’s bridges are the main transportation link between the Northern and Southern halves of the country.


A flotilla of tourist boats ply the river, the most popular one called the six-bridge tour because that’s how far it goes.  If you’d rather commit a full day to a river tour, you can take one up the Douro into the heartland; for that matter, there are hotel boats for multi-day trips as well.  The river is pretty much full of traffic all the time – boats of all dimensions, kayakers, seagulls, and even a misdirected German Shepherd guided to shore one day by the naval patrol.  Yet, it remains too narrow to accommodate the giant container ships we see on the Tagus River in Lisbon and our own Sado in Setubal.

Oporto’s got its share of buildings to see, including the old stock exchange, the Palacio da Bolsa, which is best known for its ballroom.  Barbara and I used to own a couple of Arthur Murray Dance studios.  I wish someone had suggested to me then the idea of combining chacha lessons and stock trading.  The commissions would have amounted to a lot more money than we made off dance classes.


There’s also the Crystal Palace, an arena the city fathers built as a hockey venue.  The rationale behind that is probably lost to history. Perhaps it was because there were so many people returning from decades of exile in Canada, where they went to escape the fascist Salazar regime.  Apparently though, the Portuguese-Canadians didn’t spend a lot of time learning to ice skate, because they never played any hockey at the Crystal Palace.  In fact, when you mention it to them, they usually respond by saying, “Eh?”  We enjoyed walking through the gardens past a festival of bookseller kiosks, but nobody was playing hockey.   

There’s a concert hall designed to look like a building in Barcelona, and a street designed to look like one in Paris.  Kind of suggests a lack of self-esteem on the part of the city planners.

Otherwise, there’s mostly a lot of churches, probably more churches here than there are cheese hats in Wisconsin.  Every street corner’s got a church full of statues and walls covered in gold.  All told, there’s probably enough gold to wipe out Portugal’s debt to the World Monetary Fund, which is saying something.

It’s all evidence of the Roman Catholic Church’s domination of Europe over the centuries; the churches are advertisements for its power and how it lorded over (pun intended) not only the people but even the kings and armies who ruled the individual nations.  I assume all these churches were built by rulers who wanted to get on the pope’s good side, whether God was involved in the deal or not.  It’s fun to imagine all the barons and baronets and dukelets and kinglets getting together in the Papal locker room to compare the size of their cathedrals.


Unlike in Southern Portugal with its fried cuttlefish and grilled sardines, we weren’t wild about the food.  Oporto’s main claims to fame are francesinhas and stewed tripe.  A francesinha is basically a croque monsieur, which in turn is basically a hopped up grilled cheese sandwich, and then they pour a spicy tomato sauce all over it.  It’s not bad, but I wouldn’t cross the Atlantic to have one. 

Tripe, which as any graduate student of animal husbandry knows is part of a cow’s stomach, became a delicacy here during one of the wars when the navy requisitioned all the city’s food supplies.  The only thing left to eat was the parts of the slaughtered animals the military were too intelligent to take with them.  Over time, people convinced themselves they liked the stuff, and the fiction has survived to the present day.  There are plenty of people here with excellent taste whose eyes roll back in their heads when they talk about how delicious it is. 

To our less sophisticated palates, tripe tastes – how can I put this delicately? – like a cow’s stall smells if you forget to clean it for a couple months.  It reminds me of a story from my childhood about a kid who made soup out of the cat’s litterbox and fed it to his little sister.  At the time, I thought the idea pretty funny; but I’m glad I never tried it, given my two sisters’ vast capacity for revenge. 

I suppose tripe could be made palatable smoked or maybe pickled.  Nevertheless, I’m not planning to touch it again unless the Portuguese navy invades our flat and empties out our refrigerator while at the same time closing all the grocery stores.  Maybe not even then.

Oporto is certainly a beautiful city.   When we told our Portuguese friends about visiting there, they reacted with something bordering on reverence — and with good reason.    It encapsulates the history and culture not only of Portugal but of European civilization in general as well as any place on the continent.  

It’s interesting, impressive, instructive.  It’s neither as decadent as Sintra with its catalog of lavish palaces nor as oppressively touristy, even if it is full of foreigners.  Still, we found it austere and a little formal.  I kept having the feeling that if I touched the wrong thing a security guard would materialize to make me pay for it. 

I guess Oporto’s a place you have to warm up to – or it to you.  We’ll definitely try it again some time to further develop our acquaintance.

Maybe it’s just that, as we pass the first anniversary of our residence in Portugal, we still feel like outsiders.  It’s not only about studying the language, eating  the food, hearing the unique style of music known as fado.  It’s about being part of the turbulent history and sharing the experience of growing up in this part of the world.

Actually, this is part of the reason we came here.  I think it makes us more human.  We come from a country of immigrants, yet for no particular reason immigrants have been hit with some animosity lately.  But that everyone could have the opportunity to feel the way we do  in Portugal.  It might help us be more tolerant.  

Até logo.


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View from another’s shoes


I was young
Lively curious
Loving the outdoors
Because it nurtured me

I was young
Fragile brittle
Hating classes and books
Because they humiliated me

As more was expected
My Self became squashed
Tumbling ever deeper
Into “idiot” label abyss

Cell-defense, self-defense
I’ll bully, I’ll badger, I’ll blow hard
So you won’t know
So I can forget

When you strike back
It’s too harsh
I crumple, I’m crushed
I am laid open

I am a pile of tears and whimpers
In private
Convinced I’m not good enough

I’ll just be louder, meaner
I can scare it away
I’ll just deaden my senses
I can escape it

But it always survives
The hatred of me by me
It aches, it burns, it’s excruciating
I endure the life sentence
Of being in my own company

~Barbara Miller


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Skin Game


The skin separates from the onion
After losing moisture
And drying out
It breaks free, becoming papery thins
That scamper out the openings
Of their wire basket home
Floating weightlessly to the floor
When the breeze breezes through
They dance across my white tiles
Until the wind corrals them
By the room’s edge
A bother, a nuisance
It just adds to the dirty
What’s that internet?
Twenty uses for onion skins
I hear a snicker from the corner
~Barbara Miller
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