Feb 09 2008

Baseball, Hot Dogs, and Apple Pie (Or, the Essential Portuguese Experience)

Published by at 4:53 pm under Lisbon,Portugal

A week in Lisbon might not make me an expert on how to achieve the authentic Portuguese experience, but then again, it might. We arrived in Lisbon with very little idea of what (if anything) defines this strip of coastline that has managed, through all these years, to not be Spain. I have to agree with Brittany’s assessment that Portuguese sounds far more like Russian than Spanish, which teaches us one important lesson: don’t trust the testimony of your Spanish friends when it comes to the Portuguese experience. Instead, trust ME when I tell you that THE authentic Portuguese experience comprises the following three elements…

You ever hear the one about the undersized European nation with the oversized heart? Their unquenchable thirst for discovery meant that they were the first European nation to scope out all sorts of prime colony and trading location in Africa, the Americas, and even Asia. But their tiny size prevented them from holding on to their claims when the bigger bully countries showed up. And so it was that Portugal kept on a-findin’, and England, France, and Spain kept on a-lootin’. Sucks, right? Portugal thinks so too. And that’s only part of the painful story – back on the homefront, the country’s domestic history can be summed up as one oppressive, and entirely disastrous, regime after another. But since the people can’t do much else in the face of their star-crossed fortunes, they have decided to sing. This is fado.

Fado in Lisbon: The fado singer is in the background, wearing redYou can’t sing fado until you’ve really been kicked to the curb. By 6’10″ WWE Superstar The Undertaker. Wearing cleats. Not because there’s a background check, but simply because you wouldn’t be ABLE to. More than singing, fado is a gut-wrenching wailing that keeps the neighbors awake down the street. Except they don’t yell at you to stop that racket – they just close their eyes, look to the heavens, and mutter in Portuguese, “sing it, sister.” Again, Portugese sounds like Russian to us, but I assume this is what all the teary-eyed patrons in our fado bar were saying as they shook their heads at the ceiling. Our Israeli friend Dvir told me that he doesn’t like fado because he dislikes music he can’t dance to. I suppose he has a point, but look at it from the Portugese perspective: you probably don’t feel much like dancing when you realize Spain just stole South America. Again.

Football (aka Soccer)
We hit Portugal at the end of January, meaning we’d been in Europe 5 months without seeing a football game. I know, I know… inconceivable! Cut as a break though: we tried to go see AS Roma play in their home stadium, but then there was the small issue of arriving at the stadium to find the terrified riot police barricading themselves inside against the masked pyromaniac hooligans, and screaming at us to run for our lives. I still don’t get why that match was canceled. But now, with only two cities left on our European tour, we were determined to attend a football match while in Lisbon.

Fortune smiled upon us this week. Portugal has 3 major football clubs, who, between them, have won every single national football championship for something like the last 75 years. Two are based in Lisbon, and one in the northern city of Porto. Whenever two of the clubs play each other, the event is called a “Classic,” and everybody who’s anybody wants to be at the match. Soon after arriving in our hostel, we learned from some football fanatics that Lisbon’s Sporting Club would be hosting Porto in the latest “Classic” match during our stay. I’ve been searching for a football club to make my own throughout our European tour, and destiny was made clear when I discovered the Sporting wears the same glorious green as the New York Jets* and Boston Celtics. As the locals say, “Sporting sempre!” (“Sporting forever!”)

The big game was set for Sunday night, but fearing a sellout, we headed to the stadium to purchase our tickets in the early afternoon on game day. There, at the box office, we received painful news: the cheapest tickets available were 50 euros ($75) each. At this point, we actually debated whether or not to go to the game. But all the Sporting enthusiasm from the fans partying around the stadium convinced us that we needed to be a part of the upcoming spectacle. We bought our tickets (which, presumably, have liquid gold cores) and headed back to the metro station, excited about returning in the evening.

But on our way out, we spotted a tiny cellar-looking door at the base of the stadium, surrounded by a few loitering Sporting fans. We decided to check it out, and discovered the dark little closet to actually be the Sporting Fan Club office. And lo and behold, they were selling off unclaimed Fan Club tickets for the night’s game at the attractive price of 30 euros each. Already tasting the instant savings of 40 euros, I immediately sprinted back to the box office and tried to return our expensive tickets. No dice. Which I suppose is not surprising, since the entire operation is probably a scam to fleece stupid tourists like us. But never ones to give up so easily, we decided to try on the hat of that rightfully despised third-lowest form of life: the ticket scalper.**

For the next hour, we hovered in front of the box office, accosting every potential ticket buyer with our broken and unintelligible mix of Spanish, English, and Portuguese. In the beginning, Brittany asked if scalping was even legal in Portugal, but there were two police officers posted at the box office, and neither was making any effort to stop us, so I figured it must be OK. Waving our two tickets wildly in the air, we made every shameless attempt possible to unload them on OTHER unsuspecting tourists, even going so far as to engage the box office in one or two hotly competitive pricing wars. After an hour’s worth of failure, I really couldn’t believe what terrible luck we were having. Especially when I noticed a rival scalper hook two buyers out of the ticket line. But then he did something strange – he led his prospects away from the box office, and around the corner of the stadium to a darkened corner. I know this because I followed them, in hopes of stealing his business. I noticed that only once they were there, in the shadows, did they conduct their exchange. And then it struck me: what we’re trying to do IS illegal. The only reason the cops have left us alone is because we haven’t committed the crime YET. Suddenly quite happy to sit in our overpriced seats instead of a Portuguese prison cell, I ran back to Brittany to call off the scalping plan, and we made a hasty escape.

Sporting vs. Porto January 27, 2008Returning to the stadium that evening, we bargained for a couple of green Sporting scarves from a vendor outside the stadium, and made our way to our 50 euro seats. Which turned out to be at the midfield line, in the 2nd row of the upper tier. From this prime vantage point, we finally watched our first European football game. And perhaps more importantly, we wached the passionate football fans, in all of their flag-waving, homemade-smoke-bomb-throwing glory. Together, we cheered on the underdog home team to a satisfying 2-0 victory. One of the most lasting impressions I’ll take away from that game is the behavior of the visiting Porto fans. Despite their team going down early, and never really threatening victory, the Porto fanbase stood and cheered loudly the entire game, and not a fan seemed to leave before the final whistle. The stark contrast to the behavior of my own fanbases back home made me more than a little ashamed. I’ll try to get things turned in the right direction back home with a few well-placed homemade smoke bombs.

Pasteis de Belem
The third and final element of the essential Portugese experience is our favorite dessert in Europe, a Portuguese specialty called pasteis de nata. But we visited a bakery in the Belem neighborhood of Lisbon which has (perhaps arrogantly) renamed its own version of this dessert: pasteis de Belem. Fittingly, the bakery itself is also called Pasteis de Belem, and it’s been around since the 1830s! Even if the fine folks at this bakery aren’t arrogant, they would have every right to be, because these are the only pasteis that matter.

Brittany enjoys Pasteis de BelemThe dessert itself is a palm-sized tart of sweet, fluffy egg custard in a light, flaky crust. It’s served warm out of the oven, with shakers of powdered sugar and cinnamon for sprinkling on top. In an effort to fit in with the pasteis conossieurs at the tables surrounding us, we had ours with coffee, and the effect was unforgettable. We ate four at our table, brought four more back to the hostel to eat that night, and on our last day in Lisbon, made the 40-minute round-trip tram ride to Belem, just to eat four more. Words are frustratingly inadequate to describe the epic perfection of this dessert, but trust me when I say that if you ever visit Lisbon, put Pasteis de Belem at the top of your itinerary. Brittany says that, much like Naples pizza, this is one of the things that will cause her tears of longing in years to come.

So there you have it: the 3 keys to THE authentic Portuguese experience. And since I’m just some guy who wandered around Lisbon for a week with little directional bearing and no grasp of the language, I should know.

*Please no comments on the Jets’ 2007 season.

** For the record, the 3 lowest life forms are…
3rd lowest: Ticket scalper
2nd lowest: Gypsy pickpocket
Lowest: “Alexander Nava” from South Star Company in Barcelona. I’ll get you!!!

NEXT: A Portuguese Fairytale »



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