Archive for February, 2008

Feb 09 2008

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

Published by 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!!!

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Feb 06 2008

Lisbon Love

Published by under Lisbon,Portugal

We hopped the bus from Seville to Lisbon, Portugal, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to go. We wanted to TRAVEL and LEARN and DO STUFF. It’s unfortunate, then, that Portugal was our next destination, as the Portuguese aren’t really into the whole “doing stuff” thing. As the most laid back people I’ve encountered in my life, they spend their days eating and drinking in cafes, playing games in the park, and enjoying Portugal’s many warm, sunny days. By the end of our week in Lisbon, we spent most of our time eating pasteis, drinking vinho verde and playing cards with our hostel mates. Which, actually, makes this one of our more successful cultural immersions.

Our week in Lisbon did not start so smoothly. Naturally, we didn’t have a place to stay upon arrival, so we scooted on over to the nearest hostel, thinking we’d find more permanent accommodation the next day. Having heard so much about how inexpensive Portugal is, we were looking forward to cheaper nights’ stays.

The next day, I stayed back to do some work, while Ben went out to hunt for a hostel or pension that could house us. Apparently, Lisbon has taken advantage of its status as the new, hot backpacker destination, because when Ben returned, without room or prospect, he reported that despite wandering the entire city, he couldn’t find anything for less than 30 euros a night. Not a bad price, but not “cheap” by our trip standards. He was also in one of the foulest moods I’ve seen him in, mumbling about how EVERYTHING is THE WORST. Pretty much the only thing you can do when Ben’s in such a state is feed him, so we took a break to hit up a local restaurant for a good meal.

So, Portuguese is a hard language. I was expecting it to be pretty much Spanish, I guess. And many words are similar in spelling — but the pronunciation? Sounds like Russian to my American ears. So in addition to not being able to read the menu, we couldn’t understand a lick of what the waiter was saying to us. As usual in such situations, we pointed to something on the menu, ordered it (in a “uhhh…that one…i guess?” kind of way), and crossed our fingers.

Most of the time we get lucky and this method of ordering has produced some of the best meals on our trip. Other times, we’re not so lucky. Like that time we were served what was basically olive oil soup.

This meal, our first in Portugal, turned out to be incredible. Slices of meat (don’t know which kind, would probably like to keep it that way), rice, spinach, beans — all wonderfully seasoned and garlic-y. And when the waiter wheeled over the dessert cart piled high with moist pastries, the finest I’d seen since France, I officially fell in love with Portugal. Especially when the waiter looked visibly disappointed when we declined — not in the my-tip-will-be-smaller way, but in the genuine you-don’t-know-what-you’re-missing way.

Word of warning for those dining in Portugal: you’re charged for every little thing they put on your table. I’m used to being charged for bread in European restaurants, but usually the accompanying butter is complimentary. Not so in Portugal. You opened that tiny packet of garlic butter? Eighty cents please. And since Ben spent the first half-hour of our meal opening tiny packets of yummies he’d never seen before (FISH PATE? what’s that? I’ve never tried fish pate before!!), our bill was an unexpected surprise.

Thankfully, that evening, we were lucky to come across a recently-opened hostel in the Bairro Alto neighborhood of Lisbon, whose owner was willing to negotiate a weekly rate. We moved in, gorged ourselves on free rolls from a local bakery, and took advantage of free wifi by downloading episodes of all the TV shows we’re missing at home.

The next morning (okay, afternoon), we began our exploration of the city in earnest. Lisbon, like its people, is an extremely likable city. It’s wide and open and clean. And beautiful! The sidewalks are paved in tiny blocks of black and white stone, arranged in beautiful patterns. The buildings, interiors and exteriors, are covered in azulejos – decorated tiles — that are a proud and prevalent Portuguese tradition. From three-hundred-year-old ornate blue and white tiles, to modern, art-deco-style tiles, it seems that no structure in Lisbon (down to the interiors of the metro stations) isn’t plastered in these things.

Old tram in LisbonPretty much every European city has an “old town” neighborhood, which is inevitably picturesque and quaint. But modern life never fails to seep in: bars, boutiques, souvenir shops, and tourists never fail to remind you it’s 2008. I’m convinced the old neighborhoods of Lisbon haven’t changed a bit since the late 19th century. In fact, Lisbon built Europe’s first funicular in the 1800s, and the same funicular operates today. Granted, it moves so slowly it’d be faster to walk up the hill than ride it, but still. I also saw a tree growing out of someone’s window. That thing had definitely been around for more than 100 years, with no one bothering to cut it down. Instead the homeowners work around it, using it to hang their laundry. Which should tell you a lot about the Portuguese.

During our explorations, we came across a small neighborhood cafe in the Bairro Alto district that served gooey, warm sandwiches — the best we’d had since Italy. One of the many reasons this method of slow traveling is interesting is that many locals start to recognize you. We get to know the local patisserie employee, the market owner, the guy who works nights at the hostel. We ended up frequenting this tiny cafe in Lisbon so often that the staff (well, all two of them) knew Ben’s order by heart.

The Bairro  Alto at nightLisbon’s Bairro Alto also offers the best nightlife of any place we’ve visited thus far. Around midnight, the young people of Lisbon flock to the neighborhood, thanks to the concentration of bars and clubs that line its narrow streets. However, if you should actually go inside one such bar on any given night of the week it would be completely empty. Why? Because no one is actually inside the bars. Instead, the crowds pack the streets, mingling and drinking while wandering around aimlessly. They pop into bars for a quick, cheap refill, and then run back out into the street to continue the party. The bars don’t even stock glasses — all drinks are served in portable, plastic cups. It’s hard to fathom how awesome this is until you realize how it solves so many quintessential bar problems: no more fighting your way through a jostling crowd to ask the bartender for another drink, no more attempting to squeeze yourself and your group of friends around the only remaining too-small table in the back corner, no more wondering who is where and how in the world you are supposed to get to them.

We went out that first night with two American girls studying in Barcelona, and Dvir, an Israeli guy currently on a worldwide soccer game tour. Dvir recently finished his obligatory military service and also recently discovered alcohol, meaning with one glass of sangria, he was flirting with, pursuing and not-so-discreetly kissing both girls accompanying us. He was then confused as to why, instead of fighting, the girls couldn’t just calmly decide amongst themselves who should have the honor of making out with him.

A legitimate question, if you ask me. Paper, rock, scissors?

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Feb 03 2008

Arches of the Frontier!

Published by under Andalucia,Spain

Arcos de la FronteraHow does one find themselves in the town of Arcos de la Frontera, southern Spain’s very own version of what we Americans like to call “the boondocks”? In our case, by laying out a map of Andalucia, blindly jabbing at it with a finger, and agreeing to journey to the closest inhabited locale to the fingernail. And so it was that we found ourselves on a bus to this town we’d never heard of, seen pictures of, or ever been able to find in a Spanish guidebook. As luck would have it, Brittany’s finger did us proud, because we have since come to learn that Arcos is considered by many to be the prettiest of Andalucia’s Pueblos Blancos (White Villages).

Believe it or not, tiny Arcos de la Frontera (Arches of the Frontier?) must receive sufficient annual tourism to warrant the labeling of a “high season” and “low season” calendar in the local tourist office. Despite the beautiful weather, we found ourselves in Arcos in the middle of the so-called “low” season. Information like this comes in handy when negotiating a week’s stay in a spacious apartment in town. As does my smattering of Spanish, which meant that, for once, the object of my negotiating attentions was able to halfway understand the gibberish coming out of my mouth. For purposes of contrast, all I ever really figured out how to say in Greek was “please”, “I agree”, and “very very nice”, so you can imagine how much negotiating leverage I enjoyed on Crete.

Brittany reading in the fields of ArcosArcos probably has an interesting history, but we didn’t exactly get around to learning it. And it has some magnificent looking churches, but we didn’t exactly get around to going inside. After months of being inundated with history, art, and church interiors, we made a pact upon arriving in Arcos to avoid, at any cost, those who would have us learn anything, or soak up any more of that infernal “culture” we keep hearing about. Instead, we spent our days picnicking beside the lake outside of town, and napping in the warm, sunny fields. Most of our nights were occupied by renting movies from the small video store below our apartment.

The biggest challenge here, aside from ensuring that your selected movie can actually be enjoyed in English, is figuring out exactly what you’re renting. Familiar movie titles are not only translated into Spanish, but are often changed entirely. For instance, “Bruce Almighty” is known to Spain as “Como Dios” (“Like God”). My personal favorite has to be “Not Another Teen Movie”, which Spaniards know as “Not Another Stupid American Movie”. On a more somber note, I regret that I was unable, despite all of my language-barrier-bridging efforts, to locate “Shawn of the Dead”. I can’t imagine what the Spanish title would be, but I made a stab at it by asking the clerk if they carry “Shawn de los Muertos”. This, accompanied by my excellent zombie walk and brain-hungry moans, earned me his suggestion of “28 Semanas Despues” (28 Weeks Later), but no satisfaction. Someone please let me borrow Shawn of the Dead when I get home, because I saw Hot Fuzz right before leaving the States, and I loved it. Which reminds me, I owe an apology to every British person I have met, and will yet meet.

Dear once and future friends,

Despite appearances, I DO realize that just because you’re British doesn’t mean you automatically love Hot Fuzz, or want to discuss each one of my favorite scenes at length. But when I hear your silly accent, all your words seem to translate to “please interrogate me about the one British movie you’ve seen!” I can imagine that you must get quite sick of enduring discussions about British comedy with every English-speaking foreigner, so I will make every effort to restrain myself. I promise. Oh, but one last thing before I go: have you ever heard of this group called “Monty Python”?


That bloody Yank

While I’m on the subject of renting movies, I must not neglect to mention the Irish girl who works the counter several nights a week in our favorite Arcos video rental store. How she ever ended up in Arcos remains a mystery, but since English speakers are hard to come by out in the boondocks, she enjoyed finding excuses to engage us in conversation. Startlingly, the first thing she ever said to us in English was: “get out of Arcos while you can!” It’s hard to convey exactly what this was like, but when you’re staying in a strange town where you’re fully accustomed to hearing nothing but Spanish, and a girl you hadn’t noticed in the background suddenly leans over a counter to loudly whisper that you should get out of town WHILE YOU CAN, you tend to be interested in what it is she has to say.

We pressed her on her suggestion, and she came to inform us that wife beating is a prevalent and accepted tradition in Arcos, as is the distateful practice of taking your hunting dogs that displease you out into the backyard, and BURYING THEM ALIVE. Michael Vick would be proud. Now, before the Arcos de la Frontera Ministry of Tourism starts bugging me with e-mails/tries to bury ME alive, let me disclaim that I don’t know how much of the Irish girl’s story holds water, since it’s hard to get a feel for local culture while asleep. I can personally vouch for her reliability in recommending the tastiest local brands of mixed nuts, but in the interest of objectivity, I also feel obligated to disclose the fact that she suffers from a condition that I think is most concisely described as “crazy eyes.” I allow the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about Arcos society.

Brittany rides a horse in Andalucia!We did have some waking hours in Arcos de la Frontera, and I’m happy to say that some of these were spent atop the famous horses of Andalucia. Well, technically, only one hour, but that’s what happens when the price for horseback riding is 20 euros per hour, per person! Brittany has had the pleasure of riding a horse once or twice in her life, but as with many activities on this trip (see skiing in the Dolomites) this was my first time. Thankfully, it turns out that I am able to stay on top of a horse much better than I am able to stay on top of a pair of skis! I don’t think it hurt my cause that the guide knew we were novice riders, because the wild stallions he chose for us were far more interested in the delicious foliage growing alongside our riding path than the prospect of galloping/trotting/strolling somewhat briskly. In hopes of feeling the wind on my face, I finally resolved to kick my horse about half-way through our alloted hour of riding. He stirred for a moment, but ultimately, did not wake up.

Picnics, movie rentals, and horses. Yes, I think that just about sums up our week in Arcos de la Frontera. If you’re ever headed to Arcos, give us a shout, because we can recommend an apartment with a great roof for sitting out and enjoying the view over the town. There’s a video rental place right downstairs, and a diner nearby where all the locals will turn and look at you with bewilderment the first four or five times you enter, but will eventually come to tolerate your presence. You may even end up joining them for that tasty Spanish refreshment, tinto con limon (red wine + carbonated lemonade). Then again, I can’t really think of a reason why you couldn’t picnic/rent movies/make drinks on a Saturday afternoon at home… but oops! Out of time! We’re off to Portugal!

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