Lisbon cubed

Explorer's Monument Left Side lisbon-d-0578

Lisboa is as nice a town in Iberia as you’d care to meet, but just like the only thing you remember about that brilliant topologist who donates kidneys in his spare time is how he clogged your toilet with spent Indian food, there’s only one thing I’m going remember about Lisboa:

You see, I was not traveling alone.  I was with my mother and grandmother, so the first thing we have to do is go for a tour of the local bathrooms. Because, you know, there are no lavatories in America and we’ve only recently invented fire. That’s ok though, honest, because I don’t feel thoroughly acquainted with a place until I have to use the toilets.1

So we waddle past Praça do Município (city hall), down the Rua da Prata (Portuguese for ‘giant tourist trap’) and turn off at the first likely looking café:

Cafe S. Nicolau, Lisbon, Portugal
Cafe S. Nicolau, Lisbon, Portuga

Like polite people we buy some coffee. At least I think it was coffee. They called it coffee, that was the important thing. So we’ve got the coffee and are now customers in word and deed. We go downstairs to use the toilets near the stockroom. Now, truthfully lower level bathrooms aren’t really unusual in Europe; the fact that it feels like a set from  Young Frankenstein can’t be helped.

After assembling downstairs — chaining ourselves together with a rope, because none of us have money, phones or the slightest ability to return to the place we’re staying at if we get separated– we find the bathrooms. My mom and I let my pint-sized grandmother go first because her bladder to height ratio is the largest.  So I’m there in this little hall, chatting with my mom and we start hearing these strange noises. It sounds like a constipated motorcycle engine. There’s kind of a rhythm to it. Our first thought is that someone in one of the two bathrooms is.. how shall we put it… suffering from some sort of internal instability?

It gets louder. Much louder. I hear a crash from the stockroom. A dish breaks. We then realize the source of the noise is not one, but two people. A minute later the stockroom door opens, a rosy-cheeked, slightly out of breath portuguese gal walks out, trying to avoid eye contact with the four people now waiting for the toilets. For the record it is very difficult to grind against four individuals in a tiny hall without looking at them. A short while later another employee walks out. He looks to be in similarly fine health. By the time my grandmother comes out, my mom and I both look like we’re having seizures we’re laughing so hard. Unfortunately, my mother and I both lose our minds in the gutter so often we’ve taken to leaving them there, and my grandmother thought we were making it all up.

Pastel De Nata (portuguese egg custard pastry)
Pastel De Nata

So we get upstairs, back to the un-coffee, funny tartlet portuguese pastries and of course the very annoyed proprietor. We talked to some customers upstairs and it turns out they heard too and it wasn’t just us. The owner’s calling the employees various names some in english for the sake of the patrons, others in portuguese, which, based on the tone he was using, I think I’m glad I didn’t understand.

As you can imagine, we do not stay to finish our coffee. This was my introduction to the fair city of Lisboa.

Big Clock(lisbon)
Big Clock

After our crash course on portuguese culture, we escaped various vendors, tourists and street musicians (pics here), stared at the big clock and generally enjoyed the city. Lisboa is kind of like an old supermodel; you know she’s maybe seen better days, but she’s still light years ahead of your average person shopping at Walmart. There’s still a lot of marble,which is as clean as five hundred year old marble can be reasonably expected to be, and the architecture is cool. ( Note: I’m an architecture nerd, my computer is full of pictures of spandrels and artistic manhole covers and shots of ‘exotic’ paving materials. I did not have time to geek out when I was there, which is fortunate for.. well.. pretty much everyone in the universe).

We actually did stop to see Praça do Município (aka City Hall) with its cute little Portuguese flag and a square or two and some other stuff, and  then caught a tram to see the Explorer’s Monument ( Padrão dos Descobrimentos pictures).  After London’s fantastic Tube, Lisboa’s public transit system requires some adjustment. It’s actually fine, once you actually y’know find the stop. For someone coming from a culture where everything is over-communicated and writ large, in technicolor, it just takes a bit of time to adjust to the teeny tiny signs, which are almost always in portuguese… and tourist information/post office, which is only open three days a week (yes I am being hyperbolic, and no I’m not sorry). Which is fine, I don’t feel entitled or anything, I come here, I don’t know the language and all I want to do is spend money on the “natives”. If they don’t want to help that’s fine with me.

Jerónimos Monastery  Exterior
Jerónimos Monastery

The best touristy thing we did was easily the Jerónimos Monastery. It really is beautiful, it’s a great example of Manueline architecture  and it’s important in Portuguese history or something like that.  It’s like one of these little restaurants that has some sort of   “Vasco de Gama ate here” placard hanging up near the entrance.

The history was probably fascinating, but I wouldn’t know: all the signs were in Portuguese.

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (information in portuguese)
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

All kidding aside, it’s a lovely city, it’s got friendly people, they’re not into obnoxious siestas and it’s on one of the most gorgeous stretches of ocean I’ve ever seen. I just wish I could pronounce the names of the streets.





1.You can tell a lot about a cultured from their toilets. If you want Cyndi to write a post about every funny bathroom story she has, beg her in the comments.

And: If the name of this post sounds familiar, it’s because I stole it from a great short story by William Tenn, from this book.


Louisiana IS foreign country

I was going to wait to post until I had pictures and stories from far off lands, but then I realized, a lot of people, even my fellow Americans might find some of these places interesting, if not exactly exotic.

As anyone from either coast will tell you, New York resembles San Francisco about as much as I resemble Barack Obama, which is to say: not at all. And if you think the West and East coasts are absolute opposites, then you haven’t been to Texas. Texas has created its own spacetime vortex in an effort to coexist with the rest of the United States (and they’re still working out some bugs.)  One reason for all this is because the US is so freakishly huge. Another is that we’re just ornery and conflicted.

gilroy, garlic capital of the world.
Garlic capital of the world, in case you didn’t see the sign

I have to admit though, we generally have more in common than we think. However, for all our similarities (e.g. we usually speak english, we accept the Federal government — in theory, and we think Laos is somewhere in South America), it’s quite possible to be a well-travelled citizen and yet have no idea what goes on in the next state. Yeah, you can drink municipal tap water in your home state, but it tastes like crawdads in Louisiana. The dialect of American English that Bostonians speak sounds a little bit like Gaelic. Use “hella” in Florida and everyone looks at you like you’re riding a yak through the city streets. Culture shock abounds, and you don’t even need a passport.

A flaming fish at McIhenny's Tabasco Factory on Avery Island.
A flaming fish at McIhenny’s Tabasco Factory on Avery Island. Because.. like.. who doesn’t love a flaming fish?

On the other hand, it means if you want to meet the natives you don’t actually have to have a blind date with your friendly neighborhood TSA officer. True, maybe you don’t care about a palace made out of corn or the world’s biggest ball of twine, but we’ve got a lot of space here, and we might as well use it.

After a while you’ll get used to the natives, you’ll start to grok the peculiarities of Dixie, acquire a taste for the oddities of California. ..and maybe just maybe, you won’t look like a tourist (though that does require not wearing your crappiest sweaters and a fanny pack).