Convento do Carmo, Seafood, and Slipping on the Sidewalks of Lisbon

After a nap at our hotel, my friend and I ventured out to visit the ruins of Convento do Carmo, which dates from the fourteenth century. Artifacts from different time periods were scattered in abundance outside and inside. We were amazed to see ancient pieces were exposed to the elements.

Our self-guided tour concluded, we wandered nearby in search of dinner and were pleasantly surprised that the restaurant right on the square in front of the convento was reasonably priced. People who told me Portugal would be inexpensive weren’t kidding. I began my seafood spree of Lisbon.

Next we meandered in direction of the Rio Tejo, or Tagus River. On the way, we saw quiet streets and rumbling trams.

To our surprise, a number of tiled sidewalks were exceedingly slippery, not to mention sloping. In my chunky sandals in which I have easily walked for miles in urban environments, I held onto building walls and metal fences several times while gingerly inching down a sidewalk. After that first evening, I wore sneakers and was fine, so I don’t know if that particular neighborhood just happened to have extra polished sidewalks, but I wouldn’t take my chances.

The tiles on the ground were nice to look at. We even saw this sidewalk with curving steps around a building (in the background is the barrier that I gripped as I walked down that incline).

The blue evening sky by the rio was strikingly beautiful. We saw people sitting on the steps by the water, which reminded me of similar scenes by the Seine in Paris.

Close to our hotel, I marveled at the golden tiles under the streetlights. Truly a magical city for a first-time visitor.

Back in our room, we leaned out the window and enjoyed the view before getting ready for an actual slumber.

Portugal

Around this time last year a friend and I were preparing to go to Portugal. We had travelled together once before, seven years earlier, and had been bringing up the idea from time to time ever since. The stars finally aligned, and we compared our travel wish lists. She was interested in some northern European countries. I was interested in South America. We both wanted to go somewhere new to us. We settled on Portugal and agreed to travel for one and a half weeks.

Leading up to our trip, my friend read Rick Steves, and I asked a work acquaintance of Portuguese descent what he recommended.

I flew from New York to Boston to meet my friend, and we took the next leg to Lisbon. I remember little of the plane ride. Was it then or another trip that I watched the “2 Dope Queens” HBO specials?

At the Lisbon airport, we first headed to a phone boutique to buy Portuguese sim cards. There was a panicked moment when we thought the sim card had caused her phone to malfunction, but fortunately that was not the case. We hadn’t even gotten out of the airport yet, and already the adventure was beginning.

On the way to the subway, which is connected to the airport, my friend started snapping photos. The subway art was fun and funky.

As we stepped out of the metro and into the neighborhood where we would be staying, our enchantment with Portugal started. The sloping street with colorful buildings told us that we were truly on a trip.

We navigated to the hotel where my friend had scored us a good deal. We couldn’t check in yet, so we sat in the lobby and transferred some of our items into our purses and took turns changing in the bathroom. I accidentally used the men’s room, not realizing that one door led to common sinks and then there were two separate individual bathrooms, one for men and one for women. This usually wouldn’t have mattered, but if I remember correctly, the men’s room had a toilet in a small room with a door and then a urinal right outside it. That meant that when a man came in and used the urinal, I would have had to walk right past him to get to the sinks. By the time I realize this, it was too late. I waited until he was finished to exit. When traveling, I find that bathrooms are always a source of cultural surprises.

We went back out and found an eating place with outdoor seating on a pedestrian street. I ordered a bit randomly, not knowing what the various pastries were. I had studied coffee drinks in Portuguese and knew to order a galão, which is a café crème, which is a latte (I mention the French name first because I knew what a café crème long before I knew what a latte was). With more time to kill, we walked around the area and came upon a plaza and a tuna store with a carnival theme. It was hot outside.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped to check out a nearby church, the first of many we would visit. It was not representative of the gilded churches we would see.

Upon going up to our room, which was a few floors up and had a nice view of the street, we lay down to take a nap after the fiddling with the thermostat’s Celsius reading, another sign that we were far from home.

Spring to Spring

It’s been five weeks of living under semi-quarantine. In my state we can make essential trips to places like the supermarket and go out for exercise. Contact between people from different households is to be limited to necessary activities like caregiving.

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and thought about how I danced in the street in Portugal last summer. A friend and I happened upon some people dancing to music in an outdoor plaza in Lisbon, and I was drawn in by the beckon of a lovely woman to join her for a few moments in the evening sun. It wasn’t a wistful thought, more of a “how lucky was I to have that experience.” Which led me to revisiting other travel moments in the past year:

Briskly walking at night in Montreal with a friend while she huddled over our takeout poutine to keep it warm until we reached our hotel.

Sharing a gyro sandwich from a food truck in chilly Washington, D.C. with my beau before we went back to our hotel to order dinner.

Taking photos of murals with family in hot Charlotte, North Carolina.

Lounging on an airbed in my sister’s new apartment in Massachusetts.

Camping for the first time with friends in Washington state.

Taking the tram in Portland, Oregon.

Walking a quiet woodsy path with a friend and her baby and dogs in Connecticut.

Standing under a waterfall with a friend in New York state.

Running through Epcot with a friend to catch a ride ten minutes before it closed.

And to think all those trips were done with different family and friends whom are near and dear to me, so to speak! Not to mention all the local outings with other friends (you know who you are). Now that most of us are apart, these experiences are all the richer as I dig into them.

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The Seattle Public Library

After lunch and conversation (about fundraising) at a café, my friend and I walked to the Central Library, which was designed by architect Rem Koolhaas and built in 2004. The library is part of The Seattle Public Library system.

What lines and angles.

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And waves.

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I’ve never seen a library like it.

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This wall seemed a bit prisonlike.

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What is a books spiral?

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My friend wanted to show me a weird red hallway.

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Even the bathroom, which I did not capture on proverbial film, was strange. When you stood up in a stall, you could see over the top. It felt very exposed—someone who walked up to the stall door could look right in at you. My friend explained to me that it was to prevent people from injecting drugs in the bathroom.

After I had taken in the architecture and my friend had found her books on Native American history in the Northwest, we perused in the gift shop (!) and then ventured back out, where it was raining. Our day out was on foot, and by the time we reached the supermarket, my feet were wet and I was ready to go back to her apartment. We had some food shopping to do first, though, for our camping trip the next day.

We gathered up our ingredients and snacks and trekked back to her place, where her little cat was waiting.

Seattle, Washington

On the heels of a trip to the South (literally the weekend after), I flew to Seattle and stayed with an American friend I had made in Paris. Seattle had been on my list for a long time, but I had not yet been there. In truth, I’m not sure that I knew much more than a snapshot in my head of Pike Place Market and that it was a city on the west coast that I had never traveled to. I think I also learned about the Seattle Public Library in my Intro to Architecture class my first semester of college, and the buildings I saw for the first time on slides in a dark classroom gave me the desire to one day see them in person.

I opted for Air Alaska after booking and then cancelling a United Airlines flight that I had not initially realized did not include a carry-on. Did you know that regular (non-budget) airlines are doing this now? At the time I did not, but I have certainly become aware that many airlines have this type of ticket. They call it “basic economy” or some other such name that should actually be called “less than basic economy.”

Standing outside the Seattle Airport, I saw that my friend had texted me that she would be picking me up in her “dirty silver pick-up truck.” She was indeed hard to miss. I like my friends.

We dropped off my belongings at her new apartment, then walked to Pike Place Market. It was much vaster than I had imagined. I had thought it would be a fish and produce market, but beyond that there were halls of little stands and shops. We stopped in a Native American store.

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Shepard Fairey murals always catch my eye.

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The gum wall was… unique.

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After a walk around the market, we went outside, where it was drizzling. Surprise… not. One of the items my friend had told me to bring was a rain jacket. I do not own a rain jacket, nor had it ever occurred to me to purchase one. However, apparently it is a Northwest staple, especially since they do not use umbrellas. My sister happened to have a rain jacket that I borrowed.

My willing tour guide took us past the original Starbucks, which I was more than happy to take a photo of instead of lining up to go inside.

I got good use out of that rain jacket.

Durham

Driving back up from Charlotte (yes, I am still writing about a trip that happened in spring—this is why I have a blog and not an Instagram), we stopped at Durham for a few hours at my request. The night before, I had quickly messaged my friend who is from Durham and asked for restaurant recommendations. One of her suggestions was a barbecue place.

There was hardly anything around the restaurant besides an ice cream shop; we definitely wouldn’t have found it just driving down the main street. Perfect.

The spacious restaurant was almost empty on an early Monday afternoon. As hoped for, portions were generous with multiple sides so we could try southern fixins’.

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Décor was blatant: pork comes from pig.

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One of the reasons I wanted to visit Durham was that a colleague told me she loves it. After lunch, we parked in what seemed to be downtown. It was very quiet. Thinking we might have missed something, we stopped in the tourist office, where we were greeted by a very friendly man. He was enthusiastic and cheerful. He recommended visiting the American Tobacco district, which was redone and included shopping. I asked what he’d recommend in an hour (poor guy). He directed us to the sculpture of the bull, symbol of Durham. I made note of directions, not wanting to get lost, and it turned out the bull was pretty much behind the tourist office.

Days later, back home, I asked my colleague what attracted her to Durham, and she said the restaurants and the breweries. Somehow I had translated that in my mind to a lively downtown. She, who is from the south, told me that it was a typical southern city.

On quiet Parrish Street there were some sculptures commemorating historic black-owned businesses, or what was known as “Black Wall Street” in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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A short drive away was a breathtaking gem—the Duke Gardens. Part of Duke University, it is free and open to the public (parking is paid). We could have spent a whole afternoon there, but we had to hit the road to drive up north, so my mom and I enjoyed a brief exploration of the gardens under the sun. I suppose drinking in a portion of those gardens is enough to last more than the standard walk.

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NoDa

My road trip with family in May this year had a destination: Charlotte, North Carolina.

In Charlotte it was hot, unlike back home 650 miles further north.

We spent a few hours in the arts district, NoDa. Our walk down the street was a visual feast, with murals, trompe l’oeil, and a lady selling hand knit bikini tops and purses. We saw a bachelorette party on a “Trolley Pub” (a new concept to us). Later, the same women showed up at the place where we had fish tacos, a popular restaurant with surfboards on the walls and a bit of a wait. During the meal, there were several bearded waiters that kept us guessing. What is that term—facial hair bias? After lunch, my mom chatted up the restaurant hostess, who gave us stickers with the establishment’s name and logo on it.

DSC03351DSC03352DSC03353DSC03354DSC03355DSC03356I didn’t know what this mural meant, but it made me stop and consider.

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Mosaic bench. Is this a southern thing?

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Charlottesville

In spring I was Charlottesville, Virginia for a few hours on the way to North Carolina. Those not familiar with that region (including myself) probably know it for the white supremacist rally in 2017 where one person died. Americans may remember learning in school that the city is historical and that presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe lived there. Southerners know that it is cute and charming; that’s what my friend who is from Florida told me when I asked where I should stop during my road trip with family, anyway.

The Downtown Mall, a pedestrian street, was indeed adorable. Only mid-May, it was a hot day in the south.

We had lunch, popped in and out of a few shops, and strolled down the street.

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This drugstore had a soda fountain in the back. Notice the mortar and pestle above the sign.

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This compact carousel was “operated” by a man manually pushing it! I was endlessly entertained.

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I loved this wall with the First Amendment etched into it. Words about freedom of speech overlaid with chalk writings and drawings by the public.

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I left a message too.

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Hello Again, Marseille

After just one full day in Paris, I took the train down to Marseille (I’d be back in Paris for the latter part of my France trip). I’ve been to Marseille a number of times, but there is, refreshingly, always something new to discover.

Like the nice man who struck up a conversation with me as I ate sweet, smushed wild strawberries while sitting on a ledge across from a café a ways down from the train station.

Like this giraffe.

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Like this church with Joan of Arc rising in front of it.

Like these whimsical umbrellas.

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Like this shopping street (yes, I deliberately timed my vacation to coincide with the biannual soldes).

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Like this view that reminded me of San Francisco.

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And a rediscovery of Le Vieux Port.

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And an exploration of its environs.

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And an intriguing alley.

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And a huge inflatable duck to ponder while perching myself on a cement block and waiting for my friend to pick me up. Trying to discreetly peer at every male driver with sunglasses to see if he was my ride. Hint: One cannot both be discreet and peer at the same time.

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Another discovery: My friend’s son, the kid I once bent down to to faire la bise, is now taller than me. His daughter, thankfully, had not lost the excitement she had for things like sitting next to me at dinner.

Taking Off the Rose-Colored Glasses

I arrived in Paris on a weekday afternoon. This time I was here on vacation, my first trip back after having moved my life and luggage out of the City of Lights.

Excuse me while I râle:

I was sorely disappointed by almost no one offering to help me with the suitcase I was clearly struggling with up and down the many metro staircases. So many able jeunes français passed me by. Only one man helped me, at the end of my trajet. And no, I did not have the closed off, unapproachable face we sometimes make on public transportation. I was sending out the open-faced, help me vibes of someone who hadn’t realized how difficult lugging around a suitcase and full hand carry would be.

It made me think: Should I have been surprised or not? I didn’t remember this from my previous years in Paris. On the other hand, I lived on the train line that went straight to the airport, so I only had to go down one escalator and never needed help. Second question: Were people in the NY subway any more helpful? Is that why I expected aid? Well, not necessarily—at home I offer to help people with big suitcases or strollers, but that is because I notice that often no one else around is making a move to offer assistance. And what is true is that we don’t notice whether people have a tendency to help if we don’t need it. It’s when we need it that we realize whether people offer it.

When I told friends who live in Paris about my experience in the metro, one said, What do you expect, that’s the way Parisians are! Another was more surprised and said that people offer to help her. I don’t know. To people who have called Parisians rude or cold, I have always insisted that they are not so bad. I still stand by my statement that there are some really nice, warm people there, but my defense of the general population will be less staunch next time. I was tempted to give them a second chance, but after my experience the first day, I unhesitatingly booked a SuperShuttle to the airport for my departure day from Paris.

On the people who volunteer to help:

That same day, after getting through the metro; rendering speechless the young man at Orange with my ability to speak French after he had gone on his spiel in English about their “holiday” phone plan (while his colleague who could tell I spoke French chuckled the whole time and finally burst out laughing when I responded in French); meeting the friend I was going to stay with outside his building and catching up in his apartment—after all that—I headed out into the early evening to the soup kitchen I used to volunteer at every week.

I had told one of the volunteers there that I was planning on coming, but I still surprised her by sneaking up on her and exclaiming, “Hello!” in English. She made all the fuss we make when seeing a friend after a long time, then asked about my trip over. I started telling her about it in French, to which she responded with a big smile that my accent “New Jersey” had come back since my time away. Gee, thanks! She is one of the warmest people of the group and a wonderful presence for both the volunteers and the people who come to eat, so I knew her ribbing was good-natured even though I think she was serious about my American accent being more pronounced than before (though I can’t explain that?? I still speak French daily in my current life!).

I did the ‘bise’ with the other volunteers, who greeted me in slightly wide-eyed recognition. I didn’t chat with them that much, save for a woman with whom I had kept in touch after moving to the States. I had always enjoyed the work itself; after the repas came the socializing.

I made a beeline to claim what used to be my usual post—the table with hot food. Donning one pair of latex gloves and sticking a pair in my back pocket for later, stacking plastic bowls, breaking open the packet of spoons, deciding with the volunteer next to me who would serve the protein and/or vegetable and who would serve the grain. Gladly letting her choose the bulgur because she wanted to avoid the smell and splash of fish sauce because it meant I didn’t have to say bulgur (there ain’t no persnickety French ‘r’s in poisson). Saying “Bonsoir” and smiling hundreds of times. Once in a while, telling someone who tried to cut the line that “Il faut faire la file d’attente.” Responding in English to the occasional immigrant who didn’t speak French. Directing people to where they could find soup and coffee. It felt like home.

After serving the food and picking up trash, there was always a lull before the nearby boulangerie’s unsold bread, pastries, and sandwiches were picked up and distributed. This was the time that I loved shooting the breeze with the people who came to eat. A main reason I had come was actually to see how one of the bénéficiares was doing. I sidled up next to a volunteer who was still serving cereal and asked her, “Where is he??” As I scanned the area and felt dismayed over missing him, she pointed him out. He had just arrived. Of course. I forgot that he usually showed up late, after the main meal had been served. It seemed like he came more to chat than to get food.

I greeted him, and we had an enthusiastic reunion. “How is California?” he exclaimed. I laughed. “Wrong coast.” No offense taken. In the beginning of our friendship, it had taken him weeks to remember my name, though he associated me with Mickey Mouse. He also asked me multiple weeks in a row if I was Chinese and then asked me if I knew anything about qi (he sure did). There were key identifiers that somehow took a long time to imprint on his brain, so I was tickled but not shocked that he had missed by a long shot where in the United States I had moved to. And yet, on this night, he asked, “Où est ton pantalon rose?” I was surprised. I had completely forgotten that I used to wear my pink pants a lot to the soup kitchen during a period of time.

What I did remember was that for the first weeks that I knew him, I assumed that he was from a foreign country because of his accent when speaking French. I was taken aback when I finally asked him where he from and he responded “Toulouse.” I guess I had never heard a toulousain accent before. And I remember periodically moving a few inches away from him while we talked because he was taller than me and my neck was strained from looking up at him, and not understanding why he kept moving closer, until one day I realized that his eyesight was very poor.

I remember never questioning why some days, his hair was disheveled and his clothes were scrappy, and then once or twice he came wearing a suit and his hair neatly tied back.

I clearly remember opening up about my own stresses while I was looking for a job and seeing him really thinking about how to help and suggesting ideas. For the first months we had known each other, I had let him do most of the talking because I figured that was what I was there for. To be a listening ear, not even about his problems, just about whatever he wanted to talk about—tai chi, how food is cooked, cultures, what was going on in the city, anything. He is a very smart person and often knew things that were new to me.

It was only when I started talking more about what was going on in my own life that I realized how good it felt to talk to someone who really cared and who would ruminate over how I might solve a problem I had. Where I didn’t feel like we had to move on from the topic because it was a downer, but that he was completely engaged in the conversation and came up with ideas specific to my situation.

I remember the last night I had volunteered there before moving back to the States. I spent longer than usual chatting with him after the other volunteers had moved on to the nearby bar we frequented every week. Then we parted and I was completely touched again as I arrived at the bar and the volunteer organizer presented the tarte aux pommes he had been waiting to take out, along with a thank you card for me.

You can see why I have a soft spot for the residents of Paris, who are human, after all.

Another person who greeted me warmly for my return was the long-haired, gentle Peruvian man who regularly came to eat. On my last day volunteering a couple of years ago, we somehow struck up a conversation for the first time after having seen each other for about a year. I told him that I was actually leaving France soon, and surprised by the timing, he said he was glad that he had talked to me then, that he had wanted to say hi for a while but somehow was timide to approach me (as someone who in some situations can be timide myself, I have never understood that someone might see me as in any way intimidating).

I’m not sure there is anything better in life than being embraced by good people. You can see why I fought back my travel fatigue to go dish up some fish and conversation.