On the train from Porto, Portugal, up the Douro River Valley, a woman in her 60s sat across from us, holding a dumpling of a child, stuffed plump with her grandmother’s love (and cooking?). The baby had full, flushed cheeks and squat little legs that poured out of her leather booties. The grandmother cooed as she spoke in soft, splashing Portuguese, explaining how this was a river made of water, and there were fish down below that we couldn’t see—but that we could catch and eat them. She plucked an imaginary fish from the water and the child bunched up her doughy face. It was such a joy to watch these two together—the older woman enlivened by her little restless bundle.
The Douro Valley is narrow, with rusk, amber, sable, and rosy gold vineyards quilted over the steep river banks. White villages huddle on the hillsides. The river is sleepy and reflects the fall colors.
Now we sit at a little café by the water in the tiny town of Pinhão. Old men make bold statements by the bar, as I think old men do everywhere. The downward stripes of weeping willow branches contrast with the horizontal lines of the grape vines. I’m slowly drinking a glass of caramel-colored port.
Porto has been such a wonderful surprise. It’s one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever visited. Cathedrals stick up their spires to test the ripeness of the horizon, and buildings decorated with painted tiles tumble and crumble down to the water. An arched bridge designed by Eiffel (of the Eiffel Tower) connects the city to a town on the other side where Port wineries serve samples of sweet, sippable nectar.
We walked up and down Porto yesterday, to the top of the tallest cathedral spire down to the river, where tourist restaurants catcall to visitors. The day before we ate at a local lunch spot where we had to wait in line for a seat. Three women, two young and one older (the cook), hustled to run the place. Plates of cod, still in fins and scales, and thinly pounded lemon chicken breasts were offered. The fish was sold out (finito!) by the time we sat down, so we got the chicken, served with saffron rice and peas, and vinegary shredded carrot. It was delicious, consumed with two local Superbock beers, and for dessert, sponge cake swirled with chocolate pudding.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe I’m here, and then for me to believe I’m not here all of the time! I already miss it, and I’m still here.
We are now in Barcelona, making our way south to Africa using cheap EasyJet and Ryanair flights. In Barcelona, we went to Casa Batlló, a house built by modernist architect Antoni Gaudí between 1904 and 1906. The design was full of curves, swirls, and allusions to the ocean. The walls undulated and sea urchin chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The rooftop was made of iridescent fish scales. It was a wonderful work of whimsy that made me want to draw in colored pencils and write poetry. While I was there I thought, This is the kind of life I want to live--a free, non-linear, curvy, and creative kind of existence. The rules I follow are my own. A Gaudí kind of life. I told Mike this and he said, "You do!" This made me supremely happy.
Members of the Lord Mayor's entourage. Photo by Michael Vance.
“Why is the London mayor the last in his parade? Because he’s been tipping back the glass, that’s why! Had a bit too many!” An elderly Englishman with ruddy cheeks and a green felt hat told me this while Mike and I watched the Lord Mayor’s Show today in London. The event, which includes a parade of members of the military branches and many flashy floats, commemorates the 800-year-old tradition of the city’s mayor traveling from the Mansion House to the Royal Courts of Justice to pledge loyalty to the Queen. But the best part of the show was the commentary by the Londoners standing directly in front of us. “When the mayor waves, he kind of…” and the Man in the Green Hat swayed back and forth, imitating a drunken salute.
Tonight we also walked through Covent Gardens and Piccadilly Circus, which were swirling with thousands of people. Lights were strung above the streets, theatre billboards flashed, and bright red double-decker buses whooshed by. In bustling places like these, I feel my smallness in the world. I am one of 7 billion. The history that advertises itself on the face of all the city’s ancient buildings reminds me that millions have walked these streets before me. This realization is both humbling and freeing. My world that seemed so important in California is just a tiny bubble. Popped.
Another London moment that made me smile: Drinking a pint of Oscar Wilde ale (the reigning champion of British beers) in a noisy pub called the Harp in the West End. In the U.S., do we have any Hemingway hefeweizens, Steinbeck pale ales, or Fitzgerald IPAs? Bless the British for loving writers so much.