Five Set Up A Restaurant

Our four-day stay in Lisbon has come to an end. We devoured our final pastéis breakfast in the hotel room as the café was already full. We checked out shortly before twelve and took our leave of Belém for the city. Now Portugal is racing by outside in a grey-green blur of clouds, cork-oaks and tarmac. We have our bolo-rei for the 5th (a large, ring-shaped cake for the celebration of the coming of the Three Wise Men), which is a nice change; I don’t think I’ve had a gateau-de-roix since primary school.

But that’s enough of that. Let me get to the meat of the article.

Lisbon isn’t the easiest place to find a good spot to eat at six o’clock on New Year’s Day (nowhere is, I guess, but it was our lot to be in Lisbon at that time on that day, and Lisbon, it must be said, has a lot more choice than Belém). Or at least, that’s what all the websites said. It turns out that most of that was fake news – a highly appropriate term, whoever coined it first – as there were a fair few establishments open for business. Unfortunately, the local cafés and bars were not among them. Seeking a semblance of affordable quality in the inner city, we took a side street and were instantly set upon by three jockeys, all hustling for our custom. Out of sheer boredom if nothing else, we settled for the woman in the puffy pink coat who asked us ‘just to look’ at the dodgy photograph of a grilled sea-bream she was thrusting before our noses. Typically you can get two results from such establishments: sleazy-greasy service, or a surprisingly satisfying meal. So we went for that one.

I’ll be honest. The food was decent. I’d have been a better judge if I didn’t have the cold of the century, reducing the capabilities of my already abysmal sense of smell to that of a clogged vacuum cleaner, but for a place that offers patatas with every dish and actually serves up potatoes instead of chips, I’ll give them a star for honesty. But it’s not the honesty for which you should visit. It’s the staff.

The staff of Restaurante Cadete are far and away the establishment’s USP. Why? Well, primarily because there’s absolutely no way of knowing that they work there. Everyone has their own look. On the outset they might all be the clientele, and it’s only when they jump you with a notepad that you realise they’re on the job. The lady in pink was Russian and her hustle style was practically Moroccan in its friendly push-push ‘just to look, just to look’ way. One waiter, a charming Asian lad in a striped jumper, delivered our order with a cheery, eloquent manner. Another waitress in a purple turtleneck sweater said not a word as she tidied away our meal. But the cream of the crop was the chirpy chappie dressed in a smart beige coat with white chinos, a blue tie and a small tuft of blond hair. He might have been Polish, or German, or something else, if not Portuguese. I honestly took him for a street performer as he stumbled over to take our order, given his whimsical charm and gauche dress. I haven’t ever seen a waiter bring the card machine and pretend it’s a phone before handing it over before, and I might not again. It seems childish but, at the end of a long day, it was immensely entertaining. Dinner and a show. What more could you ask for?

We never met the chef (one rarely does), though I’m willing to bet he was a character as well. For sheer personality, I’d give the place a 4/5.

Work starts again a week tomorrow. I wonder what adventures the new year will bring? BB x

Custard Resolutions

Three words for the new year: veganism isn’t likely. Not with a start like this.

Lisbon’s famous Pastéis de Belém didn’t fall short of expectations. The street-long queues we walked by yesterday were nowhere to be seen at five minutes past eight in the morning, and I was in there like a shot. It’s just as well our bedroom is literally a hundred metres from the Pastéis de Belém shop. It made that eight a.m. start all the easier. The Despacito alarm was off within four seconds (which, coincidentally, is a great choice for an alarm, since you grow to hate most alarms anyway). I’m normally shamefully bad at taking an interest at things that other people enthuse about, but Bella’s been burning my ear with this particular subject for a while now, and I’m not one to turn down a challenge. Not one that comes filled with warm custard, anyway.

It’s New Year’s Eve here in Lisbon. One and a half hours to go until midnight. The only sounds outside are the occasional early firework, the distant whine of sirens and the low hum of the underground every so often. The table in our hotel room on which I write is cluttered with a variety of treasures and trinkets to ring in the new year: a couple of Fringe flyers from our show this summer; a photo of my mother as an eleven year-old Brownie; my teaching pad; some choreography directions for my Marvin Gaye arrangement; Mary’s letter; my Word-of-the-Day cards (featuring chthonic, morganatic and vespertilian); and, of course, my blue-and-gold notebook, entering its second year. I wonder how much of it I’ll have managed to fill by this time next year?

How to sum up what has been a singularly significant year? I suppose the word All-Star wouldn’t be out of place. And no, I’m not talking about the Smash Mouth memes that were so rife at the start of the year. If my life were a series of films, 2017 was the one where they throw in a host of famous faces to revive a slump in the ratings. Biff turned up again and again like the lucky coin he has always been, from Durham and Edinburgh to Olvera and Ronda. Archie and Viresh appeared in Seville, and Tasha and Miguel were waiting for my return in the spring and in the autumn. I heard from dear Lucy and Emily at last. Mary came shining back into my life and made me smile with her kindness all through December. Collinson and Simmons were there in Scotland to fill me in on years of stories. Teddy and Mina were there at home to wave Maddy goodbye. And then there was that time I ran into Kate at Newcastle Central Station – twice – or the time Aisha drove me to Durham, or the last time any of us saw brave Emmanuel…

In those films filled with famous cameos, there tends to be a supporting cast of new faces, and the brightest of these isn’t always the one you suspect. Except, in this case, she was, and now I’m spending New Year’s Eve with a wonderful little lady who has brought so much light into my life for the best part of a year.

In life, you tend to find whatever it was you were looking for when you stop looking for it. Life’s funny like that. Alright, so it wasn’t exactly the philosophy by which the Portuguese explorers found the way to India, but if it’s a Lego brick, a form that needs signing, or even a loving partner, these things have a funny way of surprising you right when you throw your hands up in the air and throw a Samuel L. Jackson line.

2017 has been a fantastic year. The very best of years. It’ll be a tough one to top, that’s for sure. And the way things stand, who knows what the future holds? When 2017 dawned fresh from Trump’s election, a lot of folks thought the end times were nigh. I stand where I stood before, with some of the same suspicions. War will come, perhaps soon, and we won’t be all that ready when it does. But I’m confident that, whatever the next few months, or even years, will bring, the future will be bright. How can it not be, with so many bright lights shining in my life? That’s what I believe. Hope lies in the little things that people say and do. It just takes a little extra effort every day. I could do with putting in a little more of that, myself. And that’s as good a New Year’s Resolution as I’ve ever had.

All the best in the New Year, compañeros míos. I hope it’s as good to you as this year was to me. Boa sorte. BB x

BlaBlaCatastrophe

I think it’s safe to say I am now an expert on Renault cars. Clio, Laguna, Megane, Scenic, Captur… In the space of two hours, I’ve seen them all. All of them, in fact, except the Renault Laguna III Estate that’s supposed to be rescuing me from Aveiro, which has become little better than a Portuguese prison. A beautiful prison, but it is a prison nonetheless. 

Apologies for shamelessly nicking your line, Frollo

It’s coming up to half past three, Portuguese time. In another hour, I should have been in Salamanca, where a hostel bed is waiting for me. Unfortunately, when the town planners of Aveiro carved in the canals and built a shiny new train station, nobody thought it sensible to throw in a bus station. As such, the big city buses that ply the town appear to have their own agenda. The one I caught from Lisbon to get here dropped me off at the bus shelter beside the main canal, but the ALSA bus bound for Salamanca this morning didn’t use that one. Frankly I have no idea which one it used, as I never saw it. Not one to be caught off guard, I sprinted to the train station in five minutes to see if it had gone there instead, to be told it didn’t come that way either. By 11:15 it was too late. Either it had gone to an even more obscure location, or it hadn’t come at all. At any rate, I’d missed it. 

Sheepish? Brainless? Not even close

Enter BlaBlaCar. Ostensibly the cheapest, most reliable means of modern transport. Ostensibly.I found two journeys out of Aveiro for Salamanca, both priced at around £15… Less than half of the ludicrously-priced bus fare. In case neither of them show up, I’ve got my eye on the return bus to Lisbon at half past six. For safety’s sake I’ve booked a seat on both, as there’s only one seat remaining in both cases and I’d rather not miss out on Salamanca. Not when I’ve come this far! 

I suppose it’s not the worst place in the world to be stuck

Oh horrors. Both of these BlaBlaCar drivers have confirmed at exactly the same time. Since it’s less than twenty-four hours before departure, that’s at least £7.50 down the drain. Goddamit, Aveiro. Goddammit. (Aren’t these so much more fun to read when they’re in real time? Ed.)

Alright, it’s coming up to half past four now, and no sign of this elusive black Renault Laguna III Estate. Smeagol Woman, the goblin-like creature serving as the Hotel Molineiro parking attendant, keeps giving me evil looks. I guess it’s because I’ve been loitering here for about two hours now. I’ve already cancelled the later driver, so this one had better show up, or I really am screwed. Now I’m only blogging to take my mind of the time slipping through my fingers. I could always go back to Lisbon and spend another night in the top-notch Lisbon Central Hostel, but that’d be such a pitiful defeat…

You know what, screw this. It’s been nearly forty minutes since the expected arrival time. I’ll book anew with the later driver and we’ll see how things go from there.

<Jump forward an hour>

¡Santísima trinidad! I made it. BlaBlaCar number one came up trumps after all, and only just in time. Raiding the hostel WiFi from the outside wall (I’ve become a wily WiFi scrounger over the past few months), I got a message from Eduardo just as I was leaving for the train station to wait for the second BlaBlaCar driver. I say just… I was actually halfway there when it occurred to me to mark as ‘Read’ all the emails I’d loaded from that final WiFi spree, and as I got to the last I realised I’d been sent said message. Cue a mad dash across Aveiro back to the canal, where – there it is! A Renault Laguna III Estate! Only… That’s not my ride. It’s a woman at the wheel… But never fear! Smeagol Woman flagged me down and told me there was a guy looking for me. Thank you, Smeagol Woman. I’m sorry I judged you for staring. Sure enough, I’d gone a few yards down the road when a Seat León slowed to a halt in front of me and the driver called my name. Yeah, that’s right. A Seat León. Not that fabled Renault Laguna III Estate. Bloody hell, BlaBlaCar. 

 

 It was a pleasant journey with great company, which is more than I could have asked for after today’s long game with Fate. Or Murphy. Or whatever you want to call it. We almost ran out of petrol just across the Spanish border, with the car running on fumes, and the other passengers getting jittery. Much joder, hijo de puta and mecaón, and other expletives of that nature. But we made it. Take that, Murphy. I won’t be beaten that easily!

Safe and sound in Salamanca!

Well, I can’t complain anymore. I made it to Salamanca in the end, and I’m sat in a classy restaurant polishing off a café solo after a deliciously traditional conejo estofado and chocolate truffles. Success – of a sort. I feel bad for letting down BlaBlaCar driver number two, but if I’d waited any longer to use the hostel WiFi to warn him, I’d have missed BlaBlaCar number one; they were leaving when they saw me running.

Tomorrow is another day. But if today has taught me anything, it’s reinforced in me once again that you should never, ever give up. Ever. If you still have hope, you’ll always pull through somehow. That’s my creed. And look what ridiculous adventures it’s gotten me into! BB x

The Many Faces of Lisbon

For a city that’s only a few hundred miles from the Spanish border, Lisbon and its environs could hardly be less Spanish. I guess I naively went in expecting Portugal to be no more different from Spain than, say, Germany is to Austria, or England to Ireland. Once again, yours truly demonstrates his supreme capacity for some Langton-style bullshitting.

This is a very last-minute holiday, even by my standards. Bus tickets bought, hostels booked and maps drawn less than twenty four hours before departure. And this time I don’t even speak the language. Either I’m getting more confident or more careless. So far, so good, so I’ll assume the former.

Lisbon is really quite something. As capital cities go, it’s a treasure. It’s not too big or crowded so as to set a country bumpkin like me off, and it’s not too small so as to be lacking in life or things to do either. On the contrary, for its size, it’s positively crammed with interesting sights to see. And with the Lisbon Card on hand – a natty little device that gives you free access to all forms of public transport for one, two or three days – getting around the place couldn’t be easier. Heck, it’s even entertaining to ride the Metro just for the sake of it, with that kind of freedom.

It’s also a tantalizingly great location for one of my favourite hobbies: people-watching. Capital cities tend to have a wider racial mix than country backwaters, so this is something that never fails to amaze me, but Lisbon’s got a damned beautiful pot-pourris of ethnicities going on. West African immigrants, in all their multicoloured splendour, rub shoulders with Berbers from the Rif and the Portuguese themselves, who are surprisingly different from their Hispanic neighbours. Beetle-black eyes, lemon-gold skin and blonde hair are a lot more common here than the dusky Moorish beauty of the Spanish south. As in Extremadura, I find myself trying to imagine these people dressed in seventeenth century clothes, wandering the streets of a pre-earthquake Lisbon or setting foot on the shores of the New World and beyond in the Age of Discoveries.

Forgive me that splurge into racial obsession. I’ve always been hooked on the beauty of the various peoples of our world. For every shade except my own, in fact. A reverse racism in the truest sense of the word. Fortunately, I’ve since learned to love my own nation for all its flaws, recognizing my angst for what it was: angst, some dim leftover from when my ego was torn to shreds in the wake of my first relationship. The healing process sure has been long enough in the completion.

Lisbon, Benjamin. You’re supposed to be talking about Lisbon.

I took a train out of town to the former royal retreat of Sintra, up in the mountains above the city. Once again you’ll find yourself in a world away from picture-book Iberia: with all the pine forest-covered granite slopes and the pink and yellow spires of the Neuschwanstein-esque follies poking out of the trees like decorated Turkish delights,  you might as well be in Austria. That, and Portuguese sounds decidedly Eastern European with all those zh and sh sounds. The gigantic überfolly that is the Palacio de Pena, the last word in Romantic architectural orgasm, looked just too ridiculous to be true on arrival, so I settled instead for the Castelo dos Mouros, the old Moorish lookout sat astride the Boulder-strewn hill opposite. Sometimes it’s simply easier to stick to what you know.

Best moment of the day goes to my main reason for coming this far west: not for Lisbon per se, but the windswept cliffs of the Cabo da Roca, Europe’s most westerly point. The headland itself was crowded – it being a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon – so I wandered off in search of one of the cliff top trails. But for a couple of abandoned motorbikes, a young couple braving the steep, winding track down to the beach and a man piloting his camera-drone over the cape, I had the coast more or less to myself. It’s funny how most people rarely stray beyond the main sights, especially when the outskirts are almost always far more rewarding. See below if you don’t believe me.

  

Stunning. The sunset itself, salmon-pink and ablaze, was twice as beautiful again. The trouble is, it’s one thing to look on such beauty alone and quite another to have somebody to share it with. Here at the Cabo da Roca, as in Sintra, and on the train, and the Metro, and the banks of the Tagus, and every row but mine on the bus from Spain, I find myself looking out on a world of couples from my island. A decent half-hour’s meditation on the clifftop helped to doctor my heart a little, but it’s an unavoidable fact that humans are sociable creatures. We’re not supposed to be alone. Traveling is my primary means of fighting back against a world that rejects or friend-zones me at every turn, but it’s not supposed to be that way. So there, high on the cliffs, I contented myself with writing an imaginary letter from my princess to her lover. One day, if I should be so lucky, I’ll find the One who’ll hit the road with me. One day

Lisbon, Benjamin!

Shaking off the loneliness birds, I decided to investigate the famed brilliance of Lisbon nightlife. It’s definitely worth sampling, if you’re ever in the area. I suppose it’s no different than what you might find in London or Paris, but it blew me away. And let me tell you, after two and a half months of Reggaeton, it was a dream come true to have some Justin Timberlake, Uptown Funk and Notorious B.I.G blasting through the speakers. I ended up in a dance-off with a group of Guineans and it was insane. You know you’ve made it in dance when a black guy commends you on your moves. Box ticked.

Oh! But here’s a funny story for you. This ought to lighten the mood. You see, in a town the size of the one I live and work in, everybody knows everyone else, and the general atmosphere is overall more familial than friendly. And since I’m a rookie to city-hopping, I’m guilty of several major faux-pas, like putting my shoes on the bed and ignoring traffic lights. But tonight’s really takes the biscuit. I decided to take a side-alley detour back to my hostel and, in doing so, wound up in a rather seedy part of town; the outskirts of the clubbing district, in retrospect. I found myself alone in the street and thought it odd enough until two women came about the street corner (yes, you can kind of see where this is going.  I, funnily enough, couldn’t). They looked a little lost, and when one of them waved me over, I took my earphones out and asked what I could do to help. The answer I got was a husky ‘babe, you’re so beautiful’.

I don’t think I’ve ever run faster in my life.

The bus is pulling into Coimbra. Aveiro can’t be too far away now; another hour and a half, tops. I’ll close this report for now so that I have something to say in my next post. Até logo, morangos. BB x

Go West

For once, it’d probably be better if, whilst reading this, you’re not hearing my voice saying it to you – because my voice right now is wrecked, and you wouldn’t recognise the guy on the other end of the line if you could hear him.

I put that down to three things: three hours of choir practice (most of which spent singing at the top of my range as there are no tenors or basses here), two hours of conversation with Upper Sixth-level students and one hour of wrangling with one of my two very-almost-out-of-control primary classes. First and foremost, I blame Ariana Grande, but that primary lot don’t help much. Still, I got my first hug from my two favourite kids in that class today, which was heart-warming, to say the least. Tasha’s been getting hugs since the get-go, and I guess it’s normal procedure for the female auxiliares, but not for me. It made my day, anyway. When they’re not launching a full-on assault against my sanity, my will to live and my voice-box, it’s nice to know they see me as a human being.

I catch myself saying to myself almost constantly: remember the Iraqi kids, remember the screaming, remember the chair-throwing incident… It can’t possibly get any worse than that. I think that’s probably the right way to go about it.

In truth I’ve not got all that much to report at the moment. In a couple of days’ time I’ll hit the road as it’s the December puente (when a national holiday falls close enough to the weekend to create an extended weekend; literally, ‘bridge’). This year it’s only (!) a five-day weekend as the national holidays on the 7th and 8th fall on a Monday and Tuesday respectively, but that’s enough for a mini-adventure at least. I’ve been juggling several ideas over the last few months as to how best to use the time – surprising my friends in Cantabria, Morocco or Granada was the main plan – but it wasn’t until last weekend that I hit upon a decision, and my decision is PORTUGAL.

Yeah. I don’t speak any Portuguese.

It’s only occurred to me recently to take an interest in this nation that just so happens to be lying RIGHT ON MY DOORSTEP. No, seriously, it’s less than half an hour’s drive in the car if you just keep heading west. I suppose the main thing that stopped me going in the first place was that, quite simply, I know nothing about Portugal. I can read Portuguese almost as well as I can read Spanish, but understanding it spoken is… well, it might as well be Russian. The odd word might sound familiar, perhaps, but otherwise it’s a different language in its own right. And rightly so. But, just as Andrew and I decided in Kiev, the mere fact that I don’t speak the language shouldn’t be a barrier in the slightest to an adventurer like me, so… there we go. I’ve booked a couple of nights at a hostel in Lisbon, and I’m leaving it until I get there to decide whether the plan is to head south and check out the Algarve whilst it’s still tourist-free (a tempting prospect) or the gob-smackingly-beautiful north, peppered with unforgettable villages like Monsanto, Marvão and Piódão. It’s a tough call. As always, I’d rather leave that decision until the day. I’d feel better, that way. Come the day, I’ll know which way to go.

As for the Portuguese, well, I’m not going in completely unarmed. In Kiev all I could say was a feeble ‘спасибо’ (thank you). I’ll brush up as many little phrases as I can before I go, as a little always goes a long way, however badly you pronounce it. I’m told the Portuguese are a fascinating people; proud, polite, gaudy and brilliant linguists. My bachillerato class also seem to think that the women have moustaches, but I’ll be the judge of that.

With any luck, I’ll return doubly keen to pick up another language and add it to my belt. I was planning on making my next big language attempt in Zulu, but it is a bit of a jump… Perhaps it would be better if I worked my way towards Zulu, say, via Portuguese…?

Oh Monty Python. How I miss you. BB x