It all started, as many mistakes do, with one too many glasses of wine. I found a tiny little cafe near my apartment that served very cheap glasses of Setúbal moscatel as well as a delicious plate of baked cheese with oregano. They had no problem with me bringing friends to meet me for a late afternoon vino, nor with my self-carried corn cakes to hold dripping strings of piping hot cheese.
I walked home with a skip in my step, marvelling at the winding alleyways and cobbled wonders, the buildings that were long abandoned but now coming back to life. I felt fortunate that a conference brought me here but my lifestyle enabled me to stay longer and explore.
Losing my socks in Lisbon
When I got back to the apartment, I realized that my laundry was not yet fully dry. In true Lisbon fashion, there is no dryer in the place. Instead, a clothing line runs across the width of the two windows, from kitchen to living room, housing the laundry as it dries. As spring moves into summer and storms come though, I’ve watched from my window as other buildings have set up amazing contraptions to protect their drying clothes from the rain. Long sheets of plastic propped up on thin sticks of wood to keep the water away or tiny awnings fashioned from tarps that are unfurled quickly as the rain starts to fall.
In my case, I had no fashioned rainjacket for my clothing line. But a perpetual traveller like me has less clothing than most inhabitants of Lisbon. Worst case I could just hang them indoors. Of all the clothing, I held my wool socks in highest esteem. Ever since I got dengue, my circulation has not been the same. I’m constantly cold, and my feet are almost permanently clad in wool.
Until they weren’t.
Giddy from the moscatel, my socks slipped out of my hands and fell down to the ditch below. Now, I live in an area of Lisbon full of teeny passageways and many of them are gated and abandoned. This includes the place where my socks now resided. Looking down I saw a plethora of clothespins and other detritus from similarly clumsy people, left there for eternity. But I couldn’t do that to my socks. Of all the packing suggestions I have on my travel resources page, my socks are highly prized.
I did what any human in an age of new media would do: I posted a mournful status on Facebook. “It’s all fun and games until you lose your wool socks.” My friends found this funny. My feet did not. And then I was whisked away to Estoril for the World Food Tourism Summit, with only one pair of socks in my possession. AND THEY WEREN’T EVEN WOOL.
Despite having cold feet — literally, not figuratively — the conference went well. I enjoyed my time in Estoril, I met many colleagues that I had previously only communicated with online and my speech seemed to go over as I had hoped. I talked about the importance of storytelling in culinary tourism as a way to get people deeply invested in the food and not merely ‘liking’ a photo on social media. I also cautioned that tourism boards ought to research well before working with bloggers to ensure a good fit of both communication style and audience. (If there is interest, I can do a separate post about the speech and the slides. Yes, there was soup featured in them.) And the organizers of the conference made me a great speaker’s gift: cookies with my face on them. So while I cannot eat them due to the gluten, I can actually tell people “you can eat my face” and mean it. Thanks guys!
Upon my return, I washed my sad and thin cotton socks and peered below at the bright green wool so far beneath me, dirty from many days of rain. Given that I cannot seem to find SmartWool socks here in Lisbon, I emailed my landlady asking after a key to the gate to retrieve them. Instead, she suggested I go see my neighbour.
Both of my neighbours look to be in their 80s. One gentleman is deaf and mostly blind, a huge lumbering man who spends his days at the window with giant earphones covering much of his head, peering out at the movement below. “He looks scary, but don’t worry – he is very kind,” my landlady told me when I moved in. She wasn’t mistaken. He now blows me kisses when I leave the house, waving at me upon my return. Across the hall from him is a lovely woman, also alone as her husband passed away years ago. “She has a tool for this,” my landlady assured me, “ask her.”
In my terrible mix of French and Spanish, I took her to my window and showed her my beloved socks below. Breaking into a smile she rushed back to her apartment and returned with the most intrepid of contraptions: a fishhook secured to a wooden stick, tied to twine, attached to an old electric cord, attached to another wooden plank that served as a handle.
Sadly the socks could not be retrieved.
The wind kept blowing the fish hooks to the wrong side of the divide, and I just about lost it trying to hold my 80-year-old neighbour in the window as she leaned so far out that I thought she would topple forward. I could see the headlines: Canadian kills wonderful elderly neighbour by forcing her to fish for socks.
My landlady, who had come by to fix the clothing line, tried her hand. Wrapping the handle around a broom for extra leverage, she pushed the cords outward and retrieved my wool socks for me in a matter of minutes. I would share a photo of them with you but they’re currently on my feet and I refuse to take them off. Laughing, she wrapped up the fishing hook contraption and told me of other tenants who had lost items in that same ditch. Towels, clothes, all needing to be fished from below my window.
I’m sharing this story because, like the prior one about food, it showcases two of many similar interactions in these early weeks in Portugal. Friendly neighbours excited to see someone new in their beloved Lisbon, and strangers who insist I experience as much of the city as I can. The other day, I went to a restaurant near my house and sat down waiting to order with a former colleague from my New York lawyering days who was in town. Almost immediately the elderly gentleman at the next table foisted a plate of grilled sausage at us. “Please,” he said “I cannot finish it — you must try!” Looking at him, at the sausage, and then at each other, we both said “yes!” and grabbed a piece. By the end of the meal, we shared our gargantuan plate of grilled meat with him, and toasted each other with glasses of wine.
I arrived on April 1st and I am already sad to be leaving at the end of the month. It is the first city in Europe where I think “I could spend a lot of time here.” With delicious fresh seafood, a long and fascinating culinary history, and incredibly warm people, it has been a true pleasure to discover Lisbon.
If only they had more noodle soup.
ps. Finally, my Portuguese food maps are complete and in the shop!
Hand-drawn map featuring all the delicious Portuguese foods you love, placed around the shape of the country itself. Check it out here! While a bit more complicated than my map for Vietnam, we did include the Azores and Madeira on the maps. I am currently using the tote bag for my food shopping.