Want to get rid of these ads?

Reads: 279

(Travel Memoir)
 

One

1996

PORTUGAL

When Lisbon Conspired

Two oversized suitcases, a handbag, and a couple of worn leather totes sit in a tidy row beside a sleeping bag on the living room floor. The basement, which was filled with a lifetime of tchotchkes, is empty. The upstairs—the space of my rose-coloured sanctuary—is dismantled. Most of the furniture has been sold, and what is left is tucked and locked into storage bin #222. Even the keys to my glossy eggplant, prettiest-ever car are gone; a new owner has adopted her. All that remains in this two-story house are the suitcases I stare at on the floor.

I am at last alone, after a whirlwind of preparation, celebration, and farewells. My final guests, my parents, have reluctantly left me after a paralyzing phone call from afar. It was not easy for them to walk away, for an indeterminate amount of time, from a forlorn daughter about to fly off in a dumbfounded mess.

Our day-to-day lives typically flow with the minutiae of the known. There is the mundane and the comfortable; like the ratty robe that we wrap around ourselves to watch movies in, with a hot cup of tea from our favorite mug. There are our unvarying routines, our jobs, the people we know, and the places we frequent, which give us stability and a sense of certainty in an uncertain world.

And occasionally, there are the extraordinary moments when a life-altering fork in the road appears, when constancy vanishes underneath us and we are presented with an opportunity that excites us, stretches us far beyond the boundaries of our self-imposed restrictions, and scares the bejesus out of us. We have the freedom to choose, but we cannot know the long-term ramifications, or predict the final outcome of either decision, be it yay or nay.

Had I picked the road most traveled, this house would look the same as it did three months ago. My heartbeat would be steady and, at this moment, I would be asleep in my big brass bed, safely tucked under a thick, goose-down duvet. Monday morning, I would awaken to a flurry of faxes and phone calls in the small office upstairs, and then race off on a snowy road-trip for a week of intensive work. But that pathway may have led me to a deep gorge of regret, and a lifetime of what-ifs. I could not take that chance, ending up an old, disenchanted woman, retelling what might have been.

No one I know has done this before; I have no frame of reference. I am taking the fork to the far left, one that holds an exciting adventure fraught with potential peril. I have overcome my fears by nullifying them one by one. I am leaping without a net.

I crawl into my sleeping bag and toss restlessly, a barrage of questions battering my bewildered brain. I will leave tomorrow on a jet plane for the most unknown journey of my life. I do not know what awaits me, and I do not know when I will be back again.

June/Junho

Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.
Robert Frost

Obrigado,” I say, the only Portuguese word I know, as I pay the airport cabbie. I have arrived in Lisbon on a humid June evening, at a small corner hotel on a noisy street not far from the center. Today is a national holiday and celebrations are underway.

Portugal is my second solo sojourn overseas. After facing my mortality head on, I vowed to myself that I would be true to my biggest joie de vivre—travel—and do it as much as possible. Two years ago, on a trip to the Greek Isles with a friend who was in the middle of a marital crisis, I spent the third week alone, happily loitering on the whitewashed island of Mykonos, and then navigating smog-ridden Athens. Last year, I shored up my courage and conquered my fears of traveling alone for my next adventure. Spontaneously booking a flight, I hopped a plane, without a map or a raincoat, for my dream destination¾Italy. But that is an entirely different story.

Checking in, I drop my bags in the tiny room, and then venture out to investigate the festivities. Savory scents waft from under a sign that reads ‘Petiscos,’ and the bright colors blur, as butterflies twirl in my stomach in this large, foreign city.


Coming to Lisbon was a decision based on the playful inner debate of a newly single, red-blooded woman: go to France and meet amorously-famed Frenchmen, or return to Portugal to experience it from a vastly different angle, and possibly discover the world of swarthy Mediterranean men.

My honeymoon on the Portuguese Algarve and Spanish Costa del Sol, seven years ago, was a month of newly wedded bliss. My husband and I leisurely traveled up and down the coastline, and then traversed the mountainous cliffs of Spain, into Sevilla and Granada—wandering gypsies with nothing more to concern ourselves with than which bottle of red to crack, and what hotel would meet the requirements of our rigorous romancing. Such a sweet, delicious beginning, yet so short lived.

Portugal won out after perusing the book Wild Planet! I learned that the month I wanted to travel in would be festival time here.

  ~

The sun is setting on Avenida da Liberdade, a wide, tree-lined boulevard teeming with thousands of Lisboans. I am in a space of duality as I maneuver through the throng; half of me is brave-hearted adventuress, the other half quakes and questions my sanity for again crossing an ocean alone. I restlessly weave in and out of the crush to observe the events, but I am soon overcome with exhaustion from the long flight.

I fall asleep on the hard twin bed to dream about wild stallions running on the red cliffs of the Algarve, lulled into a deep slumber by the white noise of a warm European night.

 ~

My internal time clock askew, I awaken before dawn, eager to investigate Lisbon. With only one night booked in this over-priced hotel, I will search for another room in the heart of the city. Taking my breakfast and a frothy cappuccino on a vine-shaded terrace, I then wander the busy streets. I find a suitable room that is antiquated and stark, but larger than any of the others. Although I don’t need space, I like it. Retrieving my bags, I make my way back to the pensão near Rossio, the center of the action. The rotund owner is a cheery and welcoming man, and I feel that I am in safe hands.

Collapsing on the small bed, I find the room warmed by the unseasonably high temperature today. I daydream about what I shall do on this trip, my brain swinging from thought to thought. Slowly, my monkey mind settles into meditation. Relaxed, I drift into a blurry theta state.

Like a bud unfurling, an intense longing begins to push its way up my body and into my consciousness. Forming a prayer, I am cognizant of its power¾a force that can be generated only from fervent desire and clear intent, unified in a deeply contemplative state. I pray that I will meet a man¾not a typical holiday fling soon forgotten¾but a real romance.

A man who will rock my world.

Single again for just over two years, when my husband left the pain literally crippled me. Married only forty-two months, I loved him with every fiber of my being—and I know he loved me—but, for the sake of my sanity, I gave him an ultimatum: alcohol or me. Each week, as the deadline I’d set for a decision approached, I asked: “which will it be?” Each week the answer remained the same: “both.”

The morning after he left, I lay immobilized: I could not get out of bed. It was the oddest sensation—and wildly frightening. I assumed a disc issue had flared, but from what, I didn’t know. The chiropractor, who made an unprecedented house call, examined me, and then gently asked what was happening in my life. He listened and nodded.


 “I’m afraid you have hysterical paralysis. It appears to be from emotional shock.”

In that moment, my body had stopped for my broken heart. Now, here in Lisbon, I long for connection once again, and for what was stolen from me by the bitch-seductress, addiction.

Floating into a soft, euphoric nap, I awaken as the sun is setting. The pink light of dusk gives the shabby room a little forgiveness.

I shower, dress, and take paper and postcards down to the Baixa (By-sha), a colorful walking street filled with alluring shops, outdoor bars, and restaurants. At a busy bar, I purchase a half bottle of vinho tinto, and settle into writing under one of the many yellow and white striped umbrellas outside.

Scanning the café and Baixa, I consider whom I will first write to. Two men sit nearby, each alone. One is olive-skinned, attractive, and likely Portuguese. The other is a little older, early salt-and-pepper-flecked hair, lean, and lightly tanned. He too is handsome, and we lock eyes for a moment. Savoring a long sip of the wine and the buzz that is building, I begin my letters.

A glass later, I make direct eye contact with him again. Under the influence of the warm evening, the robust Douro wine, and this pretty street café, my body loosens. True to my sun sign, I live to be surrounded by all things foreign; these are the moments I impatiently await, and are quite possibly the only reason I get up for work every day.

The olive-skinned man adjusts his slackened tie, and gathers his briefcase and jacket to leave. Again, I catch Salt & Pepper’s eye. Poker-faced, I secretly summon. Ever the storyteller, I return to my writing, and become engrossed in a new missive to my friend Monique in Paris. Finishing the last of my wine, I look up.

He is gone.

The night is still young, but I am disappointed. I wanted to meet this man, and I should have done something—smiled encouragingly or said hello. Packing up my things, Ihead toward the room.

At the edge of the Baixa I stop. Left or right? Either will take me back to my pensão. Peculiarly, I contemplate this. Right it is.

The evening is muggy and the area is humming. An old man is busking, singing a soulful ballad, as a group hypnotically encircles him. I negotiate through a mob of both tourists and locals; momentarily, I freeze. I spot him over the masses. Salt-and-Pepper, oh so tall and striking, is walking toward me.

Say something.

He walks past me.

Say something! Anything!

I start to a light tap on my shoulder.

Parlez-vous français, mademoiselle?” he says with a smile that turns my insides upside down.

Un petit peu,” I smile back, and gesture ‘a little’ with my thumb and forefinger.

“Would you like to go for a drink?” he says, again in French, but I understand with clarity.

Oui. Mais oui,” I reply without hesitation.

Finding a noisy tent that has been set up as a makeshift bar for the multitude of festivals, we enter, lured by the revelry. Everyone here is Portuguese except us. We sit side-by-side and drink wine and listen to the music and my head swirls with the close proximity of this man.

Jean-François tells me that he speaks almost no English, but I couldn’t care one fig; the challenge excites me all the more. As we attempt to converse, I pull all of the dusty French files from the far corners of my memory. His big energy is palpable and intoxicates me more than the alcohol.

After an indeterminate amount of wine, we collude in a plan to find the castle. One can see it clearly from the street, but the path to get there is not as simple as it would seem. Following arrows made from red Christmas lights, we slowly work our way up, up, up the hill, laughing all the way. How can this be so difficult?

Eventually, we abort the plan, and he suggests we wait for another day.

Even though we are now far from my pensão, we leisurely wind our way back, breaching the language barrier with a bizarre ease, one reserved for the universal language of love between journeyers.

Asking my travel agent his thoughts on Lisbon before I left, his bland response was, “It’s just another big European city.” Walking through this medieval neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning, I beg to differ, finding its antiquity and intrigue endearing.

There are many flavors of kisses: the lip-curling, repulsive, you-will-never-kiss-me-again-as-long-as-we-both-shall-live kiss; the perfunctory good night kiss; the peck-on-the-cheek; the short, but sweet kiss; the desperate attack kiss; the tongue-darting lizard lick; the mmmm-I-want-more-of-that kiss—but as he says good-night at the doorway of my pensão, he gives me the mother of all kisses: the Grande Dame—the movie-moment kiss—angels dancing on my tongue, a waterfall of oxytocin washing over me, my knees deliciously weak.

I fall asleep knowing there is no way we will not see each other tomorrow.

 ~

Giddy, I awaken already excited for my dinner date this evening with le Français, Jean-François. Not much else electrifies me more than the first flush, the anticipation of what could be, of what might happen in the mysterious realm of lust and love. Coupled with foreign love, it gets no better.

First order of the day, I find a small bookstore and purchase a pocket-sized French-English dictionary. After a light breakfast in Rossio, I hop the train to check out the city’s beach. A weekday, the shoreline—a long, skinny strip of sand on the Tagus River—is active, but not busy. It is not the ocean, but still, it is a beach. It’s cooler today, and I lazily read, have lunch, meander, and read more.

Numerous couples engage in various forms of play and lovemaking at the park by the train stop. Uninhibited in their actions, I smile as I observe their ardent displays. I love their liberation. ‘Viva l’amor!’ my senses scream. My culture does not allow for this. ‘Get a room!’ is the common response to overt public displays of affection. We abhor physical passion that isn’t concealed and contained.

Anxious to get back to my room, I board the train to prepare for my date.

On time to the minute, Jean-François arrives with another of his beguiling smiles, defusing my normal defenses. He leans down to kiss each cheek, and smells like fresh soap and the forest. The scent of a man can instantly kill any interest or drive me wild. His is the latter.

We walk to a quaint downtown café he has chosen. I am neither small nor tall, but when a man can make me feel petite by his stature, it activates my all-girl self.

Too noisy to get his story last night, we fall into a deep conversation in this quiet café. He is an engineer who has worked two and a half decades for a large, worldwide company and is on contract with a national Portuguese corporation in Lisbon. He has been living here for three months, with one more month left in his term.

He orders in Portuguese: bacalhau for himself and for me, a traditional pork dish. Speaking fondly of his teenage son, he is going through what sounds like a drawn out and unpleasant divorce. It does not occur to me that one should not get too deeply involved with a man embroiled in nasty divorce proceedings. He loves to laugh, and is funny even with the dictionary in hand. Touching my arm frequently, his manner of speech is animated and passionate.

It is now that he tells me he had been halfway to his pensão last night when he decided that he must return to the Baixa to find me. He says he is thrilled that he saw me on the street and did not lose me in the crowds of Lisbon. From the Normandy region of France, his accent and French words seduce me beyond measure. The irony of finding a Frenchman in Portugal, after my great debate, does not escape me.

We return to the Baixa for drinks al fresco. A light wind blows tonight, and my dress swirls and curls around my legs. My hair flies in my face and he pulls it back, fingers brushing softly across my cheek. A shiver rushes down my spine with this most intimate of touches: a gentle caress on one’s face.

We talk and laugh into the night. Taking my hand, we begin to walk, and as we pass my street and onward to where I am sure he lives, there is no question in my mind, no hesitation. There is no need to discuss or ask.

Entering the darkened doorway of an old tenement building, we step into an antiquated cage-style elevator. His room faces onto a narrow courtyard with clothes drying on a multitude of crisscrossing lines. It is small, and cramped with his life of the past few months. His clothes, fresh from the launderer, are crisply folded and piled atop the armoire.

I sit on the edge of the bed and he leans down to kiss me, pressing into my body as I fall back. His kisses are firm, and his mouth tastes ever so slightly of the tiramisu we shared earlier. He slips off my dress with one move, his hands squeezing curves. Desire permeates every cell in my body, tickling each follicle. I lay breathless.

As his arms envelop me, I command time to stop. I want to lock into this mellifluous moment forever. Not knowing if it exists, or if it is only a figment of the collective imagination, this is the feeling I have yearned for and imagined many times. His kisses continue on in a sweet stretch, and to my surprise, it does exist.

Unhurried, his lovemaking is exquisite, true to the reputation of his countrymen. He kisses my forehead, my eyes, my cheeks, and the corners of my mouth, and then slowly down my body. Large hands explore, and mine are woven into his hair. His fingers tease the lines of my legs, and his lips move down my body, creating a red ripple of ache and delight.

Surrendered, I am as soft as a bed of down. The fragrant lavender on the bedside table further coaxes me to succumb, wholly, completely. I cling, his body sinking into mine. He is my familiar.

Gripping my hands, he holds them at my sides, pressing tightly. Tears sting my eyes, slowly rolling from my temples and dotting the pillow.

Sacred sweetness.

With French words tickling my ears, and feathery kisses teasing at my neck, my body undulates, repeatedly, following his deep rhythm, drinking in his intensity. I almost dissolve and disappear in the denouement.

He captures something inside of me, something that until now has not been bound or taken. This unrecognizable sensation feels strange—even outlandish—yet I have the unmistakable knowing that something has altered within, profoundly, swiftly.

I fall asleep with strong arms wrapped around me for the entirety of the night, the soothing sounds of Lisbon in the distance.

 ~

Awakened from liquid dreams to the hazy honey of early morning faire l’amour, there is no trace of awkwardness between us.

I find that my dress has been neatly hung, although when I do not know. I will be mildly presentable for my walk back to the pensão.

After his shower, Jean-François invites me to join him at a nearby café he visits each morning before work. He looks squeaky clean and refreshed. We pass a tiny desk in the dim hallway, and a smiling, motherly landlady pops out from a doorway, insistent on meeting me. Although this short conversation is in French and Portuguese, it is clear that she is pleased for Jean-François to have found a woman, and I can see that she has adopted him as one of her own.

The noisy pâtisserie has standing-room-only at the bar, typical for a busy European weekday. Jean-François orders a double espresso and two pains au chocolat, and I my daily cappuccino. The baker pulls a fragrant tray of freshly baked pastries from an oven directly in front of us. As I bite into my croissant, the chocolate still hot and velvety and running down my fingers, I cannot know that this is a moment I will never forget, and one I will seek to relive, to re-taste.

He draws me a map of the way back to Rossio on a small blue napkin, and I leave him only after he boards the bus. Passing businessmen in tailored suits and starched white shirts, I observe the workaday life of the Lisboans from my wistful world, a million miles away from my everyday life—energized by the tender night, twitterpated by the possibility of love, and high on travel. On the way, I plan for a daytrip to Sintra by train today.

The owner is picking up scattered leaves and sweeping the front stoop when I arrive at my pensão. Scratching at his heavy moustache, he smiles, and comments approvingly on the notion that I have already been out for an early morning walk.

 ~

Sintra is a mystical place, with castles tucked into thickly treed, hilly expanses. Palácio da Monserrate was the summer residence of the kings of Portugal, built before the by Moorish royalty. This is a place of unexpected beauty.

The train stops in the town of Canto. Narrow cobblestone lanes are decorated with brightly colored streamers that hang from streetlamps, remnants of a recent festival. It is like arriving on the page of a fairytale.

Old women fill glass jugs at a blue-tiled, Moorish fountain, so I take advantage and top up my large bottle for the walk. The water is sweet and cold, just as it was from the Italian aqueduct-fed fountains in Rome. The palace is an hour’s climb, and I begin to walk to Monserrate, allegedly the most romantic sight in all of Portugal. It will suit my licentious mood.

Winding my way up the quiet, ancient road in reverie, a car approaches and slows. Men yell out what I can only assume are Portuguese catcalls. At their piercing whistles, I turn. Three young men perched out of the windows whoop and holler and make macho noises. Maneuvering the car within inches of me, one reaches out with a big smile to slap my ass. I scream out profanities in surprise. And mortification. From Venice to Capri, I escaped Italy without a single of the famed Italian pinches or slaps, and now, on a back road in Portugal, I am ambushed. Laughing, they speed off around a sharp curve. With my dignity bruised, I approach an old, majestic house and pull out my camera to take a photo, and to rest. Cooling off, a few minutes later I laugh at this little stunt.

Dillydallying my way through the magical landscape, I half expect a wizard to jump out of the trees. As I drift from one thought to the next, I wonder if Jean-François has noticed my scars.

When I was a small girl, my auntie Simone died slowly and painfully. I vividly recall the five-hour road trips to see her. The smell of the hospital spoke of decay and death. She lay in bed, weak, her skin pallid, her red hair fuzzy and splayed on the pillow. Subsequently, my father would receive emergency calls asking him to come quickly, the doctors warning that she was close to death. She was dying from breast cancer.

She was a nun who bore two children after leaving the convent for marriage and a secular life. Our secret emotional lives can bear the fruit of catastrophic destruction. After the indoctrination of a strict, masochistic order, I suspect shame and guilt played a part in the cancerous tumor that slowly and voraciously attacked her femininity and sexuality, ultimately killing her.

A child already overwhelmed by a problematic home life, the horror of seeing my aunt in this condition, solidified the belief that breast cancer was a vicious monster and unquestionably the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone.

At twenty-nine years of age, I got it.

I have always been my own harshest critic, but I love my breasts. They were (and are) lovely and give me much pleasure. Although young and in a state of shock, I had the foresight to sit with the surgeon and outline my needs and concerns. I reminded him of my age and told him to take the utmost care, both cosmetically, and in regard to nerves and sensation with the lumpectomy. In handwriting squeezed between the narrow lines, I stipulated on my consent form that under no circumstances was he to proceed with anything resembling a mastectomy. I went so far as to request that in the operating room there would be no talk of gloom.

Aside from aesthetics and pleasure, breasts represent feminine strength, and hold deep importance to me. They are an intricate part of the female body’s complex meridian and energy system, and I do not believe they should be removed unnecessarily. The surgeon was brilliant and empathetic, and did as I asked. Even though I am not thrilled to have a deep gash in my armpit, and a scar on my breast, with lost fullness, it is becoming less apparent as time goes on. I am aware that many women willingly lop off their breasts at the slightest hint of cancer, but I was more afraid of the loss of my wholeness than I was of death.

I am six years from my ordeal, still wary of my mortality.

Should I tell him? Will I scare him away?

Still newlyweds when we got the news, my husband was frightened and unsure of what to do, what to say, what to feel.

I am not so concerned with ugliness; what I wonder is how this man may feel getting involved with a woman who could die young.

I shake myself back to the moment and my lush surroundings. The panoramic view from where I sit is spectacular, and it’s obvious why English poets were enamored by this place. Around another curve, I see the little white car approaching with the three young men inside. They slow the car again and all have reproachful looks on their faces as they pull up and stop.

“We are sorry. We just have fun. Really. We so sorry. No harm?”

They are adorably Portuguese-cute, and all three smile, begging forgiveness, their hands up in mock prayer. I can’t help but smile and say yes, forgiven, no harm. 

Walking for hours up and down the hilly road, I lose track of time. Eventually, I snap out of my trance to realize I have found no palace. At a house on the side of the road, strangers call a taxi for a ride back to the station, shaking their heads in disbelief that I have walked this far. The town is definitely not within walking distance; I don’t know if I am even on the road to Monserrate anymore.

Exhausted, I drift into a dreamy and delicious nap with the rocking of the train, headed back to a French kiss in Lisbon.

 ~

The night I met Jean-François, I told him I came to Portugal because of the festivals. He has now made it his objective to ensure that I get to experience them. I feel truly taken care of as someone of great value, maybe for the first time in my life.

Giggling our way down the streets, Jean-François carries my knapsack. I have never laughed this much with anyone, and my body hums from the effects.

Deep in the Alfama, we find a sizeable neighborhood festival. A massive barbeque is neatly lined with aromatic meats, and we squeeze into a spot amongst the cramped tables with a good vantage point for people watching. We eat charred barbequed chicken and salad between kisses.

A band plays in the square and people of all ages dance together. At the obelisk, we sit amongst the dancers. I must join in, trying to coax Jean-François.

 “Mais non! I am a ridiculous dancer.”

While I tug on his arm and plead with him, an old man takes my hand. Joy bubbles and spills. I am happy to be here in this foreign city, dancing with this weathered, smiling Portuguese man, eating chicken and drinking sweet sangria, exploring Lisboa with this Frenchman, all in a quixotic haze.

Walking through the Barrio Alto, Jean-François explains points of interest and informs me of the history of the devastating earthquake of 1755. The quake struck on the morning of All Saints’ Day while most of the city was at mass. I ponder how many Lisboans faith’s were tested, or lost, to have so many die while in worship. The streets are steep, so we stop to rest near a funicular railway.

We saunter our way back to his small room, but I want to run. Anticipation grows with each step; I can’t wait to get to his bed. At last, we arrive on his inky, unlit street, and he fumbles at the entrance with the ancient key. Against the wall of the creaking elevator he presses into me with deep kisses.

Oh. My. God.

His hands move up and down my body, commandingly. He laughs as he picks me up, throws the door open, and places me on his bed. I am ripe fruit on cool sheets. I am his.  

I have always had a predilection for men with wide shoulders, and strong chests, and have a bent for visual piquancy. Initially, I was surprised by his long, straight physique, but his manner and his being has shifted my paradigm; all of him intensely turns me on. Nuzzling into his neck, I breathe in his scent. We are hungry to explore each other, new lovers in the delectable dawn of discovery.

My senses wildly heightened, he need not do much for my pleasure. But he does. I am swept away in a crest of pheromones; my mind and body in rapture—a word I never understood before, but now do—now that I am being taken wholly, willingly.

My mind is deliriously empty. I don’t know what day it is, and I don’t care about tomorrow. If time exists, I cannot feel it. I have never been more in the moment than at this moment. 

 ~

Arriving at my pensão disheveled, and a little later than normal this morning, the owner realizes I have been away all night, and gives me a disapproving grimace. I am no longer in his good graces.

I strip, tossing my clothes to the floor and fall back into bed, unused to the early mornings and late nights.

Midday, I eat a lusciously fresh Portuguese meal in the Baixa, and afterwards stretch out in a park to read. The heat is bearable in the shade, and the birds busily twitter above in the magnificent oak tree, connecting me to the pulse of the Earth.

Lisbon graces me with a slow, sensuous day, while seedlings begin to stir in the soil of my heart.

 ~

Jean-François arrives at my pensão this evening with a grin, excited. He has researched the fêtes in Lisbon, and on a side street we find the large square in the Alfama with a grand festival in full swing. The evening is humid and still sweltering hot, and women sit with fans aflutter in an attempt to cool themselves.

 A stocky woman in an impeccable white suit marches across the cobblestone square with a tiny, ladylike girlfriend in tow, trying to catch my eye.

Jean-François fetches us a drink, and we situate ourselves on a set of steps, leaning on the rail to watch the activities. The white-suited woman spots me again and locks eyes on me. Catching on to her partner’s interest, a mild panic washes across her girlfriend’s face. Given that I am clearly here with a man, her interest is comical.

French words from my childhood pop into my head at opportune moments, surprising me. On our family visits, my French grandfather whom, to my seven-year-old eyes, looked like a wizened turtle, walked me to the cheese factory near his home. Hand-in-hand, we would saunter ever so slowly, and he would mutter foreign words to me. His horrid wife, Step grand-mère—the Wicked Witch of Winnipeg—made the grandchildren speak only French in her presence, and I am oddly grateful to her at this moment.

Jean-François asks if I am concerned about our age difference. To my mind, age is determined by the essence and energy of a person. I have known people who are biologically thirty, yet exude the air of a person many decades older. I know my energy is younger than my thirty-five years, and this is what concerns him, but the eight years between us is as insignificant as dust in the wind.

The castle looms over this ancient section of the city, making the evening more dream-like. The cultural blend and integration of the inhabitants creates an exotic atmosphere. With Brazilian, Latin, and African influences from the former Portuguese colonies, I am moved by the cadence and archaic soul of the music. My body involuntarily sways to each new rhythm, and I close my eyes to breathe in the antiquity of my surroundings.

White Suit has been attempting to get my attention, and decides to make her grand gesture. A Fado is now playing, and she begins to dance with sweeping movements as dramatic as the mournful strains of the song. A handsome woman, and rather self-possessed, she watches me to make sure I am watching her.  

Emboldened, she dances near us, all the while fixed on me, confusing her skittish girlfriend. Jean-François at last notices her efforts, and looks at me with eyebrows cocked. He is amused, but confounded about what she thinks she will achieve with this attempted seduction.

As the fiesta winds down, we leave, hands intertwined, relishing the quietude that has enveloped the Alfama. I am glad I have brought all of my pretty dresses. I feel free—liberated to be myself completely, to let my feminine persona run wild. The masculine self of my workaday life has vanished like an unwanted ghost in the midnight mist that has appeared on these steep streets.

How is it that, with a stranger, we can find instant intimacy and ease, yet with another it can be months, or even years, and we do not ever attain it, forever a mild trace of inhibition or awkwardness lurking in the shadows? Somewhere, there must be an explanation in the quantum physics of life’s matrix. Possibly it is the weaving of lifetimes together. Have I known him intimately in another time? I prefer to think we don’t have to come back to this heavily and harshly lessoned planet, but I have seen too much evidence to the contrary.

We kiss and touch as though we have known each other for infinity. A sense of warm comfort and easy familiarity exists between us. Inside me, a voice that was hanging in a void says, finally, I have found you. I knew you were here amongst these strangers.

Like a woman on an Arthurian quest, I feel that I have found my Grail.

 ~

It is the weekend and we have plans for our first beach day together. I sit on Jean-François’ lap as we wait for the train, feeling both rebellious and emancipated to be able to do so without a trace of disapproval from anyone here. I am caught up in the amorousness of the city and, when in Lisbon, I am tickled to do as the Lisboans do.

 I ask Jean-François about France. His culture is far more demonstrative than mine, but I am curious to know if the public displays of affection are as overt and plentiful as here, especially what I observe in the parks.

 “Non,” he says, “definitely we kiss and embrace everywhere, but it is even more prevalent here.”

We concur that we are lucky to meet here. Having caught Lisbon’s libidinous bug, I am now conscious of how stifled I am by my own culture, and how much I adore touch, anywhere.

It is a challenge to find even a tiny square of sand on the crowded beach, but eventually we squeeze in between two families. Jean-François refuses sunscreen, unconcerned that he is already lightly sunburned. I, on the other hand, ask him to slather my white skin in lotion. Lingering over each inch of bare skin, he massages the warm cream into my body. The sun and the sand are already an aphrodisiac; this sensuous contact nudges me into a bliss-soaked state.

After a period of contented silence, I sit up to take in the scene. Everyone in Lisbon must be out today enjoying the weather. Previously, while investigating the city, I have noticed the loveliness of the Lisboan girls but, here on the beach, as I watch these nubile beauties stride by with long, brown legs and ripe, full breasts, I begin to feel intimidated. I am an average Canadian woman. I now have scars on my body, and have always had a small ‘Boyton belly’ (my mother's side), no matter my weight. I have yearned for pin-like arms and an hourglass waistline. 

The European lifestyle of walking everywhere, especially up all of these mountainous streets, keeps these women in shape in a natural way that puts to shame the artificiality of the gym-obsessed with their desperate, hungry look. There are no hard lines to these women’s bodies, only a curvy smoothness that is at once firm and soft. Brushing sand off my conspicuously white legs, I wonder why this romantic, attractive Frenchman has chosen me over this profusion of luscious Latina-ness.

Suddenly, he takes my face in his hands.

Non!” he pronounces.

“What?” I ask, startled.

“Don’t think such thoughts. These girls have nothing of interest to me. You are a beautiful woman, and I want you.”

I am shocked by my transparency, but his determined kiss dissolves my doubt. Relaxing into the safe shelter of his growing devotion, I float in and out of a sun induced-slumber.

 ~

A French couple with a young child is seated next to us at a popular, old world restaurant in el centro tonight. As is the norm here, the tables are in tight proximity. Jean-François greets them with a smile. Later, the fidgety little girl gets up to play, bored with the confinement.

Mon Dieu! She is so pretty,” Jean-François says as he places a hand under her chin. I freeze. Grasping both of her small hands in his, he affectionately talks to her. His face reveals sincerity and a love of children. She lights up with the focus of his attention. It is moving to watch, but I tensely await the parents’ response, expecting them to pull her away from him any moment. Studying their faces, my shoulders release in relief; they are beaming with pride.

Ah, yes … I have forgotten—I am in Europe, where people still touch and do not live in a perpetual state of suspicion that every stranger is a pervert seeking to harm their children. It is a moment of human contact at its finest, and I am disheartened to realize that I live in a place where this type of caring encounter is now extinct. How it must sadden kind old men.

Our meals arrive and Jean-François’ tenderness is now directed toward me. He feeds me savory bites of grilled fish and herbed potatoes. Everything in this country tastes just picked or freshly caught. The food is simple, yet divine. We sip local wine and he entertains me with funny stories, while I search my pocket dictionary for words that elude me. Like the little girl, I feel myself glow under his undivided attention.

Attempting discretion, two women on the other side of our table have been keenly observing us since they arrived. Anonymity allows me to act as I wish, and I wish to act like a love-struck teenager, in spite of their watchful eyes.

They get up to leave and, unable to resist, they walk over to me.

“Excuse us, but we have to ask … wherever did you find him?”

I laugh loudly.

Jean-François looks confused, and I attempt a poor translation. They tell me they are Air Canada flight attendants on a three-day visit to Lisbon. They say they have been observing us and are fascinated; they feel like they have been watching a fabulous romance movie. Once they realize he doesn’t understand them, they gush on.

“He’s so charming. My God.”

“And handsome! We’d love to find such a man in our travels. And he’s clearly smitten with you.”

They leave, telling me I am a very lucky girl.

And I am.

 ~

High waves crash the coastline on this windy day. Jean-François has rented a car to take me on a daytrip. His impeccable periwinkle shirt draws the blue out of his eyes today. While he drives, I run my fingers through his hair. I am entranced by the thick waves and salt and pepper richness of it. He speaks, and I kiss his cheek. I graze gentle kisses across his ear and down his neck.

Mon Dieu,” he groans, pulling the car onto a small side road.

Placing a hand under my chin, he kisses me. We embrace tightly for a long while.

Je t’aime,” he whispers.

My heart skips ten thousand beats.

My head swirls as we drive off toward the small town he has chosen to go to. He has just told me he loves me. I know it’s as mad as a March hare. The swiftness of us is surreal, yet as real as anything.

With an equal penchant for play, we sneak into yards to admire gardens, and sip lattes on street patio cafés. We splash at the ocean’s edge and pick shells. It seems like a long time since I had a partner in crime.

Somewhat exhausted by the constant translating in my mind—it takes serious concentration to communicate, but it is an adventure—I delight in the feel of a foreign language on my lips, and the creation of new pathways in my brain. I thrive on learning. This is the language of my ancestors, and I feel a much deeper affinity for my French roots than for my British.

Also, this man has an intensity that burns brightly and requires alertness and energy. Born under the sign of the lion, he has the presence of the king of the jungle. He is self-assured and has many clear-cut opinions about all aspects of life, from the choice of a small, inexpensive gift, to the Revolution’s impact on French culture. His mind is analytical and logical¾an engineer’s mind. He appears perplexed by my cryptic creativity and esoteric ideas.

I have two distinct sides: the type A, perfectionist, business persona built through years of mal-adaptation, out of a necessity to make money; and then the artistic, nomadic, wild woman. On my sojourns, I allow my gypsy girl to take over and run free. She is my truest self; the one who longs to escape forever, free from the confines of societal indoctrination, and the rules of the corporati. With the heart of a wanderer, she is too outrageous for her motherland. Secretly, I call her Jacqueline, the name that I learned my mother had chosen for me, the one derailed by my father due to its ‘French-ness’—apparently not a good thing in the year I was born.

Even with my plentiful energy and perpetual curiosity, this man is igniting dormant places and awakening unused parts of my psyche. My body is becoming an untamed tropical garden, teeming with fragrant flowers that are unfurling with dizzying rapidity, lush with ripe fruit dripping sweetness, undulating like the velveteen wings of a hundred thousand monarchs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Submitted: April 12, 2019

© Copyright 2022 WandaSt.Hilaire. All rights reserved.

Chapters

Add Your Comments:


Facebook Comments

Other Content by WandaSt.Hilaire

Add picture

Paste the link to picture in the entry below:

— or —

Drag a picture from your file manager into this box,
or click to select.

Add video

Paste the link to Youtube video in the following entry:

Existing Comments:
Bad selection

Cannot annotate a non-flat selection. Make sure your selection starts and ends within the same node.

(example of bad selection): This is bold text and this is normal text.
(example of good selection): This is bold text and this is normal text.
Bad selection

An annotation cannot contain another annotation.

Anonymous
Really delete this comment?
avatar
Anonymous
Really delete this comment?
avatar

There was an error uploading your file.


    
avatar
Anonymous