The People Post

The People Post

New to blogging, I’ve neglected to take photos of the many wonderful and often helpful people I’ve met here in Portugal. But I have words. Here are a few.

Early on, when I asked a taxi driver in Porto why there were so few dogs, he offered to show me areas outside the city conducive to dog-keeping next time I’m in his cty. “All green!” he said. “Big dogs! German Shepherds! Do you have a German Shepherd?” No, but a big one. “Bring her!”

Here in Coimbra, I found myself beside a woman heading down a steep alley. Unsure I was headed in the right way — the path ahead looked like a dead end — and not wanting to have to climb back up for nothing, I asked her whether it was the way to the Old Cathedral. She turned out to be a professor of medieval history at the University, and so filled me in on the remarkable history of the 12th century fortress on our breathless — there is no other way — descent.

At one point, she glanced at my shoes, worried I hadn’t come prepared. I had: rubber soles. When I suggested  the walk kept her healthy, she laughed, and pounded her heart.

There was the woman who, when I asked for directions to the Jardim Botanico da Universidade, looked askance, and, I sensed immediately, pointed the wrong way. I found the right way. It’s gorgeous, even in March. I took my first selfie there, but I’m not sharing. So, magnolias instead.

There was also the woman who pulled up next to me in her car and asked directions in rapid Portuguese! I looked like a native!

My favorite might the earnest young man working as a guard in one of the University buildings. I had peered through a series of windows down into a grandly furnished hall where there seemed to be something important going on. Sure enough: a PhD oral exam.

He led me back to the windows to explain. “The jury, he said, “sits there, and do you see the woman with the robes? She is the judge. In fact, my exam for my Masters is coming up and will be there.”  He was becoming flushed and nervous, even sweating. A Masters in . . .  “Education. And friends and family sit there.” They can watch?  “Oh, yes.”  It  makes you nervous just talking about it?  “Yes. Very much.”  You will do beautifully. “Thank you.” He also told me that the room had originally been the Front Room. The Front Room? “Where the king sat on his throne.”

But a formal exam in an arena taken seriously. Education taken seriously. Education that matters. A degree that matters. Degrees earned from a university proud on its hill since 1537. No gift grades in Coimbra.

I do have one people picture, this one of the fine chef Eva and her crew at Maria Portuguese.

When you come to visit me in Coimbra, we will feast there. She’s turning me into a foodie!

Bom dia.

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Steep Learning Curve

Steep Learning Curve

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Proud of myself for discovering cheap, long-term Newark Airport parking in a Hilton right across the street, I’m not so proud to report that, while I could see the hotel, I couldn’t find the entrance, only the exit at an awkward angle. After circling once, then twice, the third time  I swerved  into the out door. I feared this was an inauspicious start.

But not ten hours later, I was sitting in my first café.

Porto is a pile of a city, with buildings built cheek by jowl at crazy angles filling all available space. Steps and streets go up and up and down and down. Yesterday I counted 274 just here:  


The Cathedral is central to Porto’s culture and history.


Inside it, this ‘jail.’ For disbelievers? I steered clear.


Around every corner, charm:


My first day ended on these stairs to Livraria Lello heaven, often called one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world.


There, a lovely woman, who saw me scanning poetry books, suggested this one:


Today, I’m off to Coimbra.

 Virado para a frente.

When Plans Change

When Plans Change


For months I’ve imagined two of us on the upcoming Portugal trip, but, alas, a family emergency necessitates my friend Susan’s staying home. When word of this came, I worried about her situation, and her disappointment. She had been such an eager participant. It took me two or three days to fully comprehend I’d be landing in Porto alone, renting a car alone, navigating alone, considering how I might turn a few-day foray into a long-term stay alone.  To process, as they say, the change. She says the same thing happened to her. She was still imagining herself on the plane long after it was evident our plans had dissolved.

I’ve traveled alone before. Quite a lot. But this trip is different, because it’s not for business, not for sightseeing — although there will be plenty of that, too. This is a reconnaissance trip. An exploration. I expect it to be fulfilling. But I expected it to be shared.

I’m okay. I’m not okay that her family is in emergency mode, but I’m happy to report there’s steady improvement on her home front. I have stopped imagining how we might spend the seven-hour flight, and started downloading podcasts and music to stay occupied. I’ve stopped imagining us getting lost on back roads together, and decided to invest in the GPS option on the car rental. I’ll be a different sort of explorer. This situation better mimics what living in a new country alone might feel like — just as, I might add, a low-residency MFA program might better duplicate the frequently solitude writer’s life better than full residency when one is surrounded with like minds.

Susan has left me with two pieces of advice, fulfilling her role as navigator in a different way: As I drive, be calm, be patient. wait for the right exit, wait for the right turn. But, if I exit too soon, turn left instead of right, simply change my destination.


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