Lisbon Is For Single Ladies And Other First World Problems
“Women may be the one group that grows more radical with age.” ― Gloria Steinem
I triumphantly upgraded to a room with a balcony!
I know you were expecting a modern take on "Othello" or at least an update on the dreadful Mekhi Phifer and Julia Stiles movie “O”, and I promise you will have it, but first I must bring you the first in a series of what I’m calling Interludes. These Interludes, a periodic break between the chronological posts of my various travel exploits, will popup sporadically between regular posts when I’ve taken a new trip or have some mind-blowing insight that I just can’t wait to share.
This month I will post two Interludes before circling back in July to our regularly scheduled column He Kissed a Black Girl and He Liked It. Both pieces involve travel of course, and both, for different reasons, also involve age and aging.
Scroll down for Interlude One, and check back or Subscribe to read Interlude Two which will go live in mid-June!
First Up, A Little Birthday Fun!
I turned 47 in March, and in order to stave off the birthday blues I booked a four day trip to Lisbon, Portugal with money I’d squirreled away during Christmas. No one has yet to explain fully why some people, things, or places speak to you where others don’t. I truly don’t believe there is a one-size fits all explanation. For me, I think its part chemical, part magical. In my experience, a person, thing, or place takes a hold of you, burrows deep into your subconscious and the next thing you know you’ve given it your life savings, bought ten in every color, or traveled for nine hours after tending a New York City bar on St. Patrick Day to walk its cobbled streets.
For the last couple of years, that place for me has been Lisbon. Again, I do not know why. I spent almost a month in big brother Spain in 1996 (you’ll learn more about that later), and had intended to spend a few days in the west but instead went north to Paris ---another place that has a firm hold on my heart and imagination. And so began a two decades long shoulda woulda coulda dance with Lisbon. For one reason or another, my lust for foreign vistas always led me somewhere else. Most likely it’s because like a lot of people, I thought Spain and Portugal were similar enough that if I’d been to one I didn’t need to go to the other (the fine people of Portugal hate this by the way because it is reductive and totally untrue). Another possible reason is because on a bartender’s tips I could only go so many places and had to maximize my adventures. Either way, my travel goals managed to take me to fifteen other countries before I decided once and for all to get my butt to the land of port wine, baccalau, and Lusitano horses.
Food Tours, Grilled Sea Bass, and Sunsets!
Gorgeous, affordable, reasonably close, and extremely friendly Lisbon did not disappoint. I took a four and a half hour culinary walking tour with the charming and helpful Célia Pedroso of Culinary Backstreets (highly recommended), climbed a wildly steep and winding mountain to drink wine and enjoy a marvelous sunset, got myself out to a tiny fishing village where I had one of the best pieces of whole grilled sea bass I’ve ever tasted at a delightful little place call Restaurante Ponte Final, explored the chambers of Palacio de Queluz (little Versailles), and wandered the halls of the otherworldly Pena Palace at the UNESCO World Heritage site in Sintra.
Many of the things I did bore the familiar stamp of my travels: beautiful vistas, excellent food, dangerous cobble stones, me as one of the only, if not the only black person or single woman traipsing about or on the tour. But I noticed something different this time. Something which struck me first as the clock struck midnight and my forty-seventh birthday, and then again two days later, as I contemplated a well-earned happy hour after roaming the city all day.
I turned forty-seven in a charming way. After a delicious meal and a rooftop night cap (or two) with two travel agents I met at a hotel restaurant, I was returning to my hotel via taxi and as it rounded the corner I noticed that the area around a kiosk on the traffic median a few doors down from my gorgeous, 18th century boutique hotel had been transformed into a dance party complete with DJ and refreshments. I paid, jumped out of the taxi, grabbed a plastic glass of vino and took a seat at the head of a six-top table comprised of three separate two-tops in the midst of dancers and other voyeurs such as myself.
As I usually do, I immediately took out my journal and began to write. I watched the whirling dancers and intermittently sipped wine as I sketched my first day/night in Lisbon. My head was firmly in my notebook when I felt someone looming over me. It was a pleasant young woman asking in broken English and universal hand gestures if she could take a chair, or so I thought. Portuguese is among the many languages I do not speak. I nodded and smiled yes and the next thing I know she and several of her friends swarmed around me and then absconded with all the tables and chairs except the one I sat at and in.
I could feel my face heating up. Of course it could have been the copious amounts of wine I’d been drinking all night but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. My booze blush comes with the sip of my first drink, no matter the spirit, and then my body acclimates as if welcoming an old friend. It could have been my imagination but I swear dozens of heads swiveled to take in the black lady suddenly stranded in the middle of the festivities like one of those mysterious bras one sometimes finds in the middle of a Brooklyn thoroughfare. How had I gotten there? Was anyone going to claim me? We all looked away slightly embarrassed.
Before I was mugged for my tables and chairs, we had all collectively, silently agreed to pretend that I was waiting for someone to join me but once that was put to the lie; no one knew what to do with a woman of undetermined age marooned in the middle of a party comprised of hip and laconic thirty somethings---my age may have seemed undetermined but we all once again collectively, silently agreed I wasn’t in my dewy thirties.
A handful of months before my cheeks would not only have heated up but burned, my pores tingling and opening like the mouth of an erupting volcano. A year or two prior, I would have drunk a little more than I should and then cried myself to sleep. But for some reason, fifteen minutes or so after the table jacking, when the clock struck twelve-o-one and I was officially one year older, officially closer to fifty than to forty, I simply raised a glass in toast, resumed tapping my foot to the music, and continued to write about my first lovely hours in Portugal.
Second, I’ll Have What They’re Having…or Maybe Not
The second curious thing I noted during my sojourn in the land of cork oak trees and Madeira is that I have reached an interesting epoch in what I’m calling my social age. As someone who is lucky enough to not necessarily look my age and to be healthy and carry myself in a pretty youthful manner, I don’t look particularly out of place among thirty-somethings, although as noted above, suspicions have begun to arise. That said, I am a decade older than I look and have long since outgrown the need to get fucked up and wake up wondering how I got home. But the problem is that I am also not the type of person or feel the internal age where I desire to have dinner at 7 o’clock followed by a nightcap and a little television before retiring.
On my second full day in Lisbon, I found myself searching out happy hour amongst a warren of identical, ancient streets when suddenly I was surrounded by a robust and rowdy group of actual young folks who could have been my kids---if I had any---looking for a little fun/trouble or funbrouble. I quickly extricated myself and as I watched them storm bar after bar down the line, as I hesitated on whether to follow, assuming that as locals they would know the best places, it struck me that I had no desire to listen to full-throated bragging and preening as everyone got sloppier and sloppier but neither was I in the mood for a quiet tipple.
At an active, spritely 47, I realized that I am in the in between.
Doing my best Maria I of Portugal impersonation!
At my social age, I was welcome in both camps: the kind that serves body shots and the one that knows the difference between port and Madeira, but as I stood there in the waning light I realized I wasn’t ready to abandon one for the other just yet and didn’t want to be a full member of either. I found myself at a loss, adrift and uncertain as to what to do. I was also thirsty.
Now I know these are first world problems, but it struck me that as recently as the mid-70s I might not have had much choice but to join the elders in a quiet repast before retiring. I am a woman well into my spinsterhood. Gallivanting around the streets of a European city unchaperoned much less trying to figure out where to get my drink on would have been verboten. And don’t let me factor in race! The freedom to ponder how far women have come and how far we have to go while drinking in the beauty of the Iberian Peninsula and Portuguese wines on my own dime and in my own time was almost as heady as the awesome happy hour I finally choose.
For the record, I had a drink at a super cute hole in the wall where they gifted me with a huge $5 cocktail, great music and Idris Elba on the television before I enjoyed another delicious meal at a pricey, adult style eatery. After dinner, I meandered back to the hotel. I was in my room by 11 pm but soldiered on with complimentary port offered in the lobby and bad American television until one in the morning.
Plaza?! I Hardly Know Her! Hee Hee!
Both my birthday night and my happy hour excursion brought into stark relief my first travel experiences versus where I find myself today. That scared but determined 24 year old still resides within the trepidatious but resilient 47 year old, seventeen countries and 23 years later. She may not want to do everything she did in her twenties but the stuff she’s replaced it with is pretty good and for the most part won’t cost her a trip to the ER. One giant step for me. One firm step for womankind.
Be sure to come back in two weeks for Interlude Two and discover how and why I’ve graduated from mere jaunts abroad to staying a little longer. You’ll never guess where I’m writing from now!
Remember to keep traveling with a feminist eye and stay feminist AF!