You Meet All Sorts
I had a lovely “wandering around” day on Saturday. The town of Tavira in the eastern Algarve has a weekend farmers’ market, which is not huge compared to some, but big enough, particularly because I don’t really eat vegetables or fruit. Or fish. I mean, I do eat some fruits and veggies (not fish though), but I don’t get excited by perfect little eggplants or… really I can’t even remember the fruits and veggies that were there. I remember a lot of chestnuts, olives, and… other things? Lots of local honey.
I was happy to just wander through, looking at everything, because really, if you like fruits and veggies and olives, and fish, it is a wondrous place—colors, sounds. Not the smells so much because fish. Beside the mercado is a flea market with something for everyone—lots of china and glassware, jewelry, coins, the dribs and drabs of household detritus that you find at every flea market. And a lovely cacophony of people speaking at least six different languages.
And if you’re asking, “Did you take any pictures, Barb?” I have to admit that no, I did not. Partly it’s a privacy issue—it’s considered rude to take people’s pictures and post them on the internet without permission. Mostly it’s because I never think to take pictures until it’s too late. I have gone on two week vacations and come home with four pictures, all of them blurry and poorly composed. I am a words girl. Sigh.
But here’s a shot I took a few weeks ago in Tavira. Now imagine a whole town with houses like this!
I wander but don’t buy because then I would have to carry whatever I bought around all day and I have a few more stops to make. First stop is the Irish pub, The Black Anchor, set on the other side of the river that runs through Tavira. They are having a book sale for charity and I figure there will be English language novels in the mix.
I find the pub and walk in, trying to look like I know where I am going and what I am doing. I’m sure I look as uncertain and out of place as I feel. New is sometimes hard, especially when you’re by yourself. And, as an introvert, I am really not good about asking strangers for directions or help. I look around the first little section of the pub (futbol on all screens, of course), don’t see any books so I keep walking through to what looks like other seating areas. I find a few tables of books set up in a back corridor and happily start nosing through. I hit upon three thick novels to keep me occupied (at least one of which I have read before), spot a donation bucket, and put in every coin I have. I have that bad foreigner habit of not thinking of coin Euros as the equivalent of American folding money which works to the advantage of donation boxes, kids raising funds for school trips, and restaurant servers. One of the servers sees me with my books and says she, too has bought a book. Another reader.
I walk outside and choose a table, happy to settle in the sunshine with my books and the prospect of a pub lunch. I order a glass of red wine and a cheeseburger with crispy steakhouse chips (because potatoes are one of my vegetables), and learn the European Portuguese word for crispy which is different from the Brazilian Portuguese word for crispy. (I am learning the important words first.) My server is from Brazil and we first chat about the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese and then about the books we have bought. She has bought a book titled The Customer is Always Wrong, a saga about an artist working as a waitress in 1970s Oakland, California. We laugh about the title. We both have found little treasures.
My wine arrives and I sit in the sun, absorbing the day. I don’t mind dining alone; I’ve been doing it for decades. Another older, single lady comes and sits at the table next to me. She strikes up a conversation in heavily accented English and I think, “Aha! The expat experience of meeting interesting people while dining at an outdoor café! THIS is why I came to Europe!”
She asks where I am from and when I say the United States, she exclaims, “Of course, you are from the United States. I can tell by your accent. I have lived in the United States. What part?” But she doesn’t really listen to the answer. She was born in Paris, but she is Russian and her grandfather was the greatest dancer who ever lived.
I sip my wine. She insistently flags down the server who politely asks if she would like a menu. “Of course I want a menu. I am here to eat!” My eyebrows twitch. She orders a gin and tonic and peruses the menu.
“When you are a woman, alone, it is hard to get noticed,” she explains.
I agree. Women become invisible at a certain age. But, I also recognize that service is leisurely here and usually a simple wave of your hand or nod of your head will catch the server.
She tells me “I don’t eat, but I am drinking so I need to have food.” She goes on to tell me that one time she didn’t eat for three months because she has learned some sort of meditation thing in India where you no longer need food. But today she is eating because she is drinking. Otherwise, of course, she wouldn’t bother with food.
She is traveling to Thailand and Goa and somewhere else over the next few weeks. She used to be a journalist (a common past profession among expats—I think it means something different here than it does in the US). Her grandfather, it finally comes out, was the dancer Nijinski. I have to agree, yes, he was the greatest dancer in the world. He was also Polish, not Russian, but I felt that little tidbit of information was not going to help the conversation. She had a wonderful American grandmother (must have been from the other side—Nijinski married a Hungarian). I mention Anna Pavlova. She was a contemporary, yes? Did they dance together?
She brushes over the question. “Well, yes, of course. Pavlova.” She keeps chattering but she has faded a bit. She pauses her monologue—briefly—to ask what I do. I’m a writer, I say. Business books. My food arrives.
“Ah, my parents were both writers. They published many books. When I was 14, I wrote a novel and that was published.” I marvel at her accomplishment— a published novel at 14! Encouraged, she proceeds to outline the novel she had written. How mature she was to write a novel with that theme, she observes. She comes from a family of artists. She played the violin, learning from the age of three or four. Her brother and sister were very jealous of her but she had to practice four hours a day. That was very hard on a small child. No one in her family is a dancer; it was not allowed.
I let her chatter as I eat. I very much like when someone carries the conversation so I can chow down.
She doesn’t spend very much money, she says. She bought her Christian Dior handbag at the thrift shop for three Euros. Her jeans and shoes for a Euro or two. She goes to the flea markets. She has €100,000 at her disposal that her children urge her to spend, but what does she need?
Her food comes. She is very skilled at eating and speaking at the same time, without once opening her mouth with food in it. I wonder if they teach you how to do that at finishing school, but she hasn’t mentioned going to one yet (though I’m fairly sure it would have been in Switzerland).
She lived and worked in Chicago. She did interviews for Playboy magazine in the 60s. She met all the right people. She seduced that minister in the Kennedy administration. (I’m thinking, Kennedy administration?? Take your pick in that crowd.) She excuses herself, leaving her purse on the table. Comes back with a cigarette and lights it.
“I don’t smoke, but sometimes…”
I nod. I tell her that by the seventh week of working on a ship in Mexico, even I, a non-smoker, would occasionally indulge. We talk a bit about Mexico. She says she used to live there, on the Pacific side. I say the ship I worked on traveled the Baja peninsula, the Pacific and Sea of Cortez. I mention Cabo San Lucas. She says she lived farther south. She’s talking mainland Mexico because you can’t go farther south than Cabo on the peninsula. But I obviously know too much about Mexico. Time to change the subject.
She blows out a stream of smoke. “Kissinger. I seduced Kissinger.”
I laugh. “Well, that’s not very hard. He was pretty easy.”
She is taken a bit off her stride. I soften it.
“Kissinger loved women.” I add, “He was in the Nixon administration, not Kennedy.” I am thinking the men in the Kennedy administration were at least better looking. “I think he is still alive,” I add.
She nods but I can tell she is disappointed that I am not impressed. (But I mean, really? Kissinger? He slept with everybody.)
She has been married four times. Never divorced. Her last husband died because she could not speak Portuguese to explain to the people at the hospital that he couldn’t stand up. I don’t know why she didn’t ask her husband to try to stand to demonstrate the problem. I don’t give voice to that thought, either. They sent him home and he died. She doesn’t feel guilty, because she doesn’t feel guilty about anything, guilt is useless, but she feels like if she could only have told them, he might have lived. But they didn’t speak English or French. She speaks both languages but refuses to learn Portuguese.
“I am 85 years old.” (I protest, shocked. Because that is expected.) “I speak two languages. I am not going to spend my time learning this difficult language.”
I can understand that from an age and years left standpoint. I nod. Portuguese is difficult.
“How long have you lived in Portugal?” I ask.
I tell her, “I am a resident here so I am working to learn the language.”
She tells me she speaks supermarket Portuguese—enough to get by but can’t bothered with actually learning more. I don’t point out the obvious—if she had learned a bit more in those first three years, maybe her husband wouldn’t have died. Or maybe he would have but she would have known that he could not be helped.
She excuses herself. “Two minutes.” Then she is back.
She has a boyfriend. He is twenty years her junior, wealthy and handsome. So handsome people are surprised when they meet him. She is insulted. Do they think she would have an ugly boyfriend? But, all he really talks about is futbol. Men are so tedious with their sports, she says. I understand, I say, sipping the last of my wine.
She is in touch with her first husband—they are still friends. My mind connects back to her statement that she has never divorced. Makes those next three marriages suspect. I say nothing. This is her story.
It is time to ask for the check. She insistently flags down the server and asks for the check using the Spanish word. I ask using the Portuguese word. Or at least the European Portuguese word. My server is Brazilian but of course, she knows. Earlier we had talked about the language differences. She brings our checks. I catch her eye, and say, “That book you bought? I think you bought the right one” and my eyes slide over to the woman at the next table. She laughs and agrees.
Now the woman is searching through her small Christian Dior bag. “I don’t think I have any money with me.”
“That could be a problem,” I say, unsympathetically. Not my first rodeo.
She keeps digging. “Ah, here it is.”
I gather my things.
“Let me get your number,” she says. “It’s so hard to find people to talk to.”
“I only have a US phone,” I lie, apologetically.
“No problem. I have Whatsapp.”
Eeesh. I reluctantly give her my number, debating if I should give her the wrong one. I am not fast enough and give her the right one. We trade names.
“We can maybe get together.”
“Ah, but you’re traveling over the next few weeks,” I remind her.
“Oh yes. After.”
We part ways. I let her get ahead of me and intentionally take a different route, not knowing or caring if it adds extra steps and time to my trip. It’s a wandering day and I wander on.