I am sitting at an outside table at a little café, enjoying a galão because that is one of the few coffee variations I both like and can pronounce. The other is cappuccino, of course, but it is late in the day and rumor has it that you shouldn’t order cappuccino after 11:00 am, or maybe after noon. Or maybe that is just some silly fad thing put out on social media. I don’t know. The owners of the café speak only Portuguese so I go with what they and I know. It works.
The bus from my village drops me near my school at 2:55 pm. Class starts at 5:00, so I have two hours to kill each Monday and Wednesday (Segunda-feira e Quarta-feira). I have not yet found the spot that will become my new hangout on these afternoons but they will continue each week until next June when the course is over. I also haven’t yet done this enough to figure out the best use of this time block. That’s a lot of time to fill.
I read a bit from a friend’s book, but it is dense reading on spirituality and self-work. I prefer reading mysteries with snappy dialog or thrillers. I am more than willing to be distracted and fortunately, there is no shortage of distraction on this corner.
The café is across from the high school and close enough to two elementary schools that you can hear the children play. Many of the little ones are picked up by a parent. I notice there are just as many dads picking up kids as moms. A few are picked up by grandparents. Then there are the groups of kids, led and followed by a teacher at each end, the kids paired off according to the buddy system. They’re all excited, jabbering to each other and to the teachers. They have sparkly backpacks almost as big as they are or rolling suitcases. The wheels of the cases clickety-clack over the cobblestones. I don’t know where they are going, maybe an after-school program. They remind me of the flocks of wild parrots I used to see and hear when I lived in Florida. They are even more colorful.
There is an older lady who sits at the end table and the children all seem to know her. They wave and greet her and she responds with smiles and greetings. I don’t know if she is a neighborhood or national celebrity. I do know she owns that table every afternoon. Today she has a friend with her. Another older woman greets them both and sits at the table next to them, between me and them.
A little girl with her arm in a cast walks by, escorted by her grandmother (avó) who stops to talk to the two tables of ladies. I can’t follow the conversation after the initial greeting. They chat for a few minutes then walk on, the little girl blowing kisses to them all. She even graces me with one.
The high schoolers are way cool. Most of the girls sport the popular high-waisted pants with crop tops and Converse high tops. The boys are in shorts or jeans and t-shirts. My favorite group of girls sit at the same table every day. One girl has waist-length dreads that are a combination of her natural color and lilac. I am a little envious.
All the kids are unconsciously beautiful. They don’t know that their skin—even with a few spots—is the best it will ever be. There’s a freshness and vibrancy to them. They are present without having to focus on being present. Many of the girls have bare midriffs and bare shoulders and because it is common, it is not sexy—it’s just clothes, a style. I think of those US high schools that send girls home for revealing a shoulder because it “distracts” the boys. We all know it distracts the perverted older men who are running the place. When all the girls dress like this, the boys aren’t distracted: It’s just how girls dress. The girls could show up in a crop top one day and a sweatshirt the next and it doesn’t affect the boys one way or the other.
If there’s a pecking order among the older kids, I don’t see it yet. There probably is one—kids are kids, humans are human. But the groups aren’t so obviously marked as they are in the States. The nerdy kids are mixed in with the cool kids. (Maybe the nerdy kids are the cool kids.) The shorter boys mix in with the taller. Maybe I am just unaware, but I suspect high school is less of a torture chamber in Portugal.
They all seem engaged, both the younger and older kids. Yes, they are sometimes on their phones (all of the high schoolers have phones) but most of them are chatting with each other. They chat with adults as readily as with their peers.
Hugging, especially among the littles, is huge here. But it’s not just the kids. Adults hug, too. Maybe we are all making up for not being able to even shake hands for two years during COVID. The littles hug their teachers as they leave the school yard. The high school kids hug each other as they split up for the day.
I write in my notebook, drink my galão. I am separate from all the activity around me. Different. A stranger. This is not yet my spot. I may try a different café next week, see how that feels. One block over will be an entirely different world.
And that’s how it is here. There are entire communities that occupy small spaces. You can have several microcosms within one block. Twenty steps can take you to a different world. So perhaps I have found a good use for this two hour time block: Investigate all the different worlds within this one small neighborhood. And maybe after all my explorations I will come back to this spot. I like the distractions.