The Adventure of the Soy Sauce Dispenser

I had never seen anything like it before. The bacatuna Noori on my tray (A melhor forma de comer sushi) and the empty little ramekins mocking me from the top of the machine made its purpose obvious. Its operation remained a mystery.

I was standing in front of the Soy Sauce Dispenser at the Noori Sushi in NorteShopping with no soy sauce. I had a pretty decent idea of which little spout I wanted to use — molho de soja — but was very rapidly approaching the point where my elapsed time would make it obvious that I was either too stupid or too American to figure out how to use it. Damn Portuguese spout design. It did not even feel like a very well-made spout. In fact, it felt like it was about to break off because I was doing it wrong.

Of course, I could have asked for help. The woman who served me my bacatuna could not have been nicer — even after it became clear that by eu só falo um pouco Português, I really meant: “I only know how to say ‘I only speak a little Portuguese.’”

But I didn’t want to ask for help. I should be able to figure out how to use a Soy Sauce Dispenser. I’m sure Portuguese mallrats use it just for fun and get yelled at by the nice Noori Sushi lady.

So, how did I end up standing in front of a Portuguese Soy Sauce Dispenser in a mall? After a day-long layover in Madrid, that’s how.

Despite the sad state affairs at Noori, my communication skills had drastically improved since the day of my arrival in Iberia a week earlier. Like most Americans, I only speak one language. I took Spanish in school — twenty years ago. But after an overnight flight that was not going to do me any good.

At first, I was just going to kill time in the Madrid airport before my flight to OPO. Fun fact, nobody in Portugal calls Porto “Oporto,” so the airport code is a bit of a mystery. Apparently, someone thought that because o porto means “the port” that people must really mean Oporto, not Porto, when referring to the town. That someone, however, was not a Portuguese someone. Here, Porto is just Porto. I guess Pori, Finland really threw its weight around over at the IATA and snagged POR before Porto could. Either that or it is somehow Spain’s fault — one of the default explanations in these parts. They did refer to my ultimate destination as “Oporto” on the board announcing my flight in Madrid. . . .

In any case, I had 9 hours until I left MAD for OPO. I bagged the killing time idea and decided to head into town for the morning. There is an Exprés Aeropuerto bus that will take you right to Plaza de Cibeles for €5 each way. Seemed like a good enough deal. After standing around for 15 minutes while staring at three bus drivers smoking cigarettes and (presumably) discussing who was going to drive us into town on one of the three busses that were now all lined up and ready to go, I knew I had arrived in Southern Europe.

Once aboard, I really only had one stop in mind: the Prado to see my favorite painting. Yes, I have a favorite painting — El Perro by Goya. Why is it my favorite painting? Probably because it was the first painting I remember seeing on my first trip to Europe in 1997 and I thought it would be cool to have a favorite painting. After that, loyalty. It is also very well positioned, right at the end of the room with all of Goya’s Dark Paintings, which makes it easy to stand in front of and hum the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off museum song in my head.

El Perro by Goya, photo by me

On top of all that, it’s a good painting. I even went to the Prado gift shop to see if I could get a poster but then decided that was dumb because I didn’t have a wall. They also didn’t appear to have posters in the Prado gift shop, which is also dumb.

After the Prado, I was thirsty — a near constant state of being thus far in Europe — so I went to Starbucks to buy water. It was there that I experienced the paralyzing discomfort that accompanied my initial foray into non-English communication.

I grabbed a bottle of San Pellegrino and approached the counter to pay. To my exhausted brain’s horror, the barista blurted out a question in Spanish. Lo siento, no hablo español. That would have been clever (and not even true! I do hablo a little). Instead I went with the ole ear-point/shrug combo and immediately felt the accompanying shame; poor Ms. Mersky, my beloved middle school Spanish teacher.

Turns out, he was making sure I knew that San Pellegrino was carbonated. So in my defense, that is among the more asinine questions I could imagine in that scenario. Of course I know San Pellegrino is carbonated.

I walked back out onto the streets of Madrid and immediately began wondering if the barista had just been screwing with me. Why would I grab San Pellegrino instead of the obviously non-carbonated water next to it if I didn’t want carbonated water? Did he not realize that San Pellegrino is probably the second most famous carbonated water in the world? Was everyone going to mess with the poor stupid American?

The answer to the last question came quickly after I finally got off the plane in Porto and arrived in my new home. I have not encountered a single person in Portugal that has been anything but thrilled at my pathetic attempts to communicate in Portuguese.

I had never been in Portugal before and had never really even heard anyone speaking Portuguese outside of a movie. And movie Portuguese is normally Brazilian Portuguese, which I quickly was told sounds nothing like real Portuguese — a dialect that is, alas, far more difficult to comprehend. If you had never heard Portuguese spoken before and were dropped someplace in Porto you might think you were on the Western shores of the Black Sea, not the Atlantic.

A typical Portuguese conversation

Despite (or maybe because of) the languages apparent unapproachability, the Lusophones I have met have been unfailingly pleasant and supportive of my pathetic attempts to fala Português.

The Soy Sauce Dispenser at Noori Sushi, NorteShopping

So, standing at the Soy Sauce Dispenser I knew that help was just a desculpe away. But I also knew I could figure it out. I avoided making eye contact with the woman who would undoubtedly offer aid and instead focused all my reasoning powers on the Dispenser.

It can’t break that easily, don’t be afraid to really go for it, they wouldn’t put a machine that is going to spill soy sauce all over the place right in the middle of NorteShopping, one of the premiere “shoppings” in the Porto area.

It can’t require this much force though right? What if that old lady over there drinking coffee and staring at me wants some soy sauce? How many different ways to operate a spigot can there be?

In the end, I don’t exactly recall what I did to get the black gold flowing. But I filled my little ramekin and scurried away.

The sushi was OK, great soy sauce though.

In retrospect, I think my fingers were too big. This probably came to me while sitting with my legs jammed up against something or out to the side awkwardly somewhere. I’m 6'4. Translated to metric for purposes of Portuguese living that equals “too tall to fit into anything in the country.” So my fingers were probably just too big for the Soy Sauce Dispenser. Genetics, the great equalizer.

Waiting for the bus back to Foz, my new ‘hood, I was feeling pretty good about myself — and not just because of the victory at soy sauce hill. I had used a couple new Portuguese phrases in my travels at NorteShopping and the oddness of hearing a foreign language all-day everyday was slowly dissipating.

The 504 bus to Boavista (via Fluvial, of course)

I also always felt pretty cool getting on the bus because I know how to do it like a local. I had my Andante in my wallet all loaded up with viagens and ready to go. I knew that you occasionally had to wave at the bus to get it to stop for you, even when you were standing at the stop staring at the driver as he drove past. I had even recently discovered that I didn’t even have to take my Andante card out of my wallet to validate it. Badass.

I knew too that NorteShopping is the fim da linha, so when the bus pulled up I played it cool and didn’t wave like some American noob loser. I strolled on board, slapped my wallet against the validation box and took a seat. Super badass.

But as I was sitting down, the man getting on the bus waved some thing in front of the validating box and strode past me. What was that? To call that a card seemed grossly inadequate. It was gold. It had his picture on it and a microchip. Did he just use that to get on the bus? Well, shit.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.