Spontaneity in Porto

Some afternoons are repetitive. Some afternoons are stressful. Some afternoons are exciting or relaxing or confusing. This afternoon was exemplary. What do I mean by this? It was exemplary in that it showed and confirmed my suppositions about the European lifestyle, lending weight to my choice to set off on this great adventure across the Atlantic.

Sometimes, one can find wisdom in the simplest of tasks. This afternoon, I simply needed to get out of the apartment. I had spent hours in front of the computer perfecting my resumé, or CV as they like to call it here, for the big move to Singapore (more on that later). I wasn’t sure what I needed out there. Just to get some “fresh air” as people say, so I hopped on the scooter (not a Vespa, but that type) and headed to Santa Catarina — the cobble-stoned shopping strip in the center of Porto. The confusion of people and sounds was too much in that state of mind, but I parked the scooter in the middle of the bustling crowd, directly across from the azulejo-covered church, in order to advertise the flyer taped to the front (gotta sell the thing before leaving town, no matter how attached I’ve become to it).

Capela de Santa Catarina (© Wikimedia Commons, António Amen, 2009)

So, I walked towards the last rays of the setting sun, towards Aliados, it turned out to be, appreciating a bit of warmth to balance out the crisp September breeze — so typical in the north of Portugal. Eventually, I settled on a café on the corner,a few chairs on the esplanada still absorbing the sunlight. After ordering a café and queque, with extra emphasis on politeness and a smile, I slumped into the chair and tried to decompress my mind. The street scene was still hectic. People rushing home from school and work. Cars and buses bumbling past. The occasional siren wailing, ascending and descending from somewhere in the city. For some reason, it wasn’t stressful. I felt detached from it all. Simply absorbed in sitting and appreciating this little white porcelain cup filled with its warm, comforting aroma. The world in a coffee cup. A coffee cup in the world.

I appreciate the moment until the sunlight disappears behind the buildings across the Praça da Trindade. As the coffee is gone and a chill has returned, I turn to my other quotidian comfort — literature. Trying to make my way through this brick-sized paperback of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. I’m enjoying it despite the feeling of not grasping half of the cultural references, even with the footnotes, but — like with many novels from that time period — the endurance to complete it has been taxing. I consider myself patient compared to most in my generation, but the patience it can take to get through a novel from the 19th century (whether British, American, or Russian) can be too much for me. Regardless, I’ll try to soldier through and have it read before leaving for Singapore (more on that later, I promise…maybe for the next post though).

I finish the chapter and decide to head back towards the scooter, in order to have a chance to check out some shops before they close. What do I need? What do I need? Well, a glass of bourbon whiskey would be nice as an aperitif before dinner, but what could I eat with that? Potato chips aren’t so healthy and I’ve been eating too much potatoes recently. Almonds? Yes, almonds! Let’s see. Let’s see. Here we are!

Casa Natal, Rua Fernandes Tomás, 833 (© Google Street View)

Contented by my half-kilo paper bag of almonds and my fluid chit-chat in Portuguese, I continue to make my way back to the scooter. It was waiting for me exactly where I left it, no worse for the wear. Thank you, Saint Catherine! As I’m putting my things away and wondering whether I should go and check out the mini-bottles of Port wine to buy as gifts, an innocent-looking young girl with a backpack and armful of books approaches me. I’m polite, but wary. What does she want to sell me? Sure enough. She did want to sell me those books, but she was a good salesperson. Flawlessly switched from Portuguese to Spanish in an effort to accommodate me. Came across as kind and wasn’t insisting on anything. Conversation flowed easily. She was a natural! After a few minutes chatting, I told her, “¡ya me lo vendiste!” It was a beautiful edition by a local author from Matosinhos filled with watercolor illustrations for only €5. How could I say no?

In the end, I did go to another shop for the Port wines and I did have a little chat in Portuguese about the quality of the different years.

Some fruits of happenstance

After finally getting home, feeling renewed and relaxed, I realized that this type of afternoon would have been difficult, if not impossible, in the life I knew living in a south Floridian suburb. For one, most of that walking wouldn’t have taken place. Each shop would’ve been visited by car. Parking lot, asphalt, shop. Parking lot, asphalt, shop. Blast of heat. Blast of A/C. Blast of heat. Blast of A/C.

Regardless, I wouldn’t have even realized that I wanted to visit these shops. You see, when you travel by car, the route must be planned. You can’t just go around and see where your mood takes you. Well, you can, but you’re much more likely to wind up t-boned around a lamppost as a rude awakening to your daydreams.

I had the sudden realization that this is what I was searching for in Europe. Spontaneity! The spontaneous joy of not knowing exactly what you’ll be doing over the next few hours, only having a general idea before going out and letting life happen to you. This provides a sense of freedom that I had failed to get during so many years of my suburban life. I suppose this isn’t a question of USA versus Europe. It’s more a question of walkable, livable cities versus suburban malaise. However, Europe does seem to offer more possibilities in that respect, largely due to the luck of having designed their cities before the industrial revolution and the invention of the car, which is definitely not the case in south Florida.

In the end, it was an exemplary afternoon in more ways than one. An example of the importance of city design. An example of the city of Porto on a brisk September afternoon. An example of reflection and appreciation. An example of an American in Europe. And finally, an example of how spontaneity can breathe new life through the very heart of one’s soul.

(I’ll let my reflections end here for now. Not bad for my first post, I think. I would like to dedicate this first post to everyone I hold dear. Agnieszka, for inspiring me every day to love and be a better person. My parents, for raising me with love and care and continuing to be there for me. My sister, for never failing to make me laugh through our sibling connection with her absolutely genuine and unique weirdness. Also, I would like to extend a special thank-you to Ana, my surrogate godmother, who told me over coffee that I should write a blog. Of course I should. Why don’t I? So, here it is, Ana. Let’s see how it goes. Or, as they say here so often, vamos ver.)