Sunday, March 13, 2005

If Only to Get to the Castle: An Alfama Story

While I was in Portugal, I wanted to catch some Euro scenes and see the architechtural feats of the land. Johnny said that I must go to the great castle in Alfama. That way I could ride the subway and the tram and be touristy. She gave me a set of simple directions of how to take the subway to Rossio and then emerge right in the centre of Alfama from underground, she drew me a duck too. She draws the best ducks, but back to the story.

Alfama is one of the older cities in Lisbon on the Iberian peninsula. Everywhere you turn there is an enticing staircase, a welcoming statue, interesting grafitti and a business of children playing, people walking, construction workers tinkering with walls and scaffolds, and women hanging their laundry on the line. Grocery stores hide in the most unsuspecting alley ways and stray dogs live happily as scouts. The problem is, I would have seen none of this if I didn't get to Alfama. Therefore, it would have been helpful to have something like this.

With J's directions and my dictionary, I set out to find the subway. I couldn't find it. I asked for the metro and a woman pointed to a bus stop. Are there not any underground subways? Submundo? Nao? Sim? Maybe you have to take the bus to get to the subway. I've thought of crazier things. So I waited by the bus-stop talking to girl who could understand me better in English than by me looking up individual words in my dictionary. I was worried that the bus wouldn't take euro bills or that it would take me off somewhere I didn't know. I asked the bus driver whether the bus goes to Rossio, then I thought about something I should have thought about before: even if they understand my terrible Portuguese, how will I get any useful information from them when they respond in a language I didn't understand. He went into a fit of language and then I said "ok", hesitated, and got off the bus. Then I ran back to Johnny's apartment for shelter from a world so cruel and strange.

"You were gone for 45 minutes and you didn't even manage to find the subway? It's BEHIND the bus-stop" "OHHH"

I went back to the bus stop and and a few steps more, looked up, and saw the giant red sign that said "Metro". A path in the park led to the elevator, which I tried several times without avail, felt utterly lost once again, wondering how people ride a subway they can't entre, then looked down to see the clever Porties using the alternate route that had escalators.

The next problem was how to use a subway or rather, get to it. There was a gate with two slots, a button and some bars and glass which blocked the entrance. To the right and left there were machines that looked like bank machines. There wasn't any teller who sold tokens like they used to do in the old days and in my country. Welcome to high-tech Lisbon.

The machines were all Portuguese and my bank card wasn't working in it so I stood back and watched someone use it. They saw me back away from the machine like it was tainted meat, so they weren't sure what to make of the situation at first. Was it jinxed? They put in bills, the amount of tickets they wanted and voila! I did the same, however, just to be safe, I got four tickets. I didn't know if you had to use two to transfer lines or what was in store for me. Then I went to face the gates. I told myself positive messages like "you will be granted access to this transportation facility" but my card just didn't work, no it didn't.

A man was walking by so I asked him if he could show me how to use the card. After a one-try demonstration of my current efforts he laughed at me and pointed to the arrow on the card. Of course! That's the end that has to go in! Even the familiar seems foreign when you're a stranger but I did it, the light went green and I made an inaudible ~whish~ as the air resisted against my body movement and I went through.

I found the proper exit on the map and got on the subway. I didn't know what direction I was going in so I looked up "west" which matched the signs. Handy things, signs. Lucky I was going the right way, Howard would be disappointed if I didn't meet him. I got to Alfama and came out of the ground like a gleeful zombie into a beautiful court, full of pigeons and the hustle and bustle of people. I saw many shoe-shine stops with stickers and flags and statements like "Portugal Forever" in Portuguese.

I took off in the first direction I felt like, just happy to travel, not caring but actually hoping I'd get lost. The heights and depths and twists and turns of the streets and stairs were so great I couldn't keep track of where I was going. I could see the castle in the distance, so I would go towards it, but then get diverted. The streets would curve deviously to the left or right and I'd have to start my orienteering anew. Near the triumphant arc near the "praca do commercio" I found street art and shops with souvenirs, and Portuguese romance books and comics.

A man with a rather burnt face pulled me over and being a friendly fellow, I tried to understand what he was saying. He instantly put a pair of sunglasses right on my face and pointed to the glass window indicating that I should take a look at myself. Ah! I'm being sold something, I thought. He tested me in French and then in English until he realized and converted to what I spoke and asked me "what's a good price for you? 50 Euros. See, real Armani, you see?" I pretended not to like any of the sunglasses and I wasn't genuinely interested anyway so it wasn't too hard, although they were really nice glasses. One pair had the nose-piece bend around a coin, I put on another pair and complained that they were crooked. I kept proposing the lowest prices imaginable, I had a pair I liked and wouldn't settle for ten but nine Euros for it. Then I was a happy customer.

So, I started walking away, hoping I could still get to the castle soon but he asked me if I would like some hash as well and began to follow me. I said no and continued walking and he presumed I was doing my same schtick that I did with the glasses and he presumed bartering mode, asking me if it wasn't a good price for me. I'd say "yes, it's a good price, but not for me" "It's a good price? Take it, here. Take it." He would actually put it in my pocket and then I'd have to say, no, take it back. "No, take take!" and he'd wave his hand as if to shew me on my way. If this wasn't motivated selling I don't know what was. He continued: "Moroccan hash, see, smells good" burning a piece of it on his cigarette. He followed me to the statue and I tried to ignore him by taking pictures. I wanted to lose him and he was starting to call me "friend" so I was getting worried. For all I knew he could have been a nark.

I was feeling disappointed. I was feeling overwhelmed. I thought maybe my sense of being lost was starting to show and he was becoming even more persistent. He was getting inside my skull and then I couldn't take it anymore and I raised my voice to him in anguish "I DON'T WANT ANYTHING! I JUST WANT TO FIND THE CASTLE!" Now I realized I was desperate and losing my mind over this castle. I wasn't being a good sport. It wasn't his fault I had no sense of direction or language skill. He didn't deserve this emotional outburst no matter what kind of salesman he was. He sighed and patted me on the back and said "ok my friend, ok" and then he was off. Phew! Now I gotta find the castle, I thought.

So I went along in the direction of the castle upon the hill. I saw it. It was right there. So simple. I could almost reach out and touch it, those rocky fortress walls. But along the way a convent caught my attention, and I figured it wouldn't hurt to stop in on Jesus. The church was a simple but beautiful church. I quietly went up to the man sitting at a desk, writing and asked him if "photographia" was allowed. I showed him my digital camera. Very gentlemanly he said: "for you, certainly."

I always feel strange when I go in a church and it's like a wax museum, and I find that dramatic statues of Jesus bleeding and suffering right over the pews is different than what I'm used to. It's a little like violence pornography.

All churches express themselves and their values differently. In Catholic churches that I've seen, the painting is detailed and they have so much going on visually that you are called into a mood of worship, if not in Jesus Christ then at least for the architechts and interior designers. It's amazing what people can accomplish when they pool resources for specific objectives for God. Perhaps this explains the pyramids. Either way, physical churches have always been and always will be one of the greatest opportunities for masons and others. I cleansed myself with holy water and went back to my mission feeling fresh.

But to get to my big climax and quickly to the denouement. I never got to the castle. Bit of a let-down? Ya, you think so. I got lost because I was cut off from streets that I wanted to get to, could see but was obstructed from by buildings. You cannot just walk between houses like you do here in Canada because they're all attached. For awhile, I was afforded no outer view so I didn't know which direction to go. Regular habitants were at a loss to try to gesture direction with the use of an arm or finger since I didn't speak Portuguese. After awhile I just wanted to get back where I started and I praised the square for being there when I got to it. I had come full circle and I was just so happy not to be "perdido" any longer.

So that is my story about the Sao Jorge castle in Alfama. It is a majestic, beautiful, omnipresent though evasive thing. It stands only accessible to the few (or rather, every other foreigner that comes to Portugal, because if you're going to come to Portugal, there is no point unless your every effort is put towards the successful coming into contact of the Sao Jorge castle). When I came back and told Johnny she laughed at me and I felt bashful, but overall I think the whole experience made me stronger. To quote Pascal roughly about what happiness is: "it is not things, but the pursuit of things." I pursued the castle, and that is what made it all such an adventure.

4 Comments:

Blogger The Lioness said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:40 AM  
Blogger Savtadotty said...

I love your story. It so reminds me of my early days in Israel. Except then I used to "freak out" about getting lost until I realized that there is no such thing: you're just in a different place than you expected. You seem to know this already: lucky you!

11:32 AM  
Blogger Ana said...

OMG that is so funny. I'm sorry to be laughing but seriously, there are signs everywhere telling you how to get to the castle.

And "You cannot just walk between houses like you do here in Canada because they're all attached." I just gotta laugh!

12:03 PM  
Blogger Noorster said...

I really laughed out loud.
Such a cute story!

6:40 AM  

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