To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. For this reason your customary thoughts, all except the rarest of your friends, even most of your luggage – everything, in fact, which belongs to your everyday life, is merely a hindrance. The tourist travels in his own atmosphere like a snail in his shell and stands, as it were, on his own perambulating doorstep to look at the continents of the world. But if you discard all this, and sally forth with a leisurely and blank mind, there is no knowing what may not happen to you.Freya Stark
I love being in airports. I find the big/international airports have more in common with each other than they do with the cities they are in. Every terminal seems to have roughly the same mix of souvenir shops, travel-needs stores, eateries, and places to get caffeinated and/or drunk. There is an attempt to seem luxurious and comfy while still employing a certain amount of hostile architecture. And if you get a moment to pause you’ll find some sort of art installment that very few people have time to stop and appreciate. It can be scaled up or scaled down, but there’s something universal about the basic recipe.
I don’t think I’m in love with these aviation-themed shopping malls as much as I am with the tapestry of all the people coming through. I love people-watching. I love playing Sherlock, picking up on little clues like mismatched socks or casual dress in expensive brands to try to guess a character’s back story. Where are they from? Where are they going? Why? Airports bring together people from incredibly varied backgrounds who would never end up in the same room under any other circumstances. This is what I love most about airports. Well, that and the fact that if I’m in one, then I am certainly on an adventure.
I picked the flight I did because it had a great price. Like so great a part of me was wondering what they weren’t telling me. The long layover in London was bonus. Arriving in Lisbon after 11pm was not. Also, it was the wrong day. I wanted to arrive in Lisbon on June 1st. This flight got me in on May 30th.
I am a planner. I delight in researching things to death, especially unlikely adventures. One of my favorite websites is Sleeping in Airports I rarely need to sleep in airports, but I always factor it into my planning. In the end I decided to book a room at the Holiday Inn Express Lisbon Airport. The price difference between my ticket and every other fare I’d seen was enough to cover a room, and it would give me even more time to explore Portugal.
As I tried to plan this trip, most of the information available to me was from a pre-Covid world. Still, I managed to get accurate information about most of the things that mattered. My hotel no longer offered an airport shuttle (which was part of what I chose it for) but it was still really close to the airport and easy to get to/from, which was the point. I had booked it through British Airways and their info was not up to date, but I found out in time to research ride share apps in Portugal.
Where I felt the most misled had nothing to do with the profound impact of a global pandemic. It was the dress code. Over and over again, I’d read that Europeans do not wear ripped jeans, graphic tees, or athleisure wear. Fun fact, I wear a lot of ripped jeans, graphic tees, and leggings (which count as athleisure wear). I even wear a lot of ripped leggings.
Trying to fit in (as much as a forty-eight-year-old, purple-haired, American undergraduate student in Portugal might), I chose to pack a totally different school wardrobe than how I normally dress. Eventually, I’ll figure out that it generally goes better for me when I’m not indulging in the foolishness of fitting in for its own sake. It’s good to have something I could wear to high mass and something I could wear to a swanky party (preferably that could be dressed down to work for a dancing all-night party, too). Most of the time, though, it’s best to be able to dress how I dress most of the time.
The other helpful hint from my extensive Googling that didn’t work as planned was buying a sim card at Lisbon airport. The Vodaphone kiosk was there, as promised, but it wasn’t open at the odd hour I arrived. Fortunately, I was able to use Uber on the free airport wifi. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out where they would be most likely to pick me up, and when the Uber driver called to try to figure out where I was, the language barrier was insurmountable. With a little help from a bilingual fellow traveler, I was able to communicate with my second attempt at an Uber.
It turns out that Uber drivers are only allowed a limited number of passes through the taxi line, so those who work the area regularly go to a loading/unloading lot right across from the taxi pickup or along the sidewalk before they have to get into the taxi queue. This is my recollection of an under slept conversation with someone whose English was slightly better than my scant Portuguese and, as such, may be riddled with factual inaccuracies. Either way, I eventually connected with an Uber driver and made it to my hotel.
The guy at the front desk was exceptionally chipper for nearly one in the morning and, fortunately, quite fluent in English. Throughout my trip, I was shocked at how many Portuguese people spoke English. Well, I was much less shocked after learning Portuguese history. Anyone under thirty or working in front-end customer service will likely speak enough English to carry the conversation unless they drive an Uber after midnight anyway.
Jet lag being what it is, I settled into my room only to realize I wasn’t sure if I was sleepy or not. I was tired, no doubt, but that’s not the same as sleepy. I changed into my pajamas and turned on the television, wondering if there was any chance I could catch something interesting in Portuguese but with English subtitles. I mean, I didn’t expect to, but I could hope. Watching 3% (a Brazilian dystopian future series) on Netflix was one of my favorite ways to “study Portuguese” before the trip. Maybe I’d find something great with the relevant version of Portuguese while in Lisbon.
I ended up on a show that I believe was in German, with Portuguese subtitles. It looked sort of like the American show Survivor but with less drama and no clothes. Everyone was naked for no apparent reason while doing seemingly mundane tasks. I tilted my head like a dog trying to figure out a gramophone. This was the moment of discordant WTF confusion when I decided I had officially arrived in Europe.
I slept for a couple of hours, until the free breakfast buffet opened up, and then I got up and dressed for breakfast on Lisbon time. I had made plans to go to the aquarium after breakfast, and be back in time to greet my roomie, but when I gave serious consideration to needing to be there when my roomie to arrived, not having a Portuguese sim card nor knowledge of the local geography or language and that I was jet lagged as could be, I decided to stay in. I spent the bulk of the day catnapping, journaling, reading the textbook, and hydrating aggressively.
That last bit led to experimenting with the bidet. It’s a weird system, waddling from one porcelain throne to the next with my chonies around my ankles. I appreciate a good cleaning of the undercarriage and all, but it’s an awkward transition between the two, and I still feel like I need a good tutorial on the finer points of this activity. I also periodically went downstairs to the lobby vending machines, using the stairs for exercise.
My roomie arrived later in the afternoon. Her cab had been easier to find but harder to direct and at least three times more expensive than my Uber. We were both feeling more discombobulated than adventurous, and we settled on Uber Eats rather than going out on the town for dinner that night. Even as we settled into what would become a perfectly ordinary routine of my making us bedtime tea, it was also completely surreal.
That was my first time on the European continent, this vast land mass that has left its fingerprints all over global history. How was I, the girl who is perpetually broke and/or in crisis, traveling in Europe? Well, I mean, through school; we all know that. But also, I’m still confused that I got into my first choice university, and then they let me into this study abroad program and gave me all these scholarships. That night I went to bed overflowing with gratitude for a life that felt like all of my dreams were coming true at once. In the morning, we Ubered back to the airport and caught our flight to Ponta Delgada.
And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shackTalking Heads
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, “Well… how did I get here?”
Once in a Lifetime