Archive for the 'Western Europe' Category



Filling the Fame

The hunger, that is.

Okay, so let’s make a deal. I won’t torture you all with never-ending posts about Grottaglie/Fame Festival/one of the best travel experiences of my life IF you all check out my coverage of the festival on the following links:

Hi-Fructose Basic summary with some pics

Hi-Fructose My interview with Fame organizer Angelo Milano.

Huffington Post More narrative coverage of the event, my favorite of the write-ups I’ve done so far.

Since I have no way of actually enforcing this deal, so we’ll work on the honor system. Okay? Okay.

(And, yes, I’ve been a busy girl. Loving my Netbook, and loving free wifi!)

Grottaglie Or Bust!: Fame Fest ’10

Siesta-dazed and still covered in little bits of glitter, I’m holed up in my hotel room in Grottaglie. Laptop on my lap, balcony door open a crack, listening to the moan of the fan, I don’t know where to start.

I could spend the next two months writing about this weekend, here in this random little Puglian town, wedged between plastic-tarp-covered vineyards and industrial, cloud-coughing skylines. It’s at times like these when you realize just how insufficient your own words are—how close they can sometimes come to capturing this thing, this thing you’re always circling and chasing, but that ultimately always goes “fluttering through your nets,” as Virginia Woolf said.

This weekend has been a little of everything I love in travel: discovering killer art, adventuring around abandoned buildings and ancient caves, eating great food, meeting awesome people. I came here for the opening of Fame Festival, a DIY street art event put on by the one-man-powerhouse/party Angelo Milano, that is slowly transforming the forgotten little town of Grottaglie. I’d been following the build-up on various art blogs, and it seemed like a pretty damn good excuse to go on an adventure.

There’s about 100 different angles to write about this from, and I’m sure I’ll be torturing everyone with posts for months on end. So instead of giving the 3000-word play-by-play (you’re welcome), I’ll give you the highlights. And some pictures.

Fame Festival
“Success, celebrity” in English, “hunger, starvation” in Italian, Fame Festival is the blood, sweat and glitter (more on that later) of one dude, Angelo Milano. Three years ago, he started inviting international artists to his little hometown for short residencies. The artists produced prints at his studio, Studio Cromie, produced ceramics using the town’s ancient ceramics studios, and threw up street art pieces all over the city. The festival has grown, gained a fair amount of notoriety, and a small crew of artists/collectors/enthusiasts/fanatics make the mission down to Grottaglie for a complete and total adventure.

Angelo welcomes you with all the enthusiasm and graciousness in the world, arranging hotel rooms and rides from the airport. On the evening of the preview, he takes the gang load of visitors back to his grandmother’s house, where his dad shakes your hand and his mom cooks a huge traditional Italian dinner. The opening party is complete with DJs, Puglian wine and a diverse mix of locals and art lovers; you then trek across town to Studio Cromie, where Angelo goes ape shit on the dance “floor,” dumping about 8 bags of glitter on everyone and generally having about as much fun as humanly possible.

You see everyone stagger around town with glitter stuck in their hair the next day. You’re given, on preview night, a map of the city marked with all the street art pieces, and you wander around, ticking off the 60+ list and snapping photos. It’s like a treasure hunt.

Coolest part: adventuring around an abandoned monastery filled with art.

Grottaglie
The town itself is awesome. Not in a knock-your-socks off way, but in a slow, subtle way that sneaks up on you. It’s got an old town, complete with winding roads and a couple UNESCO sites, as well as a new part, devoid of billboards and with only one corporate chain. The whole town siestas from 12-4. You can get dinner at a restaurant for 6 euros. Old women say, “Ciao, bella.” Teenagers hang out in cafes til 2am.

The city’s surrounded by ancient caves that were inhabited until just a few decades ago, when the Italian government kicked everyone out. You can go and poke around in them, see the remnants of old cooking areas, frescos peeling off the walls.

The Peeps, and The Adventure
So what kind of wingnuts travel all the way to bumfuck Puglia for an art festival? Awesome ones. I met so many fresh people, one of those this-is-why-I-travel experiences that you know is going to linger with you for a long time.

There’s also the adventure aspect. No guidebooks mention Grottaglie. The bus from Naples dropped me off on the side of the road; luckily I’d had the wherewithal to print out a Google map the night before. You traipse around the random town that epitomizes off-the-beaten-path, and it reminds you, again, why you travel.

Street Art
I’m no expert on street art, but I got to meet a lot of people who were. And it’s clear that we’re on the brink of something, something bigger than just the art world. Street art is a kind of dialouge with a city, and it’s changing cities. Street art as architecture, urban development, tourism—there’s a lot to discuss.

But right now, legs crossed on this hideous hotel bedspread, I’m feeling incredibly tired and incredibly grateful. I gave myself an extra day here, to hang out with the wifi and sleep, before I take off for Dubrovnik tomorrow. But even if I were going home tonight, it would have all been worth it. Fame Fest was one of the best parties I’ve ever gone to, and one of the best adventures a traveler could hope for.

See Naples, And Then…

Die, the saying goes. They’re not fucking around.

I’d really wanted to go to Naples when I was last in Italy. But my then-boyfriend read the LP description—chaotic, dirty, somewhat dangerous—and nixed the idea. He liked Copenhagen, Scandindavia—clean, calm, safe cities filled with bicycles and crisp air, low unemployment and Nordic blondes with pale beautiful skin.

He can have it. Give me Naples.

I got out of the Metro stop and walked the five blocks to my hostel. It took about that long to totally fall in love with the honking, swarming, spinning mess of it all, wedged with sharp shadows and bright sun between stories of faded facades that seem too tight, haphazard, overgrown. There seems no law or order to the flow of life on the street—cars and motorinos and pedestrians—but rather a kind of rhythm. Not a heartbeat, even and steady, but a wild palpitation, erratic and oxygen-deprived, that somehow keeps beating, keeps from careening.

It only seems like chaos. There’s something actually there, holding it all together.

I want it.

Give me traffic and noise. Give me trash piles and laundry lines. Give me jackhammers and roaring motorbikes. Give me a honk of warning but don’t slow down.

Give me scaffolding and shadows that swallow whole streets. Give me littered ruins surrounded by sidewalk. Give me a small dead bird flattened against the black stone of the street. Give me the smell of fish in open-air markets.

Give me gypsy beggars and business men; give me round bellies on white rocks, tanning in the sun. Give me a woman bathing in a baroque fountain. Give me stray dogs sleeping. Give me 1000 cigarette butts and worn skin on beautiful women. Give me immigrants selling purses; give me hustlers pawning cans of salt.

Give me graffiti. Lots and lots of graffiti.

Give me Naples—give me this city and its swarm, give me something inside my own soul.

Pigneto: The Rome For Outsiders, and Me

Here’s a little rule of thumb I learned yesterday: if a neighborhood has a shitton of street art, it’s probably the neighborhood I wanna be in.

It’s funny coming back to a place; I never really do it. I was interested to experience the difference. Three years ago, Rome was hands down my favorite European city—probably because it was the most vivaciously chaotic of the cities I’d visited in Europe. Life was different then; for one, I was traveling with my then-boyfriend, who I’d break up with a month after returning home. Nuff said.

Rome didn’t seem so intense and frenetic this time around; it felt much more manageable. I landed with 8 hours of scattered sleep within the previous 48 hour period, and decided to power through the day in order to acclimate myself to the time difference (it worked).

I wandered through the city in a haze of memory, surprised by how my legs took me to all the familiar spots—muscle memory of a city. There was the Colosseum, aching in its magnificent crumble; there was this piazza and that piazza; there was the terrible Chinese restaurant I dragged us to in a vegan moment of tofu craving. It’s funny when a place has only existed in your mind, at one very specific time, funny to see it still going on, living and breathing, like going back into a dream that had kept on dreaming without you.

I remember my dad saying that Rome made him feel his own mortality, and I can definitely say that’s still true for me. There’s something about the ancient greatness, the ruins and remains of glory, that really serve to check you. Just in case, you know, you got to thinking your shit really mattered, there’s Rome to remind you how inconsequential it all is—how small, how much of one shining moment you are. All your joy and heartbreak, your own impending ruin—it will all come and go, and Rome will still be there. You’ll be lucky if your bones last as long as Rome’s.

That being said, Rome isn’t really about anything I’m about. It’s one of the world’s great cities, and has been for thousands of years, and I love it for that, but everything that I get stoked on—diversity, punk rock, hip hop, street art, tattoos, counterculture—Rome doesm’t give a shit about. Why should it? It had Julius Caesar; Rome doesn’t have time for trends.

Walking around center, you get to feeling like an absolute slob—an(other) American slob. Everyone has so much style and grace in Rome; how do their clothes fit so well? How do they all look so effortlessly chic and beautiful, and what the hell is wrong with you in your Toms and Talk Is Poison shirt?

And then you take a rickety street car down, along desolate tracks and amid rows of block buildings, into the rundown side of town, and you realize: that’s because all the Romans in the center are rich. Rich people of any culture look good, and are inherently alientating (to me at least). You get amid a neighborhood a little more like your own, and you realize there’s more to Roman life than tailored suits and killer shoes.

Pigneto is the Mission Dolores/Williamsburg of Rome—an old-school, traditional neighborhood first overtaken by immigrants, now overtaken by hipsters artist types otherwise entirely abscent from Rome. Along its shady streets, you see little old Italian men shuffling around; African, Chinese and Bangladeshi immigrants hanging out, free of their blankets of goods to sell; young Italian sitting in doorways smoking. I love dynamic cultural collisions like that; they’ve been known to bring much of the forementioned things I love. Including street art.

I’d headed out to Pigneto in the first place to meet up with Jessica Stewart, who runs the very kick-ass Rome Photo Blog, covering contemporary art, street art and other radom wonderful things around Rome. I had some time to kill before we met, so I roamed around and took photos.

Swear I saw stuff from this person in Brooklyn...

Loved this series

Well, lookey who...

My favorite series

I met Jessica at Necci, a bar/restaurant that’s been around since the 1920s and was featured in an issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller last year. We sat at a table under a tree (which only kind of shielded us from the rain) and she told me about the neighborhood, about the art scene and ex-pat life in Rome.

“Rome is a very play-it-safe, stay-with-the-pack kind of city,” she told me. She spoke about the city’s slowness to accept street art in its galleries. “It’s a very traditional city. It’s hard to impress people in Rome—you know, when you’ve got the Colosseum right there, it’s hard to feel like you can do anything in comparison, or anything that matters.”

There were, she told me (and as she’s documented on her blog), a small handful of artists, living out in Pigneto and San Lorenzo, that were doing their own thing. And acceptance was growing, along with recognition.

“The one thing one of the artists said that was true,” she told me, our shoulders hunched under the branches and drizzle, faces half-lit from the barroom light, “is that, if you can make it in Rome, you can make it anywhere.”

It seemed true enough.

FAME Festival Pre-Coverage @ Hi Fructose

Remember those impulsive plane tickets to Italy I purchased a couple months ago? Well, the impetus for the irrationality was FAME Festival, an annual street art event that takes over the ancient ceramics town Grottaglie. Aside from overall dopeness, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore the connection between street art and place—because what better way is there to explore a subject than to travel and write about it?

So I’ve been not-so-secretly trying to weasel my way in to writing for arts and culture publications. I’ve managed to work my way on to Hi-Fructose’s blog, with some pre-coverage here. Be sure to check in for updates as the event draws nearer!

Street Art Pictures: London, Spain, Morocco and Portugal

First, a disclaimer: I don’t profess to be any kind of expert in street art. Or even a novice, really. I just know that, when I spot a fresh stencil or spy some sick piece, it makes me smile—and, if I happen to have a camera with me, snap some photos.

I guess the thing about street art is the sense of place it evokes—which one naturally notices more when one is traveling, seeing a city with fresh eyes. As the world gets smaller, regionalism can be hard to find; this is especially true in the Westernized world. Traveling in Western Europe, you constantly see the same chainstores, the same brands, the same fashions—girls are wearing whatever’s hip at H&M everywhere from Malmo to Madison (and I’d like to say myself excluded, but that would be a lie). Street art, whether it’s good or not, shatters through that; its viscerality marks a place, claims it, and if you’re traveling, can often reveal a lot more about where you are than reconstructed period buildings and restaurants with picture menus (really, paella all kinda looks the same).

I hung around some East Bay graf kids for a time, and still smile when I see their tags around town. A repeated stencil, a tag, a distinctive style—they’re like recurring images from a dream, someone else’s dream, and you catch little glimpses, train your eyes to look down alleys and up at overpasses, and you feel like you’re in on something. It grounds you in a very tangible way, connects you with the phantoms that sneak around at 3am with backpacks full of clanging illegality, with their finger-staining passions and illicit dreams. Of course, I was never one of them; a certain romance remains when it’s not you getting arrested or jumped in some strange turf battle. But I will say you interact with a city—its architecture and landscape, its thingness—differently when you’re even vaguely in tune with its street art. And when you’re traveling, it can often be your only contact with the night-crawling kids that in large part create the pulse of a place.

My first stop on my trip was London, where I of course went on an all-day goose chase for Banksy (chronicled here). The hunt also took me past several of these digitized little fellows by Invader..

Super poor picture quality, but what can you expect from a 2am street lamp and a mediocre camera? This I spotted in Madrid, near Plaza Sol. If you can't tell, it's two tangoing figures with security cameras for heads.

Granada generally had some piss-poor graffiti and stencils, but this one made me laugh. Totally fitting for a college town.

I spotted this one several times around the beach breakers in Tarifa. The sentiment jived well with the surf-town vibe, and the fact that it was in English spoke to the internationalism of the unassuming little place-between-places.

As you might guess, there wasn't a whole lot of street art going on in Morocco, or at least in the places I went. What one does see a lot of is stenciled Muslim calendars, on the side of buildings, with icons depicting certain holidays and dates. My favorite was the rose. I of course have no idea what it denoted or what the Arabic says, and retained none of the heavily accented, half-French explanations.

But of course, the best stencil piece I saw was in one of my favorite dirt-road beach towns, Mirleft. Popular with vacationing Marrakeshis, artists, dreadlocked travelers and, well, me, Mirleft seemed a perfect place to find this, peeling away on a side street.

Back in Europe, much of Lisbon's street art had a distinctive Brazilian flavor, which makes sense considering the city's large Afro-Brazilian population, and the fact that São Paulo and Rio are some of the biggest and baddest producers of street art in the world. I saw this stencil around the center, around uber-hip Barrio Alto.

And this was a simply incredible wheatpasted portrait over near the Alfama district.

Another college town, Coimbra had a fair amount of politicized stencils. This one was especially interesting given the prevalence of domestic violence in Portugal, and the pervading stigma against seeking help: "Every 2 weeks, a Portuguese victim of domestic violence dies." The number is a little more somber when you consider the small country's population of 10 million.

On the flip side, this was just awesome.

And I quite liked this one as well.

But the place that really took the cake was Porto. Good ole unsuspecting Porto, forever in the shiny, smiley shadow of Lisbon. These were all taken near hip-slick-and-cool Rue Miguel Bombara.

The paper cranes were part of the 1000 Tsuri Project. They acted like punctuation, all over the walls of the street, serving as both a kind of visual break and space filler between the other pieces.

Part of a larger project by artist Costah; check more out here: http://www.costah.net/the-icons.html

This little girl is up a few places; each time, she's touching something different. From what I could tell, this was the logo of a nearby art gallery/collective.

One my favorites. Simple but expressive, and totally took me aback when I spotted it down an alley.

I don’t know if these reveal any more about the places I was in, but to me they do. And if nothing else, they’re better than cell phone ads.

Flyin’ with Ryan: What to Expect and How to Survive

DSCN3843I have seen the future of air travel. And it’s covered in Telecom ads.

If you haven’t been broke and in Europe in recent years, you may not be familiar with Ryanair. Among the no-frills airlines specializing in short distances and absurdly low prices, Ryanair is the most vile, audacious and offensive. And usually the cheapest.

The idea of an under-$50 flight gets most Americans all hot and bothered. It’s just another way those Europeans have it better than us—universal health care, social welfare systems that work, less violent crime, tougher environmental laws. And cheap flights. I’m talking 5 Euros cheap. I’m not sure why Europe gets to add this to their ever-expanding repertoire of ass-kicking, but my guess would be that the airlines have to compete with competent, efficient train service. Take Amtrak, or God forbid, Greyhound across the country? Down to LA? I think I’ll pay the $125.

When I was figuring out the general itinerary for my last trip, I checked out flight costs for my longest distances on FlyCheapo. I came across Ryanair, and thought there was something wrong. A one-hour flight from Marrakesh to Seville for 5 Euros? Porto to Madrid also for 5? Are you kidding me?

Well, yes and no. The thing with Ryanair is that there’s catches. Enough to warrant a mitt—or the ability to read fine print, follow rules to a tee, and tune out advertising assaults. And you’ll need a pinch of luck. I took 2 flights with Ryanair; here’s some survival tips on what to expect from Europe’s most infamous airline:

The first trick to surviving a Ryanair flight is to read every rule and instruction, and treat it like the gospel. It is. Any attempts to bend the rules promptly results in a hailstorm of fees. Size and weight requirements for both checked and carry-on luggage, for instance, aren’t approximations. Carry-on baggage over 10kg? That’ll be 20 Euros. Forget to print your boarding pass at home? That’ll be 40 Euros. Traveling with an infant, surf board or guitar? Another 20-40 Euros. You’ve gotta pay to check a bag, but if it exceeds 15 kg, there’s an additional per kilo charge. If you’re a non-EU citizen, you have to have your passport checked by immigration control; forget that, and, yes, it’s another 20 Euros.

In preparation for your Ryanair flight, don’t even think about fudging on the details. Check-in closes exactly 40 minutes before the flight departs; arrive even 3 minutes late and you’re SOL. Have your printed boarding pass in hand, and get your passport checked.

Get to the gate early. Don’t sit in the hard plastic chairs—stand as close to the gate as possible. Ryanair doesn’t assign seating, which at first seems counterintuitive—it takes longer for people to board when they’re elbowing and jostling and trying to find their own seats. But, as always, there’s a catch: you can pay 4 Euros for priority boarding. Most of the folks doing this are traveling with small children, or those infants they paid an extra 20 Euros to hold on their laps.

As boarding time approaches, expect to see a steely-faced attendant walking up and down the line of anxious passengers, examining each carry-on item. It must be under 10 kg, and it must be only one bag. That means purses, laptops, water bottles, plastic bags carrying your wilted sandwich from earlier that day—it all counts. This is where they really rake in the extra fees. I only saw one man successfully evade the attendant, putting a jacket on over his fanny pack and untucking his shirt so you couldn’t see the waist strap. Smooth.

When it comes time to board, don’t expect anything fancy like gates or protected corridors. You’ll be scurrying across the tarmac and scampering up stairs (front or back, they open both up for maximized efficiency). Hustle on to the plane while perky young attendants bark at you like PE teachers: keep moving! find a seat! don’t block the isle! move quickly! go!

You’ll discover a couple of unusual things about your Ryanair aircraft. One, there are no tray tables. That safety card with a creepy characters acting out worst-case scenarios will not be a folded card in a pocket, but pasted onto the seat back in front of you. The overhead bins will be covered in Telecom ads, like a bus or metro car.

Once you’ve buckled your seatbelt, you’ve successfully completed the first stage in surviving a Ryanair flight: you’ve negotiated the rules and fees. Now it’s time to sit back and… be marketed at.

It’s ingenious, really, and I’m not sure why other airlines haven’t thought of it yet. Maybe they have, and Ryanair’s just the only one ballsy enough to go through with it. They’ve got a captive audience on an airplane, and Ryanair makes use of this ideal situation. In a 55 minute flight, I counted 4 opportunities to buy things. Jonesing for a cigarette? Buy our Smokeless Cigarettes for only 6 Euros. Make use of Ryanair’s exclusive inflight mobile phone service, and text and chat your heart away for only 2 Euros a minute. Buy Nescafe coffee for only 3 Euros. Get your gambling fix by buying a scratch card for only 3 Euros—and don’t feel guilty because some undisclosed amount of the proceeds goes to charity (here the flight attendant actually walked the aisle saying, “Win 10,000 Euros, save the children”). And let’s not forget duty-free shopping.

All this means that the attendants are basically talking at you the entire flight. Part of the reason is that announcements and sales pitches need to be made in multiple languages, but still. I recommend headphones. A smiley “no thank you” is as effective as a mean scowl, so pick whichever one fits your mood. No charge.

Now, when you’re descending into your destination, you may think the battle’s almost over, but here’s where the luck comes into play. I was fortunate on my 2 flights, because I landed in the airports and cities I thought I’d be landing in. Not so for all Ryanair passengers. I’ve heard horror stories about people landing on some lonesome runway 20 kms from the city they’d booked for. Notice that on your Ryanair itinerary, specific airport names aren’t given, just the names of cities. This allows them to land in the regional area of whatever destination, but not necessarily the main (and more expensive) airport. So, if you’re among the unfortunate, how do you get to where you thought you were going? Ryanair is nice enough to arrange for a bus. Which you can ride for 20 Euros.

Seeing as though I landed where I was supposed to, only had one flight time changed and neurotically followed every rule, my Ryanair travel experience wasn’t so bad. I actually don’t mind being inundated with ads and paying checked bag fees if it means I’m flying for a total of 25 Euros. And judging from the number of filled seats, I’m guessing I’m not alone.

Ryanair certainly hasn’t won any friends with its wily antics (this guy is pissed), and there’s an art to surviving their flights. But until they start charging to use the bathroom (they lost on that one), I’ll still grab a cheap flight with them whenever I’m in Europe. And my guess is that US-based airlines will begin moving more in this direction—hey, they’re already charging for checked bags. Only their flights ain’t no 5 Euros. (Oh, Europe, there you go again…)

Hanging On: Porto and My Final Days

Porto, being hella beautiful

Porto, being hella beautiful

I´m nearing the end of my trip, fighting the blues and impending sense of finality not at all discouraged by the dark and brooding city of Porto.

Every place I go in Portugal seems to the up the ante. College-town Coimbra was a steep jumble of old streets and sudden squares with startlingly beautiful sights tucked inside every twist and fold. It was as pretty as a girl without make-up on, a girl who doesn´t know how pretty she is—clutching her parks and praças (plazas) and fountains to her chest like a Valentine. I wandered around the small city, sighing and thinking, This might be my favorite place in Portugal.

Then came Porto, sharply cleaved by the Douro River in a precipitous dive of rock and stone, bridges and dancing light. It´s the dark-haired, fiery-eyed counterpart forever in the Northern shadow of its shiny, more popular younger sibling, Lisbon. The two cities have a huge rivalry (most overtly expressed via football); I feel like an aunt that loves them both, for their different personalities, but that can vibe a little more with the darker side. At least, right now I can.

I spent the bus ride in yesterday not reading or writing or listening to my ipod, but staring out the window and wishing I would never arrive. Just keep riding, keep traveling, keep going. It was the last bus ride of my trip and I was savoring those precious moments of just sitting, thinking, living in that inbetween state—like when I used to ride the bus as a teenager. Having the time just to sit and stare is a huge luxury for me these days, and I´m going to miss it.

But more than even that, I wanted to hang on to the feeling of traveling, the mindset. When I´m on the road, everything seems possible; I´m more open to chance, more aware, more able to live life on life´s terms. When I´m at home, nothing seems possible; everything seems difficult and riddled with tedious and insurmountable obstacles. Of course, neither view is entirely accurate, but I enjoy the former much more than the nose-to-the-grindstone latter.

Two days ago, on the bus ride from Peniche to Coimbra, I began plotting and planning—sketching out timetables and earning versus saving projections (yes, really), trying to figure out when my next trip would be. I was seized by panic, stressed by the dismal prospect of not being able to travel anytime soon. Basically, I was future-tripping, trying to manage and arrange life before I even got home.

But I´m not alone in that. During my trip, I´ve slowly been reading Peter Matthiessen´s The Snow Leopard, a classic travelouge and meditation on the state of living. As timing would have it, Peter´s about to head back down the mountain, towards home, just as I´m about to hop on a flight and sleep in an airport and hop another two flights. In the passage I read today, he´s also losing the Zen of travel and stressing about home, “forever getting-ready-for-life instead of living it each day” (p. 244). He suggests that perhaps the greatest spiritual challenge is to live in the present, to “pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life” (p. 245).

So I rambled around the shuttered shops and lonesome graffiti of Porto this afternoon, the uneven stones in the street like a repeating mantra against my worn soles: be present, be present, be present. I wandered past baroque building facades adorned with trumpet-blazing statues, up gasping stairways, into gold-dripping cathedrals, past the darkly oxidized rock (“the awful and irrefutable rock-ness”) that jutted from the earth, bold and undeniable. I felt the murmur of Roman ruins beneath the surface, beneath my sneakers, and tried to hang on to this fleeting feeling of present.

No Port in Porto

DSCN3759I ended up at port tasting in Porto today. If you know anyone who´s been to Porto (yes, the homeland of port), this probably topped their itinerary, sent them scampering up the city´s steep hillside for a free tour and tasting of the  carefully aged, exquisitely sweet wine that is as Portuguese as codfish. If you know me, you´re bound to be uttering a “wtf?”

The thing is, I don´t drink. Not even wine; not even to taste. It´s been over 9 years since I´ve had a drink, so I don´t think of this as a very big deal anymore and don´t think to announce it on my Couchsurfing profile. So when my host picked me up from the bus station, drove me around town on a personalized sight-seeing tour (this is the life), and thought, you know, it´d be fun to stop off for a port tasting—far be it from me to not tag along.

It was mildly interesting, to wander amid the massive barrels and cool stones, listening to the heavily accented spiel (I serve ports at work, which I´ll be returning to in exactly one week, so it was good to have a little refresher course). I observed everyone else´s excitement, especially for the free tasting portion, and I have to say, it was a little awkward when I was the only one not politely pushing to the counter and grabbing a glass.

I´ve been thinking a lot about drinking and traveling, since I read Matador article discussing the pros and cons of alcohol consumption on the road. The article asked whether we needed alcohol to connect on the road. The 21-and-counting comments ran the gamut, and revealed a lot about the people the wrote them. On his personal blog, Matador editor Carlo Alcos offered his ruminations on the subject. “Okay,” I thought, “I can totally write a post on this.” I saved the links and let the subject swim around in the back of my head. And, I´m surprised to say, I actually have very little to say.

So, of course, I´ll say something about that. I found the responses to the article fascinating, little boxed glimpses into the psyches of the thumbnail photos that accompanied them. The fervor and conviction with which so many people wrote intrigued me, especially when they went so far as to make blanket statements or preachy proclaimations. I observed it all with a strange sort of detachment, as though I were looking in on something that had nothing to do with me, like watching a documentary on the culture of people in a terribly far-away land. And, in a way, I was.

I´ve never drank while traveling. I got sober at 17 and never looked back. At home and on the road, people who don´t know this will offer me drinks—I casually decline, and that´s the end of it. Sometimes they notice my repeated refusal and ask why, and I tell them the truth: I´m far more charming company sober.

Drinking for me was never about the kind of camaraderie and conviviality the Matador article talks about—it was about self-destruction and oblivion.  I didn´t win many friends by cussing people out, pissing in doorways or sobbing in corners. Nor would I expect to while traveling. And while I don´t hit the pubs or search out the coke bars when I´m in another city, I do go out. To parties, yes, sometimes to clubs and bars. Sometimes to port tastings. And I dance and laugh and conversate (I´ve stopped fighting, it´s a word now) and do all the stuff everyone else does. I just remember it the next day.

Or, at least that´s the position I´ve always maintained. But in my Portugal travels, I´ve had this lurking feeling that I´m missing out on something. Wine is a huge part of life in Portugal, a cultural characteristic that culminates in the precipitous cleave of Porto and the surrounding green valleys of the Douro. And in the same way that you get a better, ahem, taste of a culture via their traditional foods, I think I´d be getting a better feel for the soul of Portugal if I were swishing a tawny port around my teeth and pontificating on notes of walnut and honey.

But even this feeling, this knowledge, I observe with a distance. It´s all so far away, drinking and the culture behind it, and I find myself regarding it with complete indifference. That is to say, regarding other people´s drinking with complete indifference. I guess what I realized with the Matador article and the responses it provoked was that I really don´t want to be the arbiter of anyone else´s drinking. I´m probably the least qualified person in the world to do that anyway. I just want to keep living my little sober, happy life—even if I end up wandering into a port cellar or two.

Livin´ La Vida Português

Beach from a bus window: NOT the way to be enjoyed

Beach from a bus window: NOT the way to be enjoyed

Nearly a week into my Portuguese travels, I am convinced of two things. One, Portugal is a country best enjoyed by car. Two, Portugal is best a country enjoyed.

On my second day in Lisbon, my Couchsurfing hosts and I chased the sunset along the granite coast, driving through increasingly posh, and beautiful, suburbs where tan bodies gleamed in beach coves, green parks and umbrellaed cafes. My hosts, recently relocated Hungarians, had spent a month driving around the country, stopping in at whatever little village or beach enticed them. As we curved down the coastline, in pursuit of their favorite sunset spot, they told that Portugal was best explored by car. Infrequent and/or nonexistant bus service cuts you off from a lot of the country, they told me; cars mean the usual freedom from timetables, but also a better glimpse into Portugal. I stared out the window, at the pinkening sky and grey sheets of cliff, and nodded—I certainly wouldn´t be feasting on that sight if it weren´t for my hosts´car. Of course, traveling solo, renting a car was far out of my budget, but I lamented my inability to see more of the country, to get off the beaten path and into the dying villages the speckle the green countryside.

But as we climbed out of the car and scurried along the rocks just in time to snap photos and sigh at the insane beauty of it all, another thing occured to me: the Portuguese know how to enjoy life. They don´t initially bowl you over with siestas and late-night partying like their neighbor; coming from a night in Seville, Lisbon actually felt a little tame. While the Spanish are a bit more flamboyant in their lust from life, the Portuguese have a subtler, but equally infectious, approach to living it up: they´ve got the beaches. And the pastelerias. And futbol and fado and seafood and port. And all of it´s twinged with this hint of melancholy that really gets under your skin.

Old folks in Obidos

Old folks in Obidos

The theories converged and cemented today, as I treked off to Obios. The medieval village wasn´t initally on my itinerary, but two Portuguese guys and my hosts assured me it was the most beautiful town in Portugal, that I had to go there. An expensive touristy place to sleep, I booked a hostel in a nearby beachtown, filled with shirtless, sunbleached Austrialian surferboys. As they tossed their towels over their shoulders and headed out a day in the waves, I walked to the bus station. And waited.

The bus ran every two hours and, when it came, made a winding route through narrow streets, stopping at what felt like every crossroad. I got to Obios and, well, was a little underwhelmed. It was pretty, had a castle and cobbled streets and lots of stores selling lace and ginja, cherry liqeuor. I wandered amid the elderly tourists and billowing bougainvillea, half-heartedly snapping photos of the lush rambling countryside and gold-dripping cathedrals. Meh.

I´d been thinking about trying to make it over to another village, only about 30 km away. It sounded even more boring, but was home to a medieval monastery with a gruesome history—gruesome in the way Quentin Tarantino meant when he wrote the line, “I´m gonna get medieval on your ass.” Murals depicted scenes of the monastery´s founder ripping out and eating the hearts of the people who murdered his forbidden beloved, while making memebers of the court kiss her decomposing hand—metal enough to put Lords of Chaos to shame.

But, alas, the bus to Alcobaça only ran once every three hours, and would put me in town only an hour before the monastery closed. I debated: wait around in pretty-but-dull Obios for the bus and try to squeeze in one more sight, or head back to my hostel and do like the Portuguese: hit the beach. I´ll let you guess what won out.

Freshly shaved and bikini-clad, I took my crappy travel towel and joined the fat old men and tattered fishing boats along the gentle coast. The water was cold at first, but soon I was breast-stroking and wave-hopping with the best of em. I´ve been told the Portuguese love their beaches and escape to them at every available opportunity—and now I can see why. Rockless and clear enough that I could see my feet, it felt pretty heavenly. I stretched out in the sand, soaked up some sun, and stopped for an ice-cream cone on my way back.

I may not be making it out to the remote hilltop villages, and I may be spending hours twittling my thumbs at bus stations, but I´m starting to get the hang of this Portuguese living thing. And you know, it´s not so bad.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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