At 5am, we stumbled into our apartment, bodies filled with alcohol and adrenaline. It had been a final glorious night filtered through many laughs, drinks, and a kaleidoscope of emotions.
There are three situations that instantly come to my mind when I consider the things I am not good at: directions, remembering names, and saying goodbye.
And with that being said, I will save my last night out with all my best girl friends for another post… because I am still at a loss for words to articulate my heart.
Two hours. That’s the amount of sleep my body had before the devil called my alarm went off, signaling the beginning of a new adventure. With bloodshot eyes, I packed my suitcase half-drunk; reminiscent of the state of mind I was in before I moved my life to Madrid nine months ago. Time had slipped past me so fast.
With my two Italians, we made our way through the streets of our barrio silently. The air was crisp and cool, the 8 o’clock sunrise kissing our weary faces.
It was then I was struck with an inexplicable amount of gratitude. So strong, it masked my looming thoughts of final farewells.
The repetition of “I am alive” surged through my thoughts and cheered me up. I was on my way to Portugal with two of my favorite people, and at this precise moment, what more could I ask from the universe?
Typical picture where I’m not smiling, but rather contorting my face into an unusual shape. However, it is the first picture of our trip and thus, deserves to be seen by all who are interested about what an almost sober Trinh looks like on a plane.
The flight from Madrid to Oporto is a very brief breath of air. After about an hour in the sky, we were on ground again, making our way to our hostel by metro.
Oppositely, the ride into the city center from the airport is lengthy, and after the 35 minutes pass, suddenly the excitement of being in unknown territory finally seep into our bones. Our feet carried us through winding streets going from uphill to downhill in mere seconds. We were tired, but determined; sleep-deprived, but being directed by the energy of the city.
To my delight, Oporto is filled with greatly detailed street art. And not the kind that makes someone loathe and regard artists as delinquents… but the kind of magic that makes you wonder how someone’s hand can create such beauty with the simplicity of line strokes.
After we checked into our hostel, we trekked off to explore… rather I should say, we were being commanded by our stomachs to discover food firstly.
A cute café sat wedged between a street heading downhill caught our eyes. We walked in and were immediately greeted by a server in Portuguese. I think our nervous laughter gave us away, as she smiled and switched to English. I was pleasantly surprised at the ease in which she changed from her mother tongue to the language of tourism, but this is not what made me fall in love with Portugal.
Unsure of our bravado to test the taste of Portugal with growling appetites, I asked her for her recommendation on what to eat. She suggested the lunch special, which came with a potato based soup, a main course with a salad, then dessert, and finally a small espresso.
For the main course, we ordered a dish called “bacalhau a bras,” at the suggestion of our waitress. It’s shredded up codfish mixed with straw fried potatoes. I, for one, am not too keen on fish, but this dish was bursting with flavor and intricately dancing with my taste buds.
Then came dessert and coffee, which ended a perfect lunch. The kindness of the waitress to take her time to explain each dish and ask if we liked and were comfortable with our meal was simply amazing. The degree of her concern to quench our hunger reminded me of home. She was polite, and hospitable – a feeling I haven’t commonly felt among strangers in Madrid.
With pleased stomachs, we spent the rest of the day exploring Oporto, the unsung hero of the Iberian Peninsula.
The next day, we decided to go to the beach at the suggestion of the hostel’s host. We took a bus, and soon found ourselves along the coast, admiring the view of the Atlantic Ocean.
The beach wasn’t blanketed with sand, but instead, small pebbles. We stayed for about an hour, because the wind picked up and it became a bit too cold to be half-naked.
Returning back to the city, we found ourselves getting lost between tourists and cobbled streets in search of the bus office. We had decided that the next day we wanted to take a day trip to Lisbon.
Bus tickets in hand, we made our way back to the hostel.
We stopped for a few minutes on one of the busiest streets so Sara could get some henna done on her arm. She chose a flowery pattern and ended up liking it very much. The reason I think this is funny is because Sara is against tattoos for herself personally. So to watch her get a temporary one was ironically hilarious to me. And of course, my Italian wouldn’t be telling her mother about it.
Back on course to return to the hostel, there’s a mall directly on the path, so we decided to stop. Roberta was a bit tired, so she decided to continue to the hostel without us while Sara and I made the pit stop.
Inside the mall was a shop that makes customizable shirts. Since the beginning of January I have embraced full heartedly the concept of being single and in love with my life, while simultaneously striving to improve myself and become the best version of me daily.
The idea that I’m on a journey of the self, through to self, to the self.
And thus, my motto of soltera siempre. (Forever single.)
This quickly became the anthem of my close group of girlfriends in Madrid, all having had our own personal experiences with the misadventures of love.
Throughout the past couple of months, I have told my friends I’d design a shirt with these two words, so that no matter where in the world we are, no matter what degree of longitude and latitude separate our hearts, we would always remember the moments we laughed and celebrated each other’s existence. To remind ourselves to always seize the moment and truly appreciate life in the now, with no worries of the future, and no baggage from the past interrupting these small moments of shared victory called happiness. These moments, they matter so much.
So as Sara and I made our way into the tshirt shop, we decided to test a design and get some simple shirts made to remember our time in Portugal.
The worker there was exceptionally kind. He took the time to help us figure out shirt sizes and let us use his computer to pick out a font style. Ironically, Sara ended up choosing the Greek alphabet. A time of my past colliding with my present state of being, however, I agreed to this because it was aesthetically pleasing and because letting go has allowed for reflection on the past with sincere happiness without letting it ruin this gift we call the present.
He told us our shirts would be ready on Monday because he had to get the right color and size from the larger store located in a different part of the city. Before we walked away, curiosity seized me and I asked the guy why for the words “thank you,” I had heard both “obrigado” and “obrigada.” He half smiled and blew out a chuckle, perhaps I had peaked his curiosity too. He then explained that men use “obrigado”, and women use “obrigada.”
To be honest, I didn’t really understand his explanation. What I understood from him, was that if you’re saying “thank you” to a man, use “obrigado,” but if you’re saying thank you to a woman, say “obrigada.”
As we walked out of the store and into the sunlight, I turned to Sara and voiced to her my confusion. She then explained to me that how you say thank you depends on who you are, not who you’re saying it to. It was then that I was struck by an odd fascination and realization. It was absolutely astounding to me how two people, Italian and Portuguese, with different mother tongues, were able to communicate and understand each other perfectly in a language not their own.
We play with the idea of the existence of other dimensions and unreachable words not our own.
But here I witnessed it; a secret dimension between two complete strangers, where they were able to collide and exist, if only momentarily. A world gone unnoticed by everyone, except me… a world I could never be part of or understand, only marvel and wonder if I had ever been part of someone’s secret world, too.
Sometimes, I really think I think about things too much. But hey, it makes for interesting food for thought.
Anyway, while walking outside with Sara back to the hostel, some graffiti caught my eye and we stopped for a bit so I could photograph them.
It was a small road behind the mall, overlooked and neglected by tourists.
Sara joked and told me this graffiti looked like me. Sometimes she’s funny; what remarkable life it is to be able to laugh with another soul.
After, we finally made the uphill walk back to our hostel, and on the walk up; we stopped at a convenient store to grab some chips. Sara had paid for hers, and went outside to wait.
While I was in line behind an older lady, she told me something in Portuguese while smiling. I didn’t understand so I muttered a soft “sorry.” Her eyes got bigger, and suddenly, in a perfect British accent, she began talking to me in English.
“Where are you from? You don’t have a British accent, and sorry, earlier I had told you that you could go in front of me to pay.”
I told her I was from Texas, and her husband beside her started making gun gestures with his hand. His lop sided smile and squinty eyes made him look so young and boyish, I couldn’t help but laugh and aim my own finger gun back at him.
I thanked the lady and before walking out, I turned back to face her, not wanting to miss an opportunity to thank someone for having a beautiful heart, I said, “You are so kind, I am so impressed with how nice everyone has been during my stay.”
Arms opening, she gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, a genuine smile on her lips, “I’m so happy to hear that is the impression the Portuguese people give to foreigners, I hope you and your friend have a great rest of your trip.”
And with that, I walked outside to meet a waiting Sara. My heart was so full at that moment, a feeling that had become more prominent in my life since the beginning of the year.
I live for moments like this. I will never see this woman again, but her kindness was the epitome of her gorgeous country.
After we rejoined with our third companion. Hungry and tired, we made the decision to get dinner somewhere close. There was a small family owned diner right next to our building, so we went there.
Our menu was completely in Portuguese, so we were lost on what to order. Finally, we asked the old man behind the bar for a suggestion. He waved off our English not understanding, and smiled at us speaking in broken Spanish. A wave a relief flooded my Italians’ faces, as we all eased into the more comfortable language of Portugal’s neighboring country.
All three of us ended up ordering “francesinha,” which is a typical dish of Oporto and means “little French girl.” The best way to describe it is: a loaded sandwich drenched in a sauce made from a mixture of tomato and beer. Inside of it we found sausage, steak, ham, and cheese, while on top was a fried egg. Upon my first bite, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sauce was actually pretty spicy, even for accustomed taste buds.
Because we had an early bus ride the next morning, we retired early to our hostel. But not before smoking some hookah. A really friendly Moroccan man owns our hostel, and thus the shisha was very authentic, and very strong. We decided on apple flavor, and spent about an hour and a half relaxing and planning out sights we wanted to see the next day. Roberta was still pretty tired from the all day walking and went up to the room earlier than Sara and me.
So again, I found myself one on one with Sara. We continued to smoke the hookah and found our minds elevated and on a high. At one point, while we were both researching Lisbon on our phones, I looked at her and said, “I’m going to miss you so much,” to which she replied, “me too, nannetta.”
Nanetta, a pet name we all three call each other. It’s Italian for small person, and in most context, is very offensive. However, I adopted the word with affection to mean “my little Italian” and have called Roberta and Sara this on many occasion.
We had a moment of silence after, strong and profound, interrupted by thoughts of Lisbon so we could avoid the inevitable feelings of having to say goodbye too soon. But I think I’ll always remember this. The moment you realize how much someone’s absence from your life will truly and royal suck, but how much their presence has impacted your own personal world.
I pushed thoughts of goodbye out of my head, and reminded myself to enjoy the present moment. So Sara and I (mostly Sara, because she’s good at these kinda things) made a list of all the monuments we wanted to see in Lisbon since we would have very limited time. And with that, we went upstairs, showered of the day’s adventure, and drifted off to sweet oblivion for a few hours.
Sunday morning we woke up at 7:30am. We went downstairs to grab some breakfast and to make sandwiches to have for lunch. We caught the bus at 9, and found ourselves in Lisbon at around 12:30 in the afternoon.
Our bus ride back to Oporto was at 22:30, so we only had 10 hours to cover the city.
It was a fast exploration of the city, and so will be my description.
We caught the metro from the bus stop, and headed to the center. From there we were able to see a magnificent view of the main plaza. After, we walked the back alley roads and lost ourselves in the small winding roads leading to unexpected marvels.
At one point we walked past a beautiful building, the girls were in a rush to find the castle, but I crossed the street to back up from the building to have a proper look at it and to take in the majestic colors that blanketed the old tattered walls. Vibrant pink and purple flowers lined the balcony, and I stood to admire it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Roberta and Sara looking for me, wearing obvious faces of worry. I smiled and waved them over to where I was standing.
Surely, they were annoyed by having briefly lost me, but when I pointed up, their eyes followed my lifted finger and all traces of worry turned into wonder. The beauty of antique architecture, too, captured them.
After, we searched around for the castle that was supposed to be the gem of the inner city, but naturally, we got lost. I saw some street cleaners, a woman and a man, and hesitantly approached them to ask for directions. I had been told that people from Lisbon were a bit colder than their Oporto counterparts.
But still, in English, I asked how we could find the castle. From the woman’s reluctant smile, it was obvious that neither spoke English. But the man casually took the map from my hands, and pointed to where we had to go, and rapidly started speaking Portuguese. I guess from knowing Spanish, our ears had adjusted and we understood mostly everything he said. He also jokingly told us that we had to be really strong to make it up to the castle because it was directly uphill and took about 20 minutes to walk to. We said thanks, and went on our way, the idea of infinite kindness shaping my mind once again.
Meandering around, we somehow stumbled upon the castle and took a few pictures.
Then we walked around it, and decided to take a tram around the area, which ended up being a really brilliant idea to rest our feet.
The day growing older, we decided it was best to take a bus to one of the most touristic and famous parts of Lisbon, an area called “Belem” that had the tower and the Age of Discovery monument. From the center, it took about 40 minutes by bus.
We walked along the boardwalk, and rejoiced in being seaside again. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something mystical about being close to bodies of water during the summertime heat.
Touring this area had depleted the remainder of our time, so it was time to head back to the bus stop. We grabbed some food on the way, and once again found ourselves underground and lost. Luckily for us, the universe wasn’t finished, and a Portuguese girl, from the looks of it our age more or less, directed us in perfect English on how to get to the bus station. She also warned us to be careful crossing the streets because people in Lisbon didn’t care nor pay attention to pedestrian crossing.
Finally in our seats, time hit 22:30 and we were on our way back to Oporto. I liked Lisbon very much, and I definitely have to visit again with more time. Lisbon houses some of the best museums in Europe, and 10 hours was not enough to see everything I wanted.
Monday morning we slept in a bit later, and didn’t wake until around 10:30. We ate a quick breakfast and checked out of our hostel, but left our suitcases since our flight wasn’t until the later evening.
By this time, we had covered most of Oporto, so this time was spent relaxing. We had some sangria by the water, and discussed our likes and dislikes of Portugal. As per normal, we got into a discussion of linguistics and language, and we spent a good amount of time differentiating the pronunciations of “beach” and “bitch.”
We all had a good laughing hearing each other trying to pronounce words in each other’s own respective tongue.
Around 5 we headed back to our hostel, and Sara and I decided to smoke another round of hookah. For some reason, it was hurting our throats very much and we were pulling in water. The hostess at the time had made it different from our liking, so she took it away and readjusted it. And yet still, it wasn’t as great as the first time.
Finally, a guy walked up to us and asked if he could change it for us. He ended up being the owner and brought out a completely new hookah, which ended up being really strong, but this time we no sting. Again, the feeling of light-headedness took control and we found ourselves laughing and talking to him. In the middle of discussion, he offered us free drinks. He said it is common practice to drink tea in Morocco while smoking, in order to soothe the throat. So we accepted and had the hot tea placed in front of us.
While we drank our tea, the host from the previous day appeared. He was the guy who had suggested the beach and where to go out for nightlife. He asked about our stay and if his suggestions were good ones. We all nervous laughed, and told him the beach and nightlife was different from what we expected. Not necessarily bad or good, just different than what we were accustomed to. But that’s how travelling is, you immerse yourself in a different culture and get to see the similarities and differences.
He agreed to our sentiment, and we asked for our bill for the hookah. The previous night we had paid 7 euros, but this guy only charged us 2 euros. Again, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of how far being friendly and smiling can go.
We made a quick stop at the mall again, to pick up our shirts and they turned out pretty cool. We both got grey shirts, but my font was in purple, and Sara got hers in a leopard print. I made fun of her for picking this, naturally. But they both turned out really nice, and the material of the shirt is light and durable.
As with any trip, something has to go wrong in order to really shake a trip up and make it memorable.
So we hopped on the metro thinking it was going to be a direct ride to the airport, since from the airport it was a direct ride to the city center.
We took the line that was marked “aeropuerto” above the entrance and thought all was well in the universe. Until about 45 minutes later when I was looking outside the window of the metro (because it goes from underground to outside), and saw that we were surrounded by a forest. I turned towards Roberta, and asked her if this was the right way. We discovered that it wasn’t, and got off on the next stop.
We looked around, and for all we knew, we could have been in a different town because the whole scenery had changed to countryside. A passerby explained to Roberta that we had to take the metro back, and change lines to get to the airport.
We all sat down to wait 14 minutes for the next metro. I calculated the time in my head, and told the girls we would get to the airport at 20:00. Which left us 25 minutes to haul ass and somehow manage to make it.
Italians, always so expressive with their facial expressions. I could tell they both were discouraged and very doubtful we would get back to Madrid that night. Roberta was looking down at her feet, and mouthing all the bad sayings they had taught me in Italian.
And being typical me, my smile turned into a laugh, and I was shaking my head with amusement. “Of course something had to go wrong,” I thought to myself.
I looked over at Sara to see how she was soaking in the situation, and it’s the most serious and straight faced I have ever seen her.
Again, with mal humor, I half grinned while we looked at each other. And with no hint of sarcasm or amusement she said, “I don’t think this is very funny.”
To suppress my own feelings of defeat, I answered back, “No, maybe not, but better to smile than be angry.”
The metro came by at that moment, and we got on. We took it for about 5 stops, and got off in order to change to the line that headed towards the airport.
It was 19:30, and we had to wait 11 minutes for the next metro. So in my head I thought, “Okay it’s 7:30, metro will be here at 41, it’ll take about 15 minutes, we’ll be there by 8:00… they can make it, maybe I can’t, but they can. Fuck we’re gonna have to run so fast.”
At the end of my own metro of thoughts, I looked over at my roommates, a dismayed Sara was right beside me, while Roberta had walked off to ask someone if this line was 100% for sure going to the airport. I sighed heavily and directed my words to Sara, “You both should get on the plane because I think you both can make it. But because I’m American, I have to go to luggage check and have my visa and passport checked, like I had to do on the way here, so I won’t have time.”
Sara immediately said a firm, “no,” which honestly surprised me. We didn’t all have to pay again for new flight tickets, didn’t she understand that?
So I repeated myself again. She was brisk but firm, she wouldn’t go, so instead, we told Roberta that if it came down to it, she should go ahead of us to security check and try to get on the plane.
Finally the metro came, and we got on… 5 more stops and the airport was in front of us. We each grabbed our suitcase and sprinted out the doors and into the building, frantically trying to find the Ryanair check in points.
At this moment, I pointed toward the security check and told Roberta to go. She hesitated for a moment, but then got in line. At that moment, Sara waved me over towards her. She had found the Ryanair desk, and I nervously took out my passport and ticket.
As I walked up towards the desk, the guy sitting lazily behind it, said, “Liverpool?”
I shook my head frantically and said, “No, Madrid.”
To which he answered, “Sorry, the gate has closed for that flight. I can’t stamp your ticket.”
With a deep breath lodged in between my lungs and throat, and turned around and looked at Sara. I shook my head at her to signal that I wasn’t able to get my passport checked and thus, we would miss the flight.
For the second time in our friendship, she looked at me with a distraught but serious face, “Okay, let’s sit down and think abou this.”
I grabbed her wrist, feeling guilty she would miss a flight she didn’t need to all because she wanted to stay with me, “No, Sara, we’re gonna try and go through security check anyway and see if we can get through.”
I gave her arm a small pull, but she was very resistant. Eventually, she reluctantly obliged, and followed me towards security check. The guard took one look at us and let us pass. Okay, okay, so maybe this shit was going to work out, wow.
Relief washed over Sara’s face, a grain of hope planted in our hearts.
Jokingly, to break the tension, I told her I would go to church if we made it. She nervously laughed, knowing I don’t believe in organized church or God… at least not the God that is pictured as an old man with a white beard, waiting in the sky wearing flowing white robes. I have my own beliefs about the idea we call “God” but that is for another writing at another time.
I looked at my phone to check the time, 20:09. Damn, we gotta hurry. We stepped through the metal detectors and hurriedly put our shoes on and our stuff back inside our suitcases. Then our feet hit in the ground in strides, and we ran across the airport, desperate to be the final passengers to board. Sara ran ahead of me, she was faster. Many times we had had races, and she always won. This wouldn’t be any different. But she got stuck on the elevator down, because people were standing on the left side, the faster lane. Or maybe she was again, making the choice to wait.
So I caught up with her, and at the bottom we took a right towards signs for gates 12-30; ours was 18. Then there was another sign ahead that said gates 18-20 were in the opposite direction. It had seemed like the universe was not conspiring in our favor.
So we dashed again past people and finally came upon a huge ass line, Spanish chatter filling our ears. Holy shit, people weren’t on board yet. We made it!
Sara and I got into line, sweating like we had been stranded in the Sahara desert, while all the Spaniards stared at us in distaste. We didn’t care though, we were in line, we were gonna get on this plane.
We looked at each other, and kneeled over laughing, on the verge of tears. We high fived again in victory and tried to catch our shallow breath. A calmness settled as we waited in line. While we waited, we saw Roberta walking towards us, apparently someone had given her the wrong directions so she had gotten lost, and we ended up getting there before her. God, how I love irony.
While we waited, there was a Japanese couple ahead of us. I got a glimpse of their tickets, and they had been stamped.
You see, for Ryanair, there’s a rule. If you are not a EU citizen, you must go to the desk check, and have your passport/visa looked at, where upon they will stamp your ticket to signify you are who your passport/visa says you are.
Sara also saw their tickets, and we began to panic again. Would I be able to get on without a stamped ticket or not? Fuck my life, so close and yet still so far to get on this damn plane to Madrid.
Just then, a Ryanair assistant was checking in people’s luggage because the plane was fully booked and there wouldn’t be enough space on the plane for carry one bags. He tagged our suitcases and walked away. “Shit,” I thought to myself, “maybe I should have asked him if he could check my passport.” I voiced my thought to the girls and they agreed. But instead of asking him, Sara and I went to gate 17, and asked a Ryanair helper there if this was possible, and very politely with ease he said, “Sure, ask the people at the desk in front of your gate to check it and they should be able to do that for you.”
Okay, maybe I was going to make it. It seemed that it really depended on the person you asked.
So we returned back into line, where Roberta was holding our place. I saw the guy who tagged our suitcases and called him over again. Shyly, voice shaking with nerves, I asked if he could passport check me because I didn’t get my ticket stamped. With no big deal, he smiled and said, “sure,” while looking at my passport and signing his name on my ticket with the words “Visa OK” by his signature.
Officially, I was going back home to Madrid. I looked at my phone again. 20:35. The flight was late in taking off, but it didn’t matter, I was returning home. In that moment, nothing mattered.
The line began to move and as the woman at the desk was checking my ticket to see if it was stamped, another lady at the desk had pulled two people aside. Roberta had already gone towards the plane, but Sara and I caught the conversation in Spanish. It was a couple, and they hadn’t gotten their tickets stamped. The woman was explaining to them that they should have gone upstairs to the Ryanair check in desk and gotten their passports looked at in order to obtain the stamp on their tickets. It was policy of Ryanair and for this, they wouldn’t be able to board the flight.
While dragging our suitcases through the gate, Sara and I looked at each other and laughter took control of us. Not because we thought it was funny that the couple wasn’t going to Madrid, but because luck had been on our side. We could have easily ended up in their shoes.
We walked away with middle fingers in the sky, and the Portugal airport at our backs. The airplane was in front of us, and the sun was dying magnificently on the horizon. We made it. We were going home.
I fell in love with Oporto, Portugal. Walking the streets, there was a certain magic in the atmosphere; an inexplicable energy that not only filled my lungs, but also my entire being.
It didn’t have to have a spectacular nightlife like Madrid, where I am accustomed to staying out until 6amsurrounded by the laughter of others intoxicated with joy.
It didn’t need to have a beach, with white sand and people dancing to the music of beach bars, while the rays of the sun kissed my golden skin.
It didn’t need to have the allure of a rich city, filled with we dressed people stoically worried about their own life.
What it did have was enough. Streets filled with art that captured my wonder, food that satisfied my desire for different flavor, vibrant and colorful architecture lining every street, but most importantly, Oporto had beautiful, kind people.
In every encounter with different people, all with their own separate stories, each wore a face of kindness. I was simply moved by the amount of love my heart held for people who I will never come across again. But in those brief moments of collision, our souls collided, and our exchange of the human condition created an experience that the world doesn’t always commonly offer; kindness.
Or maybe it’s that we don’t take the time to notice it. I am not sure, maybe a combination of both. But it’s these details of life that I do notice, and take to heart.
What I felt in Oporto was like being in love again with a significant other, something I didn’t think I’d feel again for a very long time. Good to know my heart still works.