Impressions of Braga
The city is quiet. The city is old. Rain. Cold. Freezing toes. Not how Spring Break was supposed to go.
The stop signs say Stop instead of whatever it should be in Portuguese.
Uber operates in the country, thank god. A man from Marrakech picks me up at the airport and drives me from the canals of Porto to the mountains, to the colony of churches and narrow alleyways, small colleges and bookshops that sell only bibles and books about the bible. He doesn’t seem to understand jetlag. He starts describing his entire family’s exodus from Morocco to Portugal. When I doze off, he reaches back and squeezes my knee. “Are you okay? Are you okay?”
I jerk awake. “Yes, sorry, I’m okay.”
He smiles and continues the story again, but all the way from the very beginning.
I’m dropped off at my hostel. The man from Marrakech waits until someone answers the bell before driving off. A cleaning lady is assisted by four cats prowling the three story apartment. She speaks Portuguese. I speak broken Spanish. She speaks excellent Spanish. I pant helplessly. She gives me a look I can’t quite interpret before grabbing my luggage and wheeling it into the common room. I sit down on the couch and wait. The television is playing American channels, muted with Portuguese subtitles. I flip through; one of the CSI’s, one of the NCIS’s, Rizzoli and Isles, a movie channel playing Jupiter Ascending.
The owner of the hostel arrives. A short Portuguese man, fairly good looking with grey streaks in his dark hair. He bounces towards me, agitated, and beckons me to follow up the stairs. They creak beneath our nervous weight. He leads me into one of the rooms where six bunkbeds are set up and makes me put down my luggage there.
“I paid for private. Privata. Singulare. Uno.” I insist to him. It had been an amazing deal; six dollars a night for a private room with a shared shower.
“Tenta. You paid for tenta.” He beckoned me to follow when I clearly didn’t comprehend, thinking he was saying I paid for a room with ten bunks. “Tenta.” He jabbed his finger out at the window, but I still didn’t get it. He moved through the dining room, the kitchen, a door opens up into the garden. A narrow staircase falls beneath our feet, crumbling stone steps shaking beneath our agitated weight.
More cats prowl the garden. In the back, there are two green camping tents set up, and in between them an outdoor shower. “Tenta,” The owners says again. “But… the rain… not possible.”
He’s apologetic now, and I’m just really tired and confused. “I did not pay for a tent. I paid for a room.”
He leads me back into the hostel, through the kitchen, the dining room, the hallway dorm, down the stairs into the common room, where he gets on the computer and pulls up my reservation. I squint at the screen.
Oh my god, I did, I booked a tent. How did I book a tent? “Well, is there any private room available.”
He nods, nervous. “Sim, but… more… expensive…”
“How much more?”
He exhales. “For you… eight nights… 136 euros.” He misinterprets the look on my face, and immediately brings his hands up. “135! 135!”
I laugh. “That’s great, yes, fantastic.”
The room is nicer than any other hostel I’ve been to. The bed takes up most of the space. I bolt the door behind me and crawl onto it. I shouldn’t sleep now. When it’s only the afternoon. I should force myself to stay awake until night, get on the same cycle as everybody else. So, just five minutes, and I’ll get up. Just… five… more… min…
Church bells wake me up nine hours later. My whole body in a frozen coma. The mind wakes up before the blood flows, pricking at my fingers, my toes, asking them to move. I roll over and squeeze into that narrow gap which exists in my room between the bed and the door. I’m all the sudden starving. At the airport I bought a bag of Doritos that I forgot I can’t eat because it has cheese. Unwilling to throw money away, I keep it clutched in my hand, not sure what I’m going to do with it. Maybe there’s a cheese grater in the kitchen and I can… grate off… the cheese… and it’ll just be chips…
I’m too tired to know if that’s a genius idea or very stupid.
Standing helplessly in the kitchen for several minutes, the door to the garden bangs open and I startle as two women and a man come charging in, chattering excitedly.
“Hola…” They smile brightly and ask me something in Portuguese, I reply in broken Spanish, and the man narrows his eye knowingly at me.
“Ah, Americana?” They don’t wait for me to reply, switching to English. “Would you like some wine?”
We get four glasses from the cabinets, and the cheap Port wine glugs out. “Is it salud?” I lift my glass and toast the way they do in Guatemala.
“Sim,” The man says. “Salud, chin-chin…”
All three are Brazilian, I think, until one of the women giggles and says, “L’chaim.”
I blink at her. “How do you know L’chaim?”
She blinks back at me. “How do you know L’chaim?”
“My father is Jewish.”
“No!” She beams at me, and hits her boyfriend on the shoulder. “He is from Israel!”
A place which, according to her, is very Vegan friendly, and so in the midst of cooking beef and shrimp, they insist on cooking me rice and vegetables and pull me into dinner with them, the church bells fading into the next late hour. Brazilian identical twin sisters and the Israeli boyfriend. It takes me forever to figure out which sister he’s dating as they both are very affectionate with him.
It’s their last night in Braga. After dinner, we run out of wine, and they drag me out of the hostel to show me their favorite bar. We walk through the streets. Our hostel is colder than the city. I begin to warm up the farther we walk. The cars slow down and pause before the crosswalks, no matter what the light says. They don’t turn to look if the cars will stop for them or not, switching back and forth between English, Portuguese and tipsy laughter as they lead me through the city.
The stop signs, I notice, say Stop instead of something in Portuguese.
“Why is that?” I ask, and no one can answer me.