Dateline – Porto, Portugal
Today was lovely. Sunny, no humidity, not too warm. A perfect day for walking tours and boat cruising on the Douro. After my sleep of the dead, the night before, I slept a more normal amount of hours and actually managed to make my way down to breakfast. Portugal definitely works on a different schedule than America. I was finished with breakfast by 7:30, had some time to kill and went out for a bit of a walk. I’ve always loved walking in European cities. One would think that at 8 AM the streets would be bustling. Deserted… even the local Starbucks didn’t open until 9:30 AM. Some of this might have to do with it being Saturday but as Iberian culture breakfasts between 9 and 10, lunches around 2 and doesn’t eat supper until after 9 PM, my guess is they don’t generally get up much before 8:30 for any reason.
The first part of the morning was a walk with the group through the old town. The highlight was a stop at the Church of St Francis. The exterior isn’t much – undistinguished early gothic with a bunch of clashing baroque additions, but the interior is a rococo fantasy of carved wood with every available service covered with gold leaf carried back from Brazil in the 16th and 17th centuries. The estimates are about half a ton of gold in total. It’s no longer used as a house of worship, just as a structure to be admired. I liked it very much but the choice of piped in music was a tad odd. (I got why Schubert’s Ave Maria but it was followed up by the William Tell overture and the Waltz of the Flowers.) Then further down the hill to the Douro riverbank and on to a boat to see all of the bridges from the river’s mouth to the highway bridge somewhat upstream of town. After that, on to one of the ancient port wineries on the other bank of the river. The one we toured was Taylor’s I’ve been to lots of wineries in my time but this was the first time I’d been in one in continuous operation since the 17th century. The process of creating port is somewhat different than table wine involving the adding of brandy very quickly in the aging process to stop the oxidation, and a major reason why port is about 20% alcohol compared to the usual 12% for table wine. Lunch at the winery accompanied by a Fado concert. (Think Edith Piaf songs of longing but sung in Portuguese and accompanied by guitar). Then back to the hotel, some shopping and sitting in sidewalk cafes people watching before turning in. Up relatively early tomorrow again as we make our way to Sintra and then to Lisbon.
I would be remiss if I did not note that this was the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. I have very confused emotions about that day and its images due to its interconnectedness with my own private grief. Steve had died on August the first of 2001. It was not unexpected. He had been quite ill with his interstitial lung disease for some time and I had been taking care of him at home along with his paid caregiver Tameka (who was there when I was at work) and hospice services. When his battle was finally over, I decided to take two months off of work with a planned return on the first of October. I wrapped up the affairs that I had to right away, and then I loaded the car and headed out of town. I had no specific itinerary. I’d just been cooped up in the house for a couple of years in my 30s, unable to go much of anywhere other than work. I made a long meandering drive cross country, using the opportunity to connect or reconnect with various friends, eventually ending up in Southern California where I scattered Steve’s ashes in the Anza-Borrego desert (his favorite place on the planet). Well, there’s a very long convoluted story about that which I’ve written up before and which I won’t repeat now. I then headed north to Seattle to spend some time with the family, arriving in early September. I was staying at my brother’s house, sleeping in. He was at work, my sister-in-law was downstairs with my then two year old niece dealing with toddler breakfast things and she flipped on the news. Shriek and then yells up the stairs that I had to get up and see what was happening. She and I stayed glued to the television all morning, watching the drama unfold as the towers burned and collapsed.
Over the course of the next week or so, I flew to Alaska to see my old college roommate (I had been slated to fly out on the 12th but of course that didn’t happen), drove back across the country and ended up in Manhattan about two weeks later. The haze was still in the air. The flyers were still affixed to walls. The smell, a mixture of burning electrical systems and pulverized stone was endemic. I mourned for Steve. I mourned for the ugly scar in my beloved Manhattan. I mourned for the thousands dead and tens of thousands whose lives were uprooted by the tragedy. Even to this day, I cannot separate my grieving for Steve from my grieving for the country. I had hopes that such a national tragedy might unite us and make us stronger. Instead, as we all know, those sentiments were hijacked by the military industrial complex into fruitless conflicts across the globe which made elites wealthy and drained national wealth away from poorer classes helping exacerbate the economic conditions which leave us so riven.
I was wondering today what Steve might have made of this trip. He would have complained about the food (fortunately, McDonalds is close by and I could have sent him there). He would have complained about too much walking on cobblestones. He would have loved the weather and the boat ride. He could have done without the winery. He was seventeen years sober when I met him, and thirty years sober when he died and was prouder of that accomplishment more than anything else. Tommy, on the other hand, would have loved the winery. He never passed up a winery or a wine tasting if he could help it. As a super taster, he could identify all of the notes in a good wine. I can’t do it and he would always make fun of me for that genetic imperfection. The only time I remember him having an issue with wine was on one of our trips to Northern California. We drove up to Napa. He was having a snit about something (at this point I have no idea what) and, even though we stopped at several wineries, I could barely get him out of the car and he was sullen in the tasting rooms. Even a little alcohol in the system didn’t help. He made up for it on other trips where we went out of our way for Washington and Oregon wineries and Biltmore Vineyards in Asheville was a habitual stop.
Enough for tonight. On to the morrow. I have my hand sanitizer, my masks, and my CDC card all ready to go in my day bag.