JttW: Porto

Today, 17 November 2020, is a date that merits a special mention. Exactly one year has passed since I left the Netherlands.

366 days—not 365, for 2020 is a leap year. A whole extra day to enjoy this special year! (Depending on your mood and experience of this year, feel free to read that either as sarcasm or sincerity.)

Five days after flying to the East, I sat down in that colourful, quaint café in downtown Taipei and started learning how to set up a blog, this blog. Fast forward through Taiwan, Wudangshan, Mediterranean Europe, a blog, a podcast and a novella later. Here I am now, on my balcony, where this is my view:

It is less than inspiring, but I am listening to fado, the music that has the magical power of transporting me in an instant back to what I will romantically and with unabashed entitlement call My Beloved Porto.

It is about My Beloved Porto that I will write today: appropriately the first place that felt like home to me after the Wudang Mountains, and before that My Beloved Utrecht.

Because this is a special post, I will try and convey my feelings, rather than mainly reporting my actions, in a different way from usual. Let me tell you then about my short yet lovely time in the town that brings us that sweet, mellow wine: a wine to match its sweet, mellow temperament.

Presença de Espírito

Usually when I am in the streets, I’m in airplane mode. Precisely because of the relentless onslaught of stimuli in modern urban areas I have long developed a habit of switching off as many of my sensors as possible. I’ll allow essential alerts and notifications of oncoming traffic and a general awareness of the whereabouts of other moving entities, but otherwise my gaze and other senses are very much turned inwards. If you were to bump into me, it would take time for me not only to recognize you but also to grudgingly force myself out of my protective shell into the all too bright light and sound of day. Don’t take it personally; it’s not you, it is the loudness of civilization that is more than I can process—and remain healthy.

In Porto, however, I notice that my eyes, ears and such are not only open for survival, but actually to observe, to take in, to relish in what is essentially a tranquility I rarely encounter in cities. First, there is the river. There’s the bell on the tram. The muted rumble of tires on cobblestones. There is the soothing call of seagulls that, in a manner I cannot quite explain, seems to expand the perceived space of the place. There is the Portuguese language, which is filled with hushed fricatives and full-bodied vowels. It is uttered quietly, sotto voce, and at a pace that allows the listener time to attend and to let the words flow without haste to the heart-and-mind. The national music, fado, has similar qualities. Purity, tranquility, and expressing deep emotions.

Filipe, my friend in Porto, explains to me one night that Portuguese has a turn of phrase that is used to describe a person’s mental state in interaction. Presença de espírito, or “presence of spirit”, means truly being there, being mentally present and available. A quality of paying attention to what somebody is saying, for example, without already drafting a reply in one’s thoughts: being fully open to the conversation, to the other. I find it applies equally to my own more open, less armoured state when I am interacting with the city and its people at large. Presença de espírito. Note that the final “o” is not pronounced as a hard, closed vowel sound as it would be in Spanish (formerly one of my favourite languages, requiescat in pace), but instead as an open, soft “u”.

Chance Conversations

For example. Outside on the patio near the swimming pool, I am sipping my complimentary birthday glass of Graham’s tawny when the only other guest present that night, a Brazilian woman as I am about to find out, suddenly laughs and says, “They sound like babies.”

As I look up from my book, so does she turn her eyes to the sky and with a cackle points at the two screeching seagulls that sound like they are having a traffic squabble. We share a laugh and that is her cue to take off with many a story. She used to work in the Dutch embassy in Brasilia, calls the then-ambassador her best friend, such a nice man, he was awarded something or possibly knighted by Queen Juliana. Her accent in English sounds Russian to my ears, but then I have often noticed overlaps between Portuguese and Slavic speech sounds. Again, she narrates on, “Such a nice man, such nice people, beautiful country,” she has been to the Netherlands many times. Her husband passed away five years ago, lung cancer, cigarettes; a Frenchman, he had a school, spoke French, Portuguese and English, very intelligent but not when it came to his health, she says with obvious traces of sorrow. She herself now owns houses in Rio de Janeiro, Miami, a studio in Lisbon but only to put down luggage, pick up luggage, go away again. She recommends a neighbourhood in Lisbon to me, very old, very nice, such nice people. She is going back to Brazil only briefly to sort out taxes and other bureaucracy for her house, then to leave again, because that man in charge there now is crazy, no good, maybe she’ll visit her daughter in the States, early January, but who knows what is possible now, things change every day with the virus. I should go to Lisbon, she says, the virus is bad there, yes, but it’s everywhere, that isn’t going to stop her. She complains about the hotel wifi, shrugs and drinks her gin & tonic. No, she is not going to have dinner, she does not like food anymore, “Eating, eating, everything is eating,” she says. I on the other hand am quite fond of eating, so I leave to go and find a restaurant. We never exchange names; I don’t see her again.

Prova and João: Tasting Wine Ruo Shui

Chocolate and amber: heaven

One of many nights at Prova, the wine-tasting bar where, like Sheldon Cooper, I soon have my very own regular spot on the only sofa there. I ask João if he has something the colour of amber for me. I don’t know why, but I suddenly fancy drinking amber. Not of the loud, Spritz variety that I saw but abstained from on the piazzas in Venice, but a more delicate shade. Of course João has just what I have in mind. Elegant, delicate, dry—like how I imagine Maria João Perez’s hands on a winter’s day. He explains to me that wine hue is the result of skin contact, words that send a momentary shiver down my spine. Skin contact, a distant memory of a former, pre-Covid and pre-mountain life. The wine hits the mark. Both in colour and in taste, it is chilled yet strangely warming. I call João back, hold up the glass he has poured for me to the light and say excited like a child, “This is such a beautiful colour!” His eyes grin, he grabs a book on amber wines from a shelf. Shows me a photograph of various shades of orange-coloured wines and again mentions the effect of skin contact. The longer, the more amber. “But this is more subtle,” he says, as if to confirm that of course I have made the right choice. “The colour of nectar,” I say, “the drink of the gods!” “Precisely,” he smiles—this time I hear it in his voice— “all we need is some ambrosia.” “Well, if you have any,” I say with a big grin, which he can see, for I, a seated guest, am not obliged to go masked. “I wish,” he replies, “but let me make a call upstairs,” pointing through the ceiling, to the heavens.

It’s called Dao. From an originally Dutch house. I mean.

Another night. I am feeling somewhat deflated after saying goodbye to someone who came to visit, or in truth to meet me for the first time, all the way from the Netherlands. We spent some lovely time together, rejoicing in the spontaneity of our decision to meet then and there. It was fun and it was fine that it ended but I am feeling a bit low, inevitably, after the highs of the past days and nights. I ask João to bring me a drink that will cheer me up. Briefly he looks into the distance, or into himself, nods and says simply, “Okay.” He turns on his sneakered heel and a few minutes later returns with a bottle of white that he explains is “Seven years old, fruity and dry but smooth, almost warm, so that it is also comforting. Just arrived today,” he confides in me, “so right in time.” For me in my current mood, he means. And yes, this wine is exactly what I need. More than that, perhaps, it is the joy João takes in matching potion to punter. João studied microbiology for a number of years and is now studying enology—to become a qualified sommelier. 

That label. Power of emptiness…

When he has time, one evening, because it is quiet and I came early, we talk about Portugal. He tells me what it is like to be young there (he is 24), about the short-term benefits (easy living, much freedom and many ways to see the country and enjoy life) and the long-term challenges (impossible to establish a family, buy a house, secure financial stability). Living in the present, he says, is very much possible, but preparing for a future is that much harder. He says his opportunities in microbiology did not outweigh those in enology, so in terms of following a dream, living a passion, there weren’t many rational arguments against it. “This is Portugal 101,” he says with a knowing smile, “not what you find in the tourist brochures.” He speaks of another Dutch regular at Prova, who has lived in a different city every year for 11 years, working as a software engineer, so only needing his laptop. Yes, much freedom, but how about planting some roots, João and I both wonder. Nice for a while, not for that long. Roots are important, he says with conviction. This resonates with me. I tell him of my cousin Arienne’s suggestion to write my past year up into a book—“From China to Spain,” he says—and that I have a feeling he might play a part in it. “I feel the pressure!” he jokes. I reassure him that I will do the writing part of the work, all he has to do is just this: help me drink good wine and talk to me about life.

Artful on the inside and outside

Another night again. We talk about licking granite, smelling chalk (all part of João’s enology course) and I explain my new-found analogy between drinking a mouthful of wine and going on a few dates. Simple beginnings can have complex follow-ups, or vice versa. Some do not go down easily (only later do I realize the double entendre), others are very smooth on the downward trajectory. What may appear superficial at first may nonetheless reveal great profundity later on, or again vice versa. We share a moment when he surprises me with six cubes of Prova’s delicious cocoa-dusted chocolate cake and I tell him that I’ve finally realized what the scent of the white he brought me before reminds me of: cocaine. It is so long ago but suddenly, unmistakably the past and present connect in my olfactory sense. João does not even blink. “It could be because of the chalky soil on which the grapes grow,” he says, “Chalky, powdery, could very well be. I ate chalk, I told you, so you know…” he says with a twinkle in his eye that looks at me from an otherwise perfectly straight face. “I hope it wasn’t chalk I snorted, way back when,” I say. He laughs and walks over to a newly arrived couple. Little do they know they could not have chosen a better bar, nor a finer host, for what is clearly their romantic night out.

João, uniquely without mask for the picture, on my very last night in Porto

Ideal Clube de Fado

Ricardo, guitar player and organizer of the Ideal Clube de Fado mini-concerts, explains night after night in Spanish, Portuguese or English, depending on the linguistic abilities of his audience: there is commercial fado and there is traditional fado. Commercial fado, he says, is meant to reproduce and to entertain; traditional fado exists to share and to create. There is a musician who plays the Portuguese guitar, with twelve steel strings to create the melody. There is another one who plays the more common type of guitar with six strings, to provide the chords and the beat, the structure of the song as he puts it. Then there is the singer, who improvises, selecting melody and poem that they want to match for that particular song. Every time a song is sung these variables change. Every song is different, therefore, even if it is the same song.

In twelve days, I go five times; after the second, I am a familiar face, greeted with enthusiasm, a free ticket, and how-are-yous when the included glass of port wine is poured. And yes, each time the songs are fresh, with different notes and tones to be discovered, a new depth lent to a line of poetry, a new nuance in the emotion behind a verse. I cannot get enough of it. “Next time,” Ricardo says when we say goodbye, “don’t book a ticket. Just let us know you’re coming and we’ll put you on the list.”

A signed CD from soul-caressing fado singer Pedro Ferreira

It is my last night at the Ideal Clube. It is my last night in Porto.

Do you understand why I felt so good there? I think you do.

Oh, before I forget: some time ago I decided to do away with passwords, full disclosure and all that. What I have changed, too, is access to my modest novella about our favourite chicken, Mei Li. The first three chapters are still available for free. Those who wish to read the rest, as I naturally hope everyone will, are asked to pay a one-time access fee of € 4.99. This will support my writing and also show encouragement to continue doing just that: write. Spread the word?

Many thanks and love always!

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