Nohemi Samudio-Gamis: Portugal and Spain

Blog Post One

The airline was clever when they began their pitch of a five-night stopover in Lisbon, Portugal with “at no extra cost to you.” The chance to visit another country on my way to Spain was too tempting—so I found myself one afternoon wandering the streets of downtown Lisbon after a failed attempt at trying to prevent jet lag. I had been awake for over 24 hours, at which point being up for a couple more didn’t strike my sleep-deprived brain as the worst decision. That first day in Portugal held a weird mixture of emotions; fatigue, curiosity, hunger, excitement, but above all, a yearning for company.


If you ask my family or friends to describe me, they’ll probably tell you how much of an introvert and independent person I am—not as a point of pride, but as characteristics they often criticize me for. It is the reason why it felt so strange to suddenly want to be around people, even if they were strangers in a new place. That feeling was new for me, but I knew the reason behind it was because of how I had left my home in California.


For the past two years of the pandemic, our family had joked that the day one person tested positive it would only be a matter of time for everyone else: the curse of a large household. 2020 and 2021 passed by with nothing, but in those days leading up to my departure, “our turn” had finally come as my sister put it. My father was the first to test positive, after which we all began to isolate ourselves from each other and divide the house accordingly. While necessary, this separation from my family (and friends for that matter) made me feel as though the trip had begun days before I even left. We all tried to make light of the situation, and even joked about how lucky I was to have tested negative in a house full of people testing positive. The hugs and kisses and laughter and communion that are part of any sendoff didn’t happen. Instead, I said goodbye through video calls, the thresholds of doors, and by knocking on windows and waving.


It was that inability to properly say goodbye to my family and friends that then prompted me to want to say hello to any stranger that would entertain a conversation. The trouble, of course, was that I do not speak Portuguese. While speaking Spanish let me understand and communicate in Portugal at a very basic level, I didn’t find my desire for company fulfilled just yet.


That first day in Portugal, after hours of walking, I stopped at the Praça do Comércio—a plaza that was only a two-minute walk from where I was staying. I was exhausted and planned on going straight home, but as I walked by the plaza square the sun was beginning to set and there was a beautiful glow that rose behind the buildings. The plaza overlooked the ocean and I saw there were groups of people gathered around the harbor to watch the sunset. Couples on dates, friends hanging out with drinks, families eating pastries from nearby bakeries, and a lot of people alone.

Perhaps it was because I was also alone, but I was drawn to those people. There was a woman who sat crisscrossed on the harbor ledge and listened to music while she watched the sunset straight ahead of her. She swayed her head from side to side with the music; I could tell when one song finished and a new one started based on the way she bopped her head. After a while, her figure became a silhouette colored by the shadows of the sunset. Another woman, younger this time, caught my attention because of how loudly she was speaking on the phone. It wasn’t in any language I could understand, but she was so expressive with her body language that I felt I was also in on the conversation. (She was either very hungry or passionately talking about a hobby.) I stayed at the plaza and observed people for a lot longer than I expected. When I could no longer ignore my own huger, I took a walk along the boardwalk to find a restaurant for dinner.


I was coaxed into an empty restaurant by a greeter/waiter that had been standing right outside the place with a menu in hand, ready to bring in the business of any passerby. Apparently, I had been the only one in the area the tactic had worked on. I was escorted to a table meant for six people and given an overwhelming amount of attention. With every new attention they gave me, I felt compelled to order more off the menu—a side dish, a different drink, more bread. I was there for a while, trying to get through everything I had ordered. I had made myself the promise that I would not leave without finishing all my food. I didn’t want a full plate to go back. Perhaps it was my prolonged presence in the restaurant that prompted one of the staff to pull up a chair beside me. This man turned out to be the chef.


He placed a slice of cake in front of me and began to speak in Portuguese. I understood enough to know he was asking about how the meal had been. After stumbling with Portuguese pleasantries and phrases, that had Spanish words thrown in every now and then, the chef introduced himself again. This time in Spanish. He was a Venezuelan immigrant who had left his home country with his family many years ago and was blessed enough, as he put it, to find himself a job as a chef in a restaurant near the beach. We exchanged information about ourselves in Spanish, talked for a while and stayed in the company of one another long after I had finished my meal. When the restaurant was nearing its closing time and he was forced to go back into the kitchen, he left by saying: “It was so nice to see you.” He said it as if our encounter had been that of two old friends getting back together after years of not being around each other. He said it as if we weren’t strangers, not anymore at least. I remember leaving the restaurant that night feeling satisfied—yes, with the food, but more with the company I had been blessed with.


My sleeping schedule never fixed itself in Portugal. It was a sleepless stopover, aside from the occasional nap my body forced itself into when the exhaustion was just too much. Every other moment, however, was spent with strangers. And there were some great strangers in Portugal: the ramen restaurant owners who gave me free desserts, the Belgian mother and daughter duo who I painted tiles with, the British tourists who helped me navigate Google Maps when my phone refused to work, the old man who asked me to take a picture of him for his family, and so many more. Five nights in Portugal was not enough time. If I ever return, I know of at least one place I’ll visit again to see a friend.


Blog Post Two: The Greek Girl in Girona

Sometimes—when small choices I make without much thought lead to a larger event that wouldn’t have otherwise happened—I start to believe in something. It’s a vague statement, I know, but I don’t have the language to describe what it is I start believing in. A deity? Cosmic energy? Fate? Mere coincidence?


When I met her, I didn’t think about any of this. Of the decisions I had made throughout the day that led me to her; well, that led her to approach me. I was at the Girona train station, waiting for my departure back to Barcelona, when she walked up to where I was sitting, stood awkwardly in front of me until I looked up from my book, and asked if I spoke English. She explained her problem: she couldn’t operate the automatic ticket machine because it was in Catalan and the employees she interacted with didn’t speak English and hadn’t been patient with her.


I went with her to the machine and tried to buy a ticket. There was an issue with her identification documentation (she didn’t have her passport with her—a long story she later explained) and using the machine was not going to work. In that moment, I could have directed her to the customer service office and said goodbye, but I oddly felt responsible for her after that brief interaction. I don’t know if it was because she looked tired and stressed, or because she was traveling alone, but I offered to help her; until the very end, until I could get her to where she needed to be. She was appreciative of all this, kept saying her thanks after every small thing I did for her: speak to an employee on her behalf to get directions to the ticket office, explain her identification problem to the person in charge of selling tickets, lead her to the proper area to wait for her train—our train, as it turned out—to arrive.


English was not her first language (not her second either, I think), so there were times where we had some trouble communicating. Small words she would forget the English for that I would then try to describe with other words until we reached an understanding. I relied on facial expressions a lot, at least those that could be made out through a mask, to see how she was feeling. Was she still stressed? Did she feel comfortable around me, a stranger; and if she didn’t, how could I make her feel okay with depending on the help of someone she met an hour ago?


I told her about myself and would then extend the classic “How about you?” question to her. She’d reply and then branch the conversation into something else. As we waited for that train to Barcelona, I learned of our similarities: both post-graduate students, both lovers of literature and language, both confused by the Spanish train system, and most importantly, both with stressful experiences—the ones that become funny when you tell the story later to friends and family—about things going wrong when traveling. When I told her of my misfortunes in traveling alone, of the now funny “adventures,” she smiled and held her hand to her chest. It was a relief, she said, to know she was not the only one having a hard time.


I remember that once the train came and I helped her find her seat, I felt peaceful. When the train arrived in Barcelona, I waited for her (as we had agreed) outside of her train car. Through the tinted window, I saw someone ducking their head and waving. It took me a couple of seconds to recognize who it was; she had been waving and smiling so enthusiastically. I felt I was being greeted by a friend. We left the high-speed train lanes and searched for the metro she needed to take to arrive at her hostel, where a friend would be waiting for her. We struggled some more; the station was busy, maps and people gave different directions, but it worked out in the end. We found the correct metro line. As we made our way down the stairs, people start running down the stairs and breezed past us. We could hear the metro arriving, so we hurried along ourselves.


There were brief moments of chaos between the two of us; uncertainty on my part, though I had double-checked everything and knew I was right, as to whether this was the right train; and the need for guidance on her part, from me. It all happened in less than thirty seconds, as people crowded into the train. She got on the train and thanked me many times again for my help, and I reminded her to listen to the stops as they were announced so she wouldn’t miss her exit. In the quickness and confusion of the situation, our goodbye was rushed. It was said over the sound of people chatting away and the sound of other trains coming and going. We waved at each other longer than needed. I saw wrinkles form at the corners of her eyes, so I offered her a smile as well. It’s the last of each other we’ll know about—we didn’t exchange contact information, I’m not sure why—but I’m glad we have this story, this experience we can tell others about the stranger we met in Girona.


When I got home, I started to think of how it had all happened. What small choices had I made that led to this? Here’s that list: I didn’t check the weather, despite it being a habit every other day; I changed my return to a later time, twice; I turned left, instead of right like Google Maps indicated, and ate at a different restaurant with a distracting view of the river; I arrived at the train station two hours early because I forgot to charge my phone at the restaurant and needed it to access my ticket; I sat near the ticket machine because the other seating areas near the entrance got cold every time the doors opened; I took out the English book I had bought at a store and began to read it, even though I had an unfinished Spanish one in my backpack; I didn’t put my headphones in because I liked the voice of the intercom announcer.


I don’t know if it’s Spain, or simply the opportunities for experiences that travel brings, but I keep being surprised by people, by myself, with how far a “hello” goes. While I enjoy getting lost in a city, I’ve come to look forward to the people I might encounter as well. And as I meet these people, I feel it informs my writing. I can imagine more; can write about the unfamiliar with more certainty, with more excitement, and I consider that a blessing.


A note to the Greek girl in Girona, S****, who is a literature/language student in Belgium but currently taking a vacation in Barcelona, who forgot her passport in France while visiting her aunt: It was nice to meet you.

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