Our train speeds along, leaving behind first Lisbon and then its suburban sprawl. Soon enough we’re in the countryside, which is dotted with field after flooded field, gifts of the terrible November rains: a month-long comprehensive anthology that studiously covered all major aspects of the subject, from Downpour and Showers through to Drizzle and Teasing Hint of Sun. But Downpour ruled the table of contents, and the rain fell so hard, and so often, it felt personal as it abused umbrellas, sank shoes, and kindled a long-dormant appreciation for the invention of the roof.
The flooded fields alternate with little towns that often surround a small hill topped by a castle. The forbidding outline of their ancient turrets and ramparts are a steady reminder into the present of past threats, past conflicts, though these days a healthy number of castles serve as pousadas—rather high-end hotels—that welcome invading tourists into the keep.
By now we’re settled into the efficient comfort of the train’s sleek interior, enjoying the prospect of the extended weekend before us. We could have stayed home, spent three days with our noses pressed against a window, watching rerun after rerun of the rain, but right now we’re happy to get as far away as possible from Hannah’s school, where casual humiliation is a not insignificant daub of paint on the pedagogical palette, where some students indulge in chair flinging (practically a recognized school sport), and where an inventive little bully has made our daughter into a pet project. Hannah, so vulnerable with her still-budding Portuguese, has bravely tried to meet the challenge of this school, but Alma and I are convinced the challenge isn’t worth winning.
Which is why next week Hannah switches to a new school, one where empathy and kindness reign. So this little trip is a kind of parenthesis, a farewell to two unhappy months of one school, and a hopeful pause before the promise of the next. I look across at my daughter, who is deep in her latest preteen-populated novel, her head framed by the train window’s passing scenes of flooded fields, and my relief at her escape is laced with guilt that she’ll have to start from square one again.
Finally we arrive at Coimbra, a town that has a venerable university instead of a castle perched on top of its hill. We haul our suitcases a few blocks from the station to our hotel, a long, thin building that tapers to a rounded end, like the prow of a ship. At least it feels like a ship’s prow as we settle into our suite, because when I step out onto our front balcony, there’s the dark Mondego River flowing slowly alongside us. On the street directly below, a group of students loiters, dressed in their university’s hundreds-of-years-old traditional fashion statement of Everything Black, even down to the impressive touch of long black capes—my God, these students aren’t just bohemians, they’re super bohemians. One holds a guitar, another a bass drum, and I remember reading that these kinds of troupes wander the streets of Coimbra, squeezing as much street change as they can for their music. Students gotta eat.
Since I’m a little stir crazy after the train ride, I step back into the room and say, “C’mon, let’s go outside, there’s some concert about to start.”
Alma doesn’t stop emptying her suitcase, but she does give me a sidelong glance I know well, the one that means she’s ready and willing to join any impromptu jaunt, just give her a minute.
“Hannah?” I call, but her room in this suite exudes silence. I don’t have to walk in to know she’s probably stretched across the bed with her book, still intent on the doings of fictional girls, far away in America. She could use this spot of time to put the mark of her breathing, her thoughts, on this room as she reads. The shaping of one’s own space, however temporary, can ease the dislocation of travel, and who doesn’t need a private anchor in the unknown?
I return to the balcony, to see if those students are still there, and just then a strange booming echoes through the air, like the off-rhythm rattling of a distant drum corps. The students below stare off at something down a street that I can’t see: maybe there’s another, larger group of student musicians that they’re about to join.
I turn back to the room, about to say, “We’re gonna miss the show if we don’t hurry,” but I need to be patient, allow Hannah and Alma a little more time. So I give our hotel suite a closer inspection and check out the bathroom, push and pull its smoked-glass sliding door along the runners, press the toilet’s flusher, turn the spigots on the sink, all of this the mere busy work of my nervous energy. Then I pull back the window curtains and catch my breath: in the middle of the impressive view of the hill’s steep angle up to the university grounds, a huge shifting cloud is rising from the skyline, just a couple blocks away. What in the world is that, I wonder, some celebratory bonfire, perhaps, that other students have started, the ones with all the drums?
I can’t restrain myself any longer. “Hey, some kind of party is going on outside. We’ll miss it if we don’t get moving!”
Point made. We hustle down the hotel stairs, through the lobby and out the door. One short block away, a large crowd gathers in a praça, and when police cars and fire trucks approach in a duet of sirens we realize that something Really Really Big must be up. Then, over the heads of the jostling crowd we catch a glimpse of a huge pile of debris. It fills the side street that opens to this praça: wooden beams lean at odd angles, and large blocks of stone and broken concrete lie on a rough mound of unnameable dusty gunk.
Alma, a born anthropologist, lives on the hair-trigger chance of interviewing someone, anyone, so she turns to a woman standing beside us and asks what’s happened.
A five-story building collapsed just a few minutes ago is what happened.
That theory about a drum corps and a celebratory bonfire immediately rearranges itself in my mind to the roar and billowing dust of a building transforming into rubble. The woman continues, telling us that the past month of rains weakened the old building, and it was emptied a week ago. Though yesterday inspectors gave it a clean bill of health and tenants were already making plans to return. Ah, who took what bribe?, and heads should roll, or at least one, some people in the crowd about us mutter, though from the resignation in their voices I’m guessing that probably no head will ever do any such thing.
Unless, of course, some poor soul lies beneath that wreckage, and already the police, with dogs tugging on leashes, search the broken remains.
By now television crews compete with backhoes and cranes, and the police start easing us all away from the scene. Alma, Hannah, and I walk off, more than a little shaken, because if we’d arrived in town only a few minutes earlier, we could have been wandering the streets—specifically, that street—just as the building tumbled down. Not exactly a close call, but close enough for us to imagine another way our day could have ended. And what other buildings, by the way, might have been undermined by the rain?
We find ourselves entering a long main thoroughfare of shops, lit down the line by Christmas decorations. This, plus the shock of a possible alternate fate, seems to rev Alma and Hannah into holiday-shopping overdrive. I’m not invited (wink, wink), so we agree to meet in an hour or so, and head our separate ways.
I’m not yet in shopping mode, so I stop at a pastelería and order a cup of tea, with a side of hot milk. Something in my unsettled mood calls up the beginning of a poem by Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão: “Poisamos as mãos junto da chávena / sem saber que a porcelana e o osso / são formas próximas da mesma substância” (We put our hands around the cup of tea / without thinking that porcelain and bone / are made of nearly the same substance). There’s a morbid thought that deserves a chaser, so I give some serious attention to the glass counter’s display of sweets.
An idle glance at the dessert counter in any pasteleríav in the country can give you the impression that you’ve entered a chocolate-free zone, a world where cacao and sugar, like matter and antimatter, don’t mix. The Portuguese do indeed know that chocolate exists, and they have some distinctive treats employing the stuff, like Chocolate Salami, which is a block of chocolate shaped like a thick sausage and laced with crushed hazelnuts to mimic the threads of fat. (It’s pork-free physically, but not spiritually, and Alma can’t bear to look at it.) But when you get right down to it, the Portuguese are a Rebel Alliance defying the Chocolate Empire. What they really specialize in, what captures this country’s soul, is a range of desserts called doces conventuais: sweets that were first brainstormed in convents. In centuries past, nuns used egg whites to stiffen their habits, and, ever frugal (and because nothing ever gets thrown away in Portuguese cooking), they combined the remaining vats of yolks with sugar and butter. Now the country lives for a dizzying array of distinctive sweets: creamy Pasteis de Nata, the tempting gooey layers of a slice of toucinho do céu (“Bacon from Heaven”—don’t ask), tangy queijadas and chewy, cinnamon-inflected Broas de Mel, the spongy goodness of a Bolo de Arroz, silky pudims, and more, and all of them deliciously eggy to the core. They’re so scrumptious that sometimes I think God created chickens just so the Portuguese could make desserts.
I keep staring at the glass counter. I don’t know where to begin.
The rain has barely paused these past three days, though this Coimbra rain is a parenthetical rain in our lives, and therefore easier to walk through. Especially since—right now, at least—we’re in Drizzle. We have a few hours to kill before catching the return train to Lisbon, so we’re about to squeeze in one more sight: Portugal dos Pequenitos, a nearby children’s park, though I’m worried that Hannah might be a little too old to enjoy it.
Our umbrellas perched overhead, we walk past the praça where the backhoe cleanup continues, where crowds still gather, pressing against the police tape. It seems as if everyone living in Coimbra has arrived these past days to take in the remains of the collapse, and the nearby shopkeepers are delighted with this steady stream of potential customers. What started as a disaster has turned into a happy ending: a building falls in a downtown area and no one is killed, not even a single injury. Rebuilding will recommence shortly. Holiday shopping must continue.
It’s a clean enough story, scrubbed of major tragedy, and because I’m a writer who breathes in metaphors and symbolism as if they were air, I can’t help wanting to shape a comforting parallel, that the disaster of Hannah’s school has done her no serious injury, that the debris of her past two months will soon be cleared away and all will be well.
We turn at the traffic light and cross the street onto the bridge over the Mondego River. Below us, the river’s dark, cold currents are speckled by our old friend Drizzle. Behind us, on the top of the hill, is the university whose grounds we explored yesterday: the magnificent, overstuffed-with-baroque-goodness library, and the stark accommodations of the bordering student jail. It’s no longer used, but was popular in previous centuries. Drink too much one evening, start an uproar in class, plagiarize a paper, or get caught cheating on a test? Into the school slammer you go. The three of us lingered there a while, joshing about which one of those austere, tiny spaces would be most suitable for the bully Hannah has escaped.
Now across the river, we’re finally approaching “Little Ones’ Portugal,” where kids can run wild among kid-sized replicas of all the country’s major historical buildings, representing 800 years of Portuguese history. It sounds like a parent’s Holy Grail: educational and fun.
There’s already a line in front of the ticket booth, and after we pay up and push past the turnstile, we first explore a series of disappointingly full-sized buildings devoted to Portugal’s various former colonies. This arrangement clearly goes back to the park’s first days in the 1940s, during the Salazar dictatorship, when the regime was hell-bent on holding on to the empire of its overseas possessions. The displays are stuffed with tacky gewgaws like elephant-trunk umbrella stands, spears, and stuffed animal heads, just for starters, and the ghosts of still-vivid colonial wars hover here for too many Portuguese families, who hurry past. So we follow.
Soon enough we’re strolling among pint-sized, walk-through reproductions of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, the Torre de Belém, the Sé de Évora, even the university grounds we visited yesterday. Parents may think the place is educational, but kids easily sluff off this minor annoyance, because in this magical playground they’ve had the growth spurt of their dreams. Standing next to these buildings, they’re bigger than any adult they’ve ever met. They bend down to fit through an entrance into cramped interiors, and their faces entirely fill the windows as they peer out. They might as well be giants, yet still they remain kids, as seriously bent on fun as any child should be.
Certainly Hannah has cheered up enormously, even though Drizzle threatens to transmute into Steady Rain. She’s by far the oldest child here, and normally this would bother her to the point of bugginess, but right now she can’t seem to get enough of striding from cathedral to castle to convent to medieval tower. In a couple of hours our train returns to Lisbon, and tomorrow she’ll take her first steps in a new school, but all that seems forgotten now. “Take a picture!” Hannah begs again and again, and whether she would put this in words or not, I’m sure that she feels as if the enormous challenge of this year in Portugal has somehow been taken down a peg or two, made manageable.
Alma holds the umbrella while I continue snapping photos, and some part of me cuts through my symbolic spin and whispers, “Careful, this is not the world, only the way you need to see the world.” Immediately another inner voice, the part of me that wants to be as agreeable as possible, adds, “Yes, yes, that’s true.”
On the other hand, I think, as Hannah runs off to another corner, doesn’t the world offer us the raw material for our wishes? How else can we hope, and plan, and shape a near or distant future? Who we are, it seems, is made of nearly the same substance as our illusions.
“Mom, Dad, take another!” Hannah calls out again, and there’s our daughter, so grown up that she’s taller than the second-story balcony of a country manor; there she is again, barely able to fit in a palace doorway; there she is again, her face shining with an almost defiant joy and framed in the highest window of a water mill.
Excerpt from the poem “Canto da Chávena de Chá,” by Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão, is from her book Cantos do Canto. Awkward English translation committed by Philip Graham.