In Europe we walk; to the biweekly produce market, to the neighborhood bus stop, to the Sunday afternoon torte and coffee venue. Walking is elevated from a low impact form of cholesterol reducing exercise to a social and practical railway through life. My grandmother traversed intersecting buses and uneven planks of streets into her mid nineties. Without a tennis ball festooned walker and with the lightly interlocked elbow of whoever was near.
Walking accompanies vacation or as Europeans call it Holiday. It can require some grit. It can require some courage to traipse along side the quickly moving projectile of cars and spider webs of streets. Todays walking destination is Praia Grande. The map indicates it is straight ahead past the turnaround, And-as we, the community of travelers knows; a destination is a vessel to an experience.
Growing up in a bicultural family as an only child, our nuclear pod of three spend copious hours sitting around the teak kitchen table discussing the various pros and cons of European culture versus American.
“The Americans don’t know how good they have it to be free. I love this about America-here you can be anything you want” my WW2 surviving mother recounts.
“The Europeans have a deep sense of belonging and community life built over the centuries and supported by ritual,” quipped my father back.
Sweet, really, their adoration of the cultures permeating each of their upbringings.
I am the deliverance of both cultures-born into one, transplanted into the other and bequeathed with a lifetime of yearning for the one I am not currently submersed in.
As I walk toward the Atlantic Ocean on a Portuguese street with no sidewalks, I notice a small coffee stand. Mid morning work refugees punctuating their day in community. “Ola!” The Atlantic coastal waves are raw with the eagerness of an incoming tide. First spring rock daisies claw their way up into the dusty soil making a spectacle of their perseverance and beauty. Unabashedly. Vertical fishing poles are socketed into the crags of granite on the beach shore, awaiting the inevitable Sea Bass. A tourist or two meander. It’s February in Portugal, protected time for the locals to enjoy their country. Restaurant keepers gently roll up their window shudders. A pelotons of bikers flit by me in their branded neon spandex spitting tiny rocks in a constant stream behind them. Ahead a porcelain-inlaid cupola shaped building houses the elementary school and the most expansive view of the coast. As the tiny and mighty voices of children sting the air I wonder how many condo complexes this space could occupy.
Hours from my airbnb, I wander into the restaurant my innkeeper had recommended. It is boiling with a collection of businessmen and mid life couples. On the table, sit a bottle of red wine, water and the local appetizer of Queijo Flamengo cheese, crusty bread and a kaleidoscope of dry olives. I notice the table in front of me. The two gentlemen are seated comfortably. They don’t appear rushed. They stop to pour each other water. They complete the meal with dessert. As I walk up to the counter to pay I notice the display of dessert. There is a neon orange tart. I ask what it is and the manager of the restaurant states “It is a specialty from our region of Alentejo”. He points out the region on a map and offers me a small taste of the cake-Pastéis de nata; deliciously almond and butter wrapped into the sweet ages of tradition. Portuguese desserts are the foodie offspring of 15th century nuns who used egg whites to starch their habits and homed their yolks in a palette of desserts. He shines with the simple act of sharing his cultural DNA.
As I walk through acres of vineyards, back to my accommodations a feeling of richness follows me. Pride in the beauty and a specialty of our region is the practical deliverance of our culture. In these morsels of pride we find out cultural home. We know where we belong so we can push out from there.
We know where we begin leaving us free to search for an ending uniquely ours.