I visited Lisbon in the Spring of 2003. Such a delightful city. Architecturally similar to Barcelona but not as cosmopolitan as its Catalonian cousin. And, as this was the year before the country held the European Football Championships (Euro 2004), the charming cobbled streets and squares were sparse of tourists; a positive boon for a lady on tour, though understandably not so advantageous for the locals.
You may think that I am full of confidence to simply get up and go the way I do. But there’s one area of my travels that I still have issue with: eating alone in restaurants. It’s the mixture of being exposed to pitying looks from fellow diners and the menacing glares of some (not all) waiters perturbed by my taking up of at least two lucrative table placings, that troubles me most. This often results in me either cowering away from such places or suffering severe indigestion from wanting to eat up and leave as quickly as possible. My time in Lisbon was no exception.
My hope that a constant supply of supermarket baguettes and bananas would suppress my hunger clearly was futile by this particular evening. I don’t do world-dominating fast food joints (unless I am absolutely desperate) as I prefer not to smell like a burger wrapper for the rest of the night. So, there was little choice left but to pick up my guidebook and look for dining recommendations. It didn’t help however that the book decided to open itself to the ‘local customs’ section where I read:
Women travellers are likely to experience the irritation of Portuguese machismo. Don’t be surprised if a waiter serves every man in the place before even glancing at you. If you’re travelling with a male partner, it will be assumed that he will do all the talking and ordering for both of you.
This didn’t bod well, but my stomach was growling like a wild boar by now so I decided I would simply have to push on through. My guidebook directed me to what it described as the city’s “… most bustling lane of culinary delights”. What I found was a back alley of empty alfresco tables and bored professional hustlers. When they saw me however, they all suddenly perked up, flicking a deluge of cigarette butts into the middle of the street and almost salivating with the anticipation of grabbing my custom. I darted into the first clear doorway before me, which luckily had an array of bi-lingual menus sellotaped to the window. At least I would know exactly what meat and two veg I was ordering.
Inside, I found myself standing in a small tiled room perfumed with tobacco and lit by a single bulb dangling on a naked flex. It was populated only by perfunctory dining furniture and a dubious collection of old men huddled conspiratorially down one end of the room. I thought I had walked onto the set of The Sopranos.
Before I had time to turn and run back out, a middle-aged man in an apron appeared before me. “You are English?” he said frowning intently. I managed to squeak out a yes. “I speak a little” he boomed back, still frowning. “Come. Sit. There!”. He tossed a plastic menu onto his chosen table, and without waiting for a reply he marched away and disappeared behind a doorway. I did as I was told and sat in the corner facing into the room, curling up into the smallest human ball possible.
Hiding behind the menu, I surveyed my company. There were eight elderly men in total, all bar one looked quietly annoyed with their thoughts. Two sat together playing dominoes, another pair were playing chess. Three more sat facing a small, toothless old man who seemed rather cross and was waving his fists a lot as he bellowed away at them. His audience all cross-armed and hunched in their seats, merely nodded at him. I was so transfixed I didn’t notice my waiter returning until he plonked a large, chipped jug of water on my table.
“You ready now?” he roared whipping out a notepad and pencil. Nervously, I looked down at the menu and pointed at a picture that looked like chicken. I wondered whether I had made a bad choice as he seemed to frown even more as he wrote my order down. “Salad!” he boomed. Taking this to be more of a command than a suggestion I pointed at a tomato. He scribbled something more, then without a further glance he snapped the menu from my hands and marched back up the room.
But, before he could reach the doorway, the toothless-angry man suddenly launched an arm out into the air and grabbed the waiter by the elbow. There was silence. Everyone in the room stopped and slowly turned to their leader. Still holding onto the waiter and still looking very cross, the toothless man turned his head and started to glare at me. He slowly lifted his free hand and jabbed an arthritic finger in my direction. The waiter and the rest of the room slowly turned their gaze towards me, not one smile amongst them. Toothless then started to rant at the waiter. He appeared to have a lot to say but he eventually released the waiter who patted Toothless on the shoulder and carried on his way. His exit however didn’t stop the men staring at me, nor stopped Toothless ranting. They only turned away – almost apprehensively – when Toothless finally stopped bellowing, and with a final snort in my direction he returned to fist-waving at his companions.
It was at this point I grabbed my guidebook and frantically started looking up local customs again. Was I breaking some local bi-law? Should I be accompanied by a man? Was I sitting in the favourite seat of some much-loved local hero who was tragically killed in World War II and no one’s ever sat in this seat since as a mark of respect … until five minutes ago? I was just about the pick up my bag and run for the door when the waiter reappeared carrying a small salad bowl towards my table. I slumped back into my chair and resigned myself to the most hostile starter of my life.
The waiter placed the salad bowl before me, but rather than it being full of tomatoes, it was full of the most succulent looking strawberries, ruby-port red and the size of golf balls. I looked up at the waiter bemused but before I could say a word he said “ A gift”, and waved a solid hand towards the bowl. “They thought you were lonely” he added, gesturing towards the other men. Completely lost, I looked up the room to see all eight men staring intently once more in silence at me. Then, as though an electric shock had passed through them all, they suddenly jumped up and started laughing and clapping towards me, slapping each other on the back and thumping their tables with triumphant fists. Toothless beamed a huge gummy smile at me and motioned me to eat whilst nodding with encouragement.
“You will enjoy” said the waiter, attempting a grimace at me before joining the others for a brief round of back-slapping and returning to the kitchen.
Overwhelmingly moved by this gentlemanly gesture, I obeyed my waiter’s parting command and had the most enjoyable meal of my travels to date.