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– from the archives – while on the subject of Iris… these are excerpts about our trip to Lisbon a few years ago –

Iris and I have been friends for a long time.  We met sixteen years ago when we both lived in Minnesota.  She drove the car I wanted, dated the guy I thought was cute, got the first promotion at work, always dressed fashionably and is beautiful.  It was hard to like her.  But then, we both transferred to Philadelphia, and we became roommates.  She helped me transform, and encouraged me to abandon the velcro-strapped Teva sandals I loved (even though I could walk on hot asphalt and in sand and in water without needing to change shoes…). We became co-conspirators and adventurers, roommates, then neighbors, and friends.  But in all these years, we’ve never traveled together.

A few months ago, we decided to take a trip.  We picked Lisbon as our destination, and now, finally, we were about to begin our vacation!

Friday morning, 11:30 am. The flight to Lisbon is in nine hours.
My friend Iris calls and says with conviction, “You’re going to have to hold the plane”.
She is coming from Las Vegas, and has just learned that her flight is delayed.  Instead of a lazy two-hour layover, the airline has informed her that she will arrive five minutes too late.
“Okay…” I answer, wondering what to do.  I am in a meeting at work, and look over at my colleagues.  I tell them what is happening.
“You can’t hold a plane”, one says.
“I know”, I responded. But absent-mindedly, I picture myself staging tears at the ticket counter, sobbing that I can’t fly alone.  Unfortunately, I have not yet mastered the skill of fake tears (I did try this once to get out of an apartment lease, and despite being accompanied by this same Iris, I was unsuccessful and mostly ended up coughing to cover up my laughter).  But, it may be worth another try.

Friday evening, 6:45 pm.
I arrive at the airport a little less than two hours early. I really must try to follow those arrival time rules. However, I breeze through security and immediately check the arrival time of Iris’ flight from Vegas.  The landing time has been adjusted to 8:50, and the Lisbon flight is leaving at 8:25pm.
Decision time: Do I fall apart at in front of the gate agent?
As I approach the desk, I wisely decide to remain calm.  Instead, I tried to change my flight until the following day.  No go.  Evidently, there are a lot of people with missed connections, and the next day’s flight is already oversold.
I board the plane, hoping that Iris’ flight will land early, or that we’ll have an unexpected delay.  I’ve got a great view of the gangway from where I sit, and can watch people boarding.  No Iris.  It’s 8:10. They usually close the doors fifteen minutes early.  A few stragglers race up panting and out of breath.  Still no Iris.  The doors lock.
I’m on my way to Lisbon alone. I promptly fall asleep.

[Hours later]

The flight attendant wakes me up. “Ma’am, you’re in an exit row”.

I crack my eyes open and quickly fall back asleep. She shakes my shoulder. “You have to be awake while we land”.

Interesting. I hadn’t known that was a policy.  But there seem to be a lot of airline policies, so it’s not a shocker that there would be one for this.

I made myself stay awake until we landed.  Groggily, I deplane with my hand luggage, get my passport stamped and find the nearest coffee spot. I order “cafe com laite” (coffee with milk), pronouncing it incorrectly, but getting the right result.

On the way out, I stopped by the tourist information center at the airport to ask about taking a taxi to the hotel.  They told me that the fares are by zone and gave me the option of pre-paying the taxi for 21 euro, which is the maximum fare for the zone to central Lisbon.  Figuring I would take my chances, I opted to see what the meter would show and jumped in a cab.  Unfortunately, I forgot to watch the meter.  The driver took the scenic route and asked for 22 euro. I offered 21 and he took it.  (The following day Iris took at cab who charged her 13 euro, and when we took a taxi back to the airport it was only 8).  So, to those of you planning a visit to Lisbon, just watch the meter.

I check into Hotel Lisboa and learn the room is immediately available.  Fantastic!  The hotel is modern, clean, and well equipped.  The room is good-sized and has that quirky european electricity control thing that requires you to put your key in a slot on the wall in order to turn on the lights.  I first saw this in Barcelona and didn’t figure it out until I talked with the front desk.  But now I’ve mastered it, and it actually helps me keep track of my key. Bonus.

Figuring I could get a lay of the land before Iris arrived, I get a map from the front desk and decided to explore.  I window-shop my way down Avenida Liberdad, the Portuguese version of the Champs-Elysses, walk through Rossio Square, and wander through some side streets that led to the waterfront.

Lisbon in late spring smells like men’s cologne.  Multi-story flats stacked side by side line the winding streets.  Many of them have stunning hand-painted tiles across their fronts, and the penthouse level of every one had a deck full of beautiful flowers.  The sidewalks are made from small square stones placed in mosaic fashion and make a fluid pattern.  This day, lots of people were out walking and eating ice cream.  Contrasting this idyllic picture was a significant amount of grafitti and missing stones in the sidewalks. But somehow that just made the city friendlier and more approachable.

From the waterfront, I hike up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a castle built by the Moors in the 11th century which offers the best views of Lisbon.  On the way, I meet a kind Lisboan who showed me around the castle grounds and the way back to Rossio Square.  While chatting, I learn that unemployment levels are very high and that the city does not have the funds to keep the sidewalks in top condition.  I assume that this went for the grafitti as well.

After stopping for a few provisions, I leave my volunteer tour guide and head back to the hotel.  From my room I could hear shouting, chanting and blowing horns.  I couldn’t resist – I went out to investigate and stumbled upon a protest.  Thousands of people were marching down Avenida Liberdad with banners and signs and chanting slogans.  From what I could tell, they were protesting a little bit of everything – wages, women’s rights – all mainly against the government.  It was the first time I’ve attended a protest in a foreign country.  This day was unfolding in an unusual way.

At this point, I was getting pretty hungry, so I walked to Adego de Arturo for dinner.  The restaurant was traditional to Lisbon, with both outdoor and indoor seating.  They had an adorable faux-brick bar, flanked by arched recessed shelves filled with bottles of Portuguese wine.  I ordered a glass of red wine and looked at the menu.  The waiter brought over some bread, butter, cheeses and olives. This was typical – at every restaurant, the wait staff will bring appetizers to the table.  If you eat any of it, you are charged for it (usually 1-2 euro for bread and butter).  If you don’t eat it, they just take it away when they bring your food.  I sampled the serra, a soft cheese with a sharp aftertaste, with freshly baked cracked wheat bread.  For dinner, I tried Balcalhau a Braz, salted cod mixed with scrambled eggs and hash brown style potatoes with parsley sprinkled on top.  It was delicious.  For dessert, I had abacaxci (pineapple) soaked in port.

The sun was beginning to set when I traipsed back to the hotel, exhausted and full. I turned on the TV and watched the annual EuroVision song contest.  I fell asleep to people crooning in foreign languages.

I woke up and quickly jumped out of bed, realizing that Iris should be arriving at any moment.  In fact, I heard a car door slam, looked out the window, and saw that her cab had arrived.  I raced out the door to run downstairs and give her a hug.

And thus began the real vacation.

And the realization that, while it’s perhaps best to be prepared with a tour book, or map, or arrive the full two hours in advance of a flight, life can still be amazing and fun when left to chance.