Most of my life has not been planned, it has simply fallen into place. When I was fresh out of college and living in the San Francisco Bay area, I wanted to visit a friend in Chicago. I called the airline to ask about airfare, and was very disappointed (even shocked), to learn that prices had skyrocketed in the last year since I’d left school. “Well,” I asked the ticket agent, in a tone of annoyance, “How much does it cost to go to Paris?!”
I really had no intention of going to Paris. It was mostly a rhetorical question, because in my mind I was thinking that the airfare to Chicago was so expensive, it felt like I should be getting more for my money. But before I could tell the agent that I wasn’t serious, she said, “Please hold, I’ll connect you to the International desk.” The next thing I knew, I was talking to the International desk, and too embarrassed to tell her that I didn’t really want to go to Paris. I picked some dates figuring I’d say “No, thank you”, once she quoted me the fare. “Well, we’ve got a sale right now,” she said. “If you leave before March 15th, you can fly round-trip for $450.” My jaw dropped open. Really?! For $100 more than the cost of going to Chicago, I could go to Paris! The wheels in my mind began to spin… my college roommate lived in Paris, and France was “next door” to Spain, and a “little way” from Portugal (I’ve learned to read maps since then, but at the time I was kinda clueless). I’d never been across the ocean before, and I’d been planning to take a trip anyway, right? Who cares if it’s Paris instead of Chicago? A couple months later I was on my way!
Upon arriving in Paris, I learned that most people didn’t understand me in spite of the fact that I spoke French. I became incredibly self-conscious about speaking, and tried to say as little as possible in public. At the home of my friend Caroline in Paris, we had three-way conversations. She spoke to her boyfriend Esteban (who was actually from Argentina) in French. I spoke to him in Spanish. And when I spoke to Caroline, I spoke English. You’d think it was a comedy of errors, but it actually worked out rather well. I took a couple days to get over my jet lag, visited a few museums, drank incredibly expensive coffee, got in trouble for squeezing produce at the grocery store (apparently that’s just not done in France), and then booked myself a cabin on the train to Portugal.
I’ll never forget my train ride. The trip was 25hrs from Paris to Portugal, and there was only one other person in my cabin. She was an older woman from Toulouse, and she didn’t speak any language other than French! I learned two incredibly important things on that train ride. 1) Non-Parisians are generally very kind people. 2) When traveling alone, you can keep silent and be incredibly bored. Or you can open your mouth at the risk of making a fool of yourself, and you’ll probably have a great time and make friends.
I spoke for hours on end with the lady from Toulouse. She told me about her city, its saints and pilgrimages. I asked her about life in the countryside vs. life in the city. I determined that Parisians aren’t purposefully pretending they don’t understand you. They’re just very impatient and usually can’t be bothered to make an effort if your French is less than perfect. My 4 years of high school French had paid off. I could make myself understood and I could understand. I was happy!
I arrived in Portugal, in the city of Coimbra. It’s a beautiful, historic city, situated along the river and very hilly. It’s not very big, but it’s a college town, so it’s full of life. I was in my early 20s, so I fit right in. And when my hostel kicked me out at midday (they do that so they can clean the rooms undisturbed), I found a big window with a bench-like window sill at the university and I took a nap!
In Coimbra, I discovered one of the coolest places in Portugal. It is a place that has inspired me, and perhaps even defined me. It’s called Portugal dos Pequenitos (Portugal of the Little Ones). It is a cross between a theme park and a museum.
There are tiny versions of palaces, castles, monuments and homes. Some of the monuments in the park are traditional buildings or art that you’d find around the world. African statues, Asian palaces, etc. But they aren’t there because someone was trying to copy Disneyland. They are there as reminders of all the lands that the Portuguese explored and conquered.
At the entrance to the park there is a map of the world, with the routes of all the Portuguese explorers… Magellan, Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gama, and others. Above it there is a phrase. It reads, “And if there were more world, we would go there.” I was in such awe of those men and that phrase. The only reason they hadn’t done/seen more of the world was because they’d seen all of it. I believe it is the ultimate embodiment of “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.”
That phrase has affected me profoundly. Over the years it became my goal in life, to keep seeing and exploring the world until I was “done”. Until there was no world left to explore.
On a subtler note, this little theme park gave me my first taste of Africa. Later on, in Lisbon, I’d discover Moroccan art, which would become a lifelong favorite.
Though it certainly wasn’t Disneyland, Portugal dos Pequenitos taught me that It’s A Small World After All, and just like those explorers, all I had to do was… Go there!
P.S. I’m not done writing about Portugal, but I’ll leave it for another day. Meanwhile, feel free to sing a happy tune. 😀