There are so many wonderful restaurants in Cascais! My favorites are the Marítimo next to the jazz club, with its flawlessly seasoned dourado, the tiny Taberna with its fresh bacalhau, garlic, and kale, the Paixão with its daily nouveau chef concoctions, the Masala with its fabulous biryani, the Dom Manolo’s dependably perfect salmon steak, and of course, the Pastelaria e Padaria Sacolinha, where anything off its ceiling-high glass shelves is a treat.
But there are several restaurants in Cascais that I am unable to enter. At least not yet anyway, or if I do, I experience so much discomfort that the whole purpose of my coming back to Portugal, to live longer and more happily, with less daily stress…well, all of that is called into question. Why in the land of paradise would this happen? Because these are places where I bowed my head in embarrassment and disgrace while my dining partner berated me with personal disappointment over my behavior. And at my age! I was not taking her sightseeing enough, I was not sensitive enough to her emotions, I remembered something she had not said or I misremembered something she had said. In general, I was in some way deficient in making them the center of all existence. But most important, the world to them began and ended in a bubble surrounding our dinner table. To me, however, the world included the entire restaurant, the wait staff, the chef, the bartender, as well as the neighboring diners. I could not tune out, actually I am unable to tune out my surroundings and the people inhabiting them. Call it my non-neurotypical self, or my obstinate or irritating self, or my overly sensitive self, or my fucking psycho-schizoid self. I don’t care. I also see colors with numbers. I am a synesthete. Would you like to object to this? Does it inconvenience you?
So I bowed my head in these restaurants (the upstairs Restaurante Pizzaria across from the Largo Cidade, the Jardim dos Frangos—and they have such delicious bacalhau à brás there!—the breakfast buffet at the Hotel Baía) while my dining partner saw fit not only to heap shame on me but to then become upset with me for—guess what—reacting with shame. The waiters were circling me in consternation and the other diners were glancing my way in sympathy. But I was left without options. Neither my silence nor my words were well received at that point. I had been found guilty. And both of these American Scandinavian women had been my friend for years! I had invited them to accompany me to Portugal, to help me in the airports and hotels, and to benefit from my expertise in setting up a vacation in this best of all possible destinations. Were they angry that I'm happy here? Did my esteem require deflating in order to inflate their own? Whatever reason could a friend have for doing this? Okay, obviously they were no longer my friends at this point. My culturally American faux pas were apparently strong enough to even cancel out all memory of my having MS for the past decade. I’m good at learning lessons but still unsure of what changed. I was the same person throughout. I'm actually unable not to be that person, having tried and repeatedly failed at this endeavor over the years. But their need to exit my life eclipsed my desire for explanation. I'm familiar with the end of relationships and have participated fully in several over the years. But these two episodes occurred without warning, leaving me mystified. They felt justified and righteous, having dodged some kind of bullet? Okay...but a potentially illuminating moment, an opportunity to move beyond the familiar? Was I really that weird to them? Well, I grew up among evangelicals, so I shouldn’t be surprised to strike anyone as weird. In the end I had to walk away from the public drama when I saw a bottomless pit of codependent self-sacrifice opening up between us. I could have jumped in, but in that case I’d still be down there. My life’s work thankfully prevented the leap.
Retirement in Europe has revealed that I have many more difficulties in English than I do in Portuguese. Even with unexpected lapses in adult vocabulary, having thrown my Portuguese listeners off balance with the well-executed language of a ten-year-old, I know that eventually we will understand each other. Entenderemos. We share a culture, the culture of my soul, a cultura da minha alma. The culture of my childhood. But communication in English, with American visitors, Scottish expats, Danish travelers? Notwithstanding common words, these congenitally rigid cultures can block transmission of the simplest remark. And there is no slack given, because one is supposed to just know.
The North Americans and Northern Europeans who behave like this are bullies. They overwhelmingly occupy the crowing sections of the global choir. No doubt there are impatient Asian and African equivalents, but it has been my personal privilege to be ordered about by these particular folks throughout my lifetime. And bullies go beyond mere self-interest when they declare you noncompliant. They also mean to hurt you, your principles, your culture, your gender (or lack thereof), your queerness, your chronic disability, your beliefs—whatever they perceive as “lifestyle choice.” Marching to the beat of a different drummer? Genetics, biography, even habit? Nah.
The other day I was sitting in my café across the street (where my friends give me a 10% discount because a senhora é muito conhecida) when my non-Portuguese table partner began to complain loudly about something (fill in the blank—the wine, the music, the voice or coughing of another diner, the temperature of the water, the temperature of the café, the wind, the absence of wind—take your pick). I realized suddenly that my own response to a situation is not the central most important thing to me about that situation. I’m a part of it, yes. But the whole event is not about me. It’s not that I don’t count, I do. But I just happen to be there. Effecting change—the wine, the music, the water—involves seeing the people around you as allies, not antagonists, allies who will work with you to bring about your happiness. Which directly affects their own happiness. There isn’t any isolated “customer is always right” going on. I know, it’s hard to explain. It’s not a very Nordic sort of thought. It has nothing to do with one’s identity or self-worth or status in life. So I’ll give up now and go back to just being part of the scene here. Try to enjoy yourself.
4 OCTOBER 2018