I’m writing you to catch you up on places I’ve been.
Finally, after waiting four hours in the arrivals hall of Frankfurt International Airport for a bus to take me to Frankfurt Hahn Airport (a bare-bones, Wings-style airport utilized solely, it seemed, for the purpose of Ryanair flights), I was on my way to Porto. I checked in for my Ryanair flight while I was in Split with no access to a printer, so I saved the boarding pass to a PDF on my desktop and decided to figure it out later.
Well, “later” came as I was approaching the airport on a bus that left a passenger at a rest stop and had to go back, causing us to be severely behind schedule. I saw the sign for the airport and a corresponding 5K, and immediately got my laptop from my overstuffed Herschel backpack that barely even zipped. This being my first Ryanair flight, I was hit with the sinking reality that checked baggage costs a pretty penny. I am, by nature, a minimalist…but a fashionable minimalist. I don’t mind taking a small carry-on, but when I get to my destination and none of my clothes look right on my body, that’s when I have a problem. I like options. And so, my backpack was loaded up with everything I thought I would need, clothes rolled tightly like little sushi rolls of fashionable desperation, and dropped my huge suitcase with all its many potential outfits at the storage counter of FRA.
But then, on the bus approaching HHN, it was a struggle to wrangle out my laptop. I knew I would need it anyway, since I would have to literally run through the airport to make the flight after our bus driver hastily left a passenger, (or a passenger took too long, I’m not sure which). Grabbing little clothing wraps and stuffing them in my handbag, I was able to wriggle out all fifteen inches of Macbook Pro that had been jammed in the laptop compartment and booted it up. I took a screenshot of the PDF boarding pass and transferred it to my iPhone, attempting single-handedly to bring Ryanair out of the stone ages of paper boarding passes. The fee for an airport check-in is a ridiculous €70 and though I checked in online, I was anxious that this “budget” airline was going to charge me for not having a printed pass. And yet, I decided just to wing it. Finally departing the bus and making my way into HHN, I was totally turned around when it came to navigation. People were sprinting to the bag drop to hand over too many hard-earned euros and I was left looking around, wondering why in such a minuscule airport, security wasn’t in immediate view.
Finally, I came up to a woman at a desk and handed her my phone and passport. My demeanor was that of someone who does this all the time, I faked a confidence that caused her to shrug and hand my things back to me. Two men came up and they all spoke German, the men blocking my way through to the screening area. I stood there for a few minutes in the most tense awkwardness that I had felt since a week prior (yet other than that, probably never). Trying not to interrupt but also trying not to miss my flight, I asked, “Am I all set?” The woman said, “Yeah, you’re good to go.” And through security I went.
I spotted my gate in the distance (I always wear my glasses when I fly. It began as a fun disguise, a sheath of international mystery, but now it’s more out of necessity than anything. I keep denying to myself that my eyesight is failing, that anything twenty feet away is reduced to a blurry swirl of watercolors) and from it formed a queue that looked more like a giant snake of tired, pissed-off travelers: families who want to be able to travel on the cheap. I was relieved that, though the gate was closing in five minutes (as blared over the PA system and ricocheted about the terrible acoustics of the airport), that boarding was still going on, that I wouldn’t miss it.
A Ryanair ticket agent was attaching little yellow tags to bags and I waited, patiently, quietly, suppressing my frustration, for whatever it is that he had to do to my bag. I had a purse on my left shoulder, Herschel pack strapped to my back, and my laptop pushed into my chest with interlocking arms. After waiting an exaggerated amount of time (due to the never-ending questions of those in line before me, asked in German and Portuguese, mainlining the frustration), the ticket agent approached me. “You’re good to go, your bags are small,” he said to me, after asking which language I spoke, as my passport was hidden from view. Sighing, I slinked to the back of the line, wishing I had simply charged forward like an American instead of waiting for direction like some meek little girl without a nationality with which to identify. The ticket agent came back by through the line to do passport checks and I, once again, employed my fake it ’til you make it sense of confidence, handing over my passport and iPhone with the screenshot of my boarding pass enlarged for the best possible view. He studied the picture, then the passport, frowning. At that point, I was already internally sighing the sigh of someone who would have to remove herself from an already maddening line to pay €70 just because she was in Split when she checked in online (and you can’t exactly post up at a Kinko’s in Croatia). Finally, he said, “You’ll need to go up there, then turn…oh, just follow me.”
And he led me through the line, skipping the dads with cameras around their necks, the moms with exasperated demeanors, all the children screaming and shrieking about the fact that their parents are kind enough to take them on a vacation, kids who were hot-faced and mucus-stained from crying about something or other, not realizing that life does, indeed, get worse. Up to the front of the line we went, and he directed me to a shorter, more streamlined queue, “This is the priority boarding line.”
It all came back to me. The day I booked the flight, I paid the extra €10 for an exit row seat and priority boarding for Patrick and me, in a moment of pure treatyoself. And really, for ten extra euros (per person; and trust me, no one feels more idiotic about my undying generosity and faith in others to return the revolving favor—whatever it may be—than me), it seemed like a bargain. The lines began to move and we were beginning to pool not into the gangway or the airstrip, but a separate passenger hall where the screams of impatient kids bounced off the ceiling and into my ears at a volume that I didn’t realize hitherto could be achieved by people so small.
My turn to have my boarding pass scanned was coming up, and I realized in horror that—looking down at the picture on my screen—I was required to have an ID check at bag drop. ALL NON-EU PASSENGERS MUST GO TO THE BAG DROP/VISA CHECK DESK BEFORE GOING THROUGH SECURITY TO HAVE THEIR DOCUMENT CHECKED AND BOARDING PASS STAMPED OR TRAVEL WILL BE REFUSED, my boarding pass screamed. I did a cursory scan of all the paper boarding passes in hands around me, reading the large letters of their citizenship on the pages and seeing that all non-EU citizens had a green sticker posted to the pass and an illegible scrawl, no doubt scribbled by some security agent who has done this far too long. I had a digital array of pixels on a phone. There could be no stamp, no scribble. And yet, I was let through security and led to my boarding lane by a ticketing agent. I felt like the harshness of travel being refused was only a bluff, but I myself was bluffing. My confidence was made of papier-mâche, rigid by itself but easily destroyed when force is applied.
With a gulp and an inflation of my disposition, I handed my phone to the ticketing agent when it was my turn to be scanned in. I did this, again, like it was the most normal thing in the world (because for every other airline, it is). And instead of banishing me away, instead of refusing to let me through due to my enterprising MO of “winging it,” she smiled and asked for my passport. I pushed the little blue book forward through the air, propelled, it seemed, by my own satisfaction with myself. She typed in some numbers and manually crossed off my seat number on a chart, then told me to enjoy my flight, handing my phone and passport back.
In hindsight, this is probably done all the time. I’m not some hotshot revolutionary transforming the draconian standards of Ryanair. And yet, in the moment, I felt like I had cheated the system and won.
After waiting in the boarding area for about twenty minutes, packed more and more with every passing minute by full families and their rolling carry-ons (this description is my official statement on why “priority booking” with Ryainair isn’t worth it), I was on the plane. Patrick wasn’t there, so I knew I could fly with the added comfort of an empty seat next to me. It was, after the hassle of getting there, almost worth it to have bought that seat too (the keyword here is almost). And then, once Germany became a rain-soaked and stressful memory and we were propelled forth into the clouds, a blonde girl in harem pants wielding a hiking bag plopped down next to me. I wasn’t sure how or why, but she was in that seat now. No enjoying the barely-person-sized gap between me and the other girl. Patrick wasn’t there, so his seat was up for grabs. That was just the way it was.
I read a book that I found in my suitcase (I never fully unpack) prior to dropping it off in Frankfurt that I stopped reading because I didn’t find it compelling enough. And yet, on Ryanair flight FR4171, it was fascinating. I loved the book in itself, but more importantly, I loved that in less than six months, my mindset was transformed in such a way–evolved through so many changes—that I was able to pick up a book that, beforehand, I found more useful for lulling me to sleep and be not only satisfied by its stringing of words but entertained.
We got to Porto and I made my way through the airport, breathing in the spirit of Portugal without even walking outside. There was no passport check, as we flew in between nations within the EU. I filed down to the metro and bought the pass that my airbnb host in Porto instructed me to buy, then exited to the platform, feeling less like the girl from Alabama and more like the woman with the pages of passport stamps and stories to match. And when I walked outside, I was greeted by a sky that had, in the ten or so minutes between deplaning and the present, had transformed from a run-of-the-mill faded blue-jean hue of impending sunset to a robust blush of pink, embarrassed or flattered or caught doing something mischievous. The sky itself seemed to be rosy-cheeked in the wake of most sunsets, with their oranges and periwinkles and perhaps a flash of violet. But not Porto. The departure of the sun over this haven of culture and wine was rosé, coral, bubble-gum pink in upward stripes of subtle orange. Lucky me, I thought, snapping a few pictures. This is a rare shade of nightfall.
I got on the metro and stayed there, waiting for my stop, for a good 45 minutes, observing the people and the faces and the expressions. The way they talk. The locals that just wanted to get home after a long day. It was around 21:00 and everyone just wanted to go home, me included. My home, of course, being my airbnb in the city center, because as expressed before, I’m happily homeless in the literal sense of looking at things. I don’t wake up in the same place and check the mail that requires stationary living to be delivered. I don’t park my car in the same place every day and bust into the house to make myself a drink or a meal in the same kitchen as the week prior. I have an address, but I’m not there. I’m exploring my way through temporary homes across the world. I’m living my life unconventionally—wrongly, even, in the eyes of some—right now. But there, rocketing at high speed beneath the city of Porto, Portugal, I just wanted to be in my new home.
I got off the metro where I was instructed and was immediately bombarded with beauty of the São Bento rail station. Apparently, this sort of thing was what I was working with for the next four days. The architecture, the lights, the sheer majesty of it all. This was standard. It’s amazing to grow up in a young buck of a country and be able to venture out, to see a place that’s stood the test of time and the evolution of society. A lot of times I feel disadvantaged by the American way of life: the dependence on cars for travel vice the exercise and discipline required to travel on foot, the constant overfeeding, the subpar education systems. And yet, that’s one area for which I’m grateful to hail from the towering Red White and Blue: everywhere I go, I’m amazed and humbled by the history of it all.
I followed my digital map to the apartment where I was already given the code to enter the building on the keypad and the keys were waiting for me in the door. And yet, hiking through the hills of Porto in the black and gold of Friday night, I kept walking right over the big red pin on my screen denoting the location of the flat. I was making circles around a garden and a plaza of some sort, unable to find my way on my own. My map was no help at this point. After about an hour of walking in circles, my own trepidation building as a short man in his fifties shouted about something in a tone so shrill that I, at first, mistook to be that of a child, I stopped at an ice cream stall, nearly in tears of frustration, to ask for directions.
“You are already here,” the woman working said, quizzically, studying the map on my phone. “You’re already at the place.”
“I know,” I responded, somehow getting my bearings together. “That’s why I’m confused. My map keeps directing me over there,” I replied, pointing to a plaza in the distance with a church and an open space for milling about. “But there’s no apartment there. I’m looking for number 47,” I said, desperately.
A man approached and looked at the map, directing me to walk with him through the darkness of the park on the edge of which the ice cream stall was located. This was another time my instincts took over. A man in a foreign country who knew I was lost was directing me into a scarcely lit park in the middle of the night. Just typing that makes me feel foolish, like I was practically asking for harm to be inflicted on me. And yet, in the moment, I knew that he was helping me. He was taking time out of his Friday night to help a stranger lost in a new place. It’s the sort of thing you can only comprehend if you’re there, if you’re literally breathing in that atmosphere. We walked through this expansive garden and he pointed to a strip of three-story apartment buildings decked out in different colors with a bustling nightlife scene on the ground floor, complete with people my age drinking and laughing and making themselves happy. “Check over there for 47. If it’s not there, then it’s probably down there,” he said, pointing to another well-lit area across the street.
I thanked him, trying to ooze as much graciousness as possible. I was thankful not only for him taking the time to walk me to where I needed to go, but there was also an unsaid gratitude, a silent sense of appreciation for the dignity he had in not taking advantage of my vulnerability, as a lot of men would. I am aware that at the same time, a lot of men wouldn’t, but to those men I say that we live, unfortunately, in a world where women are seen as objects and have to be on high alert at all times, assuming the worst in all people in order to prevent senseless attacks. We live in a world where if a woman wears a ponytail, she’s setting herself up with her very own assault handle and if she dresses how she wants to dress, she’s asking for trouble. So for you guys that have the good sense not to sexually or physically assault a woman, good for you. Keep on keepin’ on. There are, however, men whose intentions are less than sincere and it’s a difficult concept to grasp when you don’t grow up with that knowledge fermenting in the back of your head, haunting you.
I walked toward the well-lit string of apartments bustling with youthful Friday night jubilance. I followed along the numbers above doorways, feeling a pang of relief that the first building began in the 50s. Walking along, eyes glued to the doorways, I finally came across a door unlike the rest of the time-worn, vintage passageways: white, stark, modern. There was an illuminated keypad on the right-hand side and a large 47 posted unmistakably above. I input the four-digit code and the door whirred, the locks mechanically recognizing the numbers woven together and the door itself jerked a bit, indicative of locks and bolts being undone in the wake of the correct code.
I pushed the door open and headed into a pitch-black corridor, searching for a light switch. Just as I shut the windowless white block of a door behind me, still feeling around in the darkness for a way to turn on the lights, the foyer illuminated itself. Lights imbedded in the floor clicked on and I found myself in a cave. The grey stone walls juxtaposed next to the modern floor and ceiling halogen lights appealed to me, made me appreciate the mixture of man and nature. I climbed the birch stairs in front of me and came upon two doors, both identical, but one on the right with a key in the lock. I turned the key several rotations, more rotations than I thought necessary, and it, too clicked open. I was home.
And what a lovely home it was.
Porto—from what I saw in my gallivanting through the city, unsure of where to go—is old, stony, entrenched in architecture that speaks to the details of a bygone era. And yet, this apartment was totally remodeled with the most modern appliances and furniture, while still retaining the charm of its original structure. The walls were mostly a stark stone, while the furniture and decor made the place well-appointed, cultural, comfortable in a way that made me want to put my few clothes in the closet and stay forever. It was bigger than I needed, booked originally for two, but that only solved the issue of who was to take the master bedroom, stonewalled and skylit. I felt like I was, truly, home. I checked my booking in my disbelief that this was the place where I was actually staying, and smiled with satisfaction at having skating into this place for only $81 per night. And then, my smile only widened when I remembered that I had a credit from airbnb on my account, making this amazing home only $88 for all four days. I put my things down and ventured out for some wine.
Downstairs, there was a restaurant that was still serving, despite the looming morning. I sat down around midnight, and ordered a bottle of Porto Vinho, the port wine for which Porto is known. It was ten euros, which at the time, I thought to be an incredible bargain. A solitary glass was six euros, so with the proximity of my apartment to the place, the fact that operating a motor vehicle is ancient history to me now, and utilizing the yolo protocol, the entire bottle seemed like the way to go. I couldn’t finish it before I paid up, so I asked if it was legal for me to take the bottle with me. The waiter spoke broken english and didn’t understand, and as I put in my question to my translation app, a voice from a nearby table said, “Yes, you can.” It was a blonde child about twelve, backed up by his obese and bearded father, awash in wine-saturated jubilance. I corked my bottle and headed home, tripping over a ridge in the cement and breaking my fall on a guy sitting nearby, apologizing profusely and realizing that he assumed that I was, wine bottle in tow, drunk off my ass.
I finished off the bottle well into the wee hours of the morning at my own leisure in my apartment overlooking the park shrouded in darkness where I walked with a strange man in what felt like a different life. I sent snapchats to my family and wrote. I felt happy, for the first time in a week and a half, to be alive. Split was a magnificent reprieve from the rejection I faced in Frankfurt, but I went days without speaking to a soul, save for a quick “hvala” to shopkeepers and a few text and social media messages. But pleasantries and internet interaction do not soul-cleansing conversation make, and by the time I left Split (a place where, I quickly found out, no one ventures alone), I was ready for human conversation again. Porto was welcoming me with open arms.
The next morning, I woke up around 10:45, accepting my new MO of sleeping in past the productivity margins of morning for it bred a new penchant of wakefulness into the potential fruitfulness of late-night thought processing. I draped myself in oiselle from head to ankle, when Brooks took over, and set out to see the city in which I’d dropped myself; look at the golden-lit streets of previous Porto in a sun-soaked different way. I dropped a pin at the location of my apartment on my maps app and set out toward the river. I didn’t know where exactly I was going, but that was my aim. I wanted to get down to the Douro, to reawaken a part of me that, after living in Boston, I can only put to sleep but never kill. Running along rivers seems to speak to me in a way that can’t be imitated. Put me in a forest, put me on a track, it’s all nice and good until there’s a river to be run. After finding myself along the Charles for the formative years of my adult life, I’ll be rollin’ on the river whenever I get the chance. Also, the best way to explore any city is on foot. You see more that way, not having to adhere to traffic laws and safety standards. You’re free to jerk your head around, take in everything. You only have to watch the road when you’re crossing it.
And so, seven miles of sightseeing and river running later, I found myself hiking the hills of Old Town Porto back to my apartment on the north side of the Douro. When I say “hike the hills,” I don’t mean it figuratively. I’m not filling in some hyperbolic expression in order to create an alluring alliteration (as I do whenever given the chance). The northern side of the river has hills so steep that most of the streets are one-way, as cars literally can’t climb the hills without falling backward. When you walk up one of these hills, your knees are bent at right angles. The streets are no joke, even for an ultra runner.
And discovering this fact was the last that I worried about gaining weight due to my scheduled copious port wine consumption.
After my run, I knew I needed water. There didn’t seem to be a market in the vicinity, and yelp insisted that my location couldn’t be determined. I walked around the park in what, for the next few days, was my front yard, and finally saw an array of cases of 1.5L water bottles in a storefront view. Venturing inside, I looked in the cold case of the store to utterly horrify myself: it was a butcher shop. In order to preserve my status as a non-soapbox vegan, I won’t go into detail about the image of that which I used to consider totally normal food, but I will say that it was a record scratch on my morning. And yet, it was the only place to buy water. For those who aren’t familiar, the stores in Europe have cases of water out for the taking: you bust through the plastic and just take a bottle. In the States, we tend to buy the whole case, or ask timidly where we can grab just what we need, not wanting to break apart a perfectly good case. I picked up the entire four-pack case of waters and made my way to pay, eliciting a reaction of surprise from the customers and the staff. I didn’t do this in order to follow the American protocol but more to be efficient: I knew I would need this much water. Why not buy it all now?
I handed over the cash that I had stowed in the pocket of my running shorts, a fifty euro note. The man behind the counter had to ask his manager to change it out for him due to its size, which I found odd, but not totally inconceivable. And then, I looked at the receipt he handed me. For four 1.5L water bottles—normally worth a few euros by themselves—the total was a mere three euros. In my disbelief at how incredibly CHEAP that was for a continent that regularly charges more for water than wine, the man behind the counter said something to me and chuckled. I asked him, “Say again?” and he said, “All set! Goodbye!” I chuckled with him, throwing up a finger shaken side-to-side in a tsk-tsk manner. I was given my change and a customer hanging over the counter said something to me in Portuguese, to which I responded, “In English?” and he threw up a flippant hand and smiled.
I went next to a small produce market next door and bought a bunch of bananas and, as the elderly woman behind the counter rang me up, asking, “Anything else?” I grabbed a bottle of local rosé from the shelf behind me. My total for these two items was €1.86, and that was the moment that I resigned my heart to Porto. A wise woman once said, “Cheap Europe is the best Europe,” and she was totally correct.
Getting back to the apartment, I showered and threw on a dress, deciding to let my hair dry in the natural air of the wind. I set out again, tracing my steps from the run, but this time in my signature jcrew pink pointed-toe flats. You know the ones, the shoes that I swear I’m going to give a break but always fold and wear anyway because they’re just so incredibly versatile.
At this point, I resigned myself to Porto and the day belonged to getting to know the city on the river. I walked, and I walked, and I walked. All I was doing, it seemed, was snapping pictures. I made my way down the promenade of street vendors and tourists walking at a snail’s pace to a bar overlooking the Douro just at the edge of the Ponte Luiz. I grabbed a chair by the railing and ordered a sangria, because why not?
After drinking, I decided to drink more, because, again, why not? I made my way across the stoic, all-seeing bridge, the initial burst of alcohol buzzing through me and making me feel ethereal and comfortably weightless. I stopped at Cálem, a winery I saw on some tourism website, and headed in.
The lights were dim and there was a laid-back vibe in the air despite the lobby being inundated with tourists trying to navigate through the free maps handed out at the airport. I proceeded up to the ticket counter with €21.50 in hand, as denoted by the sign. And yet, as the cashier spoke to me, he stated that the price was only five euros. The sign I saw was in Portuguese and clearly indicative of some deluxe tour, so I didn’t argue. I dug around my classic escape the ordinary change purse for the three coins that equaled €5 and then had to make a decision: take the German-speaking tour that began shortly, or wait for the English tour in an hour. Realizing that I actually hate tours and was really only there for the tasting, I responded, “German’s fine.” And five minutes later, I was ushered into the wine cave and being lectured in German, nodding my head at all the correct times, pretending to understand. The tour was small: just me and two other couples. The tour guide led us around barrels both big and small and pointed to some signs that explained (in Portuguese) the different types of port wine produced in the winery. I don’t know if picture-taking was allowed, so I was stealth.
And then, it was tasting time. We were led to a hall of long banquet tables all equipped with two wine glasses per setting: one red and one white.
We sat at the end of the last table and the tour guide explained the wines. After more acting, more pretending, she bid us adieu and we all toasted to each other, yelling, “PROST!” I kept to myself, drinking wine with strangers, trying not to down it in my typical American exuberance. A large group of Spanish-speakers from the next tour sat down next to us and the hall became rowdy and loud, the Spanish-speakers swallowing their wine more like tequila flights than the sweet nectar of the winery that was meant to be savored. Most of the Spanish-speakers had finished both red and white glasses before the Germans finished their whites. Our tour guide reappeared with more wine, a red wine that wasn’t as robust as a typical red but wasn’t the pink of a rosé, either. She swirled it around the glass and then distributed it to all of us, and I was pleasantly surprised by the delivery. The Spanish speakers only got the red and white and were sent out the door. A little while later, after a few more minutes of silent façade-keeping, the tour guide reappeared with yet another glass for each of us. I studied the faces of the German-speakers on the tour with me and their expressions were that of subdued delight, but nothing out of the ordinary; nothing to suggest that this was special treatment. Finally, left to our four glasses of fresh, local wine for naught but five euros, the man from one of the couples asked me a question.
It was a blur of alien dialect at that point, what with the sangria beforehand and the copious wine in front of me. “I have a confession,” I said in English, to the shock of those around me, “I don’t speak German. I was learning, but I stopped. I took this tour to try and understand a little better, and also because I didn’t want to waste time waiting for the English tour.” I was, at that point, thoroughly ashamed. I’d been found out.
The couples just laughed. “Good for you,” said the wife of the older couple. “Are you American or Canadian?”
The temptation at that moment was crippling, but in the end, I told the truth. We all talked in English, laughing about things that would probably never cause us to bat an eyelash on a sober mind, yet we were livened up by the steady stream of wine. “I wasn’t expecting these last two glasses,” said the wife of the younger couple.
“Really? I was wondering whether these were included…the Spanish tour didn’t get them,” I replied, feeling the human connection I had missed so much in my alienation in Split.
“No, we were just as surprised as you,” the older-couple husband said. “She just kept bringing more!”
The younger husband piped up, “We didn’t want to argue,” he said, and we all laughed and toasted again. They were interested in me, all of them, which I didn’t quite understand. They were supportive of my decision to travel between my periods of real life (as supportive as strangers can really be), and they told me—all four of them—that I don’t strike them as the typical American. This is something I’ve heard often lately, and something that never ceases to make my soul puff up with genuine happiness. Don’t get me wrong: America is a beautiful country replete with opportunity, but the mindset and the lifestyle are things with which I inherently disagree. I’ve always felt like I was born in the wrong place.
I finally said my goodbyes and thanked my new friends for accommodating my English-only conversation skills. I bought four bottles of vintage, local port for €30 and sauntered back to my apartment, feeling something that I’ve felt before but not often; after meeting an old friend from instagram, after a heart-to-heart with someone I’ve known for years but never truly known, after finding people that think the way I do: like maybe I’m not so alone in the world.
I took in a slight siesta, cooked like a Francesinha under the Portuguese sun. And then, around 20:00, I ventured out again, walking haphazardly toward the river to find some food and a spectacular view. I was not disappointed.
I thought, exiting the airport in the blush bask of the night prior, that that sunset was just one of the lucky strikes to which I’ve become accustomed on my side of the Atlantic; just me being at the right place at the right time to catch something fantastic. I was mistaken.
Portuguese sunsets, I came to understand as I walked along the Douro on a Saturday saturated with a postcard-caliber perfection, are the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Better than Sardinian sunsets, better than SoCal sunsets. Porto showed me a side of the sun’s final bow that I’ve never seen before; a separate beauty that I didn’t think was consistent anywhere on this world.
It occurred to me then, as I sat along the south bank of the Douro and watched as the sun went to bed, tucking itself in in the most vibrant of ways, that Porto is for lovers. Porto is where you come when you want to fall in love with someone under the colorful expanse of the sky as it shifts from day to night. Porto is where you come to rekindle a flame that’s been blown out by time, by monotony, under the sky alive with luminosity and next to the river reflecting the rays in iridescent perfection. Porto is, utterly, intrinsically, absolutely the most romantic place I’ve ever known.
I was by myself as the sun took its final bow on the river and the city, but I didn’t feel alone. The soul-crushing loneliness I felt in Split didn’t quite permeate, though it probably should have. Although, in Split, I embraced the feeling of isolation; for you can never feel truly renewed if you’re not stripped down to the rarest of your own personal form. Wildfires are often left to burn in order to clear out the dead forestry that lingers, in order to start anew. I was no different. Usually, sunsets by myself refresh the lyrics of John Mayer’s “In Your Atmosphere,” a sullen song that represents my mainline mood. And the sunset says ‘We see this all the time.’ And yet, seeing the sun set along the Douro, alone, at twenty-three without a clear plan for the future, it was a different song entirely: it was all “XO.” (Sidebar: if you’re not a JM fan, go listen to those two songs. This paragraph will make more sense. And yes, I realize XO is a Beyoncé song, but the way John works it makes it a different listening experience entirely.)
I had dinner at a random place along the river called VT, a tapas bar at which I looked at the menu before making a decision whether to settle there, but the waitstaff took advantage of my curiosity and ushered me to a table. There were, to my insane luck, vegan tapas. A pitcher of sangria and a few veggie plates later, I found myself walking back to my apartment, full and happy, to take a nap before hitting a bar about which I read on AFAR with panoramic views of Porto and a pool. I slept through my 01:00 alarm…which was probably for the best. I’ve never been a party girl.