Random thoughts about Portuguese snack bars and old people

Today I went out for a nice Sunday lunch. I really like going out for lunch because, while I love restaurants, I sometimes feel a bit odd eating dinner alone. I do it a lot, for lack of friends who love eating out as much as I do. But sometimes I feel like people are looking at me, judging me or, the worst, pitying me. But for lunch, it is totally acceptable to be alone. In Germany I rarely get to go to restaurants because I cannot afford it. Here it is different, for two reasons. The first, obviously, is that prices are lower. But what really makes the difference for me here is that you do not have to go to an actual fancy restaurant to eat out. There are these pastelarias or snack bars everywhere, which serve hot meals as well as sandwiches and are frequented by many locals for lunch. In the morning and afternoon they serve sweet cakes, sandwiches, toasts and coffee. People here also seem to really like their freshly made juices and yoghurt drinks. And of course there is always a tap of local beer, either Superbock or Sagres. Both beer and coffee are often consumed at the counter, by regulars such as business people on their lunch break or people from the neighbourhood. They sip their drinks while browsing through the newspaper and/or chatting with the staff. These snack bars seem to be run exclusively by older men. I have never seen a young person or woman behind the counter of any of them. The staff is either really grumpy or really chatty, laughing, making jokes with the guests or each other, throwing oranges etc.

For an outsider like me what strikes me most is the contrast because the quite cold and sober interior of these places and their warm neighbourhood atmosphere. They usually feature checkered tile floors, shaky steel tables with disposable paper covers, plastic chairs, and napkin disposers in the form of pineapples The menu is displayed on the wall. And the light, the light is extremely bright neon light. Not even trying to create a cosy atmosphere. Very matter-of-fact: “This is not a jazz bar, this is a place to eat, so what do you want? Sit at the table and eat. And then leave.” Now that I am describing it I realise these snack bars are most probably the Portuguese equivalent of the American diner.

So, today I wanted to go to my favourite snack bar, which serves the best sandwiches in town, made from this rustic brown bread with any topping you could want, including suckling pig, weird smelly cheeses and, for me, tuna.

Also, the place – as many places here – has a tap for green wine. I mean, seriously? That is the dream !!! I would love to have a tap of wine in my house. Next to the sink in the kitchen, maybe. Go get a glass of water and then … oh, yes, might as well also tap me a glass of vinho verde. Brilliant idea! I think in a perfect world all wine should come out of taps. Red wine, a nice cold Rosé. I am getting carried away…

In any case, another noteworthy thing about my favourite snack bar is that it is closed on Sunday. I know this, because I have stood in front of its closed doors many a Sunday. And I always forget it again. Most Sundays I wake up without any food in the house and this Sunday feeling that you should really leave the house and do something. So, the compromise between eating rice with ketchup and going sightseeing in Belem is always – going out for a nice lunch. And then I always end up forgetting the place is closed. These kind of things really make me think sometimes that I might actually be stupid. I mean, sure, I managed to graduate from university etc, but come on, really? Five times? I might be average booksmart, but I am definitely not what they call streetsmart. Today I at least already remembered on the way that the place would be closed and so I entered the next open pastelaria I passed by. It was, of course, brightly lit, and it was almost empty. In the back area there were some tables filled with elderly people having lunch. Regulars, I assume. They were really old, like at least 75 or 80, sitting there with their bottle of wine, laughing, talking loudly, interrupting each other.

I immediately decided that I loved the place and would from now on make it my regular Sunday lunch place. I ordered a plate of fish, salad and rice which came with a glass of wine and a coffee for altogether 4,40 € (… I know…). The food was really good. I made it a point not to read or text on my phone or do anything except enjoying the meal and the atmosphere. Hearing Portuguese all around, listening to the staff bickering, watching the people pass by on the street through the huge glass windows (again, picture a diner), really tasting the food. The food here is often simple but the individual ingredients are fresh and tasty and, combined, form an excellent meal. A piece of fish, with some lemon juice, combined on the fork with some carrot, some tomato, a piece of raw onion, sprinkled with olive oil. A sip of ice cold white wine which was poured from the bottle by the elderly waiter (probably owner, actually) directly at the table, up to the very rim of the glass.

At the next table sat an old man, eating lunch by himself, like me. He had the same food, and a glass of rosé wine. He was looking at me. I looked back, he looked away. It was like a bizarre flirting ritual, seeing as he was probably ninety years old. Finally he made the first move and asked me where I was from. We talked a bit. The other group of old people behind me started discussing what to order for dessert. An old couple from the corner got up and slowly walked up front to the cash register, holding each other up. Obviously, my thoughts wandered to the topic of old people. Being old, growing old, age. We tend to glorify age, for the simple reason that we are all afraid of dying. But there actually is not that much to look forward to, when you think about it. Your body disappoints you, everything is a hassle, death is still an issue, and a pressing one at that. But we all want it. Sometimes I think if only someone, anyone, gave me a piece of paper guaranteeing me “You will reach 80 years of age. You will be more or less ok” I would be happy forever. I would not have all my current worries, fears, pressures, stupid ideas and wrong moves, back pains, wrinkles, self-destructive habits and neuroses. Maybe I would not have my disease. But no one will give me this piece of paper, so I will just have to start fooling myself. Jesus, why do I always have to do everything myself?

Since I know that I am sick I look at old people differently. Before it was more of a pity feeling mostly, not pity but thinking: I am glad I do not yet know what it feels like, having to walk that slowly, being so helpless. But now I find myself in tears, often, because I know it is not very probable that I will ever be them. I am talking about the old people I see here, on the streets, the kind of old people who do not seem to exist in Berlin. Really old men and women walking around, doing the shopping, living still in their old houses in Alfama, greeting the neighbours on the street, gossiping, bitching at passers-by sometimes, visiting their local snack bar. Sometimes the women even wear high heels. There is no reason, medically, why I could not reach their age (the only known common form of “death by MS” is suicide, which is apparently utilised by many people with this disease, sooner or later), but for sure I will not walk down stairs and steep little streets in my high heels. I will not be that fit and independent. Unless medicine makes some major progresses – which could happen.

A little excursion: Did you ever notice how we automatically think about old people as nice? We see old men and women and we think: “Oooh, how nice.” But the thing is: of course they are not all nice. If they were assholes and bitches when they were young, they probably still are now. Only in old. On Monday I went to Alfama to do some writing here at the cafe. I thought the festivities would finally be over and I could start my working routine. But Alfama was again full of people, old people. There was going to be the procession, as I learned later. I had my headphones on, listening to music. I was tired. As I squeezed my way through the crowd, this massive old woman grabbed my arm and started pinning some sort of sticker onto me. I think it had a picture of a saint on it. She started talking to me frantically and wanted to put this paper into my hand. I gestured: No thanks, but she did not care. I started talking back, saying – nicely – no thanks, I do not want this. She ignored me. So finally I had enough and just started to walk away. She literally lunged at me, screaming, gesturing, ripping the sticker off my shirt, cursing. I got angry too and yelled back at her: “I don’t know what you want from me.” (in Portuguese). Finally I managed to disentangle myself from her firm grip and walked on, furious. What a bitch, I thought. So there you go.

Anyway, seeing these old people here makes me think of this TV show I love, “The Big C”. I really adore this show. It is about a woman in her forties with a husband, a child and a job who finds out she has cancer and will die soon. When her husband, who has no idea, throws her a surprise birthday party she meets her aunt, who has undergone like 30 plastic surgeries in order not to look her age. When saying goodbye the protagonist pulls her aunt to the side and tells her: “It is a privilege to grow old!” Which is exactly how I feel right now.

But I am again troubling myself with the future. I want to stop doing that. No one knows what will happen, and the cramp in my back which starts tightening and hurting whenever I think too much has gotten so much worse in the last weeks that I have decided to change my personality. Why didn’t I think of this before?? I want to start doing mediation and just generally become a chilled, positive person. It’s ok if you are laughing right now, I am too. But seriously. One step at a time. I found this great Portuguese teacher here who is also into alternative medicine, meditation and so on and our sessions wind up being part Portuguese class part therapy. Or talking about these kinds of things, at least. Yesterday I did my first meditation and it felt good. I am always so stressed. I realize I am hardly ever just in a situation. Like when I am at a cafe, talking with a friend, I am only partly there in the moment. The other part is already thinking in high-speed: Ok after this I go there and then I will do that and what is it going to be like, maybe it will be like this, and what do I do then??? So what I try to do now is just tell myself: You are ok. You are ok. You are ok. And try to just be there in the moment. Completely. Wish me luck!


About juliamaja

With 28 I did the first non-linear thing in my life. After school, university and work without any interruptions, I quit my advertising job and moved to Lisbon to find out what I want. The result: I write for a living, whether in Berlin or Lisbon. I am happy. Let's see how it goes.
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