A comedic series of unfortunate events and cultural misunderstandings
One of those things that’s pretty terrible at the time but at least it makes a good anecdote afterwards
The unexpected perils of house hunting in Lisbon
Froglet and I have finally found an proper, long-term rental apartment we want to move into, and signed a contract on it and paid a deposit, though we can’t actually move there until November. This has been a lengthy and tedious process and much more difficult than I imagined. I don’t think it’s worse in Lisbon than in London, it’s just that I haven’t moved for ages so I’d forgotten how time-consuming and stressful it is.
After agreeing about the rental with our new landlords in principle, they invited us to stay with them for the weekend in the AirBnB room of their apartment in Cascais. As our first AirBnB was due to run out on the 30th September, and we couldn’t move into the next one until the 1st October, this was perfect: we’d get to know each other, and we’d have a free night of accommodation instead of staying in a hotel for a night.
So far so good.
We lugged all our baggage on the bus and train over to Cascais, and got picked up by our new landlady. I will call her Miss P, as in ‘Miss Portugal,’ because she’s very glamorous and beautiful. Miss P told us that there had been a mix-up, and their room was now being rented out by someone else, but she had secured another AirBnB for us to stay in, and paid for it. Very, very nice of her and saved us a lot of money.
The place was fine, but the ceilings were comically low, especially in the bathroom, which had been squeezed into a cupboard-like space full of odd angles. Froglet is tall, so he kept hitting his head on the door frame. Plus, he didn’t have space to stand to use the toilet, but all those odd angles meant he couldn’t really sit on it either. So bathroom visits were a bit of an ordeal for him. The whole place was also decorated in a surreal faux-African safari style, complete with shelves full of insects preserved in perspex, and mounted ostrich eggs.
Miss P and her fiance, who I shall call Papa P, because he’s a kind of patriarchal figure, wanted us to go out to dinner together.
So far so good.
I contemplated wearing a checked black and white dress, but decided that it was a bad idea to wear something with white bits on it to a restaurant, as I was bound to spill something on it. I wore a black top and a skirt in instead. Along with my trusty Birkenstock sandals, because I didn’t really have anything else with me except trainers, and it was hot.
They collected us by car at 10pm, half an hour late, because ‘We’re Portuguese, so we’re crazy and like to eat in the middle of the night.’
Papa P was wearing shorts, espadrilles and a short sleeve T-shirt barely done up over his round, tanned torso, but the gorgeous Miss P was wearing a tiny, pristine white mini dress and a pair of stilettos made of lace. Immediately I felt like a hippo in a ballet class. Obviously we should never compare ourselves to other people, I know that, but it’s so difficult not to.
Papa P then drove us all the way back to Lisbon again, though luckily it only takes half an hour in the car. He happily swigged beer while driving. I don’t think it was his first bottle. The worst thing about that was the beer was Superbock, and we’re Sagres people. But Sagres sponsor Benfica (a Lisbon team), and Superbock sponsor Oporto, and Papa P is an Oporto man.
There was a lengthy discussion about which restaurant to go to. In the end Papa P announced we would go to the best seafood restaurant in Lisbon, Cervejaria Ramiros. He knows the owners and is a regular, which meant we would simply barge our way past the queue and up to a table. As vegetarian recently turned fussy pescatarian, I was a bit concerned about seafood, which I don’t really eat, but I thought a seafood place would be fine – I could just eat fish. Everywhere in Lisbon serves white fish, even if they don’t serve anything vegetarian. Right?
I went vegetarian when I was 13. A few years after Froglet and I got together I started eating fish, because it’s extremely difficult to visit France as a vegetarian. I mean it’s not impossible, especially if you’re on your own, you self-cater, you go to touristy places, but Froglet’s family like going to restaurants and eating meat, and unless you only ever go out to eat pizza, it’s really difficult to accommodate. It just makes things so much easier and avoids lots of social embarrassment and awkwardness: you can simply pretend to be a normal person and go to normal places and keep everyone happy. But I don’t really eat seafood. I ate mussels for a bit but then went off them. I don’t like the weird rubbery texture or the taste of seafood things, they all look a bit gross, and I am squeamish.
We arrived in Lisbon and a friendly dude, who may or may not have been a tramp, directed Papa P to squeeze the car into a tiny space, giving just enough room for the tram to pass by. Miss P glided elegantly across the dangerous cobblestones on her towering heels, while I lumbered along after her. Papa P pushed confidently past the crowd, and we went upstairs past tanks of lobsters and sizzling grills and noise and clatter, with Papa P shaking hands, saying Ola and bantering with all the waiters as we went up.
The restaurant had bright lights and paper tablecloths and no concessions at all made to atmosphere, romance or style. It looked like a cross between a greasy spoon cafe and a 1980s conference centre dining room.
Papa P ordered for us – they didn’t allow us to see a menu because he’s been there so often it would apparently be offensive if he looked at the menu. Froglet said I wanted to eat fish not seafood, and they said they didn’t have any fish. Froglet assumed they were joking but they weren’t. This was a seafood restaurant. The options were crustaceans or crustaceans. No salad, no chips, no side dishes, nothing. Or you could have a steak sandwich, obviously. Because what else would you expect to eat in a seafood place, other than crustaceans or a steak sandwich??
At this point I felt horribly embarrassed. Papa P and Miss P apologised for the misunderstanding and using ‘a bad word’ to describe the restaurant. The crustaceans arrived in record time, unadorned in little metal dishes. Hellman’s mayo was also plonked on the table in squeezy bottles, but apparently you must never use the sauce. It would be an insult to the perfection of the seafood.
I bravely ate a few prawns while Miss P, Papa P, and Froglet got stuck into the oysters, the sea snails and something that looked like the stubby, swollen-knuckled fingers of a green-skinned witch. Google later told me this was goose-barnacles. We had some very nice wine.
After a while Papa P ordered me a little cheese and a platter of pineapple, which were the dessert options. They were plopped on the table with much bantering, so I fear I may have harmed Papa P’s social standing there forever more.
In my defence, I think many regular British meat-eaters would have run away screaming from these alien-looking foods.
There was a table of people sitting near us drinking champagne. They ordered a lobster and then an enormous spider crab. It was like the face-hugger from alien. The body of the thing was about the size of my head, and the waiter proudly held him aloft so he could do a sad little wave while they snapped pictures, before he was boiled and eaten. When he reappeared, dead, the diners had a lovely time smashing him to pieces on little marble slabs, ripping his limbs off and sucking out his juices.
Crustacean eating has a gladiatorial feel about it. It’s a test food – how far are you willing to go? How close do you really want to be to the death and dismemberment required to eat living things? I feel quite respectful of people who can actually come to terms with it. At least it’s not hypocritical. We have to kill others in order to live. Trees communicate with one another. Even carrots suffer.
Papa P got extremely drunk throughout the meal, possibly to hide his embarrassment. He then ordered beers and steak sandwiches for him and Froglet. Just before we left Froglet was surrounded by a crowd of extremely drunk young men. They hugged him, they sang some football songs, they all wanted to take their picture with him. Papa P leapt to his defence, but ended up telling them, we think, that JP was a well-known French model who had starred in a lot of television adverts. This made them even happier, and led to even more group photographs. So this slightly disastrous night will be commemorated by a bunch of guys who are all going to winder why they have pictures of Froglet on their phone when they get up with a hangover.
Miss P’s beautiful white dress was just as spotless at the end of the meal as the start.
And I learned a valuable lesson: foreign countries are foreign countries. They do things differently there.
Portugal vs Britain
I can’t really imagine a place like Cervejaria Ramiros operating in the UK. In Britain, all this seafood would be seen as very, very adventurous eating, because even meat-eaters are often squeamish. Things that look and taste very much like animals – sea food, game, offal – have become the preserve of serious foodies, who pride themselves on recherche ‘nose-to-tail’ eating.
A restaurant that looks like a straightforward working class place wouldn’t be popular amongst wealthy people who like to show off about food, or amongst people saving up for a special treat, because it doesn’t look fancy. It wouldn’t be popular amongst regular people either, because they don’t usually eat this kind of thing, and the price would be too high.
This means that in Britain things that are fairly expensive, like seafood, get much more expensive, because they have to be served in fancy surroundings with an air of exclusivity, in order to attract any customers. Unless they are hipster places, in faux-simple surroundings with an enormous price tag. But in Lisbon, wealthy people seem happy to quaff Moet et Chandon and eat 100 euro spider crabs under harsh strip lighting at a table next to some drunk lads singing football songs.
One last thing: The evening wasn’t a total disaster, because we signed the contract for our flat the next day.