Snapshot in Time: Notes from a Plaza in Porto

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Storytime in Porto. Moments from my afternoon.


I’m on the edge of the sketchy part of town, where tourists and the low-income folks intersect, reminding me of Gastown back home in Vancouver. A short bossy man with thick-framed glasses and a know-it-all attitude yaps at passersby, particularly two too-thin men with missing teeth who seem at his command. One has a strange large knobby growth under his eye, suiting his prickly demeanour.

Behind me, a dog is tied under a truck. Back home, in Canada, I’d call the authorities, but something tells me Portuguese powers-that-be would wonder what the fuss is about. The dog is sleeping in the shade. Chained, maybe, but sleeping and at peace. It’s a reminder that I’m not in a wealthy country anymore and rules are very different. They have no luxuries for fussing over things like litter on the streets or dogs that might be mildly neglected.

A funky old house nearby with a series of frames on it, suggesting it wants to be the artwork somewhere.

A funky old house nearby with a series of frames on it, suggesting it wants to be the artwork somewhere.

Storytime: Details Emerge

Turns out the dog belongs to the man with the under-eye growth, who’s fetched pup from the shade. Now Knobby barks orders at another couple men in a utility truck. One swarthy guy emerges with tools in-hand. Through it all, the puppy, maybe 6 or 8 months old, plays with the end of his chain as his owner gives instructions to the swarthy men. It seems he’s a happy, loved dog who was tied under his owner’s truck for a bit.

I turn to more important matters for a moment. My coffee’s strong enough to bench-press 200 pounds and makes me wary of the red wine waiting for me to drain my cup, but I expect it’s not bad. It’s hard to find truly bad wine in Portugal as they take vinho seriously. They may have much they’re lacking in life, but affordable good wine isn’t one.

The Scene Unfolds

The delivery truck rumbles off and the short thick-framed-glasses man and his dog-owning friend Knobby remain behind. Another older fellow with white hair and a slow, troubled walk approaches the fella in glasses. Both stand hands-in-pockets, looking around, nodding at happenings nearby, discussing matters in low, confidential voices.

Around us, tourists snap shots and locals are being local. Folks sit on the plaza, watching traffic pass or gulls coming in for a dip in the fountain. Skies have clouded over, but it’s almost warm enough to sit without a coat. Rain doesn’t yet threaten us but it’s the calm before the storm. Rain, lightning, and wind are all summoned by the gods for the morning. A brutal Monday awaits those returning to the grind after what’s been a 4-day weekend for many in this Catholic country.

I got distracted by writing for a moment and now I see a police paddy wagon with lights flashing on the other side of the plaza, and perhaps not coincidentally, the men who’ve been fascinating me are long gone. There was an air of the illicit to them but I thought it was just my outsider-looking-in demeanor, for whatever that’s worth. Maybe I was more right than I knew.

Intimacy With a Foreign Land

In both Croatia and now Portugal I’ve been left with the feeling that I’ve walked by a home and got a look through a curtain. It leads me to think I know what their life is like, but I really have no clue at all.

After all, I’m in a country where cops stand sentry at mall entrances with automatic rifles slung around shoulders. This seems like a safe country to me but maybe those appearances are deceiving. Maybe Paris changed everything in Europe. I don’t know what the truth is. I only know what the curtain looks like when it‘s opened by a crack.

The Sunday calm is shattered momentarily by the wailing siren of an ambulance. My cafe owner steps out to see what the fuss about. Somehow, the plaza traffic has thinned and the locals scattered.

Sundown comes in a little over an hour, but moisture grows in the air ahead of incoming storm clouds. Temperatures inch down with passing moments, as a breeze begins to blow. A tired, squat man eyes the open tables around me, deciding which should be his. Luckily it’s the table three over from mine. My smoke-free patio has been invaded by an upwind smoker.

It’s true what they say, all good things must come to an end.

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