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DINING ALONE in LISBON

LISBON

I am dining alone (happily), leaning back at an outdoor table at a random cafe in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, sipping a $4.00 glass of tart vinho verde. I would be smoking a cigarette right now if I smoked cigarettes.

From goLISBON:

Bairro Alto is a picturesque working class quarter dating from the 16th century that has traditionally been the city’s bohemian haunt of artists and writers. 

Its grid of streets is quiet during the day, but is transformed at night into the city’s vibrant nightlife quarter. Behind colorful and graffiti-ridden façades is a variety of traditional and international restaurants, tourist-packed fado houses, and a multitude of bars and alternative shops that stay open until late at night. Throughout the week, and especially on weekends you’ll find people of all ages, backgrounds, and lifestyles bar-hopping through the cobbled lanes or standing outside with a drink in hand enjoying the city’s usual mild nights. 

Lisbon at Night

THE GERMAN COUPLE

The German couple to my immediate left receives their bill. They inspect it more closely, pulling their itty-bitty, tortoise-shell, rectangular-framed glasses down to the noses to ensure they’re reading the check correctly.

They squint, they mutter. “Butter?!?”…”Butter?!?” they protest. Uh oh, I know what’s coming next.

The livid twosome fights with their server over having been charged for bread and butter that they did not order, but was brought to their table, which they subsequently ate.

I’ve witnessed this scene before since arriving in Portugal. Here the restaurants may deliver unordered olives, bread, butter, or cheese to tables and charge if the items are consumed. Observing the skirmishes that ensue is all part of the fun of dining alone.

ON DINING ALONE

The German couple leaves and I redirect my eavesdropping to the conversation behind me. I can’t see the group, but I hear that it’s comprised of a married couple from New Jersey and two male flight attendants. The four of them shared the same flight to Lisbon earlier today and now are dining next to each other. They order pitchers of sangria to celebrate the coincidence.

I dial-in closer. The husband holds court now, boasting of his recent investment (several million) in a company producing some sort of petroleum-related technology. It converts water to gas, or mud to oil, or something to that effect. I strain to hear the name of the corporation, but I can’t make it out.

I enjoy dining alone. Sure, it’s a little annoying when the hosts asks “only one?” or I’m seated in Siberia, but I’m not otherwise self-conscious about it. I’m so easily entertained by the goings-on around me that, when not dining alone — depending upon my company — I often wish I were dining alone.

ROBERTO & MARCELLA

Another couple has joined our informal community, seated to my left. They appear to be on a date, but I detect no chemistry between them as their conversation jerks and halts.

The man orders for both and the dish — an obscenely large plate of meat — arrives quickly. A look of disgust fleets across the woman’s face and the spontaneity of her reaction amuses me. She catches me smiling at her, which causes her to laugh. The clueless guy wonders why his date and I are suddenly sharing a joke, presumably (correctly) at his expense, without having exchanged a word between us.

The guy looks to me for an explanation, to which I reply that it’s just a really big plate of meat for two people without going into detail of how it’s not the most romantic way to start a date. Introductions are exchanged. Esme. Roberto. Marcella.

Roberto speaks English but Marcella does not, so he and I fall into conversation. Marcella doesn’t appear to mind our private exchange, in fact she looks relieved. I learn that she is from Brazil, currently living in Lisbon, and he lives elsewhere in Portugal. He is visiting the city for the weekend and they met in a bar the last time that he was in town.

“You don’t mind dining alone?” he asks, incredulous. I don’t understand why the thought of dining alone and traveling solo is so daunting and/or disagreeable to so many people.

“No, I often prefer it,” I reply. Looking at Marcella, she seems happier now watching people walk by than when she and Roberto were forcing conversation.

“Until tonight, I was so lonely in Lisbon I nearly cried,” Roberto confesses.

Wow. I occasionally get lonely with I travel by myself, but I simply take a walk or read a book and the feeling dissipates. I’m fortunate that a running narrative in my head keeps me amused. I do understand the desire to share thoughts and observations with someone else, but blogging fills that need for me.

We both take a sip of wine as we consider each other’s situation. Roberto wondering what’s wrong with me that I’m dining alone as I wonder what’s wrong with Roberto that he hates dining alone.

Roberto breaks the silence, volunteering that, as we speak, he is testing “anti-hangover” medication, mail-ordered from Russia.”They’re called KGB pills,” he explains, because the KGB developed them during the Cold War years to ensure that boozy soldiers remained alert. Per the package directions, he tells me, he swallowed three red pills prior to dinner and three black pills await him at the end of the evening.

I ask Roberto if Marcella is also on the formulary in anticipation of becoming shitfaced tonight. She is not. It should be an interesting date.

Finished with my meal, I thank Roberto and Marcella for their company, snap their picture, and offer to e-mail it to them.

Dining alone in Lisbon

THE FOURSOME

Emboldened by three glasses of vinho verde, I interrupt the strangers sitting behind me that I had been spying on earlier in the evening, and ask for the name of the stock they had been discussing. The married man repeats it for my benefit, and we banter for awhile.

They ask me if I am a journalist and also for the scoop on Roberto and Marcella, revealing that when I wasn’t observing the foursome, the foursome were observing my newfound threesome.

I eventually bid the group goodbye, and the flight attendants (who are feeling no pain) urge me to pull up a seat and join them for even more pitchers of sangria. I appreciate the invitation, but decline it. I know my alcohol limits (I took no prophylactic KGB pills earlier) and the difference between three glasses of wine and four is the difference between being silly and being stupid, between feeling fine in the morning versus awaking with a headache.

A very enjoyable evening dining alone in Lisbon, though. If you can call it that.

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HELL IS THE U.S. EMBASSY IN BANGKOK

This post is part of a Luang Prabang & Bangkok Trip series.

play:

THE BANGKOK AIRPORT

The issue, I learn, is that all but one of the remaining pages of my passport has been covered in stamps and visas. Rookie mistake! Two passport pages are required to enter Indonesia.

Passport with no pages

I flip through my passport, helpfully pointing-out to Agent Ratched all of the half-filled pages at the front of the booklet that they can use.

Entry denied. 

THE U.S. EMBASSY IN BANGKOK

I arrive at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok drenched in my own sweat, having baked in the AC-free cab the long, traffic-addled ride from the airport.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. There to aid Americans in distress. A trusted friend. A lighthouse of hope to guide me through my Thailand travails. So glad I’m here.

No one Is answering the gate phone. It’s so, so hot.

The guards laugh at my obvious frustration. Not that Thais are cruel people — they tend to be very sweet — they just don’t display their anger and impatience like us farangs. Their mirth frustrates me further, fueling their amusement. I ask them what’s the deal with the embassy, but they speak only Thai  — which makes sense, since I’m in Thailand — but c’mon it’s the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. U.S.! 

I ring again, a man answers. Yay!

“This is Dave.”

“Hi Dave.”

“…”

“Are you there, Dave?”

“Yes.”

I explain the situation to Dave. He tells me that I should be glad that I’m not the poor schmuck with visa issues that they let onto the plane yesterday, who is now resting in a cell in Indonesia Passport Control. Dave explains that the embassy is closed for Christmas. But the country is Buddhist?…?

I ask Dave what time the embassy opens tomorrow.

It doesn’t. Boxing Day. Since when do we celebrate Boxing Day?

I ask Dave about the following day.

Weekend. Closed. Oh for fuck’s sake.

THE INDONESIAN EMBASSY IN BANGKOK

Dragging Bagzillo and my two carry-ons behind me down the torn-up sidewalks of this crowded, polluted, stinking town, there’s not an available cab in sight. I hail a tuk-tuk. It’s either that or spontaneously combusting, right now, right here on the corner.

“Indonesian Embassy? Indonesian Embassy? You know it? Embassy Indonesia?” I implore of the tuk tuk driver. It’s a long shot, but possibly, possibly the Indonesian Embassy could help me.

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Promise?” I hop on, he piles my crap behind me.

And….he has no clue where the Indonesian Embassy is located, but when has not knowing the location of a destination every stopped a Bangkok driver? We circle, stop, ask. Circle, stop, ask.

And we’re here.

The Indonesian Embassy is also closed in observation of Christmas. Since when do Muslims…? Why ask why?

I kick Bagzillo. Dumb bag, dumb!

AMERICAN CITIZEN SERVICES OF THE U.S. EMBASSY IN BANGKOK

Hours of Operation: Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.; 1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. (I know Spanish bankers who work longer hours)

Address: U.S. Embassy Bangkok 95 Wireless Road Bangkok 10330

Contact: +66-02-205-4049 (T);  +66-02-205-4103 (F); Email: acsbkk@state.gov; @acsbkk

After Hours Emergencies: In the event of an emergency outside business hours, American citizens may dial (011)(66) 02-205-4000 and ask to speak to the duty officer.

Read the entire Luang Prabang & Bangkok series.

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WILD ENCOUNTER WITH WOLF BLITZER

HUNTING WOLF BLITZER

Vincent and I exit the ballroom and there stands Wolf Blitzer, deeply engaged in conversation. But Vincent doesn’t give a damn if he barges in on their tete-a-tete: he’s got a mission to accomplish, and accomplish it he will.

The downsides to ‘achieving’ middle age are numerous, but one of the pluses is learning not to give a damn.

Photographic evidence is a component of our bet with Meg and Allen, so Vincent’s young, pretty niece, Brenda, good-naturedly accompanies us to capture our pending triumph.

Wolf Blitzer is momentarily taken aback by our intrusion into his circle, but Brenda is quick with a shot. She surreptitiously captures Wolf Blitzer’s and Vincent’s bombshell introduction.

We win. WE WIN! Take that, Allen and Meg!

Vincent asks Wolf Blitzer for a more formal photo and Wolf — THAT DOG! — turns the tables on my date faster than you can say roué. Wolf informs Vincent that NO, he wants his picture taken with Brenda. And now Wolf “Wolf” has his arm around Brenda (and somehow Vincent is holding the camera). Go, WOLF, go!

I cherish Wolf Blitzer’s look of dismay at the prospect of having to speak with graying Vincent, compared to the glint in his eye when he’s cuddling up with 20-something Brenda.I am reminded of the new Old Spice Wild Collection of men’s body sprays (only $1.25 now at Target after promotion and coupons!) commercials.

Old Spice Wolf Guy

I quickly introduce myself to Wolf Blitzer (“Hi, Friend of Vincent’s, nice to meet you”), shake his hand before he even knows what’s hit him and skeedaddle.

Vincent’s cousin points-out that the good-looking man standing before us is David Corn, chief of the Washington Bureau for Mother Jones, author and political journalist. He’s the guy who released, and reported on, Romney’s infamous 47% speech. Vincent and I thank him for his act, so happy that we didn’t have to stare at Mitt’s smug mug at the podium tonight.

TUESDAY, AT HOME IN MY SWEATS

I want to express my appreciation to Vincent’s family for the privilege of joining them this past weekend, so I have volunteered to collect everyone’s pictures and upload them on to a photo-sharing website.

This shot comes in from Laura from Minnesota, who maintained a fairly low-profile throughout the weekend. All part of her sneaky, subversive plan, I realize now. She has casually submitted a photo of herself with Alan Greenspan, taken by none other than Andrea Mitchell.

Damn her! Everyone knows that Greenspan trumps Blitzer! And the Victor for the evening is… Laura!

And Wolf Blitzer!

And all of us!

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