Sunday, 19 March: Obrigado, Lisboa!

Hola, ¡todos! I’m back with another weekly update on my time in Europe, this one again a few weeks later than the stated week. I hope to be caught up with everything in a few days, but we’ll see how that goes!

Once I woke up from my short nap in the Dublin airport on the morning of Monday, 13 March, I organized all my things and headed through security to my flight gate. On the way, I had a loss of self-control and, instead of passing by the airport stores without a second glance, walked through them and actually purchased things from them. I know: how foolish! However, I think I found some pretty good deals on what I bought—all of it food, of course! I was happy to find some Cadbury chocolate (even some of their famous eggs!), as well as digestives (delicious cookies that sound healthy but are still deserts) and, just before boarding for my plane started, a full Irish breakfast. I was extremely happy to indulge in an encore of this sabroso plato típico irlandés (tasty typical Irish meal).

Somewhere in between security and my boarding gate, I managed to lose my boarding pass. (To be honest, I was more surprised that this was the first time this had happened, considering my tendency to forget things or run into complications.) However, the workers at the gate not only got me onto the flight but did so with patience and friendliness, telling me not to worry about it. The flight itself was also extremely pleasant, so let me be explicit and make a plug for Aer Lingus: it’s a great company!

My flight was even more agradable (pleasant, agreeable) because I had a window seat, an empty seat next to me, and an end seat occupied by a third-grade teacher from Chicago who was incredibly nice. I told her about what I was doing in Spain (and Ireland), and she told me that she was on the last leg of her journey from the States to Spain to spend a little over a week with her brother and sister. We had a good conversation before each drowsing off, arriving in Madrid, and parting ways with best wishes for safe travels.

I arrived in Toledo safe and sound around noon: I unpacked, ate, got ready for my internship, and headed there at the usual time of 4. The theme this week was American film and television, as well as a bit of history for each industry and mentions of other film industries around the world. The group members knew quite a bit about American cinema and, of course, Spanish films, but also, to my surprise, world cinema, including Bollywood and Japan’s film industry. It was another reminder for me of the more global awareness exhibited by most people in Spain, Europe, and—to be honest—the world. It helps that international borders are closer in most other countries, but I believe the United States would benefit a lot from a greater openness to and knowledge of the outside world, including through the learning of other languages.

My group members also surprised me (though not as much) with their perceptions of United States schools, particularly high schools and universities. Several of them asked me if college life in America was like that portrayed in “American Pie,” so I had to explain that for the most part it really isn’t.

As I mentioned, my presentation also went over the history of United States television and film. To talk about the “Golden Age” of American television, I included the famous chocolate-factory scene from “I Love Lucy.” I enjoy this clip a lot, and so did the groups when they saw it! Even the grupo infantile of 8-13-year-olds were laughing heartily. I guess this is one show that translates well to other cultures.

I noticed that I had a sore throat this day but paid little attention to it. Little did I know that it was the first sign of my third sickness abroad in two months. It got worse as the week went on, but, thankfully, I was better by the time we went to Lisbon.

On Tuesday, I paid a visit to the weekly mercadillo (market) in the park just before the Puerta de Bisagra, one of the entrances to the old city of Toledo. The park is on my way to the Fundación, so it’s both convenient and fun to go there each week. I went to my favorite stall, one that sells sweets, spices, snacks, and baked goods, and bought a few cookies for the week. I’m trying to try a new cookie or other postre (dessert) every week while I’m here in Toledo; thank goodness it’s not expensive to do so!

Tuesday was also the first meeting of el grupo de discusión sobre la vida espiritual (spirituality discussion group) in the Fundación. We had been encouraged by the school’s administrators to create new groups or activities if we wanted, so I decided to form this group for students who wanted to talk about their spirituality and religion in general in Spain and the United States. The first meeting was a bit awkward, as most first meetings are, but it was nice to be able to talk with other students about the differences they saw in themselves and in society regarding religion between the U.S. and Spain. I didn’t feel like I had a space in which to talk about this topic honestly beyond my host family, so I was grateful to the Fund for giving me the opportunity to create one.

This Wednesday was much like my others at the Fund: I went to Mass at 9 a.m. in the cathedral, then to theology. For my upcoming presentation of Teresa of Ávila’s Las Moradas (The Interior Castle), I found an English version of the work online and compared it with the Spanish I had been reading. It never hurts to have a comparison in one’s native language! I was encantado (enchanted) by her words about the spiritual journey to God and excited to present on the first chapters of the last section of the work, the seventh rooms (las séptimas moradas), the center of the soul where God dwells.

On Thursday, I got to sleep in since I was not scheduled to give my final presentation for my internship class that day. In art, my class visited the Convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in the northwest of the old city. I had visited the convent before, but I was happy to return to it and learn from our professor how it exhibits characteristics of el clasicismo (classicism), a phase in Renaissance architecture that did away with almost all decoration in favor of clear, straight lines. The paintings in the church, in turn, exhibit Mannerism (manerismo) and in particular the unique style of El Greco, Toledo’s most famous artist. They should, given that three of them were painted by him!

After the afternoon sessions of my classes, I hurried home, ate and showered quickly, gratefully received another bolsa (bag) bursting with food from my host mother, and left for the train station. From there, my friends Claudia, Amanda, and I left for Madrid, then walked from Atocha train station to the Estación Sur bus station, from which we took a night bus to Lisbon, Portugal.

This was my first night bus, and the journey overall went pretty well! For some reason, the heat was cranked up for the first thirty minutes or so of the journey, but afterward the air conditioning kicked in and made the ride much more comfortable. We arrived in Lisbon around 6 a.m. and took a taxi to our hostel, where we were able to leave our luggage and use the restrooms. We couldn’t check into our room until 3 p.m., so we headed out on what would be a long and tiring but satisfying walk through the city.

First, we made our way up the hill and park that bear the name of and sit behind the statue of the Marquis do Pombal. When we got to the top, we had an incredible view of Lisbon below us. As we would discover, Lisbon has a lot of hills, many more than we had thought we would encounter during our journey. It would make Friday the Leg Day of all Leg Days!

After the park, we moved diagonally to the Basilica de la Estrella, one of the city’s most well-known churches. We passed through a lovely park before entering the church, sitting down for a few minutes of rest in its cool and peaceful interior, and leaving to find our way to the coast. Getting there would be harder than we imagined: first we went up, then down, then up, then down, and then up again! We eventually found ourselves in the Bairro Alto (High Neighborhood); the name doesn’t lie! While walking down from it to the coast (finally!), we passed Tram 28, one of the city’s most famous. Lisbon has a system of trams in its center, but Tram 28 is special in that it has been operating for decades and takes a charming route from the coast to and through the Bairro Alto.

Once we got to the coast, we took a well-earned rest for a few minutes before walking a few minutes to the city’s main plaza, the fourth side of which overlooks the Tagus River (Río Tajo). It was so cool to see the same river that encircles most of Toledo running past Lisbon. Here, so much closer to the Atlantic, it’s much wider. It’s also crossed by the Bridge of April 25, an impressive piece of architecture that looks very similar to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco—probably because it was designed by the same team!

Once in the main plaza, we bought our Lisbon Cards, helpful cards tourists can buy for one to three days that provide access to all public transportation, entrance to many museums and attractions, and reduced fares to other museums and sites in the city. Once that was done, we went to and climbed up the arch that overlooks the plaza and got another amazing vista of Lisbon. After that, we walked around the city some more, had lunch, and went to the National Pantheon.

The Pantheon sits on the site of a former church, the Church of Santa Engrácia begun in the 17th century, and now serves as a burial site for 18 individuals considered heroes of Portugal, from explorers to politicians to a fado singer (fado is a musical genre unique to Portugal). It was a beautiful building that, wouldn’t you know it, had another magnificent view of the city, especially given that it sat on another one of its hills.

From the National Pantheon, we walked downhill and waited for a bus to Belén, a neighborhood further upstream that is the site of some of Lisbon’s most famous monuments, such as the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Monastery of the Jerónimos) and the Torre de Belén (tower of Belen), a centuries-old watchtower that juts out into the river. We walked past the monastery, through a large park with a huge fountain, and to another imposing edifice, this one more modern: the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. This tower has figures of sailors and other individuals who contributed to Portugal’s journeys across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, with Prince Henry the Navigator on the side facing the river.

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After viewing the monuments in Belén, we returned to Lisbon proper and from there to our hostel, where we checked in fully around 6 p.m. I thought I’d take a nap until about 9 p.m., when our friends Emma and Danielle would arrive, but, after all the walking and the night bus, I was more tired than I thought. I ended up sleeping until 2 a.m.! Since I didn’t feel like doing much at that time, I went back to sleep and enjoyed a wonderful 13 hours of sleep.

On Saturday, we first enjoyed the free breakfast provided by our hostel. Not only were fruits, cereal, toast (and jam and butter), and tea available: an employee of the hostel made pancakes with apples and bananas for anyone who wanted them, too! With such a filling breakfast, we were well prepared for the day.

We struck out from the hostel for a flea market near the National Pantheon. It was a sprawling event, more than any of us could cover in the fifty minutes we spent there. I found some cool items at this bustling market (some of which I actually bought!), from which we walked down to the coast and, after unsuccessfully waiting for a bus to the National Tile Museum (Portugal became famous for tiles in the 17th century) walked around the center of the city.

We managed to make our way uphill and to a castle within Lisbon that overlooks the center of the city. I’ve already forgotten its name, and that’s because entrance cost a pretty penny, at least for us cheap college students! We walked down from the castle to a cozy restaurant for lunch, which included a cod-cake; cod—bacalao, in Portuguese—is a typical food in Portugal. From there, we went downhill to Lisbon’s cathedral. The church is a bit smaller than other cathedrals in Europe but still fascinating, as well as a great place to rest and cool down on a warm day like this Saturday. It’s also right by another church, this one dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua, who was actually born in Lisbon. In fact, the church sits on the remains of his family’s house!

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After getting downhill again, we got on a train to Belén. On our way to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, we stopped at Pasteis de Belén, a café that is the most famous establishment to serve the typical dessert of Portugal, the pasteis de nata, a type of custard encased in a pastry shell and served with powdered sugar and cinnamon. One bite of this treat and I was in heaven.

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After enjoying our postres, we entered into the church of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. Since it was later in the afternoon (just before the complex closed, in fact!), the sun entered from the west (back) of the church in golden rays, giving the whole space a radiant, sacred feel. I count it among my bes experiences abroad so far, especially since afterward I was able to enter the monastery’s cloister and, from it, the choir of the church, where I was able to take some amazing photos.

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The cloister itself is a marvelous work of architecture and was a joy to tour, as was the National Museum of Archeology, which is housed in the former living spaces of the monks and which I also visited. After the monastery, I rejoined the rest of the group at the Monument to Discovery, from which we went to the Torre de Belén. It had already closed for the day but was majestic to view from the outside.

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From the tower, we walked back to the train station, stopping to enjoy some gelato on the way. There’s always room for more desert! Once back in the city center, we walked to the Elevador de Santa Justa, or the Santa Justa Lift, a wrought-iron elevator (surprise!) from the nineteenth century. After waiting in line, we got to go up in the elevator, make our way up a spiral staircase (a bit nerve-wracking at points), and walk on the roof of the structure while enjoying its commanding view of the city. It was now night, and Lisbon spread out below us (and, in the distance, across from us, due to the hills) in a golden glow.

With the elevator visited, we went back to our hostel. We looked for a supermarket from which to buy some food in the neighborhood but couldn’t find any open. Thankfully for us, the same employee who cooked the pancakes for breakfast also decided to make soup and sandwiches that night for anyone in the hostel who wanted them. Not only was it generous; it was delicious, too! With my stomach full, I headed off to bed, grateful for the hostel we had booked for the weekend.

On Sunday morning, I went to Mass in Lisbon. I had originally wanted to go to Fatima and visit the churches there, especially since it is the 100th anniversary of the apparitions of Mary there. However, given our limited amount of time in Lisbon, I decided against going. I am sure the experience would have been fantastic, but I am glad I had the opportunity to visit the Igreja de São Domingo (Church of Saint Anthony).

A church has existed on the site for centuries but has seemed to run into bad luck throughout them. The worst such instance was probably in 1959, when a fire pretty much destroyed the interior of the building. Instead of a complete reconstruction, however, the church maintained much of its old interior; only the ceiling and upper sections of the walls were redone. Thus, today one can gaze at charred pillars and what looks like a semi-melted reredos (altar screen) when inside the church. It was certainly a unique experience, and the fulfilling experience I had of the Mass reminded me that an elaborately decorated or even plain interior is necessary for the beauty of the Mass and of God to be manifest.

Portuguese is a Romance language like Spanish, French, Italian, and Romanian and is significantly similar to the first. I could pretty easily understand the readings for the Mass provided on small sheets for all the attendants, but spoken Portuguese sounded quite a bit different to me. The Mass was sill lovely, though, and I left it feeling more peaceful and open to the world.

After returning to the hostel, I joined my friends in packing up and checking out. The hostel was generous enough to allow us to leave our heavier luggage with it for the day. From there, we headed to a train station to get the next train to Sintra, a town in the hills northwest of Lisbon. Due to its higher altitude and resulting cooler climate, it was a favorite summer site for rulers of Portugal through history, who built several castles throughout the city, many of them on hills with commanding views of the surrounding terrain.

While it was quite warm in Lisbon over the weekend, it was cloudy and pretty cool in Sintra. I was glad to be wearing a sweater and jeans! After eating at a local restaurant (with excellent vegetable soup!), Amanda, Claudia, and I took a bus to the Palacio Nacional of Sintra, a multi-colored marvel of a building constructed in the nineteenth century and surrounded by a marvelous park. We paid for admission to the park instead of the park and the castle given our time constraints; this alone provided more than we could see during our afternoon in the town. Full of mist, with a cross on a hilltop, a camellia garden, a fern forest, a giant redwood tree from California, ponds, greenhouses, and greenery everywhere, we may not have been able to see far down into the valley below us but had plenty to see in front of our eyes in this magical place. We even had the opportunity to enter into the castle gate and courtyard and take photos of its amazing exterior.

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On the bus down from the palace, we reunited with Emma and Danielle, who had visited the Moorish castle in Sintra and heartily enjoyed their time there. We got to the train station just in time for one of the many trains to Portugal, but Claudia, Danielle, and Emma, thinking that Amanda and I weren’t on the train, didn’t get on it. We were in fact on the train, and we saw our three friends as it departed the station and then promptly started to freak out. Ah! However, we quickly realized that another train for Lisbon was just pulling into Sintra, and we eventually managed to meet with our friends in Lisbon.

From the train station, we went to our hostel, where we picked up our luggage and, to our pleasant surprise, were invited to enjoy the leftovers of the soup from the previous night. We had already checked out and were still being shown extreme hospitality! We enjoyed our free dinner, the wifi, and the electrical outlets of the hostel for an hour before heading to the bus station and getting on another night bus back to Madrid. I’ll finally make a clear advertisement for the wonderful hostel at which we stayed: if you’re looking for an affordable, comfortable, and all-around wonderful place to stay in Lisbon, I highly recommend Lisbon Central Hostel. You (probably) won’t regret it!

Overall, I had a marvelous weekend in Lisbon, and one that certainly exercised my legs! I continue to be amazed by the sheer amount of things to do and see in Europe and the relative availability of them all in terms of transportation and price. I often forget about how lucky, how blessed, fortunate, and privileged, I am to be here in Europe, traveling, learning, and growing. I have the tendency to compare what I have done with what others have done or are doing—what they’ve seen, how much they’ve paid, even what they’ve eaten—instead of being grateful for what I’ve had the chance to do and happy for what others have gotten to do. Thankfully, I have friends, family, and faith that support me and remind me to quitar (get rid of, shed) such a critical and shallow attitude. I hope to grow more grateful and less judgmental throughout life and especially this Lent; I hope (and, of course, pray!) that I do so.

Before I go, I’ll explain my title for the week, though you’ve probably already figured it out. Obrigado means “thank you,” and that is the smallest sign I can give of my deep gratitude for the people I traveled with and met in Portugal and my time there. Obrigado to you, too, reader, and hasta luego!

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