The following is a selection, an expert titled "Moonlight On The Douro," is from forthcoming work by Joseph Barresi.
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In Portugal you don’t pay on the metro. You walk right in and wait for
your train. Sometimes, rarely, the controller waits there with you,
barely distinguishable, maybe a small badge hidden from view. You
begin to practice looking out for him. When I met Eléa and Thomas,
Thomas told me there were ways to spot them, and in that instance one
would avoid boarding that train and wait for the next one. They were a
young French couple from Lille, expatriates to Montréal and Porto
respectively. She, with an Alsatian family name and dark smiling eyes,
was visiting him on school holidays. He, with flowing tangles of brown
hair, was in school to become a cinematographer, there in Porto.
I had come around the corner on a city bus from the center, on the
search for that Atlantic and the waves I knew it had promised me.
Traveling and surfing together had always been colored with the cliché
of “journey, not destination”, and I recognized the fine tightrope
therein between serendipity and getting skunked. I had never been on
an intentional surf trip before, excluding the nonchalant (if hairy)
day trips to northern Mexico, less than a day’s drive away from my
childhood home. But I had often kept surfing in mind while traveling
for other reasons, and been rewarded or punished for this accordingly.
My afternoon with Sinbad, on the sun drenched coast roads through
Biarritz. A jaunt after that with a crooked barrelhound of a Kiwi on
the rickety commuter trains that dart in and out of the rain-spotted
hillsides of Basque Coast between Donostia and Sopelana. The July
before leaving, I had passed three weeks alone with a surfboard
unfolding the coast highway between Olympia, Washington, leaving it
behind after five years, and San Diego. I kept my eyes peeled to the
west. For hundreds of miles the ocean is as flat as a pancake. In
Zarautz left-hand sections peel while sheep graze on cliffsides above,
snow capped crags rising impossibly behind. Storied Morro Rock does
not deliver, not a hint of swell, when at Mendocino there is to be
shared between two a glassy four-foot A-frame in blue-shark water,
hidden from highway view at a curve.
On the bus I had miraculously struck up conversation with two young
women sitting beside me: “falas inglês ou francês?” was the broken
Portuguese phrase I had learned to string together, working with what
I had. Being a relatively small but literate population, I was usually
answered with a response in one of the languages I did understand.
“When we come around thee corner, we pass thee castle. Then just look
for thee surfer-boys!” she smiled to me.
Golden sunshine bounced off the Douro as the bus curved along the
widening mouth of the river. Avenida do Brasil begins a long
straightaway that turns into Avenida de Montevideu, running parallel
to the gray washed shoreline and facing indirectly towards those
locales renamed long ago in Portuguese. At a roundabout the Castelo do
Queijo comes into view, a pentagonal fort dating to the sixteen
hundreds, jutting out on a small rocky outcrop with its round-roofed
cornices set against the sea and sky, itself punctuated by the
industrial cranes and smokestacks of Matosinhos and Leixões to the
north end of the beach. In the water below are twenty-odd bobbing
black specks, one carving just in front of the cresting foam, speeding
northward on a chest-high left-hander. The sun smiles down on my luck.
Leaving the water as the evening light began to play in the striated
clouds that blanketed the sky, I noticed a couple I guessed to be my
age approach on the cement promenade that passed the castle. She wore
a woolen coat the color of the sea, he wore straight-legged Lees
hem-cut fashionably into waders above his low-cut Chucks. They both
had black wool beanies and he had a surfboard in a boardbag under his
“Falas inglês ou francês?”, I tried my line on them.
They both looked at me in the surprise of a stranger in a strange land.
“Non à l’anglais, mais on parle bien Français!”, Eléa replied with a
warm smile. They had come in order for Thomas to surf and Eléa to
photograph him doing so, but as the sun began to set it became evident
that a wetsuit he intended to rent from the seaside hut from which I
had been able to rent a fish hours earlier would be unavailable. We
began instead to talk, realizing that they found in my French a
delightful internationalist anomaly, and I in their French a respite
from the watertread of no-Portuguese, and furthermore that our tastes
in art and philosophy were aligned.
Fast friends pop out of the open door of the universe, and as we
walked along the southward promenade back to a bus stop to the center
our seamless conversation fortified this sensation of easy
serendipity. Maybe it was the full moon over our heads.
Back in the center we traced the meandering cobbles of the city at
night. They undulated and dipped, some passageways narrowing to
shoulder with as they toppled down to the riverbank past sea waves of
terracotta and stucco. They lead me to their “lieu secret”, a spot
Thomas had found in his concrete exploration that he had shared with
Eléa and that they now wanted to share with me. I bought two six packs
of Super Bock, they had brought along other picnic accoutrements. We
crawled through a whole in a dilapidated ivy-grown stone wall, which
lead to an abandoned train trestle arching high above the terraced
layers of the city and the river below. We talked and drank, the moon
shone brightly in the Douro below with such strength that I imagined
the moon to be under the water itself and the light in the sky a
reflection, mixing dazedly with the lights of the city and off across
the Douro valley. We discovered that the “virtuous circle”, the
ensemble of causes and effects that ameliorate the entire system, a
common phrase in French, is not nearly as present conceptually in
English as its negative counterpart.
The following day on my way to the train station, I stopped beneath
two magnolia trees, blooming pale pink like last light at sea against
the gray morning. The Comboios de Portugal ticket I had purchased for
Lisboa lead me onto the platform to a yellow train, and I noticed on
my car there were three stick figures indication reserved space seats:
handicapped, with stroller, or with surfboard. As the train pulled
away from the station, first eastward out of the center along the
Douro before leaning southward, I caught a glimpse of the arched back
alleyway and a hole in the wall, and a tiny secret spot looking out
over the valley.
Joesph Barresi is a traveler, surfer, and a country-western musician living in Encinitas, CA.