Looking southwards from Porto, directly across the Douro – that rock-carving river which marks an old, old border between Portugal and Spain – one can see the town of Gaia. Gaia is connected to Porto by a bridge so easily walked across on an usually warm and dry spring day, that it could even be interpreted as one town with a damp central avenue. The watery passageway is fringed by many flat-hulled, wooden rabelo. A vessel unique to the Douro, these craft used to be the most efficient way to transport wine down from the vineyards of the valley to the port, via a river notoriously full of challenging shallows and rapids. The rabelo oddly have more in common by design with their Nordic cousins than the boats of the Mediterranean. Many of them here have names which are reinforced above buildings by the waterside – staked out in 3D across the tops of their cool, dark cellars, like so many Hollywood signs, are the names of various port businesses who have historically been based in Gaia, though have taken the name of Port for their fortified produce.
Gaia’s namesake, bringing thoughts of the Titan of the earth, seems appropriate when the day is warm and light, and there is the sight of a great green hillock poised above the town (as majestically as only a patch of nature, wild or cultivated can poise.) It certainly invites a wander over the bridge in any case.
Up steep, warm roads without pavements, or, indeed, many pedestrians – only the occasional bus – the much-toured cellar area quickly morphs into a stiller, residential quietness. Blue and yellow-tiled houses, the distant sound of school children on a morning break, and slow-walking adults on errands. One small neighbourhood, progressing up the seemingly endless hill, encircles a small, green patch, in the centre of which is a grey concrete stage. The stage is empty, and faces numerous concrete, rectangular benches, each covered with a slatted wooden top. The benches progress upwards from the stage, which itself has letters above its roof, reading Palco Francisco Silva Cencenadoro. A silent, public stage, at least to a tourist’s guess- perhaps musical performances bring it to life on summer evenings. The last word only possibly ends in O – after the final R there is a metallic, moon-shaped figure, made in the same material as the preceding letters, so presumably part of that final vowel is missing as a result of time and weather.
I am sitting on one of the upper benches idling, when an older man, who had been walking up the hill comes forward to the bottom row of the benches. He wants to speak to me. He taps his wrist, the familiar gesture of one who is missing a watch and in need of the time. Unfortunately, a knee-jerk reaction to being approached in this way when alone brings nervousness and an expectation of unpleasant and uncomfortable kinds of conversation. Coming from a city where phones, watches or various other demarcations of time are omnipresent, where it is impossible not to know the time, the situation can only be interpreted as peculiar.
As an exercise in overcoming learnt inner patterns of thought, it seems best to go through the motions of finding out the answer for him in any case. I take a look at my own wrist, only to remember that I don’t actually have a watch today either, as I’m not working this week and have as such dispensed with the unnecessaries, such as punctuality. I reach instead into the front pocket of my rucksack for my phone, and check the time there. I notice that no shadow falls across me, despite the combination of the direction from which the man initially came and the location of the sun at this point in the day, and realise that he is, in fact, still at the point where he had stopped to make his enquiry. From a respectable distance of about five metres away, he waits for the information. Hence why the sun shines still bright across me. I beam inwardly.
As I start to answer, however, another realisation raises its mocking head when no words come from my mouth. I don’t know how to say 10:38 in Portuguese. Naturally. Embarrassed, I try to say it in French, which has worked as a lingua franca (franca!) on a number of occasions in Porto. The man smiles wide and laughs a little, before nodding assent at our mutual muteness and making his way up the slope to take a look at the dull screen and resolve the matter. Still, he steps only as close as is necessary in order to see the numbers, which are, fortunately, given the stark sunlight across the old screen, quite large. Saves the eyes of the both of us.
He has a quick read and thanks me. ‘Obrigada!’
‘Obridaga’, I say, before realising that this fast response, released a little too early with the relief that I had at least one Portuguese word down ok by this point, makes no sense in the context as the man is, in fact, a man, and needs an obrigadO. Oops. I laugh at myself as he makes his way back down the benches, back towards the houses from whose direction he had emerged into my sight, and onwards to the point in time which he has marked, and to whatever plan awaits him there.
I move a little way down the benches in the Palco, towards the stage. Need to warm up. The breeze is pleasant, but cool; the shade of an about-to-blossom cherry tree dapples the grass and benches. Writing means sitting still to allow the whirring of thoughts, as does drawing some of the painted tiles from the house opposite in pencil. After half an hour of this, however, the legs are itching to move, warm or not, so I make my way back downhill to the world of sweet-smelling cellars and tourism-tied bustle. The sun meets its zenith, announcing midday. Time for lunch, in any case.