In Coimbra, I did a lot of wandering. I had been in Portugal almost a week when I got there. I was alone and quiet — no walkman, few random conversations with strangers. I had been miserably (and probably quite dangerously) sick before getting to Coimbra, spending a couple of days burning through a fever in Viana do Castelo, thinking how odd it was that I should come all the way to Portugal to die. Happily, my fever broke and I got on a train and rode down to Coimbra, a beautiful city on a hill.
One night I found a small, dark, good-smelling resaturant a series of right-hand turns away from my hotel, and settled in with the dinner menu. After I placed my order, I studied the other diners and noticed a family at a table near mine. They were a man, a woman and a small, pretty girl. They were very, very white and very, very vexed with their inability to understand anything on the menu. I asked if I could help. I didn’t speak or understand more than a few words of Portuguese, but I could decipher a fair amount of written text. I helped them through their order, they were very grateful, I went back to my table, end of story.
A few days later, I was down the coast in Nazaré. I was standing on the beach staring out at the sea and suddenly in front of me was the family I’d helped out in the restaurant in Coimbra. We were all a little happy with the surprise of meeting again, and they invited me to join them that night for dinner. I was happy to accept, and not just because it would mean I’d have a chance to speak English for a while but because I’d learned that being out at night on my own wasn’t always the wisest choice in a place where a lot of people assumed all black women were prostitutes.
Alrick and Ulli were the parents of Adelisa, who was five and maybe the blondest child I’ve ever met. They were from Nuremberg. Alrick was some kind of architect or draftsman or something my brain hasn’t quite held onto. Ulli was an artist and a gallery owner. They spoke excellent English, but Adelisa seemed not to speak at all except the occasional rapid-fire whisper in her mother’s ear. I met them that night at a small restaurant near the water on a dark, quiet street. The food was fantastic and so was the conversation. We talked on and on, drank good red wine, had a nice time.
Just before our dinner plates were cleared Adelisa slid down from her chair and wandered off. As we finished our coffees, Ulli wondered where Adelisa might be. She’d been gone nearly half an hour by that time. I had a bit of an internal freak-out: I’d assumed Ulli or Alrick or both had had their eye on their child, that she was simply sitting behind me at another table, but no, neither one had paid any attention to where she’d gone. They asked the wait staff (or, rather, I asked for them), but no one had seen her. A quick check showed that she was not, in fact, anywhere in the restaurant.
At that point, my internal freak-out started to become a little external. Alrick and Ulli, however, weren’t particularly concerned. They figured she was out playing in the street, so Alrick paid the bill and we went outside … where we did not, of course, find Adelisa. At which point Ulli started to have a very little bit of a freak-out. Alrick, however, remained confident that all was well. “She does this sometimes,” he explained. “She will walk away and find something she would rather be doing.”
Oh, really? Your five. year. old. daughter? In a country in which she cannot speak the language? Are you high?!
All, of course, came right in the end. Alrick said we should walk up the street peeking into any open doors, insisted that we would soon find her. So we headed up the street and, a few doors down, found her in the kitchen of another restaurant. She was seated on a high stool and the kitchen staff was plying her with some yummy-looking custard-y dessert. She was completely calm, content and safe. I, however, am convinced that my panic over her disappearance marks the moment when I started to go grey.
(Part II is next Monday.)
is hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.