Earlier this summer I took some vacation with my partner, Eric, after a yoga retreat in Portugal. I had just finished teaching a wonderful week at an eco-property in the southern Algarve region, and now we were headed north to the capital city of Lisbon on the train. The end of a yoga retreat is always a bit hectic: everyone leaving at different times, transportation to coordinate, teary goodbyes after a week of bonding together, hurried packing because we stayed up too late the night before. You get the idea! I ate early in the morning to make sure I got some food before teaching and getting everyone off in their respective taxis. Then it was a rush to return my rental car and get to the train station and on board to Lisbon. There was no gluten free food anywhere near the train station for lunch so I ate a snack bar thinking about how great dinner would be in Lisbon once we arrived.
By the time we got to Lisbon I had not eaten a meal in nearly 12 hours. We arrived in the middle of a teacher’s strike and our host could not get to us to let us into our apartment. Streets were closed and crowds of people were everywhere. We were stuck in a hot square with all our luggage for a couple hours more. I know this to be the adventure side of travel – the unpredictability and the experience of being in a foreign country. I love those aspects of travel, but at this point my blood sugar was high-jacking my sense of reason. All the tables at all the restaurants in the square were taken, so we couldn’t even sit down and have a bite. We were both ravenous by the time we finally got into the apartment. I had another small snack, but I was past snacking at this point. I was turning beyond hangry!
We picked a recommended restaurant nearby us from the guide book and set out to get some dinner. A patron saint festival was going on in the area of the city we were staying – the Alfama district – and everywhere these huge sardine grills were spilling out into the streets. The smell of the smoke and the sounds of a language I didn’t understand would normally intrigue me – but in my fatigued and hungry state, I just felt overwhelmed and as if I might faint. Everyone – I mean EVERYONE – was out and about eating, drinking and making merry. Add in a high profile football game on televisions all over and you had a recipe for overstimulation. We walked, and walked, and walked…and walked some more – searching endlessly for this restaurant.
If you have never been to the Alfama in Lisbon, it is not flat. Up and down staircases; weaving in and out of crowds, we searched. We trudged all the way up a long staircase to the top of the Alfama district, only to find…nothing. No restaurant, no store, nothing. After what seemed like hours of walking (probably in reality 1 hour) I felt near collapse and was a real nightmare to be around. We were lost and didn’t even quite know the way back to our place. And we still hadn’t eaten a meal in a very long time.
We gave up after bickering in the middle of a Portuguese street, and decided just to go home hungry. We made the long walk down towards where we thought our apartment was. Suddenly we passed a small cafe on a much quieter street away from the crowds. It had just a few small tables inside with quiet groups of diners. It was very mellow in comparison to the loud places we had seen everywhere else. We wandered in to ask if they had a table. It was a fixed menu restaurant and the chef said he didn’t know if he had enough food to feed another table of two. I stormed out and held on to a stone wall dramatically as if I might pass out right there and then and never take another step. Eric came out moments later and said that they found enough food to feed us and we could sit down. I’ve never been so happy to sit down in my life!
Our tiny table was just in front of the chef’s station. There was one man cooking and another man serving. It was the coolest food experience I’ve ever had. The menu was written up on a chalk board. I was so hungry I had not thought about what we might be eating. Up on the board were foods like clams and shrimp that I was not really happy about, and other dishes like salad that I was not “supposed” to be eating due to some health concerns. I get scared around seafood because of some bad past experiences, and I had been taking my eating restrictions really seriously of late. Eric gave me one look as if to say, “Eat whatever shows up.” And I did just that. I was so tired, hungry and out of it from the travel day that I just ate.
We enjoyed one of the best meals we have ever eaten. This chef was truly amazing. Every dish from start to finish was simple but exquisite and made with the most loving attention and care. We ate every bite off every plate. I’d never had clams before and loved them. The shrimp were delicious. The salad had all sorts of fun little additions and a delicious cheese. The dessert even had gluten and I ate that too (I have celiac disease and this is usually a huge no no). I figured if I was going to get sick, at least I was on vacation and had no where to be. I didn’t get sick at all – I’ve never felt better after a meal. Maybe because I was so hungry. Maybe because the food was so incredibly fresh. Maybe because I just let go for once.
I like to be found. I like to know where I am going when and what I’m doing once I get there. I like to preview the menu before I go to a restaurant and make sure it “fits” with how I’m eating. As I’ve blogged about before, I’m kind of a control freak! Years of such structured training and education in figure skating and in school left me with an almost compulsive need to know, understand and plan. Getting lost in Lisbon was an epic reminder of what you find when you go with the flow. It’s so important to let yourself get lost. Just when we think we are at our most lost, we actually really start to find things out. They don’t call it found treasure – it’s lost treasure – and that’s what I found when we got lost.
Without experiences like this that push my boundaries, I don’t think I would be constantly out-growing my control freak nature. Without putting myself in difficult situations, not just this travel experience, but many others where I don’t know what is happening, I would not be moving in the directions I am. It’s so important to let go of our clinging nature to what is comfortable and to let ourselves get lost in the world around us.
The original restaurant we were trying to eat at was called St. Antonio de Alfama. The restaurant we found while lost this fateful night was called Os Gazeteiros and I hope you will check it out if you are in Lisbon – call ahead to reserve your table. It took us the rest of the week to finally find St. Antonio de Alfama and by that time I was so relaxed from the Portuguese hospitality and pace of life that I had prawns, whole fish and a lotta garlic vegetables all in one meal.
The next time you feel lost, I hope you can recall this story. I know I will! We need reminders about how important it is to lose our way from time to time so the real treasures can rise up from the depths of experience for us to delight in.