Bridget Gleeson writer + illustrator

We got lost in Lisbon, then the rental car broke down

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I like talking about the stuff that never makes it onto a postcard. The unexpected failures and mini-disasters, jet lag haze, upside-down maps. Interpersonal dramas.

Forget scenic train rides and pretty sunsets. But the moment when you want to strangle your travel companion and stomp off into a foreign city alone? Now that’s the stuff of memories.

And so I offer a short list of things that went badly on our trip to Portugal and Spain.

I had the clever idea of requesting an aisle seat and a window seat for my boyfriend and myself, figuring that the middle seat probably wouldn’t be occupied. I was right. But once we were at cruising altitude we realized that we had some of the only seats on the plane that can’t recline because they were immediately in front of the emergency exit row. I wouldn’t have guessed it, but those two inches make a gigantic difference on a trans-Atlantic flight. Didn’t sleep a wink.

We rented an adorable mini Fiat in Lisbon for a three-day drive through the Algarve. Just south of the city, we stopped for takeaway coffee. When we tried to start the car again a few minutes later, it was dead. We called the car rental company, a mechanic came out and tried to fix it. Nothing worked. We were sent back to Lisbon in a taxi and had to wait in line for a second rental car. It was 11 p.m. and there was only one car left. Needless to say it was not an adorable mini Fiat. It’s a good thing I don’t speak Portuguese because the bored guy at the rental desk would’ve gotten a piece of my mind – and it wouldn’t have been pretty.

A Portuguese relative advised us to ‘swing by’ the monastery in Belem, Lisbon on our way to another city. We wanted to beat rush hour traffic, but this cousin was insistent. We looked at the map and said ‘okay, this seems reasonable.’ Nope. Not at all reasonable. Streets weren’t labeled, commuter trains blocked our passage, we weren’t sure if U-turns were legal. After arguing for an hour in traffic and settling into a chilly mutual silence, we finally ended up at the monastery. Naturally, it had closed just ten minutes earlier.

Another Portuguese relative – who lives on a beautiful farm in the Algarve -wanted to send some of his homemade delicacies home with us, including a bottle of a potent fig-based liquor called aguardiente de figos. Even though we only had carry-on luggage, we figured it would be fine to check one bag home. We forgot that the European airlines will kill you with baggage fees. Flying from Lisbon to Barcelona (also an international flight, thankyouverymuch), the girl at the counter informed us that our little bottle would cost us 20 euro. Ouch.

Then we got on the plane and tried to have a coffee. That ran 3.50 euro. Even tap water cost 2 euro. I’m not a stingy traveler in the least, but I have principles. And paying for tap water is ridiculous on an international flight. I guess that’s what I’m really complaining about. You can’t put a price tag on the aguardiente de figos.

Packing light seemed like a great idea, of course. We didn’t realize that we literally would not have one opportunity to wash our clothes during the trip. The Spanish relatives are a free-spirited, bohemian bunch; I’m pretty sure none of them have washing machines. Shouldn’t have assumed we’d be able to launder our stuff on the road.

To be fair, there were a few things that sounded bad but turned out better than we expected.

For example, when we waited in line for our replacement rental car, I looked at the brochures and said ‘why not rent a GPS for an extra 8 euro a day?’ So we did. That GPS saved our lives. The house we were trying to get to in the Algarve didn’t have street names or numbers. It would have been a joke to try getting around the region without a GPS.

The language barrier. I thought it would be detrimental that I don’t speak Portuguese, but as it turns out, not understanding the language very well made it possible for me just observe the culture and enjoy the food while the family got into deep conversations. I didn’t feel any pressure to join in, which I can now see is fairly appropriate anyway. Not speaking the language, for once, was kind of relaxing, and it kept the spotlight where it really belonged.