Paul Theroux said, “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.” That’s certainly true of the travel blog, but perhaps not this blog entry. Today presented us with a cascade of obstacles that challenged our resolve as travelers, as parents, and in my case as a driver and perhaps as an overseas emissary for America.
A taxi had delivered us to Lisbon airport by noon where we were to rent a car and start our drive across Portugal. We picked up a nice diesel Fiat 500L. It was nearly new, shiny, and black with plenty of room for our cargo luggage. The problem? It was a 6-speed manual transmission. I knew this going in, but it has been some 15 years since I drove a manual when I had a Honda Civic Si. I loved driving a stick and lamented (after Clara was born) giving up the sporty little car and getting a practical parent car in the form of a 4-door sedan with automatic transmission.
Perhaps it was me. Perhaps I failed as a driver, or fulfilled a European stereotype about American’s driving manual transmissions. But try as I might I couldn’t get this 6-speed Fiat 500L into gear. I’d ease the clutch slow, pop the clutch fast, shift slow, fast, up/down, start in 2nd gear…. No matter what I tried the car would stall and not go into or stay something in gear. However, I was able to make it out of the parking garage, out of the airport, around the first roundabout stalling in the middle of the road to the sounds of Portugese horns blowing imagined obscenities at me. I was able to make it around the roundabout to our exit and started up the freeway on-ramp when the car just died, smoke pouring from the hood. I pulled to the side of the road, put on the hazards, and called roadside assistance. We had made it 1 kilometer, or 3280 feet. Not far. Later research would reveal (through a quick Google search on “Fiat 500 clutch problems” a bevy (162,000) entries on the notorious and persistent problems with the Fiat 500 clutch and transmission resulting in numerous and recent recalls. It restored my faith in myself as a skilled driver, but certainly not my faith in Fiat.
After several phone calls, communication challenges, and over 2 hours of waiting a tow truck final arrived. Unfortunately it was with a driver that didn’t speak English or Spanish and so we couldn’t easily explain the problem. After more phone calls and a car rental operator translating he determined that the car had a bad clutch, and would need to be towed. We unloaded our luggage and waited on the side of the road. We’d be picked up in a taxi and delivered back to the car rental company for a new car.
At the car rental company we insisted on an automatic transmission, which is apparently hard to come by in Europe. They had one available but it would cost us extra, of course. They were nice enough to give us a discount while still charging us more and we went to load up the new car. Or tried too. The car was smaller and we couldn’t fit our bags in the trunk, or even in the back seat. We had to go back and ask for yet another car. “We don’t have anymore automatic transmissions unless you get into the “Prestige” class. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded expensive. In the interest of safety and getting back on the road (we were 3 hours delayed by now) we negotiated a price I could live with and then we found ourselves in a high-end Mercedes C-class 220d that had me terrified to drive it on the narrow and cobbled streets amoungs Portugese traffic which apparently has the highest accident rate in all of Europe.
Behind the wheel of a fancy car that nearly drove itself we headed out of Lisbon just as the sky opened to dump rain upon us one more time. It was as if Lisbon was flushing us out with a wet wave goodbye.
We drove about two and a half hours down the A2 towards the Algarve and Tavira past cork oak trees stripped of their bark to cork our well deserved bottle of wine for tonight. Tawny had been in Tavira some 27 years earlier and had often talked about her time there. While visiting Spain and Portugal in her early twenties she had come through here and met a few new friends who had shown her and her travel companion around Tavira and the local beaches.
We arrived in Tavira about 6:30 pm and met our AirBnB rep José to get into our spacious apartment on Travessa da Junta dos Portos only steps away from the Roman bridge. Hungry (we hadn’t eaten all day) José suggested a few restaurants a short walk away. We set out for a short walk through Tavira.
Two were closed, but one was open and packed with people. We went in for a dinner of Swordfish (Clara), Pork and Clams (Marc), and Peppersteak w/rice (Tawny) with appetizers of local goat cheese, olives, and marinated carrots and fresh bread. It was delicious.
We also ordered a local wine. Clara picked it out, given it had her name on it we were obliged to try it. There aren’t a lot of wineries on the Algarve and this one was quite good.
It was served in large long stem glasses that could hold 1/3 of a bottle. Which was a wonderful thing after a stressful day. But what wasn’t wonderful was me knocking my glass over, breaking it, and spattering wine across myself, my phone, the floor, and my neighbors. We tried to assess the damage. “I think it missed everybody” I said, but then noticed the gentlemen next to me had spatters of red wine across his light colored sport coat. I was horrified. “I think I hit you?” I said sheepishly. Scrambling to give our napkins and water to the couple who furiously tried to daub it out of the jacket. “Can I pay for your cleaning or buy you a new jacket?” I said. Their reply, “We live where wine is more precious than clothes. You can buy us a glass of wine”. I bought another bottle Joao Clara for them to take home.
They were an interesting couple who pulled their table next to ours, introduced themselves as Julie and Keith – expats from England living in Tavira for the past 12 years. We chatted with them for an hour or more, sharing tastes of the house wine, glasses or port, and trading stories ranging from politics to personal stories of how each couple met and married. What had been a rather miserable day of trials, tribulations, and tailored tragedy, turned into a great meal and great conversation with an interesting couple with many stories to share.
Perhaps Theroux is right, that “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.” Or perhaps it is only glamorous when you allow it to be so by going easy. Easy to deal with and roll with the punches of the best laid plans being out of your control, handling it with humor and grace, and engaging honestly and positively with those around you. Keith and Julie, thank you for graciously taking your wine (the bottle I bought you and the 1/3 bottle I poured upon Keith’s jacket). And thanks again for the glass of port and conversation. Cheers!