Letter from Portugal: Sonnets from the Portuguese


First Person

Dollhouse with Portuguese tile, Museu Do Brinquedo Sintra.

You will have heard of Sintra. A stunning enclave some forty minutes outside Lisbon, filled with palaces and piles and follies of every era, Lord Byron called it “Glorious Eden,” and started “Childe Harolde” at Lawrence’s Hotel, on the Rua do Consiglieri Pedroso. (There is now an Escadinhas Lord Byron just outside its doors.) Tourists have been flocking there ever since.

We visited the Palácio da Pena with its majestic views, and the pink-hued Palácio Seteais, and the fourteenth-century Palácio Nacional de Sintra and the Gothic pleasure gardens of the Regaleira Estate, rich with grottoes and gargoyles and secret passages. We ate at the Queijadas de Sintra. It was very much the Lucy Honeywell school of tourism, but wonderful all the same. We were part of a multinational throng. I was vaguely aware of being a failure as someone who experiences life to the full, and probably the worst kind of American imperialist to boot. I studied my vocabulary list diligently.

In the afternoon, I visited the Toy Museum, lured by the sight of a six-foot Playmobil woman beckoning me in from a wrought-iron balcony. Some visitors seemed disappointed by the somewhat haphazard collection (“Where are the teddy bears?” demanded one disconsolate British tourist. “Where are the rocking horses?” implored her companion.) I loved it: there was a vintage 1920s dollhouse complete with Portuguese tile work and a very sinister series of baby dolls. Also, a miniature milliner.

With time to kill, I wandered down a series of winding side streets and found myself facing an open doorway, through which could be seen a Christmas tree fashioned from recycled plastic water bottles, an old suitcase covered in masking tape, and an Eames chair. “Come in!” called a voice.

The dim space smelled strongly of incense. Dust motes swam in a shaft of sunlight. I was confronted by the sight of two men, both middle-aged: one was sporting a shapeless sweater, a Mephistophilian gray goatee and a flat cap; the other had a Merlin beard, long dank locks tinged with green, and socks worn with sandals. Both regarded me without surprise and indicated that I sit down in the Eames chair. I did. We sat in companionable silence.

After a pleasant enough interval, the capped one, who by this time I had noticed wore an air of ownership, addressed me in Portuguese. I stammered that I spoke very little. “Is okay,” he said kindly.

“I’m Scottish,” said the other one, glumly. We subsided once more into silence.

“Are you a poet?” the main one finally asked, hopefully. “I ask because you wear very … strange dress.”

I admitted I was not. They seemed disappointed. “We are,” he said.

“Poets,” clarified the glum Scotsman.

The main guy produced a worn paper bag, thrust it into my hands, and regarded me expectantly. “Poetry!” he said.

I dutifully thumbed through the series of notebooks in the bag and pretended to read them for what I hoped was a respectful interval. “Belíssimo,” I murmured, hoping it wasn’t supposed to be Brutalist or something. In English I would have hedged my bets with powerful, but I was limited by my linguistic inadequacies. Luckily, this seemed to satisfy them.

There was more silence. “Are, um, they … for sale?” I finally asked. I knew I risked insulting them but was beginning to panic. Something on my leg had started to itch. I hoped fervently it was a mosquito bite.

“Yes,” said the Scotsman, unsmilingly.

“Great!” I said. “Óptimo!” The smell of incense was becoming oppressive.

I found what seemed to be the slimmest of the bound volumes in the paper bag, and held it forward with what I hoped was the air of a shopper well pleased by his find.

“Only that one?” said the main guy, disappointed. The other one looked at me dolefully.

“Well … I don’t speak Portuguese,” I said.

Suddenly the man seemed angry. “This is the best way to learn!” he screamed, leaping to his feet. “The only way! The language of the poets!”

Perhaps he could see I was considering bolting, because, just as abruptly, he sagged back into his padded chair. “Ten euro,” he said wearily.

I had him inscribe it. I left them my e-mail address. He favored me with a courtly bow; the other one remained seated on what I now realized was the lower rung of a ladder. “Thank you for your simplicity,” said the poet.

I was wearing a white Swiss-dot dress of my own design.

“Obrigadíssimo,” I said humbly. I went back to wait for my friend outside the toy museum with the giant Playmobil on the balcony.