top of page

Tiles, Grapes, Castles, and Strangers [Northern Portugal]

It is the year two thousand and sixteen.

I am twenty-four years old.

I am sleeping on the tile floor of a laundry room of a complete stranger in Porto.

There are sixteen other strangers here- in the apartment of this person I’ve never met.

“Am I too old for this?” I ask myself.

“What does that even mean?” my better half replies.

I remember aching hipbones.

I remember the sunrise.

The stranger didn’t even stay at his own house that night, because 18 strangers are overwhelming to anyone.

An underground renegade free hostel, of sorts.

We used towels for blankets and were grateful we had privacy behind our laundry room door.

Sometimes, this is what couch surfing is.

I remember eating exquisite figs from the stranger’s father’s house the next morning.

I remember small bottles of port wine.

When we arrived, we drove our tiny orange rental car down a walking path, thinking it was a narrow road. We were too eager to get to the ocean.

We narrowly escaped without needing our insurance, as we backed out

I never saw the ocean last time I was in Porto. The city is situated more on the Douro River that branches off the ocean, and the beach is 15 minutes away.

We climbed over rocks next to a swanky beach bar we couldn’t afford.

We climbed over rocks and met the other side of the Atlantic than the one we’d known before.

We met the sunset.

We climbed over these rocks and we saw a couple having sex behind us.

We saw their beautiful, naked friend waiting patiently nearby.

The air smelled like fish.

Welcome to Portugal.

We’re having drinks by the shore.

He’s talking about wanting to get married.

Hes wondering if this might be the right time to ask me.

It isn’t.

Syrupy port wine languorously rolls down my throat once more and coats my taste buds with magic.

It was only a few weeks ago he’d broken my trust completely. It was only a few weeks ago he’d taken things from me. Now is not the time for forever.

I remember small bottles of port wine.

I’m sitting in the Gardens of the Palacio de Cristal and my dad retires tomorrow.

I think about freedom and about capitalism and about how it’s a shame retirement comes at a time in life where we are so tired.

I’m so lucky I get to live like I’m retired at 25.

I’m so lucky I get to sleep for free in a major city in Portugal, be it on a laundry room floor.

I’m so lucky for the kindness of strangers.

We get lost in the garden at twilight, I’m swooning over the overwhelming beauty of it all.

Porto is full of hills and colorful tiles. Of street art, and drug dealers in red velvet jackets offering us weed and cocaine and hash. Of boats bringing barrels down the Duero.

The Duero River flows through my small Spanish town, too.

We get coffee by the magnificent bridge.

We find a Portuguese equivalent of a Second Line, they even play "When the Saints go Marching In."

We get in a fight about something I can’t remember.

Why? When everything is so beautiful?

Probably because we shouldn’t be together.

So we return to the tile floor.

The colorful tiles of Porto.

Porto was yellow this time.

Yellow street cars that remind me of New Orleans.

Yellow leaves on the changing trees.

Yellow lightbulbs that haven't switched to LED yet. Yellow beer. Yellow light.

I’ve heard of a castle on the rocks by the sea.

We find it amidst the fog.

Inside we find human bones and gilded carvings.

Human bones always rattle me to my core.

I become extremely aware of my own mortality.

We kiss. I photograph him, but I prefer the aesthetic of women, and he tells me this is sexist. We do a good job of pretending everything is okay.

I always want things to be beautiful.

How can things not be beautiful when you’ve got a castle to yourself by the sea?

I want to live in a dream a foggy beach castle dream.

But the fog clears. We head east down the Duero.

My old pal Luis is waiting for us there, amongst the grape vines.

I met Luis on Couchsurfing in 2015. His parents house is chilly and cozy at the same time. It smells of cigarettes and Luis grows strawberries out front.

It hasn’t changed at all since I was last there a year ago.

Luis takes us to a mirador, which is a word that means beautiful view. According to Luis, this word originates from the very river we are on.

Mirar= to see

Doro= The river


I never checked to see if that was true because I want to believe him.

This time we had a big bottle of port wine.

This moment at this mirador was one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.

The kind of sunset you want to crawl into and stay for a good long while.

The kind of sunset fairy tales are about.

Luis’ mom cooks us a vegetarian meal of chic peas and greens,

I’m back at Quinta do Foz. A vineyard Luis took me to in the past.

The entire time I’m reminded of the Frenchman I met there a year before, who told me all too late, once I was gone, that I could come with him in his red convertible the for a long drive around the windy roads cut between the vines and the river.

Who told me all too late I could come with him to the barrel room.

Who told me all too late I could come with him to the hidden pool in the back.

Who told me all too late the types of things American girls dream European men say.

I dreamed of these possibilities for a year.

And there it was, the pool he told me about, and inside it was a dead snake.

"This must be a sign of some sort", I thought.

My feet sink into the cold vat, and I’m overflowing with excitement.

The grapes and their stems tickle my legs, as Cristiano instructs us to hold on to each other and march across one way, then the other way, then back once again.

Grape stomping. On my bucket list.

Swimming in a bath of wine.

We explore some hikes, we "mira the Doro" river from various angles, then we follow that river back to our small Spanish town, naive and filled with selectively romanticized memories of our experiences.

bottom of page