Portugal | All The Usual Embarrassment

I woke up feeling fragile. In hot countries you dehydrate during the night, and I always wake up feeling like a dried mushroom, half-mad with anxiety.

I like sleeping in dorms; I find the sounds of other people comforting. It’s how we evolved to sleep, after all. Humans aren’t meant to go to bed in a room by themselves. That said, humans do fart a lot. Someone broke astonishing wind in the early hours of the morning, and split the silence with such a sudden, violent force that I yelped with laughter.

I went out for breakfast by myself; I’d had enough socialising the previous evening. I found a little place in a square with chairs and tables on a decking. I ducked inside and found an old man watching telly and a dozen flies hovering lazily: two surefire signs you’ve found a local establishment, and not a touristic one. The interior was a little grim, so I sat outside and asked for a menu. The menu, when it came, was completely in Portuguese – serves me right for trying to be cultured – so I ordered what sounded like a coffee and what sounded like toast.

I was wearing pastel-pink shorts and a black, short-sleeved shirt, hanging loosely with only the middle three buttons done up. I watched The Talented Mr Ripley last year and fell in love with the lifestyle it depicted: the 1950s Italian fashion, the sunny town squares, the coastal towns, the sweaty jazz bars, the tiny espressos. Ever since, I’ve been dying for an attempt to recreate the effortless European cool of Jude Law’s sun-kissed free guy. Sitting in the square beneath a clear blue sky, dressed in my tres chic shirt and sunglasses, I felt very cultured and suave; nailed it at last.

Until, that is, the waitress brought what I’d accidentally ordered: a giant foamy coffee and a greasy slab of cheese on toast – served, for some reason, on a pink plastic Barbie Doll plate.

I drank my frothy coffee and gnawed through half of the bread, then smoked a cigarette and nearly shat myself from the caffeine and nicotine combination. Then the hangover started to kick in, and within seconds I was reeling with the feeling of an impending anxious episode. Altogether now: moron.

I went back to the hostel, guzzled water, and sprawled out on my bunk, groaning. When my head had stopped pounding I took a shower, turning the tap to freezing for ten seconds before getting out. Works wonders for dispelling anxiety, for some reason.

In the afternoon, I took a stroll around the old town and found a lot of really beautiful buildings. They’re hard to photograph, however: a lot of the better-looking buildings here are situated right beside bland new apartment blocks.

I had a beer as the afternoon moved on, sitting by myself outside a café. I kept feeling as though people were staring at me, although this usually turns out to be because people think I’m staring at them. Lunch was in a small bar in another cobbled square, and the waiter – who initially bollocked me when I entered because I started moving tables and chairs around to get out of the sun – taught me a couple of Portuguese phrases, and said my accent was very good. I really enjoy the language here.

In the evening I met the folks from last night at the hostel and we went across the road for beers, with our number somehow snowballing to around 15. With such a big number it was pretty hectic, and I didn’t speak much because everyone was shouting over each other. There were several people who stood out to me: a 20-year-old Brazilian surfer dude, who was endearingly vacant and aesthetically quite beautiful; an Italian girl with dark eyes who had recently caught a cold and apologized after every sneeze; a polite German woman in her late 30s, who had a husband and two children back home; a softly-spoken German man with kind eyes; a Kiwi girl whose adoptive parents brought her home from a Chinese orphanage.

There was also a dishevelled, lank-haired old man from Doncaster who loved drugs and Yorkshire with equal passion. He was interesting too: completely mental, but very self-aware.

“People tell me I look like Worzel fuckin’ Gummidge,” he complained.

I howled with laughter.

There were a few people around the table who did not strike me as interesting, namely one English guy who’d seemed alright at the beginning of the night, but quickly got horribly drunk – interrupting people’s stories to tell his own, making embarrassingly lecherous innuendos towards the girls, and teasing the other males around the table. He’d been travelling on and off for years, so he really ought to have learned how to read people better.

We then hit up the same live music bar as the night before, but I only stayed for one drink. After three days backpacking again, it’s become clear to me that I don’t want to do a lot of partying on this trip, and especially not with early-twenties kids. It’s not that I feel above it all – I totally get it – it’s just that I’ve done a lot of it in years gone by, and it gets repetitive. I feel sort of redundant in nightclubs now, and I’m very happy to stand aside and leave the dancefloor to giddy whippersnappers.

I worried a lot about my age ahead of this trip, to be honest. Is 28 too old to go travelling? Should I leave that sort of thing to gap year types? Will I be too tired to keep up? Will people want to speak to me?

I needn’t have worried. I’d forgotten how hostels are: not just people from every country, but at every age and stage of life. Some people enjoy one another’s company, and some don’t – and age doesn’t dictate that anymore than your eye colour does. It’s been extremely easy to meet people here, and as each day has passed so far, I’ve felt a little more optimistic about what’s to come.

It might even, heaven forfend, be good???

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