She was in Portugal, heading north, driving an old SEAT and petrified. It wasn’t because of the age of the car, because it might have a flat or lose a bumper at any moment. Rather, it was because the world looked like the inside of an oyster shell. Not slimy, like the mollusk, but gray - green - yellowish, with a touch of blue. All around her, sliding against or striking the vehicle’s windows, sides, and roof. It felt as if the water wanted to sand off the nondescript, faded yellow paint.
She suddenly thought of a really old black and white horror film, The Blob. A lot of people were too young to have seen it, since it was from 1958. She would have been too young, too, except once she’d taken a course on the horror genre and the classic had been on the syllabus. She’d laughed her way all through the film, but she wasn’t laughing now.
To some people, it might seem she was exaggerating when she made the unspoken (to the other occupant in the car, who was likewise silent at this point) comparison to the old low-tech movie, but the weather at this very moment was just as scary. She was scared about making it through the storm. The blobby, persistent storm. (She was going to call it as she saw it!)
With all the meteorological turmoil surrounding her, the road had become a nonentity, had dissipated, and so the car seemed at times to be driving itself. She certainly had no idea how she managed to stay on the road and even make the right turns. A cliff could be lurking around any corner.
They all pushed on - they being the little car and its two occupants - for what seemed like hours. Both passengers, driver and useless copilot, kept shooing the pesky condensation away from the windshield and were not bothering to use side and rear view mirrors. It would be a waste of time to try. There was nothing out there that either driver or passenger could see. They resigned themselves to simply creeping along, sensing the thick precipitation inching its way along their metal refuge, hoping it wasn’t strong or stealthy enough to rumple a fender or seep through the borders of doors and trunk.
They were also constantly measuring the distance from the SEAT’s wheels to the curly weed spikes that were encroaching on the cobblestones all the time. They couldn’t see the blades of weeds, but knew from having driven the route not too long ago that they were there. It hadn’t mattered when the sun was shining, but things had changed. Oh, how they had changed.
Don’t drive the flimsy SEAT over those weeds, thought the driver.
The car might skid, warned the passenger, who might be smart but had never learned to drive. It wasn’t a warning given out loud, but she heard it anyway, and heeded it. She had no choice if she was going to steer the two of them tobsafety.
But I’m going very slowly, she protested anyway.
It doesn’t matter. The tires could slip. We could end up in the ditch.
They could. With the driving rain, they could. Driving rain and driving a car were not synonymous, though.
Their mute dialogue (which means it was no dialogue at all) accompanied the travelers along the whole route. Each was trying to provide the other with mental fortitude and each tried to focus on that goal only. They were both semi-relieved when one of them brought up the fact that at least the precipitation was not in the form of snow. That would have meant trying to drive home in a Buffalo-style blizzard. What was a little rain by comparison? The thought cheered them up, but only briefly, and only a little.
The odd thing about this drive was that, looking back on the moment, neither was quite sure where it had begun, except that they had started out, hours ago and with just a sprinkling, further south in Portugal. It might have been Porto, where they often went. But no, the time they’d been in the car had been lots longer. They must have been in another city. It had to be Coimbra, because they hadn’t been as far down as Lisbon and the other places they usually visited were further north.
They had lost track of their time and place. Nobody could have predicted it.
Nevertheless, the drenching, beating, abusive Eastern Atlantic rain apparently had erased the map. It wasn’t the country’s fault; you could run into this all along the coastal region. Back a few years, people couldn’t track the weather as easily. They were defenseless against such onslaughts.
They didn’t have GPS, they had only the road, the car, and themselves to get out of this situation. They were incredibly, logically silent, concentrating, while lamenting the horrible invisibility of the little villages and the humble hills of northern Portugal. It was barely possible to discern the names of the villages, which they always liked to read off on their jaunts. They thought the names formed poems or were like prayers, recited like the beads of a non-denominational rosary.
Driving along this interminable road of crystal cobblestones, the only choice for the two persons in the car was to look straight ahead and just a few inches to either side of the headlights. Then there was a different road and an asphalt stream temporarily replaced the edgy cobblestones. The smoothness of the asphalt should have been a relief, but in reality it felt sharp, treacherous, although in a different way. It was enticing them to speed up, be over-confident, ignore - really? - the rain. That alone was cause for concern. No speeding up, no taking the eyes off the space just ahead of the car.
She was not sure where the map was that they had brought along, and perhaps that didn’t matter, because she had no idea where she was on the map anyway. They were unable to read the signs for the string of villages and towns, most villages with residents safely and prudently tucked inside walls. There were no traffic lights (she hoped), no guideposts of any sort. This was getting very, very boring. Or dangerous. She wanted out. Probably the other passenger did as well. She was done driving, yet if they tried to pull off to the side, there would be no room. If another vehicle came along, it would surely sideswipe them. Damned if they did and damned if they didn’y. So they did. Keep going, that is.
Why was she in this chrysalis, this world of the moving and moist? By now, mind and body felt riveted to the steering wheel. All she wanted was the reassurance that the sky still existed. It had disappeared long ago.
A panic attack cannot be taken lightly. One was looming up ahead, hidden by the droplets that made the windows opaque. How was she able to go forward when blinded by the sifting river coming down? Progress seemed impossible, or at least unmeasurable. This could not, would not, end well.
At times it felt like she was steering a boat through a channel, the route intangible yet definitely there, beneath the belly of the craft, simply pulsing along. Was it getting deeper out there? The disconnection from the world, the disjunction of inside and outside, was reaching a peak. No stupid Blob had as much power to terrify as this blizzard that was descending as the thick, heavy, ashen breath of somebody who wanted them dead.
Now the rabid beating of the rain was coming even closer, as if that were possible. Now it was definitely pounding inside the car too, inside her, even, although it was not able to actually drench her. The inside the car part was pure imagination. Still, the heavy rain was there and its concept was there. Closing in. She was about to concede to her eternal claustrophobia. Hard to breathe. Chest like a vise. She would be unable to drive when it really hit, as she had learned from previous panic attacks.
They drive you mad, those attacks. No focus. Wilting. She hated the feeling when she shouted out I don’t want to die! It felt so immature, but it was what she felt on those occasions.
All of this, the anonymity, the agony of slow motion (in the physical sense), along with the speeding of emotional tension, this all was keeping them suspended, angry, anxious captives that they were, in a cage the size of a small, old car. A car that might possibly be too old to make trips like this in the future. (Trusting, of course, that they had a future to look forward to…)
Houses, walls, ferns, gorse, power lines, dangerously close, rough-hewn village ramparts, everything kept emerging and receding. Were there other vehicles on the road? They wondere, getting nonanswer. Was there any hope for a safe arrival somewhere, for an escape from the tomb of the vehicle? No SEAT is good as a tomb. They were doing their best to avoid that.
And so it went, until it - Lord have mercy! - it was time to stop. They had ended up in Barcelos, practically floating through the sodden streets, never able to see curbs or parking lines. There wasn’t a soul on the streets, which were usually teeming with cars and shoppers on Thursdays, like today, because that was when the big outdoor market was held. They had been to beautiful Barcelos so many times, each visit a perfect day on every level.
Not today; rivers, rivulets, brooks, all manner of running water had washed away the populace. Only cobblestones and a thin coating of gritty mud could be seen in the happy spot that was the market. It felt like they had happened upon a cemetery, like the city had become a shadow of its former self, like only the galo, the legendary rooster of Barcelos, would dare venture out.
She was relieved to have reached civilization, but was still sad that she would not be able to wander through the market area, the place where the feira blossomed once a week. It was such a spectacular event that it had lured her there any number of times from further north, from Galicia. Excursions that lasted from sun up to sun down.
Today was different. She could only see it in her imagination, see the many stalls, always with their assigned places. Her mind moved from the bougainvilleas and citrus trees in pots to the dried pork intestines that were sold to sausage makers who had no pigs of their own but made delicious stuffings.
She didn’t need to see the friars made of fragile clay with a frock that could be lifted up. An anti-celibacy joke her prudish Protestant upbringing couldn’t easily embrace. In contrast, she did miss the clever, very homemade toys sketched in pen or pencil, then painted with ink or food coloring - rosy red, forest green, sunny yellow.
And then there were the ceramics from different parts of the country. She always wanted to buy more than she needed or had room for. The most abundant pieces were the rustic glazed clay with pale yellow designs. Those were from Barcelos proper and had the right to be front and center.
So the sun would be nice. Maybe the stalls would magically fill up and the feira would be happening after all, like a phoenix rising from its ashes. Or its near flood waters.
She can’t stop thinking. She had hoped to buy some rich olives from the vats. Olives from Portugal were the best in the world, hands down. The oil from the trees was manna from heaven. (Don’t laugh.) She was the only person she knew who could wax poetic over the oil used for an everyday salad. For preparing bacalhau do bom - good quality salted and dried cod.
Portugal smelled like cod dishes sometimes. It was heavenly (she admitted the adjective was uninspired, even corny, but she was road-weary and not feeling overly poetic). The lost purchase of bacalhau do bom was especially tragic, because she had wanted to make a bacalhau à Gomes de Sá on Sunday. It was a dish that was fussy, requiring boiling, frying, and baking. You definitely needed good cod for it to stand up to all that manipulation. You needed Portuguese cod.
There could be no cod on this trip. There was only an oyster sky that would turn mother-of-pearl pink if the weather didn’t soften. That happen with heavy rain. Dying light brings out a pale watermelon sky and the moist air tastes slightly sweet. It wasn’t time for that yet. They hoped to stop long enough to eat and consider their options for continuing the trip home. Could they make it?
She was too tired to think. They continued the short distance to the best restaurant in all of Portugal: A Muralha, called that because it was set facing part of the city wall, perhaps. If she could not buy any codfish today, at least she could eat it in situ. It was a small consolation. Of course, this depended on whether the restaurant in question had decided to open on such a day.
In the end, everything came down to a plate of bacalhau and caldo verde (‘green broth’, a soup that looks like it’s made out of grass from somebody’s lawn but is probably made from thinly sliced fronds of the rustic collard. There was also a brilliant vinho verde loureiro (young wine made from the loureiro or light-colored grapes). They always ordered the one from Ponte de Lima and there was never any left over.
Not to be overlooked was the typical bright salad of green red, white - colors of the Portuguese flag, oddly enough, but also of the ingredients: lettuce, tomato, incredible onion, salt, oil and vinegar. The ratio of oil to vinegar is something no Portuguese cook will reveal, but every salad seems made with loving care. (Another uninspiring comparison.)
Of course the comparison was irrelevant to the travelers, starving for this comfort and respite from the wet day. It was not raining inside A Muralha.
What mattered to them was the color they found there, in that dry space with pulsating liquid curtains, in Barcelos, which had the best - and driest - restaurant in the whole country. The ark had landed safely, where no map and no other car or driver could have found the way.
Safe and hungry, they faced the meal. The road with its rain could wait. After all, they were in Portugal and that was what mattered.