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Jack Smith

Getting Lost in a Sea of Famous Faces

November 16, 1987|Jack Smith

We got lost in Leon. We got lost in Oviedo. We got lost in La Coruna. We even got lost in Valenca do Minho, a tiny walled city that for centuries guarded the northern frontier of Portugal against its enemies. By car, one enters Valenca through three ancient one-way gates, access to which is controlled, incongruously, by traffic lights.

It doesn't seem possible to get lost in a city that is contained within its walls, but we couldn't find the gates. We stopped to ask a man who was standing by a car outside a medieval apartment. By the grace of God, he spoke some English. (You keep hearing that English is the new universal language, but don't believe it.) With the usual sweeping gestures, abetted by a few English words, he told us how to exit.

We started out. Five minutes later we pulled up in the same square. The man was still standing by his car. This was not a new experience with us--coming back upon the same person we had asked directions of five minutes earlier. He shook his head, shrugged and told us to wait. He went inside and came out with an old woman on his arm. Obviously his mother. She was dressed for an outing. The man put her into the car and motioned us to follow.

We followed him out of the town. Piece of cake.

We stayed that night at Pousada del Dom Deniz, our room being inside an ancient castle wall. That evening we crossed the little town square to have a drink among the locals in a bar-cafe. A television set was on. A television is on in every bar-cafe in Iberia. It was some American cop series with lots of high-speed chases and explosions. The sound was English, the titles Portuguese. The bartender was motionless in his concentration on it. Our waiter's eyes never left the screen as he brought us our beer. Watching American television is what people in Europe do.

The next day we got lost in Lisbon. Lisbon is a large city. We had no address for our hotel, not that it would have helped. We hadn't the slightest idea where we were.

"God knows where we are," I remembered.

At a red light my wife put down her window and shouted up at a man driving a van. " Por favor ," she said, speaking Spanish, "Hotel Penta?"

The man gave her the usual arm-waving directions. She indicated " No comprendo ." He shrugged. The light changed. We thought we had lost him. He motioned us to follow him and started out with a lurch.

It was like a chase in a cop movie, but I held on, knowing God was with us. Finally, he pointed over the top of his van at an 18-story building with "Hotel Penta" on top. We peeled off and he sped on. It was only one of the many generosities that we received in Spain and Portugal.

That night we went to a fado-- an entertainment in which men and women separately sing songs of unutterable passion, sadness, and despair, accompanied by a guitar. As usual we saw famous faces in the crowd.

One of the waiters was Burt Reynolds. One of the performers was Stan Laurel. The doorman was Dr. George. It is a game we play.

Lisbon is beautiful. In the morning we walked down the Avenida da Liberdade, which is lined with trees and shops and sidewalk cafes, and rode the Eiffel elevator up to an ancient church whose roof had long since gone. Among its treasures were stones carved by the Visigoths. We ate lunch at an outdoor table. From the menu I inferred that sandes meant sandwich, fiambre ham and quieso cheese.

When the waiter came I said, "Vinyo branco seco, " demonstrating my mastery of the Portuguese phrase for dry white wine. "And a sandes de fiambre and quieso. "

The waiter said, "You want a ham and cheese sandwich?"

My Portuguese was coming along.

The next day we explored St. George's Castle, a fortress above the city that was begun in the 5th Century by the Visigoths. It is now a garden full of brilliant flowers, exotic birds and lovely schoolchildren.

In the evening we went to another fado. "Don't look now," my wife said, "but Paul Henreid is sitting right behind you."

He was indeed.

Evidently he and Ingrid Bergman had never got their plane out of Lisbon.

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