Feeling rather warm inside, we went off up in to the streets up the hill from the Rio Douro. Villa Nova de Gaia had two main central areas, one was the port lodges and the rabbit warren of streets and dilapidated squares; the other was a wide boulevard which seemed to climb never endingly up from the main bridge. To the left of the bridge, an ornate group of white buildings were a fortified monastery, and gave some for the best views of Porto on the north bank. This street bustled at any time, with buses, trolley buses and huge amounts of traffic, and every sort of business could be found. Above the road where our school lay there were a series of restaurants, and about ten of us went in here. We got some wine in and tucked in to the breads, breadsticks and delicious fish balls sitting on the table while we ordered. We waited a while for our meals and were delighted when the waiter brought us more bread and balls. We were less pleased to find out the price of these “complimentaries” when the bill came. We were very careful in restaurants after that not to eat anything till our meal arrived.
Eating out was fun, as we only got breakfast in the dorms. In this depressing school the breakfast followed the trend. We tended to get some very stale bread in various shapes, a saucer of margarine and a thick strip of orange sugary stuff. It had the consistency of jelly concentrate, but looked as if it had been dragged around the floor to pick up every piece of dust and grit. However, it turned out to be the best part of breakfast, even when I discovered we were eating carrot jam. The coffee was served in wide bowls and was the bitterest I have ever tasted. The surly guy who served us every morning looked like the type you would not argue over the food quality or safety, and it was as much as I could do to say “Obrigado” to him.
I learnt a few words of Portuguese to get me by but I am never very good at new languages, and the book I had bought was probably the worst phrase book in the world. It seemed more targeted towards visitors to Brazil than the motherland, and insisted that “please” was “Faz Favor”, which I never heard said in all my time there. I hate European languages that have to distinguish between masculine and feminine word endings, and got my self in a tizzy regarding who I should said Obrigado or Obrigada to. My tongue tiedness got me into trouble. One day at Sao Bento station I asked for a rail ticket. When he asked whether it was single, I said, “oui, I mean si,I mean Sim” as if I were the little constable that followed Clouseau around in the Pink Panther cartoons. The man smiled at me and said in perfect English “you mean yes”. Asking for a return ticket got me into trouble later on another occasion, as you will see.
To be honest I remember little of the actual work we did during those days – it was tedious stuff, mainly recording all sorts of useless information and then coming back to long evening classes on uncomfortable seats. Everybody usually had to give a presentation some time during the week, and the day I had to do it I had the worst sore throat imaginable, and croaked my way through stuff.