Warning: Not to be read by those under 18. Do not do as I do! I mean it, I’m looking at you. Don’t even think about it!
I made it 30 years without ever smoking a cigarette. I was very proud of this. In high school I would thumb my nose at all the smokers and feel very holier than thou when I announced that I would not smoke, did not smoke, that not one cigarette had touched my lips. In college, I was a loner. I didn’t smoke cigarettes and the only reason to go out into the snow at 7 pm at night in Boulder, CO was to smoke a ciggy and I would not do that, so I was alone.
And then there was Portugal.
Oh Portugal. Europe on the cheap. Who needs the French Riviera when you can have the Algarve Coast?
I was traveling with my work friend Caroline and we needed a well-deserved break from the school year. And what was the best way to relax, by drinking rosé and smoking cigarettes on beaches in Lagos, in parks overlooking orange rooftops in Lisbon, in al fresco restaurants in Cascais.
Cigarettes were everywhere and I needed them. They went perfectly with sardines and potatoes. They complimented our chilled wine while we were warmed by sun on our shoulders. They circulated why we played card games with Germans and Italians in hostel backyards. I couldn’t say no and I didn’t want to. I was a chain-smoking queen.
I would love to say that this piece has a moral to the tale. That I learned that my lungs were heavy with tar and I couldn’t stop coughing for a week. That I felt my skin getting loose and my breath tarnished with cigarette taste for days. I would be amiss not to think about the death of my grandfather from lung cancer and hang my head in disgust. While all of this is true, that is not this piece.
Instead, cigarettes became a lesson in mindfulness on my Portugal adventure. They slowed me down. They made me appreciate the moment. I could just be. Just sit and experience everything in a heightened sense of awareness of this one particular instance of time. It was now and would always be now and I damn well appreciated it. I was doing nothing other than tasting the Tremoços, peeling their skin off with my teeth.
I was sucking miniature snails from their tiny little spiral shells, letting condensation run through my fingers as I held a glass of wine in the heat, feeling my legs grow warm as my feet sunk into the sand of yet another beach. Each cigarette kept me locked in that moment, slightly high on the heat, the wine, the heady hit of the tobacco. I was here, in Portugal, enjoying the small pleasures. And what pleasures they were.
In Porto, we wandered into a charcuterie restaurant for dinner then meandered down a cobblestone side street to have one last drink for the night. By the time the drink was over, a band had started playing fadó and suddenly the small room was packed with dancers.
On a wine tour of the Douro River Valley, we were taken to a small boutique port vineyard and were handed apricots straight from the trees. They were the sweetest things I had every tasted until we were ushered into a small house from the 1800s and escorted into the parlor where skinless plums shaped into balls were waiting for us. I thought I would never stop eating those plums. But then I had the bread, with the cheese or the olive oil, it didn’t matter, both were delicious especially paired with the ports that varied from white to a deep blushing red.
In Albufeira, we sat by the ocean and ate large chunks of fish from a stew called caldeirada. The briny broth trickled down our chins and we laughed as the waiter tried to translate all the different seafood we would be eating in our stew.
I had my first taste of pastéis de nata with a coffee by the seaside port of Lagos. I had avoided it for days but the yellow egg custard pastry was surprisingly refreshing after a night of drinking and for the rest of the trip I would make sure I got one every day.
After a long afternoon of walking the Alfama, we stopped at a nondescript restaurant and had grilled octopus in a butter and lemon sauce before making our way back up the hill to the Bairro Alto for drinks at Pharmacia while the sun set and waiters brought blankets over to warm our bare legs.
Outside at night in the beach town of Cascais, I accompanied a Brazilian guitarist at our hostel with Sublime covers. My favorite phrase to say was “Caracois in Cascais” after a local Portuguese man boiled up some snails and had us eat them for the first time. And through all of this, we were accompanied by cigarettes and a summer rosé.
Would I do it again, just as I did then? Yes. Do I allow myself to smoke cigarettes now? No. They are not the same. I don’t know if it was the Portuguese tobacco or just that summer, but I never get quite the same feeling anymore. It’s not worth it. Could I have enjoyed the small pleasures without them? Probably. But at least for now, I can say I truly had the European experience.
Rather than a book suggestion this week, I offer up a movie for your perusal, Coffee and Cigarettes by Jim Jarmusch.