Thursday, September 30, 2021

Zen and the Art of Bathroom Renovation

How to power through a bathroom renovation....lose weight...and be successful in any pursuit.
I'm not kidding, either. But what I can't help you with, because I'm so perennially poor at it myself, is remembering to actually do it. Knowing the trick is worthless. Doing the trick grants you the keys to the kingdom. YOU NEED TO DO THE TRICK! I keep learning this, but, like an idiot, also keep forgetting!

Trying to Fiddle Your Way to Weight Loss

One of my least understood postings made a counterintuitive point about weight loss. I won't say its title right away, because it propelled readers into a dream state of previous assumptions. But I'll try to explain better now, and then circle back to that posting, which turned out to be more significant than I realized.

There's a common psychology among those who put on, and keep on, weight:
I've done all the stuff! I stopped eating junk food (except when I’m hungry and short on time). I gave up soda (but do drink juice, which is “totally healthy”). I exercise a decent amount - maybe not with great intensity or zeal, but I do hit the gym a couple times per week. I try to avoid fried foods and park my car far from the store so I walk more. I hardly eat! I skip breakfast and often lunch, which I know is unhealthy, but it reduces my calorie count, and yet, I can't lose the weight! I've done EVERYTHING!!!

These moves should have been sufficient! I'm not training for the Olympics, so I shouldn't have to resort to extremes - skim milk and carb/fat/protein tallying and grueling daily workouts. So it must be my endocrine system, or heredity, or something else quite outside my control, because for some strange reason I still can't lose the weight!
Millions of perennially overweight people imagine they can fiddle their way to weight loss. A renounced bad habit here, a pushup there, and the weight should just spill off. Yet it never does.

The solution is obliviously missed. You just said it! You need to resort to skim milk and carb/fat/protein tallying and grueling daily workouts. And so much more. All those "special occasion" exceptions must vanish. No junk food or fried foods or dessert ever. Expunge the juice (drink water!) and scarf nary a brownie...not even to reward yourself for skipping a few meals, which really just messes up your metabolism by convincing your body that it's starving and must conserve fat at all cost. No socializing around food; no canceling gym to go to brunch. And your epic 1/8 mile trek from the distant parking space? That's nothing. Leave your car home and walk to the store, even if it's 4 miles.

So long as weight loss feels like a hobby, you won't lose weight. It's only effective when it becomes your occupation, worth a handsome salary for your time investment, lifestyle shifts, schedule disruptions, and increased grocery bills as you feed yourself with the fussy care of a show horse. That's what it takes to lose weight. It must be your job for a number of months, and that's why I titled the aforementioned post "Losing Weight Costs $1000/pound". As someone from a rotund family who had recently lost 35 pounds to fit into high school jeans with 32" waist, I knew what I was talking about. One must reframe the enterprise. Not just "get serious", but transform outlook, actions, and life. You can't fiddle your way there.

You can't fiddle your way there.

Trying to Fiddle Your Way to Home Improvement

Now let's talk home improvement.

Nine years ago, one of my best friends at the time was a contractor who talked me into an ambitious home improvement project which he offered to helm. He tore open my house, installed a thing or two, then promptly disappeared.

I was hoping to find a white knight to step in and fix it all. Preferably inexpensively! A procession of contractors stopped by to offer estimates. Few could make sense of my guy's plan, plus, it's an old house, with the standard headaches, so the most experienced (i.e. laziest) contractors suggested gutting and rebuilding, for $$$$$. Most considered it aggravating and stopped returning calls. Or hollered at me about the ridiculous mistakes my friend had made.

Let's focus on my epicenter of pain, my great nemesis, the upstairs bathroom. Among myriad problems, one wall is covered with 100 year old "white" subway tiles that are no longer close to white. They're more of a putrid yellow, which vintage bathroom aficionados assure me is "gorgeous". And they couldn’t be replaced, because the wall behind them has devolved into sandy sediment and werewolves and tornados. So I was stuck with those tiles.

But then how do you waterproof behind the shower area, which had been stripped down to drywall? I couldn't install new white subway tiles, because they'd clash with the existing ones. One solution might be to buy “vintage” white subway tiles which actually match my old ones. But they're outrageously expensive. Like, thousands of dollars. I couldn't imagine paying so much for tiling.

So the bathroom (and all the rest) sat frozen for nine years, forcing me to bathe in the downstairs utility shower and to avert my eyes from the many construction zones and mangled atrocities (e.g. the tub was installed half on/half off the floor tiles, among a vast number of other insanities which, as I explored them, left me understanding why the incompetent bastard had run off).


Whenever I tried to help my Mom with her computer or her iPad, she'd respond with harried helplessness. "I don't understand tech things!" she'd wail, before I'd said a word. That was her default posture: an aggrieved full-body shrug. Unsurprisingly, she hardly learned to turn her devices on and off.

I tried to reframe the issue. She hadn't been born knowing how to boil eggs or drive cars. She'd learned via curiosity and an open mindset. And this was no different. But she was, shall we say, unreceptive to this analogy.

Mom never learned to turn on/off her computer, but the pathway was clear enough: invest the time, put in the work, get serious with learning to do stuff that doesn't feel like stuff you (i.e. your persona) would be able to do. Evolve, gradually, into a whole other person who's good at tech stuff.

Adults lose their ability to learn when we stop entertaining the possibility of change - specifically, changing into someone able to do the thing we've convinced ourselves we can't do. Our "story" about our persona becomes a choke collar. In freezing perspective, we preclude the lithe, easy changes fluidly available if we simply stop self-strangulating for a nanosecond.

What It Takes

Local house prices had begun soaring, compelling me to consider selling. This injected hot incentive into my veins, and, with newfound clarity, I realized I needed to do way more. The meek forays into recruiting a white knight who'd Fix It All (preferably inexpensively) were comically insufficient, so I became project manager and designer... with lots of help. In the Internet age, help is always available, but you must move the ball. I girded myself to "give it a shot" - aka "fake it till I make it" - but with lots of advice. Including from clueless people (in life one must learn how to productively triangulate and select advice from low-value sources).

I posted incessantly to Facebook home improvement groups. I didn't wail "WHAT DO I DO?" (i.e. more hunting for a white knight), which would only unleash torrents of random low-value opinions. I broke it down into finite chunks. At long last, I'd seized responsibility. Even though "I'M NO GOOD WITH HOME STUFF". I stopped wailing and self-strangulating, and stepped courageously into the typhoon.

My head spun a lot. Needing to make a hundreds of consequential decisions in realms of no interest to me, I blasted forward without an iota of natural facility. Which is an unfamiliar sensation for me.

I'm used to swiftly pulling off hard things by operating on talent. In realms where my natural talents don't apply, I'm like Samson post-haircut (read this, it's a goodie). I'm not just diminished, I'm helpless. A writhing gelatinous puddle of mess. As I wrote in that last link:
I have no facility whatsoever for operating talentlessly. Those with no particular talent, familiar with doubtful flailing, enjoy an incalculable advantage.
Most people learn to grind talentlessly, an essential life skill I lack. But grind I did, and I messed up things which needed to be redone. I wasted serious money (including $1600 worth of dumb materials I needed to throw out). And I took a full year of essentially full time work to get it all done....and even then only because I got lucky in finding a dandy carpenter (though it was manufactured luck; I found him only via obscene persistence, plus he has innumerable quirks I've had to learn about and work around).

I adopted the rallying cry of "no half measures". My weight loss success had taught me that you can't just dip your toe. You can't fiddle your way there. You can't take a step or two and demand that the world gratify your minor effort with success. You must go all the way - whatever it takes! - like a driven maniac. Like Fitzcarraldo.

One sometimes must elevate some narrow slice of life into The Only Thing There Is for a while. Confronted by obstacles offering no easy workarounds, you've got to ramp up a benign and finite obsession.

Finally, I did buy those overpriced tiles. My previous self screams, from the back of my head: "You blew that sum on shower tiles???", to which I calmly reply "You spent a stressed decade living in a construction site and showering downstairs just to save a few bucks?"


Flash-Ahead to a Successful Dismount

Very very very very long story short, bathroom's nearly done (and the rest of the house is close). I am now someone who's good at home stuff! I still can't swap out a light bulb, but I have a crew of loyal workers*, a phalanx of fans in Facebook home improvement groups who've followed my travails, and, most of all, I've learned that the quantity of effort that must be invested is way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way more than I'd previously assumed.
* - My main contractor is a Guatemalan genius who I've made locally famous via postings on NextDoor (a neighborhood forum) recounting his epic heroics. Now, the guy's phone never stops ringing, he's raised his hourly price, bought a new pickup, and given his kids dental work, and, if a bird craps on my roof, he's here in like 20 seconds.
I now write big checks like I put quarters in parking meters. Big checks are the grease that lubricates the system, and restricting that flow makes things exponentially more difficult. I'm not saying problems can be solved by throwing money at them. That's completely false. But even great outcomes by loyal workers laboring at a reasonable price add up, and you need to fulfill your role.

When Guatemalan Genius and his small army of eager hammer swingers complete shoring up your ceiling joists in a hot August attic for 1/4 the price of the arrogant anglo "top" local contractor, you still must write a four digit number on that check. Get over the fear and loathing. Making your dreams come true - even if it's done fast and thriftily by a Guatemalan Genius (i.e. the best-case scenario) requires writing tons of big checks. So build that in. But don't expect this, alone, to kickstart the process. It's lubricant, not firestarter. Paying is just a tiny part of your commitment.

What's more, it's not always best-case scenario! Sometimes my painter has a slow day and doesn't get much done. That's ok, Kurt! Come have a beer and a sandwich, and relax on the porch! You'll knock 'em dead tomorrow! Oh, and here's your $300 with my intense gratitude!

For example: See that floor?

We swapped in a bunch of new tiles, matching the vintage color, but could not match the grout. Many hours have poured into this floor, and it's crazy no one saw this coming, but I won't waste a nano-calorie getting indignant. We'll simply retile the floor. No problema! Let's do this!

Get the idea?


Home Repair is not impossible, as I'd previously concluded. It just demands far deeper wells of commitment, persistence, effort, and expenditure than you'd begin to imagine.
The inescapable dynamic of this universe is entropy. Opposing entropy to compel things to serve some intended purpose requires enormous energy. Like salmons thrashing their way upstream, it's possible, but you can't fiddle your way there. The universe desperately yearns for your house to dissolve into sawdust.
I thought it was sufficient to recruit contractors and pay them (hopefully not much!). I'd conceived of this as consumerism: I pay, and you make all my problems go away. Wrong. That's the same fallacy that makes us suppose that cutting out soda and hitting the gym twice a week will make excess weight fall away. Same with my mother figuring a quick fix from me makes all tech problems go away.

You can't fiddle your way there. It's not enough. Not nearly enough! Just as weight loss (unless you have the metabolism of a humming bird) requires skim milk, meticulous nutrition, daily gym exhaustion, and 5 mile walks - $1000/pound worth of effort - home repair requires the strategic skills of an Army general (your contractor is the colonel, who takes orders from you, and who must be supervised and periodically overruled). You need to work tirelessly, making thousands of decisions in dorky realms, tolerating missteps, and flinging loads of money freely, even jubilantly. And those are just the prerequisites. You need to reframe it this way.

The familiar aggravations of home improvement are laughable. My house has been overrun with tarps, paint cans, cut tiles, black trash bags, various tools, unidentified doodads of hardware - and all my possessions pushed into stacks - for literally longer than I can remember. I am only distantly aware of these things, or of my perilously dropping bank balance. I am at war. Distract me not with trivial concerns, for I am he who opposes entropy.

Home improvement "costs" $1000 per inch. I don't just mean currency. Your time, work, patience, and obsession all have economic value. And all are required. No white knight will appear - and, if one does, he'll mess everything up while charging an order of magnitude more than I just paid.

I Constantly Forget My Own Hard-Won Lesson

One of my favorite postings was "Why My Cooking Isn't Great". If you read it there, you'll see a nice photo that sets the scene, but I've pasted in an abridged version below, because it ties in an essential connection:
From my seat at the counter in front of the open kitchen, I watched Nudel Restaurant's highly-skilled chefs churn out plate after flawless plate. Since I've been on a quest to boost my cooking skill, I paid careful attention, hoping to pick up some pointers.

What I noticed was the softness of their hands. They weren't wrestling ingredients into submission. Their actions were gentle and sweet. They coaxed rather than compelled. And pains were taken. Vast concentration, vast attention, vast levels of caring. It’s not that they were projecting an image - impressing others or themselves with their theatrical intensity. This was a deep and non-self-aware sense of commitment, period.

It was inspiring to see, but highly ironic that I’d be struck by this at such a late date.

I used to teach jazz improvisation workshops around Europe. Among my clever exercises and useful bits of advice, the thing that most helped students was a simple, exasperated and brutal observation:
You guys are sitting there, slumped in your chairs, mopey and dead-eyed. You're honking out jazzy notes like it's the latest dreary task in your daily grind, along with vacuuming the living room or tying your shoes. You're not working hard and you're not particularly trying...even though you absolutely need to, because you're not good yet.

Now, consider me. I'm a professional. I'm good. In fact, I'd sound good even if I sat back like a mope, treating this like some dreary task. Yet I don't. Look at me here, trying phenomenally hard. I'm sweating bullets and considering every note as if my life depended on it. Why are you working and caring so much less than I am? Does it make even the slightest bit of sense?!?
It struck them like thunder. Every time. And it often stuck with them.

As I said a couple of postings ago, it's devilishly hard to distribute insights evenly into all aspects of one's life. I needed to learn the power of commitment twice; once with music and then again with writing. Now, after a decade of effort to improve my cooking, and feeling that I was still missing an essential piece, it turns out that that piece was my very own signature hard-won lesson. Sigh.

Why is my cooking delicious and not devastating? Because I'm merely super-hyper-mega committed, which makes me a piker. Seeing the chefs at Nudel, I instantly flashed: they could cook better than me without even trying. So why do I try so much less than they do?

I could have written a perfectly acceptable version of this in ten minutes flat. Instead, I've sat here for hours, fiddling with every word (and fretting over that last comma) as if the fate of the universe hinged on perfect, seamless clarity. I'm a much better writer than a cook. This is why.
Again, with home improvement, I’d made the same mistake. I underestimated the requisite commitment, perseverance and resilience. Which is weird, because I have an abundant supply of all three. And I constantly urge readers to cultivate these things. Yet here I am, at 58, still relearning my signature lesson. Sigh.

But What Am I *Really* Doing Here (in this essay, this bathroom, and this lifetime)?

I wrote here that
"Shitty", "adequate", and "great" are not neighbors. Greatness is a quadrillion times more demanding; a separate realm above and beyond.
I never thought I was trying to do a "great" home improvement. Really, I just wanted to be able to take a shower! But, now that you mention it, I was more concerned about this going right than the average person. Maybe, now that I think about it, like a quadrillion times more. I can't separate the perfectionism from the breaking-of-paralysis. I lack self-awareness on this. But the result, come to think of it, was kind of fantastic in some ways.

Here's the bathroom. Need to de-wrinkle that shower curtain. And buy a new light fixture. And lord give me patience re: the floor tiles. But it's close.

How much water escapes from the shower? NOT ONE MOLECULE finds its way to the floor or the window ledge. All that wood by the window I was panic-stricken about soaking? Dry as the Gobi freaking Desert. Because I wasn't building to "keep it reasonably dry". I worked it like a holy mission.

The Unexpected Magic Afterglow

Home decoration is way easier than home renovation, though I'm ill-suited for both. In a posting titled "Home Decor for the Visually Incompetent", I noted that...
It took nearly three years to furnish the house, but I lavished great care, and, in the end, the place had the magical power to make anyone stepping into it feel absolutely comfortable and relaxed. The place didn't make a grand impression; there was no particular design "impact". But neither did things look sloppy or mismatched. What hit you was the Vibe. I'd nailed it!
This bathroom has a vibe, too. Maybe you can see it a little in the photos. Taking a shower is an almost mystical experience. I know what you're thinking: "Of course it does, you lame-brain! It took you nine years so what you're feeling is just your own immense relief and self-satisfaction!" But nyuh-uh. It really is a magical shower (I'll have friends try it out and see what they report). When you put this much love* and effort into something, trippy stuff happens.

* - I should note that I don't actually give a rat's ass about bathrooms (which explains my utter lack of natural skills). I'm just trying to whip the house into shape so I can sell! So it’s not love, per se, but, with apologies to Arthur C. Clarke, any sufficiently advanced level of caring is indistinguishable from love. And it took immense care for me to get this done. And when my care machine switches on...

The Kernel

In this posting I recounted a story from the Hindu vedas, which I'll paste in below. Most will read it and figure it's just Jim getting kooky/mystical and whatever. A few may understand that it speaks to the underpinnings of worldly experience; unconscious truths we distantly intuit but rarely touch upon:
Centuries ago, a teacher told his class to write the symbol for the number "one" in their tablets. They all duly scrawled a vertical line, save for one student, who sat with chalk poised, thinking deeply. "Just write it!" urged the teacher, but the student was frozen. Over time, the class had moved on to all the other numbers, but this one child remained lost in thought. Eventually, he was expelled for being too stupid to learn.

His family abandoned him, and he lived in the woods for thirty years, meditating and pondering. Finally, he returned to the schoool, naked and bearded, and, seeing his former teacher (now an old man) still in front of the classroom, he strode in, picked up a piece of chalk, and, with a godly sweep of his arm, full of confidence and grace, drew an enormous "1" on the front wall. After an awed moment, the entire school cracked in two along the mark he'd drawn.

I don't selfishly horde and hide my tricks. I desperately want you to surpass me (I mean with the stuff I’m actually good at) and make me look like a shmuck, and have been showing you how all along. It's counterintuitive, but isn't that inevitable? How far does conventionality get us?

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

"My Mental Chatter Reigns Supreme"

I've had the creepy feeling that fundamental shifts have been taking place; that everything's a bit weird, beyond the post-COVID weirdness and political weirdness. And I think I've zeroed in on it.

Have you had a conversation lately where someone blurted out something random, expecting you to understand? And it turned out to be just something circulating in their brain, which may or may not have something to do with you...but you obviously were given no context to understand what they just said?

This is happening all the time to me. Everyone expects everyone to be tapped into their own mental narration. It's very weird.

My observation has long been that, as a society, we've been lobster-boiling (i.e. progressing too gradually to fully notice) toward extreme narcissism as a norm. I suspect this represents a new level: "My mental narration is the actual universal driving force for the world".

If nothing's real but me, and I fully identify with my inner noise, then whatever pops up constitutes the very seat of reality.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Explaining Al Pacino, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Donald Trump

When actors in movies throw plates around, screaming, everyone starts mentioning Oscars. What a performance! Such power!

Really? Just for that? It took me years to understand that most people never feel rage or any other strong genuine emotion. They shamble through life numb, limp-dicked, popping tons of Prozac and never feeling much of anything, ever. To them, Al Pacino chewing scenery is masterful acting. Wow, he really went somewhere!

This always mystified me. I can do that! In fact, I want to holler at people all the time! My Powerful Acting Skill is the opposite: I can unhook that impulse and stand there grinning amiably at all the nonsense. But if you'll hand me a stack of plates, and give me permission, I will fling dishware, screaming and carrying on, red-faced, for your camera, all the livelong day. So where's my freaking Oscar?

It took years for me to understand the disjoint: strong emotion and intense feeling are impossible for most people to muster, so that stuff seems stirring and impressive (hence the anointment of hams like Pacino as celebrity gods). From there, I began to notice that when lesser actors rage on screen, they often seem whiny and almost comical. It's not that they're uninspired, or not trying hard enough. They've hit a hard limit. That's their peak, right there. That puny little display represents their maximal unthrottled rage. That's all they've got.

This explains Republicans right now. Consider the fatuously pouty and piqued delivery of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tucker Carlson, Josh Hawley, and the rest. They're off. They're performing (hey, we knew that) and they're not Pacinos. So they're trying to goose their flabby numbness into a low simmer, flinging their arms about and furrowing brows to connote stirring rage. It's not the real thing, because they can't "go there". This is all they've got.

None are anywhere close to the ballsy characters they're straining to portray. Marjorie Taylor Greene is a super-wealthy businesswoman. She's "spa days with the girls", not the choleric trailer trash lunatic she portrays (weakly) on TV. Nearly all those down-home corn-fed MAGA-wannabe politicians went to, like, Yale. They feel nothing and can only faintly simulate emotion of any sort. That's why their sneering, glassy-eyed affect is so least to anyone who's ever witnessed actual emotion and intensity.

Finally, this explains the exaltation of Trump, who is not faking the seething rage. So he's Pacino. Such power! He really goes there!

If I were a flaccid drone, easily awed by transgressive emotion, I suppose the snarky/whiny weak-sauce faux rage of a Marjorie Taylor Greene might feel “relatable”, while Trump would seem all-powerful and deeply authentic.

I remember no shortage of rage growing up, among my family, friends, neighbors, and general mass of fellow humans. It was the rule, not the exception. Was that a misapprehension from my parochial youth, or has society changed, turning everyone into squeaky mice, highly susceptible to enthrallment by any remaining shred of full-blooded humanity?

Maybe it's that I grew up around Sicilians and Jews. Or maybe it's because corporate styles of communication, which arose for business purposes in the 70s, have dominated the mainstream since the 80s, leaving everyone psychotically averse to friction of any sort (much less full-scale emotion). Or maybe this is inevitable given the huge shift I keep pointing to: most every American now is an aristocrat. Mrs. Howell couldn't manage a white hot rage, either. She has people she could hire for such things.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Bifocals Mature a Person

My ophtamologist, a stooped old cuss who looks like the poster child for bifocals, wags his head defiantly whenever I bring up the subject. He does not recommend bifocals. I figured he was just a quirky contrarian. Probably favors a delicious salty touch of glaucoma.

Finally, last time, I begged him. "I'm one of those phone guys. I look at my iPhone like 200 times per day. And each time, I have to push my glasses down my nose, or else rip them off my head, so I can see the screen. And I'm getting tired of it!" He sighed heavily, wrote the prescription, and wished me godspeed.

My Eyewear Professional handed me my new bifocals with an impish grin, and moved, for some reason, a couple of feet to the left. I put them on, and nearly projectile vomited. Suddenly it all made sense. She was avoiding my spew. And my opthamologist was hoping to spare me this pain. And, as I rapidly surveyed my mental snapshots of old people either 1. never changing the angle of their rigid head, or else 2. looking really really nauseous, suddenly all human life made sense.

A significant chunk of the population views the world through the wavy, trippy lensing of a bad 1960s acid movie. I'd just stepped into this new reality, my optical shop transformed into a scene from "I Love You Alice B Toklas".

"Give it two weeks," chirped my Eyewear Professional, remaining prudently outside my range.

I chose not to bring these monsters to Portugal. But I'm back (more catch-up reporting to follow, though), and am "giving them a spin" as they say (and, boy, is it all spinning). But I think I've devised the proper mental framing. Here it is:

The Good world is high. Don't look down at the Bad world. Looking down is only for your phone. If there's no phone, don't look down.

That's the mantra, and it's something I super look forward to following for a bunch more decades: If there's no phone, don't look down. Easy peasy!

Following that mantra, I never change the angle of my rigid head. Like...ever. So, at long last, I'm acting my age. Finally, I have matured. Thanks, bifocals!

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

A Casa do Jorge (Santana, Portugal)

All Portugal trip reports in chronological order:

Oddly Bookended Food Day in Portugal (Nepali and Goan in Almada)
My Portuguese Rosebud (questing for a second helping of the arroz de mariscos that changed my life 30 years ago)
Bacalhau Score (glorious restaurant version of a homely grandma dish in Almada)
Grappling with Chowhounding Hubris (good-not-great pork cheeks in Sintra)
Taskinha Do Chef (Torres Vedras, Portugal) (exquisite family-run restaurant in Torres Vedras)
False Friends, Inadvertent Penetration, and Coimbra (diagnosing the Coimbra Problem)
Solar dos Amigos (rustic culinary splendor in Caldas da Rainha)
Burguezia do Leitão (the best roast suckling pig palace near Coimbra, in Casal Comba)
A Casa do Jorge (smashing wine country steakhouse in Santana, near Azeitão)

Azeitão, a half hour south of Lisbon, is a wine region. Of course, saying so represents a Portuguese madness, as the entire country is nothing but wine regions. But they gravely pronounce places like Azeitão, Douro Valley, and Alentejo "wine regions" as if an important distinction were being made. Portugal is a land of distinctions without differences.

But I suppose all wine regions identify this way. If you live in Napa Valley or Sonoma County, you feel like you're in a self-contained wine area, and while, sure, there may be other wine regions nearby, your wine country is always Wine Country. And the analogy works particularly well because Azeitão comes closer to California wine country than anywhere in Europe. It's a dead ringer for Napa Valley circa 1980, before it built up.
This is weird because no other part of Portugal fits that comparison. Visit Coimbra or Lisbon or Porto or Alentejo or the Douro Valley, and Napa Valley (one imagines urbane clinks of expensive glassware and smiling glances around a bounteous table in golden light between highly self-actualized sunny folks with perfect shiny hair and teeth) will be the last thing on your mind. Outside of Azeitão, nothing Californian jibes with Portuguese brooding saudade, a notoriously un-translatable term referring to bittersweet nostalgia.

I can explain the word, the country, and my love for that country, all with one comparison. England and Spain both ruled the world once, lost their empires, but remained macho and brashly superior. Portugal lost its empire and withdrew into saudade, developing a poetic outlook. Saudade is untranslatable only because the rest of us haven't caught up.
On paper, Azeitão, like Napa, is a largish small town. In reality, it's a sprawling hunk of real estate with no meaningful borders, encompassing villages plus a whole lot of terra incognita - again, much like Napa Valley. "You're in Azeitão" isn't much more helpful than "You're in Portugal/Europe/Earth/Solar System/Local Group". Azeitão is a zone of the mind.

This is all terribly complicated, no? Well, buck up, spaceman. Portugal's complicated. If you want brash simplicity, hit up England or Spain.

Anyhow, somewhere within the Azeitão wormhole lies a restaurant, A Casa do Jorge, which could have been transported from Napa. It's almost entirely off-radar even for locals, but I was brought by local experts, the estimable Danish-Portuguese trombonist-arranger Claus Nymark and his wife, the omniscient Saozinha.
I hung out with Claus in Portugal the 90s, as I made my European gigging rounds as a jazz trombonist. We lost touch during the Chowhound madness, but often when I'd eat at the bar in New York Portuguese restaurants with satellite TV, I'd spot Claus in the band behind a Portuguese talk show host, or hear a musical arrangement that could only have sprung from his fiendishly clever mind, and I'd start hollering "CLAUS!!!! THAT'S CLAUS!!!!", startling the sullen middle-aged alcoholic immigrants trying to peacefully day-drink at the bar.

Imagine it from their perspective: some random American dude - interloping to slurp caldo verde - making a major fuss over some random musician barely visible in the band of some dreary Portuguese talk show that even they had barely heard of. Talk about cognitive dissonance!
A Casa do Jorge (warning: no credit cards) appears like a vision amid the viney wilderness en route to the beach paradise of Sesimbra, in the greater Azeitão non-village of Santana. This is another nominal "meat" restaurant boasting more fresh, beautiful seafood than any fish specialist anywhere else (there's yet another grave but meaningless Portuguese point of distinction).

All serious restaurants in this area offer soft and hard cheeses - in the Portuguese manner, served as apps, rather than afters. These were next-level. The anonymous hard cheese was great, but the soft sheep cheese, from tiny producer Sabino Rodrigues, was worth a trip to Portugal. You shlurp it out of its cup and onto a platter, then shmeer it onto bread. I nearly lost consciousness. No cheese porn shots, sorry (I was preoccupied with weighty matters of transubstantiation). It just looks like any old ricotta or whatever, but it tastes like god cloud pillows.

After the fish, displayed with pride of place despite the meat designation, the first thing you notice is the intimidating wall of wine. Again, totally Napa Valley 1980:

We ordered picanha, a cut of beef apparently existing only on Brazilian cattle. In the 90s, it was available in a few Brazilian restaurants in Portugal, but it's since been adopted widely.

See that canned peach slice in the background? Next to the fresh pineapple slice behind the mound of steak and fries? Me and Claus couldn't stop giggling at the idea of asking for another canned peach slice. This is trombonist humor.

One more picanha money shot:

Also, and I don't totally understand this, "a hunk of meat from Miranda do Douro", spoken in hushed tones, which was even better than the picanha - and the picanha could drive a milquetoast to self-harm. This was some stirring meat, people.

For potato lovers like me, Portugal can tame a person into a docility akin to a cat on nip. I couldn't stop shooting adoring photos.

In a trend that had started at Solar dos Amigos in Caldas da Rainha, the desserts were both spectacular and untried by us (our pain was all-consuming). But here's a loving survey:
See that "baba de camelo"? It translates to "camel drool". And you want it.

I think the total was something like $75 for three, including plenty of wine. Portugal. My god.

Monday, September 20, 2021

House Painting Tips

I'm really bad at any sort of visual stuff, especially house/design/decor stuff (I nonetheless managed, veeeery slowly, to make my house reasonably attractive and comfortable). So my interior painting project has been fraught. I don't know which colors to pick. But I just absolutely nailed one room. I wanted a light, tasteful, gender-neutral peach, without being cloying or girlish. Just a touch of peach in an otherwise classy, neutral color. This is hard. Really hard. And I got lucky.

Cameo Rose (071), baby. Cameo Rose. If you're feeling peach, but don't want it to look like the baby changing room at your community Family Services center, this is what you want. Seriously. Use this.

Don't trust the color you see at that link. Your screen is not a wall. And don't trust a sample painted on your wall, either. A sample is not a room. So how do you choose colors? Pray to your god...and always favor lightness and neutrality.

My other paint success was exterior. I wanted a burgundy red that didn't look like diseased gums; neither fire engine red nor sickly/dark. I settled on Caliente AF-290 (my Guatemalan painters and I got endless merriment from calling it "Caliente As Fuck"). Check out this before/after shot. I think I got my money's worth:

Exterior paints photograph more faithfully than artificially-lit interior rooms, so this is pretty accurate. Caliente as fuck, no? Important note: I bought (and really wanted) a cream trim color, but discovered that it clashed with the white of the windows, which I was stuck with. I had to repaint some trim. Don't repeat my mistake! Go neutral white for exterior trim, or else be solidly aware of how your windows will affect the result.

Have you found a tasty-looking paint color online from a company in, like, Sweden, which you can't buy here? No problem! This site lets you enter the name of any house paint from anywhere, and it will show you the closest matches from Benjamin Moore, Sherwin Williams, etc. You can also enter RGB values to find close matches, and other tricky paint color tricks.

Finally, got lead? Don't abate, encapsulate. No hazmat suits or tented sandblasting are necessary. They just chip away roughly (creating no harmful lead dust), encapsulate in thick primer, and paint over it. This is great for flaking nightmares like my place. Results aren't quite baby's-bottom smooth, but the neighborhood kids won't get sick, their parents won't sue you (your legal exposure from lead poisoning is potentially infinite), and you'll spend half the price of full-on abatement. Do make sure your painting company has an unexpired license for lead work (you can look it up online).

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Burguezia do Leitão in Casal Comba (Portugal)

All Portugal trip reports in chronological order:

Oddly Bookended Food Day in Portugal (Nepali and Goan in Almada)
My Portuguese Rosebud (questing for a second helping of the arroz de mariscos that changed my life 30 years ago)
Bacalhau Score (glorious restaurant version of a homely grandma dish in Almada)
Grappling with Chowhounding Hubris (good-not-great pork cheeks in Sintra)
Taskinha Do Chef (Torres Vedras, Portugal) (exquisite family-run restaurant in Torres Vedras)
False Friends, Inadvertent Penetration, and Coimbra (diagnosing the Coimbra Problem)
Solar dos Amigos (rustic culinary splendor in Caldas da Rainha)
Burguezia do Leitão (the best roast suckling pig palace near Coimbra, in Casal Comba)
A Casa do Jorge (smashing wine country steakhouse in Santana, near Azeitão)

If you're new here, you'd be smart to question how I, a stranger blasting through quickly, could claim to have found some of the best possible bites in lots of different places. You might be satisfied by my explanation that I'm a professional with a preternaturally good nose, 40 years of experience, and a reputation for making killer finds. If that's not persuasive, I understand. I, too, wrestle with the presumptuousness and hubris of it all.

In my smartphone app, "Eat Everywhere", which works for traveling as well as for immigrant restaurants near home, this is the geographical lay-out we provide for Portugal:
Portugal is one of the only countries where the food is generally considered to be better in the north. To be sure, there's terrific cooking in Alentejo, where chefs have a touch with cilantro unlike anywhere else. And the center (near Coimbra) is packed with as many roast suckling pig (leitão) restaurants as Brooklyn has pizzerias. But up in the north - in Porto and Tres Montanas - lie culinary wonders. So ask where your chef's from. If the answer's Coimbra, persuade the restaurant to roast a baby pig for you someday. If it's Alentejo, get anything with cilantro, or coentros
That was design (the app offers thumbnail sketches and rules-of-thumb - expedient tutorials for diners on-the-fly). Actually, the leitão belt starts a bit north of Coimbra, extending deeply into the prestigious Bairrada wine region. So it's a standard quest to find the best leitão near Coimbra - much like seeking the best lobster roll close to Portland, Maine. And I think I nailed it.

Burguezia do Leitão is just a half hour north of town, making it one of the southernmost serious contenders. I've tried several top-drawer Bairrada baby pig places over the years - so I'm somewhat calibrated - and Burguezia do Leitão puts them to shame.

These are not down-and-dirty barbecue joints. The genre has pretensions. Waiters are usually uniformed, chairs and flatware have heft, and it's always thick, stiff linens. I originally imagined this is to justify the gluttony. Like branding strip bars as "Gentleman's Clubs", it’s a way to retain dignity while engaging in vice. But I think it's really two other things:

1. It's labor intensive to roast these suckers with consistent results. This isn't your neighbor's barbecue party, these places compete in a crowded field (the region boasts dozens, perhaps hundreds, of leitão restaurants), so they must ensure that every bite is juicy and fresh all day, day in and day out. It's an expensive proposition, so prices are high by Portugal's standards. And those high tabs are justified by shmancy presentation.

2. This is a wine region, and this is wine food, and the starchy, sit-up-straight atmosphere reflects the serious gastronomic aspirations of a major wine region. Your local leitão restaurant is sort of like French Laundry.

Burguezia do Leitão's location in a gully between a Tesla supercharger station and a hot-sheet motel throws that status equation out of whack, so they compensate with extra starchy formalism. I didn't take dining room photos (I was, as you'll see, busy), but you'll get the vibe from their web site. Anyway, on to the pig...

That's gotta hurt.
Starting, as always, with broa, beloved dense Portuguese cornbread.

In my previous Portuguese food posting, the surprise guest broa was a freaky yellow variety (I still have no idea what that was about). This time, it was - be still my palpitating heart - raisin-walnut broa! RAISIN-WALNUT BROA!

Another action shot of the paradigm-shattering raisin-walnut broa.

Here's the full breadbasket (I've already pillaged some). Note that you always pay extra for this in Portugal - usually 3 Euros or so. Happy to do so for excellent bread.   

Ok, now here we go.

Black peppery gravy for dunking moist nuggets of comely schweinefleisch. The secret ingredient, I'm told, is calories.

More porcine porn.

"Portugal is For (Side Dish) Lovers"

I almost - almost - got tired of potato chips on this trip.

Crunch-eye view. Oh dear, I seem to have shattered the glassine surface. Whatever will I do with those amber shards?

I couldn't capture my place setting without resorting to "panorama" mode. Unfortunately, I had hiccups.

I'll once again reference Eric Cartman gleefully enjoying his private amusement park. What the hell, let's roll the video:

Last time, I noted the irrationality of the big Portuguese distinction between meat and seafood restaurants, given that all of them do both great. Here's proof that shellfish even at a pig roast will be reasonably fresh. Just ask this critter. Are you fresh, pal?

This is a very serious wine region, as important as Loire Valley. It lends a detectable gravitas, no? This glass of house red was more than good enough.

So how was it?

I need to break out a special set of descriptors reserved for extremely lofty elevation. Here's what I wrote about the immortal lasagna of Mama Grimaldi, a legendary grandma cook living between Rome and Naples:
The very best stuff has a shocking purity, a grace, an emptiness. You don't process it, it processes you. It's a whole other thing.

When I took my first bite of Mamma Grimaldi's lasagna, nothing happened. It fit my biology so precisely - the natural state of my taste and texture receptors - that it was devilishly hard to recognize it as something foreign to my mouth. It was like descending into a pool heated to body temperature. It was like kissing a mirror. You might pronounce it "light", but that would be grotesquely faint praise. It was evanescent. You search, but...nothing.

This was a bit like that. The meat, and its attendent crunch, transport you to a realm of ethereal lightness and softness. In the mouth, it hardly registers, hovering delicately above the tongue. The aftertaste is as clean as a mountain breeze. Each swallow triggers an Etch A Sketch shake. Not eating. Communion.

Any meaty flavors register as mere nuance. Intimation. Afterthought. It would be gauche to direct attention there. Flavor's beside the point, as is the exemplary crunchiness of the skin. How can you focus on such coarse considerations while being soothed by angels?

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Maxwell's Silver Hammer

When I was 25, a stock I bought for $100 tripled. I was happy with my $200 profit, but it wasn't nearly enough to, like, change my life or anything. If I'd invested $1000, I'd have made $2000. Serious money! It was true what they say about how it takes money to make money.

A stock I bought for $1000 recently, at age 58, tripled. I was happy with my $2000 profit, but it wasn't nearly enough to, like, change my life or anything.

Friday, September 17, 2021

The tangled history of mRNA vaccines

The Slog's technical advisor (who remains nameless amid the COVID anti-science craziness) recommends this beautifully produced history of the nRNA vaccines from Nature.

Awesome International Car Rental Booking Site

I rarely rent cars outside the US. Even domestically, big-name rental companies seem sketchy and predatorial, and I don't understand all the gotchas (e.g. returning your car early can cost hundreds extra). Renting abroad is far worse. It can feel like a back alley drug deal.

But I needed a car for my recent Portugal trip, and someone highly recommended It's an online platform for discount worldwide bookings which appears to be run by a woman in Belarus. What could go wrong?

Absolutely nothing. I got a great car from a great local Portuguese company at a great price. Every aspect of the transaction was a delight. I did have one nerdy local issue early on: The Portuguese EZ-Pass is a thingee called "Via Verde", and I needed one, but it hadn't been offered during booking. So I called the lady in Belarus, expecting to confuse her. What would she know about Portuguese EZ-Pass? But she answered immediately and authoritatively: "Yes, you definitely want Via Verde, and you can ask for it when you pick up the car for just a few bucks, no problem." That was good enough for me, but, five minutes later, she emailed an exact price (indeed, a few bucks).

EconomyCarRentals arranges rentals worldwide, and I don't think I'll ever rent another car anywhere without going through them.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Solar dos Amigos (Caldas da Rainha, Portugal)

All Portugal trip reports in chronological order:

Oddly Bookended Food Day in Portugal (Nepali and Goan in Almada)
My Portuguese Rosebud (questing for a second helping of the arroz de mariscos that changed my life 30 years ago)
Bacalhau Score (glorious restaurant version of a homely grandma dish in Almada)
Grappling with Chowhounding Hubris (good-not-great pork cheeks in Sintra)
Taskinha Do Chef (Torres Vedras, Portugal) (exquisite family-run restaurant in Torres Vedras)
False Friends, Inadvertent Penetration, and Coimbra (diagnosing the Coimbra Problem)
Solar dos Amigos (rustic culinary splendor in Caldas da Rainha)
Burguezia do Leitão (the best roast suckling pig palace near Coimbra, in Casal Comba)
A Casa do Jorge (smashing wine country steakhouse in Santana, near Azeitão)

If you're new here, you'd be smart to question how I, a stranger blasting through quickly, could claim to have found some of the best possible bites in lots of different places. You might be satisfied by my explanation that I'm a professional with a preternaturally good nose, 40 years of experience, and a reputation for making killer finds. If that's not persuasive, I understand. I, too, wrestle with the presumptuousness and hubris of it all.

There are two types of great restaurants:

1. Frenetically chaotic places which somehow manage to route food into mouths and money into cash register.

2. Well-oiled machines run by tyrannical maniacs.

Solar dos Amigos, in Caldas da Rainha, is somehow both.

The benevolently tyrannical maniac in this case is the estimable Sra Nunes. But her strict, ancient (the place has been going for an eternity) guidelines are indecipherable and often counterproductive. It's all kookie banana pants, strictly regimented. God bless Portugal.

I went on a Sunday, confronting a tumultuous mob of waiting diners spilling through the miniaturized streets of the wee village of Salir de Matos, which looks a bit like Bedrock. I bailed and returned on Monday, when there was no wait at all. Yet I stood in the doorway for all eternity.

Fortunately, the desserts are displayed up front for entertainment. While Portugal is definitely a pastry country, it's not big on ambitious restaurant desserts...except Solar dos Amigos, which offers such a dizzying variety that this might as well be a diner on the Jersey Turnpike (only 10,000 times better). I spent loads of time peering at these:

I was invisible to the staff until Sra Nunes deigned to notice my existence and told me to wait a minute (as if I hadn't already been there for all eternity). The utterance filtered down the chain of command through the teeny girls operating this place (surely all nieces and daughters and grand nieces and granddaughters...I'm figuring it's like a game of Sim Restaurant where you only win by breeding workers fast enough to keep pace with the restaurant's sprawling expansion). So at this point, acknowledged as a pre-customer, I felt tacitly involved. We all play our part. Me? I was that guy in the doorway.

Another 15 long minutes later, I was led to a table presided over by a prepubescent yet robotic waitress speaking not a word of English and with an absolute intolerance for imperfect Portuguese. Mismatch a gender, mispronounce a vowel, and you might as well be speaking Martian. The difficulty rating was mighty high, but I finally managed to communicate my order, and the kitchen swiftly yielded this platter of sheer delight:

This is only a half portion of secretos (an elite Portuguese cut) of porco preto, the legendary black pig. I ate only half of this half, though it was the best pork anything I've ever had. Including KC and NC barbecue...and including the roast suckling pig I'd soon enjoy just north of Coimbra (the college town).

I should note that, yes, this is a grilled meats place. Portuguese restaurants specialize in either meat or fish, though they all do well with both, so the distinction, like so many Portuguese affairs, is puzzling.
There's a streak of illogic in Portuguese culture, but just a delightful tickle. Not enough to make you pound your forehead into brick (e.g. southern Italy), just sufficient to keep things interesting and perhaps a bit magical/realist. Alice in Wonderland, though it's not widely-known, was an allegory for a trip to Portugal. At least that's my theory.
I'm a sides guy. I like sides. I like options. I was imprinted early as a child by Pennsylvania Dutch food, and their myriad fabled side dishes served en masse, and I never lost hope that life's really like that. And, here, it is. Everything comes with a bowl of migas (spicy bread crumbs), a bowl of what chowhound Tom Viemont terms "wet rice" (the Portuguese love them some bland wet rice) with red beans, and a bowl of black beans because beans.

Plus salad. Plus french fries. Plus bread. And let's discuss that bread.

Broa, the dense Portuguese corn bread, is one of my grails. Current best I know is from Teixeira Bakery on Ferry Street in Newark, but the broa in Portugal is, naturally, way better. And this is like ten times better than that. This is Michael Phelps broa (enjoy the last vanishing morsel, the food porn equivalent of a snuff film):

It didn't hurt that it was hot from the oven (remember Leff's Rule of Baked Goods: "Anything tastes great right out of the oven”). Though, in this case, I'm sure it would thrill even after a cool-down.

Also: yellow broa, which I don't understand:

My waitress was temperamentally ill-suited for explanation, but I thought I tasted eggy oiliness...though I'm highly color-impressionable (e.g. anything purple tastes grapey).

Here is one frozen moment from the stirring blur of ravenous ingestion (I’ve squirted incendiary Portuguese-African hot sauce, piri-piri, on the rim of of my plate):

After the meal, I requested the check, but, in its place, there appeared a gratis flask of ginjinha, the Portuguese cherry wine. It's always a particular favorite of mine, and this was by far the best version I'd had:

Plus a small bag of freshly baked cookies:

At this point, I was hallucinating ecstatic Christmas mornings from my false-nostalgia gentile childhood, manically unwrapping gifts. Gleeful as Eric Cartman alone in his amusement park, I gobbled errant bits of cookie, broa and golden broa, circulating between slurps of cherry liquor, wine, and mineral water, and was absurdly eying the dessert case (I hear it's all great - especially the cheesecake - but, in the end, I just couldn't).

At some point, sanity was restored as my stomach shut down and refused to play, and, like a spent stallion, I began to feel bored and restless. Finally my waitress reappeared (perhaps she'd been huddling with a math tutor), so I repeated my request for the check, and she pointed to the register manned by Commander Grandma. Like in the Wizard of Oz, my ticket home had been with me all along, if only I'd realized. The route back to Kansas runs through Commander Grandma at the cash station.

"Uma coisa mais," I irritated the child laborer. One more thing. Can I buy a little bottle of the cherry liquor? Yes, yes, yes. Yes you can. And she was gone.

I tentatively approached Commander Grandma with the same query, and she had the same reaction: Yes, yes, yes. Yes you can. And she went back to busily processing customers, counting change, and kissing babies, all while barking copious orders at her Ugandan child army. I assumed one such imperative involved my cherry liquor, but a good while later I was still frozen in my familiar doorway position.

"Get him cherry liquor STAT," she suddenly commanded, and one of the tots scrambled into the back and, ten minutes later, emerged with not one bottle but two. They were gifts, she said. I thanked Commander Grandma, who sternly acknowledged my thanks. I actually went with "muito obrigado" here - thank you very much - which, this being a modest country unlike Japan or Italy or the other Axis powers, is a meaningful escalation. Not enough to make people gawk or revelrous diners to fall silent, but not something you hear every day. Commander Grandma registered the gravity of my appreciation without quite looking at me. She was busy running her tight ship. Customers to process. Vast armies to coordinate. And.........SCENE!

Here are the house specialties, straight out of 1975, and also the bill (25 Euros for either a New York food writer or else a small family):

While I've enjoyed riffing on the tight ship/absolute chaos and Mother Hubbardism of Commander Grandma, I try to extract some crumb of insight from significant life events like this. So here's the crumb:

I was certain I'd enjoyed the most generous meal of my life. But I was also aware that Solar Dos Amigos serves family style, so I'd essentially gobbled the dinner of an entire family. This was generous in the way a hotel suite might strike a lone traveler as generous for its towel offerings. Man, will you look at all the towels! Wheee!

So, reader, how should I think and report? Should I have tempered my enthusiasm? Should I have reigned in my glee and just wryly noted that if one is served a meal for four, the sides and breads and drinks and pork cutlets and whatever will naturally feel like a sensational feast?

I've stuck with my initial impression. The meal sure felt generous to me. I was served warm oven-fresh cookies IN A BROWN PAPER BAG for christ's sake. I aim to tell the truth here, and this was my truth, and sometimes the truth is wrong, or colored, but I'd be a liar to pretend to soberly post-process my glorious freak-out.

I'll never get the NY Times gig (if any of those people were to ever freak out - impossible to imagine - they'd diligently button themselves back up tightly in the recounting). Life and food, after all, must occupy a manageably narrow dynamic range. No room for ecstasy. Dial it down, lil' buddy.

One final note. I may not possess Kreskin levels of telepathy, but I'm certain I know how Sra. Nunes would respond to my description of her indecipherable and counterproductive guidelines, and the overall kookie banana pants vibe at Solar Dos Amigos:
I have delighted hordes of diners for decades, supported generations of family-members and local friends, and, with no training or investment, established a business whose quality can "freak out" a jaded big-city food critic who has been everywhere and eaten everything. So, sure, tell me about how I'm doing things wrong!

Monday, September 13, 2021

False Friends, Inadvertent Penetration, and Coimbra

All Portugal trip reports in chronological order:

Oddly Bookended Food Day in Portugal (Nepali and Goan in Almada)
My Portuguese Rosebud (questing for a second helping of the arroz de mariscos that changed my life 30 years ago)
Bacalhau Score (glorious restaurant version of a homely grandma dish in Almada)
Grappling with Chowhounding Hubris (good-not-great pork cheeks in Sintra)
Taskinha Do Chef (Torres Vedras, Portugal) (exquisite family-run restaurant in Torres Vedras)
False Friends, Inadvertent Penetration, and Coimbra (diagnosing the Coimbra Problem)
Solar dos Amigos (rustic culinary splendor in Caldas da Rainha)
Burguezia do Leitão (the best roast suckling pig palace near Coimbra, in Casal Comba)
A Casa do Jorge (smashing wine country steakhouse in Santana, near Azeitão)

There's a linguistic phenomenon known as a "false friend". This describes words that seem familiar, but don't mean what you think they mean. I, alas, am the poster child for this phenomenon, having once been nearly laughed off stage for it.

It was the first gig of my first tour in Spain. I'd played a couple warm-up tunes with the rhythm section, and it was time to bring on our female vocalist. Proudly confident in my high school Spanish, I took the microphone and said "Señores y señoras, quiero introducir nuestra vocalista...." and before I could utter her name, the auditorium erupted in vast howls of laughter, which persisted for a good long while.

The bass player, a bear-like Andalusian named Nono, gestured with his finger to come over to him. He was gripping his sides, tears streaming down his cheeks, but he managed to croak out an explanation: "You just said you want to penetrate the singer. The word you want is 'presentar'".

Geez, "introducir" sure seemed right. But no. False friend.

In the years since, I've noticed cultural false friends beyond language. For example, in 90s Tokyo, I came upon a couple of sneering Japanese punks. Pierced everything, extra-malevolent mohawks. I nearly crossed to the other side of the street as they approached.

A wizened grandma a few feet in front of me nodded sweetly at them, and they straightened up, bowed respectfully (all malevolence cleanly washed off their faces), then recomposed their shtick and walked on. I'd thought they seemed familiar, but they weren't at all what I thought they were (I’m not sure they were even what they thought they were).

You'll notice this phenomenon a lot if you pay attention while traveling (if not, you'll develop a false sense of homogeneity). I seek it out, enjoying the cognitive dissonance. Here's one that steered me wrong for decades:

Ask any Portuguese about the town of Coimbra, and they'll say "college town". That's it. Automatic response. Nothing else to say. College town. Coimbra? College town. Yeah, a college town. Coimbra is a college town.

I figured they meant it was like Boston - a center of learning with a diverse community of intellectually curious students. A teeming academic beehive buzzing with chem research, creative writing, and chai lattes. This became my image of the place, persisting in the mid 90s when I briefly skirted the town's perimeter en route to Porto. It was magnificently beautiful (imagine a matte painting backdrop for a Star Trek episode set in year 1225 Europe). A picturesque seat of learning. A college town, I'd heard!

Last week I finally pulled into Coimbra, and commenced my usual onslaught of eating, drinking, hanging, talking, etc.. And virtually everyone I encountered was a bit "off". Dourly impersonal and weirdly disconnected. My AirBnB host, an engineering professor, placidly watched me struggle out of a tiny elevator with my collection of suitcases, bags, and laptop backpacks. She held out my key for me to grab with my fully-occupied hands, and mumbled "Welcome do you have questions." 

Still gasping from the effort and slightly disoriented, I tried to focus my mind on questions. The pause was not convenient for her. Without a shred of malevolence, she reemphasized, a little louder, "Any questions?" "Uh, no, I don't think so…" I replied, and she swiftly retreated into her adjoining apartment. Odd. Spooky.

And the whole town was like that. I'm an experienced enough traveler to not draw firm conclusions from a few encounters, but I couldn't avoid seeing this as the local style. 

Finally, I passed an open-aired nighttime concert about to start in a stunning plaza illuminated with highly dramatic lighting. It was a string quartet of serious-looking and well-put-together young people with excellent posture and intense game faces. I perched eagerly on some church steps to listen, and my mouth quickly fell completely agape behind my face mask. Here are a few bars.

This was a phenomenally - almost satirically - joyless and ploddingly under-tempo version of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Utterly grim and trudging and grudging. Zero youthful exuberance. The setting - the plaza, the buildings - was stirring. But the musicians were essentially contaminating it all with their drearily dispassionate - really, almost inhuman - performance. 

I escaped quickly (fearing transmission of a virus that might consume and neutralize my own musicality), and, upon arriving back at my room, found no hot water. I texted my AirBnb host, who replied as follows (this is a direct quote, and she wasn’t being cheeky):

Try turning the faucet to the left and wait a minute.

Three hundred devastating replies flashed through my head, but I finally opted for a cold shower, and let it slide. There was nothing to say, and, really, I was grateful that she'd sparked an epiphany which had been forming all day. 

Finally (thirty years later!) I understand what the Portuguese mean about Coimbra being a college town. There's a vibe of dour Aspergery disconnection and bloodless oblivious superiority. What they mean is that the town's pervaded by the very worst sort of academician vibe. They never lead by mentioning the beauty of the place, because, with a vibe like that, the beauty's wasted.

College town. Yup. A goddamn college town. Hey, what can you do?

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