A Universal Language

When I was a young man with nothing, or close to it, I traveled Europe some with a backpack, and one spring arrived by bus in Lagos, Portugal, known for beaches and popular with young Europeans for party vacations.

At the time there were no affordable hotels, and locals with rooms to rent would meet travelers at the bus station to try and rent them rooms in their homes. It was quite competitive.

The old woman who won my business spoke no English, and I didn’t speak Portuguese, but there must have been some attractive selling point, so she led me through the nighttime Lagos streets to her little home where she lived alone and showed me into a small room in the back, connected to the main house by a small stone patio. It was sufficient to my needs.

As I enjoyed Lagos beach life and night life for the next few weeks, I felt that my relationship with the old woman was leaning towards the combative. She scolded me for tracking sand into the room; she got up in the night to yell at me if I brought friends back to the room, while I felt that having visitors should be well within the range of my tenant rights. I did a poor job remembering not leave towels and clothes hung on the patio chair in the sun, and I played music too loudly on the little radio that I carried with me in the backpack.

And she complained that I wasn’t eating well.

After about three weeks, towards the end of my stay, she saw me eating chips or something equally disappointing, and in what seemed like a fit of motherly frustration, she lit some coals in a little cast iron hibachi on the patio stone floor and grilled two fresh anchovy fishes. Then she served them to me on a plate with salt and supervised me until I had eaten them.

At the time, grilled anchovies were not a part of my regular diet, but as I sensed that I was in trouble and this was the only way out, I ate the fish. The skin was blackened and thin and crisp and the fish was bony and the meat was sweet. When I finished, she took my plate and told me something final that I didn’t understand, but that I interpreted as both kind and reprimanding, and then she handed me the broom to sweep the sand out of my room.

I left Lagos the next day, and have yet to return. I believe it is much different now.

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