Note: Flicker Photos Here (not too many: we took mostly video, and it'll take awhile to process all of that)
It's impossible to reconstruct a five-week trip from the tail-end, to be honest. It's impossible to really convey the overload of the senses, the contrasts between: the precision of the searing blue of the Romanian sky over the light-bright waving heads of sunflowers as we sped by on the way to the Danube; the magical aquamarine of the lights illuminating the buildings in the old square in Prague our first night there; the metal-oil blue glinting in the water below, seen from atop a monument in Lisbon; the placid, cool-azure leaking out from between the trees in a mossy Berlin park as we walked toward the Brandenburg Gate; the frothy gray-blue of the rain-sky over the grand square in Brussels as we drank a half-dozen types of Leffe in a cafe; the royal blue of the Parisian sky above Notre Dame made sharp by the grey of the Seine roiling below it; the cerulean-steel blue of the Helsinki sky as we approached the fortress island by ferry, seeming to presage storm or winter even in the middle of summer. All of this with a million shades between, sometimes from one moment to the next, and the tastes, smells, textures, mixed with the unfamiliar sound of foreign languages curling and intertwining with our own stilted attempts at imitation. I think sometimes I was fatigued by the sheer wealth of stimuli, senses working overtime, but loved it all the same.
Put another way: I'll always remember the feel against my hand of a rough wall in the gardens at Sintra in Lisbon, and the smell of that stone, and the fragments of conversation in the background, but spend a lifetime trying to describe it in prose.
So anything I say here is an incomplete account, of events--not the sensual/tactile experience of it (which will probably be showing up in fiction for the next couple of decades). So many places in so many countries reminded me of Ambergris or immediately stimulated a deep and subconscious reaction.
Here is part 1, about Portugal.
me, Luis, Michel, and Safaa
We were met at the airport in Lisbon by the incomparable Luis Rodrigues (who blogged about our trip earlier) and a friend of his, and immediately received a cultural lesson when I tried to hug Luis and he turned his shoulder into me, before leaning over to kiss Ann on the cheek. Air kisses fine, hugging not so good. This was a lesson that applied to most of Europe, actually. I was not great at the kissing thing, almost falling over once when I missed a woman's cheek.
We also received a lesson in heat, as Europe was going through a heat wave when we arrived. We learned to move slowly, like tortoises. We learned to wear very light clothing and the importance of undershirts. "You're from Florida--you must be used to the heat," people would say to us and we would reply, "Yes, but in Florida we have air conditioning the way most European countries have heaters." No air conditioning in Lisbon or most of the places we visited.
Luis Rodrigues was even more wonderful in person than in his emails and IMs, which may seem impossible, but there it is. He's a very funny guy with a sly and constant sense of humor, and he showed us a great time. The first night we also met Safaa and Michel, with whom we had a lot of fun. I felt instantly comfortable with everyone we met in Lisbon, and perhaps in particular Michel, who just has a kind of presence about him that is hard to explain but very special.
Slowly, we adapted our way through Lisbon, which had the ambience (we learned later when we went to France) of a Little Paris. Many areas of old buildings and cafes and ma-and-pop restaurants. Lots of music and young people out at night, dressed in what came to seem American Assimilation Party Wear the farther across Europe we traveled. (One welcome change: even the McDonald's were largely housed in old buildings with lots of charm, and many times offered beer, a European staple.)
Luis took us all over Lisbon, even when he wasn't entirely sure where we were going, and we enjoyed all of it (even getting slightly lost), but I have to say my favorite place in Lisbon (and possibly most of Europe) was the Chinese Pavilion (Pavilhão Chinês), which I am not sure I can describe except to say it combined all of the ambiance of the world's best bar with a museum of oddities--from the dozens and dozens of model airplanes hanging from the ceiling to the collection of masks and gas masks on the wall. Every room had its own theme and we wound up talking long into the night twice, staggering home around 3 or 4 in the morning after an aggressive diet of rusty nails and other cool drinks. (Their drink menu was utterly overwhelming) Of course, we realized we couldn't keep up that pace for five weeks and so had to become wiser over the course of the book tour, rarely staying up past midnight most of the time thereafter.
The inside of Nirvana...
I blame Luis Filipe Silva for our late nights--and I mean blame in the most affectionate way--in that he happened to be there for both of them, and I think suggested the place at least once. At the end of the second night, we wound up walking through the square that had been the focal point of the revolution in the 1970s that resulted in Portugal going from dictatorship to democracy and Luis and Luis gave us a fascinating crash course on modern Portuguese history. It was somewhat moving to stand there, listening to them, in the darkness obscured dimly by street lamps amidst the trees that dimly buttered the cobblestones with green light.
The caves at the gardens...
We also loved the gardens at Sintra, which had been created by a mason and had all kinds of significance. But what I loved most is that the gardens had an organic feel--the intent being to create a garden that looked a bit like a natural wilderness, until you looked closer. It had grottos and dark caves, along with wonderful waterfalls and an amazing nine-story dry well that had such a resonance with me that I found myself scribbling lots of notes for short stories. At one of the caves, struck by a sudden fearlessness, I led the group into utter darkness, unable to see for a period of twenty seconds, certain I was going to trip over something, only to come out into the light again on the other side. Near the well, we also entered an area of darkness and plenty of bumped heads, lightened by laughter as we heard from ahead of us, through the black, Luis Rodrigues saying in a fishy voice, "My precious. My precious."
David Soares, it must be noted, gave us a marvelous tour of the gardens, something for which I am forever thankful, as it gave me the foundation for the story I'm writing for the Bantam spelling bee antho. And because, frankly, it was the best tour we've ever gotten of any place.
David and his girlfriend Gisela, by the way, are the sweetest, nicest people on Earth, and I look forward to David's fiction, which is roughly dark fantasy, being translated into English. (This applies to so many writers we met in Lisbon and in Europe in general. Such a frustration to hear descriptions of works that sounded so interesting and yet there was no way we could read them.) David also does comics and graphic novels and drew a marvelous squid in a comic he signed to me. My favorite quote from Portugal might be David saying, "We're not Goths. We are just people who like to wear a lot of black."
As for my publishers, Pedro Marques and João Seixas from Livros De Areia, I enjoyed them a lot. Pedro did the marvelous cover for my Portuguese collection and is one of the best graphic designers I've ever come across. He's also a somewhat larger-than-life character in terms of gesture and speech, which I enjoyed. João was also great--a total SF-F fan, with a nice collection of US and UK horror and dark fantasy books, and so we talked a lot about that. (I'd also note that Luis Corte Real at Saida De Emergencia is doing very cool things as well, including just releasing Alan Moore's novel. A really nice guy with a good sense of perspective.)
As for the reading itself, it took place at a FNAC bookstore, one of the largest chains in Europe. They and my publisher had done a great job of publicizing the event and the turn-out really surprised me: somewhere around 100 people were there, and I signed a lot of books after the event.
Finally, I can only echo what Luis Rodrigues already said in his blog post: "Once again, thank you all for the wonderful time: David Soares and Gisela, Safaa Dib, Michel Jacinto, Pedro Marques, all the Luíses (Filipe Silva, Corte Real) and Joãos (Barreiros, Ventura, Seixas), Modesta and Maria João, everyone at Fnac Colombo."
P.S. Holy crap--I only recognize two people here. 20 year high school reunion. Couldn't make it, alas.