[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was the first nice weekend in January when I and my friends boarded a plane traveling from Marseille to Lisbon.
A few weeks prior to this beautiful, warm January day, we decided to chase the sun west and spend some time away from our small dorm rooms. Naturally, as the group control freak and planner, I devised a long list of must-sees and can’t-miss attractions. I spent hours researching restaurants, and reading about hidden hot-spots. At the time, I believed there was a process, that there was somehow a right and wrong way to travel.
This was the trip, however, in which I learned an important lesson: the best memories are the ones you can’t anticipate or find in any kind of Lonely Planet guide.
There was one afternoon, about halfway through our trip, where all of my friends wanted to spend a few hours resting in a waterfront café. All they wanted to do was sit. Just sit. And I will give you that this particular café served mind-blowing espresso (or as the locals called it, “bica”) and delicious pastries, but after having a short rest, I decided to move on — without my group — and finish the day’s agenda on my own.
I had a list of sites I thought I had to see. As far as I was concerned, I would never truly see Lisbon, or get to know it, if I didn’t let my list guide me down breathtaking side streets to some kind of infamous landmark. But as I quickly learned after parting ways with my group, you can’t give yourself a final destination and plan your way there — life’s an adventure not a quest.
As I packed up my bag at the waterfront café, I ignored the eye rolls and pleas from my friends to stay, sit down, have another espresso, and just watch the water.
I told myself that I had a tower to climb, a street market to wonder, a parliament building to awe at, a garden stroll through and a cathedral to see. So off I went. And everything almost went according to plan. Almost.
I climbed the Arco da Vitória for beautiful sights of the Praça do Comércio, strolled through a lovely street market, took selfies in front of the parliament building and sat in the botanical gardens.
While I was sitting in the gardens, however, I witnessed an act against nature itself (or so I thought at the time). It was this unplanned, unexpected event that made my trip to Lisbon unforgettable.
As I sat quietly on bench in the gardens, watching ducks on the pond, I noticed that there was one duck who became quite aggressive with another. I was bothered by this. Ducks are, after all, one of my favorite animals. I, in fact, have a history of being quite protective of these simple birds. So naturally, I wanted to go help the duck being picked on.
I walked over to side of the pond where they were. The aggressive duck, let’s call him Jack, was biting the, poor, innocent one, let’s call her Susan. Jack then started holding Susan’s head under water!
“Duck murder,” I thought to myself. I was so sure I was witnessing cold blooded duck murder. Susan kept trying to swim away, but Jack always seemed to be able to pin her down.
It was a fight or flight moment for me. I was becoming increasingly stressed out by the whole affair so I decided to fight; fight on behalf of poor Susan. So I collected up small rocks and sticks and started throwing them in the water near Jack, to try and scare him off. Nothing was working, though. I could tell Susan was in great distress. So I walked as close to the water as I could and began quacking loudly at the two of them. Maybe of Jack saw how serious I was, I thought to myself, he would swim off. Surprisingly, though, the quacking didn’t work either. Eventually, Jack did swim off though, leaving a distraught, and assaulted Susan behind.
It was this unplanned, unexpected event that made my trip to Lisbon unforgettable.
I was in shock. I had no idea what just happened. At this point though, I had attracted quite a bit of attention from passersby and felt that I couldn’t go back to sitting quietly on my bench. I could tell you that I was embarrassed, or that I cared about the weird looks, but that would be a lie. As far as I was concerned, I was doing something good, I was saving a poor innocent duck from from it’s death.
Suddenly, the unmistakable ringing of church bells from the cathedral across the street filled the gardens. I looked at my watch; it was nearly 5 p.m.
“Oh, it must be a five p.m. mass,” I thought to myself. The cathedral was the final destination my list, and I was quite worked up from the duck incident, so I decided to leave the gardens and head on over to the cathedral.
On my way over, confused and upset about the garden situation, I thought that turning to the church, and staying for the five p.m. mass, seemed right. Maybe, somehow, I could find some answers about the atrocious duck actions I was witness to.
I hid out at the back of the crowd. I had never been to mass, nor did I speak any Portuguese. I thought if I hung out at the back, and did what the locals did, I wouldn’t stand out too much.
As we shuffled in, I took a seat on a pew near the back. About 10 minutes into the ceremony, I couldn’t help but feel that something was a little. . . off.
People were crying, and everyone was in black. . . and what was that large box in the front covered in cloth, flowers, and photos. . .?
“Oh shit,” I thought. I was at a funeral.
I tried to keep cool. But I was panicking pretty bad at this point. After about 15 minutes, I waited for what I will describe as a natural lull in one man’s eulogy, and made a graceful dash for the exit, my wind breaker swishing as I went for the door.
I was down the street in a matter of minutes.
At this point, between the duck incident and the funeral I just crashed, I decided that the best thing I could do for myself was go back to my hostel and wait for my group to return.
When I returned, no one was back in the room but me. So I went up to the hostel bar, ordered a drink, and waited. About an hour later they all rolled in, and took a seat at the table I grabbed for all of us.
They asked me what I had done, and I, needing to get off my chest what a debacle my afternoon was, began telling my story to the group. Once I got to the part about the ducks, however, the story took an all new turn.
“You do know that’s how ducks have sex, right?” my friend Chloë interrupted.
The short answer, is no. I didn’t know that how ducks had sex. If I did know that’s what duck sex looked like I wouldn’t have spent my time throwing sticks at Jack and Susan or quacking at them loudly.
The bizarre looks a received from strangers, though, suddenly seemed more justified. At this point I wasn’t embarrassed or even surprised. I could barely believe this was all really happening.
So in the end, I cock-blocked some ducks and crashed a portuguese funeral. And this helped make one of my most memorable days in Lisbon.
By the time I finished telling my story at the bar, my friends and I were laughing so hard there were real tears rolling down our cheeks.
I began laughing too. My perfectly planned afternoon turned into a whirlwind adventure that I surely will never forget.
And so I learned a valuable life lesson in Lisbon. Life isn’t a quest — you can’t predict how your travels are going to go, no matter how much prior planning and prep you do.
Rather, life is an adventure. Every day is a mystery, the ending unknown and unforeseeable. Stop looking for your final destination and just enjoy what’s happening now.
I can assure you the next time you take a trip, even if it’s just for a day, your favourite memories are the ones you never could have planned for.