from Sandy Needham

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Santarém Dispatch

So there I was at last at high noon at Milan’s Malpensa Airport after the train delay, one half-hour ahead of my flight to Lisbon – my last stop on our fall trip. The check-in counter was already closed, so I was directed to another special services counter. There I waited for my turn, fantasizing that I could get all of my stuff through security (maybe losing those nice scissors?), make a mad run for the gate and still make the flight. Think again. My ticket was a mileage ticket through Continental, so I was directed to the Continental counter, “which may be closed, in which case you can call them about the next flight to Lisbon at 7:00pm.”

Closed. But with two numbers listed. I was unable to get through, being a rookie on the i-phone and I also could not get through to Julio and Gib, my expectant hosts near Lisbon, because I didn’t know how to get a “+” on the phone pad. I had just learned how to text, so Newton received my SOS while in a meeting in Gliwice, Poland. I asked him to reach extremely low-tech Julio and Gib ASAP before they left for the airport, then begged to receive instructions for that damn “+” so I could reach Continental. Eventually I was confirmed for the 7:00pm flight. I reached Gib to apologize and share the amazement that on my second visit to them in 34 years, I had, AGAIN, missed my flight. Last time was in 1977 when I flew from NY to vacation with them in Portugal and Morocco. The flight was oversold and I got bumped, but I had not known how to reach Julio and Gib outside Lisbon. Fortunately, they returned to the airport the next day to see if I would materialize. Needless to say, my reputation as a hopeless flake is well established with these two.

I passed the six hours till flight time shopping in the duty-free and having one last unforgettable Italian meal. I schlepped all my bags and carry-ons through the airport until I came to a bona fide sit-down restaurant with waiters and spent a couple of hours savoring a plate of assorted pecorino cheeses – including the peppercorn one – and white wine.

I did land in Lisbon (Lisboa…“Leesh-BOW-a”) that evening at 9:00, and there were my old friends whom I hadn’t seen since they visited NY in the ‘90’s. Julio and Gib had been my neighbors when I lived in Cleveland, Ohio in the ‘70’s. An old neighborhood called Ohio City was undergoing extensive restoration and gentrification, and Julio was the most famous host of the extremely arty neighborhood, full of architects and designers (my early textile design days). He is a creative genius as well as an outstanding chef (he was the chef at the coolest restaurant in the neighborhood). Julio could transform any room with truckloads of flowers and candles and put on legendary dinners. Then, at the end of every feast he created, he would go on about “Deed you loave eet? Was eet fahbulous?” [pause] “I sing, too.” And he would launch a cappella into Jobim’s haunting “Tristesa Não Tem Fim” from the film ‘Black Orpheus.’ There is only one Julio.

He and Gib became a couple back in these Ohio City days, buying up several houses together on which Julio worked his magic to restore and rent, and jointly owning a shop of home décor treasures called – you guessed it: ‘Julio’s Fabulous Things.’

In the early ‘90’s the two moved to Portugal permanently, where Julio had inherited his grandmother’s house.

We eventually found the old Mercedes in the airport parking lot and had a harrowing ride home to their great villa outside the city of Santarém. I knew vaguely that Julio and Gib were older than me without ever thinking much about it. Well, they don’t look it, but they are 78 and 80 respectively. Gib drove, and it was easier to sense his age in this respect.

Front door 2Living room 2

Julio's kitchenVeranda 2

Amidst the amazement at the beauty of their villa, the quantity of ‘fabulous things’ they have collected, the delicious soup made from a chicken Julio had hack-hacked the day before, there were numerous comments about how Gib’s back was aching – a condition that results from stress, the stress being caused by driving at night, the night driving caused by my missed flight. It was pretty uncomfortable, and my gifts from Italy were not making a big impression since Julio is relentlessly insistent on Portugal’s superiority. At least I was flying home to Brazil after two days. EXCEPT…I then received a call from Newton explaining that when I missed my Milan-Lisbon connection, my remaining flight reservation was automatically cancelled. He could only secure me a seat on his flight back to Brazil four days later. I did not think Julio and Gib would consider this any better news than I did. It turned out that with 35,000 additional award miles I could take my original flight back in first class. I said to Newton: DO IT.

I then had two lovely days with Julio and Gib. I studied the fabulous things in their house and pigged out on their delicious food.

Living room wallPorcelain collectionSO Julio!

I missed catching the men with their olive pickers in these trees, but the pastoral scene out the kitchen window was worthy of Millet or Van Gogh:

Olive picking


Here is Gib, preferring his seat by the fan to a hot hike through a nearby town.












JulioJulio took me to an amazing produce market and then to the lovely town of Óbidos, where we had some beers and reminisced about our old neighborhood and all the fun friends we had there. I bought some small colorful cotton rugs for almost nothing.

You can see how hardy and fit Julio is at 78:


Here is an old interior in Óbidos. These blue tiles from Portugal are so famous that all tiles in Brazil are called “azulejos,” even if they are not blue.

Obidos 2

I took Julio and Gib to lunch in Santarém, then was able to catch a train back to the Lisbon airport (whew) and fly home after some long delay on TAP airlines.

This time the first class service was even worse than on the way over, but we did have our own bathroom this flight AND – I must give credit where it is due – I had absolutely perfectly prepared octopus…on an airplane! My complaints would be deafening if I had actually come up with money for this first class ticket. The stewardess was so rough and gruff, she almost tore my big paper lantern shade when she grabbed my fragile shopping bag – also containing a wedding present sculpture – and swung it into the overhead bin, my water bottle rolling out and hitting me on the head. Then she disappeared for four hours and I finally flagged down a steward and asked for a beer. But my personal favorite moment was after the meal when Ms. Rough-n-Gruff lined up my retractable tray with the storage slot in the arm of my seat and let go, allowing it to violently crash into place. My startled chest-tightening reaction eventually eased, and once again, I was saved by a good nap in my low-reclining seat!

And then…ahhhhh. Home.



PS I know complaining about a first-class flight has to be the epitome of spoiled. If the shoe fits…


  1. What a beautiful place. I never made it to Portugal in my travels. I could never really justify going even though one of the companies in Belgium that I worked with had labs in Lisbon - too bad. Julio and Gib's house is amazing and the blue tiles are wonderful. And by the way, it's OK to complain about bad service in first class. You did pay for it with miles, lots of miles. You should at least write a letter to TAP and tell them how bad it was. It may not do any good, but you might feel better.


  2. I'm going to miss you guys at Thanksgiving will you be celebrating???

  3. Wow - looks like an amazing house! So many cool things to look at. Glad I finally got a chance to read this :)


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