My Entry to the World Nomads 2020 Travel Writing Scholarship

Don’t Hide Your Cabbage Bowl

Category: Making a local connection 

Story location: Portugal

Zé looked slightly abashed at his mother’s cabbage bowl, fortuitously balanced behind the port as if to hide a piece of himself. But little did Zé know, he – and his cabbage bowl – were about to become the most profound memory of my 28th birthday.

It was early June and the eve of my 28th birthday. My Mother and I were somewhat sleep deprived staying in Alfama in the midst of the Feast of St. Anthony. Drowsily we snaked down the wooden staircase, squeezed passed the peeling red paint and out into the warming sun.

Glittered ribbons were strewn across telephone lines stalking the concrete hillside. The ghost of sardines served as a reminder of the celebrations just a few hours before. A breath of intense delight reminds me, we’re in Lisbon.

Unwilling to give in to the temptations of the modern world, we flag down the navy Toyota Prius with that unmistakable sticker bound for a destination unknown – well, I have an address at least. My breath shortens and my heart begins to race as we leave the familiarity of the city centre and trespass on local ground.

We’re here. Apartment 10B.

Now I’m not one of those extroverts who command friendship with their charisma, much the opposite in fact. And yet I find myself at the door of a complete stranger, in a city I’ve never visited, with my Mother in tow looking momentarily bewildered. We tentatively knock on the door. I curse myself for arriving empty handed, what will he think of us? Ignorant Brits.

“Hello! Come in, don’t worry about removing your shoes. Follow me to the dining room!”

This is Zé.

My gold buckled sandals slide across the Azura blue tiles, bright and reassuring. A bedroom on the left. A bathroom on the right. We reach the dining room.

Pop! Glug! The 2016 Moscato sidles down my throat, the bubbles jumping up and down on my tongue like popping candy. The introductions are made. My fears withdraw. And I sink into the wooden chair.

Zé proudly sets down a meat and cheese platter with homemade pate. Zé had lovingly prepared all six courses using ingredients collected fresh from the market that same morning. Even as a hobbyist, his aptitude as a chef shines through.

Here’s comes the first, no second, wine of the evening. “A green wine” Zé explains. The bottle unveils nothing, I picture the ungodly green ethanol of my youth and shudder. It’s delicious, and it isn’t green.

Another course. Scrambled egg with smoked sausage.

Another bottle of wine – a 2018 white. Octopus Salad. My Mother turns slightly white at the sight of a glazed tentacle. I have no such inhibitions and I’m rewarded with citric tartness and the taste of an ocean.

The main course. White Wine and Garlic Clams.

The fourth bottle of wine – a red. Cod Fish.

The hour is late and by now my cheeks are deeply flushed. A welcomed recess from the feast, Zé reaches into a cabinet uncovering his “secret stash of rare wines and port” as the conversation regales his life.

But this evades me. No, it’s the green bowl Zé casually displaces that catches my attention. The half-moon ceramic bowl mimics a cabbage. It’s not the soft pale green that I admire, nor the intricate detailing of the leaves, but rather Zé’s abashment.

“It’s my Mothers” Zé explains through exhalation. “It’s one of the items that make a Portuguese house a home. It’s dreadful, but my mother insists.”

Zé sets down the final course of the evening. A Crème Brule.

Pop! Fizz! Glug! Another bottle of Champagne. “It’s your birthday!” exclaims Zé. I take a short intake of breath for I was so enveloped in the tales and tastes I’d forgotten I even existed.

Because in reality, it wasn’t food we were eating, it was memories. And in that moment, I knew what it meant to be Portuguese.

Click here for more information on the scholarship 

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