Friday, December 30, 2011

Restaurante O Zé Magala, Lisbon

This isn't where you usually come for breakfast, when you're here. You usually go to a bigger place down the hill. But last night your friend asked you to "support the local economy" - meaning "go to the cafe closest to the flat." In a city full of independently owned and run cafes and restaurants, you are taken with the very specific geography of this idea of 'local business'.

It's smaller than your 'regular' place, but seems busy from the four or five customers who are here already. The proprietor greets you on his way back from one of the small blue tables to the stainless steel counter that runs along most of one wall. Once behind the counter he asks you what you would like.

You half-stand at your table to place your order; the room is so narrow you don't need to cross to the counter to speak to him, but it would feel rude to stay seated. As is so often the way in Lisbon, your breakfast is then on your table before you're properly settled, before you have properly established your territory. Café cheio, good, strong, the cup branded with the cafe's name rather than with name of the coffee it contains. Unusual, you note.

You realise that the cafe seems busy because in sitting to face the street, you have your back to the empty half of the room. By the time you order a second coffee and, breaking with tradition, a bolo de arroz, all the other customers have left, and you are alone in the cafe. Even the owner is out back. The TV, which no-one was paying any attention to anyway, plays silently to the empty room.

By the time you are ready to leave, though, four more customers - regulars you guess - are all standing at the counter with their coffees, juices and cakes. And this is the moment that you realise that you have left your wallet back at the flat, in your coat, you were just popping over the road after all, and that you only have 4 euros in your pockets.

It's an honest mistake and you could be back in two minutes with the cash. But you don't have the language to explain that.

So you start to make some expensive mobile phone calls.