It was the fifth day of our grandparents-connect-with-their-grandchildren vacation. The day started as usual – the grandchildren needed “five more minutes” to finish their electronic games; their mother, my daughter, needed more sleep; and I needed to get all of them out of the apartment to continue our exploration of Lisbon.
The reason that we found ourselves in Lisbon was simple. It was the final destination of my husband’s and my “Classic Portugal” tour, and it was also the place where my daughter, who settled in England 15 years ago, could bring her children — ages 10 and 13 — in a mere two hours, so the kids could bond with their US grandparents.
This was the first time we assembled in a country foreign to all of us. Our previous vacations mostly took place in English sea towns where, no matter the month, the quaintness of the place was inevitably dampened by rain and darkened by gray skies. Portugal was chosen for its weather and also its food – the latter based on my husband’s recollection of his 1965 American-on-the cusp-of-being-drafted-in-the army-and-possibly-sent-to-Vietnam tour of Europe.
In general, I found his recollections correct. Portuguese food, with its abundance of fish, sangria and good bread was great! However, in 1965, my husband’s traveling companion was a guidebook “Europe on $5 a Day,” but in 2018, $5 couldn’t even buy gelato for my grandchildren.
Well, it wasn’t the money that bothered me. It was my firm belief that we needed to get our money’s worth. Therefore, I packed our days with various tours and activities, and lingering in the rented apartment wasn’t one of them.
The grandchildren, on the other hand, happily spent time playing their electronic games or talking to each other (you would think that siblings living in the same London flat wouldn’t have much to talk about!). And they had tremendous fun riding around the apartment on a coffee table, which was too low for food or drink but featured four large wheels.
Still, I persevered. I endured the pleas and arguments of the children. I reasoned with my daughter who, exhausted from the hustle and bustle of London, wanted to sleep till … I never actually found out till when, because, by the time a small volcano threatened to erupt in my chest, she usually got up.
In any case, we had already taken two walking tours of the city — both very successful, especially from the point of view of gelato sellers. We had visited the Castle of St. George, from which Portuguese Kings ruled the country for four centuries — also very successfully, particularly when the kids discovered several peacocks who, true to the manners of the former castle occupants, cried loudly and fanned themselves with their luxurious tails. And we had ridden a Hippo Bus, an amphibian vehicle that first rode around the city center and then splashed into the Tagus River.
That tour was fun, although somewhat noisy. First of all, as we splashed into water, everybody (me included) screamed bloody murder. Only my grandchildren sat quietly, demonstrating the proverbial British “stiff upper lip” and looking at me with pity.
Secondly, our tour guide said,
“Let’s show everybody around how much fun we’re having! When I say, “Hey, Paul!” I want you to shout, “Hoo-rah!” And she raised her clutched fist the way one does celebrating a major sports victory.
That surely was overboard. Back in the USSR, which I left at the age of 39, we raised our fists only to demand the end of “rotten capitalism.” So, when my husband began bellowing and raising his fist, I felt embarrassed. Besides, to whom was she referring? Did I miss some explanations? I turned to my husband,
“Who is Paul?”
He looked at me blankly,
“I don’t know.”
You just cheered him! I wanted to say. But, I didn’t. Being married for 21 years does it to you. You learn that your spouse can be deaf to your needs. And even more so as his hearing goes. Yet since everybody kept greeting the mysterious Paul every few minutes, I said again,
Another blank look and my husband turned his attention to the monument to Vasco Da Gama we were floating by. That was really ridiculous! But, I didn’t want to make a scene in public, so I let it go.
Later, when we were eating pizza (the kids’ choice), I repeated my question — this time addressing it to my daughter. She didn’t know either.
What a dim family I have, I thought, and slowly began describing the situation to all of them.
“Grandma, she never said, “Hey, Paul.” My grandson said. She said, “Hippo, Hippo!”
“Yes, she did! I heard it!” I insisted.
Several minutes of silence went by, and then my husband said,
“I think I know what your heard. In her Portuguese accent it sounded like
“Hee-po, Hee-po!” Sort of like “Hey, Paul,” I guess. And my daughter doubled over in stitches.
That was embarrassing. Of course, English being my second language, I occasionally, mishear things. Once in London, while watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, I got puzzled by our tour guide’s description of the guards’ hats, which, according to him, were made of “beah skins.” Since I knew no animal by that name and had no idea of its whereabouts, I asked my husband if the “beahs” lived in England or were brought from abroad – only to endure five minutes of blankness and then to learn that the guide had said, “bears,” and that the Brits habitually drop the “r” sound.
Still, “Hey, Paul!” surely took the cake. Today, I needed to rehabilitate myself. I just had to get everybody out to visit the Oceanarium, where I already reserved tickets for both their permanent collection and their temporary one: “Forests Underwater by Takashi Amano.”
By the time we finished with the permanent collection, my grandchildren wanted nothing but ice cream and my daughter and my husband wanted a “quiet place with no activities.” As grand as the Oceanarium was, the sheer number of tourists, local students, and the parents with strollers was overwhelming.
With my tired legs trembling and my voice breaking from shouting over the noise of the crowds, I made a weak attempt,
“Let’s see the temporary exhibit, too. I already paid for it.”
To my surprise, they agreed, and we walked to a different floor, crossed another threshold, and, suddenly, the noise ceased and time slowed.
The large room with a raised platform in the middle was dark, with its only lights coming from the glass walls on three sides of the room. Behind the walls appeared the ocean floor, where underwater plants swayed their willowy limbs, and small fish swam unhurriedly, seemingly in rhythm with the soft contemplative music. There were no interpretive signs, no crowds, and the dark silhouettes of visitors moved around quietly. Some took selfies and left, and some stayed there for a long time, watching.
Bewildered, I stopped and inhaled the air, as one would beside the sea or after a thunderstorm. Then I sat down and gave myself fully to the fluidly changing images, the haunting sounds of music, and the unpretentious artistry and harmony of the place. From the corner of my eye, I noticed that so did my husband and my daughter.
What do you do when faced with perfection? Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you cry that nothing lasts forever? Do you analyze your life trying to find the missing element that could make it beautiful?
I don’t know the right answer, as I don’t know how long I sat there, relishing the moment and also longing for something I could not describe in words. Periodically, I glanced at the kids, making sure that they didn’t wander out or start a fight. They did not. Yet after they walked around once and took several pictures, their attention wavered, and they began crawling on the raised platform and quietly chatting.
“Look how beautiful!” I tried. But the grandchildren just nodded and went back to their game.
After we left, I kept contemplating the kids’ lack of interest. Were they not susceptible to beauty or was it too early for them? True, they had not yet accumulated regrets, disappointments, and unfulfilled promises. They had no need to heal their broken hearts. And yet, I felt disappointed. Not with the waste of money but with the wasted opportunity. The kids saw true magic, but they didn’t recognize it.
At night, when I kissed my grandson good-night, he said, with his eyes closed, “It was pretty, Grandma,” and I stopped, surprised. I was wrong after all. Nothing was wasted. The seed took, and no matter how long it might remain dormant, some day it will sprout. Maybe not soon enough for me to witness it, but it will. And that’s all that matters.
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