moments of serendipity


We had wandered off of the map. Chris and I were in Lisbon, both escaping to warmer climes during our Spring Break–I from Scotland, she from Sweden. We balanced our interests: medieval castles for me, modern art for her. Today was her day and we had already been to one art museum. Now we were trying to find the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. Our map, it seemed, did not include all of Lisbon. Despite my (mostly) impeccable guiding skills, we were lost.

Somehow, we ended up in a park, where we gladly took the opportunity to rest our feet. The park was on a slight hill and we could look back the way we came. Gesturing vaguely in the general direction we wanted to go, we planned our next attempt. Behind us, a pair of lovers whispered to each other, oblivious to us or anyone. The path around them was thick with daisies and orange poppies. We chose our direction, leaving by the flowered path.

And promptly got lost again.

I suggested at this point that we ask for directions, even though neither of us spoke Portuguese and between us only I spoke Spanish. Just when decided upon this course of action, the streets seemed to empty. There was no one we could ask. So we kept walking.

We turned down another street and, at the end of it, was a person! He sat on the steps in front of a door, his long white tunic bright in the afternoon sun. A blocky spiral towered over the building, topped with blue and white tile, just barely in our line of sight from where we stood on the street. We paused, deciding which one of us should ask and what to say. Then Chris crossed the street and asked, in Arabic, “Excuse me, but where is the Gulbenkian museum?”

He stared at her in surprise. Here were two tourists, American women, both with blond hair and wearing strappy sundresses in the Portuguese heat–and one of them walks up to him and asks a question in Arabic?

He went inside and came back with the imam, a large and friendly man, who also was bemused to find himself giving directions in Arabic to an American tourist. He walked with us down the street and another man asked him, jokingly, in Portuguese, “A couple of converts?”

It turned out that we were only a few blocks away from the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. We had also found the only mosque in Lisbon.

Travel is full of these moments of serendipity: of course we would get lost, of course Chris spoke Arabic, of course we would find the only mosque in the entire city, and of course we would be near our destination. It is these moments of serendipity that makes each journey unique, an experience shared only by those in that moment, to be told as stories later.

Photo: A statue in Lisbon, Portugal, possibly in Jardim Amnistia Internacional.

stairs to the queen’s garden


The castle, built on a hill, had several levels; one level’s roof might be another level’s courtyard or garden. Not all of the gardens were ornamental. The gardeners tended vegetables, too: an architect’s provision for if the castle came under siege. As was the moat that filled at high tide. But they had been conquered without coming under siege. The invaders had simply entered through the city gates, at her invitation.

She now stood beside a low wall at the end of one such garden, traditionally referred to as the Queen’s Garden. And she had, indeed, made use of it. Fountains bubbled in each of the four corners and, larger, in the center. Two sides were lined with orange trees, with cushioned divans beneath their branches. One end of the garden opened into a covered patio which joined the palace. The opposite side, where she stood, faced the east. From here she could see both the city and the sea. She need only turn her head, look south, to see the gate the Caspar had entered, and the tree-lined avenue where her husband had been killed. She did not know by whom.

The Queen’s Garden was still hers, even though she wasn’t queen anymore. Caspar had annexed her country; now she was duchess to the Caspar duke. The barons blamed her for the Caspars’ coming and for the king’s death. Hadn’t she, after all, suggested they invite the envoy?

No longer holding any responsibility for the duchy, she often read poetry in the orange grove. Her new handmaidens didn’t like that she read, but she shouted down all of the curses from the Bedzi gods and her Akkadian ancestors that–even if they didn’t understand a word she said–they stopped trying to keep her from the library or from taking books out to the garden.

And of course, the Queen’s Garden was on one of the higher levels. She could access it from inside the palace, which, though longer, was a less grueling climb. However, she often chose to take the outer stairs. She enjoyed seeing her handmaidens, red-faced and puffing, as they collapsed onto the divans in the shade. The Caspar were not made for the Bedzi sun, and she took what victory she could, however small.

But, leaning against the wall, she, too, felt weak. The Caspar women, feigning confusion, refused to taste her food when she ate alone, and so she allowed herself only the food from her new husband’s plate at dinner. She did not know who wanted to kill her more: the Bedzi barons or her Caspar step-son.

What she did know was that she wanted to stay alive.

Photo: Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon, Portugal.