Big World / Small World

There was a tear in my eye on Monday afternoon as I said goodbye to the gang at Destination Hostel. I had called the place “home” for two of the three weeks I spent in Lisbon and it really was beginning to feel like home. I’m not sure that it deserved the rating “Fifth Best Hostel in the World” or even who awarded that honour, but it was a very good hostel nonetheless. The staff were particularly friendly and accommodating.  Thanks, guys!

I didn’t visit many of the city’s galleries or museums or tourists hotspots but I did spend a lot of time in bars and cafes and on patios and even a few Juliet balconies. I walked its grand boulevards and back alleys every day. I shopped for groceries a few times and visited a local market regularly.  I met a few locals and learned a bit of Portuguese.  In short, I lived like a local for three weeks. Make that a very relaxed local.  (Like there’s any other kind?)  

Before heading to Oriente Station to catch the overnight express to Madrid, I stopped for one last shot of cherry liqueur at A Ginjinha.  

Jose, the bartender was in his normal sour mood. He’s not instantly likeable but he does grow on you. I’ve been back multiple times since ‘discovering’ this little gem on my second or third day in town. 
(There wouldn’t be too many tourists to Lisbon who don’t visit this bar, but one of the benefits of doing absolutely no research before arriving in a city is that little hole-in-the-wall places like this feel like unique discoveries even if they do have 5-stars on Trip Advisor.)

Let’s just say that I left A Ginjinha with a healthy glow. It’s something in the cherry juice, I think. 
At one point I thought the train to Lisbon would depart from right outside my door in the hostel / train station.  That wasn’t the case as that station only serves local trains.  I had to take the Metro across town to Oriente Station.  It was a fun ride thanks to the cherry pre-race I had consumed.

Oriente Station isn’t the grand old station that I imagined. I was thinking Rococo or Beaux Arts but instead it’s a concrete slab of brutalist architecture dating from the 1990s but looking very much like it could have been poured in the 70s. At least the platform area is wide open and airy.

My ticket indicated that I was in Car #1. Perhaps I should have known better, but I assumed that Car #1 would be the car closest to the engine so I stood at the far end of the platform where the engines would logically come to a stop. The train rolled into the station about two minutes before the scheduled departure time and it was Car #27 that was closest to the engine.  Car #1 was the last car on the train and about a quarter mile down the tracks!

I managed to climb aboard while the train was still stationary but literally seconds later the conductor blew an old-fashioned whistle and we were underway.   

I found my 4-bed shared cabin and introduced myself to my cabin mates, a young male nurse and a banker from New Mexico. The banker had quit his job and the nurse was on extended leave.  This was Day #6 of their round-the-world trip so when I told them I was wrapping up two years of travel, they were full of questions. Naturally, this called for a trip to the bar car.

It didn’t take long before two voices stood out from the crowd in the bar car. The young English-speaking couple at the far end of the bar were no louder than anyone else but with no discernible accent to my ears, their voices really stood out.

I know this theme is getting old because I’ve previously written about several similar incidents, but when I overhear a conversation in a foreign country and I fail to detect an accent, the speaker is guaranteed to be from Southern Ontario if not Toronto or even my street!  

Last year I was in a hotel lobby in Turkmenistan when I met a Globe And Mail travel writer. Throughout the 90s and again for a year before I left Toronto, we lived on the same street – Tim at #190 and me at #90.  Our addresses were the same except for one digit – and we met in Turkmenistan!

Earlier this year I met a restaurant owner in Cambodia who had attended U of T and once lived at Church and Wellesley.

And just last month I was in Santiago de Compostela, Spain when I overheard a couple who turned out to be from Holland Landing, Ontario. That’s about 35 km from where I grew up in a similar sized town by the name of Stouffville. When I mentioned this, the couple looked at each other and the husband said, “I was the bank manager in Stouffville for nine years.” He recognized my mom’s name.  

Last week I shared a hostel room with two girls from Thornhill, Ontario. The one girl’s brother played junior hockey for Stouffville and the family spent many a Saturday night at the Stouffville arena, just a few blocks from my childhood home.  

Sensing that I would have something in common with the couple at the end of the bar, I moved closer and introduced myself. They were Paige and Austin and they were indeed from Canada.

“I thought so,” I said. “What part?”

“Toronto,” they replied in unison.  

“Me too. What area are you in?” 

“Actually we’re from about 40 minutes north of the city. Caledon.” 

“I know it well,” I said. “I used to drive through Caledon on my way to Orangeville. I owned a business in Orangeville for 25 years.”

“Small world,” said Austin. “I work in Orangeville.”

He explained that he works for a company that handles logistics for mining companies in the far north. “We ship everything from high grade iron ore to Ekati diamonds,” he said.

“And you do this from an office in Orangeville?” I questioned. 

“We have an industrial unit at C-Line and Centennial,” he said.  

“Small world,” I said. “My business was on C-Line and our back entrance was off Centennial.”

Above: Aboard the overnight train from Lisbon to Madrid with Paige and Austin from Calendon, Ontario.

It wasn’t long before we were sharing landlord horror stories. When Austin opened the bay door at his industrial unit he looked straight into the back door of Central Program Register. We used to park our trucks were right beside each other.    

This got me thinking about the big world / small world debate. A few days ago I wrote an article for a horse racing publication in which I summed up my experience on the road with a story about it being a very big world. And it is. You can travel for two years and only see a microscopic cross-section of this world. You could travel for a thousand years and you’d never see it all – and what you do see will be constantly changing.  

But at times like this, it begins to feel like a very small world as well. At least that was my initial reaction upon meeting Paige and Austin.  I wonder how many times I’ve been around people from Stouffville or Orangeville or even Wolseley Street in Toronto but didn’t realize it because I didn’t hear them speak.  

One thing is for certain, if there is ever a game show in which contestants win big money by detecting familiar accents, I’m signing up. 

2 Responses to “Big World / Small World”

  1. Benson+Fox

    Butalist 1990s? You heathen. Gare do Oriente is a Santiago Calatrava masterpiece! You’ll be familiar with Brookfield Place in Toronto. Have fun in Madrid. g

    • 100Saturdays

      I know it’s not quite “brutalist” and I do like brutalist, but it’s so dark and grubby inside the largely open air structure. It may have been a masterpiece on paper but it’s not aging well and for a place with few or no exterior walls, it sure is dark. Brookfield Place on the other hand is a soaring, light filed, airy place with few windows. Now that is a masterpiece!


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