Creative non-fiction / November 2011 (Issue 15)

Summer in Estoril

by Berit Ellingsen

When we land outside Lisbon the air is like a hairdryer. At first I think it's heat from the fuselage or the engine behind me, but it's the wind, it's how it is here in the south. I want to run back into the plane and return to the cold clarity of the north, but I can't. My parents and younger sister are already at the bottom of the staircase, heading towards the terminal. I hurry after them.


The motorway from the airport has two lanes in each direction. The taxi driver smokes and taps the cigarette ashes out the window. There are no seatbelts and the driver is going fast, changes lanes without using the blinker. My dad sits in the passenger seat. My mom, my younger sister and I crouch in the backseat. Each time a car passes us from behind, mom ducks.

The trees and the bushes along the motorway are dusty and brown. The ground is caked and brown. Everything in the south is brown.


The hotel we arrive at is small, personal. The reception desk is tall and smooth and made of yellow limestone, the pale mineral layers resemble the core of a cabbage. The floor has a thin carpet, brown, of course.

Dad gets the key to our room, a small brass club with a black rubber ring around it and a key attached. We're a family of northerners staying in a hotel in Estoril, Portugal. Our friends and neighbors went to the Scandinavian holiday colonies in the Greek and the Canary Islands. We're alone here. It feels like we're going native.


The elevator can barely hold four people with luggage and has a folded grate instead of a door. When I close the grate, I imagine locking myself into a cage and sticking my head into a lion's mouth at a circus. I want to do a "ta-dah." The elevator creaks and shakes and slows down a long time before it reaches the floor. It's almost faster to run.


Our room has two large double beds, a desk with a TV, a small bathroom and a balcony with a view of the six by twelve meter swimming pool on the ground. I sleep on the innermost bed, away from our parents, because they snore at night. The beds have a thin sheet of white cotton and a sweaty green nylon cover. At home I have a thick duvet of eider down. The corners of the bed are tucked in tightly. I pull the sheet to get the tucks free. I can't sleep with my feet tied.


The days pass in the heat. The adults sunbathe in reclining garden chairs by the pool and watch my sister and me swim and dive. There are only two or three other families at the hotel, and a few couples. In the afternoon the water clouds from our suntan lotion.

The pool is encircled by a narrow canal of water. Before we go into the pool we step into the shallow depression to rinse our feet. The sun deck is hidden from the street by a concrete wall and a metal gate. When I float on my back in the pool, I see only blue sky, the hotel and the top of the hill in the distance. On the other side of the wall are small houses with gabled roofs and metal bars on the windows. They look thin and poor. The gardens are filled with brown vegetation and have walls of patterned concrete blocks.


The pool is more than three meters deep. I peel away the labels of one-and-a-half liter soda bottles we buy at the nearest corner store and sink them down. Then I dive and pick the bottles up, two at a time, and deposit them on the edge of the pool.

Several children of various ages spend their day by the water. I think it's just a matter of time before something happens. But it doesn't happen yet.

Instead, a scrap metal buyer and his son come walking down the hill, barely visible over the concrete wall. The son plays a flute and its yearning sound rings between the houses. I peer over the wall to look at them, but I'm not tall enough. The flute sounds like a dream. How can people who live off scrap metal sound like that?


We eat at the hotel. The breakfast table offers small oblong buns, cereals, croissants, sliced bread, tiny containers of jam and orange juice. Our parents drink black coffee or tea.

The lunch menu contains several types of white fish, species unknown, and spicy variations of omelettes. At home I hate fish; flavorless steamed cod with disgusting clumps of butter and dry potatoes, and always, always the surprise of bones. Or it's the sickening flavor of teleost decomposition stopped just in time in steamed pollack. Dad makes our own lutefisk, fish killed twice, once when it's pulled from the sea, the second time in a plastic vat of lye in our garden. Fortunately, this treatment kills all flavor, too. But the Portuguese fish is fresh and white and succulent and has no bones. The omelette is salty and filled with finely diced cheese and ham and red pepper. I can't get enough.


Dinners are just larger versions of the lunch dishes, or filet mignon or entrecôte in a deep clay pan. My sister loves this dish. First there is a layer of French fries (French fries for dinner!), then the entrecôte with a dark and savory sauce. As if that wasn't enough, there's a fried egg on top. It's a protein overdose. It's so much food I can't eat it all. The day after the clay dish I can only stomach omelette or fish for dinner.

Then comes dessert, on a golden chariot with curled handles and black wheels. We never see who pushes the cart, we only see what's on it. Thin porcelain plates present the desserts; chocolate, cream, strawberry and cheesecake, caramel pudding, crème brûlée and something else I don't know what is. Every night I order the chocolate mousse. I have never eaten it before and it's sweetly alien. It comes in a tall glass and looks so much more refined than the children's party desserts at home. There's just enough mousse to make you full and not sick, but it's never enough. I scrape the bottom of the glass and burn the food on high heat.


Dad pulls us through the fish market in Lisbon. The pavement is narrow and cobbled with yellow and black mosaic tiles in floral and geometric patterns. The tiles are slippery and the pavement is narrow. Cars rush by. Above us the dried or smoked corpses of many species of fish wave slowly in the breeze. The heat intensifies the smell of decomposition. My sister gags.

Beggars in dirty clothes and old blankets sit on the pavement, with metal cups and bowls. We don't know where to look to avoid them. A woman with protruding cheekbones and wild hair approaches us, rattles a cup with some coins. Where her eyes should have been, there are just fleshy pink holes. Someone screams. It's my mom or my sister or me.


Another family from the north arrives. It's one of dad's colleagues, and my parents have known them for years. Their daughter is the same age as my sister and me. We even have some acquaintances in common. We talk shit about them, then we talk shit about someone else and when we have run out of that, we talk shit about each other. We squabble constantly: in the pool, over dinner, at the expensive fado restaurant we visit. I try to hide from the squabbling in the singer's loud and suffering voice. When the castanets start mom flinches.


My sister and I befriend two Portuguese girls our age. They are staying at the hotel with their grandparents. Filipa is fourteen but looks and acts older. She has dark hair, hazel eyes and thin arms and legs. Her sister, Inez, is twelve, has thick hair, black eyes and short limbs. They are almost like Portuguese versions of my sister and me. We laugh and swim and race the elevator and drink non-alcoholic California Sunsets in the bar at night.


Then Filipa's grandmother asks if I may accompany Filipa to Lisbon, just fifteen minutes away by train. That's where Filipa and her parents live. She has an appointment at the dentist. We're going to the apartment where her parents are, to the dentist and then back to the hotel. Surprisingly, my parents concur.

I have taken the train to Lisbon several times with my family. Now Filipa and I ride past the white boats and the gleaming marble of the Vasco DaGama Tower at the Parque das Nacoes, past strange looking cone-shaped trees. I ask what kind of trees they are.

"Cypresses at the cemetery," Filippa says.

"They're funny," I say.

"Funny?" Filippa frowns.

"Strange, I mean."

In Norwegian "strange" and "funny" is the same word. Apparently that's not the case in Portuguese.


In the city Filippa is nervous. She knows she's responsible for the both of us and she is an experienced big sister. She drags me along the streets and doesn't stop for anything. We enter a park. Filippa keeps her head down.

"What are those people doing?" I ask and turn my head.

"Hurry," Filippa says. "We're not allowed to stop here, that's bad people." We run out of the park on our thin-soled ballet pumps.


Filippa's family lives in a beautiful old tenement building in a quiet part of Lisbon. The entrance is dark and the elevator so small it can barely fit two adolescent girls. It creaks its way slowly up the building. The apartment itself is bright. There's a small piano in the living room and a balcony overlooking the street. I go out on the balcony to watch the Mediterranean sun set over the old buildings, so different from the gardens and the low wooden houses at home. Filippa's mom calls me inside because the balcony is old and crumbling.

We have a small meal before Filippa's appointment, but I'm so excited I can only get tea down. The sugar in the sugar bowl is yellow. I have never seen unrefined sugar before, only white. It looks like someone has peed in the sugar. I drink my tea bitter.


After the tea we nap in Filippa's room. Filippa sleeps in her bed, I'm on a mattress on the floor. I'm so excited I can't sleep. I can barely close my eyes. The walls are very blue.

Then Filipa's grandmother arrives, we say goodbye to Filippa's parents and go to the dentist. I pass the time by gazing into a small store that displays Hello Kitty and other stationary in the window. I drool at the hundred thousand pink things on the other side of the glass. When Filippa is done she looks relieved.

We take the train back to Estoril at dusk. At night in the hotel, with my parents and sister sleeping next to me, I'm still in Lisbon.


It's the last week of our stay. I have overeaten several times in the restaurant. A tall Spanish boy flirts with Filippa by the pool. He's eighteen. Two boys in the hotel kitchen flirt with me. I think they are fourteen and nineteen.

At night I watch them do the dishes from outside. The kitchen looks warm and moist, but the boys laugh and smile as they work. None of the boys at home wash dishes at restaurants. They deliver papers or mow lawns or tidy their rooms for allowance.


It's afternoon and our parents are on the balcony, napping after lunch. My sister and I are in the pool, as usual. The sun goes behind a cloud and the breeze turns chilly. I have been in the water for too long, so I sit on a deck chair and shiver inside a towel. My sister is still in the pool, although her lips are blue.

There is something dark in the water, on the shallow side where we can't dive, only swim. A Norwegian man jumps into the pool and pulls up a little girl. He puts her on the concrete edge and performs CPR. I watch from the sundeck. People watch from their balconies. Paramedics arrive. My sister is standing in the pool, shaking with cold.

"Get on land," I say and hand her a towel.

The little girl coughs and moves, and the backs that are bent over her look less tense. The girl's parents arrive. They live across the street. Only hotel guests are allowed in the pool, but the girl was here so often, everyone assumed she was a guest. The girl is taken to hospital. She's unharmed because she was discovered quickly.


In gratitude, the girl's parents invite the Norwegian man's family and the other families at the pool to their home across the street.

I don't remember much from the visit: a narrow entrance, a thin carpet, a small living room, the dads accepting glasses of liquor from the girl's father and the moms looking a little embarrassed.

From our return flight to the north I recall nothing.

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