We, my boyfriend Jesse and I and our dog Wogart, were headed up along the western coast of Spain. We drove all day, stopping only to sleep at night. We’d been traveling for a few months, sleeping in our van and busking on the streets to make money, or, as sometimes happened, new friends. Interested people who might invite us over for dinner and then show us around their town, and if we were lucky––let us use their shower. Sometimes we stayed out the tourist season or the weather turned and then we would pack up and leave for the next place, hoping for a little more luck.
After a few days we reached the Portuguese border. The color of the water seemed to change right there, reminding me of how borders are designated mostly by geography––the lines laid down where the landscape changes, where the climate is suddenly different, and the smells and the insects and the birds and the animals and the people that live there are too. The change from Spain was abrupt and total like that. Portugal was brown and white and the ocean was green as well as blue and the people were short and homely but friendly as hell.
Down in the coastal towns there were lots of British. They had timeshares there or second homes. It was weird to see them around, tall and pale with pink sunburned faces––out of place and conscious of it. It was embarrassing to look at them. They didn’t look at us at all. The Portuguese just smiled. We were happy to be there.
We stayed for a few nights and busked during the day––there were plenty of tourists––but after we’d made a little money we wanted to leave again. We decided to go inland. We drove north, through forests of cork trees. After a while the landscape widened into a broad valley. The sun was shining, warm and bright and cheerful. Farmers had turned their animals out to pasture. I looked at the sheep, grazing in the sun. Except for us, the road was empty. Jesse drove… a little too fast. Suddenly I saw something lying in the middle of the road.
“Did you see that?”
“No, what was it?”
“I don’t know. Slow down!”
“Let’s just keep going.”
“I think it might have been a wallet!”
“I think so.”
Jesse turned the van around. He started driving, slowly now, in the opposite direction.
“Ok, tell me to stop when you see it.”
“Stop! There it is! It is a wallet!”
“Good call, man.”
Jesse pulled the van over and I got out. A grey canvas wallet, a little threadbare, bulging at the seams.
“Is there money in it?”
I looked inside. “Yeah.” I counted it. “There’s like, twenty-thousand escudo,” I said. “Let’s see… that’s almost a hundred dollars!”
“Oh man, someone’s bumming right now,” said Jesse.
“That’s for sure. Wait. There’s an ID, too.”
The ID showed a photograph of a woman. “Maria Espada,” it said. Forty years old, dark hair, a big smile. She looked a little worn out, like her wallet, but nice––a nice smile.
“What should we do?” I said.
“Let’s ask in the next town, maybe somebody there knows her. If not we can go to the police or something.”
“I hope someone knows her.”
We kept going. Before long we came to a village. Jesse slowed down to pass a donkey pulling a cart. A woman in long skirts, with a kerchief on her head, walked beside it. The village was laid out like a cross––one block wide and two blocks long. There were only a few shops––a store selling tobacco and newspapers, a cafe, a post office. On each end of the street was a bar.
“Wow. Looks like they got their priorities right!” said Jesse. We got out of the van and headed toward the one closest to us.
The bar was open onto the street like a garage. A few men stood in front smoking. They wore tweed caps, pulled low over their eyes, and suspenders to hold up their wool trousers. They reminded me of the peasants you would read about or see in paintings from two hundred years ago. After a moment I realized that they didn’t just look like peasants, they were peasants. These were men who worked in the fields, growing the crops and herding sheep, like their fathers and grandfathers had done before them.
They stopped talking as we approached. They looked at us. I felt nervous because of this and because I was so aware of our differences. It was never comfortable being an American in Europe, and added to that I was young and pretty, which brought its own kind of discomfort. But more than anything I was uncomfortable because of the way I happened to be dressed that day. I was wearing a pair of baggy men’s trousers, an old tweed jacket, my wool cap. I looked like nothing so much as a woman dressed to play the part of a country bumpkin in a play.
“You look just like them,” said Jesse, and winked.
We went into the bar. The men stopped talking as we passed, and turned to watch us. I looked back quickly over my shoulder as we passed, but not quickly enough––a short old man with grey hair and a paunch had caught my eye and was staring boldly at me.
Suddenly, to my surprise, he lifted his hand to his cap––a greeting. The other men watched. Not sure what to do, I touched my cap back at him. At this, all of the men burst out laughing. Jesse turned around. The men were all lifting their caps now.
“Boa tarde, boa tarde!” They said.“Good afternoon!”
“Oh my god,” said Jesse, grinning at me. “Now you’ve really gone and done it.”
“Como esta?” A man stood behind the bar, bare-headed and wearing a clean apron.
“The wallet,” I whispered to Jesse.
Jesse put the wallet on the counter and began to explain, with gestures and broken Portuguese, how we had found it in the road. The bartender nodded, seeming to understand. He picked up the wallet and opened it. He pulled out the ID card and looked at the picture of the woman. He must have recognized her, because he began waving the card around and shouting. The men outside, who had been watching, came running in. The bartender held the card up for them to see. They all began speaking at once. There was a lot of smiling and nodding. They gathered around us, extending their hands to shake. They marveled over Wogart. Someone patted me on the back.
“Muchas gracias!” said the old man, beaming. He patted his chest: “Pedro.” The bartender plunked two glasses of beer down in front of us.
“Salud!” he said. I looked around. Everyone was watching us, waiting.
“Salud! Salud!” They cheered. Someone motioned for us to drink.
Jesse picked up his beer and looked at me. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I think we’ve made quite a hit.”
When we had finished our beers the men stood up and went outside, indicating for us to come too. We followed them. The bartender, coming out behind us, pulled down the garage door until it shut, but didn’t lock it. He straightened up, then turned to us, smiling. He pulled the grey wallet out of his pocket and held it up for everyone to see.
“Maria Espada!” he said, pointing at it. He turned and beckoned to us. “Come.”
We followed him past a row of old stone houses that sat on an unpaved road just off the main street. We stopped in front of a small pink house where a woman stood in the open doorway. She must have already heard. “Boa tarde, José!” she said to the bartender. He handed her the wallet. She looked at us, with the same wide smile from the ID card.
“Muchas gracias!” she said, beaming. She took my arm and led us into the house. “Entrada!”
Speaking constantly in rapid Portuguese, she invited us to sit down on the couch. A TV was blasting. She disappeared for a few minutes, then returned with a tray full of food. A big basket of bread. Strange cheeses. Chips and nuts and cans of Pepsi. Bits of meat for Wogart. We thanked her, and began, rather bashfully, to eat, while she stood and watched, smiling the whole time. When we were done she took our plates into the kitchen, then returned again, this time with a tray full of coffee and cakes.
Jesse and I sat on the couch all afternoon, watching Portuguese TV and trying to speak to our hostess, without much success. But there was so much smiling and nodding and good humor that it hardly mattered what was said. A steady trickle of visitors kept coming in and out of the house. The whole village seemed to be in a festive mood because of our arrival with the wallet.
Maria fed us again at dinner. Already stuffed, we picked politely at our food. There was a knock at the door. It was José and Pedro and a few of the men from the bar. Smiling and winking, with an air of importance and mystery, they beckoned for us to come outside. They seemed excited. They began to walk down the street. We followed, willingly enough, although without having any idea of where we were going. After a couple of minutes we turned off the street onto a narrow dirt alley.
Pedro led the way. He was carrying a large plastic grocery bag. I couldn’t imagine what was in it but it looked heavy. When we were about halfway down the alley he stopped. With much jostling and whispering, the men began to duck, one by one, into what looked like an old goat shed. We followed them, taking care not to hit our heads on the door, and wondered, a little nervously, what it was all about.
It was dark inside the shed. I had to let my eyes adjust. I looked around, but couldn’t see any goats. There was a large trough against the back wall of the shed. The men gathered around it. The trough had a metal funnel coming out of one end which emptied into a bucket on the ground.
“Come, come,” said Pedro. We went over and watched as he emptied the plastic bag into the trough. I looked closer. The bag was full of loquats––that soft, sweet, tropical fruit with the leathery yellow skin.
Pedro picked up a long metal spoon and stirred the loquats around in the trough, then motioned for us to come look in the bucket. I bent down and looked inside. The bucket was full of a clear, odorless liquid. I still hadn’t caught on. Then José pulled a couple of thick shot glasses out of his coat pocket. He handed them to us and winked. Pedro ladled some of the clear liquid from the bucket into the glasses.
“Salud!” he said, in a whisper, and nodded in the direction of the door. I must have looked confused, because Jose made the sign of handcuffs with his wrists, and said, meaningfully: “Policia. Liquer illegale.”
“Moonshine,” whispered Pedro, with glee.
I looked at Jesse.
“I guess I’m going for it,” I said. “Hope I don’t end up in jail.” I looked around at the men in the dark shed. They were all smiling at me, waiting.
“Salud!” I whispered, and drank. The liqueur was delicate, a little sweet. It tasted pure and fresh and before I knew it I had finished the glass.
We stayed with the men in the goat shed for a long time. With the help of the dark and the drink and the secretive atmosphere, we had all become friends. We were comrades, and very silly ones too, as we drank and giggled and whispered, “Salud!” to one another in the dark.
It was dark by the time we came out again and made our way down to the bar, drunk. We stood around on the patio. The night air was cool. Someone brought a bowl of water for Wogart. Pedro went inside and came back out with an accordion.
“Wait right here,” said Jesse, and walked away. He came back a few minutes later, carrying our instruments.
“Musica! Musica!” the men cried. I picked up my violin, and we began to play.
Anna Schott is a writer and musician from California. She recently finished writing a memoir about food.