The other night I went to see my first Fado music concert here in Lisbon.
Fado is a kind of traditional Portuguese folk music, with acoustic guitars and operatic vocals, and it’s extremely popular in the old part of the city where I live.
Fado is performed during dinner in many restaurants, which I suspect is a bit touristy, but honestly what do I know? (Answer: nothing, as you’ll see.) I decided I needed to go see some, so I waited until 8pm when the Fado restaurants open and went out for a walk in search of a good place.
Here’s where I ran into my first issue:
Mealtime seems to be a sacred social ritual in Portugal, and there are very few solo diners. The tables are often set in a somewhat formal and romantic style for Fado, with red roses and fancy folded napkins. Everything looks like it’s meant for couples and groups, but I live here alone and don’t know anyone, so obviously I have to dine alone. Sigh.
I picked a place, and tried not to mind the fact that the man who took me to my table looked put out by the fact that I was there dining alone.
I ended up jammed awkwardly in the front corner, where the fado band was basically on top of me, and I kept accidentally jabbing or tripping the Fado singer whenever I moved. No worries though, I thought. I’m just here to enjoy the music and have a good meal.
The menu was all in Portuguese but that didn’t matter because I knew I wanted to try fresh grilled sardines, a Lisbon speciality I had read about in the blogosphere, and the word for sardines is easy.
When the server came I ordered the sardines and asked for a white wine, to which he asked if I wanted a liter or a half liter.
I didn’t realize a lot of places here don’t serve wine by the glass, because (I gather) you’re supposed to sit there for a long dinner of multiple courses shared with friends, over wine and music. Feeling a bit flustered and embarrassed, I just ordered half a liter, and tried to remember how much a liter is. (Hint: it’s a fuckton of wine.)
By the time my meal arrived I felt like I had already handled about two dozen moments of complete ignorance, feeling like I’m doing it wrong, and making a fool of myself.
Then I got my sardines.
They come whole and grilled, but I didn’t mind the heads being on, or the eyeballs staring at me, because I consider myself an adventurous eater. I mean, I’ve eaten chicken feet, all kinds of insects, some kind of pickled bird beak, and other crazy shit in Thailand. I figured I could handle some fucking sardines.
I was wrong.
After breaking into the flesh of the fish, I discovered that a sardine is about 90% tiny sharp bones. You can’t eat the bones, and they leave tiny cuts on your throat if you try. I know this, because I kept eating them. In my defense though, they’re very hard to detect visually, especially in the dim, romantic Fado lighting.
I figured there’s probably some trick to eating sardines without choking on the bones, but this restaurant didn’t have wifi, so I had no way of finding out. I was hungry and what I could taste of the sardines was delicious, so if I could have, I would have watched a youtube video of someone teaching me how to do it right then and there. I thought about asking the waiter, but he was busy and honestly I suspect he and the other server had been making fun of me behind my back.
I was on my own.
I thought maybe the secret is you just chew slowly and constantly pull sardine bones out of your mouth, so I tried that for a while. It seemed barbaric, and was pretty ineffective, though. Those little fuckers are everywhere.
At one point I decided to eat with my hands so I could feel the bones and pull them out before they made it to my mouth. It was a last resort, but it allowed me to eat some fish, so I did it. Feeling through the flesh with two hands like a fucking toddler, I pulled out as many bones as I could find, though I was fully aware that I was making a huge oily mess, and that everyone in the restaurant could see me because I was right up front by the band.
I had completely destroyed three sardines and left piles of bones and flesh all over my plate, when I got impatient and went straight for the belly of the last fish, thinking maybe I could finally eat an actual mouthful of food. But then weird brown guts spilled out across my plate, and I realized it was over.
I was done.
Tired of the effort, still getting painful little bones stuck in my soft palate, embarrassed that my hands were completely covered in fish flesh and oil, and I was still hungry. I still had like 3 glasses of wine left though, so I decided wine was gonna have to be the main course.
I ate the potatoes and salad that came with the grilled fish, and gave up. When I asked to pay with a credit card, the guy looked confused and made me come stand next to him while he ran the card for some reason.
In short, the meal was a complete disaster.
I walked home tipsy and frustrated and embarrassed. I watched multiple youtube videos of people explaining how to eat grilled sardines, although I’ll probably never order them again.
I’m sharing this because in moments like these, when I feel like a completely ignorant outsider, an important lesson is buried:
Everything is safe and fine and ok, even when I’m fucking everything up: even when people are judging me, I don’t know the rules, I don’t fit in, and I’m embarrassed and confused.
As a frequent international traveler, these moments are very familiar to me (they come with the territory), but many people never get the chance to learn this.
Feeling like an outsider and not knowing the social rules of a place is deeply uncomfortable and unpleasant, whether it’s the result of international travel, or just entering a new company, career, social circle, family, or community.
It’s just how we’re wired: we want to belong. But the discomfort of not belonging doesn’t mean anything about who you are or what you’re worth.
Everything is ok and you’re safe, even when you’re doing everything wrong. Even when people don’t like you or approve of you. Even when you don’t belong.
Sending you emotional resilience for life’s discomfort,
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