SPALDING GRAY WAS an American actor and writer who wrote about his search for a “Perfect Moment” on his travels in the book Swimming to Cambodia. When Gray had his Perfect Moment on a journey, his trip was done. I’m not sure if he ever made it to Lisbon and not many of us have the luxury to be able to hang around in a place until a piece of grace and perfection hits, but I’m always hoping for one in every new place I visit nonetheless.
In Lisbon I had one less than 24 hours after getting off the plane.
We slept off the long flight from Australia that first night and in the morning headed out from our hotel, not far from the the Praca do Comercio, the city’s most important square down by the Targus River in Baixa, the old part of town. A chill wind was whipping off the water but the day was sunny and promised to turn into a warmish one. We were out hunting for breakfast — a stand-up affair for locals — and soon ducked out of the Spring breeze into a bar/pastry shop for a couple of the pastries for which Lisbon is famous, washed down with cafe con leite. Coffee with milk ordered in badly-pronounced Portuguese.
One bite into my pastel de nata, the classic Portuguese egg tart — served with large shakers of cocoa powder and sugar on the side so that you can sprinkle on top to taste — and I was already held in the glow of my Lisbon moment of ordinary perfection. You never know when a Perfect Moment is going to hit and the individual elements that mingle to create one are hard to break down — and they can seem so mundane in the re-telling.
The place we’d ambled into was on the pedestrian section of Rua Augusta and full of locals making a quick pit stop before an ordinary working day.
Element one of this Perfect Moment: no other tourists to spoil the fantasy that we were treading an untrod path. And more particularly the fact it was a place manned by a handful of middle-aged locals — white dust coats, black ties — proud men deeply practiced in the art of delivering a coffee and breakfast pastries to the punters. Element two: every single movement of these professionals; how they placed the spoon on the saucer and the noise it made, the position of the tart on the plate, their nonchalance as the coffee cup and pastry were delivered, was completed with the sort of economy of movement and utter perfection that only 30 years of repetition could deliver. Element three: the tart’s pastry cup and custard had the warmth and the texture and melt-on-the-tongue tang of the lovingly (and recently) made. This was a pastel de nata from the source and — element four — was only 1 Euro 50 each, including the coffee.
Perfect Moments are rare and hard to deconstruct — but you’re in no doubt when you’re having one.
It’s a pity we don’t see that the perfect moment is this moment, every moment … but then again we wouldn’t be so struck by the Perfect Moment (capital P, capital M). The ones you tend to only get outside our everyday lives, typically while travelling. The ones when ordinary perfection is so obvious it’s simply impossible to miss.
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