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The Living Room of the Alfama

Updated: Apr 8

The Only Quite Time at the Café...Night 

The Only Quiet Time at the Café…Night (photo by author)

In week 39, I continued to learn new things about the local cafe, which seems to be the living room of residents in the heart of the Alfama.

The Morning Shift: Pillboxes and Piles of Toast

The local cafe at the end of my beco, has two customer shifts, the morning and the afternoon. The morning shift is largely staffed by the older ladies of the Alfama who come in for their breakfast and a chat with friends. There appears to be friend groups that coordinate their arrival times, always showing up within minutes of each other and filling their favorite of the tables for four. As there are only two of these, I’ve often wondered if there is some unspoken schedule with each friend group knowing their specific time frame for the tables.

I love watching these ladies complete their morning ritual. They arrive at the cafe, take their seats, and pull out their pillboxes which they place on the table in front of them. Then they chat while waiting for their breakfast, which is usually a coffee drink of their preference and a heaping pile of toasted bread with butter. When they finish eating, the guy who runs the cafe brings over cups of water and everyone opens their pillboxes and takes their meds. This is similar to my morning routine back at the apartment but these ladies get to share it with each other here at the café.

The Afternoon Shift: Stronger Drinks And Pastries

The afternoon shift is filled with a mix of men and women that come in for something a little stronger than coffee. Each gets their drink of choice, usually a mini or regular sized beer, or tiny bottles of the various local liquors. Some sit at a table, and some fill the narrow, cobblestone street outside.

Usually, the afternoon shift likes to debate issues rather heatedly. Despite my improved Portuguese, their rapid pace of speech leaves me clueless as to what the day’s hot topics are. Sometimes they yell “Benfica” or “Sporting” which tips me off that they are debating the results of the latest local football matches. While they discuss these topics with raised voices, over time I’ve learned they are simply having fun with friends and war is not about to break out in the Alfama. While I sit there studying my Portuguese, I hope to someday soon join the debates!

As well as the day-drinkers, some of the ladies from the morning shift come in to grab a pastry with their friends. Again, I love these ladies and how they share their lives. It’s so easy for them to pop out of their homes and come to the cafe to share a pastry and a chat. Over time as I’ve watched them meet here, I’ve recognized the generations that arrive at the same time, mother, daughter and granddaughter. They, as well as the afternoon shift, are able to share so much of their lives living in this community with this tiny café that is steps or a short walk from their homes.

Mail Delivery And First Aid Station

One day as I was sitting in the café, the mailman stopped in for an espresso and started handing out letters. This was very convenient as while people were taking their daily breaks, they were able to review the day’s mail. I imagine it also helped the mailman as if he found everyone he needed to, he might be able to avoid having to hike up at least one of the Alfama’s hills. Basically, the café serves as an outlet of the post office.

One day, one of my favorite locals came in with a chunk of flesh taken out of his thumb. I think he works with baggage for the cruise lines so it may have been a work injury. He walked in with an insufficient Band-Aid on it and quickly a local woman, who happened to be there at the moment, went to work. She got everything she needed to clean his cut, treat it and patch him back up. That afternoon, the café became a first-aid station.

I love this little café and how it serves as the neighborhood’s living room. I come here every day no matter what I am doing except Sundays, when it is closed. I enjoy spending part of my day with the locals. Even though I cannot speak much Portuguese yet, I love watching daily life in this little corner of the Alfama and communicating as best I can. One day I will be debating last night’s games and discussing the best pastry of the day with them. For now, I continue to study the Portuguese language and find joy in being a tiny part of this close-knit community.

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