Our timing was perfect. We found ourselves in Lisbon at the height of the ‘Festas de Lisboa’, an annual festival of music and dance, which takes over the entire city every year throughout June. The merry atmosphere is akin to a party; a full-blown fiesta of colourful floats, dazzling fireworks, raucous street parties, music, dance and indigenous Mateus Rosé wine.
We were soon strolling through the historic alleyways that were once frequented by aristocratic Arabs and modest fishermen. The breeze was scented with the pleasing aroma of wood fires, so we stopped at a street side café to eat grilled sardines served with corn bread and a sweet cherry liqueur called ‘ginja’. By the time we caught up with the parades, we had drunk six glasses of ginja and two bottles of Mateus Rosé between the three of us. We stood in front of the traditional tile-clad buildings in one of the cobblestone streets of the Baixa district, gazing at the view. Above us was the magnificent Castle Sao Jorge, below us was the harbour, and to the west we could see the Tagus River and the Belém Tower, which was built during the beginning of the 16th century to protect the Port of Lisbon.
Suddenly, we got swept up by a boisterous crowd of revellers and were herded towards a broad tree-lined plaza. We were offered some kind of an alcoholic fruit punch served in plastic cups and watched, enthralled, as the local people began dancing to some vibrant music performed by an old man on a squeezebox. Everyone seemed to be participating, including teenage boys and young children. There were more women than men, but gender didn’t seem to matter too much, old ladies had partnered each other and mothers were dancing with their daughters. The music was compelling, I was swaying in time to the rhythm, and I wanted to join in but I felt way too self-conscious. Unexpectedly, Barb was whisked away by a sprightly old boy in a black hat, and Lyndsay was approached by a drop-dead-gorgeous Portuguese man who didn’t look much more than twenty-one. By now my reticence had been overcome by drunken feelings of self-pity and jealousy. Why didn’t anybody want to dance with me? The music stopped, and the dancers regrouped into a long line; a partner was no longer a requirement. I joined the end of the snake behind Barb and her ageing beau with his wrinkled smile, and the squeezebox puffed and exhaled the opening notes of the Conga.
Oh this was marvellous, round and round we went, singing and kicking up our legs. At one point I lost my grip on Barb’s red T-shirt and the line broke. Barb’s familiar outline was replaced by the huge bulk of a rotund Portuguese lady. Clinging on to her black dress I kept catching a glimpse of Lyndsay standing at the side in deep conversation with the hunk. And then it happened…
In my intoxicated enthusiasm, I stumbled slightly on the uneven ground underfoot, briefly lost the flow, and the fat lady’s foot stamped down hard on my big toe – exposed and unprotected by my flimsy sandal. I felt a sharp stab of pain, but I was having so much fun that I chose to ignore it and I kept on dancing. Finally, the music stopped, Barbara politely thanked her old man and made a dash for freedom and we both headed to the makeshift bar where Lyndsay was standing with the Portuguese dish. After a brief introduction, our plastic cups were replenished with punch. Lyndsay then looked down at the ground and screamed, “Oh My God!”. Following her gaze, I noticed a river of blood, coursing between the cobblestones and dripping down the steps below the piazza, its source was my big toe. Somehow my toenail had been almost completely ripped off and was sticking up like the open page of a book at a 90-degree angle to my foot.
It was well after midnight, we had just arrived in a foreign country, we were drunk as skunks, Lyndsay had pulled a Portuguese stud, and it looked like I was going to require medical attention.
“You’ll have to go to the hospital,” declared Barbara. It was a sensible suggestion, but it was already very late, Lyndsay was still getting chatted up by the young man, and we were all having lots of fun. I didn’t really want to break up the party and figured that the injury wasn’t too painful and maybe I could just cut the nail off later. My toenail had been dodgy for years ever since it had been removed a few times in an effort to correct its tendency to grow inwards. The nail bed had been treated with some sort of acid to weaken the nail. It no longer grew inwards, but it was somewhat misshapen and it was quite normal for it to drop off occasionally.
I wrapped my toe in a paper serviette and decided to refrain from dancing but I continued drinking to numb the pain. Barbara just couldn’t stop dancing, and Lyndsay disappeared with her new chum, promising to meet us back at the hotel later. It was one of those unforgettable evenings, tattooed on my mind forever. Weary from travelling all day, we had been revived and intoxicated by the colour and ambience of the festival, the music, the dancing, the singing, the enticing smell of fried garlic, the traditional pots of fresh sweet-scented basil for sale on every street corner, and the summery flavour of the chilled rosé wine.
Two hours later, Barb and I wobbled and limped back to our hotel, wondering how we could possibly have been so stupid as to allow Lyndsay to disappear into the night with a strange man in an unfamiliar city in a foreign country. As the effects of the alcohol began to wear off, I started experiencing severe pain and upon examining my toe I discovered that it wouldn’t be possible to simply cut the nail off. The bleeding had stopped but the nail was still attached by stringy filaments of secondary skin. My toe was swollen, inflamed and far too painful to touch, it was impossible to flatten the nail against my flesh.
Poor Barb, her two friends had been in the country for less than nine hours and already one of them had gone missing and the other one needed surgery.