It started out simply enough: we wanted to see the new Batman movie. We missed its US release by just a few days, and by the time we made it to Lisbon, but movie hadn’t. The other towns we’ve been in since have been too small to house movie theatres, so we vowed we’d make seeing it our first order of business upon arriving to Porto.We approached the receptionist at the front desk of our hotel. “Can you help us find a cinema nearby?” “Yes.,” the woman said. “What you want to see?” “Batman.” She twirled around in her chair and grabbed the local newspaper, humming the theme song from the old TV show. She flipped to the movie section. “Batman Batman Batman,” she said to herself. “Okay, let’s see. She quickly listed a bunch of Portuguese movie titles, including Panda do Kung Fu, none of which sounded like “Batman.” “No, I guess not here yet.” She scanned over the titles again, and one caught our ear; something that sounded like “caballeros.” “Wait, what is that one called?” we asked. “O Cavaleiro das Trevas, like ‘Man of the Night.’” “That has to be it,” we said. “Man of night. Darkman. Batman. I think the subtitle is ‘The Dark Night.’” “Yes, I think that is it,” she said. “The next one start at 9:10.” I glanced at my watch: 8:00 pm. We had plenty of time!
She wrote out a series of detailed directions on taking the metro to the shopping center where the movie theatre was located. She told us to get off at the Sete Bicas stop. “When you get out, follow the people. You see it.”
We made our way to the metro station, not more than a block from our hotel. We approached the ticket machine, always a menacing affair, and read the instructions for purchasing a ticket, which made approximately zero sense to us. Finally, a man, sensing our distress, asked, in English, “Do you need help?” He showed us how the machine operated, but it didn’t accept bills, only coins. We finally wrestled with the machine long enough to produce two 24-hour passes.
When we arrived at Sete Bicas, we expected to emerge from the tunnel in the middle of a shopping center, not a residential neighborhood. There was no line of people streaming in any particular direction. We asked for directions, something that is becoming less scary by the day, and were pointed in a not-obvious direction.
Once at the mall, we made our way to the top floor cinema, looking for a ticket booth. But the only thing we saw was a long row of concession stands. “Maybe they sell tickets at the concession stand?” I said. We studied the flat panel monitor that was rotating through a variety of messages. Finally, one said “Bilheteria,” showing an icon of two movie-looking tickets. But which line? we wondered. Seeing no apparent difference, we chose one at random.
When we got to the front, Maikael asked the woman if this was the line for tickets. Miraculously, it was. “Okay,” Maikael said in Portuguese, “Two tickets for O Cavaleiro Das Trevas.” She whipped out a seating chart, as if we were at a Ticketmaster office. She pointed at a few seats. Apparently, this was all that was available for the 9:10 showing. But we didn’t know which way the screen was oriented – were the seats she was pointing to at the very front or the very back of the theatre? “How are these seats?” Maikael asked. She scrunched up her face. “Mal.” Then, in English, she said, “But there is one at 10 o’clock.” By now it was 9 o’clock and we hadn’t had dinner, so we looked at each other and said, “Sure, why not? We’ll eat and then see the movie.” We nodded enthusiastically at her and she printed out our tickets.
As we walked away from the line, elated by our triumph, I glanced down at the tickets. “22:40,” it said. “Maikael, this says the movie starts at 10:40, not 10,” I said. “Did you hear her say the movie started at 10?” We both had. Then, I suddenly remembered that the metro stopped running around midnight. Or was it 1 am? By now the line had tripled in length, and it was nearly 9:10. Should we try to exchange the tickets? And, if so, how would we communicate that? Our phrase book doesn’t cover these types of complicated transactions. Determining that exchanging our tickets would only muddle matters, we decided to take our chances with the later showing.
Tensions were running high. We were both starving. I was worried about how we would get back to the hotel. I began second-guessing myself, wondering if we should have exchanged the tickets after all. But worst of all, I felt completely deflated. We approach different cultural situations from our worldview, expecting things – as small as procuring a movie ticket – to work in the same way, even though we know intellectually that it won’t. In the world of psychology we’d call it “cognitive dissonance,” but psychobabble aside, I am tired of feeling stupid all of the time. Just when I feel like I’ve done something right or am finally grasping the way things operate, something happens to knock me off my pedestal. All of this is a bit like boot camp: the experiences break you down before you can be built back up again. I am still fighting myself, still being broken down. Eventually, I suppose, I’ll simply be so tired of the struggle that I’ll be forced to accept things for how they are, not how I think or hope they will be.
In the meantime, we ate Chu Min (chow mein?) at a Chinese restaurant in a Portuguese mall. I don’t often eat in malls – heck, I rarely go to malls – but this is the third time I’ve eaten a meal in a Portuguese shopping center.
Feeling a little more fortified, we decided to ask at the mall’s information desk when the metro stopped running. “At 1:20. Twenty past 12.” Maikael and I looked at each other, a look that could only say, “Does he mean 1:20 or 12:20?” “What time does your movie start?” he asked. “Ten forty.” “The movie, it have only two hours, so you be fine.” In my limited time visiting this culture, I have noticed that the Portuguese are exceedingly polite people who don’t wish to disappoint you. There is an overwhelming sense of optimism; this is by no means a bad thing. It can, however, be difficult to get clear answers sometimes. Being here, I realize how cynical, negative, and direct I can be, and how little faith I have in what people do or say. Part of this journey, for me, is living the kindness of strangers approach – to choose to see the good in people. I wanted desperately to trust what this man was saying – to go to the movie with the most positive intentions.
But I didn’t. We ran back to the metro station to check the times for ourselves. The board listed three different times that the metro could stop running, anywhere between 12;36 and 1:36. So which time was it? We asked someone for help, but it was as foreign to them as to us. We walked back to the movie theatre, discussing our plan of action. “We’ll ask the running time at the theatre, and if it lasts pasts 12:36, then we’ll just bag it and go home,” Maikael said.
The man at the theatre said it lasted “uma e meia,” an hour and a half. We’ll be fine! We made our way into the large theatre, which had letters marked at the end of the rows. We were in row N. But once we made it to row N, there were no numbers marked on the chairs. How did everyone know where to sit? We finally made it to our seats, plush, red leather chairs, and breathed a sigh of relief. I looked around; our row was the only row in the theatre with these special chairs. What did this mean?
Soon, the previews started. Sandwiched between advertisements for Get Smart and Wall-E were public service announcements for recycling and AIDS awareness, as well as condom and Super Bock commercials, the national beer.
The movie started in English. Christian Bale was on the screen. For once, we were in the right place, doing the right thing.
An hour into the film, the movie screeched to a halt. “What’s going on?” I asked Maikael, convinced the projector had broken. It was an intermission. For an hour and a half movie?
By 1 am, the movie was still going, and at 1:30 it was over. I had been duped. A big theme in Batman is about faith in humanity: do we choose to see the potential for good or the potential for bad in people? In that moment, I could only feel deceived.
We took a taxi home. I was convinced we’d be overcharged. We weren’t; in fact, the fare was less than we were quoted. I felt guilty about the way I had behaved, and more importantly for assuming the worst in people. When I got up today, I was still thinking about everything that had transpired the night before, and what lesson I was meant to learn from the experience. As Maikael and I talked over the events of the evening, we suddenly realized that the man had said that the movie ended at uma e meia, not that it lasted uma e meia.
Talk about getting lost in translation. It had nothing to do with deception and everything to do with my lack of faith, frame of mind, and limited Portuguese language skills. I vowed to turn over a new leaf. In the end, our big night out on the town cost us around $50. But the lesson was priceless.