Trains, Cold Calling, and an Enormous Cup o' Tea (Updated)
Updated: Aug 18
Every Picture Tells a Story [Don't it?] - 02
As related in an earlier post, I spent - some might argue mis-spent - much of my later youth photographing steam locomotives at work around the world. This piccie is, I suppose, nothing so special in and of itself, but it does come with a funny story attached.
True, there is not much – the locomotive apart – to allow a non-expert to identify the country, let alone the location. But - as has been proven on numerous occasions - there are some genuine super-sleuths among you regular readers. So, just in case anyone thinks they know, I'll give readers a day to hazard a guess.
BTW, for those who read the initial blurb for last week's “Every Picture Tells a Story” photo 01 – I have updated it with the backstory to the pic, in case you'd like to read it.
So – full story for the pic above to follow tomorrow.
This photo was taken in Oporto – or simply Porto as the locals deem it – in August, 1974. I doubt the location looks much like this today. From memory, it is maybe 200m from a station called Avenida da Franca*, which at the time was the first station after leaving Porto Trindade terminus on the metre-gauge railway running north to places like Povoa de Varzim.
I gather these lines have been converted to an electric metro system – I'm guessing in the 1990s – and probably with EU money. So the service now will be clean, fast, frequent and efficient. Back in the mid-70s only the 'frequent' was true. At least relatively; there seemed to be train every 10 minutes or so in the peak hours, with a fleet of ageing, if well-maintained steam locomotives huffing and puffing at the head of a rake of even more ageing wooden carriages - as in the photo above. Coming from the UK, where everyday steam workings had been eliminated by 1968, it felt like being on set for a film from the 1930s.
But back to the story. I actually tried to avoid taking this photo. That is to say, I'd tried to get a more interesting shot, with a broad cityscape of Porto behind the train taken from a higher elevation. Maybe 50 metres further forward, and to the right from where I took this shot was a block of flats, three storeys high. I had reckoned that the top floor of the block would give a grand view of the railway as it climbed out of the city. Moreover, at about 5.00 pm, it would be bathed in bright, but relatively soft, low sunlight from the west, allowing the train to stand out from the background.
With such thoughts in mind, I had entered the housing block, and climbed the stairs to see what I could find. Alas, there was no window or opening to view the railway, so I rang one of the bells to a flat I assumed might give me the desired vantage point.
A woman, probably about 28-30, opened the door. To say she looked startled would be an understatement. Now, I must confess, I probably looked and came over a bit, well, ... strange. I was carrying a rucksack, hair was likely to be a bit unkempt, probably some stubble on my face. And as I knew but three words in Potuguese, I tried to speak in my very limited Spanish, only in a French accent – 'cos that was how someone said Portuguese sounded.
“Soy ingles y fotografos, maquinas de vapor, y … balcones ….”
The finer details of her answer passed me by, but it was pretty short, and most definitely negative.
I don't think I had time to say obrigado before the door was firmly shut in my face. Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, but I must admit the experience did set me back a bit. Rather than try the door to the flat opposite, I opted out to find a different location altogether.
Except, as I left the block for the street, a man was coming in - who immediately struck up conversation. Where was I from? England? Really?
“I've just come back from there, I was in Greenwich on a training course.” The man was something to do with naval engineering.
“And what brings you here?”
I explained my efforts to photograph the trains passing by 100 metres in the distance from the flats.
“Oh, you can photograph them from our balcony. Come with me.”
Well, I had no idea which floor he lived on, but it was worth a try, so I trailed along. We climbed to the first floor, then we climbed to the second, and then we .,. yup, you've guessed it: we climbed to the third, and before I could say anything, he popped the key into the very door I'd been standing at, blathering psuedo-Portuguese babble, just 4 minutes earlier. Then, with a shout of “Hello darling, I've brought a guest home,” (in the vernacular), he entered the hall.
Five seconds later, the wife – for it was she – popped into the hall, smiling. Upon seeing me, it took barely one-fifth of a second for her visage to turn into an open-mouthed state of shock. I stood there as she recovered and then related to hubby, ... well, you can imagine.
“Oh, my wife says she's terribly sorry for what happened earlier, but you must understand, we had a revolution in the spring. There's been a lot of lawlessness around these days, a lot of burglaries and things.”
Of course, there was nothing to be sorry about, I said. A lone woman – for she was – would be silly at the best of times to let an unknown male stranger into her flat - let alone an unkempt British weirdo like me.
All was well, and I was led onto the balcony, where, while it was not quite as I'd envisaged, we could see the railway.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” The poor wife now felt terribly embarrassed, and was trying to make up, as I was pondering the best lens for the shot.
“With milk and sugar?”
“Just milk would be fine.” I'd given up sugar four years earlier as an experiment.
I was ready now, with one camera on a tripod, another in hand – all that was lacking was a train heading north.
The tea arrived. In a enormous, soup-like cup.
Now I can eat or drink almost anything you're likely to encounter in Europe, but there's one thing I could never handle: hot milk. It's the smell. I've tried to overcome it, but it just makes me, uncontrollably, wretch.
And inside the enormous, soup-like cup was an ocean of boiled milk.
Sure, the teabag in it was slowly leaking brown, tanin trails into the mix, but an ocean ...
What to do? Somewhere in all this a train appeared - and my hosts both disappeared into their living room. At this point, a nearby potted plant was irrigated with an ocean of boiled milk. I justified my act with the idea it would surely be nutrition for the fauna.
It was time to move on. “I'm really sorry I scared your wife. And thank you very much for the tea and the chance to take the picture,” I said.
There was no email for another two decades, of course, and I never took their address, but I hope they have lived a happy life, with lots of kids, and no burglaries.
The moral of this story is, I suppose: if once you are turned away, and the door slammed shut, stay out, or risk an ocean of something you can't stand.
The shot from the balcony did not turn out well. I went out and took the one shown above, which, while not spectacular, is somehow at least proportioned. I like it, anyway.
This was my last trip to Porto. A day or two later, I had my passport stolen when trying to leave the city. But that's another story.
As the man said, there was a lot of lawlessness at the time.
*Addendum: My thanks to Ken Hale and his 1968 Portuguese Railway Timetable for the name of the station, which I'd forgotten.
Full marks to Hubert super-sleuth Warsmann, who more or less nailed the location - I hadn't realised he too was a rail enthusiast of sizeable knowledge.
Ooops - I've only just now seen Albyn's comment - Full marks too! Yes, the Portuguese placed beautiful tiled images on many of their stations - even quite small ones on the Douro Valley, I remember. Really impressive.