I’m hiking today. Well, really I’m visiting a castle in one of my favorite cities in Portugal, a little town called Sintra. There are five castles here, and I am visiting one I’ve never toured before. Every time I visit the ancient city of Sintra (the oldest castle is over 1,000 years old), I always think of my sister Ruth.
I try to see the city through her eyes. I’m certain if she was with me now, she’d still be in the castle with the brochures and the audio tour guide. She would leave telling me stories of all the kings that lived here.
I, on the other hand, just did my quick 20-minute tour. Looking, as always, for the kitchen and the dungeon. I don’t know why these rooms fascinate me. Maybe it’s because I am certain that if I had lived in a castle, I would have occupied one or the other. This castle has neither kitchen or dungeon on the tour. But that’s okay, it’s not why I came, I came to hike the gardens and mountains on the property.
I look and wonder how Ruth would describe this place, how it would overwhelm her, and how I’d have to sit silently while she absorbed it or wrote about it. Ruth’s writing has always been taken very seriously by our family. Whether articles, cards, diaries, short stories, or, thankfully, very few poems, she always shows an amazing perspective and point of view, and it’s almost always the perspective I miss.
One of my greatest joys was welcoming Ruth to Europe for the first time. To see all the books, travel guides, and diaries of the ancients come alive for her. You cannot imagine the joy I felt as I watched her drink a galão at a 300-year-old cafe. To see her take in the architecture and culture of a new country. To watch her walk through Sintra and the clustered streets of Alfama. To walk the wall of a medieval city with her.
However, nothing in Portugal compared to being her tour guide in Rome. Although I’ve lived in Europe for 4 years, I don’t know the names of the painters, the popes, or the sculptures – she does. What I do know is how to get to all the sites, where the lines are shortest, and how to wander the streets of Rome at 10 p.m until you find the 200-year-old ice cream shop. I let her tell me the stories, buy me the audio tour guides, and sit quietly when she ponders how to turn Vatican City into a homeschool lesson.
What she gives me is so much more. She lets me laugh and poke fun at the culture and city…and at her. She listens in disbelief when I tell her there will come a point in our trip when she will be fed up with museums. When it finally happens in front of the Pantheon, she laughs hysterically as I call out to an American tour group, “Don’t bother going inside, it’s not that impressive! I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.” She eats her chocolate gelado with fresh whip cream as we walk and lets it drip all over her. I’ve never seen her so messy or so happy.
Our perspectives of the same events are always completely different. Her’s romantic and beautiful. Mine a little warped, but funny. She wanders the Roman Forum fascinated by the temple ruins, and I stay close to the really cool Roman fountains where you can fill your water bottles. She lets me talk to an Italian street painter in Portuguese about the decline of talented street artists, but she’s the one who actually buys art. She tells me the history of the Spanish Steps, and I tell her we can sing way better then the old lady singing on the steps for money.