Thanks to the comments on yesterday’s post (special call-out to Power Wench’s suggestion of a garbage bag, which I am thinking would not last long on the Tube during rush hour), I’ve decided to go the traditional Londoner’s route: leather coat and umbrella. Of course, we’ll have to buy an umbrella.
But at least I do have a leather coat, which was the culmination of nearly two decades of searching. I have a hard-to-fit torso with long arms, meaning that anything fitting my torso is too short in the sleeves, and anything with long enough sleeves is like a tent on my torso. Every so often over the years, I’d stop by a rack of leather coats, try some on, shrug and go on my way.
Two years ago, my wife and I visited the Serra da Estrela, a region famous for its cheeses…and leatherwork. My wife insisted that this was where I was going to find my long-awaited coat. Just outside the town of Seia, we found a large store featuring local cheeses, presunto, chouriço, knick knacks, and…rack and racks and RACKS of leather coats. More than I had ever seen in one place. I began to feel hopeful in spite of my well-honed sense of futility.
An hour and a half later, the very helpful (and probably quite exasperated) clerk threw up her hands and informed me that I would likely never find a coat to fit me in Portugal. My body shape is simply too different from the usual Portuguese style of shorter and broader. She thanked us for coming in and brushed us out the door, no doubt locking it behind us and praying we’d never return.
My wife was somewhat chastened, but I assured her that this was normal for me, and that I hadn’t really believed we’d find anything. She nodded, and we drove up the mountain to Torre, the highest point in continental Portugal.
The view from Fraga do Alvoço, on the way to Torre.
There’s a touristy shop on the summit, which I entered only because I needed to use the bathroom. Walking in, I got an impression of a dark, dingy, low-ceilinged space that reeked of the cheeses and cured meats which were stacked everywhere. I couldn’t wait to pee and get out. The bathroom did not inspire affectionate memories, either.
But my wife knew better, and soon had me sampling this cheese and that bread and this presunto over here. It was all delicious…and then we noticed the leather coats.
The store was a branch of the one down the mountain that we’d visited that morning. Upon hearing our story of exhausting the poor clerk, the ladies in this store exclaimed that they might have just the thing. I dug out the business card of the lower-elevation store, on which the clerk had written the name and size of the coat we liked best. (We were considering having it custom made at the factory with longer sleeves.) The ladies seized it, chattered with each other, and began pulling down coats for me to try. I was decidedly unenthusiastic, but they were already in motion and it seemed rude not to at least make a show of it. So I tried on the first, and the sleeves were too short. The second had good sleeves but the rest was a tent. The third sort of fit but not really. I decided to try one more and after that I was calling an end to it.
Well, you can probably guess that the fourth one was the Goldilocks coat. When I pulled it on, I knew I was walking out with it and I didn’t even care what the price might be. It was a classic three-button blazer cut, the type that never goes out of style, in a deep, chocolate brown. The sleeves were exactly the right length. The waist was tapered. The pockets were precisely where they should be. And it looked great on me. I’d been looking for this coat for almost two decades!
With some trepidation we asked the price. (Okay, I did care a little.) It turned out to be 90 euros cheaper than most of the other coats I’d been trying on. This seemed odd to me, given the high quality of the leather. Seeing my surprise, one of the ladies explained. Pointing at my coat, she said it was from borrego, lamb, while the others — she waved her hands toward my rejects — were made from vitela.
I had to laugh. Vitela is cow. The other coats were cow leather, and they were more expensive — because the leather industry in Portugal is the exact reverse of the US industry, where cow leather is abundant and cheap, and lambskin commands a much higher price. In Portugal it’s sheep that are abundant and cheap.
We finally left the store, several hundred euros lighter than when I went in to pee. The ladies were so happy with our spending that they threw in a free chouriço as a gift. Did I say that store was dingy and stinky? Nah, it was a great place.
That evening we drove back to our quinta, hung the new coat up in the armoire, and went to dinner. Upon returning to our room, I discovered the one great disadvantage of buying a leather coat in a cured meat and cheese shop: I opened the armoire and recoiled as a nearly visible cloud of chouriço odor wafted out of it. After I got over the horror of that, we both had a good laugh. I hung the coat on a wall hook to air it, but it didn’t help much. Two days later it still stank to high heaven.
The morning of our departure, we opened our room’s door to let in the outside light and set about packing. A quinta dog wandered over and sat in our doorway, watching us with an expectant air. I said, “You know why he’s here, don’t you?” When my wife looked at me questioningly, I pointed at the leather coat on its hook and she cracked up laughing.
Happily, seven hours of hanging in a warm, sunny car during the drive home took care of it. Portuguese sunshine fixes everything.
But to this day, when my wife wants to torment me right before we go somewhere, she’ll lean in, sniff my leather coat, and say, “Do you smell that? There’s still a whiff of chouriço.”