The day I met my future husband, Otto, at the Fish Market in Helsinki, the first question he asked was, “Where are you from?” As I noted the small tremble in his hand and voice, I realized it had taken all his nerve, or Finnish sisu, to approach me. Now, twenty years later, I continue to be surprised at how this former shy Finn has evolved into a bit of a chatterbox, especially when meeting people on vacation.
I first noticed this change about ten years ago while traveling in Croatia. During breakfast at our B&B in Bol, we heard the young couple at the table next to us speaking in Hungarian. Otto nodded in their direct, a cue to to introduce myself. After all, I’d lived in Budapest almost three years before meeting him, so naturally, I wanted to meet ever Hungarian who crossed my path, right? Under my breath, I advised Otto not to disturb the starry-eyed couple, who were clearly on their honeymoon, but this only piqued his interest.
Before I could distract him, he leaned over his plate of scrambled eggs and sausages and interrupted: “Where are you from?” WAYF? I stared into my bowl of muesli, fearing the two would politely nod and ignore my husband, or worse—they wouldn’t—and I’d be drawn into a conversation about my expat experiences before my first sip of tea. As predicted, such a discussion ensued and continued that evening, when the honeymooners invited us to join them for dinner. Their warmth clearly emboldened Otto, who since then continues to utter “WAYF?” to other diners, as well as tourists we encounter on planes, beaches and hotel elevators.
At first, I cringed at these introductions, especially when Otto would interject: “My wife just wrote a book! You can google her.” Eventually, I came to admire his openness and genuine interest and would watch and wonder where these chats with strangers would lead. During our recent trip to Portugal in April, it was clear that Otto’s curiosity often paved the way to some serendipitous events and surprise adventures.
After brunch in Lisbon (where another couple responded to Otto’s question with an invitation to visit them in their native Corsica) we traveled north to celebrate Easter in Braga. While eating at an outdoor café there, Otto noticed a lone figure sitting with his dog two tables over. “WAYF?” he shouted, waving at the startled man. Moments later, Domingos joined our table, and after a two-hour discussion about Finland joining NATO and politics in America, he suggested we visit Bom Jesus, the area’s top tourist destination. After lunch, he accompanied us to the tourist office, handed us a map and bus/funicular schedule, and then pointed to the cathedral on the distant hill. (photo above)
“It’s 577 steps to the top, but worth it,” Domingos said. He gave us his card and told us to call with any questions.
The next day, after arriving at Bom Jesus via funicular, my American expat ears picked up a distant Southern drawl while using the WC. Curious as to what a fellow American would be doing so far from home, I pulled an “Otto” and asked, “Where are you from?”
“Oklahoma, born and bred,””Susan” said with pride. She shared that she and her husband were visiting their son, Mark, who’d recently moved to nearaby Viana do Castelo. She raved this “magical place,” where the Lima River and Atlantic Ocean meet in a most dramatic fashion, and invited me to meet her family outside to learn more.
Mark told us he was drawn to Viana, a quiet city of 90,000 residents, for its quaint historic town (photo below), friendly people, affordability, and proximity to the sea and water sports. He claimed that for a relatively small place, Viana “had it all,” without the hordes of tourists or tuk-tuk traffic of Lisbon or Porto.
Intrigued, Otto and I googled the city after they left. The first photo we saw—of the gorgeous neo-Byzantine Sanctuary of Santa Luzia towering over an endless expanse of surf—was enough to lure us there. On Easter Monday, we left Braga to experience Viana do Castelo’s charms firsthand.
After arriving by bus from Porto, we walked along Viana’s narrow cobblestone streets and lush gardens, and reveled in the Medieval architecture resulting from the enormous wealth that Viana had enjoyed as the port of departure for international expeditions during the 15th and 16th centuries. We were struck by the lack of tourist groups, the gentle liveliness of the cafés, the soothing rhythm of boats sailing on the Lima. After only a few hours, Otto said that he wanted to change our itinerary to spend the remainder of our vacation there. I agreed.
Over the next ten days, we walked countless kilometers along the coastal Camino trail and to Praia do Cabedelo, where we cooled off in the surf. At the beachside Aquario, we dined on delicious dourada (only 30 euros for two), and sampled the local cod dish, bachalhau à moda, prepared with cabbage leaves and served with potatoes. With so many confeitarias to choose from, there was no shortage of tortas de Viana (cake covered in egg cream, then rolled up) or pitos de Santa Luzia. This pastry is stuffed with pumpkin jam and cinnamon and named after the saint, as is the cathedral that beckons from every downtown corner and stretch of sand for miles around. It was time to shed some calories and make the trek uphill for a visit.
Built to resemble Paris’s Sacré Coeur, a massive dome crowns the chapel (above) with four smaller ones supported by towers. As if to honor Santa Luzia, the Patron Saint of Sight, natural sunlight pours into the rose windows, the largest in the Iberian Peninsula. Colorful mosaics of scenes from the Bible glisten from behind the altar. Despite the interior glory, most tourists visit the hill for the sweeping panorama, which National Geographic Magazine once called “the third most beautiful in the world.”
Further up the hill behind the cathedral is Pousada Viana do Castelo, one of the Pestana Group’s historical hotels. As a tea lover, I immediately ordered a cuppa and a local pastry (yum!) on the terrace (photo below). Otto and I were so mesmerized by the magnificent vistas that we decided to spend two nights there in-between other accommodations. Since it was off-season, the price for two nights was a modest 203 euros, a bargain considering what that buys in other less spectacular settings. Upon check-in, we were delighted to learn that we’d been upgraded to a room view a view. Ahh…
The next two days, we stayed close to the hotel, reveling in its Old World Charm and venturing outside only to the cathedral nearby or to gaze upon the pristine pool (unfortunately, it was too rainy for a dip). The breakfast spread was superb, as was the impeccable service. The next time we stay, I will come prepared with some sheet music and play the grand piano that graces the cavernous living room.
Of course, no visit would be complete without another “WAYF” encounter. This time, a woman at the table next to us at dinner noticed that Otto had a book with a Finnish title and asked him where he was from. Although she was born in Finland, she’d lived most of her life in Sweden and was traveling with her Swedish husband and their two friends from Stockholm. After this brief exchange, they invited us to join them at their table, where we talked until the restaurant closed, but not before we’d been invited to visit our Nordic neighbors this summer.
After returning home to Helsinki, I pulled out the handful of business cards from our new friends—evidence that Otto’s icebreaking approach had indeed borne fruit. With invitations to visit Corsica, Sweden, the Algarve, and Caminha, I had to admit, I was impressed.
If you’d like to spice up your next trip, you might dare to utter those same words: “Where are you from?” You never know where a friendly chat might lead—perhaps not to a marriage proposal, but to a stimulating conversation, the discovery of a new, wonderful destination, like Viana do Castelo, or an invitation to visit an exotic island. These four small words could make all the difference.
Good luck and safe, happy trails!
A view of the Sanctuary of Santa Luzia and the Pousada Viana do Castelo from the beach.