Learn how (not) to use a Portuguese door

4 days into the trip and tired of sleeping in, we decide that today will be different

The alarm rings. Right on cue, as seems to always do. I resent its song. I resent its happy chime. Let me sleep. Today is going to be different, we aren't going to sleep through it, jet lag is going to lose its grip.

To help with the struggle, Portugal is in the midst of a cold spell and the heater is not living up to its potential or purpose. The cold air, the jet lag, none of it matters, today is going to be different, we are making it out "early" for our run!

A short while later we're ready. Victoria is the first one out the door but I'm quick to follow. It's even colder outside but in a few minutes we’ll be running and warm, the cold air will be a welcome relief.

“You’ve got the key right.” I comment to Victoria.



We stand in silence as we wake up to what has just happened.

You might think my comment to Victoria sounded like a question but to be clear, it wasn’t. The missing question mark was deliberate. I assumed Victoria had the key and even if she didn’t, no problem, we’d just head back inside and get it. But, what if the key also happens to be the door knob…?

I can hear you saying to yourself, no problem, someone else probably has a key, you just need to find that person and you’re good to go! Nope. A fun feature of this door is that there is one single key slot that the key can be inserted into from either side of the door. We have not only left the key inside the apartment but it is also in the one key slot. So, even if we find this other person who probably has a key, their key will be completely useless.

For those keeping score, here is a summary:

  • It's cold (~5C)
  • We’re dressed in shorts and and long sleeve t-shirts for our run
  • The key (and door knob) is inside the apartment
  • The key slot is blocked from the inside

“I wish we’d stayed in bed…” Why did today have to be different again?

“What do we do?” Thankfully we have WIFI from our apartment still so Victoria messages our Airbnb host. Our host always replies within minutes, surely this has happened before and they’ll know what to do…

30 minutes later, still nothing.

Did I mention it’s really cold? Victoria is huddled on the ground, wrapped in a towel we left on the clothesline the day before, trying to stay warm.

I hear a door open. It’s our neighbour! What luck!? He might have some ideas.

“You left the key in the lock... inside your apartment?” As he takes a deep breath coming to terms with the situation, my heart sinks. It's clear this is unfamiliar territory for him as well.

“Maybe you left your window unlocked?” he suggests. Sadly we've explored that option with no success.

Defeated, he continues on his way to work, wishing us good luck and suggesting we get inside soon because it’s so cold… as though we hadn't realized.

“What now?”

Still nothing from our Airbnb host.

To distract myself, I go back and forth between staring at the lock, willing it to open and trying to find things to use to pick/open the lock. Not surprisingly, both approaches fail.

Feeling anxious, I decide to walk around the apartment compound to see if I can find someone who can help. The first person I stumble across is the building superintendent. She speaks no English, but that's no problem, I know how to play charades. As I dance around trying to explain the situation she stares back at me with a blank look. Clearly I’m lousy at charades.

She starts speaking in Portuguese. It's not directed at me, but to a passer by. He speaks English! Game on! I may not be good at charades but I do know how to speak English!

As I explain the situation he takes it in and nods.

“Do you have x-ray paper?”

I think to myself, maybe he doesn’t speak English after all. What does x-ray paper have to do with this? Come to think of it, I don’t even know what x-ray paper is…

“I don’t think I have any? Why?”

“With it we can open the door.” He sees I’m confused, so elaborates in Portuguese, throwing some charades in to help get the point across. I now hate charades… the person who invented this game was obviously not freezing and locked outside their apartment.

“Come, I’ll show you the door” I say to my new friend Francesco.

As we walk up the stairs he keeps trying to explain this x-ray paper. On attempt three his explanation finally gets through to me and I'm transported back in time to the days of yore. Back to the days of young Tim trying to learn to play tennis. To get into neighbourhood tennis courts without a key I would straighten out the brim of my hat and slide it between the door and the door frame right where the latch was. With some effort and persistence it was possible to force the latch open without a key.

If that doesn’t make sense, the important point is that all door latches have a curved side which allows you to pull doors shut without turning the door knob while having a flat side to prevent the door from being pushed open, unless the door knob is turned. If the door opens into the apartment that means the curved side of latch is facing outside which in turn means that a thin rigid material can be used to slide it back into the door, all from outside the apartment without a key! This door fits much tighter within the frame than the tennis court gate doors so a hat won’t work, but a thin plastic sheet of x-ray paper might just do the trick! _Genius! _

It took some time but using his "x-ray paper" idea Francesco is able to open the door and we're back inside in our apartment feeling warm and very relieved. Just like that the situation has turned from completely hopeless to resolved!

The day was definitely different…

As I reflect back on the situation there were 2 things that blew me away.

  1. How nice Francesco was. From taking the time to help us out, to letting us warm up in his apartment, to going out and getting "x-ray paper" without us even knowing, and all along not making us feel stupid for our very silly mistake.
  2. I was also humbled by how someone different looking at the exact same situation was able to think of a new idea that completely turned the situation around.

We didn’t make it out for our run but we did go for a nice walk through Alfama.

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