One of the bonuses with our travelling life is the people we meet. And friends we get. Like Susanne Sayers whom we only knew briefly through common friends before we arrived in Lisbon.
It did not take long before our acquaintance turned into friendship. Today we’re almost neighbours with the same “sunset-office” at the Graca Miradouro, where we meet as often as possible.
When we got the idea about inviting friends in as guest bloggers, we made a list of all the things we were curious to know more about. One of them is the way people fall in love with Lisbon. We love the city – but after having travelled here for more than 20 years and settling here with a specific plan, this unconditional surrendering to a city you hardly know, was strange to witness.
What is it that makes people leave their country almost overnight and move to Lisbon? In stead of keep asking ourselves the question, what is more natural than to ask someone who is right in the middle of this hot love affair.
Like Susanne Sayers
It was an unexpected love. I was not looking for it, I was not expecting it or even hoping for it. But sometimes life will offer you what you didn’t look for, and love may come in surprising shapes.
This one was certainly not like anything you would have found on a dating site, where you have a tendency to tick off expected features and requirements much as you would order pizza. You may get exactly what you want – but you will get no surprises. Surely that’s good? Perhaps not. Perhaps what you want is not what you need. Perhaps you don’t even know what you want, until all of a sudden it’s there.
The Portuguese capital was not on any of my long lists of places I would like to go, but one mild autumn day in 2011 I found myself in Lisbon to do an interview and cover a medical conference. I also found myself head over heels in love with the city.
I didn’t quite know why. To some extent, so many years later, I still can’t quite put my finger on it. It certainly has to do with Tejo, the river Tagus, that brings an ever-changing light to the city, wide enough and salty enough here to be considered more the beginning of the sea than the end of the river. It has to do with the wind that brings a blessed coolness with it on even the hottest days and makes the palm trees sway gently, a rustle in their dry leaves that will force the emerald-green parakeets to leave their shelter and take off with a cacophony of screeches.[caption id="attachment_25046" align="aligncenter" width="1496"] Sunset from one of the Lisbon’s best miradouros: Miradouro da Senhora do Monte also in Graca[/caption]
It is the mourning sound of fado through the narrow alleys of Alfama, the old Moorish quarter, it is the heavy, smoky scent of fat sardines being roasted over open fire, or the perfumed blossoming of the orange trees in spring, sweet as sin, white as innocence. It is the ridiculously purple covers of Jacaranda trees in early summer, it is the small iron wrought balconies, the way the city turns creamy pink during the glorious sunsets, best watched from one of the many viewpoints, miradouros. One of the best is Miradouro Senhora do Monte, vying with the castle hill for being the city’s highest point.
It is the tropical feeling during the warm summer nights when lively notes from Brazil, Cabo Verde, Mozambique and other former colonies remind visitors and citizens alike that Portugal was once the World’s first global empire, and this was its beating heart. Porto in the North may be the noble, wealthy and sensible elderly uncle, oozing old world charm, but Lisbon is the flirtatious younger sister, inviting, warm, and looking towards the New World and new possibilities while still remembering a history that is even older than that of Rome.
And it certainly is the generosity of the beauty of Lisbon, the tiled houses in many patterns and colours, the intricate black and white patterns of the pavements on streets and squares. It is the street art, sometimes simple, sometimes provoking, sometimes political, sometimes humorous, usually of high quality, and nearly always interesting and adding to the place. Something as everyday-like as the Metro is virtually an underground gallery. Promise me you’ll go look at the Metro station of Olaias on the red line. It’s a riot, like being inside a kaleidoscope. And Parque on the blue line, which is a tribute to human discoveries and progress. But many more wait to be discovered.
It is the omnipresent trees, the green parks, some of them large, some of them little green neighbourhood corners with old men playing cards and young children playing. Some of the parks are busy, like the local favourite Estrela, and some of them are nearly desolate, like the Tapada das Necessidades, the perfect place to find peace and shade on a hot summer’s day.
It is the people, the gentle, infinitely poetic, helpful citizens of the city that will go out of their way to make a stranger feel welcome, not to gain anything, but because it is the right thing to do. Their dignity and sense of humour make me feel comfortable, their warmth make me feel at home.
But most of all it is perhaps the sense that in Lisbon time doesn’t fly. It simply is. It is not a rich city although you will find plenty of shops for those loaded enough to pay 10,000 Euros for a suit along the elegant Avenida da Liberdade, but it is rich in that one currency that has become so scarce in the rest of the world: time. It is as if time left Lisbon in a hurry, promised to come back and just forgot, being so busy everywhere else. Saudade, the Portuguese word for a sense of longing that cannot be easily translated in all its depth, ads to the feeling of time gone by. It’s a bittersweet feeling, but more sweet than bitter, I feel.
Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, one of the most beloved among many beloved poets in this country, once wrote about ‘the perfect hour’:
This is the perfect hour when a hush descends on our muted human murmurings. And finally inside us speaks the grave voice of indolent dreams.
This is the hour when the roses are the roses that flowered in Persian gardens where Saadi and Hafiz saw and loved them. This is the hour of the mysterious voices chosen and summoned by my desires. This is the hour of the long conversations held between leaf and leaf.
This is the hour when time is abolished and I do not even know my own face.
Translation: Colin Rorrison with Margaret Jull Costa[caption id="attachment_25049" align="aligncenter" width="1500"] The Graca Miradouro aka Miradouro da Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen[/caption] Sophia lies buried in the National Pantheon as one of only two women, the other being the legendary fadista Amalia Rodriques, and Sophia was part of the revolution against the dictatorship that ended in 1975, the longest lasting in modern Europe, and one of the first democratically elected members of the parliament. Her unusual last name she owes to her Danish ancestor, Jann Heinrich Andresen, who established the venerable port wine company Andresen in Porto back in 1845, and her perhaps most loved children’s book, the Knight from Denmark, reflects that ancestry.
A final resting place in the National Pantheon is a very high honour, but I’ve always felt that she would have been even happier to know that she would have one of the loveliest viewpoints, the one just down from Senhora do Monte, named after her. The Miradouro da Graca is now the Miradouro de Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, and a bronze statue of her looks over the city towards the sunset.
Go say hello and give her a kiss on the cheek. She deserves it.[caption id="attachment_25052" align="aligncenter" width="1333"] Street art meets Fado[/caption]
In the end I ran out of excuses not to give this place a chance, and so I am writing this from an old house in Alfama overlooking the Tejo. This morning it was covered in mist, now it is blue, smiling, and inviting, and I can see as far as the Arrábida Mountains on the other side. Last night I was woken up by fadistas singing and playing at four o’ clock in the street just down from me, and when they stopped, the blackbirds took over.
Now it is afternoon, and the swallows soar and dive outside my windows, and the swifts with their acrobatics and high-pitched sounds of summer in the city arrived only yesterday. Swallows are symbols of Lisbon, of homecoming in spite of long distances, always a comfort to those at sea and those left behind. A lot of people went to sea, more people stayed behind, waiting, hoping, loving, and longing.
Moving to Lisbon has changed my relationship with her. I know that the city is far from perfect. There is poverty here, you can see it in neglected houses and missing teeth in old people’s faces, in the young people standing on corners when they should be working or getting an education.
And you can see it in the prices. There’s a reason why most items seem cheap to people coming from other countries, but there are people here working hard that make no more than 500 Euros a month. And there are people here still scarred from torture and oppression during the dictatorship days, there’s an economy that’s vulnerable and struggling, and there are people trying to walk a tightrope between their love of time with family and friends and new demands of working faster, harder, longer.[caption id="attachment_25048" align="aligncenter" width="1336"] Travelers love the local feel of Alfarma – but how long can the locals afford to live her?[/caption]
Tourism is another dilemma. It brings wealth and opportunity to Lisbon, but Airbnb combined with the Portuguese lack of regulation changes the face of some of the most traditional neighbourhoods in Lisbon, including Alfama. As prices of property soar, old people who are descendants of people who have lived here for generations, are priced out.
Old shops close, new shops open, many of them catering to tourists with nothing that the local people need but plenty of what the tourists want. Graffiti with slogans like “turista, turista, faz mal à vista”, tourist, you are an unpleasant sight, will sometimes greet you from walls. Still, in spite of misgivings you will find that the large majority of alfancinhas, the Portuguese name for people from Lisbon, welcome tourists and will be happy to guide you around, showing you the best sides of our many-faceted and wonderful city.
What was once a love affair has changed into love of the kind that long familiarity and intimacy brings with it. It’s like getting to know all the annoying habits of your significant other, his tendency to snore, her always forgetting to turn off the light in the kitchen, the pot belly that has developed over the years, or the thinning hair, the wrinkles, all the tiny imperfections.
It doesn’t decrease the love, it just increases the tenderness – “Oh, well, Love, we may not be perfect, but at least we’re perfect for each other” …
I hope you will love my city as much as I do.
Susanne Sayers, author & journalist and canteen assistant, piccolo, bookkeeper, CEO, and everything else in her own firm, moved to Lisbon in March 2016 after being a regular visitor for several years.
She mainly writes about nature, health, and economics. She likes to walk and still feels cheated that she doesn’t have ‘an ass like Beyonce’s’ as she was promised after all the walks in Lisbon.
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