In a previous life, I lived in Lisbon. I’d already decided it was my favourite city before I’d even set foot there, and in some ways – although I’d never want to go and live there again – it still is.
I’d found the town I’d been living in up north very pretty but culturally and socially moribund. Most of the young people seemed to dress exactly like their parents and the more interesting ones were straining to escape and didn’t understand what I was doing there. Arriving for an exploratory visit to the capital in spring 2000, I climbed up from Santa Apolónia station to the ramshackle medieval labyrinth of Alfama, on the foothills that led up to the Castle. There was something about the light across the river which I found immediately beguiling and the intricate layout of the alleyways intrigued me. The city felt like it had been built on water.
Within a few days of moving there later that year I had my own 5th-floor cabin on the edge of Alfama, with dentists chairs and a view across the Tejo to Alameda. I had decided to take the place at first glance because when I had looked out of the window on my first visit there was a small fleet of caravelas lighting up the river. My flatmate was a sombre and taciturn Mexican restaurant manager who spent his days off “buying soap” (there were indeed two drawers full of the stuff in the kitchen) and sobbing along to Celine Dion. On my first weekend, mortifyingly hungover after meeting and greeting my new teaching colleagues in Carcavelos (I recall that the police were called at some point), I stumbled down in the glaring sunshine to Campo das Cebolas, where my new Mexican friend took one look at me and handed me a michelada. He may well have saved my life. For the rest of the day I floated round the deserted city, feeling like I was on a magic carpet and wondering just what was in that drink. I ended up entranced in the cinema before a random Portuguese film called ‘Peixe Lua’ (Moon Fish). It opened with a orchestrated panoramic swoop across the river and up towards the castle and then descended into a lush and more-than-a-little-silly tale of cross-border love triangles, implausible bullfighters and Cordoban gypsies. Over the next four years I would occasionally oblige friends to watch the film with me but, like a movie seen on a late-night flight, it had little earthbound appeal.
When I went back in 2010 and 2013 I was disappointed and surprised to see that so many places I knew, shops, bars and restaurants that I had assumed had been and would be there forever, were gone. Years later I would read up on our ingrained tendency to essentialise other societies, to assume that whatever we see abroad is unchanging, eternal. A staple subject in English language coursebooks is just how happy everyone is in Bhutan. EFL teachers do have something of the eternal tourist along with (if you’re not careful) the worldview of a minor colonial administrator. Plus, of course, the lifestyle of a part-time alcoholic.
Fitting, then, that one of my favourite places (which, also fittingly, no longer exists) should be a bar, the Estrela d’Alfama, a tiny daytime place on Rua de São Miguel run by my hilarious English colleague Steve and his mordantly deadpan Finnish wife Jaana. It was one of the few times in my life when I felt I was inside a soap opera. Alfama sometimes seemed like a village. Everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business and there were some who very rarely left. The area is often romanticised but there is a lot more to it than picturesque charm – it seemed resistant to any attempts at what I now think of as trasteverisation. My fellow timewasters included João, a local lothario whose job, we eventually figured out, consisted of tiptoeing round shopping centres stealing fire extinguishers, Sauri, another Finn with a gift for intricate wood carvings and mammoth vodka benders, and Joanna, an English colleague who could swoop from the most staggering heights of charm, wit and eloquence to the deepest canyons of inebriated truculence with the speed of a severely liver-damaged peregrine falcon. There were also men who had spent twenty years or so working in northern Europe on building sites and then returned exhausted to look after ailing parents, but whereas their counterparts from the north had spent their savings building the kinds of pink bungalows you see dotting the hills of the Minho and the Douro, they invested all they had in tiny bottles of Sagres and Superbock called minis. Thanks to such characters I learnt that anyone who drinks non-alcohol lager and is not pregnant at the time is a late-stage alcoholic. (Around this time I also figured out that someone drinking Cerveja Martini at 10am is probably an English teacher.) In previous generations my fellow drinkers would probably have stayed in Alfama and worked on the docks, but such work had dried up and despite their often impressive command of spoken languages they didn’t have the education required to get jobs in the new economy. Some of the regulars were amazed that I could read newspapers of which they would struggle to get past the headlines. I tried to impress upon them the nature and extent of my good luck in having being born in a country which had had the foresight to impose its language on the world, which meant that my choice of livelihood, unlike theirs, had not depended on my ability to master other languages. But they insisted I must be some sort of genius. Nem por isso, I protested to little avail.
Often a despondent atmosphere prevailed, but everyone would cheer up such as when there was a big football championship on or some fado singers would turn up. Every June 12 was the festival of San António, prepared for months in advance, when the whole of Alfama would colourfully carouse on sangria and sardines and I would dig out my rusty bartending skills. In mid-2001 I moved up to the more rarified environs of Príncipe Real, to Rua da Palmeira, my own overfurnished deathtrap-wired bolthole. A Brazilian friend, the partner of the then Canadian Ambassador, who lived in a place with three bathrooms and (I seem to recall) eight balconies, described it as ‘aconchegante’. I looked it up; it means ‘cosy’. Back down in Alfama Jaana displayed very great fortitude in the face of provocation of local drunks, while I spent what now seems like several months at a time looking out of the door waiting for my friends, or anyone who spoke Spanish, to show up. One day it was two comedians: David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, who were ‘researching’ their new football show by walking round in the sunshine coming up with ‘improvised’ repartee. I joined in their bantering for a while but sadly they didn’t immediately offer to include me in any future projects. I also met a Chicagan taxi-driver who, when I asked him where he was from, responded by accurately guessing which part of Sheffield I had been brought up in. On another occasion me and my friend Andrew met a monolingual German couple who dragged us down to the local Irish pub to see Germany play England. We found it packed with British sailors, and it was only from Horst’s belligerently overjoyed reaction to Germany’s goal that I finally realised mit Hindsight und ein bisschen Angst that the hilarious football anecdotes he was loudly regaling me with mostly involved acts (his) of partisan violence. Luckily England then scored five times in quick succession, so the filthy looks and muttered abuse from the sailors began to taper off and the Schadenfreude of my new hooligan friend turned into a more incoherent and thus less life-jeopardising kind of Freude.
Meanwhile the world changed. In March 2001 the country was aghast to witness the sudden collapse of a bridge in the north of the country. Several cars and an entire coachload of local people plunged into the river. They were on their way back from an excursion to see the spring blossoming of cherry trees. It was soon discovered that local companies had been extracting the sand surrounding the pillars of the bridge; the whole country was outraged and then increasingly resigned. There was general agreement that in the rest of Europe such a thing could never happen.
Six months later I was walking into work for a lunchtime class when one of the more security guards told me out of the blue ‘é todo culpa tua!‘ – ‘it’s all your fault’, and when I responded with bafflement said something to do with some planes and the Empire State Building. I presumed he’d been drinking on the job, which was not unusual; it would indeed have been perfectly understandable. The euro came in and I got into debt for no reason at all. I got my first ADSL line and celebrated by staying awake for six whole months cheating at Championship Manager. Those Chinese shops which had been a novelty in Dublin became more ubiquitous. I made friends with people from more salubrious areas of the city and from less stable and/or prosperous parts of the world. Together we watched in dismay as Portugal’s golden generation threw a World Cup tantrum and stomped off in tears. In Jaana’s bar one constant refrain accompanied any change for the worse, from falling bridges to football punch-ups to rising prices: Tem que ser, pá: that’s just the way it is, man.
What’s that all about?, I thought.