Looking at Lisbon

After arriving in Lisbon I immediately encountered a problem: There was no immigration controls and therefore my passport would not get a stamp. This was a point on which my refined particularities could not rest and so I asked a police officer near the exit in Spanish if we had somehow passed an examination point while gesturing to my booklet that I wanted it stamped. He gave me a dimissive chuckle and said no. I swallowed my disappointment and Josselyn and I grabbed a bus into the city center to go to our hotel.

Making the west to east path from the airport in even on just a public bus was a beautiful sight. In the outskirts of the city we passed by large single-family houses, buildings that look like middle class South American projects, amazing graffiti and then we came across a statue of Christopher Colombus. From this point on the rest of our journey would be around the city center and we would be seeing beautiful statues referring to conquest, peace and the foundation of new constitutions, large gothic buildings for churches and schools, opulent plazas made to showcase the wealth extracted from the New World. While in this public bus I felt so taken aback by the tight proximity of so many significant buildings. We got off the bus at the last exit and from there got out first sight of the Atlantic from the other side of the ocean.

While at the moment finding our hotel was a greater priority than a little oohing and ahhing at a sight that I had spent many hours of my youth looking at across from the other side, it did strike me as being an important moment.

After checking in and dropping off our bags we ate and walked around Belem. Here we had our first taste of the Belem pastries. They were as delicious as I’d heard they were and we ended up eating a dozen before leaving four days later. These pastries are so important to the region that rumors circulate as to how many people know how to make them. In fact, over breakfast the next day I listened to two British travelers heatedly discuss whether it was two or three people who knew the secret recipe for them. They both agreed that none of them were allowed to travel together in case an accident happens which would cause the recipe lost forever, but whether or not a teenage grandson, whose name escaped the graphic designer from Manchester, had been informed of the family secret seemed to be the cause of discord. The high-bred, Hong Kong born youth on a gap-year claimed that this was non-sense. He claimed that as he hadn’t worked his way through the company yet from the lowest position to the top he hadn’t yet earned entry into the inner circle or trust and it was only at this point that he would be told the secret recipe. It was at this point I couldn’t resist joining in, saying that it didn’t matter if all the family owners disappeared as the workers, despite none of them being informed of the whole recipe, would be able to talk to each other and recreate it perfectly. This new set of considerations caused an immediate row, though I didn’t listen to the fruition of it for Josselyn and I then made our way to the attractions of Belem. Coming back from the future, following our meal we walked around without any particular place on the itinerary for a while and eventually retired for an early evening over some port.

The next morning we woke early and went to the Jeronimos Monastery. After the visiting De Gama’s resting place  we went to the Maritime Museum – a testament to the role of sea exploration in Portugal’s culture and history. Everything related to the seafaring life was documented, save the cargo going to the New World, and a mighty picture did it paint. Not only were there paintings of battles with the British, but there were many a model of ships that were greater in size than human beings, giant maps showing Portuguese possessions along Africa and India, showing the natural goods of a region, showing the holdings of other powers, paintings of important captains and admirals – all with beards indicative of powerful patriarchs, cannons and guns, compasses, astrolabs, anchors, portable examples of ropes for use in the maritime academy – even a dozen full ships taken from the ocean and placed in the museum so that they royal glory can be held onto as a relic an looked onto as a sign of continual importance despite the fact that it is from a outdated world of, as Nietzsche would refer to is, as monumental history. The ships that ended the exhibit, transitioning from wind powered war ships to combination wind/engine to just engine sly not so slyly commented on the Portugal’s decline in relation to other western powers. One exhibit here specifically showcased the ordinance used in a pre-World War I naval battle between them and the Germans. While the latter used 20 mm guns, clear evidence of their intention to be able to conquer other industrialized nations, the Portuguese responded with 7 mm guns, evidence of orientation to rule over people without access to industrial weapons capabilities.

After this exhibit we went to the Tower of Belem, the site at which many of the voyages to the New World would get their official farewells from royalty and a place that was used for a short period of time as a political prison.

Following this we went to the Berado Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, which has a very impressive permanent collection of modernist artwork starting with the Dadaists and moving up into the myriad “isms” of the post 80’s art scene. What I liked most about the museum was though there clearly an imperative to obtain certain artists’ works to be able to say that they were represented there, none of them were chosen with care onto the work itself. Thus though a small museum in Belem, the collection was impressive even after having seen Madrid’s gems.

In addition to the permanent collection was a temporary display on the propaganda posters from the Second World War. The posters were from every combatant’s side, though predominantly from the American, and ended with a long animated documentary originally shown in movie theaters that illustrated the importance of building long-range bombers to fight the German war machine. I’d seen many of the posters before when doing a research projects on American propaganda and looking at them now gave me the same sort of feeling – that despite all the tragedy involved in such a large conflict, the social strains that happened for the non-combatants, what an amazing effort towards organizing daily life for a purpose. I found the manner in which all sorts of items and practices were limited, tabooed or structured in such a way that it benefitted the war effort, such as the saving of animal fats at home for dropping off at butchers who will pass them on to the government for bomb-making, to be fascinating. Especially so as now more and more scientists state there is increasingly a need for all human’s behavior to be monitored and corrected or it is highly probable that barbaric conflict caused by global population movements in response to climactic change will occur on a scale never before seen.

After we left the museum, we walked to the Presidential Palace to get some pictures of the gardens and statuary across from it. From here we watched the sun set and then went to eat at a Chinese restaurant.

Lisbon is also known as the city of seven hills and going up and down it’s three highest points over a three hour perambulation through the thin pedestrian corridors leaves one drained but still fascinated. The city itself reminds me in many ways of some South American cities I’ve been too – a very clean city center with evidence of decay all around it. Buildings with cracked paint are endemic and there are literally hundreds of abandoned buildings that have been bricked up. I was to see this not only in Lisbon but in Sintra and Porto as well. Strangely enough, considering the state of economic affairs in Portugal, I didn’t see evidence of squatters in any of the buildings. This contradiction between the high cost of housing and the wide scale availability of use for residential or business use is something that needs to be addressed by those that are fighting for reforms not created by the E.U. I saw several posters for a United Left movement in Lisbon, however there’s none of the direction action culture here like there is in Barcelona. Yet unlike the Brazilian barrios, there were no barriers between the hillside/poor areas and those below that are richer.

In the poorer section of Lisbon, where once the Arabs and Jews were segregated following the reconquest, you can see their lingering influence in arcitectural qualities that aren’t as readily apparent as, say a migilah. The streets are very narrow, which keeps the sun out, thus making it cooler. The age of the city is also apparent in how it is made, evident in the communal showering and clothes washing facilities in some areas.

As we walked back into the city center area Josselyn and I were immediately harassed by drug dealers. Despite my very firm refusal of their offers, people would continue to harass us with offers of hashish and marijuana. After the third time this happened, I stopped being polite when someone would greet us and just ignored them. This was more effective than a firm “no”. My experiences in Dublin, where we stopped and talked to amiable people with enjoyable accents speaking on behalf of groups such as Doctors Without Borders and Greenpeace had softened my normal New Yorker tendency to ignore people I don’t know trying to stop me on the street. Ignoring their advances brought many of the more admirable qualities of the city into view.

Many of the Lisbon’s buildings facades are tiled with light blue patterns or large pictures if not maritime influenced decoration. I can only imagine that it was having grown up in a house where Danish plates of similar color but different images attracted me so much to these blues and themes – but I kept commenting on them to the point that Josselyn started to make fun of me for constantly gushing on how beautiful I thought it all was. I was somewhat sensitive to such poking fun at my expense, but when she agreed that this would be a nice color theme that could be brought into an imaginary “kitchen of our dreams” one day I felt happy. While walking we also met a few honest, lazy beggars who provided us with a hearty laugh.

After all this walking around we went to a Portuguese wine tasting to relax. We got to try several whites, roses, reds, and muscatels and followed this by eating cuttlefish and squid at a non-descript restaurant a few blocks from the Praça do Comércio.

The next night we went out and visited some more of the city and finally decided to see some of the nightlife. There are few places on this world that I would view parts of as being favorable to New York and Barrio Alto is one of them. Here the people fill the streets like I’ve never seen. I imagine it being similar to the gin bars that Engels describes in his tome on the conditions of the English working class, but rather than the desperation born of super-exploitation written on the faces of those present there was the drinking for an enjoyment of the epicurean kind. Barrio Alto is the student quarter and here there are indeed thousands of people on the street chatting, going in to dance, outside to smoke from bar to bar to circulate. The drinks here were exceptionally literally 1/5 to 1/8 of the price that it is in Barcelona and the people much more welcoming and convivial. We looked for a fado show amidst the anarchy of the street but found none. However we did come upon a live music venue. As the song playing when we came in was Oasis, Josselyn’s favorite, we stayed there for a while dancing and making friends with the locals then followed the four a.m. torrent of people down the hill to go home or to other less than respectable locations.