‘Lisbon very safe city. No crime. Everyone friendly.’Taxi Driver Man. Lisbon, Portugal. November 2018.
The afternoon sun filtered through the taxi windows, warming the four of us and all of our belongings, all tightly packed into the car. Coming from a few days in rain-soaked Barcelona, the extra hour we had gained in Portugal and the suddenly bright afternoon lifted even the tiredest of spirits among us. As we were driven closer to the heart of Lisbon, pastel-coloured buildings unfurled themselves upon the hills of the city; pockets of colour made more brilliant by the sun. It was instantly enchanting. What with the words of our friendly taxi man and these views, I was ready forget that the Portuguese language completely baffled me, finally declare myself a street-artist-slash-interpretive-dancer and put down some roots.
The ‘four of us’ consisted of Toddler G, his papa – The Italian, Nonna (The Italian’s mother, who lives in Milan) and me, the ‘Aussie’. We had been in Milan visiting Nonna and this was to be a little holiday within the holiday, graciously gifted to us by Nonna. None of us had been to Lisbon, but we were keen to see what all the fuss was about. I’d known Michael Fassbender lived there. I’d known of its custard tarts and abundance of seafood. I’d known most drugs were legal in Portugal and I now knew there was ‘no crime’. I wasn’t so sure about that last one.
Travelling in a European city with two people from another European country was interesting in itself – I felt as though I was in a moving Italian bubble in a land foreign to all of us, and soon found myself confusing Italian and Portuguese and how to even name this city … Lisbona, Lisboa. Italians talk a lot, including my son. They don’t really breathe out carbon dioxide, just words. And really fast.
The following day I had a window of opportunity to spend a couple of hours alone, wandering the city and acquainting myself with its higgledy-piggledy alleyways and graffiti and mosaic-tiled walls. Near the Castelo de São Jorge I stopped in a tiny cavern-like cafe for a snack and coffee, then ambled downhill through the famed Alfama district, the oldest part of Lisbon and home of Fado.
I didn’t wish to discover too much more alone, knowing the others would want to wander these pretty streets, so I headed back to the ranch. No sooner I was back when The Italian declared he and I were heading out for lunch, to enjoy some kid-free time. So out I went again, this time on a food mission. We searched for a bit, me feeling the need to pick something quick and the two of us making the fatal error of choosing a restaurant on a square. We looked at a basket of oily, soggy chips coming out of the kitchen, plonked hastily onto the table of fellow patrons, and decided to flee. Only moments away, when wandering down a quiet, narrow passageway off the square, I saw a bustling little place, tables crammed full of people and steaming plates of goodness competing for space. There was barely space to enter, but I grabbed The Italian and in we went.
We were squashed into the back corner of the restaurant, near the toilet. In fact, I had to move each time someone needed to go, it was that tight. Save for the Spanish couple next to us, we could only hear Portuguese. It was one of those exquisite local food moments travellers nauseatingly talk about, and I was gleefully having one. Crammed onto our little plot of table were plump, barbecued sardines, sangria (a sweeter, spicer version of its Spanish counterpart), roughly-torn house bread, olives, a simple, well-dressed salad and a plate of presunto, thickly-sliced ham. I could hear Ramsay’s voice in my head: ‘Good, simple, honest, no bullshit, local food’. And it was.
That night we were fortunate to have another solo outing, but this time I did some advance research on the quest for dinner and Fado. The Alfama district was the recommended area for authentic Lisbon Fado, a melancholic and theatrical style of singing performed in restaurants and bars, once enjoyed only by those on the fringes and now popular throughout Portugal and with many of its tourists. At our Fado restaurant of choice, Mascote da Atalaia, we encountered such a tourist. We arrived at our designated booking time, but after a booking mix-up of sorts, were asked to wait 30 minutes. Our pole position in what became a queue some minutes later, made us a prime target for an eager-looking guy laden with a heavy backpack and some serious camera equipment.
‘Hi therrre. I’m Ed* from Florida. I’m a Veelohgerrr. I have 15,000 followers on YouTube’, he said. Ed then proceeded to explain what a vlogger is. I could see any attempt to interject and let him know that we were from Melbourne and not Mars, was pointless.
He seemed to pull endless amounts of lenses out of his backpack, connecting bits together and then hoisting what became a giant camera onto his shoulder. In an impressively seamless manner, he transformed into Ed the Vlogger before our eyes and began talking to himself in enthusiastic vlogger tones. The restaurant was already full and he had words with the staff about getting a potential spot, after which he persisted with poking his camera in and out of the entrance, diners lifting their heads as he leered through the door with his unmissable ever-expanding lens. Most among them glared at him. He clearly didn’t have permission to film. Ed was oblivious to the glares and kept at it. Another group smiled at him, much more forgiving of his one-man paparazzo display.
We tried to avoid the camera, but being right at the front of the queue made this impossible. I believe there’s a moment where I catch the camera with a scowl crossing my face for just a moment. Yes, I have watched the clip and yes, I decided not to link it because, well … because. But Google ‘vlogger Lisbon Fado’ and I reckon it will be top of the list.
After much small talk with Ed and doing our best to have the most involved conversation with each other so as to be ignored by him, we were called into the restaurant. We were seated at the table closest to the door with a friendly group of Americans, Ed following closely behind me and then seated against my left thigh, his camera resting on my dinner plate. Our table friends politely asked Ed about his vlogging, Ed leaning across me to reply. The Italian and I gave each other a look, studied the menu in earnest because we were dying inside, and prayed and waited for darkness to descend and painful words to be expressed by Fado people.
Shortly after ordering our wish was granted. We were graced by a female and male performer that night, each taking turns at intoxicating us with tender lulls and then bursts of agony; silky voices raw and clear in the cavernous room. Our vlogger was becoming increasingly annoying as he clamoured over me for shots, with an elbow in my food at one point. The other diners were becoming visibly upset as he rolled his camera without pause. During the intermission, a male diner crossed the room and challenged Ed about the ethics of his filming, also asking not to be included in the recording. On viewing the finished product I see that said diner is highly visible. At the end of the second set of Fado, Ed was discreetly asked by the staff to leave.
The up-close experience with a reality TV person/travel vlogger was a first for me and, as someone who loves to write about travel, I can understand the wish to capture an experience and commit it to film or writing. There was something about this particular capture that stole some of the authenticity of what we were encountering; it’s essence and intimacy lost with the bulging camera in the room, its flashing light a reminder that even Fado, rustic in its origins and nature, was not above one’s quest to gain more YouTube likes and followers. After Ed left there was a collective relief, particularly noticeable in the performers, who could get on with the business of providing a memorable experience. For myself, it was the ability to free my elbows and also the catch the far reaches of heartbreak conveyed in the perfomers’ quieter notes.
After this cultural experience (on several levels), I remembered a song by Cesaria Evora, whose album I had begun listening to in my own summer of heartbreak in 2014. The song title ‘Sodade‘ is the Cape Verdean Creole version of the Portuguese word Saudade, a somewhat indefinable state of being. According to trusty Wikipedia, ‘Saudade is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for something or someone that one cares for and/or loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never be had again’.
That about sums that up.
Lisbon. Lisbona. Lisboa. Safe, sprawling, raw, fervent, everyone friendly. Except conspicuous vloggers in Fado restaurants.
*Ed is not Ed, but I’m sure you will discover this for yourselves.