Lisbon: Where do we begin?

As is the case with many cities, there are many Lisbons, and the Lisbon you get depends upon who you are. There are some things we all share. You’ll know some of these things, and maybe they are among the reasons you are here – the reasons you came, or the reasons you stay. We all share the famous Atlantic-orange light, and the sharp contrast where the light sets terracotta roof-lines off against the sky. We share that sky, so brilliantly blue it’s almost stupid, as if an enthusiastic toddler smeared it with too much finger-paint.

We share the bleached-white cobblestones, and their treacherous slickness in the winter rain. In the spring we share the riots of jacarandas and bougainvilleas, and the syrup-thick perfume of orange-blossom and lilac and jasmine. We share the façades of buildings: easter-egg-colored ones and shining tile-clad ones and crumbling ruined ones and renovated minimalist ones, interspersed nonsensically among one another along the streets. We share puddles of warm yellow light in the blue nights. We share the miradouros and the escadinhas and the becos and the praças, and the quiosques and esplanadas, tucked like tidepools out of the flow of traffic: we can all dip in and stay awhile, as welcome as if these were communal living rooms, and everyone’s home. These are among the things we share. 

We share the miradouros and the escadinhas and the becos and the praças, and the quiosques and esplanadas, tucked like tidepools out of the flow of traffic: we can all dip in and stay awhile, as welcome as if these were communal living rooms, and everyone’s home.

Photo by Lisbon.com

Beyond this – behind the façades – the Lisbon you get depends upon what brings you here in the first place, and how long you’ll stay, and whom you know to ask for tips. It depends upon what languages you speak: crucially, is Portuguese among them? (While you can get by with English or Spanish or French, there are a lot of Lisbons that open only to those who master her tongue.) Your Lisbon depends upon the people who include your name on their guest lists – and if no one is inviting you, there’s a Lisbon for you, too. 

Your Lisbon depends upon how early you wake up in the morning and how late you go to bed at night, and how you take your pleasures in between. It depends upon the kind of music you like, and what lengths you’ll go to, to dance to it. 

It depends upon the source of your income, the depth of your bank account, the breadth of your real-estate holdings, and the value (but not the content) of your private art collection. It depends upon who your parents and grandparents were, and the way their identities are woven into a chain of surnames that you wear like a bracelet of charms.

The Lisbon you get depends upon what brings you here in the first place, and how long you’ll stay, and whom you know to ask for tips. It depends upon what languages you speak: crucially, is Portuguese among them?

Photo by João Reguengos

If you are a servant or a laborer or a member of the working class, your Lisbon is quite different from the Lisbon of your employers. You may move through the same spaces as you raise their children or build their homes or cook their meals, but you’ll not likely be offered a seat at their supper table. If you are an employer of servants they’ll keep their Lisbon from you, too, and you’ll probably never understand what you’re missing. 

Your Lisbon will probably not have much to do with the books that you read: unlike New York or Paris or London or Berlin or Rome, Lisbon is not a literary city. It won’t put much weight on the philosophies that you espouse, the ideologies you follow, the lectures you attend, the poetry you recite. Lisbon gives little for this. Lisbon prefers street-smart to book-smart, and wit to wisdom. There is intellectual life, to be sure, but it is generally an afterthought, a sideline or a stage-set: it provides a picturesque pretext for the performance of self-consciously spectacular social life. Even art and music play supporting roles in Lisbon. If you are the type to go to art exhibition openings it is probably to see people, more than to see art. And the people you see are there to see you, too. And although what you see is rarely what you get, it is, nonetheless, what matters most in Lisbon. 

But this has not always been the case, and it may not always be, because Lisbon is a city in transformation. It is a city in revolution. The revolution was underway years before the pandemic hit and it has continued, albeit in somewhat hidden ways, beneath the surface of ebbing and flowing confinements in 2020 and 2021. Unlike many other types of stories, a story about transformation often begins with an ending and ends with a beginning; the transformation is everything that unfolds in between. These are the stories of limbo, of the liminal space, where things are no longer the way they used to be but it’s not yet clear how things will turn out. These are the Lisbon stories that will only reveal themselves with time, when we learn to quiet down and listen to one another. 

These are the stories of limbo, of the liminal space, where things are no longer the way they used to be but it’s not yet clear how things will turn out. These are the Lisbon stories that will only reveal themselves with time, when we learn to quiet down and listen to one another.

Photo by Miguel Carraça

As we tell our life in stories, we create our life’s meaning. Meaning comes from the narrative structure that we give to the chaotic and messy things that happen in the phenomenal, dynamic world. Narrative is always a never-ending series of transitions and transformations, endings and beginnings. Sometimes we don’t even know that we’ve reached an ending until after we’ve passed it. Sometimes there is no clear ending, and we have to impose one – to create an ending in retrospect – and sometimes, we turn out to be wrong. 

Whether they “stick” or not, the moments that we identify as endings may depend on what we’ve identified as the meaning. Or maybe the meaning comes from what we’ve identified as the endings. 

If we could tell all of these Lisbon stories, would we be able to capture a snapshot of our city in this moment? Can we weave together diverse identities and narratives and perspectives like threads of three million different colors, to create a tapestry that shows us something like truth? 

Lisbon: where do we begin?

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