The Pi­ano Is Al­ways There: A Story of Lis­bon

New England Review - - Reports From Abroad - Lau­rence de Looze

For the past sev­eral months I have been liv­ing with my part­ner, Aara, in the old Alfama neigh­bor­hood of Lis­bon, Por­tu­gal. A maze of tiny al­ley­ways that turn into stair­ways as the streets climb up the steep hills from the Tejo river, the Alfama was once a Moor­ish quar­ter. Tucked be­hind the Sé, the city’s squat cathe­dral, the neigh­bor­hood sur­vived the 1755 earth­quake pretty much in­tact, and to­day it is one of the old­est ar­eas of Lis­bon. It is a very hum­ble neigh­bor­hood—there are pen­sion­ers here whose al­ready mea­ger checks are be­ing re­duced by the gov­ern­ment on an al­most reg­u­lar ba­sis—though I wouldn’t call it “poor” out­right. The peo­ple who live in the dark lit­tle dwellings that crowd these streets love the Alfama. They can­not af­ford to live else­where, but they don’t want to. Most of them were born in the apart­ments they live in now. Some of them have prob­a­bly never even been out­side the city lim­its.

Be­cause the cob­ble­stone streets are so nar­row and can be­come es­cad­in­has (steps) at any turn, it is im­pos­si­ble for a ve­hi­cle with wheels to get through. Ev­ery­thing is done on foot, and ev­ery­thing is car­ried in and out, up and down the hill, by hand. At first I thought that this would be in­con­ve­nient, even im­pos­si­ble. But I soon adapted to what feels like a nine­teenth-cen­tury pace of life, and it has be­come en­dear­ing to me, even when I’m car­ry­ing pro­vi­sions and trudg­ing up the hill un­der a hot sun.

But then, the Por­tuguese never seem to be in a hurry, ex­cept when they are be­hind the wheel of a car. On foot, they move at a steady, slow pace—per­haps be­cause they have learned from long ex­pe­ri­ence that this is the only way to get up the steep hills. Also, they are for the most part friendly and pa­tient. They don’t mind re­peat­ing what they’ve said, which is a good thing for me, be­cause the Por­tuguese ac­cent is dif­fi­cult for for­eign­ers to un­der­stand and of­ten I only catch what some­one has said the sec­ond time around.

I’ve never known a city that has as many old peo­ple as Lis­bon. One of the most com­mon sights in this city is an aged per­son limp­ing up a steep in­cline or slowly mount­ing a long beco, a thin al­ley­way that leads up from the river be­tween the build­ings. The hills and stairs are chal­leng­ing enough for young peo­ple—one of­ten sees tourists huff­ing and puff­ing—and yet the old peo­ple of Lis­bon sim­ply take it as part of their lot, mak­ing their way up and down ev­ery day, car­ry­ing bags of gro­ceries. I’ve never seen another city with so many peo­ple

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with canes and crutches, limps, and bent or swollen legs. And yet the peo­ple keep trudg­ing for­ward.

Be­cause the streets are so nar­row in the Alfama, the neigh­bor women shout from their bal­conies across to each other, hold­ing their con­ver­sa­tions from the sec­ond or third floor. You hear them in the morn­ing, dis­cussing the weather or the prices in the su­per­mar­kets. The sounds of the street fil­ter into the dwellings. Some of the sounds leave you per­plexed, and you only slowly come to guess at their ori­gin. In the mid­dle of the night you might hear some­one drag­ging some heavy ob­ject along the cob­ble­stones. What could it be—a dead body? a cart of some kind? pre­cious be­long­ings? At one point, ev­ery night at about ten thirty I would hear the long, mourn­ful cry of a man shout­ing, “Cata­rina! Catar­rrrinnna!” At first, I thought he was cry­ing out for the woman he loved. But it hap­pened with such reg­u­lar­ity that af­ter a cou­ple weeks I fig­ured he must be call­ing his dog home, since the dogs run loose in the Alfama streets like young chil­dren.

The dark streets of the Alfama are full of tiny, cav­ernous shops, which back in the Mid­dle Ages were un­doubt­edly lit­tle more than caves in the hill­side. In­side the dark lo­jas the shelves are stocked with wares from floor to ceil­ing. As­ton­ish­ingly, you can get any­thing and ev­ery­thing you need right in the Alfama. Even wash­ing ma­chines and fridges. There is one shop in the Rua de São Miguel, just down the hill from our apart­ment, that has so many ap­pli­ances of all makes stacked in­side that you hardly have room to turn around. It is strange to see the latest-model Whirlpools and Ken­mores heaped up in a dark space that seems straight out of an ear­lier cen­tury. Of course, since ev­ery­thing in this neigh­bor­hood has to be car­ried by hand from one place to another, get­ting the wash­ing ma­chine to an apart­ment two blocks up the hill will re­quire a cou­ple of strong men. Ditto for the re­mod­el­ing jobs that seem to be go­ing on in many of the boarded-up ad­dresses in the Alfama. Men are con­stantly drilling and ham­mer­ing, then car­ry­ing out heavy bags of rub­ble by hand. Lis­bon has signs on di­lap­i­dated build­ings that say, “Re­store now. Pay later.” Pay when? I won­der. Af­ter all, the coun­try is broke.

The other day Aara and I were head­ing out and as we came around the steep cob­ble­stones by the Igreja de São Miguel, there was ahead of us an old woman dressed in widow’s black, gingerly mak­ing her way down along the side of the church. As I drew up be­side her, I held out my el­bow and asked, “Posso aju­dar um pouco?” (“Can I help a bit?”). The woman made no pre­tense of first say­ing no or in­sist­ing that she was just fine. On the con­trary, she latched onto my arm im­me­di­ately, and as she be­gan to mur­mur “Obri­gad­inha, sen­hor,” she also be­gan to sob heav­ily. Through her tears she re­peated over and over, “Thank you, sir, thank you.” But along with her thanks she also be­gan to wail that she had no one, no one in the world to help her, that she was all alone. “Não tenho ninguém,” she kept cry­ing, “não tenho ninguém.” Yes, she had one cousin, but the cousin lived across town. She was eighty-one and all alone, sen­hor, and it was hard, so hard, to walk. She just needed to go down and get some bread. “Thank

you, sir, obri­gad­inha, this is so very kind of you.”

Through­out all of this she kept look­ing up at Aara and in­ter­ject­ing, “Des­culpe, sen­hora,” beg­ging for­give­ness for tak­ing me away from my mul­her for a few min­utes. I asked if she was from the Alfama. Oh yes, sen­hor, she replied. She had lived her whole life here, in the same apart­ment, she said. She told me the ex­act ad­dress—right down to the num­ber on her street and the floor she lived on—where she had been born and raised. I then asked her name. “An­gela,” she said and looked at me as though it had been decades since any­one had both­ered to in­quire. “A beau­ti­ful name,” I told her. But that only made An­gela be­gin to weep more. When I asked if she had any chil­dren, An­gela stopped for a sec­ond, stared straight at me, and said with sur­pris­ing force, “Não quis!” (“I didn’t want any!”). I thought it best not to ask why, and so we con­tin­ued on in si­lence. Fi­nally we came around into the lit­tle street where her bak­ery was lo­cated.

“So thank­ful, sir, obri­gad­inha. I just need to get some pão here, some bread right in this lit­tle shop.”

I kept say­ing “De nada, de nada,” that it was noth­ing, that I was de­lighted to walk along with her. And she kept wail­ing at be­ing so alone in the world.

I guided her up the steps into the padaria, where the woman be­hind the counter greeted her by name. An­gela thanked me once more. As I turned away, I won­dered how many lives are like hers here in the Alfama. How was she go­ing to get back home? I had helped her down the steep cob­ble­stones be­side the church, but it would be even harder for her to make her way back up, car­ry­ing a bag with a loaf of bread. I could only hope that another el­bow would present it­self, but I had the strong im­pres­sion that there were few arms left for An­gela in this world. I have fallen in love with Lis­bon. I thought I was be­yond the age for fall­ing in love like this, but the two vis­its that I had to make to Lis­bon changed all that. I wouldn’t say that I was “madly” in love—the love Lis­bon inspires is not the sort of in­sane delir­ium that can de­prive a per­son of sleep all night—but rather that this was a kind of mys­terium of love, an en­chant­ment that wound around me, en­twin­ing me, so that by the time I re­al­ized what was hap­pen­ing I was com­pletely caught in the city’s web of sights and smells. The soft air of Lis­bon, the dif­fuse light, so dif­fer­ent from the hard Mediter­ranean sun of Spain or South­ern France, the soft pas­tels of the azule­jos (tiles) that cover the build­ings, the smell of or­ange blos­soms in the streets as the fruit trees bloom in the spring, and of course the glit­ter of the Tejo river—ev­ery­thing con­spired to pull me in and se­duce me. Lis­bon never tried to over­power or im­press me, the way some great cap­i­tals do; rather it just kept tempt­ing me to walk up one more street, go

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around one more cor­ner, skip up one more flight of stairs, pen­e­trate into one more al­ley­way. Be­fore I knew it, I was com­pletely lost and did not care. I had no de­sire to find my way out of Lis­bon’s back streets again.

When peo­ple think of Por­tu­gal these days, they think first of all of the $78-bil­lion IMF bailout the coun­try re­ceived in 2009, of eco­nomic hard­ship, of un­em­ploy­ment, and of huge bud­get cuts. All of these are of course part of the daily re­al­ity in Por­tu­gal to­day, even though the econ­omy is bet­ter than most peo­ple re­al­ize. Still, there are pen­sion­ers liv­ing on five hun­dred eu­ros or less per month, which is a piti­ful sum even in a land where food is very cheap (and very good).

But the Euro­pean Union’s eco­nomic re­ports bear lit­tle re­la­tion­ship to peo­ple’s daily lives in what is—yes—a rather poor coun­try. In­deed, Por­tu­gal has been poor for cen­turies, but what has seeped into the fab­ric of these peo­ple and stained it in­deli­bly is a cer­tain melan­choly—what the Por­tuguese call sau­dade, a word that makes trans­la­tors throw up their hands in de­spair and ren­der it sim­ply as “nos­tal­gia.” Cer­tainly, sau­dade can of­ten be nos­tal­gic, but it refers also to a deep long­ing, a pen­sive­ness in which the whole coun­try will­ingly—even hap­pily? —in­dulges.

The cap­i­tal of the coun­try and the cap­i­tal of sau­dade is Lis­bon. Not that Lis­bon is mourn­ful. But its hap­pi­ness, even in the best mo­ments, is al­ways some­what muted. When the sun shines, there is also of­ten a hint of a rain­storm on the hori­zon. One can­not imag­ine in Lis­bon the kind of wild, late-night gai­ety that Paris of­fers, and in­deed the Lis­boetas have al­ways felt that their city lacks French ex­cite­ment. In nine­teenth-cen­tury Por­tuguese nov­els peo­ple of­ten re­mark that to have a re­ally good time you need to leave Lis­bon and go to Paris. But while the Parisians try des­per­ately to demon­strate to you that they are hav­ing a won­der­ful time pre­cisely be­cause they are afraid some­one might see be­hind their mask, the peo­ple of Lis­bon are not try­ing to im­press any­body one way or another. They are com­fort­able with the al­most oxy­moronic cul­ture of their city: the sad joy of their lives, the de­cay­ing beauty of their build­ings, the ru­ined great­ness of their history. What was once, at the height of Por­tu­gal’s em­pire in the six­teenth cen­tury, one of the rich­est and most el­e­gant cities in the world was re­duced to rub­ble by the 1755 earth­quake, and the city never re­cov­ered its pre­em­i­nent po­si­tion. It buried its dead, it slowly made peace with the tragedy, and then it lum­bered on as a con­ser­va­tive, re­served, and chas­tened city.

Set out on the very edge of the Euro­pean con­ti­nent, Lis­bon is far from the ac­tion of the great Euro­pean cen­ters. The lan­guage is a Ro­mance lan­guage, like those of the fiery Mediter­ranean peo­ples in Spain, France, and Italy. When you see it writ­ten, it in fact looks al­most like Span­ish. But it sounds com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Peo­ple of­ten think they are hear­ing a Slavic lan­guage, not a Ro­mance one. And like the lan­guage, the peo­ple are very dif­fer­ent from those of the Mediter­ranean coun­tries. As it lost its vast em­pire, the coun­try be­gan to turn in­ward, and the same has hap­pened in the lan­guage: half of the vow­els are com­pletely swal­lowed.

Nev­er­the­less, the Por­tuguese are proud of their lan­guage, in part be­cause they have al­ways been looked down upon by their neigh­bors, the Span­ish. As with many sib­lings, the fam­ily ten­sions rise easily to the sur­face. When I men­tioned to one Por­tuguese col­league that I had to make an ef­fort at times to re­mem­ber the dif­fer­ences be­tween Span­ish and Por­tuguese so as not to speak Span­ish in Lis­bon, he ap­plauded my ef­forts, say­ing that it was true that the Por­tuguese don’t like the Span­ish lan­guage, even though it is very sim­i­lar. Then he gave his rea­son why. “O Es­pan­hol é ridiculo,” he said: “Span­ish is ridicu­lous.” He added that as a child, when they wanted to play at be­ing clowns ( pal­haços) they would pre­tend to speak in Span­ish. “The Span­ish are all clowns,” he con­cluded. Nor was his an un­usual at­ti­tude. Another friend told me that when she heard Span­ish tourists talk­ing among them­selves, they sounded to her like tur­keys go­ing “Gob­ble, gob­ble, gob­ble!” I had to con­fess that to the Por­tuguese ear, the loud voices, open vow­els, and fast pat­ter of the Span­ish could in­deed sound like fowl in a gag­gle.

The light in Lis­bon is al­ways soft—as though it has passed through del­i­cate fin­gers—and it is al­ways chang­ing. Clouds move in and out, fine drops of rain sprin­kle, mak­ing for an at­mo­spheric light. You can go down at the same time ev­ery day to the Cais das Col­u­nas—the “Quay of the col­umns,” just down from the Praça do Comér­cio, that was for cen­turies where im­por­tant visi­tors dis­em­barked to en­ter the city—and you will see that it never looks the same way twice.

In the win­ter the forecast calls for rain ev­ery day, and ev­ery day it in­deed does rain at least a lit­tle. Once in a while the rain is hard and stormy and lasts all day, but most days it clears up for hours. In the win­ter you or­ga­nize your day around the pe­ri­ods of rain and hope that you do not ab­so­lutely have to go some­where right when the skies open up. One thing I have dis­cov­ered, how­ever, is that on any given day in the late af­ter­noon, shortly be­fore sunset, the sky clears up, and the sun, now low in the sky, comes in un­der the clouds and lights up the city, gild­ing it. This is in fact one of my fa­vorite times to go down to the Cais das Col­u­nas. The big square of the Praça do Comér­cio, with its arch un­der which you pass to en­ter the city, to­gether with the quay could make a ro­man­tic of even the most cyn­i­cal per­son. Friends, cou­ples, and fam­i­lies take pic­tures of them­selves and each other down on the quay, while a guitar player with a small amp plays Dire Straits songs. The ef­fect should be kitsch, but some­how it is not—maybe be­cause the air is fra­grant and the light is soft.

In our bairro the housewives are very savvy about the rains, and on a win­ter day they are quick to hang out their laun­dry over the street as soon as there are a few hours with no pre­cip­i­ta­tion. I think they al­ways have some laun­dry washed and ready to hang. On days when it rains non­stop, they throw sheets of plas­tic over their hung wash.

On one of our very first days here in Jan­uary the pre­visão me­te­o­rológ­ica (weather forecast) was ex­cel­lent: sun all day with a zero per­cent chance of rain. On this per­fect day for a long walk, Aara and I left parkas and um­brel­las at

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home. If we stood in the sun­light, it was warm enough with­out a coat. We walked up to­ward the Sé, and near it we came across a charm­ing lit­tle book­store, the Livraria Fab­ula Ur­bis. The book­store owner, João, said noth­ing but “good day” un­til, af­ter I had looked around a fair bit, I asked him whether he had Tabuc­chi’s Sostiene Pereira in Por­tuguese. Sud­denly he came alive. He be­gan ri­fling through the ar­mário where he kept the Por­tuguese books and pulled out Tabuc­chi’s Re­quiem, the first and only book Tabuc­chi wrote in Por­tuguese, not Ital­ian. We now started to talk about literature, and were still at it forty-five min­utes later.

In another bookshop across town I asked about Sara­m­ago one day, and to my sur­prise the owner said that he had tried sev­eral times to read Sara­m­ago and could never get past sixty or seventy pages. I told him that I had had ex­actly the same ex­pe­ri­ence. “Sara­m­ago não é bom escritor,” he told me sim­ply. “Sara­m­ago is not a good writer.”

Not a good writer! What a judg­ment about Por­tu­gal’s only No­bel lau­re­ate in literature! But the com­ment was good for another forty-five min­utes on the topic of who was a great writer and who was not.

Af­ter our con­ver­sa­tion about Tabuc­chi, João sug­gested we read the novel Os Ma­ias by Eça de Quieroz, the “Flaubert” of Por­tu­gal. At seven hun­dred pages, the vol­ume looked a bit daunt­ing, but we de­cided to take the plunge. From the first pages, the novel im­merses the reader into its teem­ing nine­teen­th­cen­tury world, in which horse-drawn car­riages run up and down the hills that an­ti­quated trams now travel. In truth, though, in terms of style Eça is much more like Balzac than Flaubert—not to men­tion that Os Ma­ias is far longer than any novel Flaubert ever pub­lished. Eça’s char­ac­ters are drawn with great nu­ance and com­plex­ity, and they un­dergo mo­men­tous and some­times sud­den changes. Per­haps the most de­li­cious as­pect, though, is that Eça was writ­ing for a public that had read the great nine­teenth-cen­tury French writ­ers, so his char­ac­ters can get away with mak­ing com­ments to each other on the or­der of “No, mon cher, you can­not do that! Af­ter all, this isn’t a novel by Balzac . . .”

João ap­proved of our de­ci­sion to live in the Alfama. He asked for the street name, and when we gave it he com­mented that we are “mesmo no coração da Alfama” (“in the very heart of the Alfama”).

At that point the skies opened up and it be­gan to pour. Within sec­onds peo­ple had gath­ered un­der the awning of the book­store to get out of the rain. João an­nounced to us that we could not go out into rain like that. So he ran next door to grab a huge um­brella, telling us to take it and re­turn it to him when­ever we wanted. Af­ter much dis­cus­sion, we agreed that I would use it to run back to the apart­ment and grab our own um­brel­las. I raced back to our flat, then re­turned to the book­store with Aara’s rain­coat, my parka, and the um­brella. We thanked João for his gen­eros­ity and headed back out into the city.

“You know what?” Aara asked me as we were walk­ing down the hill to the Baixa. “While you were gone, João told me to watch the store while he went out and got a cof­fee!”

I could not imag­ine a book­store owner in Paris or New York hand­ing an ex­pen­sive um­brella to a cus­tomer and say­ing to take it and bring it back some other time or turn­ing over the store to an un­known for­eigner for a half hour. To me this was a won­der­ful, serendip­i­tous way to be­gin our stay in the city. I had the im­pres­sion that a kind of magic had de­scended on us. Later that day, we passed by again and stopped in to thank João once more. His wife was now tend­ing shop, and when she saw that I started to look at some pi­ano scores for fado mu­sic, she asked if I played pi­ano. I told her I did—but jazz, not fado.

“There’s a pi­ano up­stairs,” she said. “You can come here to play it when­ever you like. Go try it out right now.”

Af­ter a bit of hes­i­ta­tion, I climbed the stairs to the sec­ond floor. I was ex­pect­ing a beat-up old in­stru­ment, but to my sur­prise there was a good Ger­man up­right. I ran through a few stan­dards, and when I went back down­stairs I men­tioned that do­ing with­out a pi­ano for sev­eral months was the one draw­back I had an­tic­i­pated to liv­ing in Lis­bon.

“The pi­ano is al­ways here,” she said. “You are welcome to come play any time.”

Alfama is one of the two neigh­bor­hoods that gave rise to the mu­sic of fado. The other is the Mouraria which is also an old, poor neigh­bor­hood whose name comes from the Moors who lived there, just as they did in the Alfama.

Fado is to Por­tu­gal what jazz and blues are to the USA, fla­menco is to Spain, and tango is to Ar­gentina. Like the other three, it had its ori­gins among the poor and the mar­ginal, and an early Por­tuguese book de­fines a fadista as sim­ply a crim­i­nal and sug­gests that all fadis­tas be rounded up and put in jail. José Mal­hoa’s larger-than-life paint­ing The Fado (he ac­tu­ally painted two ver­sions, one in 1909 and one in 1910) de­picts two known char­ac­ters from the Mouraria, one a petty crim­i­nal and the other a well-known pros­ti­tute. In fact, in or­der to com­plete his paint­ing, he had to bail them out of jail sev­eral times. Need it be said that the paint­ing was not well re­ceived by the crit­ics of the time?

Fado was made re­spectable, how­ever, and in fact be­came in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized, un­der the tute­lage of Por­tu­gal’s long-rul­ing dic­ta­tor, An­tónio Salazar. The Por­tuguese are fond of say­ing that Salazar kept the pop­u­la­tion in a docile po­si­tion by pro­mot­ing the three Fs: football (which, in Por­tu­gal, means soc­cer), Fa­tima (Our Lady of Fa­tima), and fado. Af­ter Salazar came to power in the late 1920s, fado was reg­u­lated by the gov­ern­ment. Fado mu­si­cians and singers had to have a pro­fes­sional, gov­ern­ment-is­sued card, fado could be sung only in des­ig­nated clubs, and the lyrics to fado songs came un­der heavy gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship.

Above all, fado be­came the great reper­tory of sau­dade. Fado songs are usu­ally sad and emo­tional: love lost and eter­nal long­ing fig­ure promi­nently. In the 1940s and 1950s ma­jor po­ets be­gan to write fado lyrics, and films de­picted the mu­sic. The great Amália Ro­drigues (1920–99) is still con­sid­ered the great­est fado singer of all time.

Be­cause fado was as­so­ci­ated with the Salazar regime, it fell out of fa­vor

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af­ter the 1974 peace­ful “Car­na­tion Revo­lu­tion.” In re­cent years, how­ever, it has made a come­back, due to a gen­er­a­tion of “new fado” singers who mix the tra­di­tional mu­sic with other el­e­ments ( jazz, fla­menco, etc.) and or­ga­nize large, open-air con­certs more typ­i­cal of rock mu­sic. Of these new singers, the diva is un­doubt­edly Mariza, who en­joys an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion and is also at home singing Amer­i­can jazz stan­dards.

Lis­bon has a fado mu­seum at the base of the Alfama. I went there one day with a group of Por­tuguese oc­to­ge­nar­i­ans. Short and stout, they could pick out all the faces in the old photos of fadis­tas on the wall. When our guide asked whether they pre­ferred antigo or novo fado, they were, not sur­pris­ingly, vo­cal in their pref­er­ence for the old, tra­di­tional style. As we went around the mu­seum, one of them would oc­ca­sion­ally break into a song, and al­most im­me­di­ately half of the oth­ers would join in. They not only knew all the lyrics (the way baby boomers know Bea­tles songs), but they all shared in the mourn­ful sen­si­bil­ity that runs through fado. When our young guide asked if it was true that you could sing or play fado only if you had grown up with it your whole life, they as­sented im­me­di­ately—the way peo­ple would have claimed half a cen­tury ago that jazz and blues could not be learned.

There was a sense of pro­tec­tive­ness re­gard­ing the mu­sic, or rather a sense that the mu­sic pro­tected the Por­tuguese and their sau­dade from new, threat­en­ing ways. Cu­ri­ously, the Por­tuguese are lit­tle in­ter­ested in be­com­ing “mod­ern.” They have tele­vi­sions and cell phones and new cars if they can af­ford them, but that is about it. A Por­tuguese col­league in Lis­bon sug­gested that peo­ple dress sim­ply not only be­cause they don’t have much money but also be­cause it is frowned upon to os­ten­ta­tiously flaunt new styles. You ask any Por­tuguese who has lived abroad what he or she misses most, and the an­swer is al­ways Por­tuguese food. At first, this stumped me, since Por­tuguese cook­ing is not par­tic­u­larly re­fined. In the main it con­sists of meat or fish ac­com­pa­nied by pota­toes and veg­eta­bles (usu­ally over­cooked), all of it in por­tions so large that a nor­mal per­son can­not pos­si­bly fin­ish them. The Por­tuguese also make dif­fer­ent kinds of stewed fei­joada (beans). But that is pre­cisely what the peo­ple are so nos­tal­gic for when they go abroad: the as­sur­ance of abun­dant food that is sim­ple and fill­ing and cheap. I should men­tion also that when it comes to cook­ing fish the Por­tuguese are ab­so­lute mas­ters; in even the cheap­est Por­tuguese restau­rants you can­not go wrong if you or­der any kind of fresh, grilled fish.

But the food in Por­tu­gal, as in so many coun­tries, is more than food: it re­flects a way of life. The dishes may not be re­fined, but in Por­tu­gal most peo­ple can or­der lunch in a lit­tle res­tau­rant and af­ford more food than they will be able to eat. It doesn’t mat­ter to them that they get boiled pota­toes, French fries, and home­made potato chips all on the same plate—even, some­times, a small pile of rice as well. They go away feel­ing rich and sat­is­fied af­ter a meal, and the bill never breaks the bank. In another coun­try five pota­toes, a pot of rice, and chips at a sin­gle sit­ting would seem strange. In Por­tu­gal it al­lows even the most hum­ble per­son to feel like a king.

vinho verde!

It is


had lunch in the lit­tle Mouraria res­tau­rant where Aara and I met Vic­tor and his friends. For her fi­nal song in 2005, Mariza sang one of the clas­sics from Amália Ro­drigues’s reper­toire: “Ó Gente da Minha Terra” (“Oh Peo­ple of My Land”). The lyrics are sim­ple, and part of the song goes:

Sem­pre que se ouve o gemido De uma guitarra a can­tar Fica-se logo per­dido Com von­tade de chorar Ó gente da minha terra Agora é que eu percebi Esta tristeza que trago Foi de vós que re­cebi.

(Ev­ery time you hear the wail­ing Of a guitar for singing Right away you feel lost And want to cry

Oh, peo­ple of my land, It is now that I per­ceive That the sad­ness I carry I re­ceived from you.)

In the mid­dle of the song, Mariza was over­come and had to pause and wipe away tears from her eyes. The crowd went wild. They were one with her in their tristeza and sau­dade. It is 2014 and Por­tu­gal is just about to celebrate the for­ti­eth an­niver­sary of the “Car­na­tion Revo­lu­tion,” in which the dic­ta­tor­ship was peace­ably over­thrown af­ter half a cen­tury. Ban­ners have gone up, and speeches are planned. A glossy new book con­tains in­ter­views with the “ra­pazes dos tan­ques”— the sol­diers in the tanks who re­fused to open fire in sup­port of the dic­ta­tor­ship on April 25, 1974. No one ever thought to search them out and in­ter­view them be­fore.

The story they tell is re­mark­able. On that day, the tanks of the troops loyal to the dic­ta­tor­ship were faced off in the streets of down­town Lis­bon against those of the sol­diers in re­volt. The lead­ers of the re­volt had asked the pop­u­lace to stay in­doors, but in­stead the peo­ple poured into the street in sup­port of the at­tempt to over­throw the dic­ta­tor­ship. A flower mar­ket nearby was selling fresh car­na­tions, which had just come into sea­son, and peo­ple bought red ones—red be­ing the color of the banned So­cial­ism and Com­mu­nism—and brought them to the sol­diers who placed them in their gun bar­rels.

On the gov­ern­ment side, the or­der was given to open fire. In the in­ter­views, for­mer con­scripts re­call be­ing told to shoot or be shot. One man, now re­tired, says he ducked back down into his tank and told the men in­side to batten down

Am­s­ter­dam erased from our minds the chaotic patch­work of Lis­bon, where hap­haz­ard streets go up and down in all di­rec­tions. The Dutch Mas­ters ex­uded a sooth­ing calm. As Baude­laire put it in his great poem about Dutch paint­ing, “In­vi­ta­tion to the Voy­age”:

Là, tout n’est qu’or­dre et beauté, Luxe, calme et volupté. (Over there, ev­ery­thing is or­der and beauty, lux­ury, calm and sen­sual de­light).

Aara says that her foot gives her no pain as long as she stays off it. The Lis­bon break will grad­u­ally heal. It would be im­pos­si­ble to push her wheel­chair up the steep hills of Lis­bon, but here in flat Hol­land the rol­stoel rolls along with lit­tle ef­fort.

Last night I took Aara for a ri­jstafel, the clas­sic In­done­sian feast of­fered to the colo­nial mas­ters hun­dreds of years ago. It was a de­li­cious treat. But I can­not imag­ine feel­ing sau­dade for a ri­jstafel when I am far away from Am­s­ter­dam. I can­not imag­ine want­ing to have it sev­eral times a week. But when I think of the sort of freshly grilled fish I could get for a song in Lis­bon—a dourad­inha or a robalo— then I feel a cer­tain nos­tal­gia creep into my mar­row. I can just see the moço slid­ing the plate in front of me. I can pic­ture the two halves of the fish, splayed on the plat­ter. And if I close my eyes, I can al­most smell it.

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