For a few years Clare and I had lived in the neighbourhood of Petersham, Sydney’s Little Portugal; we figured it was about time we went to Big Petersham. Clare and I flew to Lisbon without an advance accommodation booking. I simply wrote down the address of what was supposedly a good hostel. And it was! The Travellers House in Baixa, just a couple of blocks north of the waterfront and the Praça do Comércio, was the most welcoming hostel we’ve encountered so far. We became fast friends with Guilherme, a bearded Brazilian expatriate who works at the Travellers House.
Baixa lies in a dip between hills on the northern bank of the Tejo River. To the west are the neighbourhoods of Chaido and, further northwest and further uphill, the Bairro Alto. To the east is Alfama.
That first night we heard a welcoming fanfare, a wail of lovely gut bucket filth outside the hostel on the cobble-stoned Rua Augusta. Clare and I went out to listen to a quartet of student buskers: a tenor saxophonist in a trench coat, two trumpeters, a tubist in a porkpie hat. A fat man tucked his wine bottle under his arm, picked up the band’s tambourine, and took it around the crowd as a receptacle for coins. He was insistent—this band was worth your euros. Then he approached a small raven-haired girl and led her to the sill of a shop window for an intimate chat.
As Clare and I walked away up Rua Augusta to find some dinner a dude with a goatee hissed “Hashish! Marijuana! Cocaine!” I wasn’t buying, but every time I walked down Rua Augusta I got propositioned. Later I asked a Lisbon local about it. Don’t the cops care? He laughed. “Why should they care when these guys are not selling drugs? They sell tourists donkey shit, man. They sell bicarb soda. Tourists turn up at their hostels with swollen noses.”
One of the striking things about Lisbon is its ubiquitous street art. Clare and I walked down Avenida Conselheiro Fernando de Sousa and gazed at a green monster, a devil in a blue cloak offering a tomato, a skeleton in skater wear, a miner in the style of a Kokoschka drawing, a devilish blue teddy bear with a golden crown and a bottle opener, an angry stone angel with a halo, a Banksy-esque stencil of a policeman urinating against the wall, a dopey Australian soccer fan with a blue and white beanie, a photo-realistic rapper in a black cap and a smirking Al Capone, barbed wire as a kind of ironic comment on the wall, Mickey Mouse as a scratching DJ, a toothy fish with a pronged tongue, what looked like early-‘80s heavy metal LP cover art with illegible silvery lettering, a dull and stubbly female prison warden, strange silhouettes against a barren landscape, the snotty-nosed face of black kid with welling tears, a green hand with a hungry jaw eating two eyeballs, and another green hand plunging out of a grave with a spray paint can.
In the Bairro Alto and Alfama with the Baixa-Chaido Crew
A new city, an instant crew of new buddies from around the world. It’s the backpacking way.
One of our fellow hostel guests, a French guitarist, had arranged to sit in with a blues band at Catacumbas Jazz Club in the Bairro Alto. The neighbourhood is a former bohemia now packed with expensive gourmet or simply pretentious restaurants, nightclubs, tiny bars and cafes and lightly-stocked bookshops. Catacumbas is a grubby bar, an unrepentant holdover from the Bairro’s old days. The alcoholic shots are well-named: you can order a Duke, a Prez, a Bird, or a Satchmo. The Baixa-Chaido Crew crowded around a tiny table to compare travel notes.
For Sara, a svelte blonde from Holland, two weeks in Portugal was the mere prelude to a long prowl abroad. “I’m going back home to work a bar during Carnival,” she said. “After one week I will have enough money to buy my ticket to South America.” In other news she was having trouble with her first generation iPad. “I’m so unhappy. I have a problem reading on it because I’m dyslexic.”
Meanwhile her friend Maria from Brazil was hyperlexic.
“I taught myself to read at three,” Maria said. “That was pretty weird.”
“You are a genius!” said Felix, a blonde guy from Germany.
“Actually it’s kind of a problem. I can’t handle it if I see misspelled words. I go nuts in a bookshop and want to read every book. One time I read The Brothers Karamazov in fourteen hours, straight through, not even a break. Now I mainly just read chick lit.”
Unfortunately, the blues band didn’t turn up, nor did the French guitarist. By now it was 12.30AM, too early to quit for the night, so we decided to walk across town through Chaido and Baixa to Alfama. Amid the fado taverns there’s a club in the Arco de Jesus called Onda Jazz. It was big band night. The jazz scene in Lisbon is thriving. A local record label, Clean Feed, released 45 albums in 2010 alone. Guilherme at the Travellers House recommended I check out the pianists Mário Laginha and Bernardo Sassetti.
Unfortunately by 1AM the music at Onda was over and the waiters were packing up. Despite looking exhausted, Sara insisted it was too early to go back to the hostel. The Baixa-Chaido Crew wandered around the alleys of Alfama in the cold. Sara zipped up her high waisted ‘80s white leather biker jacket. Maria buttoned her black coat. We didn’t find any music. Alfama had gone to bed. “We should go to Madrid for all night everything,” somebody said.
Another night at the hostel I sat up late with Maria and Felix drinking cheap wine. In Lisbon you can go to a supermarket and buy a bottle of red wine for as little as €1.39, maybe less. Maria went for the cheapest bottle on the shelf. I splashed out on bottles between €3-4. It was drinkable. Unfortunately I didn’t spy the notorious €3 Spanish vodka Stolchlickoff, but I’ll be in Barcelona soon enough. Our conversation became confessional with the effects of the wine.
“I can never make the move on a girl,” Felix told us. “When I was in South America I was the only blonde guy in the club. Every girl wanted to dance with me and I didn’t know what to do!”
Felix opened my netbook and keyed in the address of his Myspace page. He played us a few songs by his rock band, now broken up. I typed in my blog address and played him a few of my old compositions. Then I went to YouTube and found the great bossa nova song ‘Águas de Março’, a duet between Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina. I looked up the lyrics in Portuguese.
“I always wanted to sing this with a Brazilian,” I said to Maria.
She looked sceptical. “Really?”
“I’ll have you know I used to be in a bossa nova band,” I said. “Bob la Bonaciera and the Bossa Nova Babies.”
“Who’s Bob la Bonaciera?”
“I’m Bob la Bonaciera.”
“But you don’t speak Portuguese.”
“Bob la Bonaciera played the flute. The BNBs performed one gig in 2001 with the wonderful Australian singer Jade Randall. Then we broke up.”
The lyrics of ‘Águas de Março’ fly between the singers like a ping pong ball:
É o fim do caminho
É um resto de toco
É um pouco sozinho”
Throughout their record Tom and Elis verge on laughter. Maria and I hardly made it through one verse. My Portuguese is not very good.
Felix went to get a beer.
“I kind of like that guy,” said Maria.
“Ah. You want me to leave you to him?”
“Actually, yes. I think he’s pretty cute.”
“Remember he’s shy.”
“I’m Brazilian,” she said. “I can handle it.”
Making a Living in—and of—Lisbon
Lisbon was not just parties and nocturnal wanderings. I got up each morning to write at A Brasileira on Rua Garrett in Chaido. The great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa used to write and drink absinthe at this cafe. There’s a husky oak-and-brass interior with good light from the chandeliers. The heavy wooden chairs and marble tables were not at all comfortable, but it was a cheap place to rent a table for a couple of hours. A cafe espresso costs €80 cents. I’m sure the waiters got bored seeing me there. I finished the final draft of a novella set in Greece. The title evolved from Blue Waters of Katastari to Exarchia to, finally, Sonny’s Guerrillas.
One night Clare and I ran into Guilherme in the Bairro Alto. He was getting off his bike. It turned out we were passing his apartment building. On summer nights the Bairro Alto becomes densely congested with party-goers. Guilherme remembered an occasion late at night when a guest in his apartment wanted cigarettes. They looked from the balcony into the narrow alley packed full of people. No way to get to the shop. Guilherme’s friend tied a long string to a bucket, wrote a poem on a scrap of paper, and lowered the poem to the crowd with a message: please exchange for ten cigarettes. It worked.
“It was nuts,” Guilherme said.
“We have to talk about living in Lisbon,” I said.
We had coffee a few days later. Guilherme is originally from São Paulo. He’s lived in Lisbon since 2008. Back in Brazil he was part of a DJ duo called Orquestra Invisivel. Now he spins records at clubs and bars in Lisbon. For a while he lived in the neighbourhood of Alameda in a share flat of five people. Later he moved to the Bairro Alto, where a one bedroom flat costs Guilherme and his wife €500 a month. He grows basil and other spices on his balcony. Why does he live in the Bairro Alto? Two reasons. Firstly, its central location, history, and the community spirit. He estimates that half the neighbourhood is made up of older people who have lived there most of their lives. Secondly, the wild nightlife.
Is Lisbon a viable city for people in the arts? Hell, yes. It’s one of the cheapest big cities in Western Europe and thriving with excitement and creative activity. I guess I had better work on my Portuguese.