Making a Living in—and of—Lisbon

[31 March 2011]

By Matthew Asprey

Midnight Intrigue in the Coração de Fado
It was midnight and the Finnish fado aficionado was seated less than two metres from the beautiful singer Filipa Tavares. The aficionado was six foot three or four, with a long face, narrow mouth with gummy and toothy upper jaw, grey-blonde comb-over, sunburn, no eyebrows, and rimless spectacles. Emotions animated his face as Senhorita Filipa sang. Tranquillity. Nostalgia. Infatuation bordering on love. Then exhortation: the chorus was coming, the aficionado’s eyes welled and pleaded, he murmured the lyrics in advance, he verily willed the black-shawled singer to sing it! sing it! Then slack-jawed disbelief as her voice soared off with the melody. This became a wide grin, he looked around to see if anybody else was so wonderfully surprised (no, only him), and then he hooted like an owl. Ooo! Ooo! A shift in tempo made the aficionado’s eyes flash with dire uncertainty, he grimaced and shuddered as if his bowels had suddenly lurched or gurgled, but this became wild enthusiasm as the senhorita concluded with:

Seu nome próprio: Maria, seu apelido: Lisboa.

The moment Clare and I had arrived in Lisbon we’d been told to seek out fado music in the Alfama neighbourhood. We walked up there beneath a full moon. Alfama’s deep and narrow cobblestone alleys etch a labyrinth into the slopes below the Castelo de São Jorge. Having more or less survived the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the district has kept its Moorish architecture. Some of the tall residential buildings have been restored while others are crumbling, overgrown with mould or moss, boarded up and condemned by the city.

In the dimness we stepped through horseshoe arches and admired the chipped and yellowed mosaics. Graffiti was everywhere: anarchism, fuck the police, comical alterations of street signs, surrealist paintings of men with fish heads, stencils of vomiting cops, passages from Neruda. In the alleys urchins sat on stoops and played handheld video games. Ancient waiters smoked outside their taverns. Football fans drank cerveja in the cold white light of hole-in-the-wall bars. The rain had stopped but the air in the twisting, dipping, steep-rising alleys was crisp as a meat locker.

Clare shivered in her black turtleneck sweater. I turned up my jacket collar. I was a little tired. Mexican dust was still caked into the laces of my tall boots. We’d been on the road nearly three months now, on a reconnaissance mission to determine the viability of living in other cities around the world.

There were many fado taverns in the Alfama alleys. We descended into a cellar from the shadows of the narrow Travessa Terreiro do Trigo. Coração de Alfama was illuminated by nothing but candlelight. One wall featured a painting of a Portuguese 12-string guitar floating above the Tejo River. Scarlet silk draped across the other tiled walls. The supporting pillars in the cellar were papered with old newspaper sheets and fado sheet music. The bar top was crowded with bottles of port wine.

The music was in progress just beyond the foot of the stairs. The tavern had seating for perhaps 30 people at a stretch. That night there were only ten customers: small men with glasses of muscatel, a middle-aged French couple, and the Finnish aficionado. The waiter, respectful of the music in performance, led Clare and I to a corner table and handed us a menu. We’d already cooked ourselves a penne all’Arrabiata dinner at our hostel, but the tavern insisted on a minimum bill per person. We had to order another meal. The only vegetarian option was a spaghetti pomodoro, which I would naturally eat sem queijo. I frowned and whispered to Clare:

“This will mean a lot of pasta today. A lot of pasta.”

“Hmm,” she whispered back. “They have orange chocolate cake.”

I asked the waiter for a half-litre of red wine. We drank from red crystal goblets. When the meals arrived I tossed black olives into my spaghetti. We watched the Finnish aficionado applaud and weep.

Fado music of the Lisbon variety is performed with a classical guitar, a Portuguese 12-string guitar and a singer, usually female. The songs are about lost loves, sailors gone off to sea, the hardships of life. The music originated in the early 19th century, or perhaps even earlier. Fado is often compared to the blues, although it doesn’t sound anything like it. 

After we finished the wine carafe I ordered a glass of port. Daniela Giblott, a young brunette with gossamer skin and flaring nostrils, stepped onto the tavern floor in a black lace shawl and began to sing:

Todo o amor que nos prendera, como se fora de cera, se quebrava e desfazia…

At that moment the street door creaked open, letting wind gust across the table cloths. The senhorita continued her song. A stocky man with a black moustache and a close-fitting homburg descended the tavern steps. He kept his black raincoat buttoned. He looked like an assassin from a pre-Hollywood Hitchcock picture. He stood at the bottom of the steps for ten seconds, seemed to make a covert signal to the waiter, and then abruptly ascended the steps again.

I looked curiously at the waiter as he put down my glass of port.

He shrugged. “We have strange people.”

As he walked away I said to Clare, “I expect Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet to walk in next.”

“This,” said Clare, “is really good cake.”

All the while Senhorita Daniela continued: “Ai funesta Primavera, quem me dera, quem nos dera, ter morrido nesse dia…

I was a little tipsy on the wine and the port and found myself drifting away with the music. I listened for hours. Until then I had thought the best music to hear while drunk was Dixieland. A couple of years ago at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival I sat up till 4AM at the Pinsent Hotel with some friends listening to Spats Langham’s band blaze through hot fives and sevens. Some university kids from Melbourne led a dance-off. I’d been sure it was the greatest music in the world. But fado works just as well.

“What a happening, undiscovered city,” I said to Clare as we walked back to our hostel. “Do you think we could move to Lisbon?”

Living Out of a 70-Litre Backpack
As I type this into my netbook computer I’m being jostled in the backseat of a nearly empty bus travelling from Porto to Madrid. I’m blaring Duke Ellington’s Great Paris Concert of February 1963 on a small set of iPod speakers. We global prowlers have been on the road for three months, now. How are we doing? I can’t speak for Clare, who is sketching in her notepad and ogling dry-stone walls in the Portuguese countryside, but I’ve gotten used to living out of a 70-litre backpack. My book addiction has found its natural limit: I can carry about 20 yellowing pocket paperbacks. I’m doing my best to get through them before we get back to Sydney. The books slot into a compartment of the backpack beside a slim sleeping bag and a cardboard box of cables and power adaptors. What else is necessary? In a red cardboard folder are drafts of my various works-in-progress. There are some clothes. An umbrella. Our rule is to buy no souvenirs. We can’t afford them. We shop in groceries and supermarkets and cook in hostel kitchens as often as possible.

We began the Western European leg of our backpacking trip in London. Weeks earlier we’d said farewell to the Ragtag Carny Crew of the Yucatan. In Mexico City we kept pretty much to ourselves. We heard world-class Latin jazz at Zinco, climbed the Pyramids of Teotihuacan, and ate too many frijoles refritos. Finally I endured a devastating week of what is known as Montezuma’s Revenge. Our plan had been to be in Cairo by early March to beat the extreme heat, but then there was the uprising, the emergency evacuation of Australians and other foreigners, the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. We keep checking the Al Jazeera website, but for the moment we’ve decided to prowl around Western Europe. First stop, London.

There was one thing I wanted to accomplish before the unrelenting expense of staying in London forced us somewhere else. One grey wintry morning I went to Chelsea to interview the writer Clive Sinclair. I’d requested an interview by email a few years ago after reading his brilliant story cycle The Lady With The Laptop (1996). Clive welcomed me into his study. He tended the fireplace as we discussed each of his books from the near-disowned Bibliosexuality (1973) to Clive Sinclair’s True Tales of the Wild West (2008). We talked about Israeli politics, his love of Westerns, his wide-ranging travels. When I have time to transcribe the tapes I’ll edit together a Paris Review-style interview. More people should read Clive Sinclair’s books.

One night while Clare was reuniting with an Australian expatriate friend, I wandered in a huddle around the city. The Thames lay between its banks like black glass. I walked into Waterloo Station. In a newsagent a lads’ mag celebrated bare arsed pop princess and mosh pit honeys. Q Magazine was profiling Oasis on its cover as if it was still 1995. I had two pounds in my pocket. I bought some onion rings. I was thinking about money. Four nights in London had cost the equivalent of two weeks in Mexico City. This global prowl was costing me much more than I could afford. I’d saved madly for a year but it had not been enough. I was going to return to Sydney broke. More than broke.

We needed to move on to some cheaper cities.

A Wail of Lovely Gut Bucket Filth

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 pau
É pedra
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.

Matthew Asprey is the author of the novellas Sonny's Guerrillas and Red Hills of Africa and the editor of Jack London: San Francisco Stories. Check out www.matthewasprey.com and Matthew's blog, Honey for the Bears.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/137902-escape-to-lisbon/