Making a Living in -- and of -- Lisbon

All photos by © Matthew Asprey

From the fado taverns of Alfama to the legendary cafes of Chaida, the Global Prowlers explore Western Europe´s most welcoming city. "What a happening, undiscovered city," I said to Clare as we walked back to our hostel. "Do you think we could move to Lisbon?"

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.

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