Three Hours in Lisbon

Well, let’s see . . . I came inches from sliding off the mossy pier into the frothing Tagus River . . .

Losing my glasses, busting open my camera, bruising my hip, gumming up my shorts, making my shirt sopping wet. Leading to one embarrassed, unsteady walk through the gawking gallery.

Then I witnessed the picked-pocket that went awry just off Augusta Street. Leading a stream of curiosity-seekers on a chase to view the impassioned altercation between would-be thief and victim, under the uneasy, though occasionally bemused policeman’s eye . . .

Then there was the Starbucks I finally stumbled across, enabling me to score that elusive token country mug for my ever-expanding collection . . .

And the dance performance—a mix of classical, jazz and hip-hop—staged in a sunken amphitheatre beneath the street I happened to traipse past . . .

Don’t forget the string of restaurants whose open-air “patios” were the landings between sets of stairs that led away from Rossio Square and the sprawling Baixa Chaido. At those free-form eateries, patrons leisurely consuming their early-evening repast while pedestrians stopped to scrutinize (and comment on) their selections . . .

Not to mention the late afternoon sunlight pulsing against the pale pink and aquamarine and cadmium facades along the face of the Bairro Alto, looking like nothing, if not stacks of antique champagne glasses piled haphazardly behind a glistening art deco bar . . .

And then, of course, there was the restaurant I got steered to by the hotel concierge, after my foray in the city had ended; a receptionist who could easily have played Maurice the bellhop in Catcher in the Rye. Me (Holden, playing Holden!), letting myself get steered to the over-priced steak house by the inducement of a complementary drink–that turned out to be microscopic shots of after-dinner port. My easy acquiescence surely helping line Maurice’s pockets, although, when I returned to recover my key, he didn’t even think to thank me.

Do I sound bitter? But how could I be? All that–the mishap on the pier, the altercation, the dancers, the stairwells, the light, the comped drinks–was life lived. And not only that: life lived fully!

The amazing thing was the way that these events came: fast and unrelenting–as life often does. Crammed together without providing any chance to masticate and process. All of it happening within the space of three hours.

Those were my only three hours in Lisbon—well, ten if you count the time I showered and brushed my teeth and slept—before having to board a plane that would whisk me out of Portugal for good.

But were they a three hours worth living?

In hindsight: absolutely, unquestionably. But, in fact, it was an open question I had been asking myself all the way down on the train from Braga earlier that day. Tired as I was, all I could ask myself was: “should I or shouldn’t I?” (get out of my hotel room and wade into Lisbon life). Me, having had little rest the past week, working non-stop and battling a rare summer head cold. But three hours in Lisbon . . . who could turn that down? Or could they? Would pushing over cobblestone and elbowing past waves of tourists and Portuguese revelers in the sweltering heat only add to my misery–my bone-weary, muscle-rending fatigue–which, in turn might undermine my ability to negotiate the twenty hour Lisbon-Amsterdam-Narita-Sendai ordeal that faced me less than a day hence?

Or (in the alternative) would the pain of regret (for not being ambitious, for not forcing myself out the door) be so burdensome–so debilitating to consciousness over the next few years—day after each irreclaimable day that I wouldn’t be able to return to this country, imagining all that I may have foregone–that I would be unable to bear the empirically indisputable (but unprovable) certitude of all glories that I had missed?

Even worse, I worried: would I have forever deprived myself of essential truths, deeper understandings of our human universe (for which I could never forgive myself)?

But, of course . . . how would I ever know?

Which was precisely the point. Unless I did, I wouldn’t.

On the other hand, there was nothing in the long walk from Alameda subway stop to my hotel that suggested any great loss; the very pedestrian promenade made it appear that Lisbon was far from an astounding, can’t miss, shimmering oasis. And so, thus seeded with doubt, I heard myself trying to convince my deeper self, “perhaps a trip into the streets will merely amount to three hours of hard labor.” Three hours of sweating buckets into my shirt with very little of value to show for it when all is said and run.

Yet . . . on still another hand, since peripatetics make it a habit to seek out the unknown, I surely was compelled to try. (As a corollary, it should be observed, in order to ensure that all remains mysterious and subject to discovery, we peripatetics refrain from traveling with a guide book–thus the only way to ever truly know for sure is to physically venture forth) . . .

Which is why, in the end, after dropping my bag in the room, I performed a quick towel bath, then got into my street gear, grabbed my camera, some spare batteries, a pen and paper, a map, and some euros, and headed back out the door.

Which ultimately reminded me of the valuable lesson I should never have forgotten: when you have a chance to open a door into life—no matter where you are—do! Because even if nothing comes of it, you will have at least put yourself in a position to have gained—a new incident, a set of faces, some pictures, a lesson or idea or way of seeing.

For instance . . . in this case: an exchange in the square, a makeshift sculpture, the play of light, a lover’s tryst, a vendor on the stoop, nature choked by development . . .

. . . something. Everything. So many things.

Things beyond knowledge, beyond expectation or daily imagination.

If you are lucky.

And if you aren’t? Well, nothing lost, other than a little sweat. A little more fatigue acquired. It is one of the basic premises of peripatacity.

Even three hours—even three minutes—is sufficient to make a difference. Whether it is a tree growing through the dance of form, or three old ladies engaged in serious discourse, or the fortuity of variables in random assembly..

It is worth pushing yourself out the door, putting yourself out there, in life’s stream. For you can only live that particular moment, or set of moments, once.

If I had ever forgotten that basic truth–that imperative of enlightenment–Lisbon reminded me. In just those brief three hours.

And I am far richer for having been so schooled.