I arrived in Lisbon on 2 September, 2016, full of the fresh naivety that any traveller should have when visiting a city for the first time. It doesn’t matter how much you have read, how many documentaries you have seen, taking those first steps along the footpath in a new city is a virginal experience.
There can only ever be one first time in a big city, one chance to introduce yourself, to let it come to know you; and if you ever return, you can’t escape the familiarity of a place – you have already left a footprint there, there is a part of you remaining in the air you breathed, in the trees you leaned against, in the cafes where you sat, ate, drank coffee and people-watched.
Once you have left, each city you have visited knows you and remembers you, and, if you left a good impression, it will shake your hand again and welcome you back like a returning soldier, searching for the scent of other places you have visited and, like an old wise friend, will wait for you to show it how you have evolved and grown while you have been away.
(From my observations, this does not apply in the same way to places where you have actually lived. For instance, I grew up in Sydney but left it before my twentieth birthday. Whenever I go back, Sydney almost repels me, as if I did a treacherous thing in leaving it. I can never be a tourist there, only an outcast.)
Of course, shaking hands with a new place does not only apply to cities. It is equally applicable in country towns and even in human-free landscapes, but you feel this more immediately and more intensely in cities, I believe, because they are complex entities that don’t have time to get to know you at a leisurely pace. A city doesn’t present to you in parts (you must uncover them later), it shows you itself as a great big multifaceted entity, wraps you up in its blanket and accommodates you as best it can, while at the same time going about its business. The best thing to do is accept your place, your share of the blanket, and let it sweep you along.
Most people travel egocentrically. We need take-aways: we want to see things, do things, buy things, have things, take photos and remember stories that confirm we were there.I’ve done my fair share of all those things. It’s weird though, don’t you think, that we don’t really imagine places taking from us, and the footprints we leave.
So, what did I give Lisbon, and what did it give me?
Lisbon showed me some lovely places, fantastic architecture, rich history and diverse landscapes. It introduced me to beautiful and friendly people, and offered amazing food, wine and beer. It made me feel safe and gave me a sense of belonging, of moving forward, of life being OK. It made me sing and laugh – I did a lot of both.
Before my visit I had thought of Lisbon as a working class, fishing-port kind of place, which in a small but significant way it is, but it also showed me its rich intellectual history and a bustling postmodernity. Lisbon proudly flaunts its age, incongruously, against the large modern building works that are going on all around town.This is a city that proudly wears its old and crumbling buildings (no, they are not in a state of disrepair, we like them like that), directs you to its tiny, cluttered grocery stores where you can by a bottle of water for 65 cents, and leads you you drinks carts by the river selling wine by the glass at any hour of the day or night.
Thanks to its seven hills, Lisbon has loads of places with amazing views within easy walking distance, modern air-conditioned shopping centres not all that far from the tiny streets of the Alfama district with hidden cafes can be found, Fado music emanating from their interiors from late afternoon till dawn.
I want to go back to Lisbon more than any other place I have visited. Whatever it has, I want more of it.
So what did I give Lisbon (besides my undying devotion)? I’m not quite sure, but I think my gift was well-received, and I know I feel better for it. If you go there, see if you can see a trace of me there. You might find it at an outdoor table at Café A Brasileira, or at the ferry terminal where we waited to cross over to the Almada district for dinner. If not, that’s OK, at least reach out and touch it yourself, and let it take what it needs from you.