Friday, 19 September 2008

ready to go back to Lisbon already...

Day 1:
This afternoon I had my shoes shone. (Shined?). Mum's been on at me to do it since she arrived, since my beautiful brown leather shoes are looking a bit scruffy, after 8 months of travelling-walking. I've been resisting, partly I suspect, out of sheer stubbornness, and as a throwback to the only kind of teenage rebellion I have ever really exhibited (can I hear a 'get a haircut' please?). But I think it's been mainly because there's a sort of pride to be taken in scruffy shoes, shoes that have obviously seen a lot of road, shoes that could tell a few stories if they had the talking kind of tongues, and I was loath to erase that, in the same way that an oenologist wouldn't dream of dusting his collection. Also, I'm a bit pedantic about my shoes, and I'd rather they got a bit scuffed, than treated with some shiny-making, nice-smelling, leather-killing chemical concoction.

But wandering through the city on our first afternoon here we came across an abandoned stool and brushes on the footpath, and at the same time I tried to surreptitiously take a picture of the open bar in the traffic island with a few old men standing around having a late afternoon beverage. I guess I wasn't that subtle, because one of them wandered over and somehow I was having my shoes cleaned. He spoke no English (although I suspect he understood a fair bit), but somewhere in the long-jump pit between that and my complete lack of Portuguese we understood each other.

'Can I take your picture while you're shining my shoes please?'
'No, you'll have to wait 5 minutes - I don't want you taking my picture while your shoes like this, I take pride in my work!'
'Um...fair enough...giggle...'.

It was definitely the best E2.50 I've spent all year, and not just because my shoes are looking better now than they did when they were new. This old man put on a great show - not a spectacle mind you - but he knew what he was doing, and did it well, cigarette firmly wedged in his shoe brush, at least when it wasn't in his mouth. I suspect he's not the most interesting guy in Europe, and certainly not the most beautiful, but (without being a complete middle-class twit, glorifying the working man blah blah) somehow he had more charm than almost anyone I've come across this year.

Why am I telling such a long story? Well, it's a metaphor for how I'm feeling about Lisbon right now. It's a pretty grubby city, and could use a serious bit of spit and polish itself, but somehow I like it here, I really really like it here. The weather's good, but not annoyingly straight-white-teeth, blonde hair perfect, and the people have been bend-over-backwards friendly, whether or not we speak the same language: our neighbour on the plane gave us a list of tips for things to see in Lisbon and made sure we got a good deal on a taxi; the taxi driver from the airport explained (in French) all the sights to us as we went past; the hotel receptionist suggested an itinerary for our few days here; the cafe waiter cracked a joke about how well we communicated despite the fact that I was forced to order in Portuguese (a language I literally speak 2 words of - the obligatory 'hello' and 'thankyou') because he spoke nothing but the native language; the Brazilian dinner waiter gave me his email address in case I ever visited his country and needed any tips. Jolly submarine yellow seems to be the colour of choice here, for everything from tablecloths to trams, and the tiling on all of the footpaths and some of the buildings makes me imagine the Moors who colonised this whole peninsula over a thousand years ago. The policemen drive around on glorified golf buggies and segways. Oh, and this is the home of the custard tart. What more could you ask?

Day 2:
Today didn't quite live up to day 1, but I suppose the wide-eyes couldn't last that long. This city built on 7 hills is gritty, and I have to keep reminding myself that the graffiti and grime, the people lolling about in the streets don't indicate dodginess like they would at home: Portugal has the lowest GDP per capita in western europe, but it's about 20 places ahead of Australia in the peacefulness stakes. Mum mentioned over coffee that she's been as relaxed here as she's gotten since leaving home - I think this is Lisbon. It's not very shiny, and there's no big 'must-see' destinations, but the people move more slowly, and there's more time to savour the sun and the matching yellow scenery.

This morning we hiked up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge - the old castle which dates from 6bc. It was a lovely tranquil spot, but I kept waiting for an actual building, rather than open ruins. Cue Tony Roinson. We wandered down through the muddled streets Alfama, historically the muslim area, and came across the starkly beautiful catholic cathedral halfway down. We wandered through to the Bairro Alto for a moroccan dinner and left rather quickly - I think it's the Hindley St of Lisbon, with all of the coolest shops, restaurants and bars, but with the same confronting first appearances. I suspect we won't go back, although I will always wonder what we might've missed.

The Portuguese language is still rolling around in my mouth and my head - it sounds nothing like I thought it did, but almost like Russian, and I can't understand the sounds of it beyond the numbers, although much of it looks familiar. It sounds less like Spanish than I expected, and in fact our crazy taxi driver told me 'the one thing you must know in Portugal - you must not mention the Spaniards!'. We haven't had any trouble getting around, and almost everyone speaks English, and of those who don't, a majority surprisingly speak French. Despite this, it grates that I am forced to follow 'olá' with ' you speak English?'. I've been spoilt in Britain and France, and even Germany to a lesser extent; I utterly hate the feeling of being in a country where I speak and understand absolutely none of the language - I feel impolite, like a bad houseguest. Everyone, however, has been unfailingly friendly about it, and those who can't speak English just smile and nod at my awful attempts at menu pronounciation. Even that seems the way of life here: smile and nod and continue on with your day.

2nd and last day in Lisbon:
Right now I am in Venice and I have had the WORST day (good luck getting an Italian person to so much as smile at you!) so unfortunatley i'm not in a good writing mood, which is a shame because this lisbon post was going pretty well. But i've been so slack about these updates and i'm so behind that i thought it better to just get moving and finish it off.


We navigated the post office, had lunch in a horrible tourist cafe, but made the most of it by ordereing the most random thing on the menu which was actually not bad - a banana and cheese toastie. We made a trip out to Belem and had the famous pasteis de belem - the portuguese custard tarts. These were incredibly and actually way better than at home, though essentially the same thing. The pastry was so flaky - almost like croissant pastry and almost burnt at the bottom making it all tasty-like. The custard was just set and still warm and you get little packs of sugar and cinnamon to sprinkle on top. So so yum. We bought 2 and then went back and joined the giant line for 6 more, they were so delicious. Whilst out there we also saw the monstery of jeronimos which was really lovely, and also had this great big timeline of the history of the monastery (over 600 years from memory) with another line showing the conurrent events in portugal and another with world events. It really taught me a lot about portuguese and world history in a very short time.

After heading back from Belem we went on a mad shopping trip to pick up a few things - i bougth a filigree peacock brooch which seems to be the thing to buy in portugal and up to this crazy shop we'd spotted earlier selling aprons. It was like something straight out of the 50s - kind of women's home goods, from babies clothes to deoderant to washing powder, and they had these awesome old cross over apron/pinnafore things like my mum's nanna (apparently) used to wear, and iv'e basically only seen on the crazy old italian ladies in my street (i think). Anyway i fully wanted one, and it was quite an experience finding the right size becuase the guy running the shop didnt speak anything but portuguese, but like everyone else in lisbon was so super friendly and between his portuguese and my franglais and a heap of smiling and laughing nodding and hand gestures and guessing we walked out with a couple of nanna aprons. What a souvenier! Then we went up the crazy lift from 1906 that lets you see over the city and had dinner where I *encouraged* mum to have the sardines which she enjoyed eating and i enjoyed watching because they had bones and heads.

Anyway, in conclusion Lisbon was excellent. I liked it as a city, but for me more importantly it really reinforced that all the cool attractions in the world are less important than friendly happy people, a lesson i'm unfortunately re-learning from the other angle here in Venice. Ah well, easy-come, easy-go...

(PS. sorry about my horrible spelling, punctuation etc etc blah. I amm very tired).


Lauren said...

Ah yes, the Italians. I remember being amazed that people always complained about the French after some of the experiences we had in Italy!

Lisbon sounds beautiful. I'm adding it to the list of places to go next time.

Kate said...

I'm so glad you are back blogging! I adore reading your adventures. Not long before I can show you my beautiful city.