JP Gaul: Loafing in Lisboa


JP Gaul goes in search of old Europe in the Portugese capital

“Boa tarde” mumbled the driver of the Lisbon funicular, the elevador, as he sat in semi-darkness, a cool spot away from the bite of the sun outside. He was wearing American collegiate style black beef-roll loafers, and I later began to notice that all the tram drivers were wearing them. If I needed confirmation that Lisbon was a European capital with its aesthetic firmly rooted in the past, here was living proof – even the tram drivers looked smart in their standard issue too-cool-for-school shoes and ‘Transportes Publicos Lisboa’ polo shirts. I was a long way from the torture of the London bendy bus. The European tram driver had long haunted my superficial imagination, ever since I’’d learned the legend of the ineffably hip Persol 649 sunglasses originally being designed to be used by Turin tram drivers in the 1950s. It remains an inescapable truth that there is something inexplicably romantic about city streets with a network of overhead cables swinging above them and the sound of screeching metal ringing through the air.

For years I had travelled across London to enjoy the rather cheap and grubby pleasures of the Cafe Lisboa in Golborne Road W10. Pasteis de nata had practically been my staple food stuff for my first few years in London. Now I finally had the chance to plug straight into the real thing, except it quickly became clear that finding ‘the real thing’ was to be a vexed pursuit. The only authentic Portuguese life form I encountered on the eerie walk from Cais do Sodre train station to the funicular tram was a pair of gingery cockroaches, violently rutting in the gutter. Let me warn you that the Lisboan cucaracha has as much swagger and presence as its notorious New York cousin on the other side of the Atlantic. On the trams there were signs everywhere warning of the presence of pickpockets. Desperate by now to meet someone or something authentically Portuguese, I sluttishly unzipped my bag in the hope of attracting the interest of a frisky local, but was instead thrown into the armpit of a mother of three from Cardiff as the tram swung mechanically around another impossibly tight corner.

Eventually I found a district high up on a hill where hundreds of slices of lime were wedged into the gaps in the cobblestones. Here were Lisboetas and here were little bars and clubs where the local soul music, fado, was enthusiastically celebrated. The clubs all resembled those slinky, atmospheric cellar jazz hang-outs of films like Bertrand Tavernier’s wonderful ‘Round Midnight’ or Martin Ritt’s ‘Paris Blues’. All it needed was Newman or Poitier to emerge in their white trench-coats, horns under their arms, but had that happened this would indeed have been proof that I’d been overindulging in the local fire’ water, aguardente.

I ought to have come to Lisbon in the 1980s when I was young and had my serious nata habit. This time the timing felt a bit off. Tourists are always inevitably rather clueless outsiders trying to make sense of it all, but this time making sense of Lisbon felt particularly difficult. Political grafitti and old school revolutionary propaganda painting was all over the city. Hard times are back in these parts as deep public spending cuts begin to bite after the recent crisis with the Euro in Portugal. The tourist benefits from a depressed local economy – where else in Western Europe can you find fantastic coffee for 50 cents? And there is also the sense that the things which make Lisbon so absolutely charming – the unchanging shop fronts, the districts full of single trades like ironmongers or bakers, the trams, these only exist due to a lack of investment and dynamism. As a tourist I find it completely delightful, but I wish I had a local’s perspective on it all. Instead I left with only the taste of the sublime localpasteis de nata on my lips and the memory of gyrating cockroaches in my head. I’ll come again in 10 years time and hope to catch Lisbon in a more optimistic mood. I just pray my tram driver will still be in his shiny black loafers.

Published 6 June 2012

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