The Gentlemen of Lisbon

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Lisbon, Portugal – November 2011

Gentleman #1: Gene Kelly Manqué

Ah, Alfama. Winding, narrow streets and blue tiled walls. The smell of sea. The soothing weight of two greasy pastéis de nata in my stomach. My steps are languid. Alfama is not large, so I weave up and down the same streets over and over. The faint squawking and melodramatic music of soap operas wafts from the balconies. It’s too early in the day for fado.

Women lean out of windows to chat with passersby. From behind me, a raspy, yet melodic voice reaches my ears. The Portuguese language is so romantic!

The voice behind me draws nearer, becomes more insistent. Strange. It’s not answered by another voice. And then: “Yes, I’m talking to you. Nice culo!”

I halt and wheel around. However, I do not come face to face with a filthy derelict, but rather a clean cut, diminutive gentleman. He smiles at me, but his eyes are cold.

I brandish my wedding ring. “I’ll tell my husband to beat your culo! How about that?”

His smile widens. The icy sheen on his eyes melts. He says something in Portuguese and points his umbrella up the street behind him. He’s asking me to dance, surely.

I clench my fists and stomp a couple steps away. I’ve given him exactly what he wanted: acknowledgment of his presence. Then I stop again, a sly smile on my face. I pull my camera out of my purse, snap a photo of him, wink at him, and then stride away down another street, giggling out loud at the ideas I fabricate for the photo. Should I post it on a gay dating website, perhaps?

Gentleman #2: O Mestre do Metrô

A new day in Lisboa! My legs are still sore from yesterday’s walk, so I begin by riding the subway from beginning to end. One can tell a lot about a city by watching people in the subway. The doors close and off we go. My eyes are drawn to a tall, broad-shouldered gentleman standing with his back to the door. He’s wearing a black leather trench coat. The top of his head is bald and polished to a sheen. He grips a rolled up newspaper as if it were the handle of a bullwhip. His gaze is fixed on the young woman who sits beside me. His tongue rests on his lower lip. The quick rise and fall of his chest tells me that he’s panting. Everything that he would like to do to this woman is written on his face.

I grimace and turn to look at her. She speaks to a young boy of about six years old, most likely her son. The boy stands in the aisle across from her. She tosses her brassy red hair, bats her eyelashes, and casts furtive glances at the old gentleman. Her voice becomes a purr.

The gentleman’s grip tightens around the newspaper. He has not so much as glanced at me. With age, as I fade and wither and move to the very perimeter of male attention, I’m relieved that I feel relief rather than dismay. I’m now in the position to observe without being observed.

The boy’s eyes glaze over. He sticks his foot out to trip the blind man who’s making his way down the aisle, tapping his stick in front of him. The woman tosses her hair again and beams at her son. Isn’t he cute!

I get off at the next stop.

Gentleman #3: Mr. Peek-A-Boo

Day two, late afternoon. The subway, again. Across the aisle from me sits a man who bears a striking physical resemblance to O Mestre do Metrô. His demeanor, however, is less severe. He stares at me, his expression docile, almost blank. I sit facing his direction, but next to the window, which I stare out of to avoid making eye contact with him. One stop, two stops, four stops. My neck is beginning to cramp from it being turned to the right for so long. Out of the corner of my eye, I see that he’s still looking at me. I turn my face forward. My eyes flicker at him and away. He shifts in his seat and smiles in triumph. I try to stifle the indignation that gnaws at me. I have the right to look wherever I want to look without feeling uncomfortable. I exhale deeply and then reach for my camera. When I aim it at him, he covers his face and then uncovers it. It becomes a game of peek-a-boo for a while.

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Then he adopts a more contemplative expression.

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My stop is also his stop, so when people rise and head for the door, I slide through to the front. He moves toward me, circling his finger around his temple and smiling. It seems he likes crazy ladies. When the doors open, I slip out and run up the stairs and out to the street, leaving him in the dust.

Gentleman #4: Bubblicious

Saturday afternoon. I’ve saved the Bairro Alto district for last. The streets are nearly deserted. The shutters are shut. It only comes alive at night. After a short wander, I emerge at Rua de Loreto. Trams and cars crawl by. I slow my stride and meld with the crowd.

My way is blocked by a portly gentleman. He’s wearing a hot pink t-shirt with his black suit. The jacket is unbuttoned. His large, perfectly round gut balloons under the pink fabric. I duck my head and step around him. I don’t need to glance over my shoulder to know that he’s following me. I weave in and out among the crowd, increasing my pace, but I can’t manage to put more distance between us. I turn left down Rua do Norte, a quieter street. I start to trot, but when I look behind me, he is, in fact, closer. A clown-like grin stretches across his meaty jowls. He seems to be pulled along by his gut, which now resembles a bubble gum bubble. The Bubblicious bubble gum ads of my childhood become the soundtrack to this absurd chase. The ultimate bubble has the ultimate flavors! Bubblicious! It’s like I’m stuck in one of those nightmares where, no matter how fast or clever you are, you can’t escape that which is pursuing you.

Suddenly, Bubblicious is distracted by something in a shop window. While he’s turned away, I duck into a doorway. And find myself in a cupcake shop. My stomach begins to growl. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I order a bagel with brie and cranberry sauce, a cappuccino, and a chocolate raspberry cupcake. The friendly man behind the counter tells me to have a seat. Bubblicious seems to have disappeared, so I take a seat on an antique chair near the front window. I watch as a young boy speaks to a cat that’s perched in the window across the street. I relax into the velvet cushions.

The cafe is empty, except for the man behind the counter. I finish my bagel and then reach for the cupcake. It is a beautiful creation. The cupcake craze hasn’t yet reached Eastern Europe, so it’s been years since I’ve had one. I lift it to my mouth, lowering my eyelids. Just as I’m about to sink my teeth in, I catch a flicker of shadow out of the corner of my eye. I turn to the window. Bubbalicious’ face peers around the corner into the window. He smacks his plump, grub-like lips at me. The tip of his tongue begins to slither out.

“What the –.” I sigh and set my cupcake down. I reach for my camera and jerk my thumb towards the window. “Is this normal?” I ask the man behind the cupcake counter.

He rushes to the door. Bubblicious sees him and takes off. I feel a huge pang of regret at not having his photo for my collection. The cupcake man stands in the doorway in case he comes back. “I’m sorry,” he says. “We have a lot of crazy people around here.”

While he waits in the doorway, he asks me about my time in Lisbon. I tell him about the things I’ve seen and my other encounters. He laughs and shakes his head. “That’s the older generation. They just love foreign women.” He asks if I’m going out in the Bairro Alto tonight.

I sigh and shake my head. “Are you kidding? Maybe if I come back one day with my husband. But alone…no way.”

He nods. “I never thought about how it is for a woman traveling alone. It’s sad that you have to be careful about going to some places.”

I eat my cupcake, and then I chat with him for a long while. We talk about the differences between Europeans cities and citizens. The shop starts to get busy, so he helps me choose some cupcakes for my night in my hotel room. “The lemon are the best,” he says. I buy three and then bid him farewell.

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*This last photo was taken during this trip, but it isn’t directly related to this post. I wanted to take a photo of the cool retro sign and just happened to catch this guy who stopped to stare while walking by.**

35 thoughts on “The Gentlemen of Lisbon

  1. What a fascinating piece of writing you have there! I was hanging on every word from the start 🙂
    It would scare me to wander around those streets alone, you are very courageous and look what
    came out of it, well done!
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Another great set of stories-and again, your courage is very inspiring–and the true mark of an artist–even in the midst of uncertainty and annoyance-you used your camera to record it!

  3. Thanks for reviving some good memories of Lisbon. Next time we are following you about, you seem to attract more excitement. All we had was some old guy desperate to give us a guided tour but all he wanted was money 🙂

    • Never a dull moment. That’s for sure. With the excitement comes paranoia, though. I think it might be a good thing that the guy only wanted money from you, Robin. 😉

  4. Your ability to recognize and understand human interactions is the strength and genius of your writing. The detail and movement between vignettes permits both a personal and impersonal view. Quite fascinating….

  5. I will have to copy the “camera trick” when I am in a situation similar to these recounts. I was so LOL at that bubblicious man! so so foreign J. 😀 😀 😀

    • Since this trip, I try to take photos of obnoxious people I run into. I even have one of an exhibitionist in Budapest! I got him as he was running away after I scared him with my secret weapon. I wanted to post it on my old Budapest blog, but finally decided not to. Be careful, though. Some might be upset at you for taking their photos. Be sure that you can make a quick getaway if needed. Heeheehee.

  6. A camera proves to be a fine companion for a single woman. This post offers proof in more ways than one. Your words, as always tantalize and bring us full throttle into the midst of your experiences.

    I love this: “With age, as I fade and wither and move to the very perimeter of male attention … ” Older women often speak of feeling invisible and as I become more aware of it myself, it still somewhat surprises me. Not that it should, but it does. Life …

    • Hi Patricia – Over the past few years, older women have actually started to become more visible to me. They are more intriguing to me than the young. There’s a certain freedom that comes with being invisible. I’m trying to embrace it rather than get upset at my deteriorating physical appearance.

  7. oh my… what strange people in this world! The tail is always capturing me, you write really well.. i can feel walk around the narrow street of Lisbon.. but you’ re really brave, in your place i had be a little scared maybe 😦

  8. My god Julie you have run in to some weird people, I can imagine that bubblicious guy, how annoying, there are some men like that here in Texas ;), like the fact that you take pictures of this weird people it adds more to the story, if I ever go to Lisbon, Portugal I will not go alone ;). When I went to Italy the bus driver told me to be careful that Italian men love my type, I did not see this type of weirdness but did get a lot of discounts on the stores and I even got a free t-shirt, but I travel with two friends maybe that was the difference. Very good post like always.

    • Hi Doris – Other women have told me that they had similar experiences in Lisbon. Not complete weirdos like Bubblicious, but men saying vulgar things to them. I had a big problem in Rome, but it was young men and I was very young at the time. I doubt they’d bother me now. 😉 Sounds like they treated you and your friends well and stayed respectful. That’s nice to hear.

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