Lisbon, Portugal – November 2011
The far edge of a continent. Nothing ahead but infinite horizon. Lisbon is a place that inspires wanderlust. The everlasting voyage into the unknown. It is a place from which to set out.
In recent years, there has been an exodus. To Brazil and Angola, former colonies that have become greener pastures. Even the immigrants have begun to return to the places from whence they came.
Derelict buildings in the city center have become canvasses. There’s a finality to the bricked-up windows. The occupants will never return, but the vacant structures will continue to stand. Nothing to take their places but open space. An empty shell is less unsettling than a visible void.
I stroll the narrow, deserted streets of Alfama, casting looks over my shoulder. Seeking out the shadows cast by the soft November sun. Lace curtains and melodramatic television noises waft from open windows. The salty tang of the sea perfumes the air. There is a forlorn beauty to this emptiness. She is not so much abandoned as left behind. She stands on the shore, for eternity, waiting for him to come home.
A gentleman materializes. He follows me with the disturbing earnestness of a hungry ghost. After a couple of streets, I manage to shake him off. But not the unease. I meander my way back to the Bairro Alto.
I take refuge in the animated streets. This quarter becomes more familiar over the next few days. In the early evenings, after I return from trips outside of the city, I come here to eat before returning to my hotel before dark. My last evening in Lisbon, I happen upon a French crepe restaurant. The owner, a French woman, suggests a vinho verde to go with my seafood crepe. Her face lights up when I answer her in French. The other diners, two young women, pay their check and leave. The owner sets my crepe down in front of me. She lingers for a few seconds. She asks where I’m from and how I know French so well. My answers are polite, but short. I don’t want to go on and on about my life. Why would she care? She wishes me bon appétit and walks back to the counter. A man has come out from the kitchen. He sits at a small table to the right of the counter and fixes his steely gaze on her. She sits down across from him and lights a cigarette.
Despite the heavy crepe, the wine shrouds my brain in a gauzy glow. I cast furtive looks at the owner and the man. Her eyes are downcast, cigarette pinched tightly between long fingers. He speaks to her in a gruff, low voice. Her shoulders are hunched forward, taut with the anticipation of a flinch. She takes a long, luxurious drag off her cigarette, and then answers him under her breath. A brief flicker of wistfulness in her eyes as she stares down at the floor. She rises to take care of a group of women who have just sat down. He fidgets in his chair as he watches her.
I walk up to the counter to pay. She sets the bill in front of me. “Do you like Lisbon?” she asks. “Have you been to Sintra?”
I nod. “Yes, but Fatima was my favorite.” I flush with embarrassment at my slurred words.
“It is a magical place”, she agrees. “The basilica is magnificent.”
After the subject of Fatima is exhausted, I start to disentangle myself from the conversation. Deep breath. “Well, I better–.”
She blurts out questions about my life. Where did I live before Budapest? She has known others who have visited New Caledonia. Where will my husband and I go next? Her man turns to face us. Hands clenched. Petulant glare. I narrow my eyes at him, but she is all that he sees. She has taken shelter in incomprehensible language. A realm in which he is not master. She does not cringe. She knows the consequences – women in this situation always do – and yet she persists. She does not want to let me go.
The restaurant begins to fill up as our conversation dies. Her smile is one of weary resignation. I smile in return, pressing my lips closed against the words I want to speak. It’s never too late for escape. I wave goodbye and walk into the darkening streets.