Left Behind

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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57 thoughts on “Left Behind

  1. So simple a story and so complex the emotions you arouse. BTW, your photo choices effectively transport me, the reader, to the unique realm of your imagination.

      • I agree about the mundane experiences, Julie. I am guessing that small acts of defiance, such as the prolonged conversation with you, enable this woman to keep herself intact, even in the context of an oppressive marriage and culture. Beautifully rendered–I wanted to jump in, sit at a table, and chat with her for hours.

        • Hi Viv – that’s exactly what I thought, too. I was actually more uncomfortable than she appeared to be with the way he was glaring at her. We talked for quite a while.

  2. We are so quick to tear down abandoned buildings here in the U.S. I love the use of art. So much beauty and culture in the Iberian Peninsula. Is the exodus just about economics ?? Sad to see. Your photos are exquisite.

    • I think buildings are torn down quickly in the US for legal reasons. What if someone “wanders” in and hurts themselves, you know? The owner of the land gets sued. Little chance of that happening elsewhere, though. We have to *gasp* take responsibility for our own actions.

      The exodus is economic for sure. However, I’ve recently read how Portugal is giving tax breaks to expat retirees and others who are in a desired occupation – doctors, scientists, etc. They’re trying to woo the money and brains back, it seems.

  3. Amazing piece. I love how Lisbon makes me think of Casablanca which is essentially a story of WWII desperation to escape and that is still the feeling here with your restaurant owner. The last photo seals the deal. Beautiful work, my friend.

  4. I love the receptive way you have, Julie, to enter quickly in the mood of the place you visit… I wish to have this kind of gift me too. Beautiful photograph, as always. Cris

  5. Your description of Lisbon reminds of how I felt in Lima, Peru. It was also a haunted city where the people had abandoned their homes, but the buildings still waited for them to return.

  6. Perhaps the greatest fear that humanity faces is being left behind, of knowing that we are unable to follow, but must remain. Many times these feelings lie just beneath the surface, coming when we see a friend leave on a plane or when we hear the sound of a closed door, or when we walk through a cemetery and read the messages on the stones. We are defined by our locations, our time period, the very breaths that we take. We move forward, and leave behind whatever we did or said. A reminder that we must foster an inner journey as well as our outer journey. Simple, yet complex.

    “What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Another stellar post and discussion.

    • After I read your comment, I tried to remember a time when I was left behind. Maybe when people who visited me got on the plane to go home, but it’s not exactly the same feeling. It’s still like I’m the one who left. I think I’ve always been the one to leave…maybe before others had a chance to. You’ve given me something new to ponder. Thank you.

      • I think it depends upon where you are on your time line and the manner in which you approach your inner journey! You always give me something to think about. Thank you!!!!

    • Excuse my interfering, but I sometime have this feeling very strongly, when I realize that somehow I can’t follow my children anymore and it hurts! Thank you, dear Rebecca, for this thought and also to you, dear Julie, for your answer. Have a good time:)

  7. Fascinating glimpses of your Lisbon experience, of which u had earlier commented in one of my posts. Presently a laid-back culture seems to be pervading as otherwise the country would not be in the kind of economic straits it appears to be in today… Given its rich heritage and latent spirit of enterprise that extended its reach over several countries across the globe during yesteryears, I am sure Portugal will rise Phoenix like and restore her old glory in the years ahead… I should like you to visit Cochin, Mangalore, Goa and Mumbai in India to see the Portuguese footprint… Viva Julie… Raj.

    • Thank you, Raj. I agree that a laid back attitude has taken over in recent times and is responsible for much of the economic situation. Sadly, some (not only in Portugal) don’t seem to understand the connection between hard work (and taking pride in that hard work) and prosperity. It doesn’t help that governments punish regular, honest, hard-working people with higher taxes, which the super wealthy know how to avoid. It’s like we’re encouraged to do less, to be less. I think Portugal will come back, too. The fact that the country is trying to attract money and brains is a good sign.

  8. That poor woman, I so feel for her . . . a brilliant telling Julie and I adore the pictures with the vivid but empty streets. It’s such a hard call feeling that economic pull when roots are so deep.

  9. Julie …” Castings looks over my shoulder ” … So alive that I saw you like a vision on these streets … How simply beautiful you write …and the photos , always filled with the light of your travels …blessings of love xxx meg

  10. Chère Julie, grâce à cet exceptionel reportage, dans lequel le français a été important, et parce-que je voudrais aller a Lisboa depuis que j’ai vu le film “Train de nuit pour Lisboa” de Michele Carrupt, j’essaye de vous répondre dans cette langue. Vos fotos sont très touchants et la situation de la ville me rende un peut triste. J’éspère le mieux pour les gens concernés. A bientôt et un grand merci.:) Martina

  11. I’ve become lost in the way you’ve written above, wandering through your conversation and silent moments, finding myself with a deep hunger for each of your storied moments. Wondering perhaps, the book of Julie will, is a wide, a deep place to sail in its winding gales and rising gentle breezes. Maybe I’m just lost today and stories are where I want to travel at the moment, between places.

  12. Glimpses of other lives. You have captured the potential menace in this relationship. And the sadness and lost hopes of the woman and the empty buildings. Haunting.

  13. Comments were closed on A Path Obscured so I have to say here it was such a beautiful piece through and through, amazing photos to boot. What vibrant shots on this post, too. =)

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