In February 2014, I decided to quit my former teaching job and move from London to Lisbon. I moved from Brockley, a semi-suburbanish part of South East London, to one of the oldest parts of Lisbon – the Alfama.
With its Medieval winding streets, the Alfama has a shifting quality, as though the alleyways and alcoves move on their own accord. It is quite possible I’m sure, to have lived here for years and yet still get lost. Or stumble upon an unknown set of steps, leading to a hidden fountain or orange tree.
Although dotted with bars playing live Fado for tourists, and grills selling ‘Traditional Portugese Cuisine,’ there is nothing contrived to the Alfama. It has bent itself to tourism, but it still seems to trundle along in the same way it has for centuries. Its buildings have not been actively preserved, and they are crumbling to dust into the streets. The Alfama continues in its old ways, without self regard. There are nods to modernity – the occasional cafe with wi-fi, grocery shops run by Bengali men, a Chinese Euro shop. These have been assimilated into the Alfama as though they were as ancient at the cobbled streets.
Its population is largely a hardy group of intrepid OAPs. They scale the steep, treacherous streets with an unwavering determination. The men are either raspberry nosed, with beer bellies spilling over their belts, or dapperly dressed gentlemen. The women shuffle the streets in black shawls and dresses, gossiping in cafes and hauling bags of shopping up the hills. Their faces are lined in a way you rarely see in the UK. It is plain to see that these are people who had lived though a dictatorship, a revolution, and now in their old age, a recession.
They mainly live in ancient apartments, passed through families for generations. Bird cages hang from top windows, and pretty green and blue birds sing to each other across the alleyways. On the streets, dogs run freely without any apparent masters. A frequent visitor near our flat is a brown little mongrel. Teats weighing down heavy with milk, she snuffles at rubbish bags and tourists alike.
The centre point of our Parish is a great white church which sits like the topping on a wedding cake, towering over the rest of the Alfama. Ridiculously large in comparison to the neighbouring buildings, it strikes out the most enthusiastic bell chimes at 4pm everyday, which last for over half an hour. Whether it is a call to prayer, or simply a jubilant expression of the Catholic faith, I’m not sure.
It reminds me of the novel Gormenghast. A city built within the walls of a castle. Because of its narrowness perhaps – cars are largely abandoned on its outskirts – the Alfama feels like one huge, swaying building. It threatens to collapse any moment, yet some how perseveres. It is beautiful, and absurd.
The Alfama is also an up and coming ‘cool’ place to live for younger people too. Down the street from out flat, a bar has opened up with a familiar squatter feel. Advertising drawing classes and film nights, it’s frequented by white kids with dreads and rats tails. I watched bemused as an old geezer stopped to peer in suspiciously through the door, before shaking his head and stomping off to a nearby cafe.
Currently we have been invaded by a great swarm of American marines. We all awoke one morning to the sight of two grey warships on the harbour, and packs of shaven headed men roaming the streets. Young American sailors on shore leave, searching for a good time. Even this within itself has an oddly archaic feel to it.
Under different circumstances, the marines would be intimidating. But on the streets on the Alfama they are so incongruous with their surrounding, they look vaguely ridiculous. I went to visit one of the Alfama’s many churches yesterday, and found two marines wandering around sheepishly inside. Clutching at tour guides, their expressions were ones of pained confusion.
Lisbon is not poor in churches. The wealth they express is breath taking. Huge marble monuments to Lisbons more illustrious past, they are vast and cavernous places. With that dank, sweet, underground smell of stone, they seem now to mainly serve as sanctuaries against the heat.
My job takes back and forth and back again across Lisbon’s tiny metro system, which runs about the distance of the East London line. There are four in total, green, blue, red and yellow. Music tinkles along, and the airs smells perpetually of popcorn.
I spend so much time sitting in underground carriages, that I’ve dedicated large amounts of time to looking at my fellow travellers. They are for the most part, a reserved kind of people. Not at all the hot blooded Ibbenese you might expect. I watched a couple of Spanish teenagers chat and laugh loudly on train, whilst the Portugese people around them threw dirty glances and tutted to themselves.
There is a strong vein of conformity, especially with the older generations. Apparently during the right wing regime of the Estado Novo, any visual sign of non-comformity could be read as an alignment with communism. This mistrust of those who appear different seems to linger, and I am stared at by hard face OAP’s on a regular basis. With my pale skin and light brown hair, I am evidently an outsider. Amongst my fellow foreign friends, this look is termed the ‘stink eye,’ as short skirts and Doc Marten shoes are scrutinised in disgust.
Because I don’t yet speak the language, I find myself mainly watching people as opposed to listening to them. I find it interesting to note that Lisbon women take great care to do their nails and bleach their teeth, but wear no make-up. It’s extraordinary how un-used to seeing bare faced women I am. A glossy haired business woman in high heels and expensive suit without a speck of makeup is quite the norm here.
The metro is also characterised by its beggars. I have come to recognize them. There is the blind man with a stick, who taps out a beat as he makes his way down the carriage, beat boxing as he goes. His eye sockets are empty, and folded over with skin. People shift uncomfortably in their seats, avoiding the tin cup he thrusts forwards.
There is a blind woman too, who calls out in Portugese. The words are about saving your soul, and saving the soul of the city. There is the man with an accordion, and trained chihuahua who sits splayed out on his master’s shoulder. The dog holds a cup in his teeth, which people fill with change. Finally, there is the old woman. She looks the typical Portugese grandmother, with tight curled white hair and padded old lady shoes. She has no dog, she is not blind, she sings no songs. She walks up and down the carriage, looking passengers in the face and asking for money. She is always successful.
What I notice most of all however, is the lack of people. Having spent 5 years in London, Lisbon feels woefully underpopulated. Streets are marked by their empty houses. With boarded up windows and doors, they stand gaping. Home only to pigeons, covered in broken tiles and graffiti, they are sadly beautiful. This is Lisbon, a once grand and stately beauty, now neglected and crumbling. The dis-repair, the abandoned streets and empty doorways give the city a ghostly quality, as all around you stand reminders of Portugal’s former power and glory. Still beautiful, still imposing, but crumbling to dust in the street.