Sketches from the city

Sketches from Lisbon.

It is strange to live in such a strong community, and to feel no connection to it. To be an active outsider in an area which does not welcome strangers. My initial experience of the Portuguese was built on these encounters. Moving to an oddly touristic yet poverty stricken area of the city. Filthy in a way I have never seen or known prior to Lisbon. Every crack between each cobble stone holding a cigarette butt. Locals drifting by, with hacking coughs and brown saliva. The rubbish is left open to the sun, piled and twisted with potato skins, vegetable peelings, fish bones. Cockroaches greet you from the top of staircases, antennae twitching in the air. I had never realised, until I moved here, that pigeon shit had such a deeply distinctive smell. I’m certain that for the rest of my life the smell will transport me directly back to Lisbon. To Alfama.

It’s interesting to see the ongoing relationship between the tourists and the locals. Tourists wander around wide eyed, taking photos of washing lines. Charmed by the undeniable authenticity, the old-worldy charm. They stop for Ginginha and Pastel de Nata, reveling in their adventure. I was photographed once, hanging a towel from my window. Transformed, momentarily, into another prop in Alfama’s Disneyland. Part of the scenery in someone else’s holiday. It is hard to resist the charm of a tiny old Portuguese woman leaning from a  window. It is the dream, the fantasy we English and Americans have about  Europe. The stooped old woman draped in her shawl. Passing the time gossiping with a neighbour, feeding her cat. They are relics of an imagined past, a simpler time. The picturesque poor.


Many of these old women are so stooped, so riddled with arthritis and gout, they cannot leave their apartments. They are reliant on the kindness of their neighbours to bring food and provisions. In dark, low ceiling apartments, they are squashed upstairs with cats and birds. Animals kept on leashes at doorways, canaries in cages. Occasionally they venture out, attempting to scales the staircases and clinging to the walls. Offering shaking hands to strangers  ‘Por favor… Por favor..’  Faces scrunched, legs bulging with effort.

They make a strong contrast with the less desirable Alfama residents, the unsightly poor. The raspberry nosed men hacking out globs of spittle, the women drinking from cartons of wine. Walking the streets I became familiar with the sight of the same local characters, whiling away their time in Alfama doorways and street corners. Young men in Benfica shirts letting their eyes roll over me as I passed by, making a low hiss as I turned my back. Their kids with intricately shaved hair cuts whooping on bicycles, bothering the old ladies and upsetting the local vendors. Then the tourists passing through the middle of the streets. Like a stream of water slowly ebbing through the dirt. Enjoying the spectacle, soaking up the authenticity. Then back to the cruise ship for dinner, for tomorrows destination.


I lived there, but I was never a part of it. I could never be included. What does it mean to live in a place, but to be excluded from it? It is a worthwhile experience, to be made aware constantly of your position as a foreigner. To be the continual subject of scrutiny, mistrust. I would generate foul glances from the old women, appalled at my choice of footwear. Lecherous glances from men, the colour of my hair marking me out as different. One time, passing a group of men on the street, a guy leaned over and pulled my hair, laughing. Shocked and unable to process  what just took place, I didn’t react and kept on walking.

Some days I faced these looks and whispers with resolve. Stuck out my tongue, gave people the middle finger. Other days, the constant pressure of being obviously foreign made want to peel off my own skin.

In June Lisbon celebrates it’s patron saint – Saint Antonio, and it’s most beloved fish –  the sardine. Why these two great loves come together at the beginning of summer, I’m not sure, but I suspect it has something to do with local fishing traditions and the ever present affect of Catholicism.

The resulting mess is 3 days of street parties. Pumping euro-pop, sweaty tourists and Portuguese locals strung out on fried sardinhas and home brewed agua dente. Last year I spent the evening stumbling around alleyways eating microwaved snails served in a polystyrene cup, and then desperately trying – and failing- to get some sleep before work. It’s the one time of the year where all of Lisbon descends upon Alfama, and for the locals, this is the high season. Families get out picnic tables and BBQ’S, start frying up fish on the street.

There’s no menus, and no prices. Every family member is involved. My Dad and I were served by an acutely embarrassed looking teenage girl, who sulked from table to table taking orders. Her parents were working the BBQ, and at the end of the meal an indecipherable bill arrived. Our tourist status had been weighed up, and the resulting bill reflected our position as foreigners – our sardines were considerably more expensive than those served to the locals.

Coming from a country where everything is regulated, standardised and enforced, it’s quite revelatory to live in a place where you can largely do what you want. Alfama belongs to the people who live there – or so it seems. In the UK, can you imagine a 3 day street party dominating the capital city, left completely to the devices of the locals? No large corporate sponsorship, no entrance fees. Certainly no health and safety requirements. Grandma scooping out cups of alcohol to unsuspecting tourists, while the kids loll from table to table taking down orders.


It’s interesting how the sight of human misery can become just another aspect to the backdrop of your life. When I first moved here I was stunned by the amount of obviously ill and suffering people, living in squalid conditions or lying in cardboard boxed in the street. Then, in a matter of months, I started seeing them with less and less emotion. I still pitied their situation, but my initial horror had worn away. Now, I barely see them at all. They are as familiar as the beautiful squares, the colourful tiles. I used to go running by Santa Apolonia docks on a regular basis, which is the site of the Lisbon soup run. Long lines of homeless and unemployed people wait patiently with tupperware, In England, we have a population increasingly reliant on foodbanks, but this service largely operates in private. People go to discreet locations to receive their parcels of food. In Lisbon, it seems to happen in plain view. Yet still, we walk with purpose in the opposite direction. Avert our eyes. Enjoy the sun. Choose not to see, or shrug our shoulders and resign ourselves to inevitability



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