What I learned in Lisbon

2 Feb

This will be a collection of facts/factoids, observations, and things I learned about myself by being here:

Those Portuguese Jesuits got around:  the Japanese word for ”thank you”, arigato, derives from the Portuguese obrigado, as does the word for bread, pan, and trousers, zabaton. The Jesuits arrived in Japan in the 1550s and stayed for about 50 years.


All Portuguese girls, and almost all women under the age of 45, have long hair, usually a bit wavy, always dark, and parted down the middle. Our young friend Paula substantiates my observation, that in Portugal a woman with short hair is suspected of being an artist, a revolutionary, an intellectual, a lesbian, or a combination of these traits. Only older women, who have had enough with the hair nonsense, will get their hair cut short and permed, probably died black or red as well.


I have learned that I would find it nearly impossible to live in a country where I couldn’t speak the language. It’s not that one can’t find people who speak English; it’s that I can’t carry on pleasant banter with people on the street or in the shops. And worst of all, there are all those wonderful books in the bookstores that I can’t read!


The Palacio at Sintra is one of the happiest, most liveable-seeming castles I have ever seen. And the whole town seems to have been the inspiration for the towns in fairy tales, and in movies like Shrek. And it was only one example of the Portuguese aesthetic that I found so appealing. Even the most ornate Manueline style of architecture seems less fussy, less pompous, humbler, than Germanic Baroque, for example.


P1030379 (1)the Portuguese people, if one is going to stereotype them, are rather somber, dignified, polite, and not exuberant.  When we had the tram stop outside our apartment window because a car had parked on the narrow street and he couldn’t get by, the police didn’t come, the people didn’t yell and scream; when the owner of the car came back after an hour or so, he just drove away. This kind of outlook seemed to prevail on the tram we were on when it hit a car on the tracks. Everyone had to get out and walk about a kilometer to the bus stop, and wait there for at least an hour. People just seem kind of resigned to these inefficiencies. But they are also patient and friendly, if reserved.


the distance across our tiny narrow street where the tram runs is 20 feet, 8 inches. And on this street cars are parked and the tram runs!


Tiles, tiles, tiles!!! I love them, and they’re everywhere, in all shapes and sizes, all colors, and all themes. While the Museu Nacional de Azulejos has lovely displays and some good didactic descriptions of how they are made, information in English was a little scant on just WHY the Portuguese have become so enamored of tiles. I found this lack of information in English to occur in all kinds of topics, from photographers to artists to history in general. While the Portuguese have some beautiful catalogs and books, they are in Portuguese, as if no one else in the world would be interested in what their history and culture has to offer.


People we have learned about:

800px-O_marques_de_pombal,_conde_de_Oeiras**Marques de Pombal (1699-1782): his real name was Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal, and I have written about him in an earlier blog. His name shows up everywhere in Lisbon, and he even appears adjectivally describing a part of town and a style of architecture as ”Pombaline.” Suffice it to say that he was a combination of Robert Moses and Cardinal Richelieu after the Lisbon earthquake, and by antagonizing the Jesuits incurred the wrath of a devout Queen, who banished him to the countryside.


gulbenkian**Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955), about whom I have already written quite a bit. I was happy finally to understand how this Armenian had come to Portugal, and the great extent to which his Foundation has influenced cultural life here. Going to a concert of the Gulbenkian Orchestra, we were able to look at the Foundation’s bookshop, which included an astounding array of scholarly publications in all fields published under the auspices of the Foundation. Gulbenkian’s name is everywhere in Lisbon.



**Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999)–the Queen of Fado, the national music of Portugal. She really was amazing, one of those Edith Piaf figures, from abject poverty to diva status.


**Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935)–the Portuguese revere their literary figures, and except for Luís Vaz de Camões (c. 1524-1525), none is more revered in contemporary Lisbon than Pessoa. His image with hat appears everywhere, on walls, in statues, and on book covers. Since he did write some in English (he had lived in South Africa as a boy), he is perhaps better known than other Portuguese writers in the rest of the world. His most famous book, The Book of Disquiet, contains this description, which seems to define a particular trope of being Portuguese:

”He looked about thirty, thin, rather above average height, exaggeratedly bent over when seated but less so when he stood up, dressed with a certain negligence, which was not entirely negligence. On his pale, uninteresting face an air of suffering did not stir interest, although it was difficult to define what kind of suffering that air — it seemed to suggest several kinds: privation, anguish, and a suffering born from the indifference of having suffered a great deal.”

To my consternation, none of the names of any of the kings and queens have stuck with me….


Coffee:  cafes-capa-1024x669

Just as in Vienna, Portugal has very specific kinds of coffees to order. A garotto oscuro was G’s favorite:  an espresso with a small dollop of milk. A Galão oscuro is like cafe au lait, strong coffee with a lot of hot milk in a glass. Um bica is an espresso. There are others., and they are all very good.


While we found our Bairro Alto apartment to be charming and fascinating in many ways–a truly working-class part of town, just beginning to be gentrified a little bit–I was surprised to find that what really got to me after a while (and about the town in general) was that there is not a blade of grass or tree anywhere in the neighborhood. A few people have put plants on their little balconies, but no street trees or bushes appear, which begins to create a rather claustrophobic feeling. That’s why the gardens are so popular, although they are rather formal. I felt liberated once we took a drive and were out in the countryside.



As we drove north and up into the hills leading to Coimbra, the university town, we were astonished to see that the hills were covered entirely in eucalyptus trees!  (This photo is of a single one at the Casa Relvas in Golega, but take my word for it, the hills are covered in them!) With a fairly reddish soil as well, it often felt like we were on the Hume Highway in New South Wales!



Portuguese food:  The pasteis de nata–cream custard pastries–are really quite yummy, but after a few I realized that they were really, alas, too rich for me. I can also attest that I truly do not like bacalhau, the dried codfish that the Portuguese make into a variety of dishes. I had it cooked four ways, and found all of them to be a waste of good fish. When such fantastic fresh fish is available, as it is now, why bother with what must have been a necessity in poor times? I found its taste to be bland, rubbery, and at times downright unappetizing.

Goat cheese of a special scrumptiousness appears often and everywhere, sometimes presented along with bread at the beginning of a meal. They also make very nice sheep cheeses, and sheep and goat yogurt is fairly easy to find.

The Portuguese love their meat, and very good butchers can be found everywhere. Pork is the favorite meat, but they also have good lamb, beef, and excellent chicken. To our surprise, despite the fact that superb produce is available in the markets, vegetables are rarely served with meals–a little salad of plain lettuce with tomato and carrot, maybe, and then a side of boiled potatoes and carrots. Sometimes a meal of fish will be served with broccoli, but otherwise we saw no vegetables at restaurant meals. Except for a few lovely seafood meals, and a great feijoada, we were a bit disappointed in Portuguese cuisine.



The Livraria Bertrand, on Rua Garrett near Largo do Chiado in downtown Lisbon, is the world’s oldest continuously operating independent bookshop in the world! It began in 1732, and has been at this site since a little while after the 1755 earthquake. Lisbon has wonderful bookshops, from tiny little antiquarian ones to specialty travel bookstores. Bertrand now has about 50 branches throughout Portugal.  And even the train station’s bookshops have REAL literature. I saw someone on the train to Estoril the other day reading Camus.


Finally:  we have loved our time here, going at a much slower pace, enjoying the warm weather with cool breezes (although January is probably the wettest month, and people here considered it very cold). We would have given Lisbon 5 stars as a tourist destination, but on the last day George had his wallet pickpocketed on the beloved Tram 28! (Only 20 Euros, but LOTS of hassle with cancelling credit cards…) We spent the last day of our stay at the police station–we need a police report if G. is ever going to be able to rent a car again, since we can’t get a replacement license here. Again, the sweet Portuguese are just resigned to the fact that this happens. So:  be sure that you visit Lisbon, but watch your wallet!!!



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