I sat on the steps of Lisbon's twelfth century Sé Cathedral, in the Alfama neighborhood, anchoring myself just beneath its square north bell tower. That tower, by and large, had survived the 1755 earthquake that had toppled most of the rest of the church. Though now expertly restored, the process revealed that even the original Romanesque cathedral had been built over ruins—a medieval mosque, a Visigothic chapel, a possible Roman temple, and an ancient hilltop that in prehistory had drawn humans to it.
Today, many modern layers engulfed me from three sides: Trains of tourist-packed golf carts zipping past. Rental scooter riders bumping along cobblestones, their teeth rattling from the impact. Swarms of teenagers with floral backpacks and straw hats streaming through, blending with the flower-carpeted wall next to Santo António's church just below. Bantu, Korean, and Konkani speaking visitors stepped into the church as a beggar woman held out her hand for alms and a dozen other languages swirled by.
A man in a worn Fiat drove by, stopped suddenly, and began backing up. A long line of traffic stacked up behind him but he was now fully intent to claim the only visible parking spot, ten car-lengths back. I covered my ears, ready for erupting horns and expletives. Instead, as if a synchronized water ballet, the cars magically began to reverse. The man slowly parked. Traffic trundled quietly on. A cooling salt-laced breeze rose up from the Tejo River below from where it poured into the Atlantic Ocean. I relaxed.
I was relieved to find that despite Lisbon's recent global inundation as a top tourist destination, it has remained a place of low-key warmth and infinite patience. I opened my guidebook, O Livro do Desassossego—The Book of Disquiet—and dropped a finger haphazardly onto the page. "In a moment of enlightenment," wrote Fernando Pessoa, the book's author, "I realized that I am nobody, absolutely nobody."
Among Portugal's most celebrated writers, Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888 and died here in 1935. His poetry and prose are rife with Lisbon as a key character. His modernist writing is philosophical and poignant, nailing the experience of living in a fast new world as traces of the old one poked through. He spoke then as now to the unanchored modern soul, so much so, his image is everywhere in Lisbon. It is sculpted in bronze, painted on tile, inked onto dish towels, t-shirts, tote bags, and mugs. In these images he is almost always the same, a melancholy man in tailored suit, tie, tight mustache, wire rim glasses, and felt fedora. His gaze looks askew, pondering existence.
O Livro, among Pessoa's most popular works, is a novel written as diary entries of a lonely, observant bookkeeper in early twentieth century Lisbon. Margaret Jull Costa, my edition's translator, suggests in her introduction that O Livro can be read non-sequentially, opened at random, savoring whatever entry opens up. I'd seen my grandmother and aunts do this with books of mystical poetry while thinking on a matter for which they sought guidance.
Pessoa became my obsession when I was invited to participate in the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon. Taking Pessoa, and his novel, as its icon, Disquiet is a two-week intensive series of literary workshops, readings, and activities with over a hundred other writers from around the world. Its intent is to pull people out of their everyday worlds back home and plunk them into this dynamic and distinct place, a world Pessoa felt contained everything. I saw that as Disquiet took people out of their familiar routines, they gained fresh views and experiences that knocked the dust off everyday life. "We've taken to calling this Disquieting," Jeff Parker, the program's director, told me.
Like Pessoa, a famed flâneur, I wandered the streets, striving to inhabit Lisbon old and new. Pessoa's desassossego came too, a twisting serpentine word describing betwixt-and-between sensations as well as feelings of being momentarily caught unaware at a doorway between two incoherent but viable realities. Lisbon is itself a threshold place, a geography of rolling, hard to pin down hills along the bank of a massive river emptying into the Atlantic, a place of worlds going out and worlds coming in.
I stood from my anchored perch and walked west along the river, shop windows passing like movie frames. A sewing shop packed with threads and buttons. Sleek rows of fanning multicolored refrigerators in sky blue, pale green, cherry red, pastel pink, and mustard yellow. Sardine cans stacked floor-to-ceiling. Thyme, laurel, and oregano bundles hanging over bins of ginger and chili peppers. A crowded ginjinha stand selling medicinal shots of sour cherry eau de vie. A bakery with trays of traditional pastel de nata custard tarts. A sidewalk billboard for McDonald's, "I'm Lovin' Chiado," next to a man selling pyramids of just-plucked plums and peaches from a nearby orchard.
I arrived at Lisbon's historic riverside market, the Mercado da Ribeira, its painted tile entry leading me into a wide high-roofed hangar-like space opening up to radiating long aisles of multicolored produce, with cheese makers, butchers, fishmongers, and herbalists arrayed along the perimeter.
The boisterous banter from the fishmongers drew me. One flayed a fish with a dinner plate-sized hatchet as two others lobbed colorful jokes at a gentleman customer who smiled and blushed. I heard fado singer Amalia Rodrigues in my head—no mercado da Ribeira, há um romance de amor—in Ribeira market, unfolds a romance between a fishmonger and fisherman. Near me a woman carefully arrayed lemons into pyramids, then garlic. An elderly man in a black beret walked past, tipping his cap. A mother and son arranged crates of peppers and tomatoes, gossiping with neighbors.
I moved deeper, finding the second half of the traditional market converted into TimeOut Market Lisboa. Amalia faded as Nora Jones crooned from overhead speakers. Celebrity chef kiosks on the edges served people from around the world tucking into new Portuguese cuisine at rows of communal long tables in the center. Most diners seemed to stare for long intervals at their phones or stage selfies and stories for folks back home.
"All of us, we who dream and think, are assistant bookkeepers in a textile company," O Livro said. "We draw upon the accounts and make a loss; we add up the figures and pass on; we close the account and the invisible balance is never in our favor."
I turned back toward the Belle-Époque neighborhood of Chiado. A sterile modern four-story shopping center in the heart of the historic neighborhood, a place up until now I had vehemently avoided, pulled me in. I rode the escalator up, the fragrance of ginger and garlic leading me to the food court at the top and onward to an udon shop counter, photos overhead displaying fusion Chinese, Japanese, and Korean noodle dishes. I ordered. The young chef suggested I take a seat as she sautéed my vegetables and chatted affably in Bantu and Portuguese with the manager. A lone table in back drew me as sunlight streamed across it through a large picture window. There, the floor dropped away, all of Lisbon laying before me—the harbor, blue river, rippling hills and terracotta rooftops. With the best view of the city hidden in the back of a noodle shop, I ate my fast food slow, savoring the gifts of three continents, humming, I'm Lovin' Chiado.
My last day, I climbed farther west along the river to join Disquiet's closing celebration on its last day of workshops. I passed narrow grocery, knick-knack, and hardware shops wedged into slim, steep streets. A tiny antiquarian bookshop halted me, its window displays centered on Pessoa's works surrounded by cookbooks and tomes on Freemasonry, Templars, and mysticism. Nailed to a shelf in back hung Pessoa's black and white portrait in a gilt gold frame. I recalled that he had once lived with his Theosophist aunt, attending her séances. He seemed at home here, his gaze less melancholic.
I climbed more, the Tejo's snake blue body appearing far below. Arriving at my destination in a neighborhood of houses hidden behind high garden walls, a guard greeted me and pointed to a stairway inside. "Follow it down to the garden in back," he said.
Seemingly simple, after several subterranean dead ends later, I finally glimpsed sunlight, then a terrace and garden lush with lantana, marigolds, roses, and velvety lawn. A pool glimmered at the edge. Jasmine and the strange sensation of familiarity pricked the air.
I stepped out into my aunt's garden. She was behind me in her big jewelry and flared taffeta skirt, sweeping through French doors, heels clicking on the marble floor, carrying a platter of fragrant rice. Famous for her hospitality, she would tell me to set the fruit bowl I carried, tumbling with mulberries from her orchard, onto the linen covered table by the shimmering pool. It was 1976, the last time I visited that place on the other side of the world from my native Colorado, a last idyllic summer visit to Tehran. A portal I thought forever closed, opened.
I blinked several times then joined the others for literary conversation, a glass of Douro wine in hand, and breathtaking views below of the entire river estuary and infinite hills rolling all the way to the ocean. But the perfume of jasmine and rice remained. I learned to exist at the threshold of past and present, here and there.
That night before bed, I opened O Livro. "As I write the name of the fabric I do not even know, the doors of the Indus and of Samarkand open up to me; and—belonging to neither place—the poetry of Persia with its quatrains and unrhymed third lines provides a distant support for my disquiet."
I have taken to calling this disquieting.
Award winning travel writer and anthropologist Beebe Bahrami writes most on trekking, sacred travel, outdoor adventures, food and wine, and archaeology. The author of several travel books, including the trekker's comprehensive guidebook, Moon Camino de Santiago, to view more of her essays, articles, and books, visit her website and her author's page on Amazon.
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