Wednesday, October 8, 2014


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.

“You don’t need to travel to Ithaka,” says the handsome young man at the elegant stained glass window tea room/hotel in Alfama, the now-trendy, ancient stone & cobbled neighborhood of Lisbon. “You are already here, in Lisboa, the most beautiful city in the world.”

“What should I see?” I ask.

“Go out & wander. Lisboa is a city for walking,” he says, echoing my Portuguese friend, Mafalda, who suggested places to see & things to do, but insisted that in Alfama, “You should just wander.”

Lisbon is like a city in a dream—you turn a corner & have no idea where you’ll find yourself. A narrow, shabby street in which every building is covered with graffiti opens onto a vast sunny marble square lined with columns & cafes. A set of impossibly steep stone steps leads to an ancient cathedral. Winding cobbled streets, tiled Moorish archways, shadowy stone corridors & courtyards bump against weighty stone castles & fortresses. Laundry hangs from balconies—a pair of harem pants swaying in front of a doorway beckons me into a shop where I learn they belong to the upstairs neighbor. Over another shop, a man sits on his balcony, plays his guitar & sings. I realize that I love cities with balconies—they merge the inside & the outside, & invite the passerby into the street drama.

Like fado, this city doesn’t cover its dark heart—it displays it proudly. Fado is the music of the marginalized, the cry of the oppressed, the song of the yearning soul. Last night I went with my friend, Ricki, to Sr. Vinho, a fado restaurant. There were four performers—three women & one man—accompanied by two guitarists. The lights dim for a fifteen-minute set by one singer followed by a breather to eat, talk, drink, & then the next singer. The show begins at 9:30 & ends at about midnight.

My favorite singer is Liliana Silva. She tightens her fingers around the edges of her shawl & throws her head back to unleash her song. As personal & intimate as the balconies nearly touching across narrow streets, fado also seeks to connect. It means “fate” or “destiny,” & the emotion in Liliana’s powerful voice & the eloquence of her gestures & expressions transcend language barriers.

Fado is the expression of saudade, one of those wonderful words that means so much more than its definition. Saudade is a longing for what you’ve lost, nostalgia for the home you left behind, pain at the loss of yesterday, & yearning for what can never be recaptured.

The Portuguese understand saudade—their heads turned back like Lot’s wife—while they squint into the horizon for the coastline glimmering in the distance, a mirage from the future. Vasco da Gama & many other Portuguese sailors left their homes in search of new lands to conquer.

“We are never satisfied,” says the young man at the tea room in Alfama. “Like Fernando Pessoa, we want many lives, many identities. We want a chance to fail at all of them.”

“Is there any city that cultivates sadness more lovingly than Lisbon? Even the stars only ‘feign light’,” wrote Pessoa.

Pessoa—which means “person”—is the resident artist spirit who haunts Lisbon. He was raised in South Africa, but returned as an adult to Lisbon, which he never left. He worked at a series of accountant jobs while trying his hand at publishing & translating. A prolific writer, he wrote not only under his own name, but under 75 others, which he called “heteronyms,” each with his own independent intellectual life. He is everyone, & he is no one, & when you walk in Lisbon—as he did, ceaselessly—you might glimpse a short bespectacled hunched figure a few steps ahead.

You walk faster to see if it can possibly be … of course not, it can’t be … he died in 1935…  

Yet …

… this is Lisbon after all, the city that exists in the between—yesterday & tomorrow, darkness & light, poverty & opulence, barbarity & kindness, the journey & the destination. “To dream about Bordeaux is not only better but also truer than stepping out of the train in Bordeaux,” wrote Pessoa.

You stop rushing & look around you in wonder. After all, you are already here, exactly where you are meant to be.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

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