Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Lisbon, Portugal

Posted on 10/5/03

Despite being surrounded on two sides by Spain, Portugal has undeniably carved out its own character. Different language, different daily schedule, different work ethic, and different walking speed among other things.

The expeditious Portuguese aren’t even remotely as laid back as the Spanish. My first tip-off was their hurried, every-man-for-himself walking style. The Portuguese not only kick out the jams with the pace, but they are in such a blinding hurry to get where they are going that they will plow straight through a crowd like a linebacker lunging for the goal line. They knife between people where there is seemingly no space to do so, cutting us less aggressive, startled tourists off even if it’s just to get onto a waiting metro where the speed in which you board the train has absolutely no bearing on how fast you get to your destination. But this logic doesn’t seem to enter the minds of the Portuguese. Even if you are standing close enough to the person in front of you to risk a sexually transmitted disease, one Portuguese after another, men and women alike, will dive in front of you from the side to gain that vital .5 seconds in their critical, time sensitive quest to get on the metro and stand around while everyone else boards. This appears to be totally normal and non-rude behavior, as it happened to me constantly and no one bothered to acknowledge what would be a huge social faux pas anywhere else in Europe, so just to fit in I started doing it too.

Things get even uglier and more raucous when the Portuguese get behind the wheel of a car. They use their horns more often than they use their brakes. The car horns in Portugal get so much wear and tear that Portugal may be the only country in Europe where car horns have their own extended warranty and servicing schedule. They use their horns when they want people to speed up. They use their horns when they want people to slow down. They use their horns to remind the people in front of them that the light has just turned green. They use their horns to inform someone that the timing of their lane change was not optimum. They use their horns when they are hopelessly stuck behind dozens of jammed up cars to signal that they are bored and would like to move now. You can’t go three seconds on the street without hearing someone unleash a healthy, earsplitting toot. For jumpy, sleep deprived, easily annoyed tourists, these habits are obnoxious and maddening in addition to nixing any possibility of having a decent conversation with whoever you may be walking with.

Lisbon is built over and around seven extraordinarily steep hills, making it the San Francisco of western Europe. Some of these hills and the roads and alleys that traverse them make Lumbard Street look like a speed bump. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge for walking tourists, the Portuguese have also made a habit out of paving their sidewalks with millions of flat, tiny, highly polished stones, which become dangerously slippery when they get wet. Fortunately, I was not in Lisbon during the rainy season, but I was nevertheless put in extreme personal danger repeatedly as the thousands of over-worked window air conditioners in Lisbon dribbled water onto the sidewalks all day long, creating random, surprise slick spots that could lay you down on your ass in a hurry if you weren’t careful.

After yet another needlessly torturous night bus trip from Madrid, I was deposited in Lisbon one hour before the metro opened. The bus company people told us that we would arrive in Lisbon at 6:30 which didn’t sound too bad, but they did not take into account that Portugal is one hour behind the rest of central Europe, so we were actually dropped off at 5:30AM local time, giving all of us a leisurely, fun-filled hour to drift around the deserted bus station until the metro opened.

There was no tourist information booth at the Lisbon bus station, but I was beyond needing one by this point in my journey. I simply took a careful look at the metro map and let my acute, psychotic travel senses (typo intended) guide me to the metro stop that would provide a nice assortment of hostals and pensions. Once I arrived in the neighborhood, the only respectable looking pension that I could find was 30 Euros ($33.71) a night. I was too tired to shop around. I checked in and promptly went to sleep until the middle of the afternoon.

Other than a short walk around the neighborhood to orient myself, my day was spent in front of the laptop making the epic material that I had compiled for Spain readable. The Spain essay was only slightly more than half finished, yet I was mentally gagging on the length of the piece. Just one read-through edit was taking hours. For the sake of my dubious grasp on sanity and not wanting to test the reading endurance of my internet readers, I wisely decided to clean up and post what I had already written for Spain and post the material for the last three cities I planned to cover in northern Spain as a separate essay after I completed Portugal. To give you an idea of how agonizingly slow my editing process is, the “Spain Part Uno” clean-up and the time it took to make everything into a pretty web page took the better part of two days.

I stumbled onto a very friendly, honest to goodness youth hostel during one of my head clearing walks and moved in after only one night in the over-priced pension. I spent the first day sequestered in the hostel’s reading room, finishing things up for Spain, before coming up for air and meeting my roommates. I was rooming with five guys; two Brazilians, a Peruvian, a Belgian and a New Yorker. I walked in and introduced myself as they were carefully dolling themselves up for a guy’s night out. Having spent the entire day editing, I was more than ready for an alcohol fueled tension reliever. We swung into a liquor store and each purchased a bottle of wine. After being led on a lengthy, exhausting, up hill walk by one of the Brazilians, we found ourselves in the heart of the bar district where we made ourselves comfortable on the curb and chatted while taking periodic, long swigs from our respective bottles, like seasoned winos. The language barrier within our group was a problem at times. One Brazilian spoke Portuguese and a little English, the other Portuguese and just a splash of Spanish. The Belgian spoke French and English with a surprisingly convincing American accent that had me wondering at one point in the evening if he was actually an American trying to put one over on us. The New Yorker was the typical mono-lingual American. On the flip side, the middle-aged Peruvian was a multi-lingual dynamo. His travels and lengthy stays in numerous countries had rewarded him with conversational fluency in Spanish, Portuguese, French, a little English and a smattering of German. Depending on who was talking to whom, some conversations had to go through a United Nations style translation process so that everyone could keep a finger on the pulse of the conversation. As the wine bottles emptied, so did the quality of the translations, but for some reason people were still able to follow along. Somehow the drunker I got, the more Portuguese I was managing to absorb despite never having studied or even listened to the language at any length.

When the wine ran out, we started a literal “bar crawl” while we hit the hard alcohol. We stayed out until 3:30, staggering through the streets of the bar district, babbling in our respective, slurred tongues and collecting new friends in every bar until we were a group of about 12 people of various nationalities. I got so drunk I was slipping from Spanish to English then back to Spanish all in the same sentence. I had long since lost track of who understood what language, so I just unloaded on everyone in my new Spanglish hybrid language that the Belgian theorized would be the official language of the U.S. in about 100 years as it’s burgeoning Spanish speaking population grew and merged with the English speakers.

The next day, I was more hungover than I had been all summer. I discovered belatedly and much to my fuzzy chagrin that the flipping hostel had a lock-out period from 10:30AM to 4:30PM. I was still a little drunk when the hostel clerk came around and shook us awake to kick us out of the room. I barely had the wherewithal to dress myself properly, so I certainly wasn’t prepare for a day of wandering around Lisbon. I pulled on my stinky bar clothes, grabbed the Office and camped out in the reading room all day, switching between, semi-useless periods of work and brief naps.

Lisbon was one of those cities that was way bigger than the scale of the map lead you to believe. Once I got my sober legs back under me, I made the mistake of plotting and embarking on what I thought was a happy, little cake walk. It wasn’t until I whipped out my map nearly an hour later to check my progress that I realized I had only moved a small fraction through my planned course. As much as I detest taking the metro, the pain in my feet demanded that I either turn back immediately or seek some kind of public transportation assistance. In general, I prefer walking above all other options, hence the non-stop foot pain. The bus is also acceptable in a pinch, but then you have to observe and absorb your surroundings at high speed. By descending into the metro, you rob yourself of the all-important and rewarding process of accidentally stumbling onto all of the cool stuff that a city has to offer that the tourism bureau didn’t see fit to include on the map. Unfortunately, Lisbon left me with little choice. My daily, tormenting foot pain was flaring up to an excruciating all time high. I had come to accept that I was going to have to cope with anywhere from mild to hideously unpleasant foot discomfort for the remainder of my journey. The damage from endless trekking every day for nearly four months was not something that would go away with just a couple days of rest. I needed to be confined to a wheelchair for the better part of a month if I wanted my feet to recover. This of course wasn’t an option with my timetable and even if I did have a month to fritter away, my inability to handle idleness for more than a couple consecutive hours would make the wheelchair remedy doomed from the start.

I tried to find a happy medium between taking the metro and walking while treating myself to several, prolonged rest stops each day. While the female scenery was not quite at Spanish levels of intensity, it was nevertheless refreshing and as I rested I wondered at length about the feasibility of a web site that simply featured pictures of super hot, random babes walking down the street. I would call it lookatwhatyouaremissing.com. Judging from the responses of several of my male readers and their desperate pleas for pictures of these now legendary women, I concluded that the site would do well.

The Portuguese language was not as similar to Spanish as I had been lead to believe. Reading it wasn’t too bad, but listening caused many problems. The Portuguese accent was the source of the problem. When I listened to the Brazilians speak Portuguese, their sing-songy accent allowed me to pick out the root of about every third word or so which made it possible for me to follow along at a basic level. If I didn’t know better I’d swear that the Portuguese speak their language with a Russian accent. It was totally flat and indecipherable. Consequently, I was relegated back to my pre-Spain world of cluelessness of what was going on around me. Even simple exchanges with waiters did not go well. I tried repeating every phrase in both English and Spanish in the hopes that the listener would somehow pluck out a general meaning from the combination of both languages. This only confused them more. The lack of English language comprehension in southern Europe came as no surprise to me. In northern Europe, everyone has had a minimum of two to six years of mandatory English classes inflicted on them in primary and secondary school. Even in a worst case scenario, successful communication could be accomplished with a cooperative partner (i.e. not Berliners) by utilizing single word statements accompanied by some pantomiming. In southern Europe, the majority of the people glean their minimal English language skills from the “American Pie” movies and “The Osbornes” on European MTV. So aside from phrases concerning sexual innuendo and impressive strings of curse words, useful English language skills are pretty much non-existent for the average southern Europe resident.

For the first time all summer, I was seriously dogged by humidity in Lisbon. Like mosquitoes, I had forgotten all about the joys of Minnesota summers where you can walk out the front door and be drenched in sweat in 12 seconds. Lisbon brought me back down to Earth. Even at night when the temperature would drop to something more tolerable, the humidity was still there and doing weird things like keeping the river of sweat running down my back while simultaneously freezing my damp body with cool, high winds. Stupid humidity.

On my third day in Lisbon, with the help of the bus, I made my way over to a very old suburb of Lisbon called Belém where I was told that I would find really cool, aging buildings and a very cheap lunch. The Jerónimos Monastery was the big find of the afternoon in that not only was it ancient and gnarly, but in a twist from most of the rest of Europe, they let people take flash pictures inside the place. This was much more exciting before I got in and started snapping pictures and discovered that my camera’s flash was no where near powerful enough to illuminate the cavernous inside of the monastery. Trying to disable the flash and let the camera take care of things with a longer exposure backfired too, as I did not have the steady hand needed for a long exposure. Short of accosting someone and begging to use their tripod, I was screwed. I sulked over a super cheap and filling lunch.

Back in Lisbon proper I discovered that the Arabs had inflicted their micro-maze on-the-side-of-a-steep-hill blueprint for city planning on Lisbon much in the same way as they had in Granada. I climbed up and traipsed through the neighborhood of Alfama. The streets here were even more tight and unmanageable than in Granada’s Albaicin neighborhood. Unlike in Albaicin where the treacherous streets were still lined with numerous, picturesque, coveted homes, Alfama was clearly a deteriorating slum. Some of the streets were barely the width of an average hallway and judging from the stares I drew from the locals as I meandered through the neighborhood, I was clearly off the blond, green eyed tourist beaten path. The horrible lack of space in Alfama had not only resulted in less-than desirable homes, but it also seemed to be preventing people from performing basic upkeep of the buildings. Accordingly most of the neighborhood was too ugly and unwelcoming for a serious, enjoyable tour.

I had started to notice a troubling personal trend in Madrid that seemed to get worse in Lisbon. Apathy. My growing and debilitating apathy toward traveling, new experiences, the thrill of arriving in a new city and, most troubling of all, my ability to write anything that was more engrossing than a second grade book report. Seven hundred year old churches were no longer giving me the same unholy buzz that they had at the beginning of the summer. This led to the probable conclusion that yet more pictures and writing about said 700 year old churches was doubtlessly instilling apathy into my reading audience as well. I came to the conclusion that Europe, while providing nearly endless adventure, fun and discovery, probably shouldn’t all be done in one long, ball-busting tour. I began to look for things that I could adjust in my routine that might shake off these feelings and give me some newfound inspiration in my traveling and especially my writing. More rest. Less high speed touring. Maybe back off to only a bottle of wine every other day. More LSD. Er, Long Siesta Days, that is. As much as I didn’t want to run into the New Year with my travels, I felt the quality of the project was in jeopardy if I didn’t stop and take the time to extinguish this bleak outlook.

I started simple. I knew from previous experience that nothing defeats a hopeless mood like a very expensive, savory dinner. I tried to find this for three nights in a row and failed each time. Perhaps Lisbon has fine dinning hidden somewhere in it’s knot of tight streets, but judging from what I found, they only appeared to have very expensive looking restaurants serving, dressed up, greasy crap.

Rather than spend more money on disappointing food, I decided to ramp up my therapy and move on to Plan B of the “Let’s Get Leif Inspired Project,” which was to spend several days on a beach in a lazy, semi-drunk, nap taking, light coma. I bid adieu to my hostel roommates and boarded a bus for Lagos.

Go to Lagos

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©Leif Pettersen 2012