Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What’s it really like in Lisbon?

It’s been five weeks now since I arrived in Portugal to visit my good friend Ed and spend some time here working on my latest novel, Natalia.  So what’s it like so far?  Well, it is an interesting place, no doubt about that.  Lisbon does have character, and a certain easy-going ambiance.  It’s also a little more beat up than I’d expected, with a population that at times seems to be hanging on by a thread.

The Baixa neighborhood, near my apartment.
There is plenty to like here, from the quaint old trolley’s running up and down the hills, to the weaving alleyways of the Alfama district, an ancient, winding maze of a neighborhood that dates back to the days of the Moors and evokes comparisons to a North African casbah. 

There are the many viewpoints overlooking the river, and there is the Bairro Alto neighborhood, where revelers spill out onto the streets on a Saturday night.  The Chiado neighborhood is full of swank shops and cafes.

On the downside, there are also looping scrawls of graffiti all over, decaying streets, abandoned buildings and homeless people pleading for change at every turn. 

A few local characters in Baixa.
For the last three weeks I’ve been living in a rented room in the Baixa neighborhood, smack dab in the center of town and the only flat section in the city.  Most of the streets here are pedestrianized, the tile walks filled with outdoor cafes that cater mostly to tourists.  Each building has retail space on the ground floor and then five floors of residential units above that. 

My building, on the right just past the white car.
 In my building, I’m living on the fifth floor.  It took me a few days to realize that the second and third floors were completely abandoned.  From across the street you can see broken windows covered with torn tarps that blow in the breeze. 

Not long after that I realized that nearly every building in the neighborhood seems to be abandoned in whole or part above the ground floor.  Walking around in the early evening one can see that most of the windows have no light in them at all.  Once the last of the restaurants closes at 11 p.m. and the tourists go home, the whole place is a virtual ghost town. 

I can only surmise, but it seems to me that perhaps 30 percent of the residential units in the entire neighborhood are occupied, and most of those are old and beat up.  My own place is definitely no exception.  I rented my room from Maria, a very nice 61-year-old woman who lives alone with her two dogs. 

The room is nice enough, with a comfortable bed, two windows, a writing desk, TV, dresser and wardrobe.  It was only after I moved in that I began to see how tough Maria has it.  No job, no income, and relying on the occasional renter like myself just to get by. 

She’d spent my rent on her bills within days of my moving in.  And my additional two-week deposit on top of that.  She still doesn’t have enough to fix the kitchen plumbing, where the sink drains into a bucket underneath that she dumps down the toilet when it gets too full.  The washing machine is broken, too, and she can’t afford to fix that either.

The instant hot water heater runs on gas from a propane tank under the kitchen counter.  Before we take a shower we have to light the pilot.  When we’re done, we turn the pilot off.  She can’t afford to keep it lit.  Yesterday the propane tank ran out.  I was a little afraid she wouldn’t be able to pay for a refill, but she managed.

On the outskirts of the city things appear to be much worse.  I took a train to Sintra last week to see a historic palace, and on the way we went through long stretches of what could best be described as slums; tall apartment buildings that mostly look like they are on their last legs.  The residents were primarily Africans from former Portuguese colonies who emigrated here and now seem completely out of place in their new surroundings.  Some of them still wear their traditional African clothing.  I can only imagine what their lives must be like here.

As for my rented room at Maria’s place, I only agreed to stay one month but given that I’ll never see my deposit back, I’ve paid for six weeks.  I’m not sure how much longer I’ll stay, but eating a few weeks rent and moving on is not out of the question.  Such is the life of a struggling, itinerant writer, I suppose.

Overall I’m glad to have spent some time here in Portugal, to get to know the place, and I’ve managed to get some work done.  There are a few nice cafes to write in and a couple of old libraries.  I feel my time is running short here, though.  I’ll probably stick around here another week or two and then let the winds take me where they may…

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