Journal: Lisboa is not for sale


The words are stenciled across the side of an alley wall along the main drag of Rua Sao Joao in Cais do Sodre, downtown Lisbon. It reminds me of something that I have seen, and I cast my mind back to the previous day when I wove through hoards of ambling tourists encrusted upon the sidewalks of Alfama, fixated on capturing tiled facades or brightly painted trams in the midday sun. As I recall this, I realise that it was not the stencil I saw, but the overwhelm I felt. Lisboa may not have been for sale, but there were certainly plenty of impulse buyers.

Anthony Bourdain really changed things for us. No… really.

My friend’s gaze appears almost incredulous, as if the immense impact of the late travelling chef’s dozy and romantic jaunt through Lisbon streets seven years ago is still a cause for awe. Gone are the quiet expanses of stone-checkered neighbourhood squares and relaxing afternoon alleys – at least for six months of the year. The droves of visitors from across Europe and the usual tripartite of British, Australian and American tourists have caught wind of Lisbon’s charm, and they are – for the most part – unabashed in the taking.

A native Lisbonite, the visible concern of my friend echoes the many others I have spoken to about the impact of tourism over the last ten years. There is pride in how the country chose to buck the trend of austerity and invest in itself at a time of crisis across Europe, and most people agree that things are better than they used to be. But there is also a palpable caution in viewing the possible trajectories the city could take.

I worry we are not going the right way. He says. We need to remember who we are.
We are losing our identity. That is not something we can ask the tourists to do for us. That is not about them, it’s about us.

His words bring to mind the plight of other tourist-heavy destinations I have visited; the unrecoverable wastelands of Calangute in Goa, India – Koh Pan Yang, Thailand – Barcelona, Spain.


In some neighbourhoods near the city centre, cafeteria-like pastelarias normally a fixture on every street corner are fast being replaced by crisply designed coffee shops and brunch cafes, complete with Scandinavian designed furniture and 9euro eggs Benedict. As I seek out the former and mumble my way through ‘un cafe ii pastel da nata’, I realise the threat of losing these local institutions is more than just aesthetic; these normally family-owned businesses are the meeting place for locals to have their daily espresso and a yarn. They are a habit of the young and old; an open invite to the resident drunk and the white-collar worker to wish each other bom dia and sit alongside one another on old metal chairs and wobbly plastic tables as equals. It is – with 60 cent espressos – a neighbourhood lounge room, where the members are not divided along the lines of class or economy. The decline of such places is surely a concern, not just for lovers of a solid dark roast, but for social cohesion, integration and the community relationships that are a backbone to the Portuguese identity.

You are one of us.

I am a little startled by the comment.

Goa is one of our colonies. When people here see you, it’s no big deal. You are Indian, one of ours. We made you.

As an Australian citizen of Indian descent who has never been to Portugal this is an unexpected sentiment with which to be received. Nevertheless this woman is beaming at me like a kindred spirit, her own skin so tanned as to make her racial identity ambiguous, her own features a concoction of influences like so many I meet here.

Such perspectives are likely the exception, not the rule, as although Portuguese are welcoming, they are also notoriously conservative. Nevertheless, I do find it easier to slip by unnoticed here than in other European cities. People tend to address me in Portuguese or Spanish, unless my confused expression gives me away. I start to notice what would normally be considered ‘Indian’ features upon the faces of locals; the brows and bridges that fray between the beginnings and endings of empires.


Further up town between Martim Moniz and Intendente, police casually patrol the streets and ambulances wail not infrequently throughout the day, articulating the blurred boundary between the newly paved Largo Intendente square and the rest of the old neighbourhood. Painted tiles gleam upon cafes, artist studios and restaurants, and the shadowed veins of smaller alleyways lead to former havens for drugs and prostitution. Intendente is being forcibly made-over by the government in an effort to combat the historical penchant for crime in the area. Buildings are thick with scaffolding as their facades are renovated and more and more Airbnb accomodations are cropping up. But such changes graze skin-to-skin with an immigrant working population from African, South Asian and South East Asian descent that has carved out a neighbourhood in which they can afford to work and raise their children.

A Muslim man in his crisp white attire and cap is standing out front of his halal butcher, eyeing me with some surprise before I realise I’ve perhaps wondered too far. Looking up, the balconies and window arches have shifted from the picturesque to functional. Every inch of available clothing line is used; heavy sheets and the billowy sails of selwar kameese, saris, turban cloths and thobes rustle overhead like unquiet histories.


In the breezy backstreets of Graca, I am given time to contemplate such frictions. The houses are aged and laneways lead me to forgotten ruins overlooking million dollar views of the city. A woman trudges past me carrying bags of groceries to brightly-painted apartment blocks. Graffiti hangs thick on the walls.  As I wind my way down the streets back towards town I see elderly men milling around hole-in-the wall barber shops, muffling quiet discussions to their friends and watching me with interest as I walk past. Doorways lead to dusty stores laden cool in the shadows. They are full of watch accessories, used cutlery, painted ceramics and espresso cups nestled quietly among kindred bric-a-brac. Ladies with soft arms hang their wrists over balconies and natter to those on other floors as though on the phone. I potter along and try not to slip on the oily stoned pathways as those above take me in quietly. Here too there is the odd art studio, the hipster cafe chalk board offering avocado toast. The young woman inside smiles at me, and another sits focussed on reading her Macbook screen. I find myself thinking I would like to go there sometime and wonder what it is that makes it different to the inner city coffee shops I so adamantly loathe. It is, I decide, its subtlety. The humility and non-threatening of its presence among an old neighbourhood of locals. (Or so my idealistic perception narrates).

Rua de Escola Politecnica bustles with traffic throughout the day and the night. Bordering Principe Real Gardens, the area is a hot spot for tourists and travellers as well as trendy local yuppies, with concept branding stores, specialty gin and wine bars inhabiting the innards of the heritage buildings dotted across the neighbourhood. The gardens themselves, like those arising every kilometre or so across Lisbon, sustain a hive of activity throughout the day, with crescendoes in the early evening hour as beers and wines cluster upon tables to end the day’s work. On weekends these gardens also house fruit and vegetable markets, speciality olive oil and even home-made bread, paying homage to the quality foodie culture for which we love such European cities.

Within a few streets of the gardens there is Thai, Mexican, Japanese, Italian, and even Spanish. (Portuguese too, if you look a little harder). After three weeks in Europe, I opt for Thai and my friend Leif and I tetris ourselves into the tight configurations of yellow table cloths and brass cutlery around 9pm for a reasonably good Thai meal. By the time we re-enter the street at 10:30, it is a bloated, beer guzzling, zoo of an Irish/English/American/
Australian/French/German bucks night. Groups teeter outside bars holding two or three cups of beer, eyes delirious and searching out cheap feeds and cheaper booze. Some are on pub crawls and others have fashioned their own. We make a bee-line out of there, bumping shoulders with dark skinned hawkers making their way into the mess with forearms full of fluorescent plastic sunglasses, lighters and disco light halos. Revellers – local and foreign – will holler drunkenly through the backstreets until the late hours of the night. By morning the cracks of the stones will be studded with cigarette butts sealed in with dried vomit and decorated with crushed plastic cups.  It will be removed diligently by street cleaners in preparation for the next night’s affair.


The elderly couple who own the tabacaria downstairs from my apartment teach me new phrases each day I am there. We make our way through from ‘good morning’ to ‘good afternoon’ and ‘good night’, from ‘see you later’ to ‘are you well?’. He counts my change out loud and lays out the notes and coins in a row, guiding me to repeat the words with him. They respond to my greetings in earnest, a teacher’s pride present in their beaming faces.

Most locals in the city speak English, Portuguese and Spanish, often reverting to English when they hear me stutter my way through an order. But I implore them to persist in teaching me Portuguese, and if they have time, they do.

We are a generous people. And this is what I worry about. That this generosity will be taken advantage of, and that we will lose our kindness.

Ingrid takes the 28 tram to work every day. It used to take her 15 minutes. Now it takes her 40 as she has to wait for a tram that is not filled with tourists. She and Tiago tell me of this and other worries, but nevertheless they house me, feed me, and tell me emphatically that I should return to Lisbon.

With the second-lowest birth rate in Europe (after Italy), embracing newcomers is part of a larger national plan to keep this flourishing city as a forerunner among the EU’s own brand of Tiger economies. The fruits of such awareness, alongside a conscious effort to attract skilled foreign immigrants, is evident in the emergence of bustling hubs of co-working spaces, artist studios and state-funded estates of entrepreneurial creative industries. Innovators from across Europe, the West, and Portugal collaborate with an emerging generation of Lisboetas, driving a surge in start-ups previously unseen in these parts. There is a palpable energy in these spaces; a tangible aspiration for change.

It takes week of being in the city to realise that what is unsettling me is the light. Accustomed to the charcoal alleys of Melbourne and the shadows expected of big cities, to be surrounded with pastels and light refracted off the oily Lioz stone suspends me from gravity somehow. Some afternoons, the undulations of pathways and the echoes of sunlight feel to be some secret alchemy, washing the streets with liquid footsteps and a sense of imminent possibility.

James leads the way, and Leif and I follow. It has become later than expected and the three of us are slowly rolling down the incline of the loose alley grids. A poster boy for what is possible in a city like this, the success of his start-up has connected him not only to the businesses in the city, but intimately to the people seeking to live and work there. There is no separation between client and friend; a loving kiss for each cheek as is the Portuguese way.

As we walk James points out different areas and directions, naming the estates that are going to be built. The design hubs and artist centres. His eyes glint as he talks.
You’re sort of building your own community here, aren’t you?
I try and quiz him on his vision but he shirks me with a gentle smile.
Anything is possible.

When we get to an old Art Deco building he presses a buzzer and a short shrunken faced man with white hair and an old fashioned concierge-style cap opens the door and eye-balls us dubiously. James does the talking – in Portuguese – and soon we are nodded in. It is dark and soft inside, the glass doors are gold detailed, the parquetry immaculately maintained, and heavy wooden tables shine glossy with the faces of somnambulant ‘50s dames. I realise during my time there that a few of such places are hidden throughout the city, defending themselves against tourist debauchery, one shrunken Portuguese doorman at a time.


Over at the Padrao dos Descobrimentos a cascade of 33 giant explorers push artfully over one another as Henry the Navigator looks out to sea to lead their next expedition. Completed in the 1960s, the monument celebrates the ‘Age of Discovery’ throughout the 15th and 16th centuries when Portuguese colonies and businesses were established throughout the Atlantic, the coast of Africa, India and Spain. Fixed to the northern bank of the Tagus river, the stunning structure of steel and cement perfectly captures the hope and endless possibility that those first explorers likely felt – though the view of the bay alone conjures a similar exhalation.

We are open. We are used to having mixes.
She says this to me when I tell her how welcomed I have felt.
You know we were not like other colonisers. We intermarried.
Some part of me wants to add, ‘yes, you raped’, but I don’t because I don’t mean it with malice. I am only alluding to the fact that Portuguese methods of colonisation – such as intermarriage – likely had their own ethical or moral concerns, rather than being due to open-mindedness or inclusivity.
Actually, you have very European features.
She says this as though it is a compliment. I smile politely, thinking about the power of stories.


When I go to meet Mauro on the street he is in a metal chair on the footpath drinking a beer. In Portuguese, beer is a woman and wine a man, but I don’t like beer and so I order coffee. The man behind the counter recalls me from the day before. His English isn’t great so we gesture at each other, unfolding an elaborate sketch of animated hellos and goodbyes.

This is something that I notice. A sense of familiarity that arises so quickly from the faces I have passed through the illusory expanses of the city. After just a few visits, I get familiar nods from the people at the garden kiosks, or the old men at the pastelarias. The city may be adjusting to foreigners, but its people do not want to yield to such othering. It knows itself and asks you to know it too. It asks, but does not demand.

Such intimacies are often what city-dwellers get misty-eyed about when recalling their last trip to Europe, or a little town in *insert romantic getaway here*. Back home, our streets become more dense but we seem to be more foreign to one another. I buy coffee at the same place every so often over the last year, but it’s busy and it’s a tourist attraction and the staff always ask me ‘what’s your name?’, but they want to know so they can type it into the screen for my order, not so that they can know me and say good morning.

I recall my friend’s fears of his city losing it’s identity and I wonder if it is the loss of these small connections that start to chip away at a communal bloodline. Pleasantries offered as a formality for transactions, or faux propriety, replacing the intuitive micro-transfers of acknowledgment that fulfil our human needs for belonging; for connecting to the shared strata of place. There is something in our tone, a subtle but definite difference. The lines blurring all the time.

Leif relocated permanently from New York six months ago, and even though he is learning Portuguese, people often still treat him like a tourist.
They take one look at me and then speak to me in English.
I express my commiserations, as we both quietly acknowledge the handicap of blue eyes, fair skin and a ginger beard in a place like Lisbon; it is undoubtedly hard for white Americans to shake the foreigner stigma. The same stigma, he tells me, that finds him incessantly propositioned on the streets of Thailand or heckled with aggression by racketeering taxi drivers in Cambodia.

We do not often think about these inbetweeners in the spaces of travel. There are tourists and residents, and of course the old question of ‘are you a traveller or a tourist?’ (cue adventure tourism advertisement). But increasingly there are those transitioning from tourist, through traveller, into resident, negotiating the jagged edges of isolation that can exist in those same impossible vowels I find so intimate. In a world that is increasingly absurd, it is increasingly normal to pick up and start elsewhere. And when a country beats its drum the way Portugal has, no doubt that those longing will come for it. The question remains of what constitutes enough, and whether that clarion call to growth and progress will yield to the lessons of other places like it.

This is my favourite spot.
There is a mild breeze at dusk and people are gathered on the large stone terrace looking out at the view across the harbour. Even though there is so much history in the buildings around us, there is something youthful about the city. Giddy with a sort of juvenile excitement. As though it doesn’t know what it is yet.

I’ve heard varyingly that Lisbon is a place that will reflect whatever you throw at it back to you.  I can’t help but wonder what it means for me. In the few weeks I am here I ingratiate myself to its charm, trilling bom dia at every corner, whilst complaining hypocritically all the while about the impact of (fellow) tourists. I try and know the city, wink at its corners and beckon it to tell me more. But it is coy and discerning. Flirtatious but firm. Somehow it knows that I am seeking. That I am curious to know more.

On my last night there  James, Leif and I have dinner at an Israeli restaurant and go for a drink at Fox Trot. It’s late and the moon is full. Afterwards we smoke cigarettes on the street, and I linger as the night ends.

When we say our goodbyes, I feel the sudden weight, and think it must be that of departing.
But then James calls out after me: Lisbon will miss you.

And as the words leave his mouth, I realise I will too.




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