The sky is blue and the sun is hot and high overhead. It strikes the pale yellow tiles (worn, smooth stone) and everything gleams with a dull brightness, like a sepia filter was dropped over your eyes when you stepped off the plane and made your way through the achingly white, overwhelming large Lisbon airport, waited in the lines for the subway and stepped out into the real world. The street tiles have big gaps in them that you could fall into but it’s the only grip against their slippery surface so you place each foot with care, but everything is done with care when you’re traveling; when you’re out of your element. Senses heightened — energy peaked — to everyone else you are just another transparent English speaker and once you speak you’ve dissolved any level of mystery that you might have held but you know the truth — you are a detective. You never know exactly what you’re going to get, or how to ask for what you want, or what it is that you even want, so you blunder along in ignorance but it’s a beautiful ignorance. Everything is charming. The people are too attractive for their own good; their food is universally wonderful no matter what it is, and every small thing is done with a level of grace and craft and aesthetic appeal. You change as well. You lose weight. You become stronger. Less fearful. Your legs adjust to the walking and it becomes easier and easier to manage the hills. You become quieter, more observant. You learn how to express yourself better. Your brain is working in different ways that don’t happen within a comfort zone and this makes you smarter. You’re an adventurer. You’re solving mysteries. You’re an ambassador. You are not Fitzgerald and you are not Zelda — these romances we invent and cling to for a century later because we hate that we missed the party. You won’t find Hemingway in Europe but you will find a better version of yourself.
In the late afternoon we came to a place called PARK. It was both on top of a parking garage and designed to feel like a park, with trees, rustic wood and life size models of deer watching you from the bushes. We had a bottle of rosè as the sun set and all the homogenous cool kids came out and spoke loudly about themselves in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. We went to leave but then the DJ played ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ and we danced instead and that lead into another great song and the good music didn’t stop so we drank one 3 euro glass of wine after another and stayed, as the night got cooler and darker and all the lights came on from across the river and around us. When we finally left we went to Mini Bar and ordered the chef’s menu — apple margaritas; shrimp crevice served in lime halves; rare beef sliders; meatballs with mustard; avocado tempura; veal and tuna tartare; exploding olives; small spicy potatoes; codfish nuggets; chocolate ice cream. We shared several negronis and spoke only in broken French which most likely annoyed the hell out of our poor server. Afterwards we walked past the crowds of everyone in town lining up for a shot of cherry brandy (ginjinha) after dinner. We debated joining them but some sort of good sense wore out and we hopped on the train instead; back to our squalid but cheap airbnb on the hill.
At Ramiro we ordered half a dozen oysters and they were the largest, saltiest, toughest and strangest oysters I’ve ever seen. Their shells were still mossy — they were so fresh. There was garlic shrimp in salty olive oil. Very sweet clams in broth with butter, spinach and garlic. A small grilled lobster with lemon and lime, bread and butter, and a steak sandwich to wash it all down. Everything we learned about eating in Lisbon comes from our Eat Portugal guide Celia — and rather than go through the entire list I’m just going to highly recommend that you book a tour with her. She led us through town on our second day and told us about the traditions and the new changes since Lisbon’s tourism started taking off within the past few years. Celia has brown hair, tan skin, and brown soft eyes but it’s her smile and her spark that give her a sense of warmth and humor. After introducing us to ginjinha she led us into a side courtyard and we sat under an awning while it rained, passing around vinho verde; buttery goat cheese still in its rind with pumpkin jam; salt cod with chickpeas, red onions and lots of olive oil; octopus chopped up with bell peppers and garlic; another salt cod dish (there are just a couple hundred options in Portugeuse cuisine) baked with shredded potatoes and egg that was hearty and absolutely wonderful. Another day we returned to a spot from the tour — at By the Wine we were helped through a lengthy tasting session by a young man with a very large hairdo who reminded us of our cat (we irreverently referred to him as Fluffy Pants when he wasn’t within hearing). He ended up selling us too many bottles of wine, giving us the airplane safe sleeves to carry them home with, and then – while we waited in a haze for him to finish his third cigarette break and bring us our box – we were presented with two small helpings from a bottle of brandy made in the year my mother was born – which tasted like a sweet slow burning fire and is by far the oldest thing I have ever ingested. But of course we found the best place on our final night there. It was not where we intended to go but somehow we wandered into a hole in the wall a few doors up from By the Wine. I asked the hostess for a seat and she said we could have a table in an hour or the stairs right then. ‘Let’s go up the stairs then’ we tried to confirm but she corrected us ‘there is no upstairs. Just the stairs.’ We had no idea what that meant but agreed anyway and shortly found ourselves reclining on a short set of stairs in the middle of the restaurant covered in throw pillows around an overturned crate. Someone lit candles for us and brought us a chalkboard menu to order off. Their dishes were the freshest, most vegetable forward, delicious bites I’d had on my entire stay and I wanted to order everything on the menu but we limited ourselves to ceviche with ginger and apple; tempura green beans with the most amazing sauce (called something that translates to ‘fried fish from the garden’), and a roasted then chilled vegetable salad. For dessert we walked up the street to Celia’s favorite pastel de nata spot; flaky pastry filled with a buttery egg custard and a caramelized creme-brulee-like top. The secret is to sprinkle the top with cinnamon, transforming the custard into something a little sweet and a little savory too.
We went to Lisbon because we were photographing a wedding on the East Coast, had almost two weeks between that and our next wedding, and couldn’t resist ourselves. I thought while I was there I would have the time to sort my schedule in order – I’ve been pulled in so many directions this year. There’s been a pause in regular posting here on the blog for a lot of reasons (that deserve a post of their own) but the short story is that this is not a business for me; it’s not going to become one, and the creative work I want to focus on is growing my writing in ways that I’m not sure will fit here on this platform. And what I really want and need to be doing regularly is photographing more weddings. This past year of weddings was exciting, fulfilling and joyful — that’s the only work I want to be doing, but I’m stretched too thin right now to give it the time and attention needed to grow that business. As we’re on the subject, I’ve also been feeling ambivalent about blogging in general and San Francisco in particular. Sometimes I have a sixth sense about something and right now I can sense a big change across the horizon, with the earth slowly turning and moving me closer and closer to it but I don’t know what it will be. On my final day I walked down to the Tigus River and looked down it’s mouth to the red iron bridge across it and the sun-kissed waves beyond it. This is the spot that called to explorers and discovers for centuries; behind me was the old world; school children shouting, church bells ringing, families, traditions, crumbling old buildings with laundry hanging from all the windows, the rise and fall of empires. Before me is the wide open ocean, and somewhere far, far across it a new world, but from where I stand now all I can see is an empty horizon.
Thank you for reading & take care