The first time I lay my eyes on Lisbon I felt a strange kind of wistfulness. I didn’t understand it back then, because I’d never before been to Portugal. There was nothing to be wistful about. On the way from the airport toward the city center, I remember seeing run-down facades, a palm tree here and there poking out of spaces between abandoned buildings.
That first trip to Portugal, back then in a duo, led to a breakup of the same. The said duo lasted a few years in New York and ended soon after the return from Portugal. But it had nothing to do with Portugal itself.
Back then I couldn’t even dream that the end of that relationship meant a beginning of another, a very different one. One romance ended, and another began, this one with the city that I’ve been calling my impossible love ever since.
I remember one Sunday morning when I landed in Lisbon, for an umpteenth time, at 5.30am. Crack of dawn. I stopped counting my touch downs at Lisbon airport, which involve a dramatic arrival: it always appears as if the plane will land right on the city rooftops. Everything was still half-dark, slow, still. Fado played on the radio of my taxi – an appropriate musical welcome to Portugal. And there it was, that same wistfulness. I could recognize it so clearly as the taxi glided through empty streets.
The first time I felt that wistfulness, I couldn’t explain it or name it. I now know its name and shape. Saudade, it’s called in Portuguese. Wistfulness is perhaps not the most spot-on translation, because it also means melancholy, sweet sadness… Saudade is like a thread that runs through all aspects of Portuguese society, the foundation of Portuguese mentality, a tune that always subtly plays in the background.
Not a surprise. That former colonial powerhouse ruled a number of countries around the world and imposed its culture on lands as faraway as India (Goa was a Portuguese enclave), China (Macau was part of Portugal until 1999 when it was returned to China), Brazil, Angola (and a string of other ex-colonies across Africa) and Uruguay (Colonia de Sacramento in the country’s southwest, which changed rulers many a time, is a replica of a small Portuguese town). After such power and wealth, Portugal was hit by the dark dictatorship of Salazar, which lasted from 1926 till 1974. (Karma, perhaps?)
Then the dictatorship fell in the 1970s and the former colonies finally got their independence, after nearly six centuries of Portuguese rule. Decades later, Portugal came to be one of the poorest members of the European Union. Lately, it also became one of the notorious PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece & Spain), a handful of countries struck hardest by the debt crisis.
The country once had it all, and then lost all it was proud of. So no wonder saudade is omnipresent, following you every step of the way. Me, I’ve always loved wistfulness. I have a soft spot for nostalgia, the bittersweet remembrance of things past. So I love walking through half-empty Lisbon on a quiet Sunday afternoon, past yellow funiculars and rickety trams that go up and down the seven hills of Lisbon, the walls filled by street art that makes you think, the magical light that reflects on pastel-colored rooftops.
I love hearing fado from half-closed bars of Alfama, the city’s oldest hilltop quarter. I love the laundry lines zigzagging across narrow alleyways and staircases that lead to who knows where.
I love the unexpected squares filled with palm trees and colorfully dressed African vendors. I love pastéis de Belém custard tarts in the waterfront district overlooking the Atlantic. In the olden days, explorers set out from here to discover the world, this very same world in which today so little remains to be discovered.
I’ve been hooked by this saudade so much that a couple of years after the breakup mentioned at this story’s start, I returned to Lisbon. The idea was that I’d visit friends and spend a summer month by the Tagus River, taking in that magical light and wallowing in saudade. I never dreamt that the first of those thirty days I’d spend in Lisbon would bring me the man who years later crossed the Atlantic in the other direction as my partner in life and love.
But before that transatlantic relationship led to my now-husband’s move to New York, I decided to see if perhaps Lisbon could become my possible love. And so I left New York, found a small apartment on the top floor of a run-down building in Bairro Alto, a quarter known for its languid days and raucous nights. From one side of my living room I could see São Jorge castle atop Alfama and, if I leaned out the window, the Tagus on the other side.
A lot happened during those four months I spent in Lisbon, including my fall down the stairs from the fourth to the third floor, on my ass the entire way down, which led to a fractured bone and a painful bed rest for weeks following the fall. It wasn’t the fall per se but somewhere during those four weeks it dawned on me that Lisbon will remain my impossible love.
The city, for me, remained not meant to be. I still love it, quietly and with intense. It creeps into my thoughts with frequency, and when it does I’m overcome by saudade. So I return to it every chance I get, to breathe in the saudade, listen to a little fado, have some codfish and black pork from Alentejo, take in that enchanted light…
On my last visit, back in November, we rented an apartment in Alfama for a week, with a gorgeous view of the river and the rooftops from the living room. Sitting there, with that view, my love for Lisbon made just the perfect sense. Maybe it is impossible but it’s a love that lasts.
This article was originally written and published in Croatian in the now deceased Forum, a weekly newspaper in Croatia where I had a monthly column on travel, until the paper – sadly – folded.