Lisbon Year 1 – 10 Things I’ve learned

It’s immensely hard to believe that I’ve been here for a whole school year, but here I am, with my students stressfully sitting their end of year exams and life winding down to the end of June, whereupon I’ll take off for a month’s well earned holiday. So what has Lisboa been like to live in for a year. Here are some first year musings. As always leave your agreement or violent disagreement in the comments.

1 – Beauty

When you come to Lisbon, you’re struck by the beauty of the place. You can’t help it. It just shouts at you and poses from all kinds of angles. The beauty can be manifest in a number of ways, from grandiose palaces that were clearly designed with aesthetics at the forefront of the architect’s mind. However, there is also the other side to Lisbon’s beauty. The gorgeous semi-ruins of Alfama, the forgotten town houses of Alcantara and Santos (now being hastily and expensively ‘remembered,’ and the odd castle structures dotting the landscape on the way out to Oeiras and beyond on the Cascais train line. When I first arrived, I was quite certain I’d run out of things to photograph, or sights that would just plant a huge smile on my face and allow for a moment of wonder. So far, I was well wide of the mark.


2 – Nosh

Conditionals lessons with Portuguese students, when the question comes up “What would you miss the most, if you left Portugal?” are invariably littered with groans about how impossible life would be without Portuguese food. You can try to counter it with – “but what if you went to France, or Italy – countries with world renowned culinary traditions?” This induces nothing but cold stares and a semi-serious invitation to try their grandma’s pasteis de bacalhau or their mum’s home made arroz de pato. Food here is a big deal. There’s a reason that eating out is so phenomenally inexpensive, relative to just about all of Portugal’s European neighbours and that is that it just too darn important and ingrained into life for it to not be. Personally, I get on with the food here very well. Talking to some colleagues and expat friends of mine, it’s not to everyone’s taste. While I would perhaps stop short of the enthusiastic way in which most Portuguese will tell you it is the best bar none, I enjoy it a lot and will certainly miss my bacalhau, the occasional açorda de mariscos & a nice feijoada. All that being said though, the thing I will miss the most – coming from a man who anyone who knows me well will tell you is not a big dessert fan – is the cakes. Pasteís de Nata are possibly the most life changing of all pastries. The sheer range of cakes here, in fact, led me at one stage to attempt a cake-a-day system. Each day trying a new cake, in order to get through them all before the end of my first year. This has been a catastrophic failure and my diabetes-fearing body is eternally grateful for that fact.


3 – Tugas (The People)

I don’t think (or I really hope, perhaps) that any of my Portuguese friends will be grumpy with me for saying that the people here are a bit of a puzzle. The first encounter you have with a Portuguese person, as with any new place, will likely be in a shop, train station, town square, or wherever. You’ll usually be lost, unable to find a key ingredient for a meal, or unaware that there’s a ticketing system (more on this later). The result of this is that your Portuguese person will not simply offer to help, but will do it in the politest way possible, probably apologise for not speaking English (even though you’re visiting their country and go out of their way to take you to the place themself, just to make sure. I exaggerate not one jot. So far, so good. Then you reach a brick wall. Being, as I am, someone who is living abroad, rather than visiting, it’s vitally important for me to get to know the locals. For one thing, it’s the only way to really understand the underlying culture of the place you’re living, and for another, while my colleagues are splendid people, spending every waking minute with them is a maddening experience for all concerned and wholly unappealing. So I tried the usual ways of meeting people. Talking to randoms in bars and cafés, internet meet up groups, etc. For several months, there was literally no progress and I began to think that I was even more unfortunate looking or lacking in palatable personality than I had previously dared to imagine. But, speaking to other ex pats here, besides some Italians (but pretty much everyone loves Italians from the off), it seemed that there were a great many of us in the same boat. Eventually, via a couple of different sources and online meet ups, I’ve made some friends who are local and now that I have them, they are the sort of people who are really active socially, make a huge effort to include you, take care of you and make you feel almost like an extension of their family, you feel so welcome with them. So I guess the message here is that, if at first it’s a struggle, keep persevering and when you do make friends, I get the impression they’ll likely be friends for life (and might even donate organs for you – you never know, right?).

4 – Culture

I was at a creative writing meet up a few months ago and a thoroughly excellent German fellow told me that there are more new Meet ups being created in Lisbon at the moment than in any other city in the world. Curious, I decided to have a look in a bit more detail and, after some hours trawling through groups for specifically leaning geek people who like to get together and talk about their adventures in a particular type of computer code, to improv theatre (my personal favourite of the moment) to urban meditation walks (which I’m looking forward to joining in with this summer) there really is something for everyone here. There are concerts going on all the time, the largest representations being in the areas of Fado, as you may expect and jazz, but also taking in rock, folk, world music, hip hop, reggae, classical, opera, etc. There are countless theatres, large and small putting on a variety of different types of performance. Galleries and museums abound with huge international events like the recent World Press Photo and ranging down to the smaller exhibitions put on for local and visiting artists by the truly magnificent people at the Pessoa & Companhia cultural society. Lisbon, of course, is a city which has a wealth of literature and poetry it has spawned and this new wave of cultural enlightenment here seems to be empowering people to proudly share their talent or interest, or both and it’s something that I’ve felt immensely lucky to be a part of and something I want to devote more of my time to in the coming year.


5 – History

Lisbon is a city you can hardly visit without experiencing history in some sense. The Castelo de Sao Jorge, cresting the hillside above Mouraria, the Terreiro do Paço, with its bloody history of rebellion against the monarchy and, of course, Belém’s monuments to the Age of Discoveries, something which I still feel I know just fragments about and am eagerly learning more of with every passing month. Whether you like it or not, history finds you in this place, rather than it needing to be the other way around. As a history lover I welcome this and try to get stuck into it in as much as I can. But what has really come as a great surprise to me is the sense in which people feel their history here. When I say that, I don’t talk about the elderly alone. Indeed, some of my youngest friends and students of less than 20 years have expressed this sense of feeling a burden of loss and of longing for the great nation that Portugal once was in the eyes of the world. This sense of saudade which harbours no real translation in English is alive and present, even in the youngest of the minds here. As a citizen of the UK, also a former colonial super power, it’s an interesting perspective for me. I find it to be something quite unusual that there can be this nationalistic element within the collective psyche, a sense of the unrecognised greatness of the nation, but one which isn’t rooted in the xenophobia, as one might think it would be. Instead, this fact of Lisbon having been the port of the world in Europe rather means that people here want to see foreign faces, they want to explore lands and have us explore theirs, but at the same time steadfastly sticking to the idea that this place is overwhelmingly underrated. That part, at least, I am coming to concurrence with.


6 – Climatic Adjustment

I write this post after just 8 months, or one school year in Lisbon. It’s not a really long time, and it’s the third country I’ve called home since buggering off from England. It seems ridiculous to even contemplate it, but you do adjust to the climate here very quickly. Make no mistake – winter here is an horrendous experience. 6 weeks of bitter cold, with humidity in the high 70s to 80s, means that you feel the chills right through to your bones. A lack of double glazing and insulation in almost all residential buildings means that your flat is often colder than outside. It’s miserable. But then, when you remember that this lasts for around 6 weeks and the rest of the year, the very lowest temperatures you find would be considered very mild for Spring in the UK. I’ve spent the last 8 weeks without seeing more than 20 minutes of rainfall and with a daily average temperature of above 20 degrees – and much of that time was Spring, not Summer. Visiting the UK, in April, I found one night out with my friends ended with what felt like the onset of hypothermia, as I felt what 8 degrees was like for the first time in 2 months and more, my friends concerned that I might be ill when they saw me shivering. So, while I feel a bit ridiculous saying it, if I do move on from Lisbon in the next few years, I’ll certainly be looking for somewhere with a similarly gentle climate.


7 – Cheapness

I alluded to this earlier, when talking about food, but I have to stress how cheap living in Lisbon really is. Rents are not extraordinarily cheap, though very much so for most of the Eurozone’s capitals, but the every day things, transport, food, drink, etc are available at insane prices. The fact that, when coming here from Poland, I haven’t noticed any major price hikes in my day to day purchases is pretty astonishing. While I’m now a resident and therefore a large part of me wants tourists to stay away, so as not to dilute the culture here too heavily, it’s a surprise to me that more tourists don’t come to the city. This is changing and I suspect there will be year on year increases for the foreseeable future, as there has been in the past few years.I encourage anyone reading this to come and take a look. You won’t be sorry anyway and you certainly won’t be out of pocket.

The small caveats to this are: toiletries, perfumes, petrol and a few other things, which are at more or less the same price level as (if not higher than) in the UK.

8 – Take a Ticket

When I was a lad (about a billion years ago) growing up in the south of England, any trip to the butcher’s, greengrocer’s, bakery, supermarket, whatever, seemed to involve taking a ticket from what looked like an inverted hairdryer. After a period of time, a stout gentleman would call your number and you’d buy some rubbish or other. These days are long passed and now, in Britain, the only place you get numbered tickets are if you park in the wrong place, or if you enter a raffle. Not so in Portugal. Chances are, if you’re waiting in a place with other people, there will be a hairdryer-looking-thing lying prostrate, waiting for you to rip a ticket. Just as with the earlier British models, I usually manage to mess it up and take about 5 at a time, ruining the whole system for everyone. I assure you that this is out of incompetence, rather than any need to subvert the system. But here, it’s used for everything. You need to see the taxman, take a ticket, you need to see the doctor, take a ticket, you want a bowl of soup at the little café, take a ticket and so on. It’s quite funny to me, or would be, except that I’m slow on the uptake, so I pretty often arrive at a place, wait for 10 minutes, then realise I’m not invisible, but have no ticket.

9 – Slow Down

As a Brit, and one that’s lived in and around London for a good portion of his life, I generally find that the best pace at which to walk from A to B is very fast indeed. I often weave around other pedestrians as though I am in some kind of race, not for any particular reason, but just because I’ve developed a fast walking pace. In Portugal, this poses two specific problems. The first is that people here walk in a casual, calm, relaxed way. With the streets and alleyways being as old and narrow as they often are, overtaking is simply impossible. The only thing for it is to slow down, so as not to appear like a creepy stalker, walking inches from the behind of the person ahead of you. The other problem it poses is that such walking pace invariably makes you hot. Here, where the climate is (see above) clement, to put it mildly, this can make you into a pretty nastily sweaty fellow, pretty quickly. Couple these factors with the fact that there’s really no need to hurry as, work aside, no-one ever really cares if you’re 10 – 15 (- 30) minutes late and I’ve simply had to adjust. I’m getting there.

10 – Lisbon is Still the Portal

If you look at Lisbon on a map (which I do sometimes), then you’ll notice that it’s quite close to being dead centre of Portugal. The advantage that brings, Portugal being the small country it is, is that from here you can get more or less anywhere else within 4 hours. The very northern tip of the country and even the Galician area of Spain are 3 and a half hours away, as is the Algarve and its year round beach climate is the same distance at the opposite end. Lisbon’s airport has expanded dramatically in recent years, meaning that low cost flights to Portugal’s islands (the Azores and Madeira) are but a short, inexpensive hop away, too. Add to this the burgeoning schedules of low cost carriers like Ryanair and Easyjet, as well as TAP’s often low prices, and it’s a good place from where to explore other parts of Europe and the world, too.

So that’s a run down of what I’ve picked up over the past year. Of course, there are some negative things to add to this list, like the road system being old and not really up to date for the volume of traffic, metro strike days which really irritate you, sunglasses vendors who are “secretly” (not secretly at all) selling all manner of herbs disguised as drugs – and the fact they always seem to offer them to me. But generally, it’s been a great city to learn about, be a part of and I hope, through better grasp of the language, I’ll learn a stack more next year.


10 thoughts on “Lisbon Year 1 – 10 Things I’ve learned

  1. Ah, NOW I’ve figured out what you were referring to… I was over on your other blog.

    I totally agree with you about the Portuguese. Some others just attribute it to a shyness, and I think that’s some of it. Portuguese are really low-key, and actually I love that about them. (Part of that is because the previous generation lived under a dictatorship where lots of social behaviour was highly restricted, couples couldn’t even show affection towards each other and plenty of other nonsense. My husband’s generation didn’t grow up with that, but were raised by people who were and it will probably take the Millennial generation to shed the social effects of that time.)

    I think friendships should be earned, unlike in some, ahem, Latin or Hispanic countries where everyone is called “my friend”. Also, I tend to be cynical when people are overly-friendly and effusive. I have a bullshit meter like everyone else and my dial rarely moves in Portugal.

    I’ve learned that in Portugal you find the gems by going inside. I can’t tell you how many ordinary-looking cafés with wonderful interiors, or shops with dilapidated fronts, or homes with very plain frontages that on the inside reveal a whole treasure trove of things you would never know existed by the outside. This is why I photograph as much as possible — people would walk right by and miss out if they didn’t take a look. But I say it’s a metaphor for the Portuguese, too: you have to get past the front door. In shops if you get to know the shopkeepers, they will offer you things that aren’t on display. Same with the butchers. I have an American friend in another city who speaks Portuguese now but it’s taken over 3 years to get “into the club” where at a little neighbourhood shop she is offered the Coke Zero from a stash only available to friends and family. Nobody sees Coke Zero there unless they’re in the club!

    I’ve been reticent to talk about the Portuguese nature in-depth on my blog because it takes time to read people. Also, because my extended in-law Portuguese family reads my blog, ha. But how I read my in-laws isn’t necessarily how I read all Portuguese families. But I’ve reached about the time period where I am able to write about it: I’ve travelled enough around the country, met enough people in a variety of situations (work, volunteering, services, randomly) that I’m confident that my observations are objective and fair.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: A Lingua! Learning Portuguese & a Collaboration | Um Lisboeta Inglês – An Englishman in Lisbon

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