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Day 12: The Flat of Anonymous Portraits in Brussels

in which your author barely makes it to Brussels and discovers the Airbnb to beat all Airbnbs

semi-overcast 80 °F

Day 12 would be a day predicated on precise timing. My flight to Brussels leaves at 3:30, and prior to that I want to take in the Fado Museum. My Airbnb host Pedro comes by at 11am to clean the place for his next guest; he has kindly agreed to allow me to leave my bags at his flat while I see a bit more of the city. We walk the long hills to his neighborhood and after dropping my bags off I stop for a terrific sandwich and coffee in a cozy café where I catch up on some writing. (Note to self: as much as I love having these entries posted and archived, there are definitely times when I question whether my precious time in these cities is best spent on writing, especially as writing and uploading the photos for each post seems to take around two hours. I wonder if there’s a way to slightly rejigger for the next trip?)

I make my way mostly downhill – have I mentioned Lisbon is the “city of seven hills?” (seems more like seventy) – toward the water where I was dropped off two days prior, and eventually come to the Fado Museum. I should have just enough time to explore here and get to the airport to make my flight. (Anyone want to guess where that assumption is headed?)

The museum is well structured, with a mix of video, audio, and listening booths. The history of this music is so tied up with Portuguese cultural and political identity, and many of the songs tell melancholic stories about poor outcasts and love gone wrong. As quote on a wall claims, “Fado is a poem that can be seen and heard.” There’s an acute sense of nostalgia as well, which connects to my present thinking about my dissertation. What’s clear is the riveting performance style; even without understanding a word of the language, some potent flavor of the drama remains.

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I make my way back again through the winding, mostly uphill Alfama district where I began my stay, trying to time things out so that I retrieve my bags from Pedro’s flat with enough time to get to the airport.

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Close to Pedro’s I pick up a Portuguese book printed in Lisbon in 1896 from an outdoor book cart.

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Even though I’m walking quickly, all this meandering puts me behind my projected time, and I make the (probably not wise) decision to take the subway to the airport rather than a cab. I don’t have the correct change for the ticket machine, and the attendant sends me back up to break a twenty Euro; all of this is costing precious minutes! When I do finally get to the airport, I realize the terminal I need to get to requires an additional bus ride, and though the bus is full, the conductor must wait ten minutes. Gah! I have to wait to check in and receive my visa stamp, which takes another 15 minutes. Thankfully, the security line is short, but the officers dig through my entire suitcase which at this point is laden with liquids, and that takes time. I sprint to the gate…

…and THANKFULLY, they let me on board. If I had been two minutes later I probably wouldn’t have made the flight and that would have thrown off the entire rest of my trip. NOTE TO SELF: when connections like this require leaving and extra hour, leave TWO extra hours! Lesson learned.

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The flight to Brussels is fine, as I chat with a friendly mother and daughter visiting Lisbon from Antwerp; the flight attendants amusingly try to to translate the title of my new Portuguese book and one even offers me 5 Euro for it! When I leave the airport, finding a train into town, it’s much cooler than Madrid or Lisbon. There’s an eerie quiet over the city, and the streets feel almost abandoned. (I find out later I was in a business district.) There are a few moments of unsurety, as I can’t seem to find any way of getting to my Airbnb, which is too far to walk with bags, and no cabs seem are coming by. I get on a bus which takes me 2/3 of the way before turning, and I get out and walk the rest of the way.

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Any frustrations I felt on the trip to Brussels, however, are immediately ameliorated upon entering the absolute palace of a flat I’m somehow procured for myself. I’ve stayed in Airbnbs all around Europe and the US and no place has come close to the elegance of this place, run by a talkative professional art collector named David. He shows me around, and he describes his methods in purchasing all this stuff, much of which he either sells for a profit or uses to furnish the apartments of wealthy persons “too busy” to buy their own things yet who want to come off as cultured. (How’s that for a depressing and impersonal notion?) Portraits adorn the walls, mainly from the 19th century, though a few are older. David says he only knows about half of the identities, which lends an air of mystery – these people were important enough at their time to commission portraits, and yet their names are lost to eternity. It’s pretty stunning to be left alone in these rooms, and I shoot a video and upload to Facebook.

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I shower and leave the flat to walk around a bit in Brussels, not finding much that still serves food. The city is much quieter and emptier than Madrid or Lisbon – also much more diverse, as the neighborhood where I’m staying abuts an African district. A helpful waitress in one brasserie advises me to walk toward a further neighborhood and I order a falafel at a late-night Middle Eastern place. The guy takes his time preparing it but it’s one of the best I’ve ever had, and I’m bowled over by the fact that they include fresh, crispy, magical frites inside the falafel! We’ve been doing it all wrong, America.

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I find a small, cute bar a few doors down and order my first Belgian beer in Belgium. (Seems like an important travel milestone, right?)

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A young woman named Audrey (which she pronounces like “Howdree”) with a guy friend invite me up to the bar and the three of us chat for the next hour; she’s the lead singer for a band called Best Good Friends, apparently a line from Forrest Gump. I ask them about Brussels, and they tell me the city is still reeling from the terrorist attack in the airport earlier this year, and that they didn’t feel a strong sense of local culture. (I had found it odd that I hadn’t noticed any mention of the attack in the airport; the pleasant mother and daughter I sat with on the plane say they had just instantly rebuilt everything and moved right along, which certainly is different from how we publicly memorialize tragedy in the US.) Audrey advises me to leave the city the next day and take a day trip to either Ghent or Bruges, which I start thinking about. I have a couple delicious, very inexpensive local beers here and walk back to my palace. (I find out much later I was in the same neighborhood as the birthplace of a more famous Audrey... Hepburn! Somehow missed that visit.) So far Brussels isn’t terribly exciting, but at least I’m getting the chance spend a night in what for all purposes is a 19th century museum!

Posted by coolmcjazz 09:31 Archived in Portugal Tagged lisbon fado Comments (0)

Day 11: Lisbon, My Way

in which your author gets pleasantly lost in one of the world's most beautiful cities

sunny 80 °F

  • ARGHHH. I’m writing this from the plane and have to type this entry out again after not saving it and typing another entry in the same document. Will have to try approximate what I already wrote. #ANNOYING

After a reassuring check in with a friend over Facebook after a late and harrowing night, I venture out with my bags toward my new Airbnb, and stop along the way at a welcoming café. An employee is extremely friendly and helpful, and I get some breakfast and write for maybe two hours. They’re playing the soundtrack from Buena Vista Social Club so I feel very much at home. I have no cash on me, but even before I had ordered, the employee tells me to get cash after I sit and relax. The walk to find an ATM machine proves to be challenging, as five different people seem to give five different sets of directions, and sadly I pass by a flea market with no money to spend! (Some graffiti on the street reminds me: “Don’t worry!”) Eventually I find a cash machine, return to the café, and thank them for their hospitality, continuing on through the cobblestone streets to the Martin Muniz neighborhood where I had booked a small flat.

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My host Pedro lets me in and we climb the narrow staircase – somehow, every building I stay in in these old European towns seems to be on the top floor of elevator-less buildings. I unpack and grab a shower and resolve to explore Lisbon on my own terms. I pop into a comfortable café where a helpful waiter brings me some Portuguese wine and a plate of delicious local cheeses. The cheese is served with bread and fresh figs, which are juicy and refreshing – how have I never had fresh figs before? (Fig Newtons? Not in the same universe.)

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The view from a spot high above Lisbon is probably the most stunning of my entire trip. Lisbon is a city of many red roofs, all arranged at odd angles. About a dozen young tourists take selfies and sit on the overlook with beers and cigarettes. I’d love to see this view again some day.

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I pop into a small dive bar called O Botequim and have a drink common to the area with white port, fresh mint, and tonic.

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I’m headed to a bar called Cinco, supposedly the best cocktail bar in Lisbon, and along the 1.8 mile, winding walk there I pass by many fellow walkers enjoying the scenery and locals conversing in loud, hearty tones. There’s a lot of graffiti in this city, including on some ancient ruins and on a tram which pulls up into the popular neighborhood of Bairro Alto. I spot some street art depicting the great queen of fado, Amália Rodrigues. I stop in at a hotel bar and a Middle Eastern place where I get a falafel and watch a bit of the Portuguese version of The Voice, where a Portuguese man is singing an operatic, oddly goofy version of Sinatra’s My Way.

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Upon entering Cinco, I’m greeted by one of the bartenders with a personal welcome, a handshake, and a menu featuring an abundance of original drinks. The two boisterous bartenders are carrying on a flurry of jokes in both Portuguese and English with the other tourists who sit at the bar. I ask for something unusual and they bring a drink with pineapple and red pepper puree, with a lit sparkler on top. I follow that up with a hot drink made with Singleton single malt and Drambuie, a blazer-type which means the bartender lights the drink on fire and passes the liquid between two flaming tins. I’m a bit worried because my iPhone is now at 1% battery life and I don’t know my way back to my Airbnb; I make sure to write down the address. Loved this bar and the warm reception, but could really do without the smoking, which seems pretty pervasive in all Lisbon bars.

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On my way back I pass through the Erasmus section, where hundreds of college-age students mill about drinking beers openly in the street. As I’m taking a few photos, a young couple asks how the photos turn out, and I end up hanging out with them for another hour or so, along with a couple from Montreal. (Sadly I can’t capture their info because my phone is now dead.) It’s some nice, relaxed spontaneous fun and I’m glad to soak up some of Lisbon on my own terms. I make the wise decision to take a cab back to my flat, and call it a night. Lisbon is a gorgeous place!

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Posted by coolmcjazz 05:54 Archived in Portugal Tagged lisbon Comments (0)

Day 10: Lisbon and the Fabulous Fado!

in which your author hears timeless music and learns to ski with sneakers in the windy streets of intoxicating old Lisbon

sunny 84 °F

Day 10 begins just like Day 9it’s déjà vu all over again, said Yogi – waking up early to catch the taxi Mar has called so I can head to the train station to meet my BlaBlaCar driver Miguel who will drive me to Lisbon. (I love that I only knew about this service from nice fellow Leo who I only spoke with for about 20 minutes on my first night in Madrid. Where would I be without serendipity?) All goes according to plan this morning, and Miguel pulls up with a friend Hector and one other guest passenger, a young woman from Poland named Justyna. Miguel and Hector manage to squeeze all our bags into the trunk and we head off. The drive is long but doesn’t feel long, as the conversation is buzzing. It’s so very convenient everyone speaks English here! Miguel guns it and what was supposed to take 5 hours and 40 minutes is cut to 5 hours. Along the way we pass loads of dry greenery, small distant Spanish towns, and a few ancient-looking castles. At a rest stop I buy (and consume) an entire bag of potato crisps – the workout regime picks up hardcore when I return home! It’s neat to pass into Portugal, which, along with Belgium is one of two new countries for me on this trip.

We arrive in Lisbon by way of a massive bridge, and as we pass over one can see the river below, a large statues of Jesus looking over the city, and hundreds of dark orange rooftops. (My companions announce to me I’m simultaneously in San Francisco with the bridge and Brazil with the Jesus statue.) So far, this city looks exactly as I had imagined it. We whizz through the streets and end up by a central-looking plaza right by the water, where we depart – hope to see these folks in the US someday! The BlaBlaCar ended up being a great situation, but the way – for 41 Euro, about half of what it would have cost for a train ticket (which wasn’t even available online), I got from Madrid to Lisbon, and had great company the whole way.

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I head off to my Airbnb in the Alfama section, where I’m meeting an acquaintance. (NOTE: I’m not going to get into the details of this publicly, but suffice to say the situation was not a positive one, and thanks to the recommendations of some very good friends I ended up leaving the flat the following day to explore Lisbon on my own. Though inconvenient, this ended up being a wise choice. Don't travel with people you don't know well, friends!)

Alfama is the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon, and the rather treacherous walk there up many stairs and hills (lugging my bags all the while) makes me question my decision to not get a cab. I push forward, making some mental notes of cute little cafés and taverns along the way. Lisbon appears to be a city of much laundry, as colorful sheets and clothing hang from at least half the windows.

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After settling in, we grab dinner in an outdoor café and are the first to sit. An ever-so-slightly slightly pushy waiter (this place definitely caters to tourists, but that seems unavoidable) offers food typical of Portugal, where fish dishes are in abundance. I order fried shrimp (I’m ordinarily not much of a fan – especially when you can still see the eyes of the little buggers! – but the first few bites are tasty) and a traditional dish made from cod and potatoes. And olives, which are quickly – after many years of trying to acquire a taste for them – becoming something I get. And to drink: the delicious and refreshing vinho verde (“green wine”), a slightly effervescent Portuguese wine I’d had in the US but hadn’t enjoyed nearly as much as this local variety.

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One of the major attractions of Lisbon for me is the chance to hear fado, the traditional singing style originating from only two places: Lisbon, and the town of Coimbra, about an hour to the north. (Rick Steves says to look for the cafés with signs that say “Fado tonight” in Portuguese, but I only spot signs in English!) The performance style of fado is an alluring mix of simple and dramatic: as we’re eating, a young female singer draped in the traditional costume of black and red (my high school colors!) walks from her conversations in the alleyway into the interior of the restaurant (where there are maybe only two people seated because it's so nice out), and with a simple accompanying guitar, begins to intone these gorgeous, timeless melodies. Since she’s singing indoors and we’re all outdoors, the sound is almost ambient; a few people at the tables pay attention – by this point there are maybe sixteen people seated – but most continue their conversations and the total sound is a mélange of music with conversations in a number of different languages. I love this description of the style on Wikipedia:

“In popular belief, fado is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia. This is loosely captured by the Portuguese word saudade, or "longing", symbolizing a feeling of loss (a permanent, irreparable loss and its consequent lifelong damage).”

Next to me sit a young couple on holiday from Paris, and on the other side, an older couple visiting from Sweden. The Swedish gentleman Mats, and his wife Gudrun, are interested in US politics, and adds to the many Europeans I’ve met who are frightened about the rise of Trump. He’s interesting in someday traveling to Maine, and loves Bruce Springsteen (who appears to be quite popular in Europe) and the Foo Fighters. I show him my photo with Dave Grohl from the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, which is the first of two chances I have to show this to someone on this trip who will appreciate it – apparently in Europe, Dave Grohl is the new David Hasselhoff?

I approach the singer, whose name is Susana Martins, and chat about how she got into the style of singing, and ask for a few recommendations for other singers to check out. (She gives the names Mariza Ana Moura and Ricardo Ribeiro.) She’s very gracious, telling of her desire to sing in the US, and I buy a CD from her. (Here's a clip of her singing in a public square.) It’s astonishing to hear she’s only been singing for two and a half years! At one point I sit in one of the adjacent restaurants and hear another performer up close. There's an awful lot of musical theatre (the good kind) in these performances. I know I say things like this all the time, but this may be the most enchanting music I’ve ever heard.

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After a bit of red sangria (which I believe is Spanish in origin?) we navigate the hilly streets to find another place to sit and have drinks. Somehow, everything in Lisbon seems to be uphill; I’ve never been in a city that felt so much like the experience of skiing. I try a refreshing, sweet local cocktail made from white port (a favorite intoxicant of Portugal, which appears as an ingredient in many local drinks), fresh mint, and club soda, and after a not very satisfying dinner (I just don’t get full on seafood), engorge myself on a delicious local grilled cheese with goat cheese, honey, and almonds.

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So far Lisbon is stunning and packed with character. Can’t wait to see all the things tomorrow!

Posted by coolmcjazz 04:43 Archived in Portugal Tagged lisbon fado Comments (0)

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