The minute I step off the train, I hear a saxophone coming from a street musician. Lisbon breezes reminds me of San Francisco, but it is prettier, all the narrow streets where worn flights of steps carry one from one level to another beside the clear blue ocean.
Checking-in at the 18th century hostel with old lamps hanging on each side of the portico, I walk in onto slick marble floors the large reception area looks sterile, the smell of pine cleaner pricks my nose. A crowd gathers at the reception desk discussing the sites. A German woman looks at my embroidered blouse and assumes I am Portuguese asking me where one can get traditional craftwork. “It’s store bought, and I have no idea where you can buy anything embroidered in Lisbon, but I can share a fact or two about the city, if you’d like.”
“The city is built on seven hills overlooking the River Tagus so it has many faces. It has leafy avenues, and narrow streets. The Portuguese claim to have as many fish off their coast as there are days on the calendar. And there is Fado music- which lies at the heart of the Portuguese soul.”
It is as if my last statement wins over the entire group, the young woman extends her hand, and says, “I’m Renate.” After handshakes someone says, “Let’s go eat” and I am invited, the sextuplet of this merry group.
We have a seafood lunch in a turquoise painted inexpensive restaurant situated at the top steep streets in the Barrio Alto, people stand both at the bar and at the door waiting for a table. The interior contains rustic artifacts and lots of original art and photographs. The menu offers several preparations of codfish, including one that becomes a favorite, bacalhau, a fried codfish with port wine and cognac.
After lunch we discover the city’s rich architecture; Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, Modern and Post Modern. By evening, we head back to the Bairro Alto.
The Barrio Alto is a place where many shop the boutiques by day, but at night, it becomes a trendy place to people watch and meet friends. As we sit down in what appears to be a club, actually is a Fado house, a 17th vaulted cellar of a house that survived the earthquake, I take a load off my feet. I order soup for dinner and ask the waiter, “What time does the floor show come on?” “Midnight” he responds. “Our curfew is 12:30″, says Renate. “So we’ll listen a bit then go.” I begin a conversation with the Swedish man sitting next to me.
A female vocalist comes on with two accompanists, one plays Portuguese guitar the other classical guitar. She sings a song about nostalgia;
“Tem este meu coração” … my heart has this …
Dressed all in black with a shawl draped over her shoulders, her voice is melodic but earthy. By 12:10, emotionally tangled into the music, when everyone gets up to leave the Swede and I stay behind.
Ten minutes later, we make our exit grab a cab arriving at the hostel at 12:35 to closed doors.
My fists hammer at the huge double wooden doors but no answer. The Swede tries a couple of rounds. After 30 minutes it’s useless, they have enforced the curfew and are trying to teach us a lesson. I’m fuming beyond mania, in spite I’m going to break a window and cause the biggest raucous ever! I take off my shoe throw it at the second floor window and it is stuck in a tree! Shaking the massive Oak tree nothing moves, “I’ve lost my shoe!” I yell in a panic.
The Swede frustrated, “What a mess you got us into!!
“What are you Laurel talking to Hardy?”
His face is blank.
“Forget it, a cultural remark,” I add. “This is no time to point fingers.” “Help” I yell out wanting someone to come unlock the door.
I take off my other shoe use the heel to bang on the door, and the buckle busts.
An hour goes by. “Hey, lets’ both scream Fire, ” I suggest.
We try it- not a peep from the other side.
Hearing footsteps from around the corner, I hobble on my broken shoe to the end of the block recognizing a man I saw earlier inside the hostel. “Hey, you over there, stop!”
He walks in my direction.
“We got locked out; can you get us back in?”
He removes his cigarette from between his lips. “I work in the kitchen. I don’t have a key, but if you need a place to sleep, I know a lady with a house on the next street- but she’ll charge you” he says.
My eyelids are so heavy that I will agree to almost anything. “Let’s go” I call and the Swede comes running.
While ascending the flight of stairs, through the skylight I see stains on the steps that feed my imagination—could this be spilled blood of a body that tumbled to its death. A painted lady answers the door, with a red light glowing behind her, “I’m out of here” and speed away.
The Swede follows me, “We could have slept there.”
“Easy for you to say, you’re a man, besides I’m the one whose doing all the thinking!”
His ego now shot, he leaves.
I recall earlier having visually mapped out the area. The Avenida de Libertad is flanked by major hotels. Inside I tell the clerk my story. “Without a passport, you can’t stay here,” he informs me in a bored voice. Planted in the lobby, my eyes fly from one side of the room to another, as if I’m watching a tennis match, sweat running down my back. A housekeeper pushes a vacuum at my feet; the manager comes over asking me to leave.
A drizzle begins and I haven’t a coat or sweater, barefoot, I stumble along in a frenzy. A pay phone is close by, I call the American Embassy, and an answering machine goes on with no way to communicate an emergency! I slam the phone down pick it up and slam it again, as hard as I can, vibrating the glass partition. Through the glass, I see my reflection and laugh at my appearance in disbelief.
A police officer walks by, maybe he has a suggestion.
“I get off at 4; want to go for a drink?”
My face flushes from his indignation, “what’s your name?”
Rummaging through my tote, I locate a pen and scribble it on the back of a receipt. “Give me your badge number!”
He casually flicks his ID with name and number hidden from sight beneath his right lapel.
“You’ll hear from me again” I warn. Storming off, my ferocity melts into a weep, smelling like a wet cat from dripping hair mousse, running mascara, clutching onto one broken shoe like a pathetic lost creature. I dare not leave this main boulevard because there are too many dwindling streets that become alleyways.
No one can ever claim that getting around Lisbon is easy but it is now 4 a.m., hearing a disco beat- I follow the sound.
The bald bouncer in a cream-colored suit says, “Miss, there’s a dress code here.”
Thinking that nothing is more troublesome than a woman with the temper of a wild cat, “My husband is in there. If you let me in, I’ll find him and we’ll leave. If not, I’m making a scene.”
He unties the cord for my passage.
Seated in a booth in a room of thick smoke, two nights with little sleep, a ten-hour train ride from Madrid to Lisbon and a full day of walking up and down hills, nothing can be more enticing than sleep! I close my eyes and feel I am being watched. Three men surround me, with offers, “Cigarette”, “Drink”, and “Dance?”
I don’t know who to hit first.
The bouncer comes by and asks me to leave.
An idea strikes me- I’ll find a policeman and ask him for directions to the police station.
Ironically, I see the same policeman as before, he rattles an apology, but I am in no mood for decorum, “Take me to the station,” I order.
At the small reception area of the police station, my companions are the city drunk who sleeps on the only seat in the room, a wooden bench, and a lady of the night clad in a bright purple mini skirt with red platform high heels, chewing bubble gum she talks to the Captain behind the desk while his wickedly cackles in intervals.
I make myself cozy on the floor.
Twenty minutes later, the Swede sheepishly comes in also to use the station as his haven. He gives me a half smile.
“Come on, sit behind me” back to back we get some shut-eye.
A couple of hours later, the police officer offers to take both of us to breakfast.
“No thank you, but can point me in the direction of a shoe store?”