My 20 years of Lisbon in 20 fond memories
Lisbon and I have had a rocky relationship over the last 20 years, so I thought it was appropriate to pay tribute to it with 20 memories.
As I was writing the list, I had vivid flashbacks of those moments, although I couldn’t pinpoint the exact date, not even the month when it happened. I guess it doesn’t matter.
The 20 memories of Lisbon are in no particular order. I just wrote them as they came back to me, and, yes, there are many of them missing.
Although I don’t actually live in Lisbon now (real estate speculation has led me to a more affordable location, less than 20 minutes away from the capital city), the affection for the city is deep.
When I’m traveling, and the airplane approaches Lisbon, I always feel I’m returning home, and it has been like that since 1997.
Lisbon is my adoptive hometown.
1. The (actual) distance between places
I feel so ridiculous for sharing this one with you, but when I remembered it, I couldn’t stop laughing at my ignorance.
In the first couple of months of living in Lisbon, my roommate and I would do anything we could to avoid getting on the bus. Our dorm was five minutes away from College, so we could easily walk back and forth every day. We were also within walking distance of supermarkets, cafes, restaurants, and shops. Our idea of public transportation was the Metro, even though we both had passes covering the whole network of buses and trams.
One day my roommate’s dad asked her to do some errands and gave her the instructions on how to get there. There was only one thing wrong with those directions (brace yourselves!) – we needed to get there by bus (gasp!).
So, the two girls who always took the Metro to go everywhere (our knowledge of the city was pretty inexistent as you can imagine) had to make it to this “unknown” location by bus.
We found the bus stop at Avenida da República (which was 10 minutes from our place), so extra experience points for us, but this is not even the embarrassing part of this story.
As we were waiting for the bus to come, my mind drifted, and I began to look around, actually taking a real first look at the street. Then I looked all the way down the road to my right and realized the Saldanha square was right there. I turned to my roommate and said, “you know how we always come to Campo Pequeno to take the Metro to Saldanha? We can walk. It’s right there…”
Note: years later, after graduating, my roommate worked with the company that developed those useful boards that tell you how long it is before the next bus. It’s just a coincidence. I don’t think this episode had anything to do with it.
2. Learning to pack light
I love reading blog posts about packing light and traveling light, but dear bloggers, I’ve been mastering that since 1997. I learned it in a very hard (and heavy) way.
Unlike my other dorm mates (the number fluctuated over the year, but there were never under 20 of us, and I sometimes feel more than 20 women were living there), I didn’t get to go home every weekend.
I traveled to the Azores three times a year for Christmas, spring break, and summer vacation. This meant that every time I returned, I brought all the goodies I could pack and would make me feel less homesick.
Is there a downside to packing as many goodies as you can fit in a bag?
Yes, there is when you live on the third floor of a building without an elevator.
Since my flight never landed in Lisbon before midnight and I hardly made it home before 1 a.m., none of my housemates would be available to help me drag what felt like half of my life in a bag up the stairs.
The nosy building caretaker who lived in the basement was quick to pass judgment at any time of the day, though (gosh, that woman was one of the most annoying and meddling people I’ve met).
I quickly learned to pack light and the advantages of shipping things to yourself.
3. The tram rails
When you’ve lived in a place long enough, it starts to show up in your dreams (and your nightmares). My first urban nightmare (that’s how I call it) in Lisbon was about tram rails. Not trams, the rails.
Twenty years ago, a street near mine had tram rails that were no longer used. Given that I’m incredibly clumsy and trip over my own feet often, I would be terrified of stepping on those rails when crossing the street.
This was only made worse by a recurrent nightmare about getting my foot stuck on one of the rails when crossing the street and being hit by a car. Gruesome, huh? To be clear, there are no stories of people’s feet getting stuck on a tram rail…
To this day, I still don’t step on tram rails. If you ever see me crossing a street with tram rails doing what appears to be my own version of Monty Python’s silly walk, you’ll know why.
4. The bar fight
When you’re a teenager and an islander living in a big city, everything is exciting and new. Some of our choices of places to go out at night were pretty awful, but we didn’t know any better.
At the time, Avenida 24 de Julho’s bars and clubs were the hottest spots to be. Even hotter than Bairro Alto (which we thought were for lame people and old intellectual folks, like, you know, our college professors).
That street was also known for the high number of people run over by cars. People who had one-too-many drinks and speeding cars were not a good combination. That’s the reason why there are speed control radars there now.
There was this bar called Gringos, a kind of biker bar, I guess, that we only went to twice. I can’t remember who recommended it the first time, but we enjoyed the music, so we decided to go back a second (and last) time.
The three of us were chilling with an imperial (draft beer in Portuguese) at one of the few tables available when my friend turned pale and said: “We have to go, now!”. I looked back in the same direction he was staring at and saw a chair flying and hitting a guy on the head.
We left shaking, still holding our beers, and walked as fast and as away from that place as possible. We never paid for those beers, we never returned to that bar, and I think we tossed the beer glasses into the nearest recycling bin.
Maybe it’s not a memory to be proud of, but I felt like witnessing a bar fight (ya know, like in the movies) meant that I was now living in a badass city. It doesn’t mean that at all. It just means that a couple of macho asses had too much to drink and think they’re tough.
5. Midnight movie sessions
I lived in a College dorm with 20 other women. Not that unusual, except that this “dorm” was actually the whole third floor of a building near Gulbenkian Foundation, with one communal living room, only one kitchen, and two bathrooms with one shower and one toilet each. Yep.
Doesn’t it sound like a dream home?
And I have the feeling this place was borderline illegal. We always paid cash, and there were no receipts. If this doesn’t mean shady business, I don’t know what does.
The place was cheap, and it was within walking distance from College. It was also a last-minute decision, given that my brother and I couldn’t find an apartment within our parents’ budget. A High School friend was staying there, so I figured I’d make it work for a year.
That place is one of the reasons why I cringe at the idea of staying in hostels. Nope. Had my fair share of drama and people without social etiquette and hygiene standards.
Being alone in that place was impossible, and I appreciate my quiet moments without being asked fifty thousand times a day, “what’s up? Are you okay?” Also, there was only one TV set, and in the evening, soap operas and rom-coms always got more votes than the X Files, and I didn’t want to stick around for that.
When I had enough money for a movie ticket (and when it wasn’t raining), I’d escape and walk to Monumental in Saldanha for the midnight sessions and watched whatever movie was playing.
6. Sunday lunches at Gulbenkian
My cooking skills are pretty limited, and the College cafeterias were closed on Sundays, so having a decent meal was a pain for me. There were three options: getting a sandwich, feasting over a grilled half-chicken from the nearby supermarket, or going for the Gulbenkian Foundation’s buffet lunch.
I returned there a few years ago, and those ladies are still as impatient as they used to be 20 years ago. I don’t know if they’re the same women, though.
The whole thing has a rule like you can order two of these, one of those, and three of that one. Something like that. This system always made me nervous because they never gave me enough time to decide. They kept rushing me by repeating the same system over and over “you can have two of these, one of those, and three of that one!”
I never liked any of the meals there because of that. I always felt like I didn’t choose what I really wanted to eat. I usually ended up with some sort of cold meat and white rice.
Please don’t take my word for it. My enjoyment of their meals was affected by external factors, not the quality of food.
7. The forbidden places
Lisbon keeps reinventing itself when it needs to heal, when it needs to adapt, and when it needs to grow.
Gentrification is obviously a problem most of us are concerned with and that I have expressed before, but I can’t expect the city to be the same as it was in 1997 when I moved here.
The only thing I fight for is for Lisbon to not lose its character for the sake of pleasing everyone. Not all visitors will love Lisbon, and that’s okay.
When I moved here, Intendente, certain areas of Cais do Sodré, and most of Alameda were not recommended as places where a girl should go alone. Yes, you read that right.
Well, I don’t really like to be told what to do, so I did go to these places that weren’t recommended for “girls alone at night.” Granted, I didn’t go at night at the time because there wasn’t much happening there (unlike now).
These places, Intendente and Cais do Sodré mostly, are now highly recommended for nightlife. There are still some signs of the “old days” in particular spots, but you can’t strip it all from Lisbon’s life. You do your business, and they do theirs.
8. The street names and the neighborhood names
I suck at reading maps, and I suck at giving directions without describing buildings and landmarks. I confuse neighborhoods, and I often have to google the street names to know where a place is. Yes, I’m a writer who often writes about Lisbon and messes up street names and neighborhood names.
However, I can find my way around the city, and I can return to one place just by remembering quirky spots in a street or a square, or a house. Ask me how to get to one place by walking, and I’ll quickly draw you a map. Ask me the same but by driving or by public transportation, and I’ll draw a blank.
9. The night-out hang outs
Oh boy, looking back to the bars and clubs where we used to hang out 20 years ago, they all seem pretty shitty to me now. Except maybe Bairro Alto and O’Gillins at Cais do Sodré.
Most of those places are closed and abandoned now anyway, like Alcântara-Mar (it was popular and always crowded) and most bars at Avenida 24 de Julho.
I think it’s interesting how people began to concentrate around Cais do Sodré, Bairro Alto, Chiado, Príncipe Real. The downtown area needed some life and action around, even if most are foreigners.
10. The lines for the payphone
Facilities at my all-women semi-illegal dorm weren’t stellar, and I’m not talking only about the absence of enough bathrooms for 20 women.
Mobile phones were either expensive or inexistent at the time, so the only way my parents had to contact me (and me them) were the house’s two phones which, obviously, were always busy.
I had my first mobile phone one year later (a Nokia 5110), but calls were still costly, not something we could afford to splurge on daily.
In the evenings, I would go down the street to a payphone where I could call my parents with a pre-paid card, give them the number of the payphone, and they would call me back.
Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. When it stopped working, I moved to another payphone closer to my place. How did we know which payphones worked and which didn’t? We just followed the lines.
If it was past business hours and there was a gathering or a line next to a payphone, you know that was a working one. And despite not having social media, word got around pretty fast.
11. The house hunting
I was reading a report about college students who are struggling to find accommodation in Lisbon. Things haven’t changed much in 20 years, except that the prices are higher now and the monthly expenses.
When you’re waiting to know the results of your college application, you’re either very confident about your grades and exams that you’ve already found a place to stay, or you have to stand by and join the race when everybody else does.
And I do mean race! My brother, who had been living in Lisbon for 5 years, had already left his previous place so we could get an apartment together. Do you know the law of supply and demand? Well, there was a lot of demand, so house owners were having a blast increasing the prices to hopeless students.
We were also scammed big time by a real estate agent who charged us a security deposit that we never got back. She never found us a house either or answered our phone calls after that.
The list of demands and rules was as high as the prices they wanted to charge us: only men or women allowed, no renting to two people only, no smoking allowed (I was a smoker at the time), and so on and so on.
After spending almost three weeks crashing on friends’ couches and living off our backpacks, we decided to look for a place to stay separately. I ended up at my High School friend’s dorm, and my brother ended up renting back the room he used to stay at when he moved to Lisbon. There. Problem solved. We were both close to College, and we were also neighbors.
I can’t say I miss the dorm, but I do miss living in the area.
12. The bookstore that grew My Stephen King book collection
Any fans of Stephen King out here?
I read the first Stephen King book when I was 16, “The Night Shift” – a collection of horror short stories translated into Portuguese that I still own and that I must have read at least 10 times.
It wasn’t a bad translation, but I knew I was missing out on something if I didn’t read the original version (something always gets lost, doesn’t it?).
This was before widespread access to the Internet and online retailers like Amazon. Finding books written in the original language wasn’t easy, and it was expensive.
And then, one day, during one of my wanderings through the neighborhood, I found a bookstore in Saldanha that had a horror section with books written in English. Growing my collection was painful because the books were marked as imported, so you can only imagine how expensive they were.
A book could cost between 2,000 and 5,000 escudos (the Portuguese currency at the time, before the Euro came in 1999), which was a lot of money, especially for a student.
These days that converts to €10 and €25 respectively, which is a perfectly standard price for a book.
I don’t even know if the bookstore still exists or how it was called.
13. The concert where my brother left me stranded
This was two years before I moved permanently to Lisbon for College, but it counts as one of my first memories of the city. I’m pretty sure that’s when I fell in love with it.
In the mid-1990s, after my grunge rock phase ended with Kurt Cobain’s suicide, I turned to a more commercial kind of rock for a couple of years. To this day, I don’t know how my brother or I convinced my parents, but in the summer of 1995, I traveled from the Azores to Lisbon for Bon Jovi’s concert (plus Ugly Kid Joe and Van Halen) at the old Alvalade Stadium.
Traveling at the time was expensive, and my brother had to convince his landlords to let me stay in his rented room, so yeah, it was quite the adventure for all of us.
My brother wasn’t (and still isn’t) a fan of the band, but he had no choice but to chaperon me at the concert (me being underage and all). After a few minutes of boredom, he decided to “abandon” me (calm down, we were still in the same space) and told me to meet him when the concert was over at a specific spot.
Now, these were the days without mobile phones, remember? As people moved closer to the stage, I moved with them (even if I didn’t want to, I had no choice), so by the time the concert was over, I had completely missed the spot we were supposed to meet. Eventually, my panicking older brother climbed the fence, and we found each other.
If he hadn’t found me, he was getting ready to go to the sound booth to ask them to call my name. I’m so glad he didn’t, so glad.
My parents never knew about this.
14. The house of terror at Feira Popular
Ah, the good old Feira Popular, which is now a vacant lot in Entrecampos.
Our own little version of an amusement park with rides, restaurants, cotton candy, and a haunted house.
I don’t know how I convinced my brother to go, but I think it had something to do with the fact that I was underage and he was the one responsible for me. I didn’t leave him any choice, did I? After all, this was all part of my introduction to Lisbon, even before moving here permanently.
I remember the number one rule written in all caps at the ticket office: “DO NOT TOUCH THE ACTORS.” So, we’re in a panic, running around inside a poorly lit house, and we’re supposed to remember that? Gotcha!
The groups were kept small (8 people), and we were bundled in one with strangers. The haunted house was one of the most famous attractions there, and the lines were usually long.
From the house itself, I don’t remember much except grabbing the hand of the woman behind me as her boyfriend tried to push her to move (followed by my loud, dramatic “come on! We gotta get out of here!”) and the near heart attack when the resident Leatherface chased us out with his chainsaw (I swear it looked and sounded like a real goddamn chainsaw, then again it’s been a while…).
15. The college years
Made friends for life.
Learned from the best professors public education can buy (truly).
Had a kid.
Coexisted daily with the resident cat – a big, fat, wobbly orange tabby named “Propinas” (tuition in Portuguese) – and the birds (chickens, roosters, and peacocks) that hopped over the wall between our courtyard and the next door’s hospital.
Spent more time sitting on the lobby’s stairs than inside a classroom than I’d like to admit.
Developed profound hate for monkfish rice (it was a popular dish at the cafeteria), mashed potatoes, and instant pudding.
Learned that creativity is a skill, not a hobby. Eventually, 10 years after finishing my degree in Portuguese Studies, I had the nerve to quit my corporate non-related job and pursue it.
16. The Expo 1998 that I missed
My very pregnant self couldn’t attend the Expo 1998 (now known as Parque das Nações, in Oriente), and I can’t say I regret it.
These days, the area is a shadow of what it used to be. It’s a shame because if you love contemporary architecture, that’s the one place in Lisbon to see renowned architects’ work.
At the time, this was a huge event for Lisbon. Portugal had joined the EU 12 years before. Still, we were eyed like that family member everyone needs to get along with, but no one likes to admit exists.
We still have this inclination to show off more than we need to get attention, but in recent years the overall mentality of the Portuguese is changing.
We’ve been growing a little more confident every year. I guess winning the Football European Championship in 2016 had something to do with it.
17. My "meh" reaction to Belém
Let me tell you a secret, I’m not that fond of Belém. I’m the first to recognize it’s a beautiful place (for sunsets, for relaxing, for architecture, for pasteis), but it just doesn’t click with me, and it never has.
I don’t mind visiting when I’m showing someone around or when my husband wants to photograph it for the millionth time (he loves Belém), but I just don’t connect to it.
Maybe I’m looking at it from the wrong perspective. Still, I remember when I visited it for the first time (when I moved here, I wanted to see as many highlights as possible, driven by my neverending curiosity), I felt nothing. In fact, I may have blurted out a very cynical “this is it?”.
Yes, I know, fine examples of Manueline architecture, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the river, the gardens, one of the most impressive private art collections on display. But, still, “meh.” I’m truly sorry! I write a lot about Lisbon, but it doesn’t mean I like all of it the same way!
18. The Pizza Hut at Fontes Pereira de Melo
Celebrating my birthday.
Here’s something I’m not very good at. I’m also not very good at explaining why I don’t usually celebrate my birthday, but I celebrate other important dates. My son’s birthday, my wedding, the day I met my BFF (which leads us to this memory).
In 2005, after countless odd jobs doing stuff that had nothing to do with my college degree, I nailed a somewhat steady position as a credit analyst at a call center (that still had nothing to do with my college degree).
That’s where I met Sónia, my recent travel partner and my long-time old friend who may have crossed paths with me at the Bon Jovi concert in 1995 (but that I would only meet 10 years later because the Universe has its twisted ways).
There’s only one thing that I dislike more than celebrating my birthday, and that’s celebrating my birthday at the workplace with people I have nothing in common with.
Sónia and I devised a strategy for that day – she wouldn’t say happy birthday in public (instead she nagged me with a cheerful “Merry Christmas” several times throughout the day, a tradition that still stands), and we would go out to lunch far from the Atrium Saldanha shopping mall (our offices were on the top floors).
Our time to lunch was short, and our budget was limited, so the most affordable restaurant for us in the neighborhood with vegetarian options, away from prying eyes, was the Pizza Hut buffet at Fontes Pereira de Melo.
Yep, an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet for my birthday.
To this day, never has a pizza buffet tasted as great as that one. It’s all about the occasion, isn’t it?
19. My fallout and reconnecting with Lisbon
The “lady” and I have had our moments, and our ups and downs are as tricky as the city’s legendary seven hills.
When I moved here, I had high expectations, fueled by my own romanticization of life rather than by facts or an actual life plan. I wanted the busy journalist career, the urban apartment life, the daily stress of clockwork. I was 19, and I had no idea what the hell I wanted (as most 19 year-olds, I was a kid and a know-it-all).
The job crisis for College graduates has been real since 2004, way before the economic crisis hit the country. You had to be very good before you even knew how to be very good. God forbid you wanted to do a job different from whatever your College diploma said (regardless if that same diploma actually gave you the skills to do so).
From 2004 (when I began looking for work) to 2013 (when I decided to quit my corporate job), I wanted nothing to do with Lisbon. I was hurt. I could no longer afford to live in the city (yes, it’s old news. There’s more to it than the invasion of Airbnb, but I digress), and I moved away. My daily connection to Lisbon was a blurred commute, a quick nap on the 30-minute suburban train ride on the way to work.
When I returned from India and the plane flew over Lisbon, I had that feeling of returning home again. I hadn’t felt that in a long time. I was eager to show the city off to my husband, and little by little, I reconnected with the city again (or maybe she reconnected with me).
Slowly, my focus has shifted when I write about Lisbon. I now think of the city first before exploring and sharing every little corner. I stopped geotagging the exact location of where I take some of the photos (unless I’m on assignment covering an event or a destination). It’s a way of protecting the city, and it’s a way of pushing you to explore more. You’ll feel the city differently, trust me.
20. The people, it's always about the people
I’m terrible with names but not as awful with faces and their stories.
Most of my memories are linked to a specific place because of the people I met there or shared stories with. Often, people open up to me even when I’m not in the chatting mood. Above everything else, Lisbon, to me, is the people who make her or break her.
If you’re visiting Lisbon and come across anti-tourism messages, know that most people aren’t against tourism. They understand the tourism industry’s importance to the local economy when (and I repeat, WHEN) tourists actually contribute to the local economy, which hasn’t always been the case. Locals disagree with stripping Lisbon of her own personality to accommodate what makes visitors feel comfortable.
After a few chance encounters with museum workers, my perception of the city changed, and I felt responsible for being an agent of change towards sustainable cultural tourism. It might sound like a very restrictive way of visiting a country, but it really isn’t.
We can’t continue to barge into a city, stepping over local life, just because we’re on vacation and our time is limited. And that’s what’s been happening in Lisbon. I see it every day.
As a travel writer, I can’t continue to pretend the problem isn’t there and advise you to travel in the low season if you want to avoid the crowds. No. You should see the crowds and be mindful of what’s happening and ask us (or show us) what can be done.