I haven’t traveled alone for a while. In fact, I can’t remember if I ever traveled alone. It seems to be the cornerstone of a meaningful life as a traveler these days doesn’t it? To travel solo, to put yourself out there, to push your limits, to enrich your existence.
I found myself traveling alone last month out of necessity; calendars that don’t match, projects that need completion, and time was (is) of the essence.
One might say that traveling alone in your own country, in the city you’ve known for almost twenty years, isn’t quite “traveling solo”. I beg to differ. It’s about the perspective you have of things, how the solitude moments will shape your future and, ultimately, the people you meet along the way. Sure, it helps to speak the same language, but communication goes beyond that.
And the way I communicated with these people in the museums I visited… People who spend their nine-to-five days behind a ticket office, or ushering visitors from one room to the next, or adding more suggestions of things to see in the city I thought I knew well – the way I communicated with these people showed me exactly what I want to do next. But this post today isn’t about that. Yet.
About Patronage and the State of Heritage
If you’ve visited the National Palace of Ajuda, you know you were so overwhelmed it’s almost hard to describe it.
If you haven’t visited yet, you’ll find yourself lost in a sea of velvet drapes, walls covered in silk, and an exaggeration of comfort. Whims of a young Italian queen, some may argue. On my part, I appreciate the whims and her unbridled incursion into interior design.
I like to wander through sets that allow me to create stories and characters; it’s not the same if all you have to see is a handful of paintings. Here, if you closed your eyes, if you were fortunate to be alone like I was, it’s like you could hear ladies in tight corsets giggling, and smell the smoke of cigars, and…
My thoughts were interrupted by an employee complaining about flea bites to her supervisor, “all I do is scratch all day! These windows have to be open, the whole place needs a proper cleaning.” Her supervisor asked her to keep it down, smiling at me, and mouthing a shy “I’m sorry”. I smiled back. I was sympathetic with the discomfort of being nibbled at by parasites on a daily basis, but not enough to join the conversation and pick a side.
I wandered from room to room. In all of them an empty Ikea chair by the window (clearly not part of the 19th Century decoration). I imagined it was coffee break time. I assumed people who work there don’t just let a visitor roam freely, unattended, for no good reason.
As I reached the end of the first floor and turned back, an employee (sitting in a chair that had been empty minutes ago) escorted me to the staircase. “There’s one more floor to visit upstairs”, he said blankly.
As I climbed the stairs, I heard the voices of three women discussing some reality TV show; the minute I reached the room, they scattered, each one of them shuffling their feet heavily towards their assigned position.
There was nothing but silence.
A graveyard would have seemed livelier than this floor.
I started to grow impatient. It didn’t help that the woman sitting against a wall in the middle of the corridor answered my question “which way should I go” with a shrug; I chose one side based purely on gut feeling and she plunged her head back into her book.
As I approached the throne room I strode faster. What had been delight one hour before, had become a feeling of suffocation. I swear that for a short moment I could feel fleas feasting on my shins. Power of suggestion, of course, since I couldn’t find any bite marks.
I looked up to a magnificent painted ceiling and my eyes were stuck in the corner where the paint had been eaten away by mold. There was nothing there but a white patch.
“It breaks my heart too…” – said a voice of a man behind me – “… but what can I do? I’m just an employee.” Suddenly I didn’t feel like fleeing down the stairs to catch fresh air, and replied: “it’s such a shame”. He wasn’t versed in Art History, but he knew enough tricks of the trade to know a photo of the throne room would look better if he turned on the lights.
He led the way and whispered “don’t tell anyone I did this”, while he turned on the light switch hidden behind the red velvet curtain. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t much of a photographer, so I complied with the harmless transgression.
We talked about Napoleon and the French Invasions in the 18th Century, about sticking to the budget being more important than looking after heritage these days, and about how President Obama once had dinner in the feast room of this palace on his official visit to Portugal.
I asked him “do you like what you do?”. He smiled and said “yes, I do. I get to work here every day.”
About Fear of Change and Order
Once you’ve lived in a place long enough, you’re bound to know all the spots to visit after a couple of months. It’s part of the exploration – one day you take a bus and travel the full route, just to see where it leads you and what city it shows you.
Then, as years pass, you submerge in a sort of routine slumber. A bus route becomes just that, a bus route. And time (or money, or patience, or will) is not enough to cater to your desires of exploring again. I learned what being surprised felt like again after stepping inside the Pimenta Palace.
I had my heart set on a quick visit, a couple of shots, and a few vague notes about the museum in my phone app – something like how to reach, how much to pay and what to see. Absolutely devoid of commitment and soul.
Sometimes the absence of information about a place leaves you with nothing to aspire to – for some, it’s good to live life without expectations; for me, it’s the prelude to something not worth experiencing.
I was wrong, here. I was wrong.
The man at the ticket office greeted me with a warm smile, handed me the ticket (“although the admission is free, a ticket must be handed to every visitor”, he explained), and apologized, “parts of the museum are closed. We’re renovating! I’m sorry about the mess”. He talked as if he had just opened the doors to his own house, and I returned the warm smile. Pointing to a door behind me he added, “I’ll leave it up to you if you want to visit now or later, but do take the time to visit the gardens.”
I turned right to the first room on the ground floor.
Inside the museum, a father and a son were taking photos with a selfie stick. I think I grunted, or maybe I just gave them an ice cold look and went my way.
Pieces of all the city’s cultural layers were on display behind glass doors. How can people talk about the purity of race when History constantly proves that we are all beautifully mixed?
I reached a closed door at the end of the room, assumed it was the end of the tour and began to turn back. “It doesn’t end here” – a woman I hadn’t seen sitting in the corner warned me. “There’s a lot of dust in the air that’s why we keep this door closed”.
She opened the door that led to the courtyard and asked the woman on the other side, “are you free to escort this lady?”. She nodded, “in just a second”. She held a bowl of food in her left hand while trying to keep one of the resident peacocks away with her right food. “Fred, you’ve already eaten. This is not for you now, go on.” (A peacock named Fred in the middle of a courtyard of a museum in Lisbon…)
The fat birds waddled away as I passed by them to enter the second room. “I’ll be with you in a minute”, she said while closing the door behind me.
The dust in the air made my eyes water and my throat dry. At the far end of the room, a model of what Lisbon looked like before the Great Earthquake of 1755. November 1st, all Saints Day, all Hell broke loose in the city’s downtown. The marks are still everywhere, most of them in the absence of things.
“It’s very dusty. I do my best with the wipes I bring from home every day, but my arms don’t reach that far” – the lady had returned from her peacock feeding duties and was pointing to the middle of the model (somewhere around the Ajuda quarter). I agreed, “it must be awful to be in all this dust all day long”. She smiled, “oh I don’t mind! I volunteer here. Construction will be over soon. I would tell you to visit upstairs, but the board of directors is having a meeting. I hope they don’t change things around here…”
Looking worried about what the future might bring, she absentmindedly cleaned the roof of one of the buildings on the side of the river with a half-dry baby wipe.
“Oh wow, I had never seen the National Pantheon without the dome!”, I felt the urge to change the topic, pointing towards the Alfama quarter where the white Baroque church stood out from a patch of orange rooftops. Her eyes brightened and she started to point out the different areas and landmarks. “I live over there”, she pointed to one of the hills. “Penha de Franca. Very quiet, great neighborhood. Oh, maybe I should turn on the video that explains the model and the earthquake? I don’t think it’s working very well, but I can try.”
I said I didn’t need it, it was fine. And it was really fine.
“Why isn’t the Belem Tower here in the model?”, I asked. Her smile was wider and her eyes were brighter. Surely this was her favorite question, one that she knew the answer to by heart and was excited to share. “I’m glad you asked! Everyone asks me the same question when they visit! Well, it can’t have the tower because… the model stops in Alcantara!” She placed her right index finger on top of a building and placed her left index finger at an imaginary point in the air, a few inches away from the end of the model, and gave me a spontaneous virtual tour of Lisbon – “This here would have been the Belem Tower…”
About Work, Democracy, and the Government
Surely if I claim to have found a blog about cultural tourism to offbeat destinations I must know all there is to know about the quirky side of those destinations right? Yes and no. Lisbon still surprises me. You wouldn’t believe how many side streets I have yet to discover, knowing that I will never find them all. It is what it is. The constant search is what keeps us going.
Some places are so specific to a country’s culture that we wonder if we would understand it if we visited. They tend to be forgotten when planning a trip. A week ago, on a side street near the castle, as some tourists struggled to acknowledge their position and orient themselves in the right direction, I asked myself, “why do most people avoid side streets in a new place?”
The National Theatre Museum was close to becoming a pet peeve that day. I lack orientation skills and I navigate according to landmarks, therefore having a map becomes obsolete.
The day I decided to visit that museum I got lost. Twice.
Feeling my cheeks burning red with frustration, I was ready to throw the towel. For the first time, I decided to step away from the side streets to find my North and I was successful.
With my eyes, reluctantly, glued to the map app on my phone, I found my way to the museum. I was relieved to find it, but still not sure if all of this had been a waste of my (precious) time.
The security guard at the gate pointed me to the ticket office, “I don’t know if she’s already allowed to sell tickets today, but go ahead and ask.” I found it was an odd thing to say; had I missed any important information? I asked to purchase a combined ticket for the museum and the gardens. I asked for a combined ticket for the museum and the gardens. “The gardens only open at 2”, she told me. “I can sell you a ticket, but you have to promise me you won’t go to the gardens before 2.” (Emphasis on the “promise”) I gave her my word, but I could tell she wasn’t sure. I thought I should put her mind at ease. “I’ll tell you what, I’m going to start with this temporary exhibition here and then move to the museum, and I’ll do it as slowly as I can.” She smiled nervously, twisting her hands, “Don’t get me wrong, I just don’t want my boss to find out I sold a ticket before the opening time… But go ahead.”
The lady at the ticket office looked familiar but I realized I actually just knew her from a David Bowie song (“It’s a god-awful small affair / To the girl with the mousy hair”).
I entered the small room to the right of the gate to visit the temporary exhibition, waiting at the entrance for a few seconds until my eyes adjusted to the poorly lit space.
“She was quite a woman, Anna Mascolo”, said a voice behind me. I turned around and the security guard I had talked to before was standing by the door. He pointed to a photo of the Italian dancer, “see how she carries herself? You can tell she would stand up to anyone, even the dictator at that time.”
I smiled in agreement. My eyes rested on a transparent box filled with used, dirty, sweat-stained ballerinas and I flinched, remembering the pain I had once felt while learning to balance my body weight, gracefully, on the tip of my toes.
“I promised her I would come here and stall you.” I looked at him puzzled, raising my left eyebrow. “My colleague, at the ticket office, she’s afraid she made a mistake by selling you the ticket before time.” I laughed, “oh god, no. I wouldn’t do anything to put her on the spot.”
I looked closer at one of the photos: her pose, her hair, and her clothes impeccable. “The country and the world need more passionate women like Anna don’t you think?” The man, who seemed to be in his late fifties, smiled, “it’s hard these days to meet people who are not afraid of making waves. I have a chronic rare disease, you know. I need regular treatment once a month, but I don’t get paid sick leave from work; I have to schedule my sessions according to my vacation days. I don’t want to give them good reasons to be laid off.”
In the twenty minutes he “stalled” me, we discussed politics, education, the recession, the millions of euros in profit that tourism could bring to Portugal, the elections that were taking place the next weekend, how my life was in London, how democracy could be good and bad at the same time. And we discovered we were neighbors.
“Well, I stalled you long enough. I think her mind is at ease now. Enjoy your visit.” The conversation ended abruptly. He returned to his place by the gate. I left the temporary exhibition and climbed up the staircase leading to the Theater Museum.
What are the stories behind your travels? What do the people you meet share with you?