Friday, 18 April 2014

Alfama: Good Friday

Yes, good Friday for another cruise ship, the MSC Orchestra.

So you’ve got eight hours top get back to the ship. You’ve read about Alfama. You’ll get over there on one of those three-wheeled conveyances, get the driver to cruise along Remedios and stop when you see a great photo, which you take from the seat of your conveyance, down some set of stairs.


This is grab-and-run tourism, that treats a neighbourhood as their amusement park (and river their parking stall, waterfront their audio field, city their mall, but let’s keep the focus local). So they tour up and down the streets, gawking. No photo op = no interest, no interest = don’t give a shit that people live there. The walkers get their bodies in gear, at least—cradling the lens of their camera in their left palms, hungry for the next shot. There, a playground. Let’s lean on the fence and take pictures of the kids playing!

These tables need some serious turning. For my part, I’ve glared at tourists, talked to local business owners about tourists, stood watching and taking pictures of tourists. Next, guerrilla action against the conveyances, and a stern talking-to I’ll deliver to the bridge of the Orchestra by sundown.

To be fair (about time!), I’m a tourist myself. And these small linguistic pics/tics I offer are my version of grab and run, usually more of a sit and watch. I’ll take my pics home and edit them a bit, I suppose, as they will theirs. I did feel a moment of fear for the tourists, when I saw a local guy bomb downhill on his motorcycle, his kid behind him, no helmets, along the route the tourists prowl.

Why should I have to hear the ding-dong that precedes on-board announcements on the Orchestra? Why, in Alfama, should people have to feel that their lives are on display for the consumption by a few hours’ worth of a visitor?

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Alfama: Elevation in 12 Steps

The sea is said to be level. Everything else is up and down.





On cruise ships at anchor they line the railings to watch your step—this one up, this one up, the next four down, a couple up, ten more down.



You can swallow that bite of pastry but it won’t stay down.



You can drop a coin at your feet, pick it up at your ankles.



A newborn’s first journey in Alfama is the 15cm ascent from crib to change table.



One kid kicks the ball past another. By sundown it's ridden an ebb tide out to sea.



The trees don’t know which way to grow. I stepped on a leaf the other day!



Your shoes age erratically.

If your mood is rising, it’s likely, around the next corner, to descend.



Last night, turning over in your sleep, you woke up three feet lower.



You’re always lower than you used to be.


But this is the closest you'll be to bottom.


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Incident at the Alfama Waterfront

This is the normal view out my window.


Today I woke up to this.


I headed down to investigate.


We’re piling into shuttles to tourist destinations, people from the ship told me.


The Azura seemed in no hurry to budge.


I waited a few hours. This was my view at lunch.


Finally I had enough. I went down and spoke to the men in charge.


Get your rust-bucket outta my face, I told them.


They relayed my message to the guy at the front who casts off the giant ropes.


Take your time coming back, Azura.


But now the damn navy’s moved in.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Santa Catalina


José Saramago, in A Year in the Death of Ricardo Reis, describes the statue of Adamastor (a mythological force of nature, enemy to all Portuguese sailors, invented by 16th-century epic poet Camoes) as a “huge, roughly hewn block of stone” that “looks like an outcrop but is really a monument.”

The title character of the novel, which was published in translation in 1991, was an invention of the 20th-century Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who himself appears as a character in the novel.

On a sunny day in February, 2010, I have the most sensational reading experience of my life when I walk up to the Santa Catalina viewpoint where the statue was installed in 1927 and read the scene set in that very place.

Today I do the same thing, which of course isn’t the same. Adamastor looks greyer than I remember. Or I’m the greyer one.

What I dig about Pessoa and Reis (who both lived and worked in a narrowly circumscribed area of Lisbon) and Saramago (whose travel and fictional writing manifest a deep, if not uncritical, love of Portugal and Lisbon) and revisiting this spot (such an attractive one too) at which we come together is the layering of focus on the local, which for me as a writer is everything.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Repeating Moon

Tangled in cloud, the full moon didn't show until well after midnight last night. I'd wanted to give it a look.
I remember watching the moon rise from the ocean off Puerto Moreles in January and waiting for the Feb moon between bottles of wine in Quillan. One night in March, there it was, above the Grand Socco in Tangier, tempting, on my walk home from Cinema Rif.
I enjoy seeing the moon. An easy weirdity a movie can present is a sky with no moon ever, or with unfamiliar forms. Those extra shapes in the Star Wars sky, for instance, or the oncoming horror of that celestial erratic in Melancholia. At home I enjoy pretending to scold my students for not knowing when the moon is full.
Today I spent hours in a sling chair by the river, trying to figure tides, in lieu of that full moon last night, which I missed at first.
Here's to you, lieu moon, my last on this trip.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Fado in Alfama

I went all the way with fado last night, dropping in at noon to reserve a spot for the evening show at a little place I thought might hide below the tourist radar. Later I showed up just after 8 and ordered the full pork meal with starters, salad, ½ liter of wine, bottle of water, dessert, coffee. About 30 bucks, ten feet from the fado act—polished amateurs, pretty good.

I was thinking about the differences in effects between fado and jazz or flamenco. The latter are virtuosic forms; fado is simpler in every musical way. Like the others, but even more so, fado is a coming together of community, the fadista and audience re-affirming one another, like periodic maintenance at a cultural level. I’ve noticed that “Lisboa” is featured in many fado songs, as if the city itself, and our places in it, is thus affirmed also. I was electrified by flamenco in Andalusia and jazz in Lisbon on Friday night. Fado is more of a wash than a charge. And of course, what drew me to it and to Portugal in the first place is the sense of longing built into fado and this nation of seagoers. Every fado song says hello how good to see you again, good-bye I hope you make it back. For poets, that longing is easy to read, rich but painful to endure. And let’s mention another one of those untranslatable words—saudade, often translated as nostalgia, but nostalgia’s not enough. Saudade, both deriving from and constituting the heart of fado, has to do, I think, with the loss and sweetness it takes to live in this world.

So last night, in the little restaurant in Alfama, the amateur fadista (the singer) in her traditional black shawl, and the old guy playing Spanish guitar, and younger, more virile man playing Portuguese guitar and singing all performed their deeply simple songs while ate our pork. When I stepped outside three hours later to walk home, there was the moon, listening.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

One Night in Lisbon

When I saw the sign, I had to snag my heart before it leapt from my body.

I’d just seen L’Arbito, part of an Italian Cinema festival that opened yesterday. (It was one of those funny/black euro films—in English and Portuguese subtitles, for you language learners—that plays out Albert Camus’ “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.” It was fun, the funny-black balance maybe a tad off, as if the film wasn’t sure. Since it was in competition at the festival and someone had handed me a ballot, I gave it 4 of 5.)

Next in line, this night of not sitting at home watching cruise ships make u-turns in the river, was a 22:30 set at the Hot Club of Portugal, the jazz club just around the corner from the cinema, by The Mingus Project, two horns and a rhythm section playing the music of Charles Mingus. That’s where I was headed, map in hand, folding and unfolding, when I turned the corner and saw the sign and felt the heartflip. FLAMENCO, 22:30. In bright chalk on a sandwich board outside Taberna Iberica. Well, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12! I stepped inside.

All the tables were reserved “for the flamenco,” I was told, so I kept busy at the bar for half an hour, debating whether to stay for flamenco or keep going for jazz. Can you feel my pain, my readers? (That’s you, Uncle Dick and Aunt Tracy). Deciding to stick with the jazz, I walked the short block to the jazz club, the first one there when they opened the doors at 22:00.

A word now about artistic journeys. These five musicians have dedicated themselves to Mingus, a jazz giant who died about 30 years ago. Mingus himself, though known to everyone in the jazz world, never had much audience; these young guys would have even less. Obviously the music itself keeps them going, when the pool of both aficionados and gigs is smaller than for flamenco or even fado, in this part of the world anyway. Tonight at the club they built ferocious fires under each other, swinging like crazy. The other 23 hours didn’t matter.

I didn’t stay for the second set. It was 23:45, come on! But on the way back to the metro I stopped in for some Flamenco. This was a Portuguese variant, more poppish, more Gypsy Kingish, than I’d heard in flamenco’s Andalusian heartlands of Cádiz, Sevilla and Jerez, and the audience wasn’t as hardwired to the form. But guitar, vocal, two dancers, one percussionist—it was lively stuff, and the five of them were fully engaged, at home in those complex flamenco rhythms, and having a blast.

I salute all these artists who pursue their art in the face of passivity, cowardice, resistance, material hardship, commercial pressures, ignorance, corruption, fakery and other hard times.