Meanwhile at Bica…
Entering the collectivity Grupo excursionista Vai Tu is like walking into a cave. A small door filters the little light that manages to get inside. The room starts out small, but opens up. There´s a bar in a corridor at the very back. It smells of mould and old beer. At the entrance there´s a man in his thirties, bloodshot eyes, his face so red it looks like it´s going to explode. Further back three old men sit around a table.
I ask them if I can talk to them about the neighborhood. They laugh, looking embarrassed and call out for Toni. “Come on pá, don’t be like that…Who better than you to speak about the place?”
Bica is one of Lisbon’s oldest bairros. In 1597 a landslide in the area originated a slope from Santa Catarina hill all the way to river Tagus. At the time Lisbon was sought after by people wanting to work as sailors, fisherman and fishwives and this area quickly became populated along the steep hill. With time, the neighborhood grew and became famous also for its Fado singers and the street life.
In the 1980’s most of the younger people started moving away from the city center to newer and cheaper places on the outskirts. Bica, like many other of the historical bairros, was left abandoned to the older residents and forgotten by the local government. Many of the buildings were left rotting as residents died or couldn’t afford to recuperate them.
In the last decade it´s seen a reawakening. First as a couple of bars opened, reinventing old tascas, and people started coming here to escape a crowded Bairro Alto at night, and most recently as expats and young adults started renting recuperated apartments, draw by the history and feeling of the neighborhood.
António Silva, aka Toni, is member number one of this collectivity. Seventy years of Bica, bald, pleated trousers and a pullover, a couple of teeth missing.
First things first, we have to clear misunderstandings: “Here nobody works. We are all volunteers. Most of the time it´s the directors that are here, but I lend a hand when I can…That´s almost every day. This is like my second home. I hang around with my friends…I live alone, you know”.
The friends laugh and point at a magazine clip pinned on the wall. “Toni is famous. He´s shown up in the newspaper and everything!”. Toni smiles, embarrassed. And the neighborhood? “Nowadays it´s much better. They’ve been doing renovations, it´s prettier, there are more young people…not in the mornings, everyone is working. Mid afternoon they start arriving”.
Here they come to drink, as shown by the beers and aguardentes being served, but also to play cards and domino, watch soccer or just talk. To forget the loneliness of their homes for some hours. Like this one, there are four other collectivities in the neighborhood, Carlos explains. He is a director and one of the oldest, at 47. “The young people are the ones taking care of this now. We even have a Belgian guy as a director. He´s been living here for many years…you just missed him.”
Unlike some old people I’ve talked to, he doesn’t think the new residents are disrespectful. “They don’t talk much, but they’re not used to this type of familiarity between neighbours. It takes some time to get used to. Look, between us, I see it more in the kids that were born here. They’re the ones that swear at the old people. In my days someone would go to tell our parents immediately but now no one gives a damn”. In addition to running the bar, that ends up working like a day center, they render house and feeding support to the elderly and underprivileged children and organize christmas and easter parties.
I thank him and leave to stroll the steep streets and feel a bit of this life.
Walking around leaves me breathless. To the left or to the right is always upward or downward. Slippery cobblestoned streets, endless steps, inclined alleys. Windows from opposite buildings are close together and clothes hang from them. It smells of flowers and soap. I seat on a yellow building’s front steps. Two old ladies pass carrying groceries. They smile and say Bom dia. I reply the same way.