I miss you. I keep saying this and continue to leave you time and again, but it’s just that the world is so big and beautiful and I know you will always be there for me to come back to. I don’t quite comprehend it myself, but maybe you do better than me. You’ve seen this happen over the centuries. We’ve left you by boat to go and discover routes around Africa and across the Atlantic 600 years ago; we’ve left you to go and try to make a better living along the shores those routes opened up; we’ve left you escaping dictatorships; and now we leave you in search of different scenery, different people, different works.
We’re absent lovers of you, us Lisboners. And yet, if anyone asks what is my favorite place in the world, it is you. It is always you.
You hug me with your hills and narrow streets, and then open your embrace on top of those hills showing the Tejo river and the 25 de Abril bridge and all those rooftops that gave me shade just before. You give me details and the full picture at the same time and that makes me feel safe. Wherever I wander, I know where the Tejo is. And the Tejo leads to the sea, and the sea is where I always feel hopeful. I am an optimist, because of you.
You’ve taught me effort almost always brings a reward, walking up and down the steep streets of Graça, Mouraria, Alfama, Bairro alto and Bica. I know I’ll come to a miradouro, a beautiful square that opens up after a narrow street, an alley where neighbors discuss each other’s lives from their windows and freshly washed clothes perfume the air and color the facades.
You’ve made me curious. In you I can always discover new things even in familiar places. A patch of green behind a gate, an old house that reopens, light and shade that interchange at different hours and different seasons, a new cafe, a mural that brings colour to a wall, cobbled stairs that take me from one neighborhood to the other.
You’ve taught me how to age. You are old and you are proud of it. You show your wrinkles and your scars without fear and you mix them with novelty and beauty. Sometimes your crumbling buildings are just rumble and sometimes they are canvases for the best urban art in the world; sometimes the holes on the floor are just traps with dirt and sometimes they are ponds of lilac jacaranda petals; sometimes you smell of pee and sometimes you smell of fresh flowers and sea breeze.
I miss the slippery sidewalks with uneven cobblestones that lead me through Principe Real to Praça das Flores, where I can sit on a bench with the old people or have a craft beer at Cerveteca and coffee from Etiopia at Copenhagen Coffee Lab. I miss the way tree roots push upon the floor on the older streets, making it undulated. I miss the crooked houses of Alfama and Mouraria. I miss passing by the hookers of Rua do Benformoso to arrive at Intendente square and have a beer at Largo or Casa Independente. I miss the old collectivities where people used to gather to remember their traditions from other parts of Portugal, and we now see concerts of all types of music from all over the world and dance forró and European folk.
You are wise Lisbon. You showcase your history in your markets, in your buildings, in your Fado, in the life of your elder who remember stories of you growing up, and you mix them with the energy and beauty of your youth who gather up to bring new music to your streets, who mix up your food in cosy but modern restaurants and bars, who fight to improve your neglected neighborhoods.
You are a big city woman, but humble like a small town girl. You hand out culture, but are not arrogant. You can be rough around the edges, but soften up for those who get to know you. You are proud. We learn that from you. We may not be the most open people in the world, but we welcome those who are worthy of our attention. We are not the warmest at introductions, but will stick to our friends, old and new, for life. We are open to new things, but proud of our traditions. And we are proud of you.
Yes Lisbon, you luminous city, I love you and I miss your warm and incomparable light that follows me no matter where I wander. An inexplicable and enduring charm that has outlasted all of the births and rebirths and continues to illuminate you and those lucky enough to walk your streets.
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