||Dec. 28-Jan. 2, 1998 & 1999 Lisbon, Portugal
didn't take long for us to feel completely comfortable in, and even totally taken by,
Portugal's capital city. Lisbon just seems to radiate an unassuming friendliness and
inviting warmth. Cherished characteristics which the majority of the other European
capitals we've visited have more or less outgrown. Good or bad, Lisbon, and Portugal as a
whole, has lagged behind her European neighbors in a number of ways. What some might find
distressed and dilapidated, we consider charming and colorful, for hidden within the
crumbling plaster are hints of the city's glory days.
The days of the 15th and 16th
centuries when her explorers colonized distant lands, opened new trade routes throughout
around the globe, and made Lisbon, by most accounts, the queen of all of Europe. She
enjoyed (and often defended) her prestigious status until 1755, when an earthquake
practically leveled the entire city, killing over 20% of her people. Sadly, she has never
been the same since. As we wander the streets and begin to get a true feel for this once
proud city, we discover however that it is all that Lisbon isn't, that really makes her
all she is.
For instance, the townspeople of Lisbon
still observe 'siesta time'. As it happens, everyone is taking their daily break and
things are relatively quiet, as we wander around the streets of Bairro Alto, part of the
city's old town. We stroll about, peeking in shop windows, perusing dinner menus, checking
the bills of the Fado venues, and noting the hours of the late night clubs for our return
later that evening.
passerby catches us walking from one such menu posting and, with a broad smile, stops us
to introduce himself as the head waiter. He first invites, then simply insists that we
come inside to have a look around. We get a complete tour - small bar, dinning room, and
most importantly, the kitchen. He pulls out various dishes in their pre-cooked state.
Pears soaking in Port wine, clams still squirting (sometimes out of the pan) as they await
their fate, and trays upon trays full of fresh fish - some cleaned and some still with all
their trimmings - ready for cooking.
show us how fresh the fish is, he lifts one of the whole ones up in the air by the tail,
and slaps both sides of it making it wiggle as if it were still swimming. After his show,
he all but makes us promise to come back for dinner, and then lets us leave. A few hours
pass, and upon our return we are immediately recognized and treated to a greeting that I'm
sure is reserved for only the most regular of regulars. Our new friend convinces us to
give him back his menus and let him serve us HIS version of a delicious meal. Cheese, ham,
bread, fresh clams and fish, and of course, a bottle of the house's wine. Very pleasing!
After indulging our taste buds during dinner, it's time to treat
our ears to a little desert - of the musical variety. We go in search of the local
delicacy, Fado. Translated as destiny or fate, Fado is literally a song about the many
events that effect our daily lives and the emotions that they stir. It is, for the most
part, a of melody of sorrow, although sometimes a song of happiness, but always a form of
intimate expression by the performer. We find a small, dimly lit venue with friendly
staff, take our seats, order some wine, and wait for the show.
A middle-aged woman, dressed all in black (down to her shawl),
saunters up to the stage and begins to sing. Accompanied by two guitarists who pluck the
strings more so than strum them (one on a Portuguese guitar, and one with a standard six
string), the vocalist lifts her head to the heavens, closes her eyes, and laments a
continuous, roller-coaster pitched hymn of truly heart-felt verses. A mix between crooning
and moaning, it is solemnly haunting and very moving.
next night is New Year's Eve. One of my favorite holidays, it has always been a time for
outrageous celebration, personal reflection, and planful resolution. For our New Year's
Eve dinner, Laura and I opt to walk right past all the fancy restaurants - the ones
displaying their menus (sides of beef, baby pigs, pheasants, live crabs still kicking,
etc.) by hanging them up in their windows - in search of a less formal, more colorful
venue. We decide on a small place, whose name is translated as 'Chicken King', for our
laid back celebration. We walk in the front door and just beside the giant floor to
ceiling rotisserie, loaded with spits of whole chickens, hissing and popping as they turn.
place is packed. Everyone is in a festive mood and seems to be celebrating as loudly as
they can between bites. We weave our way through the boisterous crowd to be seated just in
front of the service isle. We are so close to the couple next to us, that I have no doubt
that my elbow will eventually end up in their soup. And to boot, I am bumped or brushed
each time a waiter comes by to pick up new food, or drop off empty plates. Apparently, the
waiters have started their celebration early, for each time they pass me, they take a
little sip from a shot glass of some sort of clear liquor. They seem none the worse for
wear until one of them drops an entire plate of fresh, hot food mere inches from my back.
CRASH!! All over the floor, but missing me. Oh well, no harm, no foul.
pay our bill, head back to our hotel to grab our bottle of champagne, and make our way
towards the big celebration in Praca do Comercio. We join the waves of people rambling
down Rua Augusta. It seems that the better part of the city is also on their way to the
waterfront. No doubt to take in the concert, wait for the big 30 second countdown, and
finally enjoy the fireworks at midnight. We arrive to join an already festive, and rapidly
growing, crowd of revelers. In the distance, the band in is in full swing. Their rhythm
pounds from the half dozen or so tower-high speakers. Multi-colored lights flash to the
beat, through the clouds of smoke being pumped in from back stage. Just beside us, two
young girls jump up and down, sort of dancing in place, as they sing aloud with the band.
Their long brown curls hanging momentarily in midair, then quickly bouncing down upon
their shoulders, only to fly up again.
Suddenly, the music stops and the band and the crowd
begin chanting together. A quick glance at my watch tells me they must be counting
backwards to midnight. As Laura digs the noisemakers out of my pocket, I ready our
champagne with a few quick shakes. We don't know our numbers in Portuguese, so we have to
wait till quattro (four) to join in. "Quattro! Tres! Dos! Uno! Yeahh!" Bottles
pop and corks fly. Everyone's yelling and screaming, whooping and hollering. Everywhere
there are whistles blowing and horns tooting. Fireworks shoot to the heavens and explode
with sharp BANGS!, thunderous POWS!, and cracking POPS!, as they light up the sky. A big
toast and lingering midnight kiss then do well to cap our New Year's celebration the
square. We watch the last of the fireworks before heading for the hotel. I puff on a Cuban
cigar I'd been saving, and take each step to reflect on the year that had passed so
quickly. For it was just about this time last year that Laura and I really started
thinking seriously about this crazy 'round the world' idea. An idea that was born in my
thoughts and dreams, I'm certain, on a New Years Eve much like this one, only years and
years ago. Now here we are, celebrating our fourth month on the road, on New Year's Eve,
in Lisbon Portugal. What they say must be true, "be careful what you wish for".
For it seems, if you really want it, "you might just get it".