Both the spring and I arrived quietly to Rua dos Fanqueiros of Lisbon’s Baixa Chiado. We brimmed over the cusp of the midnight that delineated us from winter’s end. The 20th of March began so surreptitiously, that even the inhabitants of Baixa Chiado did not hear it. Almost cheated out of their first spring night they left the streets to me, my Uber driver, and the Fanqueiros. The driver innocently retreated, as did the Fanqueiros. I, fancying myself a thief of that night, hid the first hours of spring under my coat and like a pickpocket with loot, withdrew from the street. Buzzing at the intercom’s mic I whispered my name and my accomplice in this theft sprung open the escape door. I climbed up the creaking stairs until I heard him whisper back. We hadn’t met before, but both of us knew that we had in our possession a great wealth. After exchanging a few glances, eyeing and measuring each other, we also knew that we had to give up that plunder. And so, I returned the first hours of the spring to the streets, right where I found them. Tomorrow we’d all consume their offspring in the sun. I lied down, cherishing the victorious feat, and with this secret fell asleep immediately in my transitory bed.
In the morning I wanted to get my bearings straight. A shower. A coffee. A meal. I went up to the reception devoid of my accomplice, where a smile said good morning to me. It was a beautiful smile, with eyes, and ears, and a nose right above it. It had long, burnished hair, and an aura of blissful honesty. The smile said its name was Livia. I did find it strange that a smile could assume such beautiful, human shape, but I hadn’t yet had a shower, or a coffee, or a meal. Barely awake, in some abstracted state, I had to believe everything. Even this improbable apparition that spoke and moved and gestured like a danseuse.
Still, for some reason, I anxiously wanted to move from that spot and to the apartment a few blocks away, where I’d unpack my suitcase, hang my shirts, and put my book on the nightstand. Livia told me I could stay right there, with them. She said it reassuringly and calmly, and although I wouldn’t stay, I was immediately put at ease by her warm and kind intention. I decided to confess to her my last night’s mischief and surrendered to her mercy. I was disarmed by her and wished to hide nothing. I sat on the floor and forgot about time, the way a jailbird does. She waved off my confession; smiles are not priests. And I was free again.
I wasn’t the only one there. There was a bustle from the early morning of this exceptional day. The reception room was already full of people that came and were leaving and Livia duplicated her attention and then quadrupled it. With her machinations, she emulated the Animunculi of fantastical Dwemer power to battle all of our woes simultaneously. She gave all of us our desired doses of information and returned again and again with more attention, deafening the bustle to a murmur of friendliness. She is an exceptional being. But she never stopped being a smile to me. It is so rare nowadays to have a smile be so human and genuine that I just think of her as a smile parading as a woman. Why not? A smile might make you think, it might put you at ease, or entice you to dare to dream, to kiss, to love. So, when you can, try too, like Livia, not to give a smile but instead become one. Be happy and jovial, open and kind, and the world will reveal its most intimate secrets, lodged deep within your soul.
Believe me that this story is as real as it is magical. These adventures really did take place. And the people and things that make it up have indeed unbridled sentiments in me that take me beyond these sentences and help make new ones. From the most unexpected of places, guided by kindness and lured by open minds, something chiselled away at me and began the devolution of ego.
From the floor of the reception room, it was revealed, through pure happenstance, that a tour would soon materialise and depart from Rua dos Fanqueiros 267. The emergence of this information, like the advent of the morning sun up from the horizon, began in me the process of rumination about the virtues of organized tours and I began to weigh the time I possessed against my overbearing cynicism toward them. Devolution is a process. Renee, who’d lead the tour, just said I should meet them downstairs and I knew that I would.
She spoke in soft tones that floated through the air by the magic of her invigorating energy and rejuvenating cadence. Strung carelessly together, they formed beautiful harmonies that sounded like the supple notations of a vade mecum. Then she’d interrupt herself to let out a laugh that carried in it a pristine innocence. Those laughs resembled moans of girls tearing the sky open, drunk with bittersweet saps of first love. Together, they performed a play – a love story of naïveté and erudition who met and fell in love, embraced one another, and intertwined themselves into a wholesome, beautiful soul despite the world being firmly set against their love. Funny how some people can carry around a tale like that, just by being.
Her accent pinned the melodies down, like a rock pinning helium balloons. Without it, they’d have already flown the skies, and far, far out somewhere, would have burst and disappeared forever, making us doubt that they were ever real. With this rock around them, I knew that they were. All the words she spoke were real and that North American accent, that rock that pinned them down, made all the difference in determining that she was not a figment of my imagination; although it wasn’t easy to tell. I was trying not to speak too much. I liked hearing her voice. Renee had a lot to say. But like a careful merchant, she would keep some of her wares for those who displayed exceptional interest, taste, and the means to acquire them. It seemed to me that she was quite open about her trade too. Everything she said was wrapped in patience and hearing it required a sacrifice of time. Quid pro quo. She was mesmerizing.
That same evening, in the attic of this tall house, at Rua dos Fanqueiros 267, dinner was set on a long table. The traditional Portuguese tapas is a communal feast. When the table is long and wide, and food set on many small plates across the table-top, nourishment depends on familiarity. To reach out and ask for bread begins a conversation. It is a slow and familiar conversation, one of knowing. Renato was there as a conductor of exchange, of food and of words. He moved his hands, to speak with them in complement to words, and in place of the conductor’s baton held a pitcher of wine he showered our cups with. This pitcher was an enchanted one. It could not be emptied no matter how much Renato poured. I began to suspect that he was a conjurer of wine, and of those, there are only a few left in existence, and never before have I had the pleasure of meeting one. His relentless energy produced auguries one could see in wine, and with the movements of his gaunt body, he played them for our viewing. Things augured well for the future. His cheery face gave us all a sense of tranquillity and hope for the night. He was unlike the sorcerers that might come to mind when one thinks of spells. He was a gentle and good-humoured wizard, Gandalf the Grey setting off his fireworks in the Shire, except most of what he did was give us wine. Mariela, on the other hand, was clearing everything away and keeping us in line. With all the drinks in us, we needed a mother figure to suspend our rowdiness and prepare us for the move ahead. If Renato were the conjurer of wine, Mariela was the prodigious maker of food. All the dishes were hers. Proud of her design and delivery, she told us she made everything by hand and encouraged us to try it all. She would also remind us from time to time that this wasn’t where our night would end. She more than participated in our festive spirits but was always looking ahead. The maternal swan led the way and never forgot to turn and look if any of her ducklings might have fallen behind as we paddled along and around the table. Before we would sink deeply in our chairs with conversation and wine, she flapped her wings twice, effortlessly raising her little ducklings from their place and through some instinctual imitation we all followed her up and out and spilled into the streets of Alfama.
And then Fado. I was sated by the long dinner but thirsty for more wine. It almost made me forget about that apartment, my shirts, and my book. Unplanned as life can be, yet also be fate, I drank and smoked the whole night. I discovered the sounds of Fado and its melancholic longing of the past and it sat well with me. When the singer paused for a few minutes, I thought about all the things I missed, and how I should never miss a thing again, so I voluntarily assigned myself to another tour. I would live a day in Sintra. Then the singer continued the harmonious nostalgia and that is all I will say about Fado. You have to discover it yourself. I will tell you that I slept smiling, remembering all the sadness of my life accumulated at my eardrums together with all the sweetness of the joy that preceded it. Those two are inseparable forces that drive our lives. They swerve us like winding mountain roads, and if that commotion ever stirs your viscera, don’t worry. Simply remember how awe-inspiring the view is from the top, looking down at all you’ve passed. The sunlit joy and the shadowed sadness. And every following morning will be better than the former if you remember to fall asleep smiling.
Forgive me. I am not here to preach happiness. I am no preacher. I too only hope to hone the talent of impressing joy as we all should, albeit this talent might not be in all of us. For that reason, those of us that feel we can, should – no, must! – groom ourselves and others to arrive at our destinations, wherever they may be, having gained and not diminished the joy with which we are born. Isn’t that right, Radu? Both voyager and journeyman, somehow tied but also free. He seemed to me like he is finding himself, but that on his journey, he’d welcome you with open arms ready to change his course with the sway of companionship. And those kinds of souls should have their own name. Their own branch in the evolutionary genome of homo. Homo amicus. Now, don’t take me for a science man either. I have not, at any point, participated in the sequencing of the human genome. But I know that even if undetectable by our current scientific method, there is something written in our makeup, our code, that gives great power to some of us. And if we are lucky, if we’ve won that lucky genetic sequence, we might unknowingly be superhuman. In some of us, like him, brews the power cocktail of amity and compassion. The way he rolls his cigarettes, the way he asks for one; the way he greets and says goodbye; and all the other things that you might think of as ordinary, he excels in. He does them with a style that would make Bukowski puke his guts out and then buy him a beer. Homo amicus. A close cousin of the sapiens, almost a brother.
And I did live a day in Sintra. What do I say about that? It was one of those days that I will remember without any photographs reminding me. It was a lifetime in a day. I made friends and lost them, through no action or inaction. Surely, should we ever meet again we’ll toast to that day and shake hands again, but if we never do we’ll stay content with it too, knowing we shared a lifetime packed into a day. And I could tell you of Quinta de Regaleira or Palacio de Pena, or the trees and hills before the end of the old world at Cabo da Roca. But why would I? All those places are just outlines. All the castles and monuments are just sketches. Forests and lakes, and sands, and snow, just empty surface to colour in. People are the colour. And here I am, again, about to give another metaphor for life. A colouring book. How lame. I really should write about something else, but I can’t, when all that matters to me are the people that I meet along the way. The people who give colour to my life. The good people. And I don’t shy away from any shade. Even those that will harm me, the colours that might end up being out of place, I welcome. I’d like to live a motley life, experience the whole gamut. I’ll paint a few blocks over, give some a different shade. And when I sit back and take a look, I’ll say “yeah, that was one hell of a fucking colouring book.”