memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Posts tagged ‘lisbon’

The Beggar on the Train

It’s five past ten at night, lessons are over and a group of us are standing outside the school looking for the taxis which are cruising down the feed-road of the wide Avenida. In a couple of minutes we manage to flag one down and start the exhilarating ten-minute ride down to Cais do Sodré station; the lights are with us as we race through Rossio Square, rattling down the tram-lines of the Rua Augusta  and finally running along the river to be finally deposited outside the station. There is just time for a quick coffee and brandy at the stand-up station-bar before catching the 10.30 train.
I choose a carriage towards the end of the train and get a corner seat. It’s dark outside now of course, so I’m not distracted by the view as I am on the journey into Lisbon.

(The line from Cascais follows the coast, first on the open sea then the southern shore of the great estuary about five miles across and finally on the river itself – the Tagus, one the great rivers of Europe, which rises in the Sierra de Albarracín in eastern Spain and flows westward across the peninsular for about a thousand km until it empties itself into the Atlantic ocean).

Soon I’m absorbed in my book – I’ve just discovered Italo Calvino and frankly he’s boggling my mind – this story is called The Baron in the Trees –  it’s about a recalcitrant and stubborn boy in 18th century northern Italy, who climbs up a tree in the garden one evening and, on being called down by the cook to eat his dinner, simply refuses to climb down, declaring that if necessary he would spend the rest of his life up a tree … I study the back of the book; the writer is described as a post-modern fabulist; I mentally add this new word to my vocabulary and turn back to the text.
Suddenly the sound of a loud, unpleasant and whining voice in the central corridor, invoking the name of Our Lady of the Sorrows and Miracles to please give alms for a wretched man crippled in the war overseas, breaks in on my concentration.

It is the Beggar. What he does is to work the length of the train: starting at the top at Cais de Sodré, hopping into the second carriage at Alcântara-Mar, the third at Caxias and so on. By the time he reaches my carriage we are between Oeiras and Carcavelos. He is unshaven, on crutches and is wearing a long dirty brown coat; he seems to have sprayed himself with people-repellent.

Not for the first time I study his technique; he staggers lurching down the aisle, constantly wailing his mantra and bumping into people. He is a thoroughly objectionable, obnoxious and obstreperous individual and most of the passengers shrink away in distaste; a few feel sorry for his plight and give him money; others give him a coin as if to say: now leave me alone, get the hell out of my face! Past Parede, where one can still hear him in the next carriage, imploring Our Lady of the Assumption and of the Conception to give alms … and so to my stop, São João do Estoril, where I get off.

As the lighted train pulls away I stand on the platform breathing in the sea-air; it is cooler here than in the city and I turn away to walk the few leafy streets home. I notice someone in front of me, also from the train. He has straightened up and is striding briskly away, the coat and crutches tucked under his arm. It is the Beggar. He stops in front of a neat, well-maintained little house, fishes out a key from his pocket and lets himself in.

I walk the remaining distance to my house, bemused. You just couldn’t make that kind of thing up, I think, you really couldn’t. My friends won’t believe me when I tell them; they’ll just think I’m being a fabulist.


Flying to Lisbon (2)

I decided not to join the in-crowd on the line but stay in the city and settled to share a flat in the then rather neglected area of the city called Alcántara down by the river. I still felt dreamy – my hunter-seeker antennae retracted and deactivated, comfortably numb. The searing and vivid images of the Sahara rendering the quaint unstated old streets of Lisbon vague and undefined (like punching into cotton-wool).

I would leave my more conscientious flat-mate to his lesson preparations and marking and walk along the street to the river and stroll along the old quays in the direction of Belém. This walk along the melancholy old docks was atmospheric and perfect. To my left ran the stately grey river, with the occasional rusting freighter moored to the great iron rings embedded in the concrete.

 Sweet Tagus run softly ‘till I end my song; to my right stood a monumental orange-brick factory abandoned and forlorn, in front of which lay a paved forecourt the size a football pitch, with grass growing between the cracks of the paved stones – like most fascist architecture it was rather exaggerated and overdone. Sometimes I saw a dead rat – I think we are in rat’s alley/Where the dead men lost their bones. Seagulls wheeled over the grey waters and my relaxed mind roamed freely. My turning point was the Discoverers’ Monument. As I turned back I could see way across the railway line, the road and some symmetrical formal gardens, the pink toy palace of the president

and beyond that the long graceful abbey church of the monastery in which, I would later learn, were the tombs of Luis de Camões and his distant kinsman Vasco de Gama.  



Just Browsing!

When a shop opened in the little cobbled center of Cascais called «Just Browsing» I was delighted. During my first year in Portugal I’d had a few problems in shops owing to my ignorance of the Portuguese language and social habits.


The most embarrassing of these encounters was when one day, needing a tie for a Meeting, I entered a men’s clothing emporium in the Rua Augusta and, on being approached by a young plump sales-assistant with a tape-measure round his neck who asked if he could be of service, I replied that I was looking for a tie. So far so good; we moved to the tie-racks together and started to go through the ties one by one, (he’ll be asking what my favourite colour is next, I thought), what sort of colour did have do you in mind sir, he asked.  I think I’m capable of choosing a tie for myself thank you, I commented rather dryly and continued flicking through the rack. I noticed that they were all made of (nasty) polyester and said, yes very nice but do you have silk?  He stiffened with anger and gave me dirty look that combined hurt and offence in equal measure, turned on his heels and flounced off. I was rather nonplussed and drifted out of the shop and wandered along the pavement in the direction of the Rua d’Ouro.

Suddenly it occurred to me the enormity of the verbal gaffe I’d made to that poor man: instead of saying yes very nice but do you have silk, I’d actually said yes very nice but do you have AIDS? I hadn’t yet mastered the phonetic difference in Portuguese between seda (silk) and SIDA (AIDS).

But in general the concept of impulse-buying at lunch time had not yet reached Portugal in the early 1980s, (indeed most of the shops themselves were closed for lunch and reopened only at 2.30 or 3.00 when everyone was safely back at work). It seemed to reach the point when I only had to step into a shop to elicit the verbal pounce: can I help you sir?

I developed a complex about it – did I look particularly indecisive? (I couldn’t make up my mind about that one). I tried every response, from the muttered no I’m just looking, to the ironical not unless you happen to know which colour/pattern/kind of music/book I’m looking for today … good, we’ve got rid of another customer, soon it’s time to lock up the shop for lunch … I’ve been looking forward to those nice tasty pataniscas all morning, or, with a sniff and a roll of the eyes to the ceiling, these foreigners, go figure them.

Anyway let’s go back to the little shop in Cascais which proclaimed its name JUST BROWSING on a sign hanging from a piece of scrolled wrought-iron outside the door. One sleepy hot summer afternoon I entered the shop which was empty of other customers. A pleasant-looking middle-aged woman with henna-dyed hair and multi strings of beads round her neck looked up from her magazine and smiled brightly: hello, cin ah hilp you, she asked in strongly-accented South African English. No thanks, I replied pleasantly, just browsing, I added with a significant smile. As well as general tourist bric-a-brac – sun-glasses, T-shirts, ethnic necklaces and bangles, the shop specialized in Portuguese regional faience. I was attracted by a large colourful Alentejo plate and was studying the whole display when the voice chipped in: those look really nice on a white wall and they’re only 60 escudos each. Just browsing, I muttered as I moved to the T-shirt rack (what size are you?) then to sunglass stand (that pair suits you) She was sticking to me closer than a fly on shit, as my former pipeline colleagues would so elegantly put it. I just couldn’t shake the woman off.

Finally, in desperation, I beckoned her out of the shop and into the street, pointed up at the sign and said:  Just bloody browsing!


I have seen the Future

At the beginning of the 20th century there was an American left-wing journalist, Lincoln Steffens who, in 1919, made a three-week visit to the new-born Soviet Russia. He was impressed with the evolutionary ideals that the Soviet Government were putting practice and on his return he made the (oft-repeated) declaration I have seen the Future and it works!

It is strange to think of today, but when I first came to Portugal in the autumn of 1980 there were no supermarkets (yet alone hypermarkets) and no shopping malls. The banks operated on 19th century principles, with long polished wooden counters in front of which stood patient, subdued queues of people waiting to be served. Behind the counter in full view was an enormous space full of small desks behind each of which was a smallish sleek dark-haired man, (not a woman to be seen), dressed in white shirts and ties  (long sleeves in the winter, short sleeves in the summer) whose work seemed to consist of chatting with their colleagues about their weekends and occasionally frowning thoughtfully at a piece of paper then rubber-stamping it decisively before getting up, crossing the room and depositing onto another desk, with a joke here and a quip there. There was a leisurely rhythm to their work which was entirely devoid of any sense of urgency, as though they had all the time in the world (which indeed they did they have). Every now and then and then they would spot an acquaintance waiting in the queue and saunter across to the counter, shake hands and enquire  what they could for them; (like, I’d like some money?) It was sweet work and they were all enjoying it. I marvelled at how so many people could do so little work. This is my kind of country, I thought.

Don’t change, I thought, I’m from the Future and it doesn’t really work that well.

Portugal had slept for about 50 years under a more or less benevolent fascist dictatorship. Cerebral activity was discouraged. (Books contained ideas that could question the religious or political tenets held by Church and State – books were dangerous). One seldom saw anyone reading anything on the Lisbon metro except for magazines or comics. Instead the senses were cultivated; gastronomy (there were about 350 ways to cook the national dish – codfish), the beach in summer (everyone in Lisbon had fantastic tans) and above all football, where people obsessively followed the fortunes of their club – Benfica, Sporting or Porto.

The Catholic Church was very much the state religion and kept a rigid grip on peoples’ souls. The country turned its back on Europe and tended to its dying African empire.

For us language-teachers life was good. Those were the days before CDs and mobile phones. The personal computer was still only a gleam in some super-geek’s eye, the internet unthinkable. Those were the days of the vinyl record and the audio-cassette.  Those were the days when one used to actually write letters, put them into envelopes, address them and affix stamps onto them, (the glue on the backs of Portuguese stamps didn’t really work in the sense that there wasn’t any, so one also had to purchase one of those yellow sticks of paste to use on the backs of the postage stamps – one had visions of tens of thousands of secretaries up and down the land busily pasting the backs of stamps … well, one supposed, someone had to do that job so it might just as well be all those secretaries) and carry them down to a post office.

In those days we didn’t even have a TV. What was the point? Portuguese TV was meretricious – amateurish and derisory. We used instead to go out for delicious meals followed by the magic of the cinema with which Lisbon was generously supplied; and as an added bonus, the Portuguese had the good taste to show the films in the version original (English).

The more I explored the beautiful countryside and old towns the more I became reluctant to leave. As for the people themselves, well I’ve lived for a minimum of three years in five countries during the course of my life and I would hesitate to claim to be able to pinpoint any particular national characteristic, including my own, without falling back on generalisations and stereotypical clichés – the French are rude and stylish, the Germans are organised and have no sense of humour, the English are cold and pompous etc. etc.

But Portuguese people are in general simply nice, which is a heart-warming thing. (I wouldn’t have stayed for so long otherwise).

So here’s the premise: Portugal missed The Modern Age. She just didn’t do modern but leapfrogged neatly and seamlessly from The Industrial Age to the Post-Modern or High-Tech Age and, like other Western countries, spent a couple of decades contently feeding at the trough of banking booms, construction booms, European subsidies, flourishing service sectors and, above all limitless credit … (everyone had a good time) until, until, well one knows the rest, until the trough was empty.       

I might as well be here. I gave up yearning to be elsewhere in some ideal Eldorado, Shangri-La or Utopia years ago.

We’re here because we’re here because we’re here sang the soldiers in the trenches.

Besides, I feel physically secure here. It must be one of safest places in Europe. I mean, America and her European allies are hardly likely to go weak at the knees if Al Qaeda’s master-plan was to plant a bomb in an Old People’s Home on the north coast of Portugal.

There’s been a bomb explosion in a village in Portugal, Mr. President!

What! Well hell that’s just about the last straw! Let’s go to Red Alert! We’re pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan, guys!

And now it’s back to the Future. Doesn’t seem to be working that well, does it?


Y WORRY (Be happy)

About one hundred years ago I lived for a few years on the Estoril coast near Lisbon.

I shared the upper floor of an attractive house in Estoril in one of those leafy streets just behind the Casino, with two female colleagues, Nina and Sheelagh (what, Sheelagh? Yes, Sheelagh, we used to tease her gently about the spelling of her name: what exactly was your parents’ problem; was it dyslexia or just sheer bad taste). The house had a lovely terraced garden which was tended by an old gardener. There was a large fig tree growing on the lawn, beneath which I once fell asleep at 6.00 on a summer morning after a long night spent carousing in the streets of the Alfama at the feast of S. Antonio, the patron saint of Lisbon, together with olive trees, wondrous bougainvillea and herbs and finally a lemon tree from which we would casually pluck a lemon for our gin and tonics.


Unfortunately we had to vacate the house for the three summer months because the wealthy owners, who lived in a grand old-fashioned apartment in the Avenida da Republica, needed to use it for their holidays. We would return in the autumn for I had already decided to stay for another year; (I was having far too a good a time). At the beginning of July I returned home to Yorkshire where I stayed for a few weeks before hastening back for the fun in the sun. I dossed down on a friend’s floor for couple of days before another friend, the young representative of a well-known British firm in Portugal, offered me his house while he went home for a couple of weeks.

John and I had got on famously from the start and his company-rented house was in a residential street in Cascais. It was a real bachelor-pad with the master-bedroom giving out onto a swimming pool and a fridge full of half bottles of champagne. My friend John was an interesting man – young, smart and personable, he was obviously a competent business man though one sensed that he preferred our slightly freer lifestyle. He once told me with an ironic smile that in his street there was a house (obviously built by an expatriate retired couple) called Y WORRY. He had studied English literature at Oxford; fish, flesh or fowl? he would intone inquiringly as we all studied our menus in the up-market restaurants to which he would invite us.


Usually during my life the door to my heart said occupied; but not that summer. That summer the sign said vacant – come on in.

Not that I was a stranger to the green-eyed monster, that most corrosive of passions, but not that summer. That summer I rarely went into Lisbon, preferring instead to hang around the down-beat and relaxed beach cafés of the Estoril/Cascais coast. Y WORRY?

Tender is the night.

On Cascais sands I lay in the arms of my girl in the sexy moonlight – liquid nights, golden memories.

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