I came and I went
Asking every thing I came across
To tell me its name.
—Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, “Coral”
My first experience of you is not of you at all. It’s of the transfer in Morocco. We step off the plane down a wheeled-out ladder and onto the tarmac in the way that always reminds me of grainy footage of arriving dignitaries in strange conquered lands. Colonial chic is out of vogue these days. But still, it’s good to arrive this way, not vomited out into some hermetic corridor. Directly onto the new ground, into the hot new air. Touching the truth of what has just happened—the miraculous, blasphemous demolition of distance. Distance that would have cost our ancestors more than many lives could spare. That will fill our descendents with mingled envy and disbelief. Kiss the earth, give thanks, beg forgiveness.
Already the desert. Already the humidity of the American coast wiped away. It feels good. God I hate flying but the desert feels good. Leaving America feels good, even if it’s a mirage, even if the sun never sets on the empire.
What could be more treacherous now, when all that is solid melts into Starbucks, than travel writing. Belloc walking the continent, Chatwin chasing dinosaurs in Patagonia, Dan Eldon’s doomed safari. Their worlds like them all safely dead. And what next? We must imagine today’s Chatwin posting TikToks from Kilimanjaro in seductively-lit North Face gear to finance an adderall addiction, an MFA, and a 4k/month Manhattan studio. Or as a homeless alcoholic autodidact riding the rails through a crumbling country, slipping between the sweaty fingers of the surveillance state, whose last testament will be an obscure clutch of YouTube videos revisited periodically by office drones in their hours of restlessness. Anything in between dissolving into the general noise. Writing itself now little more than a self-indulgent Victorianism.
But you want to try. To say something about what it means, even when it obviously means nothing. A sort of reflex, the same impulse as small talk. To make use of an instrument that you know can produce symphonies even though you can’t. There is after all still a little mystery to new places. Every human being, every trash-strewn street corner, every window in the afternoon an utter mystery. Irreconcilable to logic and reason. Incommensurable. Where could it all have come from. Look at all the faces of strangers passing containing whole universes that will be lost for all time and tell me you understand anything at all about the world.
So there is still that. There is still that tug, as I walk to the faded concrete concourse, catching a glimpse of the highway alongside and the cars going God knows where. Some downtown office, some smoky souk, some brutalist apartment block, some tender rendezvous. More than anything I want to walk out the front of the concourse to where the world begins, hail a taxi, and disappear along with them. That’s still a real feeling. Betraying it is still a real feeling, too.
The approach to the Lisbon airport the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I scribble down descriptions feverishly in a passable performance of the writer I pretend to be. But I’ve descended into enough airports to already suspect it’s hyperbole. And maybe an offense against God, to forget so many other beautiful things. I am like a sieve in my forgetfulness—or perhaps an oversensitive strip of cellulose acetate, overexposed to blinding light and ruined. I fondle different metaphors for my brokenness as we bank sharply over the jagged sundrenched cliffs, where bright wild beach meets shimmering turquoise Atlantic.
Turquoise fucking Atlantic. At home I surf the mud-gray, diesel-reeking, plastic-slicked Atlantic, and am endlessly grateful. And here is her right arm, unbelievable green and glowing. Palm open to me, long soft fingers. I see right to the bottom. One person, many natures. Maybe every great sea is like this, Madonna and whore, streaked across with the lust of the big freighters and accepting all our dead bodies with love and turning it all to agate. I am devoted to both.
Those turquoise wrists wearing the gleaming cliffs like onyx bracelets. I wonder where the city is. Have we missed it? Pilot veered off on an ayahuasca-fueled vision quest for the Azores? No—Instead another banking maneuver and we come in very low over the handsome red Tejo bridge and then the sudden apparition of the undulating white and ochre city, very close. Reach out and touch the tips of forts and bells of churches, caress the tumbling hillsides and folded valleys, rest hot hands on rough stone, slake thirst with fountains and estuaries. The Castelo de São Jorge, the Estrela Basilica scuffed ivory in the noontime sun. I already know them from Google Earth.
Tomás in his apartment with high ceilings and tall windows looking out over the hills of the Alfama tells me about childhood in Mozambique and the specials on offer at the restaurant on the corner where he plays fado at night. The restaurant is like the prow of a ship, a narrow triangle of stone jutting up from between a hairpin turn in the steep cobbled streets. Excellent grilled octopus but the waiter hates me because I order no wine and rush him for the bill when I can no longer keep my eyes open. Tomás needs the Airbnb money to stay in the apartment but the Airbnb money, writ large, is going to push him out. Around 3am I’m awakened by the other guests screaming drunkenly, incensed over some incomprehensible love triangle, threatening incoherently to involve the police. Or worse, tar Tomás with a negative review. Is travel particularly evil, I wonder, or no more than anything else.
Here days begin like they should: a coffee taken outside and then prayers to Our Lady of Fátima. In the cool of the morning the stone chapels absorb oblations like water into sand. Protect us O Holy Queen from our fear of life itself. Of hurting others and ourselves beyond salvage. Of the silence of sunk ships. Her answer is the sun outside on orange blossoms and at night the sweetness of the blooming violet jacaranda and soon the long-awaited smiling faces of friends. Later I will make pilgrimage to the site of her apparition and beg for a place of my own on the Earth. Selfish. Undoubtedly. It is important to remember that only the prayers that serve our good or the good of others may be granted. I will make my confession to a kindly old German whose broken English searches for ways to tell me the things I need to hear. I hope God blesses him. Behind me the gaggle of devout avozinhas waiting patiently. After Mass I will light my candles, visit the gift shop, drive home scarfing down hunks of bread and queijo and an entire bag of sour cherries from the mercado. The pine mountains in the dusk turning from orange to purple to blue to black, the windows down, the air getting cold, bad europop blasting. My idea of vacation.
When M arrives we pass nights with long dinners and then wander the streets for hours in nostalgic nocturne. I wonder at us and our decades of friendship. If either of us have the confidence of the future we did as kids running our pranks and dreaming our visions. We make as many plans as ever over plates of grilled sardine and potatoes. I don’t quite believe it but I am forced to admit that some of them do come to pass.
In the evenings at the Miradouro Sophia the city puts on its most ravishing dress. Heels and diamonds. Yellow walls and neon flowers, perfect lines of uncountable windows gazing sardonically from under sloping mansard roofs. A demure beauty showing just enough golden flesh. Is she a humble urchin made up to crash the great ball or an exiled queen undercover in faded splendor until a certain light reveals her in a flash? Along her winding stairways I ask her again and again, but she only smiles, enigmatic like a sprawling Mona Lisa of plaster and stone.
In the bookshops I search out my little talismans, copies of Pessoa and the poet Sophia, who sit incognito among the crowds taking their aperitifs. In the heat of day, refuge in the blue-walled underground, dark and cool as a sea cove. Learning finer points of pastries from the jovial matron of the metro station bakery kiosk while hungry commuters rush past. Lemon and raspberry gelato on the curb in front of the H&M. Tracing fingers across pitted marble. Politely declining pot in the plazas. Eyes ever upward. It’s true about the tiles. The facades hypnotically repetitive but each one unique. A million intricate dialects of azulejo murmuring to each other over the din of life. Everywhere the pure gratuity of beauty, unveiled but shy, almost unbearable. And everywhere packs of kindergarteners roaming unaccompanied, shouting, teasing, laughing. A city for children. You almost forget what that’s like.
The village is another world, dusty, dry, calm at night. Hers is the dawn-kissed life of tradesmen and fisherfolk. With certain winds you smell the processing plant on the edge of town. At the surf shop Matilde keeps a pet turtle in the little patio garden. Oh I’m not a surfer, she says when I ask her about the breaks. In this utopia of waves only a non-surfer could stay behind the desk.
And now the hours are spent surfing, preparing for surfing, recovering from surfing, driving around rock-strewn trails looking for surfing spots. The beaches are invariably stunning and lightly-populated. Everyone is attractive. There is always parking. M is a good sport and comes with me on the first day. Waits in the shade under the shoulder of a bluff reading, watches me fail and fail in rough sea. During a break we enjoy the bounty of the mercado, the dozens of olive varieties, chouriço and cheese, morning-baked bread. From its bosom all that could reasonably be asked from life. Other days I go out alone early, return for lunch at the cafe. Nap and head out again in late afternoon when the sun has calmed. These first days are all frustration—heavy winds, poor waves, aching shoulders. Serene tumult of happiness.
Poems, paintings, conversations: I keep trying to describe the sea and failing. Maybe that adds up to a life’s work. Part of the problem is ubiquity, banality. Everybody loves the sea, even those who fear it, and everyone should fear it. Everybody knows it, even those who will never see it. The waves are in our DNA, and whatever is three levels deeper than DNA. When the ice tried to stamp us out the stubborn saltwater and the bivalves saved us. What’s left to say. That question could be posed to most of life, and yet we keep talking. For me entering the cold water is like stripping off a hairshirt after thirty years. Like waking up to the realization that, yes, it was all just a nightmare. Relief, in other words. But from what?
When I drop M off at the airport there’s still a week left. The drive back to the village on the wide empty highway with Berninger’s throbbing croon on the stereo produces a disconcerting simulacrum of domesticity. Of coming home after running errands, settling in with a sitcom. But it’s fake. My hand passes through the hologram. Only the normalcy of goodbye is real. I knew already I wouldn’t see M again for years and that was before they made all of life a prison. I guess for many it already was. And now back to an empty apartment in a suddenly too-empty town.
Isn’t it what I wanted? I always make sure to schedule enough loneliness, afraid I might run out. I stopped drinking wine so I have to savor the terroirs of a wide buffet of sparkling lonesomeness. Only in this way can my thoughts settle and arrange. Run clear again after fast growth of algae. Of all my endeavors this has been one of the most fruitful. It features notes of buttered limpet and custard tart, of bobbing on waves in the magenta dusk blurred with bitter tears, of the fermented and wasted years seen suddenly anew from a certain irrecoverable vantage. Saudade reinvented from first principles. It’s not enough for a passport.
Matilde says everybody should be happy to go home. In her infinite Buddha wisdom she intuits what I want to hear, which is that I should stay here forever, that I could become the type of person with a home. Or at least that it would stop mattering so much. The problem with that is when here becomes there, when the hologram catches up with the imprisoned flesh. What then? I know what.
She’s one of those people who talk about everything right away but it feels natural, charming, not overbearing. Her previous job was at the driver testing office, though she doesn’t have a license. So you see, she says, this is my pattern. She doesn’t drive because her father was killed in an accident. She’s not afraid of dying but of killing. Maybe it would be someone else’s father. The world is woven through with these private renunciations. Do they add up to anything or do they float by unnoticed with all the crimes. We watch the turtle clamber over the stone patio for a while and then it’s time to go.
I could leave the lonely village and go back to Lisbon and see Tomás. I am always leaving places and then complaining they’ve left me. I could smoke with him out the window. Smoke out of the janela as he corrected me after I used the Spanish ventana. Listen to him play the guitar, wingman for him with the European tourists, squat in his apartment, change my name, learn to busk, learn to become human again, learn to disappear. More fantasy, in a life built on it. Instead I take surfing lessons at the crowded tourist beach. Buy more olives and bread at the mercado. Have an unexpectedly good Indian meal—for some reason the empty restaurant fills me with comfort, the cheerfulness of the waiter and his perfect English, the only other patron the middle-aged man across the room. I realize he is me, I am watching myself cracking papadum, dipping chutney. The me that learned to stay. On the evening walk I stumble across a fairytale cove under a tower-ringed fortress. The commemorative plaque says this is where they kept the political prisoners. Head back to the cafe for another cheesecake and read Sophia. Post to Instagram. Listen to the lilting hum of conversations. Teenagers and families. Sit and look out the window at the blue night reflecting the sea and try to lock away this light in some incorruptible vault.
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How did we ever get out of there alive?