~the laugh heard around the world~

December 26th, 2008

View of River Tejo from our hotel window. click on image to expand

A few things I have learned on this trip: 1. When looking for budget accommodations over “the holidays” in Europe one can’t always be too choosy. 2. One should always be somewhat choosy because 3. Counting the hours left to endure in a day of your vacation is just wrong.



The pension downstairs from where we stayed got great reviews, but was closed on Christmas day. Everything was closed but this place, which should have been a tip-off. I took a chance that the business upstairs would also be fine. Lesson learned!

After our first night in our first hostale–in theory nicer than a youth hostel, but more “personal” than a hotel—we changed rooms due to the lack of heat and the condition of the private bath we had paid quite a bit extra for and wouldn’t have gotten naked in under any circumstance.



The utterly creepy passive-aggressive nightwatchman accosted me as we were dragging our suitcases to the new room which was about two feet from his desk, oh hurrah—first pretending not to know why we were moving, and when I called his bluff, wanting to know why I had not told him rather than the day staff that I was cold and the bathrooms were squatter-filthy? Ummmm…it was daytime? Also, you’re Norman Bates? As I was answering he walked away in mid-sentence, scoffing. I was especially encouraged when I realized that as we were the only tenants it would be just Norman and us all night.



We headed out into the day and began at A Brasileira Café, where we were served mild disdain. On our way to the café a local man had snickered gapingly at us, disgusted presumably by our just being in his town. Or perhaps it was the garbage overflowing all the sidewalks. Either way, the day was looking spectacular. We decided to cut our losses and high-tail it a bit beyond the city to Belém.

Casa Pastéis de Belém, birthplace (1837) of Pastéis de Nata, a small cream tart found throughout Portugal’s pastry shops and cafés.


The Hieronymites Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos), a fine example of Manueline architecture, a sort of Portuguese hyper-Gothic. Dig the light.

Belém was filled with the sound of those Peruvian pipes that tell you no matter what country: Stay away! Turn back! Tourist nonsense abounds here! But no, we continued to ignore our intuition (polite description of the democratic issues of traveling as a pair), and instead walked right into an underground tunnel and the personal space of an angry man who was busking on his saxophone at the loathsome tourists (us).

It appears there is real financial inequity between haves (including shoe-string travelers) and have-nots. The tension seems unavoidable, and quite understandable, though in my world heckling strangers is never the answer. As a result I witnessed the most incredible echo-y exchange between Alfonso and our new buddy, the musician.



We were laughing at how much the day was sucking, how much the last three days had sucked, in truth (nothing you readily admit while it’s happening, hoping the badness will simply roll past), and the man stopped playing to mock us by laughing too, at us.

That made the third man to laugh at us in disgust in one morning. Unphased by the challenge, my mild-mannered husband threw his gauntlet and laughed the guy down. It went something like:
Man: Ha!
Ali: Ha HA!
Man: HA HA HA!
and so on, until we were out the other side of the long tunnel, into the sunshine and those damn pan pipes.



Apparently a laugh-off victory (or perhaps even willingness to enter such a primal competition) was just the spell-breaker the city required. When we returned to Lisbon (read: immediately) things started to look up somewhat.
We found Cervejaria Trindade, a combination German beer hall and Portuguese tavern, in fact the oldest tavern in Lisbon (1836). It was built on the foundations of the 13th-century Convento dos Frades Tinos, which was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake. It is a charming, cozy place, with a menu that features much hokey monk humor and unfurling tables of families and friends. We were so ready for this.

(Norman the nightwatchman did provide some interesting table talk, as I had initially felt sorry for him–pre-accosting–whereas Alfonso had sniffed out his controlling “king of the tiny empire” undercurrent disguised as “helpfulness” immediately. Another reminder: 4. don’t pay attention to what people project and tell you they are about–a smile can mean many things.)

Tentative smiles. We began our stay in Lisbon with one half of the round trip ticket that now took us on a night ride down the Elevador de Santa Justa.

The top of the Neo-Gothic tower, reached via this staircase, has a cafe which is closed for winter.

View of Rossio Square.

Back at the Bates Motel, we spent the night on the other side of a flimsy door from the angry nightwatchman, who had the most fierce smoker’s cough imaginable. I slept for about three minutes, dreaming of the various ways he would murder us in our bed.


Behold! The view from our new room on our last morning, suitcase packed. I took this photograph to remind me of the feeling of leaving. Goodbye Suadade, hello Duende! Spain, here we come!

2 Responses to “~the laugh heard around the world~”

  1. Noria says:

    Maybe the “haves” were out of town for the holidays? Maybe the people you encountered were so horrible to you because they couldn’t afford to get out of dodge, or maybe they had no friends or family to be cozy with. It makes me wonder if Lisbon would be less depressing during any other time of year.

  2. kim says:

    My hunch is your hunch is spot on—to a point. Lisbon is an international city, and there is a reason people travel at high tourist season and not the dead of winter. It was folly to make this trip now, but we had no choice as far as the timing went. Had we waited we also would have had more funds, which would have given us more latitude to steer the trip when things got rough. As it was, I felt terribly uncomfortable complaining about heat when it seemed likely that no one else had it in Alfama.

    We’ve been to Paris over Christmas/New Years (and Berlin another year as well) and found it completely enchanting. While there are plenty of “havenots” in gay pariee, the economy in general is far better (Paris has one of the highest GDPs in Europe), and with what appears to be a broader spread, both in terms of having a middle class, and its income sources. Perhaps the lighter mood has to do with a sense of egalitarianism?

    Portugal felt something like Prague: the (seemingly impoverished) working class depends upon the tourist dollar and (understandably) resents travelers for it. I was totally unprepared for this here–from my research I expected Lisbon to be the Portuguese Paris…

Powered by WordPress. Theme by Sash Lewis.