Globetrotter column: fuck saudade, vota merkel

Our author wonders about the President of Portugal sitting behind the bar counter slicing tomato cubes.

Who knows the president of Portugal? Many Portuguese don’t, at any rate. Photo: dpa

It wasn’t necessarily love at first sight. The Lisbon apartment where I went to escape the winter dreariness of Berlin this January was located in a disappointingly dark alley. "This is authentic Portugal!" the landlady, Maria, shouted at me as she handed over the keys, trying to drown out the bawling, heavily intoxicated pile of men outside the small bar across the street.

The stay wasn’t purely touristy either, though: instead of being under three sweaters and gray cloud cover, I could just as easily do my desk work with the windows open and real daylight. A few weeks of new routine.

The tiny apartment on the third floor had, if no other windows, at least a foot-wide balcony that was kissed by direct sunlight between exactly 10::35 in the morning. Cabo-Love sounds rang through the balmy air from the neighborhood around the clock; around noon, the smell mix of freshly washed laundry and rotisserie chicken added to the mix.

The rotisserie next to the bar opened first thing in the morning: Here the men gathered patiently waiting, until a little later the bar raised its rolling grille and the daily babble in all pitches provided the soundtrack of the street until late in the evening.

House wine from the cardboard box

Curious as to why everyone keeps shouting numbers at each other and then bursting out laughing, I spend more time on the balcony than in front of the computer. In the middle of the street, they stand in a circle and guess how many coins each other is probably hiding in their closed hand. When I leave the house, I say "Boa tarde" or "Boa noite" to the merry crowd. They greet me happily.

On my daily exploratory excursions, I keep discovering new things even in the small street: a tiny grocery store, the project space of an artist collective, a cigarette kiosk with a blind salesman, a family restaurant in the basement. And the pizzeria, with its reggae music, is also a hive of activity in the evenings: young boys from the neighborhood challenge the rasta-rocked clientele to a spontaneous game of street soccer.

Late on the evening of the Portuguese presidential elections, I join them and drink a glass of house wine from a cardboard box. Since the entire city is plastered with election posters (many sprayed with stencils of Angela Merkel’s face: "Vota Merkel", Vote Merkel!), I ask curiously when ordering who the president is. "Well, me!" replies the barman/cook/DJ. "And that one too," he adds, pointing to the other one behind the counter. "Not the pizzeria, but from the country," I try to clarify my question – I don’t know Portuguese very well yet.

The copresident squints his eyes for a moment, opens a tab on the computer on the wall where the music is coming from, and Googles: "Presidente + Portugal." He then Googles the name of the winner, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. For my sake. The topic doesn’t seem to concern anyone here.

"We Hate Tourism" Tours

My neighborhood is generally so relaxed and level-headed with each other that one almost forgets how badly the country is actually doing in the wake of the financial crisis. Many houses, once magnificent, stand empty in an advanced state of disrepair. But there are some construction sites in the surrounding streets and the nearby docks have also seen some changes since my last stay two years ago. I hope to find out more from a visit to "We Hate Tourism" tours, whose headquarters are also on my little street.

The project, founded in 2010 by "unemployed journalists, psychologists, photographers and agitators," offers tours from the perspective of genuine Lisboners who want to use humor to make the ideal world facades of their city crumble. For the past five years or so, the tourism industry has been booming; investors are beginning to take an interest in more remote neighborhoods, Marta enlightens me.

Little by little, things are being tidied up, partly because renovation work has recently received greater tax incentives. Those who buy real estate worth more than half a million euros even get a five-year visa for free on top – an offer that Chinese in particular would make use of. In recent months, the city has also been literally overrun by French people, who may no longer dare to go to their usual vacation destinations (Morocco and Tunisia).

As I leave the office, a poster on the door bids me farewell with the words "Fuck Saudade": Adieu Tristesse, one could translate poetically.

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