Aug 13 2012
Our first day in Lisbon dawned clear and bright. We wandered blinking through sunny Rossio Square, down the grand grid-like avenues (designed by the Marques de Pombal after the devastating 1755 earthquake, our DK Eyewitness Lisbon guide informed us), and out into a brilliant Praça do Comércio, a wide square that opens to the Tagus River, which sparkled and danced before us.
“Looks like Lisbon has thrown off its melancholy,” my companion noted as I rushed toward the water, eager to see the line “where the earth ends and the sea begins,” a phrase Jose Saramago appropriated from Portuguese poet Camões to begin his novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.
I reached the line, marked by two glistening white pillars, and bent down to touch the water. Warm waves lapped invitingly at my fingertips. I straightened and looked out to the horizon, expecting to think of distant lands, but was distracted by the immense red suspension bridge to my right, a twin to San Francisco’s Golden Gate and created by the same designer. But this wasn’t sunny California. When Saramago’s character Ricardo Reis reached these shores from Brazil, it was raining. He was lonely, searching, though he was not sure for what. He knew only that the poet Fernando Pessoa had just died.
I had a copy of Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet in my pack. But I didn’t feel the disquiet that I had expected to descend upon my arrival, and I couldn’t sense the strain of sorrow that runs through almost every book I have ever read set in the city of Lisbon, from Saramago and Pessoa to John Berger’s Here is Where We Meet and Dutch author Cees Nooteboom’s The Following Story. In all of these books the boundaries between life and death blur like the constant flux of the Tagus on riverbank, and everyone yearns for something they cannot have.
“It’s the Portuguese saudade that you’re after,” our host at the Lisbon Story Guesthouse, Bruno, explained when I told him I didn’t feel the same way in the real Lisbon as I did in the imagined. Saudade. I first heard the word while reading Berger, who defines it as: “the feeling of fury at having to hear the words too late pronounced too calmly.”
“Saudade is a word that has no definition,” Bruno told us. “The closest I can tell you is that it is a longing for something that can never happen.” He described a Brazilian musician who conceived of the idea as a mother continually unmaking and remaking the bed of her dead child.
I looked at Bruno. “I guess if I was after that, I shouldn’t have come to Lisbon on my honeymoon. I should have waited for some heartache.”
He nodded. “You cannot help but be a tourist now. But when you live here day to day, you begin to see it. The Portuguese are a sad people, for many reasons.”
But slowly, Lisbon revealed its story to us. We had to travel outside the tourist track, beyond the popular sites like the Castle of São Jorge and Se Cathedral, to lesser known neighborhoods. On our hilly walk to the house of Fernando Pessoa and on a particularly long pilgrimage to a bookstore in Alcântara, we stumbled across neighborhoods so poor no guidebook would mention them, and into pubs where no one spoke English, yet nevertheless served us feasts. I began to look beyond the camera-toting foreigners at the Praça do Comércio and spotted a local man staring over the water, loss in his eyes. And when we went to hear the city’s music, fado, one evening, there was no mistaking the passionate yearning in the refrains: saudade.
And then, finally, because no one can avoid it, heartache came. While I was away, my grandmother, the best person on earth, was diagnosed with cancer. I walked down to the water’s edge one evening after the news had reached me. The pillars seemed paler in the half moon light, and the lights on the opposite bank were distant. Why had I been drawn to this city in the first place, I wondered. Who goes looking for melancholy on their honeymoon?
Perhaps it’s that we all have the sorrow of the Portuguese, I thought, remembering my
grandmother, but after centuries of losing loved ones to explorations and to the sea, to wars, and to a monstrous earthquake, the Portuguese have found a way to express the depths of life so beautifully that when I read the literature, listened to fado, or strolled the less-trodden streets
of Lisbon, I began to feel a longing for longing itself, until the city became a place where even melancholy took on a charm. While my heartache from home was difficult to bear, it also sharpened my sense of beauty, and on the high miradouros, or viewpoints, of Lisbon’s seven hills I often felt that I was experiencing the heights of life, a delicious vertigo I could not have known if I had not also tasted its sorrows.
Read more: DK Eyewitness guides, Fernando Pessoa, General, Here is Where We Meet, John Berger, Jose Saramago, Lisbon, Lisbon Story Guesthouse, Ricardo Reis, Travel, Travel Tips and Resources