Backlit

December 1, 2010

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It’s the last day of November and the sun is pouring through Lisbon like an accidental spill of wayward rays sloshing over unsuspecting scarves and cold-footed pigeons with a glow intended for warmer climates. A woman battles a chameleon-like sweat, taking off her coat to calm the itch of boiling glands only to throw it on again at her goosebumps’ request. There are clouds rolling in from the west with gray apathy and the heavy resentment of a clean-up crew destined for better things. A mix of cars, taxis, fast-paced pedestrians, and yellow trolley cars circle Praça de Luís de Camões with a forceful repetition that carves the plaza into an elevated place of rest and stagnancy. Tables outnumber trees with a ratio of 13:11 but Lisboetas seem to flock here with back-to-nature urgency. Every last branch of shrubbery is cloaked in holiday lights, turtlenecking the trees into unflattering daytime outfits – oh, the bullying ways of a shoulder-chipped city.

In truth, Lisbon feels like the urban runt of the prestigious Western European family. Its graffiti-stained buildings linger like neglected crumbs on the outline of Lisbon’s youthful mouth, and a replica Golden Gate bridge decorates the city like a stretched-out hand-me-down. But, spoken like a true youngest child, I absolutely love this city. I’ve spent the past four days here traveling solo, pounding the pavement and leaving no coffee shop unturned, hell-bent on one last urban binge before hanging my city boots in the Austrian Alps for a month. Truth be told, I couldn’t have asked for a better urban smorgasbord to fill my cheeks with, and after a couple of days of fasting on the hot breath of self-reflection, I’m relieved to turn my spectacles outward for a less foggy view.

For a city with a population of 2.4 million, the streets are strangely empty, and – based on Portugal’s frail economy – I have a hard time believing that all the locals are at work. Instead, winter’s cold hand seems to have chased everyone indoors, leaving riverside sunsets and hilltop castles strewn about like Cinderella slippers throughout the city. Despite the absence of warm bodies, the fax-ice skating rink failed to freeze and the twisting corridors of the Alfama Moorish quarter refused to loosen their firm grip. With a sky like Lisbon’s, this city needs no mortal company. Even as a quasi-ghost town, Lisbon somehow manages to feel alive and full. The fountains flow, the carousel turns, and the echoes of Christmas music add depth to the streets, but its the glimmer and crunch of broken glass between cobblestones that best resembles urban vibrancy. The simplicity of shattered glass accomplishes what post-modern artists spend a lifetime trying to achieve: an intentional vagueness that forces onlookers to make meaning of the meaningless. Broken glass looks like violence and smells like celebration. On Lisbon’s streets, I feel reminiscent and cautious, and I think about the accidents and intentions behind the sharp edges of city life.

With the exception of a stint in the Swiss Alps and a couple of brief stays in rural France, my trip is a tale told almost exclusively by cities at a time when so many of them are becoming the same. For that reason I am relieved when the street’s shiny splinters send my thoughts fracturing in so many different directions. I think of Madrid’s tobacco factory-turned-squat house where forty ounce bottles balance between high heels and hiking boots; and live music falls indiscriminately on the ears of dread heads and little kids on the shoulders of big kids-turned-parents. I think of the lingering bullet holes and shattered windows that make Bosnian faces look so much older than their ages. I think of the carefree smash of German steins on concrete and the clinking of cañas over 10pm dinners. I think of Amsterdam’s neon-lit glass, thin but thicker than the legal rights of the women dancing and staring and sitting behind it. I think of the pulsating windows drawing late-nights lines fifty-people deep outside of Berlin techno clubs. I think of all of this life out there and the strange way that cities manage to simultaneously contain, break, and fill it.

And then there’s Lisbon – yet another, but not just any other, city where a wandering woman can stretch her thoughts. I’m on the train back to Salamanca now, but that doesn’t make one bit of difference to that Portuguese city. Redhead or no redhead, the fountains flow and the carousel turns. For an overly anxious kid, that’s part of the appeal, really. Cities break the illusion of self-importance before it gets too big. So, humbled and happy, I’m ready to return to a place where my presence is counted, for another short stay with my long-time friend. The lights of the big city are behind me for now, and I’m thankful for the backlight that warms my path toward a different kind of adventure. Whitney is busy testing the Austrian snow for me while I bid farewell to urban life and make room for the city’s alter-ego.

While I plan to write again before my return to Austria, there’s no time like the present to introduce to you my home and workplace for the month of December, Juifen Alm.

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