The balcony door is wide open, like it has been since moving in a month ago. From outside drifts the squeals of children playing and the now familiar sound of streetcars gliding down rails, soothing as white noise. The curtains ruffle slightly with the breeze. It’s true, there’s something special about the light in Lisbon. The city’s omnipresent pastéis de nata pastries and creamy gelato are my favorite fuel for the cobblestones relentlessly climbing around every corner.
It’s only because I’m leaving soon that these words are spilling out. Thanks to Remote Year here I am, at work in a foreign country, starting my Austin morning workday in Lisbon’s late afternoon. It’s a funny thing to catch the sunset on your lunch break. I didn’t know I could be a morning person.
When we first arrived, past midnight that first night, the various shops blended into the Pombaline-style buildings’ ground floors, hidden behind decorative tile glinting in streetlights. But in the mornings, shutters peel back and doors are flung open. Airy cafes emerge like magic and people sip espresso with all the time in the world. When night falls again, people cluster on the street, outside the bars rather than in them, sipping Sagres and speaking all manner of languages.
I soon learned to walk single file on the narrow sidewalks rather than side by side after Eléctrico 28 came barreling down behind me the first time. The city’s signature yellow streetcars wind through the narrowest streets in the Alfama district, stopping every now and then to inch by carelessly parked cars. Riding #28, I could have lost a few fingers to the streetcar speeding by in the opposite direction if I dared stretch my arm out the open window.
In nearby Cascais, a rangy surf instructor, rash guard tied rakishly around his head like a bandanna, is impossibly light on his feet. A century ago, he’d surely have been a pirate furtively skirting these beaches at midnight, sailing a ship of smuggled goods, rather than dancing around in a wetsuit in broad daylight. He urges our class in clipped English, “Don’t fall easy.” It sounds like a lesson for life, not just catching waves.
A few weeks ago our merry little band of travelers ventured out of the city, off to sea kayak in Algarve. That endless blue horizon could easily have dropped off into nothing. But just a couple hundred years ago, Portuguese explorers took their chances and sailed beyond the maps, straight into the unknown. Our seafaring voyage had a simpler mission. Scope out secret beaches for sunbathing, to claim as our own when we returned to shore. We staked our territory and stretched out in the sand. As the sun arced its way across the sky, the tide edged in, swallowing our beach whole and forcing us back up sandy steps toward home.
Yesterday, it rained for the first time. Slick with raindrops, the white cobblestones pattern together like iridescent fish scales. I saw someone practically ice skating down the street in the Chiado district. He would take three quick steps and then deliberately slide a few feet on his rubber-soled shoes, laughing gleefully. But those cobblestone can be unforgiving. This morning, I saw a delivery man for the market next door, motionless and flat on his back. His right arm was flung over his face, head twisted to the side, lips in a thin pinched line. Store clerks were hovering above him, holding umbrellas over his prone body, waiting for help to arrive.
Up on the top of the biggest hill is São Jorge, a Moorish castle, my favorite miradouro lookout point. I saw my first local sunset there, watching it dip below a golden panorama as my friends and I sipped red wine. As the breeze cooled, an intriguing stranger I just met on the trek up offered me his jacket. Should I have said yes?
Out on the balcony, the 25 de Abril Bridge on the horizon reminds me of the San Francisco of my childhood. One of my earliest memories is on the Golden Gate, late one night in the back of my parents’ car. I laid my head down on the warm leather seat and when I looked up, was amazed to discover something winking between the rust-colored rungs of the bridge, a watchful eye. “The moon is following us home,” I told them sleepily. The city felt alive and safe.
As I let my eyelids sink down, we made it to the other side, on our way home. Just like back then, I’ve got to keep moving.