Lucy K Shaw
A writer, when I told him about the idea for this blog, told me that he’d love to write something for ~Profound Experience but that he’s never really traveled.
I encouraged him to visit his ancestral homeland, because sometimes it finds a way into his stories.
19th century Russia would be so hardcore for a first trip, I thought... Would make an excellent blog post.
Another writer, who interviewed me for a book, asked:
Most people love to travel and discover new places but in your case, discovering new places and having this nomadic life seems to be a very central part of your existence—as opposed to most people, who think a lot about traveling although they/we don’t travel very much. Why is traveling so important for you—also considering that writers tend to be the kind of people who don’t value traveling very much because they/we can travel through books etc? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯?
I’m in Lisbon and Fernando Pessoa is omnipresent in the landscape. He’s a huge part of the tourism here, even though he was the kind of writer who didn’t value traveling very much because he could travel through books etc, shrug emoji. I’m reading and thinking about him anyway, because we’re here.
I guess I should explain why we’re here.
Well.. we were planning on going to Berlin... but then there was a death in the family.. and those plans fell through. We found ourselves very sad and at a loose end and then somebody we know asked if we wanted to stay in their apartment in Lisbon to water their plants (while they were away).. and so three days later we were here.
We wanted to take the train because we hate flying. It would take 20 hours and cost the same amount of money as the 2 hour flight.
I had an idea that there might be a story to it. I am a travel blogger now after all. I imagined how I was going to write it, the things I might describe, the people we’d see. How writing about it would inevitably affect my actions. How the landscape would change as we crossed from France to Spain to Portugal. How strange it would be to pass through the north of Spain without stopping or speaking the language or eating the food.
But then the train was fully booked so we had to fly.
Suddenly I awoke from an afternoon wine induced snooze and the plane was hurtling above the orange rooftops of Alfama towards the runway. Then we were in a taxi. Then we were collecting keys from a woman who smiled a lot and didn’t say anything. And finally we entered the apartment.
A few moments later, I put on my running shoes and headed out onto the streets.
I was trying to run 100km during the month of July, for some reason.
(At this point, I had run 56km and had 14 days to go.)
It’s my second time in Lisbon.
The last time we came here it was because everybody said that Lisbon was the new Berlin and that they were going to move here. And we had just moved out of Berlin so it seemed like... okay....
Last time we brought sadness, (cancer), and this time we brought grief, (death). We bring all this pain to Lisbon but it’s not Lisbon’s fault. It’s just a strange coincidence.
We bring all this pain and then we walk around judging things and comparing them to other things we’ve seen somewhere else. I even run around doing that now. It’s more efficient. I run along the road until I reach an area I recognise and then I turn around and run back. I see many people sitting outside cafes drinking beer or wine and eating meat. I try to slow down to read the menus but I can’t read Portuguese. Or maybe I can read some things actually but I’m pretty sure many of these words are just the names of fish and I don’t know the names of these fish in English either. I don’t think it’s fair to take fish out of the sea and then eat them in a restaurant. This has never made any sense to me.
Also why does Portuguese sound so different from Spanish and French. Why does it sound so Slavic? How did this happen?
I run to a miradouro and look out at the red bridge that Sebastian referenced in his ~Profound Experience.
I remember that San Francisco exists.
A few days later, I meet with a poet I know from Instagram. She takes me to a bakery and orders 2 Pastéis de Nata. She asks if I’ve tried them before and I say, ‘No.. I guess I saw them a lot last time I was here..’
‘But you didn’t think to try one?’ She asks, seeming surprised or disappointed in my curiosity perhaps.
I enjoy the experience, but I’m just not particularly interested in desserts...
Though when I discuss this with Chris later, he says that maybe it’s not really for dessert.
Just as in France, they/we eat croissants and other sweet pastries in the morning... in Portugal, perhaps it’s similar. We discuss the role of sweet foods across many cultures and he reminds me that I once came from somewhere and that of course this fact influences my ideas, preconceptions, curiosities, or lack thereof.
I drink Vinho Verde and Douro and Madeira Wine. I do take in some parts of the culture. But I don’t really care about cakes and I want the fish to stay alive.
I tell the poet that I am a vegetarian and had felt unsuccessful here on our last trip with regards to trying the local food. She said, in terms of traditional Portuguese cuisine... it’s just not going to happen. She is a vegetarian too, although caves sometimes under pressure and eats fish for the sake of her family at Christmas. I take this as permission to give up on Portuguese restaurants.
We climb to another miradouro and sit on a bench overlooking the city and talk about what we’re reading and writing. We tell each other things we know and ask about things we don’t. It feels nourishing.
Later, after extensive discussion of the Pastéis de Nata, Chris buys a pack of 3 from a supermarket, has a couple of bites and decides he doesn’t like them.
Later still, on the way home from the beach one day, we try some Bola de Berlim pastries... Chris calls them Berlin and I tell him, no, it’s an M, it’s Berlim. I’m smug about this.
‘That’s just a feature of the language’, he tells me. ‘The Ns are often Ms... and the Ls are often Rs. Like... Berlin is Berlim. White wine isn’t Blanco it’s Branco.’
Yeah it turns out they’re some kind of Northern German pastry.
What have I done in 12 days in Lisbon?
I have run 36 km.
I have been to the beach 6 times.
I have eaten at a vegetarian buffet and a vegetarian Tibetan restaurant. A Mexican place. A Spanish tapas bar.
Made dinner ‘at home’ a few times.
Worked every day during the week.
I read a book by Sheila Heti.
I walked through the streets alone listening to The Lion King soundtrack and felt like I was in a movie.
Had some arguments.
Planned other trips.
Visited the botanical gardens.
Visited a friend who had moved from Berlin.
Drank wine from a Quiosque in a square beside an old convent 3 times.
(On the third and final time, I listened to a sunburnt, drunken English couple lecture some Dutch people about how England is a powerful country and how leaving the EU ‘without a deal’ was in their best interest.)
For the purpose of this blog, I started reading The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa.
The Lisbon poet I met with told me that this book is like The Catcher in the Rye to them, which I found funny. Though to be honest, I didn’t read The Catcher in the Rye until I was about 24 anyway, because I’m from England and it’s not really culturally relevant.
But okay, as always I’m reading the book and I’m simultaneously researching the biography of the writer because I’m wondering, was he rich? (no) why was he sad? (idk) was he gay? (probably) how did he die? (alcohol) was he mean to his wife if he had one? (n/a)
But what I’m really interested in are the passages related to travel. I am a travel blogger now after all.
Here are some of my favourite sentences:
Travel is for those who cannot feel. That’s why travel books are always so unsatisfying as books of experience.
I mean, true.
Why else would one become a travel blogger?
I run through the streets of Lisbon and I keep laughing to myself about Travel is for those who cannot feel.
I want it on a beach towel.
‘Only extreme poverty of the imagination justifies having to move around to feel.’
What if ~Profound Experience sparked a literary counter-culture in response? Writers who stay at home and insist that people who travel cannot feel? That their experiences within their own imaginations are richer, more valuable. That possibly the internet is the only terrain worth traversing. That would be.... annoying...
Can people who do not travel.... feel?
Is feeling desirable?
In my (limited) research of Pessoa’s life, I learned that his father died when he was very young and his mother remarried a man who... was some kind of diplomat, you can look this up yourself, and then they moved the whole family to South Africa, so Pessoa spent about a decade from ages 6-17 in Durban, speaking English, and presumably having to form an identity that felt effortful and peculiar. When he was 17, he returned to Lisbon to study at university and then apparently after that he hardly ever left the city.
I mean, it makes sense that he was anti-travel.
One day we were walking along the beach and Chris told me, ‘You know in Portuguese, Pessoa just means person...’
I was like... ‘Yeah everyone knows that.’
Another time we were walking along the beach and I said, ‘I want this blog to appeal to people who like to travel and to people who like to read but not necessarily to people who like to read travel blogs...’
Chris said, ‘Maybe you should describe it as an anti-travel blog’
That wasn’t right though. It’s not anti-travel... it’s just anti-travelblog... but also... it is a travel blog... so...
Something I find interesting, given his apparent disdain for travel, is that Pessoa wrote a guidebook to Lisbon in 1925. It’s called What The Tourist Should See.
I read it, or at least I skimmed it, because I found it very tedious. Essentially it describes in great detail, street by street, what Pessoa thought a general tourist should see, while traveling by motor car and on foot in this marvelous Lisbon. The dates and dimensions of historic buildings are catalogued meticulously and a prescribed experience is outlined, complete with suitable reactions. To take some more of a great writer’s sentences totally out of context:
'The general aspect of the square is of a kind to give a very agreeable impression to the most exacting of tourists.'
'This is one of the "sights" of Lisbon and always compels great admiration from tourists from everywhere.'
'And the tourist must not omit to remark the two great chased silver torch-stands, the work of the famous Giuseppe Gagliardi, which have only once left the museum; they figured in the funeral service of Dr. Sidonio Paes, the ill-fated President of the Republic, who was assassinated on the upper floor of Rossio Railway Station, on the night of the 14th December 1918, as he was going to take the Northern express.'
Okay, I like that actually.
'A few minutes more, and we are in front of the great monument that is the Mosteiro (Monastery) dos Jeronymos, a masterpiece in stone, which all tourists visit and which they never can forget.'
'Having now effected this short but interesting visit to Lisbon, and having seen all that is most interesting, or, at least, is most likely to interest the tourist, especially if art and beauty appeal to him, it is natural that we should now return to the hotel, which, as we have said, will most likely be one in the very centre of the city.'
It occurs to me that perhaps Pessoa didn’t like travel, yes, sure, in part due to the childhood trauma of having his father die and his life uprooted to another continent... but also because he had no idea of how to actually do it. I mean, if he thinks I’m going to walk around Lisbon street by street with my face in his guidebook... memorizing dates of construction and the widths of every building, or whatever.
I’m going to be running through the streets at 8.30 in the morning because I have to work soon and it’ll be very hot if I don’t go now and I’m going to be listening to a podcast interview of some poet talking about religion and I don’t particularly want to run up another hill but I do want to know what the view is like up there.
I run through the streets of Lisbon and I think of what Nadia wrote, ‘There is nothing more decadent than being uprooted as a voluntary act.’
I run through the streets of Lissabon and I tear up at the sight of a tshirt that says, Ayanna & Ilhan & Rashida & Alexandria.
I run through the streets of Lisbonne and I listen to a motivational running podcast because I am so sick of running now.
I run through the streets of Lisboa and I can’t help but think of Liz Bowen from time to time...
I mean, I don’t know how to travel either, necessarily, but it does feel like a worthwhile pursuit, or like something you can become skilled at over time, if you try to keep your mind open...
This twelve day trip could have been separated into two distinct chapters, the time up until we argued on the beach on our day off, because without work to keep us occupied, we couldn’t help but be confronted by all of the reality that death promises. And the time after that, as though a cloud had burst, when we were able to drift more easily in and out of evenings and mornings and conversations and problems. How is it that time can slow down and then speed up again just like that? It doesn’t matter where we are.
If I was, for some reason, going to write a guidebook about this city, and if there is one thing I think the tourist really ought to know... It’s simply that the sea water is FREEZING, even at the height of summer. It feels as though your bloodstream has been restarted and you hate it, though at the same time, of course, you are exhilarated, reinvigorated and importantly, alive.
At the airport, I wander into a bookstore while Chris goes to the bathroom. I pick up a book by Xiaolu Guo. My sister lives in China and I want to go there soon. When I try to find Chris again, he has seemingly disappeared but then sends me a message to say he’s at the bakery.
When I get there, he’s holding two Pastéis de Nata wrapped in paper. It’s a morning flight and this is our breakfast. We eat the pastries on the runway, and they taste... surprisingly... amazing. We look at each other like, oh!!
The next day, in another country, he looks up the recipe and makes some more.