Letter from Portugal

The Portuguese word sentido can be defined or translated as either “sense,” “meaning,” or “way.” “Way” as in direction: Returning from the beach, I cross train tracks from beneath, walking through a graffitied tunnel and following the sign that says, Sentido Lisboa. Which way am I headed, and what does it mean? I’ve spent most of my life chasing moments in public transit where landscape becomes a flickering film reel outside the window and time is an indiscernible blur.

On the train, red LED letters scroll at the front and back of the car. It’s 36 degrees Celsius. Almost too hot to think. But, this is not the hottest it’s been this week. More text appears: the date, the name of the next stop, the time, some scrolling data points to ground us passengers as we slide towards the city, hugging the coast so close it looks like we’re floating above the water as it morphs from Atlantic Ocean to Tagus River. Last week, there were train strikes, a common and well-organized occurrence by unionized railway workers. Today, the train is running, and air-conditioned. My apartment is not, and I consider the possibility of just staying inside the train, riding it back and forth between Lisbon and Cascais until the sun sets and the air grows cool.

Strikes are frequent nowadays … some are partial, some full. They are all scheduled in advance, and the Trains of Portugal website issues a press release alerting passengers to the anticipated service disruptions. The press releases have headlines such as “Infrastructure manager strike,” “Railway manager strike in Portugal,” and “Severe disruption of train services because of strike action.” Each press release ends with an expression of regret towards the inconvenienced passengers and the number for the customer care line. Bureaucratic processes saturate most areas of life. Everyone here is a protocol slut. I get it. Inside of me lives a nasty little bureaucrat too, who loves excel sheets and being on time.

Once a cab driver here told me that there are so many accidents in Lisbon because drivers don’t learn how to read the road. They are so committed to the rules, and don’t know how to improvise or adapt when a traffic pattern moves unexpectedly.

I’m crashing too. Ice cubes on my neck. Slack-jawed, observing a natural disaster from the privileged position of motion. On the bus from Caldas da Rainha back to Lisbon, I watch a forest fire engulf a section of trees, the smoke ashen, red, and rising skyward in dense plumes. Everyone pulls out their phone to take photos, which will become a part of a different kind of cloud.

Our shorter attention spans and this perpetual motion prevent us from witnessing the land crying out. This scorched earth. The ouroboros of capitalist cycles. The debt we have accrued, compounding interest and growing hotter to the touch. There are droughts and fires everywhere.

I imagine a conversation with my long-term lover in which we say, all right, we’re going to do this thing for real. But, what were we doing before? And what exactly do I mean by “real”?

Maybe the word I’m after is stillness.

I cannot separate the city from this person. The city rises up around and becomes imbued with their energy, every corner charged with their presence or absence. We are both artists, which means we’re acquainted with precarity. We make a salad from what’s in the refrigerator. Someone in the house has made bacalhau on his day off and offers it to us. We add it to the salad, then floss our teeth. Codfish is tough, chewy, and gets stuck.

I eat a freezer-burned ice cream cone and regret it. It’s not what I wanted.

We smoke a spliff. It’s too hot to fuck, but we do anyways. High ceiling, a riot of houseplants, an oscillating fan. Weathering this weather, this wave.

When people ask me why I moved here, I reply the same way every time: “This is my favorite city in the world.” If they’re Portuguese they usually crinkle their nose and say “really?” the implication being that, surely, there are better cities than this one. I mention the beaches, the size, and the quality of the light. Part of this story, I’m sure, is an ancestral pull; my maternal grandmother is Portuguese, and my mother is Brazilian. By being here, I feel I am unspooling something. A reverse time lapse of generational migration, carrying the torch of my restless foremothers.

Lately, I’ve wondered if I’m being honest, or if “favorite city” has become a hollow approximation for what I feel. Maybe the more accurate thing to say would be, we are an energetic match— I’m compatible with this city. Like Lisbon, I am beautiful and a little sad, underneath an ongoing revision. She was destroyed in a combination of earthquake, fire, and tsunami on All Saints Day in 1755 and had to be rebuilt—an occurrence that disturbed Voltaire to the point of poetry. He concluded that nature is random and chaotic; it doesn’t care about us.

This city has an atmosphere of transience. A lot of people pass through, and spend some time thinking that maybe they could stay.

Energetically, Lisbon doesn’t work, doesn’t open herself to me, if I am too rigid. She doesn’t do her synchronous dance when I grip too hard. I need to let go and allow the accidents to wash over me.

The Moors understood the relationship between beauty and surprise. Their presence is archived in the language, in words that begin with “A”—like azulejo, the tilework, or Alfama, a neighborhood that predates the earthquake—a network of narrow, winding alleys nested below the castle.

On a night walk with a friend, we toss a coin at every fork along the way in Alfama to decide if we’ll go left or right, pausing at each nexus of cobblestoned corridors soaked in auras cast off by yellow lamp light. We use chance as our compass. Heads or tails to discern our sentidos.

Emily Duffy