Lisboa: The Atlantic City
By Stefan Nathisha
30th May 2022
IN THE SQUARE we look out across the flat. Behind the coffee cups, King Jose sits on his horse of copper. We are in the Pembolina, and it is hot. The air here, as it is in southern Europe, has a tenacity to it. But this is not a Mediterranean town, despite how one could be deceived.
The Atlantic wind engulfs the streets, reminding you of its presence wherever you are. The sky above is clear, expanding the impalpable dome to the west where the tropics make themselves known. Of course, they are not the tropics, but the dark weather front sits above a backdrop of mountains, visible across the bay, and it reminds me of Colombia. A solo cargo ship is anchored between them and us, we are in a safe solitude now under the sun.
If we translate it, we are in the ‘Square of Commerce’ where a palace once sat – destroyed by an infamous earthquake. We are not humbled by this fact, but instead proud to sit here knowing that history has allowed us to do what once would have been an impossibility. The architecture is that of a port town yet further, to the fringes of the city, it becomes more fluid, disjointed; metamorphoses into a representation of the identity of the people here. There is nothing fixed. We are not in France nor Spain, Paris, or Rome. We attribute it to the multiculturalism, of course, but here, unlike most post-colonial cities of Europe, the ethnicities are not separated. They are not a source of attention or conversation. The poor are not kept from the poor; only the rich, but they do not reside here. In Paris you have those boroughs, in Marseille too, and London. In Lisbon, the deceptive Mediterranean ambience entwines the people as it does those small apartments, colliding into one another from the side, the top, underneath. In the narrow, jostling streets, we have the same situation. Life exists here, under the amber glow of lamplight in the evening and the shade of fragile clouds by day. But it exists in a homogeny the rest of western Europe seems to lack.
The old colonial church bell rings out. People queue by the Ginjinha dispensaries for a brief interlude. Lisbon was once a commercial town. It can be seen in the port that stretches along the bay, cut in two by the great Golden Gate-esque bridge. Now, in the modern times, it is simply a town built around the sea. Tourism is confined more to Porto and the Algarve. Conversely, in other European capitals, the skyscrapers are a testament to a novel age, they are the galleons of this century, and the cities revolve and evolve around them like blackholes. Lisbon however, has maintained its red brick charm, blemished by the shanty-constructions beneath the road bridges and along the industrial district.
There is an elevator nearby – the Santa Justa Lift. It goes from the street up to the church above. We discuss its relation La Catedral de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; how things now are not made purely for the beauty they once were. Art is becoming lost, hidden behind the false meaning that denies the sensuous nature of it. The skyscrapers of the new age will in only a few decades become hideous, uncleaned fish tanks, filled with people as the street levels are now. The rich will escape this, naturally. Lisbon however seems devoid of this mentality, there’s no sense of urgency, an absence of grand government buildings, bureaucracy, uniformed guards, police. The citizens and their city seem left rather to their own devices.