The most fundamental criteria for any away game should be that it’s exploratory in nature. I don’t care about lying on the beach eating chips ‘n’ dips all day or watching back-to-back episodes of Gator Boys after the obligatory hotel screw on some puffy jacquard duvet. Duke Ellington once said that vacations are for miserable people looking to escape that which makes them miserable — and I take my miseries like daily vitamins. The difference with travel should be that you’re venturing out to landscapes unfamiliar in search of texture and color and shapes; things which will subsequently inform and even transform things about you, from your very ideas about life to the way you prepare your eggs.
Having said all that, I’m still too tired to detect any such phenomena in myself from my recent maiden European voyage (Prague by way of Lisbon). Yeah, I know — at 36, the Lonely Planet mavens would write me off as a tragically under-traveled slob; but I’ve never been a passport fetishist, nor do I have an obsession with all-things-European. Indeed, I’ve been working my way though the vestiges of the American landscape over the last several years, trying like hell to get to it all before the whole territory’s transformed into one giant mixed-use development. Besides, when it comes to culture, I’m decently internationale — miles more so than any of the travel snobs I know. As evidence, whenever I part with anything from any one of my book, record or film collections online, nearly every item ends up going to some disparate corner of the planet, from Australasia to Scandinavia; from South Africa to Oceania (in fact, rarely the US). The point I’m trying to illustrate is that it’s possible to be worldly without the need to breathe in other people’s effluvium for eight hours at a go.
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL AIRPORT IN THE WORLD IS STILL JUST AN AIRPORT
I’m an ardent adherent to the idea that adventure is less about the destination and more about the journey. One glaring exception to this rule is air travel. Flying compresses and depresses me. I’ve been trying to build up my resistance with long continental flights to far-flung burgs like Anchorage. Still, though, think about it: Have you ever reflected fondly upon a favorite flight? In coach? For eight hours??
The airport in Madrid was my first taste of Europe on the ground. First impression: High on style, low on functionality. The Madrid Barajas Airport is just too insanely beautiful to be the place where Airport personnel report to work everyday. In fact, it barely feels like an airport. This is a bad thing. To begin with, you disembark the plane and begin an interminable zig-zag up the jetway before at long last emerging at the arrival gate, at which point you follow-the-herd, as the paucity of signage leaves one without any clues as to where to proceed to a connecting flight or baggage claim. Gotta take a leak? Sorry, slob — hopefully the sense of mystery which envelopes you as you wonder aloud where they’ve hidden all the privies (note: WC/Debussy) will distract from all those bladder pangs. Need a porter? Sorry, also — you will slog and slog and slog, while the only signs you’ll spot are those occasional green & white EXIT signs depicting that DRI-looking stick figure which seems not to suggest an EXIT, but rather scrambling for your motherfucking life. Every time I saw that little guy, he managed to induce in me a vague sense of urgency. It didn’t help that I was gradually resigning myself to the fact that we would never make our connecting flight in time. It took some forty minutes before we finally arrived at the departure terminals, after jog-walking for over ten, clearing customs and navigating the excessively farcical airport security theater, (my black leather boots were okay to keep on, but not the strappy goddess sandals the woman behind me was wearing), and then traversing the giant duty-free mall strategically sandwiched between customs and the departure gates. With an eight hour layover until the next flight to Lisbon, we spent our food vouchers on below-average coffee slung by passive-aggressive baristas, good beer and some curious-looking sandwiches. Eight hours is a long-ass time to kill, and it does not die easy…not even in the most beautiful airport in the world.
MUSCATEL! CORK! TILES! BACCALAU! VASCO DA GAMA!..TILES!
We arrived at the Hotel Mondial in downtown Lisbon later that evening, an old, slightly pricey resort on the Rua Palma, just a few blocks up from the bay. The Mondial’s lobby is dazzling enough to impress even the most jet-lagged and jaded soul, replete as it is with smiling staff running around in cummerbunds and bow ties. This somewhat belies the humble nature of the guest rooms, the carpet in which was more like thin wool batting stretched taut over what felt and sounded like starlight mints trapped beneath. Likewise, the bathroom was more like a found object sculpture depicting frustration, starting with the first third of the toilet installed under the first third of the sink, followed by the bathtub installed upon a three foot riser, requiring one to launch one’s carcass up into it. Bursitis of the hip? Enjoy your sponge bath, turkey. Further comedic relief was provided by the absence of mixer valves in the shower, making for wavering extremes in water temperature, punctuated by the occasional scalding blast, which truly took a bite.
There was some good stuff, though: the central location with its view of the Rua Palma, chock as it was with restive natives preparing for their anti-Troika demonstrations the following evening; the mattresses, which were perfectly firm — the best I’ve ever slept in outside of my own; the mostly young female staff, who exuded an earthy pleasantness as opposed to the phony hyper-politeness you get here in the States; the scrambled eggs…I had dreams about them.
That first night in town, our cicerone bussed us over to a restaurant in the older part of Lisbon. It was a large, grotto-like space, ornately decorated throughout with a high barrel ceiling and a stage. We were seated at a long table and served one of those five course meals where each plate features a diminutive pillar of food, randomly strewn with sprigs of this ‘n’ that, and strafed by a single squiggle of sauce. Following this pretentious and unsatisfying little meal, we were treated to a Fado show. In case you don’t know, Fado is a traditional Portuguese music, which I found rather hokey. The jet lag didn’t help things. The performance seemed to go on and on and on, and I just wanted them to stop. All I could think about was that lovely mattress I wanted to get back to where I might die in my sleep. The most entertaining thing for me the whole evening was the crazed death ray one of the guitarists kept trained on some little shithead kid in the audience who kept playing video games on his Ipad with the volume cranked throughout the entire performance.
The second day was better, with a trip out to wine country, where we toured the giant mahogany casks of Portugal’s oldest vineyard, home to thousands of gallons of the rather nasty Muscatel — a treacly sort of fortified wine that serves as the centerpiece to Portugal’s vintner heritage. I got the sense that the Portuguese were even lighter lightweights than myself, given their propensity for such craziness as adding 7-Up to their Super Bocks and cutting twenty year-old wine with Coca-Cola.
Check it out: In Lisbon, you get your wine country, the Mediterranean climate and even a Bay Bridge — all without the Californians! Unbeatable. I wonder what the suicide rate is compared with the one in San Francisco?
The two biggest things going on in Portugal are cork and tiles. They cannot and will not shut up about their goddamned cork and tiles. Christ! Enough already!!!
…I, of course, only kid: The tiled walls and houses all throughout Portugal left cricks in my neck as I craned around to glimpse as many of them as possible as we zipped past in the bus. Everyone gets beautiful tiles in Lisbon — doesn’t matter if you’re a wealthy club owner like John Malkovich, or subsisting in the Terras do Lelo slums. Call it the banality of beauty. As far as cork goes, one of the local merchants mentioned something to me about some ongoing research to develop transparent cork, which I still can’t get my mind around. I hope he wasn’t bullshitting me.
I tore ass around a few castles, the crumbling botanical gardens and one or two splendiferous old palaces, but by day five, all the threadbare opulence was beginning to tire me. You seen one ruin, you’ve pretty much seen ’em all. There was that, and the growing sense that the trip was devolving into a sort-of wealth transfer, as it seemed to me like the ladies in the group were being subtly funneled from one stop to the next in order to have their anemic US dollars swiftly Hoovered up with a too-keen obrigato. Not that I condemn the Lisboans or anyone else for hustling, I just got bored of watching it. For my part, I bought a blanket, two pads of paper, a bar of shaving soap and a pencil — shit you can really use, and all made in Portugal, thank you.
The evenings in Lisbon were free, and my woman and I wandered the streets together, marveling at the uncanny number of shoe stores throughout the city. We were warned away from the *bad parts* of town, but I unwittingly wandered into them a few times without incident, save for a bemused look or two. Compared to the asphalt killing fields (with corresponding Murder Maps) that comprise the bad parts of most American metros, a dangerous street in Lisbon might consist of a guy in a black t-shirt, snarling to himself. PG-13 stuff at worst.
Most nights we ordered beer from one of the various arcades near the bay — and that’s exactly how I ordered them: a glass of beer, like we were on the set of a Hollywood film in 1947. And just like in those old films, without hesitation, the waiter would whisk away to procure a perfectly crisp Blonde or Bock. Try it out. It’s pretty terrific.
Overall, the city of Lisbon, it’s people, and the surrounding areas are handsome and melancholic, which is my kinda stuff. It’s got poetry. One fear is that the ongoing austerity measures imposed by the IMF on the people of Portugal will continue to negatively impact the area. Even the bucolic coastal areas of Cascais looked quite neglected (at least compared to how they looked in 1971’s The Last Run with George C. Scott). Many of the urban areas appeared blighted and drenched in Krylon. Outside of the numerous anti-Troika messages, graffiti in Lisbon looks the same as it does everywhere in the world, and covers nearly every vertical surface, including, most tragically, some of those tiled walls and even a few ancient stone ramparts. One saving grace is that the city was constructed with certain local materials and in such a way as to weather and rundown much more beautifully than any American strip mall or condo tower ever will.