Street life: the curious, wonderful energy of Lisbon
Although I didn’t fully understand it at the time, street life is what I came to Lisbon for. There’s something about the life of the city that is hard to put your finger on, an easy flow that sustains and holds you. Tourists praise its beauty, expats talk of feeling at home, while urban planners could analyse its use of public space, but none of this quite gets it.
While talk of nature comes easy, the spirit of a city – the quality that makes a human settlement more than a just housing and a collection of business establishments and makes its atmosphere as unique as a person – is something we struggle to express.
The shared sense of place in southern European cities is undoubtedly related to the warmer weather that allows for more time outdoors. And yet the same kind of vivacity, the energy of human life, can be found in cities of the north too. In her 1930 essay Street Haunting, Virginia Woolf describes the distinctive shift in consciousness induced by walking the streets of London on a winter evening. Freed from the customary identity that prevails within four familiar walls, the social self joins a ‘vast republican army of anonymous trampers’ which is ‘not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others’.
Woolf is describing a liberation of consciousness that is the antithesis of the more common experience of cities in which noise and bustle overwhelm the psyche. It’s a way of being in the world which transcends individual isolation while remaining within the human sphere. I suspect it’s due to the high population density and historical accretions that can only be found in the urban. A little ironic, then, that Woolf chooses a metaphor of wildness to express this particular kind of freedom: ‘What greater delight,’ she asks, ‘can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?’
This kind of intensified human consciousness is something I experienced in Cadiz, one of the European cities I was writing about for the book that was stalled by the Covid crisis. The little Spanish city, perched in geographical isolation on a peninsular in the Atlantic, has a mood of its own so pronounced that walking its streets felt almost like surfing an energetic current. The cheerful spirit of Gaditanos has been much observed and is perhaps the animating force behind the city’s annual festival and near-constant partying.
The energy of Lisbon’s streets and squares is gentler and more even (a month in Cadiz left me exhausted). It’s also irrepressible. Even in lockdown, people sat in its main squares all day long. Martim Moniz is a living room for immigrants from the surrounding streets and beyond; day after day you see them, in their kaftans and kufis, sometimes laying out unwanted bits and pieces for sale but mostly just sitting.
This urban outdoors living owes something to poverty and the nature of the housing stock. Accommodation in Lisbon is expensive and earnings are low. Houses and flats built for ordinary people tend to be small and often lack outside space. Sometimes, walking the city’s narrower streets, I glimpse bunk beds through an open window or door. They are not for children. In adverts for accommodation shared rooms are common. Sharing a room is the only way some can survive in a city which – despite its protestations of being a hub for digital nomads etc – remains not-quite-Europe, and is in many ways more akin to Africa and Arabia.
Lisbon has a strong culture of neighbourliness. It’s common to see people in windows, conducting long conversations with neighbours standing on the pavement or comfortably positioned in other windows. Some of the older residents have a window hour or two which they spend looking out into the street, catching life as it passes by. ‘Boa tarde, menina’ – Good afternoon, my girl’ – was the five o’clock greeting I got from a woman in one street where I lived in my first, semi-nomadic year in the city.
This is Chino. Chino is a resident of a street where I spent a month, possibly the most sociable street I have ever known. The sounds of its residents began soon after dawn – Bom DIA! – lasting, at different levels of intensity, until evening’s end. They were a kind of call and response that sang of people’s unending pleasure in seeing each other, of another day of life in the street. The barking of dogs added another layer to the mosaic of sound, the animal voices melding with the human chatter at the local cafe.
Chino spent all day in his window. What did he do? I asked my landlady. Clearly he didn’t work, but was there no wife or any other claim on his attention? When it was hot, he went topless (pictured), placing a cushion to soften the window frame against his naked torso. From the confines of my interior in the flat opposite I could hear his enthusiastic greeting of passers-by at different times of the day, abbreviated to an emphatic DIA! or TARDE!
Lest all this sound too rose-tinted, I should add that this street’s neighbourliness didn’t extend to me, a newcomer and a stranger: in fact, its inhabitants looked surprised when I greeted them. In a city where foreigners come and go, it’s not always worth investing in new acquaintance. I briefly tasted this more familiar experience of urban alienation when I sublet a flat in a concrete block. The fourth floor was too high to have any connection with the street and, over the two weeks I was there, I heard and saw no one.
Which is why, when I finally took a tenancy in Lisbon, it was on a too-small flat in a Portuguese vila. With its houses are built around a communal patio, this traditional form of workers’ housing promised the neighbourliness I craved. The promise was fulfilled almost immediately when I locked myself out within days of moving in: one neighbour stood in solidarity beside me while another quietly broke in through the high-security door.
My lock-handy neighbour complains that the vila’s sense of community has declined since he bought his house twenty-five years ago. Back then, its long-standing residents used to maintain potted gardens in front of their windows and would socialise outside together late into the night.
But it’s enough for me, a twenty-first century Brit often glued to a screen. Sometimes I struggle with the sociability of people standing in my doorway talking to me when I’m trying to work. Then I remember that I came here to escape from the self-immolating isolation of the British response to Covid.
Climate, geography and opportunities for trade – human culture is always related to the conditions of life that prevail in a particular area. But the form they take is testament to the adaptive creativity of humans and, for me, that makes cities glorious.