“C’mon, please hurry up,” I repeat as I knock on the door once more, attempting patience but failing. “You’re going to be late.” Hannah’s spending more time than usual in the bathroom this morning—posing in outfit after outfit, giving her hair the once- and then twice-over for the occasion of her last day of school. Every detail must brush perfection, and let’s not forget the careful, gliding application of perhaps too much lip gloss, and the trying on and off, and then on and off again, of an array of earrings. Minutes later, Alma knocks, then I follow, and finally our pleading pries our daughter, resplendent, out of the bathroom and the apartment.
Outside, we hurry up cobblestoned stairways, Hannah wearing her backpack, Alma and I lugging our laptops, and though we’re walking just shy of a run my inner brakes are at the ready—after all these months of surviving a hair-raising anthology of Portuguese driving, today is no time to let down our guard. Hannah no longer tolerates any parental handholding, so Alma and I do our subtle best to sidle her between us as we skirt along the edge of the first roundabout, where cars speeding in circles are steered by pedal-to-the-metal commuters stoked on espresso and plotting the day’s office politics.
We accomplish a quick street crossing, climb higher up the hill to a traffic blind spot at the corner of an apartment building, where the words PARE PARA VER E SER VISTO—Stop to See and Be Seen—are painted by the curb. Part of that warning is the outline of a little figure in full fling over the roof of a speeding car. I’ve dreamt about this doomed fellow, imagined my own upside-down spin through the air, and Alma’s, and Hannah’s.
Finally, we reach the second roundabout, whose grassy island is so long and wide it includes a stand of trees and a statue, of Felix de Avelar Brotero, an 18th-century botanist who wrote several volumes on Portuguese plants. How apt, that a monument honoring a long-robed scholar clutching a book stands just a few steps from a school. Our last street to cross, named after the ophthalmologist Dr. Mario Moutinho, is equally apt, since 10 percent of the students attending Hannah’s school are blind or suffer eye problems. The street’s name could even double as an ironic comment on the clueless drivers zipping by—although signs cluster everywhere announcing the school’s presence, the images of walking children might as well be stamped in invisible ink.
Before we step across this last street, I can’t help myself and muster the word “Careful,” despite Hannah’s impatience with my worrying. Once, to her eternal dismay, I shouted at one spectacularly reckless driver, “Veja as criansas!”—my spontaneous try at “Watch out for the kids!” I would have knuckled the hood of his car if I’d been close enough.
After crossing the street intact, we stand at the edge of the school. Far from its gated entrance and the eyes of her friends, Hannah stops, accepts a goodbye kiss on her cheek with a frown, and then she’s on her way. Alma and I have become, not quite overnight, embarrassments. We may have traveled to Portugal together, but recently our daughter has continued on ahead of us, into the land of adolescence.
We wait until she enters the school grounds, then make our way to the nearest bus stop. For the past few months, ever since the weather warmed up, Alma and I have wandered up and down Lisbon’s hills, exploring new neighborhoods while taking breaks to work on a book we’re writing together, a second volume about our long-ago lives in small African villages. Now that Hannah’s school year is ending, this may be our last chance to enjoy this particular mix of work and pleasure, so for today I’ve picked out a circuit of some of our favorite haunts.
We run to catch the bus, which takes us on a short hop to the bottom of the Alto de Santo Amaro. From there, we climb the hill until we reach a small prasa that’s a buzzing local hub. One side of the shady square is lined with tables where old fellows (wearing an informal uniform of caps and faded button-down shirts) play cards while spectators wander from game to game, kids on bikes pop wheelies around the central fountain, and young mothers lounging on benches gossip beside baby strollers. Tables line the other side of this prasa, too, but as these are rarely taken Alma and I almost always get our pick. We settle across from each other and pull out our laptops.
Alma tells me she’s revising a scene of the ritual that named our son Nathaniel after a revered village ancestor, and she sighs once or twice as she tries to re-create our now 20-year-old’s then 6-year-old self. Meanwhile, I’m writing about a madman: Matatu, the village’s former barber. Soon after we first met him, when we had no idea what trouble he would cause himself and others, he stopped by our compound and drew out from a burlap bag all sorts of junk—an empty perfume bottle, a brown zipper—and claimed the items were treasures. They had to be, since he also announced, “Moi, je suis le prime ministre!”—Me, I’m the prime minister! One of the goodies in that sack was a small plywood box; a month later, I watched him hack it to tiny shreds with a broken scissors while singsonging “Denju, Denju,” our son’s African name.
After a couple of hours, our battery power dwindling away, we pack up and haul ourselves down the hill to the bus stop for another hop—to Madragoa, a neighborhood whose layout of narrow winding streets predates the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. We stop at a tiny tasca whose closet-sized kitchen excels in moist and tender braised chicken. We sit and order red wine served in a ceramic jar, and try to ignore the little pug of a TV by the door. On the TV, a glossy chat show’s cheery hosts entertain an easily entertained studio audience. Over our meal, Alma and I wonder what Hannah’s doing right now, on her school’s lax last day, a day of parties and celebrations—playing foosball with Guilherme, or simply goofing it up with Patricia and the rest of the gang?
Later, we let our legs help us digest that hefty lunch. We hike down one avenue and then another, passing the occasional green largo or prasa, always just a head turn away from a breathtaking glimpse of the Tagus River, until we arrive at the Prasa Sao Paulo and our favorite pasteleria. We’d first tried out this place on a whim, mainly because a free table near the wide window offered a clear view across the square.
It may seem like a typical pasteleria, compact and narrow, an espresso maker and a fresh-orange-juice machine parked behind the pastry counter, an array of liquor bottles lined against the mirrored wall, but the owners (a married couple whose accents mark them as Brazilian) attract the uninhibited and the down-and-out, maybe because they accept every strange turn of the day with good humor and patience. Our first time there, a woman entered the pasteleria and worked the tables, silently bestowing double-cheeked air-kiss hellos on each patron, though a flurry of sidelong glances made it clear nobody knew her. When she started talking her own language of awkward mumbles, we all nodded until she finally finished expressing herself and, satisfied, went on her way.
Over our usual pot of tea, and a silky torta de laranja, Alma and I plug in our computers and switch back to work while regulars sip tiny cups of espresso. A member of the Portuguese Association of Foreign Wars wanders from table to table, selling raffle tickets. In a corner, a gaunt old guy scratches the back of a fellow gaunt old guy, really gets into it. One table behind us, two gypsy women take turns reading the palm of a man so drunk he keeps forgetting what they tell him, so they roll out one do-over after another until he snags four or five fortunes. Then he wobbles out to the sidewalk, off to his new multi-branched future.
I’m not sure what scene Alma is writing now, but I’m still working on Matatu. The creepy, quiet insistence of the man and the havoc he wrought still give me chills, and I can see him as he teased more treasures from his sack, an empty matchbox, a ball of tinfoil, a dusty cassette without a case. “C’est jolie, n’est pas?”—It’s lovely, isn’t it?—he kept asking, and I found myself responding, “Oui, c’est jolie,” the two of us, with only words, creating beauty out of garbage.
I’m almost through my first draft of the scene when I hear the rounded tones of West African French spoken behind me. Stunned, I turn to see a man poised before the counter, his lean, dark face wracked with sadness. He’s telling the owners that he is the boss. “Je suis le patron!” he repeats, shaking from some secret passion. He’s there before us and yet somewhere else, too, and the owners understand this and manage to lead him gently out the door.
Alma’s blanched face must surely reflect my own, because this is more than a couple steps beyond eerie. When a coincidence comes my way, sometimes it’s simply a minor triumph of chance, but a coincidence can also offer a lucky opportunity. This time, I grab what has been given, realizing that Matatu, frightening as he may have been, was also a suffering soul, whose misery had so soaked into his life that there was no wringing it out—important for me to remember as I apply a version of him onto the page.
I putter away at a few more sentences, but soon enough it’s time to return to Hannah’s school and we head for the nearest bus stop. A sun shower sweeps in, and Alma, ever prepared, produces an umbrella from some inner pocket of her computer bag, and we share it as we stand outside the crowded glass shelter, share the typical bus-stop pause, when there’s nothing much to do except wait. There’s an absent smile on Alma’s lips, and her large, dark eyes glisten, seem to be gazing at some private vista, but then she focuses on me, that smile remaining. As usual, I feel unworthy yet grateful, remembering my favorite lines from a poem by Pedro Tamen: “When you don’t speak, you speak, and you know / the words I say and don’t say.” We’re in one of those moments that are worth all the work of marriage, a moment to linger over, but there’s the bus, huffing around a corner. We line up with our monthly passes in hand.
The Portuguese can be a quiet bunch on a bus, nurturing individual invisible thought bubbles. Alma likes to say they’re a nation of daydreamers. She prefers to rewind the day’s events as she sits beside me, and she does so until she catches on that I’ve stopped responding. I’m a dreamer, too. I prefer my own quiet as the grunting of the engine and the rattling of the bus windows become distant background music to the passing city. Block after block, the sight of newspaper kiosks reminds me I forgot to buy a paper today, reminds me of the challenge I set myself whenever I approach a newsstand: standing a few feet away, I’ll silently repeat the polished phrases I’ve worked out word by word, hoping to mimic the local accent. This little game derives from my fragile wish to sustain, if only for a moment, the illusion that I’m Portuguese, though I really can’t say why, since I do and don’t feel at home hereÂ—just as a particle becomes a wave function becomes a particle becomes a wave, I oscillate between comfort and unease. And, anyway, the odds are tipped against me, because after nearly a year I’m still stalled at the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” stage of language proficiency.
Sure, I can survive a chat at the grocer’s or the butcher shop, and, yes, I’ve memorized the spoken rituals of ordering at a restaurant. I can even catch the gist of the local TV news if I know the context, and I manage to stumble through the newspaper each day, though there always comes that awful moment when I grasp every word in a sentence and still have no clue how it all adds up. I’ve puzzled through my pocket dictionary so often all the pages have ragged edges, and still the language eludes me. My friend Luas once mentioned that a certain internal resistance needs to be overcome before one can submit to the logic of another language. If only I could locate that crucial wall, I’d jackhammer it to smithereens.
“Here we are,” Alma says, popping my thought bubble as the bus idles in front of Hannah’s school. We step off, enter through the gate, and at once feel the crackle in the air of the whole wide summer waiting. The cobblestoned courtyard, dotted with palm trees, nearly bursts with a jumble of students. Grade-schoolers chase each other around clusters of very grown-up ninth-graders itchy to graduate, and Alma and I try to pick out Hannah in the crowds.
There she is, circled by classmates trading hugs and smooches on the cheek, and she chatters away in a Portuguese as idiomatic as theirs. Skinnied down to Portuguese-girl proportions, her arms covered with heartfelt expressions of friendship written by her pals in pen, Hannah appears to have achieved a seamless acceptance. Her favorite teacher, Professora Robalo, stands teary-eyed beside her, and after Alma takes one more photo than Hannah can tolerate we say adeus with kisses and handshakes and long, lingering waves.
Beginning our second round of traffic cat-and-mouse back to the apartment with our walking yearbook of a daughter, we first pause by the curb while I stare down a driver who only slowed for the crosswalk at the last grudging second. I like the daydreaming Portuguese when they’re sitting in a bus much more than when they’re behind the wheel of a car. When we’re halfway across the first roundabout, Alma tries convincing Hannah to return to school later in the evening, for a scheduled year-end bash, but she shakes her head no. “Why not?” Alma says. Hannah, staring straight ahead, finally explains, “I don’t think I can handle saying goodbye a second time.”
Something in her voice pulls the blinders from my pride in what she’s accomplished this year. She didn’t ask to come here. We dragged her from friends in Illinois, and now, after carefully constructing new friendships out of her daily progress in the language, word by phrase by conjugation, she’ll soon have to leave them behind, too. Who knows when they’ll ever meet again? As we stand once more at the corner where that little figure destined for the emergency room lies painted on the street, I decide to distract Hannah from her sadness by showing off my Googling skills. Pointing at the sign labeled RUA GREGARIO LOPES, PINTOR DO SACULO XVI, I say, “The Portuguese know how to do things right, naming a street for an artist. Lopes was one of the local big shots of the Renaissance. He painted the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian; you know, that guy with all the arrows in him—”
When Hannah flashes me a look I can only describe as aggressive boredom, I realize I’ve entered Annoying Dad territory, but it’s too late to stop me: I have more than one bone to pick with the next street, RUA ANTANO GONZALVES, NAVEGADOR DO SACULO XV. Taking part in the great explorations initiated by Prince Henry the Navigator, Gonzalves was the first European to buy Africans and transport them as slaves to Europe. Not the sort of fellow who deserves any street, much less one that curves along a high school and a community swimming pool. “Jeez,” I grouse, “couldn’t they have given him a blind alley leading to a toxic-waste dump instead?”
We make a right turn at the dry cleaner’s and walk down Rua Diogo de Silves, named after another explorer from the 15th century, one far more worthy of his stretch of pavement. He discovered the Azores, those gloriously green islands in the middle of the Atlantic, and I remind our silent daughter of the dreamy vacation we spent there a few years back.
Down cobblestoned steps, we descend, until finally we’re back at our apartment on Rua Alberto Villaverde Cabral, named after a journalist. Before I can get started about that, Hannah hurries away to her room, the door shutting behind her. She’s off to IM her friends back home, or maybe she’ll add to one of the stories or poems she’s filled her notebooks and computer folders with all year. Alma already sits ensconced on the couch with the phone book, searching for the best shipping company—in a few weeks, we’ll slowly strip our apartment down to its original self, as it was before we first arrived. In pre-nostalgic mode, I pull back the living-room curtains for a glimpse of the sliver of the Tagus River visible from our window, and there at the end of the street is the tiny park named after Fernanda de Castro, a 20th-century poet who also wrote plays and translated Rilke and Pirandello into Portuguese.
I’ve always been jazzed that our street and that bordering park are named after writers, though truly it’s not unusual. Lisbon is dotted with streets and parks and statues honoring novelists and poets, and the most obscure literary prizes are celebrated in the newspapers. Even months later, I can’t get over how, when the surrealist poet and painter Mario Cesariny died, every Lisbon daily spread his photo across the front page, and most devoted at least their next six pages to his life and work. When it comes to writers, the Portuguese indeed know how to do it right. I think I know why. With so much of the national identity based on great feats of exploration in the distant past, writers are the ones who mainly continue this tradition, though they’re plucky, patient explorers of a different sort, discovering interior empires.
That little park named after Fernanda de Castro is neatly landscaped, with a few willow trees casting shade over benches that sometimes host subdued lovers or a single lone soul. Standing by the window, with Alma turning pages behind me, I can imagine slipping outside to sit beneath those willows. Who knows? On the eve of our leaving, with a notebook on my lap, my head bent in thought, and my own Portuguese cap perched on my head, I just might be taken for someone who actually belongs there.
The excerpt from the work of Pedro Tamen is from Honey and Poison: Selected Poems, translated by Richard Zimler (Carcanet Press).