I’m ready to hit the road, but my daughter has planted herself outside our apartment, snapping photos of the night clouds that, moment by moment, clip across the sky, obscuring and revealing the moon. A patient soul, Hannah holds the camera with care, in search of some elusively ideal moon-cloud ratio that I can only guess at. Last month, at a beach in Estoril, she tried to frame the full-winged flight of a seagull with the camera, and kept at it for over an hour until she got what she wanted. We don’t have that kind of time now, so I gulp down a hefty dollop of guilt,
father (noun): the impatient, insensitive, callous, beetle-browed, knuckle-dragging male parent of a child
and pry my daughter from her latest challenge.
I have a good reason, I keep telling myself as Hannah and I hurry down the cobbled sidewalk. Ahead of us tonight lies a four-kilometer course up and down the hills of Lisbon, where selected streets and plazas have been transformed by a series of public-art installations exploring the medium of light. The whole kaboodle has been wrapped up as a festival called Luzboa. Since Alma is out of town at a conference, I thought that Hannah would enjoy this little adventure (especially since tonight she has 100 percent dibs on the camera). A bit of entertainment is certainly in order, now that her second week of sixth grade is behind her. The Portuguese, at least in her school, seem to have a pedagogical tradition that’s perhaps best described as I Speak, You Listen. And listen in Portuguese, which she’s only beginning to learn. I can’t help thinking of her now college-ensconced brother, Nathaniel, who lived in a small African village with Alma and me when he was 6, because at first he didn’t speak a word of the local language, either. He was a great whistler, though, and with a combination of birdlike trills and hand gestures he shed his usual shyness—soon he was running along the paths and through the odd corners of the village with a crowd of new friends.
Hannah and I flag down a cab and before long we arrive at the Praça Príncipe Real, a small park that marks the beginning of the festival’s walk. I love this praça because of its monumental cedar tree, whose lower branches, supported from below by an elaborate iron grillwork, fan out in an almost impossibly wide circle, a vast umbrella of green shade. A truly awe-inspiring sight, but at night the darkness claims it, so we wander about the park until we find the first installation. Titled Coraçao—Heart—it’s a branching network of thin red neon tubes that resembles a huge, radioactive spider’s web, and it hovers just above the ground, making a rough, wide circle around a small tree. The whole contraption shivers slightly in the breeze, and when Hannah leans in for a closer look, she points out the nearly transparent plastic wires holding the various stresses together.
This delicate artwork, I realize, is a deliberate echo of the grillwork supporting the famous cedar tree on the other side of the park. It also suffers from the comparison—some things really shouldn’t be trifled with. So we continue along the festival’s course down a sloping hill, guided by the colored lights of selected street lamps. The next few installations don’t have nearly the zip we’d hoped for, and off my mind goes again, back to Africa and Nathaniel, and how—his whistle language established—he and his village pals commandeered a pile of old discarded mud bricks and managed to assemble marvelous, winding fortlike structures, decorating them with blushes of bright-red flowers that blossomed on nearby trees. Even though each night the village goats would scale those walls and knock them—
Hannah is pulling at my sleeve and giving me The Look, a mixture of exasperation and mystified indulgence that’s become a family staple whenever it’s clear that my mind has skipped town for a beat or two,
father (noun): the airy-headed, self-absorbed, anxious, and distracted reverie-monger male parent of a child
or three, or four, or more.
“Dad, look,” she’s saying, and I stop and stare. We’ve come upon a Ben & Jerry’s, of all places. We are instantly their latest customers. After choosing a cone stacked with chocolate, Hannah insists that we sit in a corner, away from the crowd, and for her I guess this minor anonymity hits the spot as much as the ice cream does. Shyness has always been an alien concept for my daughter, but her role as a norteamericana object of intense curiosity in her school must surely be tiring. So I can’t help myself—I wind up my mantra that this year will end up being an extraordinary experience for her, and Hannah can only stare at me: as far as she’s concerned, the jury’s still out on Portugal. I shut up and enjoy the ice cream, though I can’t help silently wishing that my daughter’s task were as easy as catching a bird on the wing, or a cloud across the moon.
Despite the unexpected windfall of American-style ice cream, our evening has been long on walking, short on inspiration. Still, we continue down the hill into the Chiado neighborhood, in search of the festival’s next installation. A turn here, a turn there, and we find a huge sphere, like a moon, sitting in the corner of a recessed plaza, made of some sort of durable white canvas; it’s lit from within like a giant light bulb, and across its surface are painted stretches of lunar craters and mountain ranges. More than a few of the people passing by stage goofy poses before it, casting themselves as temporary stars of their own remake of E.T.
Perking up, Hannah murmurs, “So pretty.” The moon, it appears, has come to earth tonight, magically, just for her, and even if it has left the shifting clouds behind, Hannah radiates concentration and lines up her shots. I decide to give her all the time she needs, suspecting that my daughter must feel some kinship with this fallen moon. After all, they’re fellow travelers, taken out of context and isolated. I lean back on a stone bench and marvel at just how private public art can be.
Alma and I have always dragged our children along with us over hill and dale, a family ethos we’ve never really thought to question, but tonight, watching Hannah take tentative steps toward the moon for a close-up of the craters and ridges, I can’t help doubting myself. She takes one last photo. “Goodbye,” she says wistfully. Then Hannah turns and half smiles at me across the plaza, a sad and dreamy expression that almost breaks my heart. With a step, my daughter pulls away from her moon, and if I were a better father, this would be a perfect moment to call it quits and return to the apartment,
father (noun): the selfish, willful, take-care-of-number-one, oblivious, and utterly clueless male parent of a child
but a devil named “We’re Not Finished Yet” has claimed my soul.
Soon enough we arrive at the base of the hills and winding streets of the Alfama, Lisbon’s old Moorish quarter. After climbing a series of steep, narrow steps, Hannah and I are greeted by Fado Morgano: a series of banners hanging above us in the air, lit from various angles and each filled with a color photo of a face—men and women, young and old, eyes closed. A haunting recorded chant seems to seep out of the walls of the alley. I’m struck by the eerie beauty of this disembodied crowd. Hannah sits on the steps in a corner, hunched over, and I’m shocked. My daughter is a truly social creature who usually loves anything to do with people, yet these floating faces have seriously creeped her out. She must feel as if she’s back in the classroom, surrounded by schoolmates she still doesn’t know how to reach. While it’s true that I can walk in a distracted haze, that I can ignore what’s right in front of me, that I’m oblivious and willful and impatient, it’s also true that sometimes I can catch a clue. It’s time to cut short our little art tour.
A week later, Alma, Hannah, and I squeeze together in the back seat of a cab and set off for home after a lively dinner at the apartment of the writer Gonçalo Tavares and the artist Rachel Caiano. Hannah’s tuckered out from all the energy of their three young children, but by the time the taxi is skirting along the edge of the Tagus River she somehow rouses herself and starts listing the names of her classmates. This is Classic Hannah, who has always, ever since she was able to talk, loved naming dolls, stuffed animals, even anonymous characters in picture books. (I’d sometimes dread turning a page to a crowd scene, because she’d spend as long as it took to bestow a name upon each of the hundreds of tiny figures before we could continue with the story.) So now Alma and I are listening to her latest list, featuring Sandro and João, Catarina and Dário, Guilherme and Ana-Beatrize, Filipa and Sarah, each name with its own slippery landscape of Portuguese pronunciation. I’ve never quite noticed it before, but already Hannah has that soft raspy roll of the Portuguese rrrrrr down perfectly, as well as the round plummy richness of some of the vowels.
“Now you try,” Hannah says.
I smile ruefully and give it a go, knowing that my stumbling will fuel my daughter’s self-confidence, will inflate her water wings in this sea of a new language we’ve thrown her into. She’s a tough taskmaster, and Alma and I glance at each other over her head, trying to tamp down our delighted relief at our daughter’s new authority as she chastens us for our hopeless accents. We try our best to pronounce the words correctly, oh we do try, but our mouths have spent too many decades shaping themselves around the contours of English. Hannah’s voice, however, trips lightly over every nuance. The language’s entire vocabulary patiently awaits her.
As we near our apartment, I lean forward in the back seat and trot out my ritual final directions, but when I stumble over “em frente”—straight ahead—Hannah corrects me, clipping the syllables just right. Then she takes over and gives the rest of the directions, in beautifully inflected Portuguese, to the cab driver, who’s been listening silently to our back-seat language lesson the whole ride. “Sim, Professora,” he chuckles, and with a turn here, a turn there, he gets us all—proud parents, playfully imperious daughter—back home just fine.