Lost in Lisbon

by Jennifer Roberts

When the excitement of travel encounters the anxiety of a life left behind, a travel writer realizes that, even among the steep alleyways of Portugal’s capital, getting lost requires its own kind of surrender.

We’ve had the thin, double door of the balcony closed against Lisbon’s chilly spring evening as we ready ourselves for bed, but I open it a crack as Felipe works himself into an anxiety attack. There’s still traffic outside, trucks squeezing through the tiny alleyways, drivers closing their side mirrors to avoid scratching the paint off the houses as they pass. The owner of the cork store across the way is locking their door, putting the key in their bag, adjusting the shoulder strap, walking away. In another hour, everything will be quiet except for the occasional passerby on foot and the high-pitched cawing of the neighborhood peacocks, who waltz through the streets at all hours of the day and night, unable to contain their springtime mating jitters.

Inside, we’re quiet, listening to Felipe’s breathing as it rushes through its inhales and exhales. “Slow down,” I say, but he can’t. Slowing your breathing requires slowing your mind, and he isn’t ready. Another peacock scream outside, and I wish I had the space or energy to scream, a scream, perhaps, that would throw us both far enough into the future so we could see if we made a good decision when Felipe quit his job and we decided to traipse around Europe for nine months. I feel guilty for making him think that was a decision he needed to make. It’s true that the pandemic had left us mentally and emotionally depleted, unable to connect with each other or ourselves most days. Something had to change, but I worry we made the wrong change.

“We didn’t. It’s good that we’re here,” Felipe tells me the next day, free of his anxiety attack and well rested. And I nod, exhale, not realizing I’d been holding something in.

We walk down to the Tagus and find a wooden bench built to let you recline so that you’re nearly laying down. There would be a good view of the opposite side of the river if it weren’t for the monstrous cruise ship blocking the horizon. “They’re like ants,” an Uber driver will tell us some days later. “I drive these streets every day, and whenever a cruise ship arrives, they swarm into the city. And at the end of the day, they swarm back to the ship.” He shakes his head, displeased. The line to enter St. Jorge’s Castle, only a few steps from the door of our apartment, gets longer when the ships arrive, extending past the local buskers and all the way through St. Jorge’s Arch. I wonder if the ants will take time to get lost amongst the alleyways and go back to their ship a bit wiser than when they left it.

I struggle to get lost. Even when I decide to go find a local bakery one day, I look at the map on my phone and memorize the various rights and lefts between it and the castle. There’s a surprise elevator in the middle of the journey, and the stairs occasionally break off into various directions here and there, so I have to backtrack once or twice, but it’s a far cry from getting lost, which should be the easiest thing in the world in Lisbon. It should be easy in life, too, but I haven’t been able to figure that out either.

We rent two motorized scooters one day. The tram would have been cheaper, but the bike path hugs the river – it’ll be a fun way to get to the Jerónimos Monastery, sitting some miles upriver. We have to rest often, the uneven path causing our hands to go numb with the vibration of the metal beneath them. Halfway through, there’s a riverside monument dedicated to Prince Henry the Navigator, responsible for the blossoming of Portuguese exploration. Here was a person who didn’t mind getting lost. I rest my hands, leaning on my scooter at the edge of the concrete square around the monument as Felipe drives around in circles, enjoying the flat, open space, smiling like a small child.

After more than an hour walking through the monastery, following the crowd to avoid taking a wrong turn, we cross the street and sit on the steps forming a half-moon around the Belém Tower. Many Portuguese explorers would have embarked and disembarked from this spot. Henry the Navigator wouldn’t have seen the tower – it was built after his time, only after he had helped kick off the Age of Exploration in Europe, when other explorers flowed through his footsteps. We’ve abandoned our scooters to their next renters and aren’t in a hurry to leave the scenic spot on the river, to hop on the tram that will take us back to the city center, to hike up the many hills that will deposit us at St. Jorge’s Arch and then back at our apartment with its tiny balcony and screeching peacocks. After nearly a month in Lisbon, we know the road back home. It’s difficult to get lost now, and sitting on these steps, watching mini mandalas appear and disappear on the river’s surface, I begin to lose the urge to figure out how. 

Evening approaches gently in April, the air remaining warm now that we’re nearing the end of our time in the city, and we wander through the alleys near our apartment as the streets fill with shadows. A gate to a small park opens to our right, and we walk in. Parents peel their eyes away from their children for a moment to nod and smile as we head to the park’s edge, where there’s a fantastic view of the Tagus tinted orange by the drooping sun, tiled rooftops, and a few crumbling, graffitied buildings. On a concrete wall below us sits an open book, abandoned, the corners of its pages lifted lightly by the breeze. Children’s laughing voices float behind us as we scan the city below, pointing out places we’ve seen from different angles over the past three weeks. I turn around for a moment to watch two small girls – sisters – run around the platforms of the playset. I think about my own sister and I as small children, afraid of getting lost, of not finding our way, and turning back to the labyrinthine city below, everything suddenly feels much farther away.

Photo credit: Felipe Oyarzun

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