Writing from my cramped quarters in Rua dos Remédios, I’ve been questioning my right to stay here. The right to move wherever you want as long as you have an economic licence to do so. My first impressions of Lisbon’s Alfama was that its melancholy lanes would make a wonderful place to draw. The serene and crumbling hilltop facades are magical in every shade of light.
Climbing up the dilapidated streets, listening to Fado singers and rickety custard trams, is like entering a sweet melange of Paris and Havana. It’s closest I’ve come to visiting a Latin American shanty town. There are some cranes and scaffolding repairing old buildings, but Lisbon is not a global finance metropolis. There is no return on your investment here.
My Alfama apartment was a rickety shambles from the outset. The shower is like a scene from Psycho, the hallway doorknob fell off, and there isn’t much hot water left in the kitchen tank. In many ways it’s like a horror Tinder date, where your date’s photos were taken ten years ago, but you’re too polite and sensitive to run away.
Like many visitors, I’ve been using AirBnB as a lifestyle experience without thinking of the consequences. In that my presence could do more social harm than good? Of course, I spend money that goes to local businesses, but I’m not even remotely rich, so my economic impact is minimal at best. Otherwise I contribute nothing if I am being completely honest.
I moved to Lisbon from London for a couple of months because it’s a popular place with freelancers. Technology makes it easy for me to move cities as my current job can be done exclusively via my laptop. With my possessions stored in a East London warehouse, my loves and experiences are now rented just like my homes.
Watching old Portuguese ladies pick up their groceries alongside tourists with enormous cameras, I now realise that I’ve formed part of an invasion. One that’s taking place in historic cities all over the world. Co-existence brings great benefits, but its an uneasy experience at times. The world’s population and technology is accelerating faster than local people can adapt to change.
My consumption is welcomed by restaurants, cafes, shops and sub-letters, who reap the rewards of my hunger. But hidden amongst the ruinenlust, I found graffiti calling out tourists as thieves and pricing locals out of their homes.
As a tall northern creature with urban headphones, it made me feel like a Starbucks chain taking over an independent tea shop. Am I destroying what I came looking for? The graffiti led me to question the morality of sub-letting in places such as the Alfama.
I don’t have any answers, other than it’s for governments and communities to regulate and protect their citizens from excessive rent rises, especially in historic areas such as the Alfama.
If there are better rules in place, the letting companies and property owners will dance to another tune. Likewise I won’t be able to rent so easily either, but as you’ve already deducted that’s hardly a tragedy.
In light of my Psycho apartment, I’m now moving to another part of the city, one that is less culturally significant than the Alfama. It feels like the right thing to do. One where I won’t feel like a white settler with headphones on everyday. I will be able to have a proper shower there too.
All because I’m free to choose.