I miss the visual energy of running away. How the seasons shift from slate grey to rosy bloom, and that everyday my legs soared with matter. Beauty requires strength in Lisbon. You have to graft, pound and dance every time you leave the house. There were plenty of dull, creeping afternoons and equally languid evenings, but life felt more tangible that I didn’t seem to care. Its a more romantic place to live quite frankly. Life is good when you can read books after dark.
I wake up to the sound of roosters at the break of dawn. It is my favourite sound of the day. Everybody hears them, but nobody knows where they live.
Lying on the mattress floor, I await the roaring hiss of trams outside my front window. I love their rickety groove in the mornings. How they rattle, twist and graft their way through the dust. There is poetry in the decay, especially in the hot slum underneath the castle.
Dancing past tuk-tuks with my rucksack, I arrive at Portas do Sol and gaze upon a particularly tender shade of blue. You never quite tire of seeing it. The cocktail beauty stirring with Atlantic-bound voyages and African swallows. If you arrive in the right place in life, the promise of summer is a joy to behold.
Since I moved to Rua dos Remédios last week, I’ve been questioning my right to stay here. The right for me to live wherever I want as long as I have an economic licence to do so.
My first impressions of Lisbon’s Alfama have been bittersweet in that respect. The melancholy lanes and decrepit beauty of the hilltop souk make it a wonderful place to draw. The city’s serene and crumbling tiled facades are magical in almost every shade of light.
Climbing up the dilapidated streets, listening to Fado singers and rickety custard trams, is like being in Paris and Havana simultaneously. There are cranes and scaffolding in certain places, but Lisbon is not a global finance metropolis. There is no return on your investment here.
My AirBnB apartment has been a shambles from the day I moved in. The shower is like a scene from Psycho, the hallway doorknob fell off on arrival, and there’s precious little hot water in the kitchen. 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 cut it short.
Like many visitors to the Alfama, I’ve been using AirBnB as a lifestyle experience without thinking of the consequences. In that my presence could do more 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 to Lisbon if I am being honest.
I decided to move to Lisbon for a couple of months because it’s a popular place with freelancers. Technology has made it easy for me to move cities as my current job can be done remotely online. With my Hoxton possessions stored in a East London warehouse, my loves, jobs and experiences are now rented just like my homes.
Watching old Portuguese ladies pick up their groceries alongside tourists with cameras, I’ve come to realise that I am part of an invasion. One that’s taking place in historic cities all over the world. Individually and collectively we contribute little to the local community apart from money.
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 wanderlust. But hidden amongst the decay, I uncovered 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 culturally sensitive areas.
If there are better rules in place, the letting companies and property owners will have to respect local resident’s rights first. As a consequence, I won’t be able to sub-let so easily either, but as you’ve already deducted that’s hardly a tragedy.
In light of my ramshackle apartment and cultural awkwardness, I’m now moving to another part of the city. One that’s less culturally significant than the Alfama. It feels like the right thing to do in the circumstances. I hopefully won’t feel like a white settler with headphones on everyday when I move to Santa Catarina. I will hopefully will be able to have a proper shower there too.
All because I’m free to choose.
Living in Florence, I feel isolated and cocooned from reality. In the urban metropolitan sense of the word I mean – delayed trains, surly commuters and existential terror threats. Occasionally, I miss the culture and entertainment of London. It’s easier to strike up a conversation with randoms and hope that someone, somewhere cares.
Falling into limbo along the Arno valley, where God meets science and the leaves never fall. My errands are gorgeous and I have the luxury of getting bored. Buying mundane items or attending a movie underneath a sea of light, I am aesthetically richer than ever before.
Watching kingfishers hunting alongside canoeists massaging their perfect bodies. I cross bridges where Nazi munitions once roared and couples in bubble coats take meticulously framed photos. Even with the luxury of time, I can’t stop taking identikit pictures of stars and stripes and Romanesque facades.
Sometimes I wish I appeared in more photographs. Taking pictures of churches and statues, I often feel life is passing me by without anyone noticing. I have no reference of my time here beyond these words. As the numbers thin out, I feel grateful to have stayed here in a period of idle normality. Like I’m experiencing the ‘real’ Florence before our planet swelled dangerously out of control.
Where you could feel reciprocal energy and passion by virtue of being eligible. I don’t know how others find it so easy, but this longing never goes away. I came here with good intentions. I really did you know. Wandering the streets of Florence on a winter’s morning, where the wind never blows and nothing ever seems to stick.
Even when I have no pressing desire to see or do anything, I always go for a walk along the Arno at lunchtime. Tank up on sunlight and watch the terrible beauty roar down the valley. You can walk for pleasure here. Florence is one of the few towns whose name has an abstract quality and it means ‘taste and fine workmanship’.
Wrapped up in a woollen scarf and a paper thin jacket, I walk past antique workshops and impenetrable doors with iron horse rings. There is an aloofness to this sweeping symphony of stone.
It’s not at all welcoming or open. The Renaissance facades and Protestant-esque churches are designed to keep people out. Florence feels immaculately defensive to anyone walking on the perimeter of her doors.
As the days grow colder, the visitor numbers thin out and I have a winter countdown of my own. Excited and worried about the year ahead, I walk back along the river, trying to catch a sunbeam with my bare hands once more.
One morning a vicious buzzing sensation awoke me from my laptop. It had never gone off before. I mean why would anyone ring my door? Nobody knows that I live here and those who do would call me first. My visitor was a handsome lanky man in a 1920’s prohibition style coat and he immediately addressed me in incomprehensible Italian.
“Non capisco. Non parlo Italiano, mi dispiace signor.”
“Okay, sorry to bother you, what are you doing here? Are you on holiday or is this a safe house?”
Somewhat perplexed by his ‘safe house’ line of questioning, I muttered something about AirBnb and he appeared satisfied with my answer. The door slammed shut. Is that what my invisible neighbours are thinking? That I’m a fugitive on the run. Returning to my desk, I began to think they may have a point.
She drinks pints of coffee and writes little observations and ideas for stories with her best fountain pen on the linen-white pages of expensive notebooks. Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery.
David Nicholls, One Day
When the internet numbs the soul, I surrender to my daydreams and frequent bookbinding and paper marbling shops. I know I could never write anything to justify spending €120 on a leather diary – I just love looking at them. Sometimes I wish I could buy the entire shop, even if my sloppy handwriting would blemish the paper.
Since moving to Florence, I realise that I need very little, aspire for so much and feel constantly bewildered by beautiful things. My London possessions are asleep in my neighbour’s bedroom; a dusty festoon of boxes, bags and cracked plastic crates. A life reduced to an indoor skip.
I’ve never lived in a place remotely worth decorating so I don’t know why I’ve become fixated now. Maybe there is something tangible about wanting to decorate a place that doesn’t exist. A place that will never exist.
It’s hard to say really, but I love the solitary dedication of local artists. Living somewhere renowned for its genius in science, engineering, painting, architecture and sculpture, I remain unenlightened and provincial, but not necessarily in a bad way.
After a decade of cramped quarters in London, I have travelled over to Italy for one month to ‘work on my novel’. Well not exactly, aside from a few letters and postcards, but you get the idea. On moving to Oltrarno, an artisan district in south Florence, I am more importantly adjusting to the concept of space.
I have become so accustomed to living in a box that I feel lost just walking down the corridor. Like I actually have to walk to retrieve my phone if I leave it on the kitchen table. Is this how normal, moderately successful people live? If so, I’m staying in Europe for as long as it remains feasible to do so.
If nothing else, it feels remarkable to no longer be confined to a glorified rabbit hutch. To live in a place that exists in the pages of scripts.
Booking my flight to Venice last September had none of the usual fanfare. No shiny guidebook from Waterstones, no ‘going local’ through disruptive technologies or Spritz cocktails. This was a a clandestine mission lasting less than 36 hours. After a deeply frustrating summer and a broken fairytale pulling my strings, I threw the dice and gambled on Venezia.
Arriving at Marco Polo Airport at noon, I had the afternoon to work out the route to hotel. Armed only with a rucksack, I repeatedly told myself this was not a holiday, I couldn’t contemplate doing anything fun.
Chopping along the lagoon waters at breakneck speed, I sat next to a brash American family as cormorants sped past us on the aquatic highway. Young romantic couples on mini-breaks took selfies, and a Dutch family hawked up guttural consonants throughout our sea-bound journey.
Everyone else on the vaporetto boat was decked in holiday attire and carrying bulging suitcases. I felt considerably out of place as we pulled up at St. Marks Square. Battling amongst a swarm of visitors I marched towards an astrological clock with sweat trickling down my back. Much to my dismay, patches the size of Venice were already starting to develop.
Still blisteringly hot in early September, I checked into my one-star hotel and was curtly directed to my box room upstairs, where I had to squeeze past a monstrous boiler just to get inside. Collapsing onto my rickety single frame it immediately began to squeak – immediately I knew this was going to be a long night and the bloodsucking mosquitoes made sure of that. Such was the sense of decay at the hotel, I could have mysteriously died and my body would have lay undiscovered for about 25 years.
My interview took place a few days before the Scottish independence referendum and I felt incredibly tense refreshing Twitter for new polls. The #indyref certainly contributed towards a heightened sense of anxiety, one which crystalised my entire summer and fed into my Venetian journey.
Meanwhile I had to get this job whether Scotland became an independent state or not, and finding the office was proving difficult. Navigating a densely packed medieval warren and trying to pinpoint a tiny calle is not easy as a tourist.
With the lagoon heat saturating my energy, I kept on getting as far as Rialto fish market and nervously backtracking to my hotel exhausted and hungry. My interview was at 11am and not being able to find the ofifce would hardly have been a ringing endorsement of my intelligence. Even with my spatial awareness deficiencies, I simply had to find the office after coming all this way.
After dining in a backstreet tattoria close to St. Mark Square, I coughed up for my pizza and returned to my upstairs hovel. Darkness had pulled its cloak over the lagoon and there was a tangible switch in atmosphere, a balmy restlessness of knives and spoons entwining in lobster restaurants.
Lying on my creaky bed frame, I conceded to my overheated melancholy and purchased £10 phone data, which triggered multiple What’s App conversations.
My first message came from an eccentric Croatian guy called Matej who had been communicating intermittently with me on Skype for months. Highly intelligent with superb colloquial English, Matej told me about the job and encouraged me to apply for the role, but pleaded with me not to mention him at all.
I never knew what to make of the veiled secrecy. Being a straight laced, north European my instinct is to apply for jobs the traditional way and let emails take care of the rest.Things are done differently in Venice as I soon found out.
Matej aggressively pleaded with me to meet him at Rialto Bridge saying “I’ll be really pissed with you if you don’t come!” On Skype chat he always appeared to be a shape-shifting chameleon, and had a bizarre penchant for self-publicity. His alter ego Facebook page left me wondering exactly what ‘Matej’ I was going to meet that evening.
He was also a domineering figure and clearly enjoyed playing games with people. Luckily I liked him, but I was suspicious and nervous too. I always appreciated his sense of humour. However, I didn’t know what to make of him, or what his motivation might be for inviting me to apply.
Unsure whether it was a good idea to meet him beforehand, I left the hotel and entered the darkness with mosquitoes famishing my wrists. Guided by spooky gas lamps and painted arrows, I arrived at Rialto Bridge teaming with flashing cameras and selfie sticks.
Matej was standing there on the lower steps, a skinny flamboyant man with a rib hugging t-shirt, and we shook hands and both silently observed a hitherto internet character morphing into life.
Matej stressed we couldn’t hang around Rialto in case somebody saw us. Venice is a tiny island and you bump into acquaintances every day. As a stranger in a foreign land, I blindly followed him down a series of calles past a fifteenth century monastery, which had been serenely converted into a beautiful hospital. In hushed tones he made it clear we couldn’t be seen talking in public, as far everyone in the office knew, we weren’t aware of one another’s existence.
Along the way I learned a Swedish guy was being considered for the job as well. Matej’s plan to parachute me into the office was suddenly in jeopardy. I felt threatened by this development too. Suddenly this trip was no longer an inauguration, and I could end up flying back to London with nothing.
Arriving at a backstreet tenement in Castello, I was introduced to three people in a gloomy Hopper-esque kitchen. Accepting one of their beers, Matej explained how the owner ran the office like a saloon bar and that I needed “to tell them how you can make the company lots of bookings without spending any money.”
Then somewhat depressingly he lamented company’s lack of bookings, much to the annoyance of his roommates, who were clearly all too familiar with this angst ridden tale.
After discussing the Scotland’s exit from the UK, I said my farewells and headed back to the hotel following the yellow arrows. Mataj’s cloak and dagger tactics had been a great help and I warmly reassured him I would stonewall him at tomorrow’s interview.
With the office directions firmly embedded in my head I was confident I could find the place and get through this final, final round. Like everything else you need to throw the dice for extraordinary things to happen. I had lost enough in the proceeding months.
I flew over to live three weeks later.
Sometimes I feel unworthy of living in Venice. I don’t pay enough attention to details, especially now the numbers are slowing down. Walking back to the hotel with my headphones on, I feel guilty for not listening to bursts of opera or cutlery exchanging hands in restaurants. Spotify is a generic experience. Play, pause and repeat your songs over and over again.
Collectively we are going through the first phase of hyper acceleration, an unprecedented boom of global fertility all wanting the same photograph of the Grand Canal. Likewise I’m just a temporary EU migrant passing through the loveliest city in the world. It was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass.
Everyday I see newly married couples snuggle in beautifully crafted gondolas and it’s very much a case of play, pause and repeat. Same posed smile, loving tilt of the head and furrowed brow, I’ve witnessed a thousand honeymoons upload their story underneath a bridge. Seen through the prism of light, it’s a unique private moment, one shared with loved ones and marvelled over by long distance friends.
Only I see the same love story every single day.
Away from the watery parade, I remove my headphones, the plastic grooves gnashing onto my collar bone and enter an inverted baroque church. Squashed inside the Venetian back streets, I step in a chaste world of silence and reflection.
Despite being militantly secular in my global politics, I took comfort in this beautiful refuge. Photography is banned in Venetian churches and the circus of life takes a deferential pause. With my rucksack weighing on my back, I stood in silence amongst elaborately carved tombs and dead wooden benches.
It’s one of the few places in Venice where you can share a private moment, a world without flashing cameras and streamed playlists. Outside the craziness goes on oblivious, and I have to get back to my hotel; shower, get changed and go online again. My smartphone might vibrate with loving messages.
There must be something about human nature that turns everything into a routine.