Zigzag to Berlin

On departing Dalston Junction last Saturday, I mismanaged my packing so badly I alighted the Eurostar on the station master’s whistle. My violent, sweating omnishambles of a departure saw my finest cotton’s stuffed into Sainsbury’s bags and an elderly Australian couple trampled upon at the platform.

Any romantic notion I had of travelling across Europe by rail evaporated at passport control. I could barely breathe for stress and fatigue. Everything had gone smoothly until that point – freelance tasks, new clothes, storage, doctor appointments, dentist bills, direct debits, and craft beer goodbyes.

My packing mismanagement aside, I loved my continental train journey and miles and miles of leg room. Going on a first-class time machine through spicy red forests you feel part of something bigger; no longer marooned by shoals of mackerel, herring and cod. Moving over land is the best way to travel if you have time to spare.

Before I arrived at St Pancras, I had been on standby in an AirBnB flat with bourgeois professionals I can barely remember. I have no patience for fake relationships nowadays. London is like Zurich with arts and entertainment; terminally transactional with its rising rents and contactless pubs, the glittering skyline throws down light onto the roadbed below.

With Dalston now a distant din, I will keep moving forward until I am forced to come back for the bread. Now deep into the orange fall, the spectre of Soviet socialism is all around me. In the face of strangers and city lights, I zigzag past the Berlin Wall everyday and have frequently gone the wrong way since my arrival.

I have no idea how I managed to get this far.

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The Girl of Disquiet

Automat
Automat, Edward Hopper (1927)

Earlier this year, I moved to Lisbon for a spring sojourn because I’m no longer bound by geography to earn a living. From living in the Tuscan hills to the Atlantic Ocean, I romanticise and decay with indecision, but transport my mind and body to beautiful places.

It was sheer chance that led me to spend time with Gabriela. Like many associations in the modern era, I contacted her long before we first met. With life now reduced to a game of cards, I found myself chatting to an introverted soul; one who took esoteric selfies and expressed bizarre reactionary views.

We chatted intermittently in the weeks before I left London. I forget that at times – my early characterisation of a moody intellectual unable to fit in. Her grainy self-portraits complemented this narrative. From the comfort of my phone, I found myself forming judgements on the little messages hidden inside each picture.

For there were peculiarities with Gabriela long before I moved to Portugal. Such as why did a beautiful, well-educated Jewish-Brazilian girl have no friends in the city? It might be innately sexist of me, but I always assume that women have more friends than men.

“You don’t know me. I’m a horrible person,” she told me one evening long after we first met. I have always remembered the brutality of those words – the mean-spirited emptiness.

During that conversation, I encouraged her to download the Meetup’s app so she could meet like-minded people. From coding courses to gluten free spaghetti lessons – you can find a group for it.

“You need to go every day, every week for people to remember you…it’s easier to make friends that way”, I implored to her on What’s App.

It was an all too regular topic of conversation looking back. Gabriela eventually found one that she liked – an open mic night – and I hope she still goes.

*

After arriving in Lisbon and meeting her in a Restauradores coffee shop, I met a surprisingly upbeat girl (who could never get to the grips with my Scottish accent) who wanted to see music and lights.

With her Bambi chestnut eyes and effervescent glamour, Gabriela’s phone should have been singing with social invites. It made no sense to me why she spent most of her life on her own.

Only for reasons I could never fully understand, she had a childish hostility to Portuguese people, who didn’t like her because she was Brazilian, or they ‘were all stupid’. Then you had the simplistic admiration for Donald Trump and negative social attitudes that would inevitably upset a young urban crowd if she ever publicly expressed them.

I often wondered if her strange views proved to be a barrier to making new friends – it must be lonely and isolating if your outlook on life does not confer to a common consensus.

*

Gabriela’s Jewish faith was enormously important to her, and she regularly attended the city’s two synagogues until she unwisely got involved with two senior members, whom only had lust in their hearts.

She also used to talk about the SS commander Adolf Eichmann’s biography almost every time I saw her. It sounded like a depressing exercise to me, but as a secular Scottish man with no religious heritage, I could never emotionally gauge in her tribal sense of persecution.

If nothing else, Gabriela had the courage of her convictions and would openly criticise something she didn’t like without hesitation.

*

With insomnia causing her to stay awake until 4 am and her days regularly starting long after midday, Gabriela lived a mostly solitary life in libraries and restaurants. She had moved to Portugal to study Edward Hopper as part of an opaque PHD project and previously graduated as a psychologist in Brazil.

But I noticed she never expressed any love or admiration for the American painter, let alone any other artist or art form. That troubled me. I quickly developed an uneasy feeling there were other forces in play when it came to her studies.

*

As I shifted my belongings across the city from the Alfama district to the buzzy cobbled romance of Santa Catarina, I would randomly meet up with Gabriela about once a week. Like many people in Portugal going out for drinks was not part of her vocabulary – she abstained from alcohol most nights.

Over plates of steamed cod and grilled chicken, we regularly spoke about her desire for friends and the nocturnal sleepiness of Lisbon. She loved the city’s soul grooves but found it immensely boring. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, there’s an isolationist romance about living in Portugal’s capital – it feels far removed from the rest of Europe.

Unable to leave the country unless she goes back to Brazil, her loneliness was further compounded by her academic isolation. Gabriela had no peers, colleagues or even classes to attend as part of her library-based studies.

She did have flatmates in her Graca-based apartment, but they provided no companionship at all. Identifying that everyone needs peers as friends, I once suggested that she got a bar job or something. “My father would be ashamed of me,” she stridently told me. “He’s not paying me to work in a restaurant, but to expand and explore my mind”.

I half-suspected her documentary filmmaker father, whom she loved deeply and cited frequently, may have been an overdue influence on her academic career. As I never once detected any ambition from her to teach or write about American realism after she graduated. It didn’t seem to matter, either way, to be honest.

She seemed trapped in her father’s image, a loving daughter exercising his benevolent wishes in a fairy tale land, forever dining alone like one of Hopper’s paintings.

*

I last saw Gabriela walking around the Pantheon complex in the Graca neighbourhood, which I belatedly moved too in April. She said she would miss me at the time but randomly unfollowed me on Instagram a month later.

It must be obvious by now that we had nothing in common. I’m not even sure if she liked me, but in the absence of like-minded friends, we filled the void together. Sitting amongst the city’s jacaranda trees and art nouveau kiosks, just waiting for something to happen.

Spring awakening

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.

The promise of summer

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 that decrepit slum hiding 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.

 

 

Rent-a-soul in Lisbon

Alfama tram

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.

cof

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 rented just like my homes.

cof

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.

dig

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 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.

 

 

 

City of Lilies

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.

 

Stony-hearted walls

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.

Safe house

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.

 

 

 

 

The Stationery of Florence Observed

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.

Florence sweet exile

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.