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.

There’s more to the picture than meets the eye

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 in making new friends – it must be lonely and isolating if your outlook on life does not confer to a common consensus.

Faith

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.

Nighthawks

With insomnia causing her to stay awake until 4 am and her days regularly starting long after midday, Gabriela lived a largely 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.

Denial

As I shifted my belongings across the city from the Alfama district to the cobbled buzzy 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 a isolationist romance about living in Portugal’s capital – it feels far removed from the rest of Europe.

Unable to leave 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 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.

Epilogue

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 even liked me, but in the absence of like-minded friends, we filled the celestial emptiness 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.

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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.

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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.

The Prince and the Writer

Astrological ClockBooking 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.

Calle-dei-FabbriMy 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.

Venice NightMy 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.

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