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.

 

 

 

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Mirrors

stoke-newington

Walking along Scandi wooden floors in my new living room, I see my reflection smoulder like an Instagram picture. Techno base lines reverberate from the upstairs landing and blonde ambition pours down from the skylight. Stoke Newington is my fourth home in less than six months.

With its Georgian ceilings and sash windows chilling my winter bones, I wake up in an Lennon-esque bedroom. My possessions fill up the white-cube shelving and black wires dangle unceremoniously from the wall. The bed looks better than it feels, but its only six weeks and you can’t win them all.

Sitting in the living room opposite a plasma television, I wonder how I would do it differently. How would I decorate a blank canvas? I wouldn’t know where to start. I still can’t even work out how to use the smart television. I’ve never had to use one until now. Isn’t it funny how you measure your life by your inability to keep up with a technology you no longer use.

 

 

 

God bless

A grungy heap of sorrow with doe eyes asked me for some money tonight. She needed somewhere to stay. The girl must have been in her late teens or early twenties; the night’s shadow made it impossible to discern.

When no is else is around, strangers become humans and harder to ignore. It’s funny how the pneumatic roar of traffic and pedestrians render the most vulnerable into a passing blur.

Frost was biting my cheeks and the girl looked desperate for warmth. I had been at the cinema and was walking home along an empty concrete aisle to my friend’s apartment in Stepney Green.

It’s cold and desolate here after Christmas, populated only by abandoned cars and stragglers in chicken shops. I can’t speak favourably of the area – it’s depressing and ugly even during the summer months.

I began shuffling in my pockets and found some loose change. I didn’t even know I was carrying any. Embarrassed by the meagre amount, I gave her about 37p and said that was all I had on me and she replied “I’ll take anything you have”, but I was lying to her. My wallet was burning with greed.

As she walked across the road, I felt a pang of self-disgust and put a tenner in her hand. Her eyes widened in astonishment and she said “God bless you” in a soft cockney accent and I felt horrible for not giving it to her earlier.

The cruelty of London hit me as I entered the landing. How many times do you just walk away like I did? Say nothing or pretend you have no money on you. I couldn’t stop crying as I stepped inside the kitchen. Switching the lights on, the artificial heat smothered my cheeks and my phone vibrated with an emoji smile.

Looking out the window towards the city, I realised I should do more for people. Kindness is all we have when God wrought to make this world so sad.

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.

City of Grace

From soaring lust in cocktail bars, to biblical tempests rinsing Ponte Vecchio to tears, I felt an earthquake rumble underneath the Arno. I want something pure and tangible to take place before I leave. Reading news articles about Italy being smashed back to the Stone Age, I shudder to think what might have happened if the tremors had crept further north.

I haven’t been writing much since I arrived in Florence. I expected to post every day before I moved to Italy, but on witnessing such a stoic and beautiful landscape, my clunking Anglo-American views felt irrelevant. I don’t feel qualified to say anything about the Renaissance.

Going local in Oltrarno, with its mustard hues and pine green shutters, I love spotting antique workshops, cheese bistros and incomprehensible wine libraries full of dark dreamy bottles. I’ve been living on the south side of Florence and wake up to the sound of church bells every morning. I hope to stay here until New Year.

Since I settled in my AirBnb apartment, I’ve developed a huge respect for Tuscan architecture and design. I could spend all day taking pictures of studded Renaissance doors, with their symmetrical beauty and iron grandeur. Unlike in Venice, where even sea peasants are afforded glimpses of diamond chandeliers and fresco ceilings, you’ll gain no such insight in Florence.

From the gated communities in the suburban hills, to the brown medieval palaces in the city centre, Florence’s stony gates are drawn high. There is an overriding sense of invitation only in the medieval courtyards, an intellectual pride that goes back centuries.Like everything else in life, this only makes me want more.

As the autumnal leaves continue to fall along the Arno, visitors keep on arriving and much to my dismay, the December rental prices keep on rising.

Everyone I’ve met here has either been an architect, fashion designer or a florist. Florence is the intellectual and artistic capital of Italy. I didn’t anticipate just how literate and well-educated local people would be. Nobody seems to cares what I do for a living, but they are individually and collectively more interested on why am I here. How long are you staying here? For that is the real question I am struggling to answer.

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.

What you missed

City Road has a godlike spectacle after dark. Nothing ever stays still even at the strike of midnight. It has grown astronomically since I first arrived in 2008. You feel simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted just staring at the traffic.

Walking home amongst glass pyramids and pelican cranes, cycle couriers whistle past me to deliver restaurant food at breakneck speed. Food app riders fascinate me. The push, tug and hurry of modern on-demand consumerism. With their branded helmets and lime green cagoules, a new urban tribe has emerged – a brushstroke of ambition in a globalised world.

Before the skyscrapers were built, I remember Daniela and I moving here and feeling like we had both made it. Sure, the bathroom was a bit rough and the kitchen underwhelmingly small, but this could work. It was my first major foothold in London and after making a series of choices, I won’t be going back.

Freelancing in pre-hipster people pubs, you become convinced that London is the only place that matters. I’ve done this before you know and returned six months later with a thirst for knowledge. How I missed terrifying blitz of technology, roaring energy and the empty vortex of thousands upon thousands of wasted words.

Uneasy jitters are settling in now. I hope I’ve made the right decision. Shifting all my boxes next door and leaving home without a key.