The music of Alfalma, Lisbon
I first wish to confess my sins.
Portugal, or more accurately, Lisbon, was the perfect exclamation point to a trip as perfectly epiphanic as one I so harshly and crudely branded #EuroTrip2016. Like with all exclamation points, its upward inflection made me, unfairly I might add, expect more of the trip that I was drawing to an end. In reflection, I felt guilty while holding my boarding pass as I waited for my plane in Lisbon's Portela Airport for having left this beautiful country for last. It was a mere addition to round out the two weeks on my first trip out of Canada. My sin was not only the indifference I initially felt at visiting what I would soon see was a wonderful country, but also in not foreseeing the gravity of which I allowed my heart to fall into Lisbon with each remaining hour that ticked by.
You may think that I lie when I claim that I left my heart in Sintra, and to a degree, you’d be right. I left pieces of my heart in Portugal, the biggest of which is probably still perched atop the cliffs of Cabo de Roca. But now comes the time to tell the story of one of those pieces, the one I left on Lisbon's winding streets.
I was fucking exhausted.
It was my first day in Portugal and one of only three that I would be spending in its Capital. I managed the squeeze five cities into the tight constraint of fourteen days which I managed to steal away from the retail job I had back home. A home I was dreading coming back to, I thought, as I pulled my bags from the rack of the last train I was taking in this journey. It was a sleeper train that took me from Madrid to Lisbon. I look back on that leg of the journey now and while the night on the train alone was filled with enough of its own epiphanies and reflections to fill another few pages, adding it to this story would do it no justice. So alas, another story for another time. It was, in its own right, a fine sleep. But after a whirlwind tour around the bit of Europe I sliced out for myself, even the deep sleep brought by its gentle rocking and calming clickety-clack along the rails brought was not enough to make up for the deficit brought about by strange hostel beds after even stranger hostel parties with new hostel friends that were stranger still.
I left the train as it reached Lisbon, stepping down from the car into a cool morning breeze. Disoriented and cloudy, I sleepily made my way to my hostel, thankful to the offline maps I had loaded onto my phone. I'll confess that in the blurriness of that morning I cannot for the life of me remember how I got to my hostel. What I do remember is waking up on a hostel bed around 7:30 pm, a day essentially wasted to the futile effort of “catching up on sleep” as the night beckoned me. Checking the sinfully short list on my notebook of things to do in the cities I'd eventually end up in, I found myself comparing the pitiful length of Lisbon’s list with the scrawled out bullet points for Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, and Barcelona on the pages before and I decided to find my way to the Alfalma Jewish Quarter.
The Silence spoke louder than I could describe.
I walked along the narrow paths and steep backways of the neighborhood as it parted from the hustle and bustle of the main streets. I anticipated a crowd on every turn of the corner, the sorts of which I had come to expect after Barcelona. Lisbon was different; the evening that lay hidden in the alley I had ducked into was quiet, serene and beautiful. The cobblestone beneath my feet arched high in places and made me question my love for walking through unfamiliar and alien cities, and whether a deeper commitment to cardio was necessary. But right as my legs would have begged to give out in one stretch, a calm level path would appear before me in another. It was as if the city were knew me, and with each footfall provided for me.
There were no shops here, and barely a soul to be found. The few that I passed I'd wave to and greet with a simple "Olá" as they continued along their way. A few times in the silence, I would hear a car horn go off in the distance behind me. The sounds of traffic grew fainter as the streets I walked into became increasingly enveloped in a loud silence the deeper I delved until my own breath became loud against the pin-drop serenity I found myself in. I sinned against it by pulling my camera out and snapping a photo. Looking back on it, I should have just stayed and enjoyed it instead of being so preoccupied with the draw of trying to capture the beauty of the street's silence.
I hit the power button on the phone in my hands and let the screen blip out the last of its light, barely caring to review the photo. As I closed my eyes, it hit me; the smooth timbre of an angelic and sad voice floated through the streets, so quiet that even my own footfalls would have drowned it out this warm night. I let it draw me, as moth to flame, the highs and lows of the melody drawing me deeper into the night, stopping to close my eyes when I couldn't hear the song and desperately trying to pick up the scent of the music once again; like a hound on a trail.
Then I opened my eyes one last time, as the hunt came to an end.
And there she was, in her black dress with a shawl draped on her shoulders, darker still.
She stood in the doorway of the restaurant. She was performing there tonight, she explained as she sucked on the last dregs of her cigarette and asked "Have you come to hear Fado?" Her voice was silky and rasped at the same time, defying the ash that fell to her feet as she exhaled the smoke that enveloped the doorway.
She led me in and I sat among the tables clothed in red velvet, their flowers and leaves embroidered in gold, under the arches of exposed brick and pillars of rough stone. This was not the polished slate of a restaurant boasting of status. In many ways, it was as pure as the night sky had been the moment I stepped off the main avenue.
I ordered my meal in as barely understandable Portuguese as I could muster, and it was met with a warm smile and a hearty laugh from the waiter who responded in English. "Excellent choice". I will have to take him at him word as I could not describe the meal from memory now. I do remember, however, the taste of my first proper meal in Portugal drifting from me, overpowered by the taste of the voice that pierced the air.
Profoundly Melancholic, Expressive.
These are words that we as travelers would dare to associate to that music. But people who would have experienced it for themselves will often add a better description: Powerful. As the voice of the woman in black rang through the air, each word that I did not understand steeped in a sadness I could not describe. I found my soul moved to tears as I sat transfixed and staring at the woman baring her soul to the others at among the tables, laying her voice along the smooth plucking of a guitar. Electricity ran down my back and through my spine with each velvet syllable and each plucked chord. I understood nothing of what she sang, but I felt it in my heart.
Each rise and fall of the words brought me on my own journey, finding its own sinister and yet benevolent ways to coax my own thoughts and emotions from the depths in which I attempted to bury it. That's the power of music, I guess -- it's universality; and no music will ever highlight that fact as much as listening to music in languages you can't speak. The weight of the personal interpretation falls away. In not knowing the language, the pain of each note becomes the worthier part.
The truth is, I found beauty in many things that night: The conversations I had with lovers separated ten months out of the year by the Atlantic, the pulse and rhythm of my drunken walk back to the hostel as I clawed my way through the city, the smell of the ocean air as I stopped to stare into the void of the night, but none held my heart as much as her music. Lisbon's music.
She's still holding on.