Another guest blog by my daughter, Allison Malecha. A recap of the second part of her summer trip to Spain/Portugal.
Lisbon, August 2015
Last year, I went to a personal finance workshop sponsored by the startup LearnVest, thanks to a cousin who is a client. The part that stuck with me was a lecture by a Harvard professor who spoke about happiness. He discussed a survey where children were asked a fairly standard question: What do you want to be when you grow up? The children responded in expected ways: a doctor, a lawyer, a what-have-you just like my mom/dad. But the professor was not completely satisfied with these answers. The children had named career goals, professions. They had not said: “When I grow up, I want to be happy. I want to be fulfilled.” They had not been taught that these were things worth striving for.
New York, where I live, is a city where most everyone is trying to be something, or someone. We are future writers, hedge fund managers, ad agency executives, Nobel Prize winners. When I arrived in Lisbon, I had the feeling that perhaps, there, a few more children might wish to be happy when they grow up. To be fair, I spent three days in the city, and one of those days mostly on a sad little ferry back and forth across the Tagus. But the air had a different quality, people’s faces were more prone to smiles, and I felt, even looking up the three flights of dirt-studded white stone stairs up to our street, inexplicably, deliriously happy.
Lisbon is not counted among National Geographic’s “Top 10 happiest cities” nor was Portugal named one of the Top 20 happiest countries in the recent United Nations World Happiness Report. It is entirely possible that my perception of the place is more attributable to the fact of being on vacation than to the place itself.
We didn’t have the most obvious start to what turned out to be the highlight of the my Spain/Portugal trip. My travel mate and I missed our train to Lisbon. We were coming from Porto (Portugal) with tickets purchased online and sent to my Brooklyn mailbox. It turned out that we had bought vouchers, not tickets, and the ticket collector was kind enough to tell us so—4 minutes before the train’s departure. So I waited in the 20-minute ticket line and we caught the next train. My first experience of Lisbon was running through it, a backpack slamming against my spine and a camera drumming my chest as we followed the blue dot on my friend’s iPhone to the front door of our Airbnb. We were about to make our temporary landlord late for a work meeting, but she gave us a tour: roomy bedroom, a kitchen of mint-green cabinets, a corner bathroom with gas-lit hot water, a washing machine and clothing lines out the window, a fifth-floor view onto, on one side, a church courtyard, and on the other, a view of the entire red-roofed and white-spired city. She pointed out the square where we would find the train station to take us to Sintra. She didn’t look a bit like she was already late to somewhere else.
That night we zigzagged our way to Mesa de Frades, a place my friend had recommended to me to listen to live fado, a type of folk music specific to Portugal. We arrived at 10:40 and were told to come back at 11. We made a few loops on the cobblestone streets and returned to be seated in two extra chairs pushed up to a four-top, where a middle-aged couple and their in-laws had just finished dinner. A hush fell over the tiny, mural-wrapped dining room as the restaurant door was pulled closed and the musicians positioned themselves in front of it: a mandolin player, a guitarist, and a singer. All younger than I expected, quick to laughter in the moments between songs. But what happened during those songs was pure magic—not a single fork tine scratched, no iPhones lit up, no one whispered. The brunette clasped her hands in front of her and lavished her voice upon the room: rich and mournful, resonant without the help of a microphone. After the first set she was replaced by an older vocalist, with a deeper, more dexterous voice and a leopard-print poncho, clearly recognized by some in the room. My travel mate and I walked home afterwards in a bit of a trance, not yet wanting the spell to be broken.
Our first full day in Lisbon we rented bikes from bike Iberia (word to the wise: budget bikes are exactly what they sound like) and hopped onto the Poetry Bike Lane, which was more of a series of pedestrian paths and sidewalks and parking lots than a bike lane. It also left the poetry up to the riders but hugged the broad and glittering Tagus all the way to historical Belem. Things got dicey when we wheeled our bikes onto the aforementioned ferry. We missed the stop we were supposed to get off on, so instead of a beach, we found ourselves staring at a large hill with only one way to go: up. We narrowly avoided turning onto a freeway and I was close to tears after my gear got off track, but even this misadventure had a happy ending—on a long, winding downhill back towards the (correct) ferry port, self-made wind in our hair and a vibrant palette of green and blue before us. Back on the bike lane, we made our way to the Monument to the Discoveries, a striking mass of carved stone aimed out toward sea, and ended at Belém Tower, with a pit stop at the sumptuous National Coach Museum.
On our last evening, I stood in our kitchen slicing chorizo and ladling olives into a bowl. My friend took her glass of port out onto the balcony and called me over. A crowd was gathering around the church steps, and two chairs appeared from somewhere. A mandolin player sat in one, a guitarist in the other, and the singer stood behind them—an impromptu fado concert to send us on our way.