I wake as we descend upon Lisbon, cutting through the clouds in the minutes before sunrise. Below, the city is a collection of reddish rooftops, illuminated by streetlights that dot its avenues, guiding early-morning partiers home despite the soft colours that envelop the sky. Someone on the ground flicks a switch, already anticipating sleep after a long night shift, and all the lights are extinguished. Lisbon plunges deeper into its orange palette, its citizens left to rely on their own eyesight.
The plane soars over the ocean, and across its blue stretch I fall back asleep.
“Lisbon is not like other big cities,” says Hugo, leading us down a steep hill. I have already walked these streets the night prior, but learning the history of a place makes travel feel a bit less like glorified sightseeing.
“In Lisbon, you go to a cafe or restaurant and you already know who will be there. You see the same people every time. In other big cities, like Paris, London, New York, you are more diverse. The people you see in bars and restaurants you will probably never see again.”
Yet, Lisbon does not entice me. I feel no charm in its streets, even when I walk far out of the centre until I do not hear English anymore. Despite thousands of years of history, everything seems to revolve around the influx of foreigners lining up to ride the tram and eat pastel de nata. I don’t want to be catered to. I want the blanket of anonymity. When I tell people I didn’t like Lisbon, they are shocked, as if it is not possible to board a plane and find nothing worth staying for.
The day I leave Lisbon, I pack my bag in the hostel at nine in the morning. Everyone in the room is awake, lounging about in their bunk beds. The Australian surfer in the bed beside mine groans and complains about a chiropractor, like he has every morning. He tosses his blond mane to the side and says to me, “I can’t tell if I like your dress or not.” For a second I almost appreciate his honesty. “I think you would look better without it.” He smiles. “Could I have a kiss?” Every eye in the room stares. I start laughing, and do not stop laughing until I am on a train to Sintra later that night.
From the tallest point in Sintra, I can see all the way to the ocean. Hiking back to the town, I begin to cry. My body is filled with a lot of sadness and I don’t know how to get it out of me.
I didn’t plan a beach vacation, but I find myself at the ocean an hour later. Cascais, a small beach town filled of tourists sunbathing in bikinis while the Portuguese sport knit sweaters, strolling on cobblestone in the sunny October weather. The beach is tiny and makes me feel as if I have slipped into the background of a sun-stained photograph from the early nineties. Everything feels oversaturated. The water is glass on my skin, but I dive in anyway and scrape my stomach along the sand.
“This is the best day ever!” A child screams as he runs into the water with his sister, splashing everyone in their wake.
This year has been the longest summer of my life. I will have to relearn the cold, and how to thrive in it.
I take a bus west to Cabo da Roca upon the insistence of my hostel owner, a kind old man with perfect English. He claims it is the most beautiful sunset you can see in Portugal. The bus winds through green hills and eventually deposits me at a lighthouse. Tourists armed with cameras dot the rocky cliffs, ducking under fences with warning signs in search of the best photo-ops.
A sign reads that this cliff is the “most occidental point in continental Europe.” I walk away from the crowd and scale down some rocks where I meet a kind Korean girl named Jin. I ask to take a photo of her and she takes one of me in return. She can’t speak much English, and I’m too embarrassed by the few Korean lines I remember. She offers me some chips and we both write in our journals while looking out at the setting sun.
Waves crash below. How slow they roll in, foaming white and swirling around the rocks, resulting in a melodic dissonance. Wind whips my hair around as I look west, sitting on the edge of the continent. There was a time when the people here thought this was all there was. Looking out into the yellow-white haze, I myself have trouble believing there is something beyond the horizon. Not a boat in sight, the line is blurred between sea and sky so I do not know where one ends and one begins. Like balls of yarn, like headphones in my pocket, like lovers or friends entwined in bed. Some things don’t have a start or finish, and that is okay with me.
These are the very cliffs that once held the ambition of the Portuguese empire. The steep drop was the only thing stopping them from sinking at sea. Christopher Columbus, who sailed for years with the Portuguese, set off the shores of Europe in the fifteenth century with the intention of reaching India. He stood on a cliff, or maybe on sand, and looked out at the flat horizon and its yoke-like palette, imagining everything he could sink his name to. Several months later he landed in North America instead. In his version of the truth, we still refer to native inhabitants of North America as “Indians.” Is the truth really so terrifying? Columbus reached America, brutalizing the land and its people. We know this. That doesn’t stop us from re-working the story in new ways to better suit our personal narratives.
Centuries later, millions of foreigners land on the shores of Portugal via land, air, and sea. At this point, we know that something exists beyond the horizon. We know the Earth is not flat. We have faced God’s wrath at the edge or we have not. In truth, we still speak in abstract terms. We sit, oriental tourists, facing the occident on the westernmost point in Europe. There may be a metaphor here, but if there is it does not need explaining.
The sun beams down on Portugal for the last few minutes of the day. Everything on the coast is bathed in gold; gold that we feel was our right for choosing to sit here at sunset. Nothing is our right but when the light begins to slip away, we claim possession. When everything feels like gold it is easy to want it to belong to you. Cliffs splashed in gold, ocean splashed in gold, skin splashed in gold. Everything belongs to the sun.
From memory I have known calmer seas. Mid-January, an island off the coast of south Vietnam. Swimming in a sunset with water rippling like pink cellophane. Being held, skin on skin burned deep gold, newly minted and browned. It is okay to remember this. The memory belongs to me.
Eventually, everything will be taken away from us. Gold ripped from mines, from skin, from cliffs, from teeth. Eventually, we will be left in the dark with nothing to hold. Slipping memory into something or someone physical to get us through the night.
Everything will become more pointed in hindsight. Yellow haze will be shaved away and there will be a burning ball of orange. Hundreds of years later, we know that Columbus did not discover America. Nothing is what you thought. White light on the horizon saturates to a more welcoming rose. We know the Earth is not flat. You start to think maybe, just maybe, there is something else out there. Something that just slipped away by mistake. Another horizon, another beach, another sky. Something cannot become nothing. There are some who may dispute that, but the truth is not so terrifying.
The lighthouse casts a weak glow on everything it touches. Its visibility tells me it is time to catch the last bus.
The sun returns close to eight in the morning when I am on a northbound train to Porto. It peaks through buildings and momentarily blinds everyone whose eyes are not glued to phones. The train has Wi-Fi, and I message people who are not in my time zone until my battery dies.
Porto settles in my imagination as what I’ve always pictured industrial revolution London to be, its river smothered in a constant cover of mist, smoke, or smog. I love this city. From the raised platform of the Dom Luís I bridge, the Douro River is spread out below me, ripples visible only with my glasses on. The sun burns a pink hole in the grey sky. I wonder how long it would take to fall.
A woman in her late forties stands beside me, looking down at the birds flying in a broken V, just a foot from the surface. Perhaps she wishes to join their formation. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her body lurch forward and hear shouting from behind. A man, followed by four police officers, grabs her. He yells in Portuguese and wraps his arms around her, hugging her tightly. She keeps staring straight ahead at the nothingness that exists over the rail of the bridge, her body betraying no reaction. The police lead her away with their hands on her shoulders while the man, presumably her husband, trails them closely.
My skin is crawling. I look down, the city and the river seeming farther than it was before. Porto, a city full of life. Lights flicker on, people walk. On the opposite bank of the river, rowers rig their boats, preparing for or returning from the water. Birds everywhere. City stacked on top of itself. Every five minutes a plane descends from the west.
The sky erupts into flame. A city on fire. Red laps across the clouds, striking me in its path. It is desperate to say something. Couples admiring the sunset fall into the same desperation, each stopping the nearest pedestrian to ask for a photo.
Half an hour later, the sky is charcoal, everything burnt out. I go off in search of a bar and notice an ambulance and several police cars are parked at the top of the bridge. The man from earlier, presumably the husband, is standing a few feet away from the vehicles, staring at the ambulance without blinking. The flashing lights from the police car cast his face in orange as they revolve like a lighthouse. He does not look away.
I buy a floral blouse, eat pastries, go to a museum. Walking along the river, which is technically the sea because of how it connects to the Atlantic, I take a deep breath of salt and wind. There is so much one sacrifices by living in a city. I feel like I have not breathed since moving to Paris without inhaling everything that is toxic.
Summer ends in the early morning hours on the last Saturday of October, before the city even knows it is a new day. There are no trees around to tell me that it is already well into autumn.