Wandering about at night in the Baixa-Chiado district after having just had my dinner in a well lit salad bar, I find myself walking up a road that leads to the Largo Camões, one of the most picturesque squares in Lisbon with a sloping view right down to the Tagus. It’s a pleasant enough night, warm and breezy, and I want to kill some time before heading back to the hostel; going back too early would be a sure admission of banality and defeat. In the centre of the eponymous Largo there stands a towering statue, in bronze, of the great man himself, Luís Vaz de Camões, a poet revered by the Portuguese in much the same way that the English venerate Shakespeare and the Italians Dante. There he is laurel wreathed and in an appropriately majestic posture, his left forearm crooked forward and the sword held in his other hand dragging the ground behind him so that you can almost hear the screech of steel. Underneath Camões, and surmounted on a series of smaller plinths that are clustered around the main pedestal, are statues of other, marginally less exalted, figures from the annals of the Lusitanian past, but carved in stone instead of metal.
And further down below them in turn and milling around the steps at the base of Camões’ pedestal are a troupe of students — slim, mostly bespectacled youths, in the region of 20 or 21, lads and lasses dressed up in black scholarly cloaks and brandishing musical instruments (an acoustic guitar, tambourines, a flute) preparatory to a street performance. I debate with myself, initially, on whether to stick around and watch or whether just to head off, because to be honest I’ve had enough of wandering about all day and now I’m tired and listless and ready for bed.
Thing is though, the appearance of those six or seven students all kitted out in that dark, sombre regalia of theirs makes such an impression on me that it’s hard to pull myself away. They come across as so earnest, so self-assured and just so fucking aloof — the kind of attitude that seems to have gone out of fashion amongst most young people in the rest of the world and been long since replaced by cynicism, irony, and mumbling insecurity as a more authentic mode of being in the world. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the whole scene feels like a throwback to earlier and less complicated times, back to when being a university student was synonymous with being a scholar, when it served to single you out as a member of a social and intellectual elite. Even in places like Oxford or Cambridge nowadays they’re generally savvy enough to have toned it down a bit — the Bullingdon club and other species of elitist depravity notwithstanding. I walk away from the square during their preparation and when I return just a few minutes later, the performance has already started; their lilting voices lift up to the night sky as they sway together in gentle, mild-hearted unison, singing some kind of old folk song. The girls are lean, petite and flat chested with pointed, delicate looking features and that wispy, frizzy raven black hair that calls to mind the warmer shores of North Africa out across the sea. I stand and listen for a few minutes — not long enough though to feel personally awkward about not throwing down any spare change in the guitar case which they’ve laid down for the purpose — and decide to finally go back to the hostel and try and get some sleep.
The students at Coimbra — the old university town where I was to spend the following two days attending a conference on the materialities of literature — are well known for their custom of flitting about everywhere in black academic robes. I’ve read people say that it’s reminiscent of Harry Potter, although since I’ve never seen the films or read any of the books it’s not really much of a cultural touchstone to me — but that is what everyone says. I got talking to some of the local organisers during the lunch break on the second day of the conference and asked why it was that the students on campus were so fond of wrapping themselves up in those black cloaks and looking so conspicuously like overgrown bats. One of them explained to me that far from being part of some centuries old, unbroken tradition the practice actually dates back to Salazar and Portuguese fascism, to a desire for unity and conformity via homogeneity of dress. Well the fascist part certainly seemed to ring true to me
To save money with my department, I’ve opted to stay in a 10 bed dorm in the Rossio station Youth Hostel. Needless to say I’m not really looking forward to sharing my sleeping quarters with 10 other strangers (in the event though most of the beds that night remain unoccupied). I enter the hostel. There are those same pretty Korean girls lounging around in the atrium in their pyjamas that I’d seen earlier on when I‘d gone out to forage for some food. It seems they’ve been there all evening, chatting and giggling with each other, and tapping away at their phones in their pink childish nightwear. I head up to my room. It looks like there’s already someone in their bunk trying to sleep, covers pulled up over their face; it’s not that late, only about half 10. As I enter the dorm, a thin, weedy male voice, with a European accent that I can’t quite place but which I provisionally put down as French, emanates from the bunk in question, and tells me that it’s OK he’s not sleeping, I’m not disturbing him and I can go about my business without creeping about. I thank him for his tolerance as I go to change into my pyjamas and clean my teeth in the adjoining bathroom. His voice sounds troubled, I guessing he can’t get to sleep.
The next morning I get a good look at the scrawny owner of that weedy voice. He sports a pair of black skinny jeans and has a straggly birdsnest of a backcombed bouffant that’s just a couple of years out of date — which perversely enough makes it come across as quite rebellious in a devil may care kind of way — pallid skin the luminescence of soggy cottage cheese and goofy, childlike features that he’s probably doing his utmost to wreck through riotous living to get taken more seriously but which given that he’s in his early 20s are still only lightly ravaged; and to set it all off he’s sporting a big bruised black eye. He’s the kind of character I would have been incredibly impressed by 10-15 years ago and which to be honest I’m still kind of impressed by.
We get into conversation. One of the first questions I ask him, rather inevitably, is whether he’s a musician to which he replies that, yes, he’s a singer. He tells me he’s originally from Turin but that of recent he’s been living in London (I wasn’t far off with the French accent then, just a couple of dozen miles across the Alps is all). He says he’s decided to move to Lisbon, which I imagine given the black eye was likely to have been a fairly impromptu decision on his part. Then he tries to sell me the Portuguese SIM card he bought yesterday, which is of zero use to me, and tells me the 18 euros a night the hostel is charge is too much for him and that he needs to find somewhere cheaper to stay. I helpfully suggest AirBnB although at that point, after I’ve rebuffed the offer of the Portuguese SIM, it feels like he’s not even listening to me but talking out loud to himself. I try to talk to him a little in my shaky Italian which seems to endear me to most Italians I meet abroad, but he won’t take the bait and continues speaking flawless English in his stonerish drawl. It looks like I haven’t really made a new friend after all. I pack up my belongings, my pyjamas, my overnight things, into my suitcase and check out.