Wandering about at night in the Baixa-Chiado district and 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 that leads the eye 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 my hostel: going back this 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 stands, laurel wreathed and in appropriately majestic posture, his left forearm crooked forward and with the sword held in his other hand dragging on the ground behind him, so that you can almost hear the screech of steel. Underneath Camões, and surmounted on a series of smaller plinths clustered around the main pedestal are statues of other, marginally less exalted, figures from the annals of the Lusitanian past, but this time carved in stone instead of metal.
And moving further down the monument towards ground level, 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 years of age, young men and women dressed up in black scholarly robes and brandishing musical instruments (an acoustic guitar, tambourines, a flute) preparatory to a street performance. Initially I conduct an internal debate with myself whether to to stick around and watch or just to head off to bed because to be honest I’ve had enough of wandering about all day and now I’m a little bit burned out and ready to sleep.
Thing is though, the appearance of those six or seven students all kitted out in that sombre regalia of theirs makes such an impression that it’s hard to pull myself away. They come across so earnest and self-assured and just so fucking aloof, with the kind of sincerty that seems to have gone out of fashion amongst most students in Britain or America, to be long since replaced by cynicism, and irony as a more authentic mode of being in the world. I walk away from the square during the preparation and when I return just a few minutes later, the performance has already started. The students’ lilting voices lift up to the night sky as they sway together in gentle, mild-hearted unison. They seem to be singing some kind of old folk song. The girls are lean and flat chested with delicate pointed features and frizzy, wispy raven black or dark brown hair that brings to mind the warmer shores of North Africa across the sea. I stand and listen for a few minutes — but not long enough to feel personally awkward about not throwing down any spare change in the guitar case that gapes below their feet — 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 — are well known for their custom of flitting around everywhere in their black academic robes. I’ve read people who 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 making themselves look so conspicious like overgrown bats. One of them explained to me that far from being part of some centuries old 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 rang true at least.
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 (although in the event most of the beds that night remain unoccupied). I enter the hostel. There are those pretty pyjama clad Korean girls lounging around in the atrium, the same ones that I’d seen earlier on when I‘d gone out to forage for food. It seems they’ve been there all evening, chatting and giggling with each other or tapping away at their phones in their childish pink 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, even though 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 mark down as being French, emanates from the bunk in question. The voice informs me that its bearer is not sleeping, I’m not disturbing him and I can go about my business without creeping about, I’m paraphrasing slightly here. I thank him for his tolerance as I go off to the adjoining bathroom to change into my pyjamas and clean my teeth. 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 the weedy blanket-filtered voice. He’s in his early 20s, wears a pair of black skinny jeans and sports a birds nest bouffant that’s a good couple of years out of date — which perversely enough makes it come across as quite rebellious in a devil may care fashion. He has pallid skin the luminescence and texture of soggy cottage cheese and the kind of goofy, childlike features that he’s probably doing his utmost to wreck with drink and drugs, just to get his peers to take him more seriously; and to set it all off he’s got 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 is the obvious one, that is whether he’s a musician to which he replies, yes, he’s a singer. He tells me he’s originally from Turin but recently he’s been living in London (I wasn’t far off with the French accent then, just a couple of hundred 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.
The lad tries to sell me the Portuguese SIM card he bought yesterday which is of zero use to me, and complains about how the 18 euros a night the hostel is charging 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.