A brightness, a view, a poem: Porto in Winter 2017

Musings, thoughts, music, notes. Written down over the course of a few days in December 2016 and January 2017, while meandering through Porto, Portugal.


I get home to a freezing cold flat at 9pm. Two hours, some laundry, dinner, a phone call, one unpacked and another packed bag later, I go to bed.
Six hours later, I am standing in a queue at the airport.
Eight hours later, I see Paris at night from a window seat on a plane.
Nine hours after going to bed, I see fog crawling through light green Portuguese valleys like spilled milk.
Ten hours later, I see a blue sky and the sun shining a golden light onto the ocean.
Leave my world just black and white, snatch the sun out of the sky. For the only colour in my life is the memory of you and I.

And this is how it all begins again.

Day 1: The picture

If you knew what to look for when you look at me, you’d know exactly what is actually happening. I fool myself into believing that this is just a passing feeling.

I have coffee and Pastéis de Nata, and believe me when I say that everything I said about pastry another time was a blatant lie. I take a train and think of the last time I took a train on a holiday. It was in another life, at the time I was backpacking in SardiniaAnd when we kissed I felt the deep blue sky.

As I’m heading to a supermarket to get some groceries, I feel the tiredness crawling up my bones. It’s 2pm local time, and by now, I’ve been up for 11 hours. I pass a busker who has a voice like Tom Waits. The supermarket smells like chlorine and dried fish. As per my failure to learn Portuguese, I try to combine some Spanish and French and pronounce it in such way that I feel like it might pass as Portuguese. – It doesn’t.

As I stand in front of the cheese shelf, a very (really very) short elderly lady approaches me and asks me something. At first, I don’t understand what she wants from me – but then she points up the shelf and says something about A vaca que ri, and then I understand – A vaca que ri is La vache qui rit, which is The laughing cow, which can be found on the top shelf and which she wants. Two, actually. I get it for her, and she’s so happy about, and I get so angry at myself for not being able to say more than you’re welcome to her, and try and make sure she understands when I attempt gestures that mean to say my pleasure.

I can at least in some way make my lack of language skills up to her later when she loses 20€ at checkout, and I find them under her shoe and get them back to her. But, once more, she’s so excited, and I don’t even understand it, nor can I say anything nice back.

I go into a bakery and buy random pastry items; later on, half of them will turn out to be sweet, and I’ll find out that the rest is filled with either ham, or cheese, or both. As I go back to my place, I walk past a wall on which someone has sprayed E urgente pensar o amor, It is urgent to think of love. Over the next days, I will walk past many, many more of these.

A vida e super.

Right before sunset, seagulls circulate above my rooftop terrace. Oranges on a tree across the yard are glowing in the low light. A dog watches a seagull fly by, a not even remotely interested look on his face.

The photographer is not in the picture. That’s one of the things I most love and despise about photography, and about being a photographer (when travelling alone, I sometimes rather despise it).

We tend to forget that the photographer even exists, because all we see is what they saw, and the parts of it which they want us to see.

The photographer is never in the picture, but always is.

All alone, all alone, in the darkness of the night.

Day 2: The fire

While, over the last days in another country, I saw several Santas running across (a different) town, now I see Santas climbing up walls. Today only, I saw six of them. I’m fueled up and high, a man among guys.

A vida e dura para quem e mole. — Life is hard for who is soft.

At the farmers’ market, I walk past piles of fruit, buckets full of olives in many shades of green and black; past flowers, honey, all things made of cork, vegetables. I buy some bread and water at a very sweet elderly woman’s place. After she gives me my change, she smiles at me and tells me that I’m very beautiful. I tell her that she’s very beautiful (she is). I may not speak much Portuguese, but that much I understand (and can say).

The January cherries bloom / burn not in you, yet not in you.

I walk past fish, past meat, and past a guy making obscene gestures at me. The sun is setting.

I sit down on a square, where a bunch of teenagers with string instruments are sitting on the floor.

I have some pastry, watch the sunset, walk up to a church and walk on.

Down a different road, I pass a bunch of men hanging out on the sidewalk in front of a garage. As I look inside, I see, in the following order:

  • a crowd control barrier,
  • straw on th floor,
  • a small shack,
  • Joseph, Maria, Baby Jesus, a goat, donkey, some more animal figures,
  • a Christmas tree –
  • and two fire engines.

The men on the sidewalk were firemen, the garage is the fire department, and they haven’t yet gotten rid of the nativity scene they set up.

Day 3: The view

For someone who’s afraid of birds, this is not an ideal place to be.

I cross the bridge, walk up a small hill, and sit down on a bench to enjoy the view.

One minute later, a man approaches me, tells me how pretty I was in three languages, and after I tell him in two languages that I’m not interested in a conversation, he goes on harassing me. I get up and walk away from him and the fucking view. These are the times when one can’t even enjoy a fucking view for fucking five minutes without someone feeling entitled to one’s attention. Among many other things, cis male entitlement can also fuck right off in 2017.

In the middle of a square, there’s a giant Christmas tree ball which looks like a meteor that crashed down from space right into this square (and left a giant crater). The body as a subconscious, and desire takes place somewhere, everywhere.

Later this day, I will accidentally buy a ticket for a concert that starts 45 minutes later, get locked inside (!) my apartment and not manage to get out for 20 minutes, almost give up just before I get help, run through the night like I never ran before, out-run what a map app estimated as my time of arrival by 50%, get there just when the concert starts, walk past 500 people because my seat is in the middle of the front row, sit down, and only then realise I ended up at the local music school’s annual end-of-year concert.

Three hours and a much more relaxed way home later, I will be very happy I went there.

Shouldn’t I be okay out here on my own?

Day 4: The signal

I remember how good it is for me to do some exercises in the morning before I start my day. How my body feels more set, and how I feel more together; more prepared to take on what the day will bring. As I have my morning coffee on the square by the fountain, I just sit there and wonder if I’ve finally achieved some inner calm, or if that’s just another level of tiredness (again). You let your feet run wild. Time has come as we all oh, go down.

While I was chasing the sun in Helsinki, now I’m looking for shade. Aside from that, what I’m looking for hasn’t changed.

I accidentally run into a herd of peacocks, which, of course, reminds me of the conversation I had with a couple of friends a few weeks back, and reminds me that it’s not called a herd in English, but a muster, ostentation, or pride of peacocks. Really, English? — Really.

In the park, I walk between trees, stand on the tips of my toes to see the river behind a wall. There are so many rose bushes, and a perfect rose lying on the floor; I wonder why it dropped. I have so much to say, but much more that’s not for everyone. Remember the heart, the one that beats beneath you.

All my plans, like ice cream vans in the summer, they go by with hope still in my eyes.

I remember a question I saw a long, long time ago on a dating platform about which way one prefers to show affection: Touch, actions, gifts, or words; pick one. All the air is glitter. In a pastry shop by a graveyard, I get into a conversation with an old man who works there. He says you’re one of the nicest Germans I’ve ever met, and I’m not sure what to make of that, and then he teaches me how to say Happy New Year in Portuguese.

There are so many more things that I would have wanted to know; so much from your past that would help me understand so much of my today (and possibly future). But we never got to talk. Midnight where we used to dance underneath the ugly halogen lamps. Oh, it all went away so fast.

After almost seven years in Berlin, I have mastered the art of eating Döner. But will eight days in Portugal be enough for me to master the art of eating Pastéis de Nata without looking like I just got into a puff pastry storm? — Stay tuned.

One of my all-time favourite lines from a book is from one of my favourite authors who once wrote Ich bin beschädigt, ich habe Zeit — I am damaged, I have time. I read this line for the first time many, many years ago, and it has come back to me many times ever since.

It all breaks at the moment you float down the stream and if I won’t be by the shore, I’ll wait for you inside the sea.

A butcher is standing in the door to his shop talking to a woman. Her dog is a little bit too excited to see the butcher. This is the day of very random songs being stuck in my head with no reason. In order of appearance: Rocking around the Christmas Tree, Only You, Walking on Sunshine, Last Christmas, Bang a Gong (Get it on), Are you gonna be my girl. Com a insistencia, vem o triunfo. — With insistence comes the triumph.

Two dogs in the middle of a barking battle. More street harassment along all ways (and I only won’t mention it further over the notes for the next days because why even). Excuse me Mr I’ve got other things to do than to stand here listening to you.

Sometimes I try to parse the signals that my body is sending me like they were a foreign language.

Nobody here that keeps you in the shade and ever owned you.

Day 5: The music

I find Paredes que falam – walls that speak. It took me a long time to understand that it’s possible to trust myself, while still staying able to question my own work, beliefs, and view of the world. All our running is a crawl, and burns for us right through the fall.

A busker sitting on the street side that I walk past is singing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A few minutes later, I return. He has stopped singing, stood up, and is tracing a sign at a storefront. The sign says últimos dias – last days.

A tag on a wall says I bleed.

I look at your silhouette in the mirror and I wonder about your dreams last night.

I get this feeling like it all could happen, that’s why I’m leaving you for the moment.

Sonho que um verso meu tem claridade
Para encher todo o mundo! E que deleita
Mesmo aqueles que morrem de saudade!
Mesmo os de alma profunda e insatisfeita!

I dream that in just one of my lines is a brightness
enough to fill the whole world! Delighting,
even those whose hearts are sore and broken!
Even those with profound and yearning souls!

(Florbela Espanca, excerpt from “Vanity”)

No matter where I go, there is one thing that is already there, even before I arrive. I have reached a point now where I can laugh about it and almost mean it.

Day 6: The dance

On another day, in another time, there’s a van driving a giant pink heart around town, and it makes me equally happy and sad. The noctuous heart beats loudest, the old and steady and content.

I rarely find comfort in the company of strangers. There is a dividing line cutting through the will and the design.

The thing with scenic outposts is that people easily forget that there’s often so much more beauty of a different kind in the opposite direction. – And forget to even take one look that way.

A woman passes me. She’s walking a black dog and asking a seagull what’s going on. The air in the tunnel smells of fried fish and piss. A couple of pigeons are feasting on a can of pringles that someone tossed near a garbage can. A tiny puppy, only a few months old: runs across a square, stops, looks at me, and starts following me.

Everything that you’re going down, you will go back up eventually. You will have to go back up again eventually.

An old man feeding birds. I wonder if, when I’m old, I’ll become an old lady who feeds birds (despite my current fear of them). And how much shorter I’ll be by then. In a museum, I find a portrait of a woman that has the same facial expression like me when looking at my unfiltered mentions on the website www dot twitter dot com. I get ice cream.

In another museum, I look at photos of a woman and a man, trying to hold each other, but also not. The last piece in the exhibition is a film of a printer that prints photos of the couple, which are transported on a conveyor belt, and shred to pieces at the end of it. The hurricanes, they always come. We won’t stay here too long.

And then there’s always the question if we’re dancing or just walking around each other. And the question who follows whom. And then, how do two people even find balance, when they’re each only tiptoeing on one foot? And when you hit the pause button, does anything really pause, or don’t we at least have to keep breathing?

How I wish you there running to me silently.

Back outside, I take my camera out of my backpack again, and accidentally drop the backpack. It lands in spit. I don’t have anything on me to clean it. Now I’m carrying someone’s spit around town. The rotten air is stuck in the narrow streets today. I have menstrual cramps from hell.

Much of my last year has been about getting used to silence in a very, very different way; it went much better than I had feared. You will stay with us.

If I’m honest, all I want to do is become stronger. I’m moving on. I find a lamppost that has two stickers on it: one saying j’existe, another one with je suis partout written on it. If you show willingness to get out of people’s way, they sometimes misunderstand that as an invitation to get into your way.

Even if some things go as good as they possibly can, it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be tough as fuck anyway. Let me just tell you this one thing.

Even when you’re very certain, be careful when you tell yourself that a certain time in your life is over and never coming back. Among all life events, such times are the shoulder patches, and they’re going to get another revival within the next decade.

I feel sad about the many books I can’t read in their original language they were written in. I know how carefully I choose each word I use, how often I compare or weigh options from my vocabulary against each other. I’d like to be able to see the options a writer originally chose.

(But then, I don’t see many new languages in my near future, since I already know I’ll have too much to do this year; and it’s only January 02. Thinking of this date makes me think of someone’s birthday. It’s a thought without emotion, except for traces of a feeling of tragedy.)

I go out on the balcony and look at the streets at night.

As I return to my room, what I see is a bed that’s covered in several books spread across it, a laptop quietly playing some calm music, a phone, a water bottle (no, autocorrect, it’s not a water buffalo; although a water buffalo in my bed sounds cool, but may also be frightening), half a dozen pillows, a few pens, and some notebooks. And somewhere in the middle, there’s still a tiny crater with the shape of my body. I look at it and think to myself that this is, unintentionally, probably a very accurate picture; though not a picture of what it seems to be.

I get along swell by my goddamn self.

I count and I guess I said about 70 words today; it might have been less.

Day 7: The art

A tourist guide approaches me and asks need a boat?, and I want to say yes. The sky is cloudy, but the sun is shining, and every once in a while, it comes out for a bit. I sit down by the water and look at the waves, the sparkles of light on the water. Em qué esás a pensar? The light has lost its warmth, and its ability to warm. A black pigeon crosses the street.

I think back to last year and some things I did, other things I had to do, some of which I was anxious about for weeks. I need more islands. I need less extremes, and more islands.

Over the past year, I’ve noticed how some things start at different levels nowadays. Less casual, more serious.

There’s one piece of street art that I keep walking past, and that always fascinates me. On the side, it says:

Minh’alma de sonhar-te anda perdida meus olhos andam cegos de te ver não és sequer razão do meu viver pois que tu és já toda a minha vida! – My soul is dreaming you are lost, my eyes are blind to see you, you are not even the reason for my living, because you are already my whole life.  — Florbela Espanca

I take a photo it on my first night.

It is only a few days after my return home that I find the picture and translate the words on the side. That’s when I realise I read these words somewhere else – the poem they’re from is in one of the anthologies I bought during my stay.

I go out onto the terrace and look onto the streets. An almost romantic scene: down the street to my left, a group of young people is laughing and the LEDs in front of the stores are blinking like it’s a competition. A few people with pizza boxes are crossing the square to my right, lightened by the remaining Christmas decorations. Straight ahead, the big spotlight on the crane is producing light like daylight, and my uterus is cramping like there’s no tomorrow.

An almost romantic moment. And the question is, what am I getting myself into? And how about you?

I realise that, if there’s anything that happened in these past weeks, it’s that I’m suddenly very comfortable with having nothing to keep my hands busy, and nothing in front of my face – neither camera nor book nor notebook nor display (except for the glasses, these I’ll keep on).

It doesn’t matter so much where we’re going, as long as we’re enjoying the journey. (But then, how much and how far can you travel, do you want to travel.)

No matter how many streets I wander, I keep seeing you; you’re in the way this one person holds their coffee, in someone else’s hair, or the way their shirt is lightly blowing in the wind around their body. No matter where I go, I keep seeing you. There’s no way to tell you that, and there never will be, because things are what they are now, and they will stay like this forever. (I don’t believe in forever; but there’s only so much one person’s beliefs can do.)

It’s time to take my own / take my own advice.

I’m very happy I got to make my first mobile typing experiences on a phone with keys the size of my fingernails and T9. I would like proper keys and T9 back. Kids, those were days.

Not all the things that you gain can be, can be possessed.

Day 8: The ride

When memories fade, it’s funny to see which bits stick in the end. And the remaining pieces that remind me of you, where they are, what they look like, and why, are for another story and another time.

I love when the music I’m listening to functions as an actual soundtrack: when the music gets to the most epic point exactly when a plane takes off; when people around me unknowingly walk exactly to the beat; when the song gets faster as the train speeds up, and suddenly, the sea is right there.

I finish up some writing, then look out of the train — on villages, small houses, olive trees, lakes. Mini forests, citrus trees, gardens; beach houses, wide gardens full of fruit trees; pines; reed.

I fall in love so easily: with one line in a song, even if just a few seconds long; with a few words in a poem, a sentence in a book, a line in a piece, a detail in a painting. Every one of them I want to hold so close and store deep inside of me, and never let them go. Falling in love with art is easy, it’s unconditional, it’s fast, it doesn’t require lots of work (except for finding what to fall in love with; but that’s usually the bigger problem anyway). Falling in love with art is amazing.

Villages composed of a few houses between forests. Industrial complexes, steam rising from chimneys. Orange trees, orange trees everywhere. Flooded acres. Tiny rivers. Maybe, one day, I’ll be a person who wants a garden with an orange tree. A ceramics factory in a red brick building. A graveyard. Lemon trees. Dried, brown corn plants on a field. Dark grey sheep.

No matter how hard we try, there’s always so much that gets lost along the way – words that drop in calls, gestures that are too fast for cameras to pick up, facial expressions that get lost when the video call connection slows down; meaning that doesn’t come across in written form, intentions that remain unclear, feelings that are never expressed, thoughts that aren’t understood, ideas that remain unspoken, thoughts that are forgotten.

I sometimes wonder if there’s a place where all of these lost pieces are collected, stored, waiting for someone to pick them up – waiting for someone to collect all these lost details, nuances, meanings, and give them a new place to live elsewhere. I write an incomplete list of items that belonged to me and someone else, and that I’d like to pick up again, just in case such a place exists.

I don’t know yet what I’d do once I’d picked them up. The least I’d try would be to re-deliver them. But with some of them, that won’t work, since the pieces are the same, but the space in which they were transmitted in the first place doesn’t exist anymore. I might put them into tiny frames and put them up on my walls. Collages of what we never knew we lost, but are lucky to have found again

Slim white birch trees. Dark green bushes close to the ground, lit by bits of sunlight. Light travels fast, sound travels fast (though slower) and brains process fast. Still, all we see, hear, notice is past. Like all on this train ride, and like I didn’t know how much I wanted you until I looked back.

White, brown, black horses. Sheep. I’m not a fan of demands to “live in the present”, because they ignore so much, and often come from such a privileged position. But I wonder what it takes to notice more, see more, appreciate more.

White and dark brown sheep in a field of dried corn. Red soil. A white goat under an orange tree in a back yard.

Over the past weeks, I slowly decreased my walking pace. I stopped walking in a way that would almost qualify as running, and started actually walking. Meandering.

The train goes from blue skies and sun to fog and sun to blue skies to fog… for the next hour.

We approach a hill full of dark trees above a valley in which the air is still clear, and fog is rolling down the hill like it was poured onto it from the sky – while the sun is still lighting the whole scenery.

One of the things I admired most in Porto where the colours and shapes of things. The vibrance.

As the airplane takes off, as we get past the dense fog and clouds, the lights of the cities under us are orange and white dots on a black rug of clouds. Night has fallen and all the stars are coming out. A few minutes later, I see my favourite constellation. It’s the same constellation which I saw for the last time many, many hours further south, under a very different sky.

And this is how it ends.

All photos are also on Flickr.

By L.

I walk fast.

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