Magic of the Bairro Alto

5 years have passed since I was actually a resident of this city. Even though I return often, every visit to Lisbon brings more changes, with familiar places closing up and unfamiliar faces passing me in the street. It starts to feel as though I no longer belong and there is nothing left to belong to.

But then I find myself walking up the steep hill of the Bica, and heading into the even steeper streets of the bairro alto, in search of a little place for food and life. Asking the average restaurants for a table for one on a friday night gets me turned away disturbingly often. No room. Too many reservations.

And then I turn a corner I haven’t turned in 4 years or so, only to find an unfamiliar little eatery. Looking more like someone’s tiny living room than a restaurant, I notice the menu offers numerous creative vegetarian options. And inside it is hard to tell who works there and who is a customer, and everyone seems to be talking with everyone, and the waitresses sit down and share laughs with people as they eat. One of two gorgeous twins spots me from the moment I walk in and greets me like an old friend she has been waiting for. “What’s your name?” — she wants to know my name, and after I tell her that, a few more questions follow… which she promptly relays my answers to the twin and the spanish bartender. The twin comes over to bring me some wine, “So you’re visiting family, in town from Amsterdam eh? And you’re not even Dutch, but actually Luso American!”… I amazed by both the amount of info she had soaked up in the 4 minutes I had been there, and by her warm smile.

It was only the beginning to what would become one of those Lisbon evenings that reminds me of what is so special about this city and why so many good people, including myself once upon a time, make their lives here. German couple at the table next to me start chatting with me. The neighbor walks in and sits down next to me, asking about the Ralph Nader book I have on the table next to me. A kid wearing pink shoes and a pink shirt comes sailing through the doorway, kissing almost everyone in the restaurant hello, sits down at a table across from me. A restaurant wide conversation seemed to ensue, featuring 3 or 4 languages.

One of the twins sits down at my table as I finish my tea, her friendly eyes show clear signs of exhaustion. I ask her about it, and she talks about the long hours that she works everyday, just to make ends-meat in this town. – a different kind of reminder, of why many people DON’T make their lives in this town.

Soon after there are more people floating in and others walking out, friday night and it feels like everybody knows everybody, and my lovely twins make sure that from now on, they know me.

While my evening ends about there, the story does not. After lots of hugs and kisses, I know I’ve made some wonderful new friends in my former home, and I know of one place where I’m expected, from now on.