Portugal | Beach Town

Okay soo I’ve managed to get myself around two weeks behind with my diaries. I shall now endeavour to recap highlights and zoom up to the present day.

On the 14th of May I had my 29th birthday in Lisbon, and it was a corker.

I spent the 13th drinking and eating giant plates of seafood with Dave’s friends Cami and Sara, as Dave had left Lisbon to join his climbing friends for their five day sea-cliff climbing bonanza. Cami and Sarah paid for my dinner, the kindness of which brought a tear to my eye – they’d only known me 48 hours.

After one last evening at Sant Jordi hostel, I spent my birthday morning chatting to the Eastern European girls in the tranquil garden. The Russian girl, Irena, was pretty funny. Her English was very basic but her French was reasonable – so we spoke French together. An English person and a Russian person, speaking French together in Portugal. The strangeness of it made me smile.

In the afternoon I took a taxi to Cami and Sara’s place, and together we drove out of the city and over the giant red bridge, hundreds of feet above the city and the water. We journeyed one hour to where Dave was staying, in a villa with all his climbing friends. They were funny, lively people, and we spent the evening of my birthday drinking beers and cooking a barbecue. Dave, bless him, had even organised a cake for me, and everybody sang happy birthday.

We played a game where somebody read facts from a card and the others had to guess if they were true or false. Dave, a joint in his hand, was bad at it – every time he read a fact off the card he couldn’t help but go ‘whoa’.

“Well it’s obviously true if you’re saying ‘wow’ when you read it out,” I laughed.

I felt very grateful to have Dave there. He’s an incredibly loyal friend, and he’s always put so much care into making sure I’m happy. I’d been afraid of spending my birthday alone, and somehow the universe conspired to unveil one of my best friends right in front of me. I don’t know whether to call it luck, fate or random chance – but whatever. I felt very warm inside all day.

In the evening Dave and I hugged very tightly and said goodbye, and I promised to come see him in Berlin soon – and I will. I always love my adventures with Dave; he’s a magical guy. Long may our friendship continue.

Sara and Cami drove the three of us back to Lisbon in their car, and I fell asleep in the backseat. They let me sleep in the room of one of their flatmates, who was away on holiday. I slept well, with the only minor hiccup being that I woke up at 4am with a cockroach on me and had to chase it around the room to slap it with a shoe.

In the morning I had a breakfast of coffee and toast with Sara and Cami, then I booked a hostel and took my leave so as not to overstay my welcome. They were a wonderful, kind, gentle couple, and they saved my skin by offering me a place for the night – every hostel in Lisbon had been fully booked on the Saturday.

I checked into a new Lisbon hostel on the Sunday morning and went out for a walk. I was sitting on a bench in a sunny little square when a man came and sat next to me. He was wearing flip flops, basketball shorts, and a silk tigerskin dressing down, and his long hair was tied up in a bun. I watched him put a cigarette in his mouth and search his pockets for a lighter.

“Ah putain,” he mumbled. “Hey man, will you watch my stuff?”

He gestured to a cup of coffee and an orange juice on the bench.

“Yeah, of course,” I replied.

He jogged across the road and went into a shop, and returned with a lighter.

“Thanks.”

“No worries. I had to fight off a few people.”

He laughed and lit his cigarette.

“Are you French?” I asked.

“Belgian. How’d you guess? My accent?”

“I heard you swear. Do you live here?”

“Two years now. Before that, I was in New York for twenty years.”

“What do you do for a living here?” I asked him.

“I’m an artist,” he replied.

“I knew it,” I grinned. “Only an artist would wear a dressing gown and smoke on a park bench during the afternoon.”

He laughed.

His name was Michael, and he was a sculptor. He made giant metallic humanoid statues and he sold them to festivals, including Burning Man. He’d spent a long time working in a job he didn’t like before finding his calling – but he’d made the leap, and after a couple of ropey years was finally able to use his art to fund a life for himself and his young daughter.

“We moved to Lisbon from New York because she was growing up too fast,” he told me. “Smoking weed and skating. But she still smokes weed and skates here. She’s just rebellious. So was I at her age,” he laughed.

We spoke for a long time – about his statues, about my book, about our love lives, about doing something you believe in, about Lisbon, about his daughter. In the end, after perhaps forty minutes, we shook hands and said goodbye, and I left with an extra spring in my step. Nice guy.

Later that day I met up with a girl I’d first met in Lagos, named Tanya. She’s Portuguese and grew up in Switzerland, and she messaged me to say she was going to be in Lisbon when I was there. We went for a walk around the city, and as a belated birthday gift she insisted on paying for my lunch. We sat in a bar on Green Street, a cool little alleyway I found on my morning stroll. It’s far calmer and cleaner than the more famous Pink Street – which we both disliked. Smells of piss, too many stag parties.

Tanya told me she was headed to a place called Ericeira the next day with Felix, a friendly Swiss guy I’d also met in Lagos. She invited me along, and I said yes. That evening, when I got back to my hostel, we had a group phone call to plan it: we decided on an AirBnB rather than a hostel, and found a cute place for €45 a night each. Above budget, sure, but we all fancied some real comfort for a few days.

Tanya’s grandma used to live in Lisbon, and Tanya used to visit often. She passed away last year, and Tanya was staying in her old apartment while in the city. I went to meet her there the next day in the afternoon, and together we shared a taxi out of Lisbon to the small beach town of Ericeira.

We met up with Felix, who arrived the night before, and we were overjoyed at our accommodation: a big comfy bed each, a terrace in the sun, a cute kitchen and clean bathrooms. We loaded up with drinks and food from the supermarket, and we spent the next three days relaxing in the beautiful little town, tanning on the sea-view terrace and having all sorts of conversations. There was something about that terrace and that breezy hot weather that invariably led our chats into deep territory.

It was great therapy, the three day mini-holiday. Tanya was 29 and Felix was 32, and we all shared many of the same fears and hopes and regrets and life experiences. Our conversations veered from graphic discussion of sexual preferences to our deepest fears. I enjoyed getting to know them very much, and in only a few days I felt I knew them like old friends. We had in-jokes, we had nicknames, we shared hugs. It was really pleasant, and it felt good to shrink the world down to just three people for a while.

It was funny after beers one night – we were walking home in our little trio, and we stopped to watch the ocean beneath the moonlight. Ericeira is up on a cliff above the sea, with a beach far below and a cobbled path leading down to it.

“How much would somebody have to pay you to run down there and jump in the sea naked?” asked Tanya.

“I dunno, it must be freezing. A few hundred quid probably,” I replied.

“That much?” said Felix. “I’d do it for twenty five.”

“Bullshit,” said Tanya. “Bet you twenty five euros you won’t.”

“I bet twenty five too.”

“Easy money you guys,” said Felix.

And then he was off – striding down to the sand while we laughed and cheered him on. He was a tiny speck in the distance by the time he reached the surf, and we whooped to watch him pull off his t-shirt, shoes, shorts, and finally boxers in the moonlight. Barely illuminated, we could just see a tiny pale bum sprinting into the waves. Our cheers must have echoed around the whole town.

“The water was actually pretty warm,” said Felix, grinning.

We had a couple of fun nights out boozing, and spent one memorable evening watching the sunset over the ocean from atop some huge cliffs. Sitting between us, Tanya put her arms around Felix and I. She told us she’d been to Ericeira many times, and always took in a sunset from the cliffs.

“These cliffs are my happy place on earth,” she said.

The setting sun turned all of us golden, and I felt very calm. I felt so calm, in fact – and so lucky to be alive – that I didn’t say anything for a long time.

“Are you feeling okay?” asked Tanya after a while.

“Yeah,” I said. “I really am.”

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