My first couple of nights in Lisbon were calm. I realised I’d been boozing for too many days on the trot, so I took a few nights off and spent several evenings lounging around and sipping mugs of tea like a wise old owl.
Sant Jordi hostel in Lisbon may well be the most beautiful hostel I’ve ever stayed in. The building used to be a nunnery, and the ceilings are high, the rooms are vast, the bathrooms are bright, and the garden is truly blissful – Portuguese blue and white tiles lining old fountains, and breakfast tables in the shade beneath orange and lemon trees, their fruit ready to be plucked for breakfast.
It was so nice, in fact, that for several days I barely left. Lisbon hit 29 degrees for a steady week, and the heat, coupled with the fact that the entire city seems to be on a 45-degree slant, made me extremely lethargic. The nice thing about travelling slow, however, is that you don’t have to feel guilty for being a bad tourist and seeing nothing for a few days: you have all the time in the world.
I explored Lisbon a little, but only in the evenings when the sun dropped and the temperatures calmed down. I got lost in Alfama one afternoon, then wandered along the river taking in the grand buildings and their lovely warm colours. It’s strange how small Lisbon feels – I think it’s because it’s so hilly. It reminds me of that scene in Inception where the city folds in half, with one side rolling over way up high. From any raised vantage point in this city it feels as though you could reach out and prod somebody standing on a rooftop on the adjacent bank of one of Lisbon’s many urban canyons.
The Portuguese are very good at making tiles and cork and wine and pretty buildings. They are very bad at food and pavements. The pavements here are cartoonishly thin – barely wider than my hips – and the roads beside them are filled with honking mopeds and jangling trams skirting around on metal tracks. Often you’ll be walking along what appears to be a reasonably wide path – that is, the width of two adult humans walking side by side – and you’ll begin to find that, as the path bends around a corner, it trickles away like a stream running dry, until you’re forced to turn sideways and inch along like Indiana Jones on a cliff edge. And then there’s inevitably a portly old woman coming the other way, and she scowls at you and you have to gallantly step into the road and get beeped at by a furious weather-beaten man smoking inside a poo-brown Fiat Panda from 1980.
I’ve nearly been sheared in two/ground into a paste against a wall several dozen times since being here. I don’t know how the locals operate. If I lived here I’d be minced on the daily.
They have some cool street art here – super vivid colours. There are a lot of cool sculptures too, including a few made out of recycled rubbish which has been turned into animal murals. There are some great viewpoints too, although I’ve yet to see a really banging sunset.
So – I got familiar with Lisbon over a few days, and had a generally chilled and pleasant time. Then came the strangest coincidence of the last several years, and possibly the last decade. Possibly my whole life.
One morning, after sitting and working from my laptop in the beautiful gardens of Sant Jordi, I stepped inside the hostel to wash up a coffee mug. I had my sunglasses on, top undone, floral shorts on; I was in full sunshine beach mode, feeling relaxed. I glanced around the kitchen as I entered – I’d come to know a good chunk of the backpackers in the building by this point – and I saw a tall man with long hair enter the room. I looked away, then paused and did a double take. And my heart exploded.
It was Dave.
Dave was one of the first people I spoke to when I moved to Berlin back in 2016. We became best friends, and since then have had a ton of bizarre adventures: near-death experiences in India, homelessness in Prague, and a thousand strange nights in Berlin. I last saw Dave in the autumn, when he crashed with me for a couple of nights in London. Since then we’d exchanged a few messages, but we’re both slack with it.
Imagine my surprise, then, to look up and see one of my best – and certainly my most absurd – friends standing in front of me. I watched the smile grow on his face, and we leapt into a very long hug that was almost a wrestle, rolling around and clanging into things and laughing from the shock of it.
“What the fuck are you doing here, man?” I all but shrieked.
He clapped me on the shoulder and we went outside to smoke in the shade, sitting on benches lined with cool Portuguese tiles. I’d known Dave was planning on a Portugal trip in the spring, but beyond this I’d had no notion of his movements. And here he was, in front of me – of all the dates he might have travelled, of all the cities he might have visited, of all the hostels he might have stayed in, of all the times he might have drifted in and out – there he was. The hostel was huge; we could easily have both spent several nights there without ever seeing one another. The odds of it are absolutely astronomical.
We hugged over and over in the garden, and I text a photo of us to my family. This monstrous coincidence was made even more stupendous by the fact that not 24 hours before, I’d spent an afternoon chatting on the phone to my younger brother, describing how I was enjoying Lisbon but was feeling a little bit lonely, and wished I had a proper friend to explore with.
“Do you believe in fate?” Daved grinned, as he rolled a joint.
He hadn’t changed a bit: acerbic wit, shining intelligence, stoner logic, bouncing gait, Rasta tee, zero fucks. It was like I’d slipped through a crack in the pavement and fallen through some strange mirror wormhole leading back to 2016 and Berlin and ComeBackpackers Hostel. I couldn’t believe it – and to be honest, I still can’t.
“Alright,” we decided, once the initial smash of shock and joy had calmed. “Let’s go out and find something cool to do.”