Portugal | Penguin

Dave and I went out to explore Lisbon, still wrapped up in the strange glow of our incredible coincidence.

We headed first to a viewpoint from which you can see the entire city, taking in some gorgeous colourful murals on the way. It was here that we met with two friends of Dave’s – Sara, from Sweden, and Cami, from France. Sara lives half the year in Berlin, and half with her boyfriend Cami in Lisbon. They all met in Germany, through a mutual love of climbing.

That was the reason Dave was in Portugal – a group of friends from his climbing gym had arranged for a week-long cliff climbing blowout along Portugal’s craggy coast. With Sara and Cami we went for drinks in a ‘secret’ bar near the viewpoint, and we drank cocktails and beers with beautiful views of the sunset. When it got chilly after dark we went to a local bar down a quiet street, where we sat and told stories until late.

The next morning was one of the most beautiful awakenings I’ve experienced in a long time: after spending the night in a large, airy dorm with the windows open and a view over the tranquil garden, I woke up to the soft sounds of a guitar, coalescing with snippets carried on the breeze of singing and laughter and the clinking of cutlery. I looked out of my dorm window and saw half a dozen backpackers sitting under the old tree in the centre of the garden, sharing breakfast and music.

I pulled on some shorts and a baggy t-shirt, and in bare feet went down to join them. I got a coffee for a euro and said good morning to everybody. Dave was already there, rolling a joint and chatting to somebody who was sipping a mate, the caffeinated tea-like drink from South America. Within moments of joining them I was alive with laughter, and full of hope for the day. The sun was shining, birds tweeting, everybody wandering downstairs with their hair a mess and tanned shoulders, sharing fruit from a bowl and buttering toast. It all felt so fucking… just so… deeply nice.

I thought about all the mornings I woke up alone in my grey box in London, and I thought: I knew it. I knew there was nothing wrong with my brain – I knew I wasn’t depressed. I was just in the wrong habitat.

There’s a quote attributed to Einstein that goes like ‘if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life believing it’s stupid’. You can apply it to joy too, I’m learning: chuck a penguin into the jungle and it’s gonna have a shit time. I think a lot of the time when people are living unhappily they try to find happiness through changing the peripheries of their life – mindfulness, diets, dating, whatever. But sometimes it feels healthy to be able to just say: you know what, this is not for me, and it doesn’t matter how many positive mantras I chant into the mirror every morning, I’m not ever going to feel fulfilled here. And then you find a new habitat that suits you, and the happiness comes naturally – you don’t have to try and coax it out, luring it towards you like a scared animal. It just blossoms within you and you find yourself laughing more and smiling more with each day, and you realise that the joy and the hope inside were not dead, but dormant.

It’s an obvious lesson – but for some reason it always seems to be the obvious lessons that take the longest to figure out.

Alright – back to the hostel. The previous evening, Dave and I had returned home more than a little tipsy and met two blonde girls, one Russian, one Belarussian (I felt a little Basil Fawlty – don’t mention it!). They were a free-spirited pair, each with interesting tattoos, a silly sense of humour, and an abstract turn of phrase which I enjoyed. Later on, when the girls had headed up to bed, Dave and I were sat in the garden when we heard their voices above us. Turning, we saw them on the balcony, sharing a joint. Dave was fresh out of weed and had been searching for ages.

“Yo,” he called up. “You wanna smoke together?”

“Mmm, I don’t know,” one of the girls laughed.

“You have more weed? You wanna share it?”

“Maybe we smoke together tomorrow morning.”

“What about now?”

“We are feeling sleepy now.”

“We can climb up?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t understand English.”

This balcony back and forth lasted a good five minutes, until we gave up and went to bed. The next morning, I saw them at breakfast – or at least, I thought it was them. It had been pretty dark, and I’d been pretty drunk.

“Morning,” I said. “Hey – was that you two up on the balcony last night?”

“Yes,” said the Belarussian girl. “Was that you two yelling in the garden?”

“Oh, no, no,” I mumbled. “That was… some other idiots.”

I had to work during the day, so I sat in the lovely open common area on my laptop while Dave headed to the beach for the afternoon with the two girls. Every couple of hours he’d send me photos of them all frolicking and eating pineapple and smoking joints on the sand, but I didn’t feel like I missed too much because I don’t care for the beach. Sand gets in your bum crack.

In the evening the three of them came home all sun-kissed and baked, by which time I was deep in conversation with a Brazilian guy and an English girl about the extent to which we can communicate without words, using body language and dance and expressions. The English girl was cool: a proper armpit-hair hippy, she was incredibly validating of everyone around her. I barked a laugh at one point that was so loud it ricocheted around the garden, and immediately apologised.

“You should never apologise for laughter,” she told me. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

It was one of those snippets of advice you get from strangers that you end up remembering for twenty years.

Next morning I woke up and came downstairs to the garden with Dave. We ate a long, slow breakfast with the two Eastern European girls and an American guy, called Dan. I liked Dan a lot; he’d not travelled solo before, and he was very enthusiastic about everything. He told us a story of how he’d been unfairly clobbered by a French girl in a nightclub the evening before. She’d mistaken him for somebody else and punched him immediately several times in the cock, then took his prescription glasses off his face and crushed them in her hands. He spent the following hour or two stumbling blindly through Lisbon, crashing into bins and cars, trying to get home. He was pretty shaken up by it.

“It’ll become a funny memory eventually,” I told him.

I have to tell myself that a lot, lol.

Dave and I went to a climbing shop during the day, as he needed to buy gear for his trip. No journey with Dave is linear or easy, so naturally we ended taking a taxi way out into a strange industrial sector, sprinting across a dual carriageway, wandering into a fancy restaurant and being shooed away, sneaking onto buses without tickets (that were going in the wrong direction – karma), and angering several sweaty men in a docklands climbing gym.

Back at the hostel we spent a few truly enjoyable hours sitting with Dan and another American, Tristan, on sun-loungers beneath the orange trees. Our conversation started off all about books and philosophy, and after a joint degenerated to the point of Tristan forgetting what the word for ‘headphones’ is.

“Has anybody seen my… ear… listeners?”

Chilling with the boys and chatting was one of my favourite moments of my trip so far. It was peaceful and silly. I think that might be my favourite mood ever, you know. Silly and peaceful. Try find a better vibe than that: sitting in the shade, warm breeze, sunlight through the leaves, laughing quietly with friends at stupid shit.

I dunno. I feel like over the last two years I forgot how simple everything can be. Sometimes happiness and joy seem so elusive, like there are so many boxes you need to tick all at once to feel good. And then you sit in the sun with some nice people and you think ‘OH’.

Best feeling.

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