Last night, we took Gabe’s family for a true Lisboan experience. We started with dinner at one of the street festas in Alfama, a reprise of our new favorite meal: grilled sardines, bread, salad with grilled peppers on top, sangria, and caldo verde (cabbage and potato) soup. All of this was eaten al fresco, sitting on homemade benches perched on temporary scaffolding on top of a long staircase. No permits here, nuh uh. Just pure street vendor goodness.

We then made our way up the hill to the castle, where there was fado music playing at not too ridiculous an hour. Most fado clubs, or the good ones anyway, get going around 11 PM or midnight. This concert started at 10 PM, which was much more reasonable for the girls, who are still getting over jetlag — and for myself, although I have no such excuse.

I didn’t really know what to expect from such a concert. I thought it would be purely for the tourists, to let them say they’d seen real fado in Lisbon. But the audience was mainly Portuguese people, all of us rattling around in the front of a massive seating area facing a brightly-lit stage, all of it overlooking the beautiful nighttime cityscape.

The musicians came out more or less on time, and I waited for the the fado to begin — the quick, rhythmic guitar, the sad, slow woman’s voice. Instead, we were greeted with a steady, up tempo drum beat. Soon, the uber-cool bald bass player to the other side of the stage joined in. And then the usual intricate guitar notes layered themselves over the bass rhythm. Certainly not what I’d expected. By the time the women started singing, two or three songs into the set, I was hooked. I think it was a modern interpretation of fado, which I (heathen that I am) appreciated a lot more than the traditional.

Soon, their opening act was over, and the two singers gave way to a succession of three men fadistos, each more famous than the last. Or so we were told. In Portugal, there are two types of fado: one from Lisbon, and one from Coimbra, the city up north that we visited last month. In Coimbra, only the men sing fado, whereas in Lisbon it’s traditionally women’s voices that you hear.

The final singer, a very old man whose hands shook as he held the microphone, belted out his songs in a voice made slightly higher by age, but no less powerful for it. When the crowd joined in on his last song, and then followed it with a standing ovation, I knew that we were witnessing something special. Who he was, I still have no idea, but judging by their reaction, he was a big deal.

After he made his way slowly off the stage, the first group took over again. As I relaxed back into their rhythmic, almost Celtic sounding melodies, I looked around myself at the castle backlit in front of us, the 25th of April bridge twinkling in the distance, and at my beloved husband and his family sitting next to me. One of our nieces was snuggled up between us, rapt attention on the stage, my hand in hers, my scarf covering her legs from the chilly air. It occurred to me then that I literally could not get any happier. It’s taken me all this time to find happiness in Lisbon, but I think at last it’s here, less than a month before we leave. Or maybe it’s been here for longer, and I just haven’t recognized it until now.

Listening to that music, I felt I’d finally gotten a glimpse of the pulse of Lisbon, the beating heart of it all. What else could give rise to such open sorrow and anguish in a culture’s popular expression? Seeing the soft underbelly of this gruff, tough city catalyzed a growing feeling that I’ve had recently, as though I’m right on the edge of really understanding this place, of being a part of it, or at least reaching the next level of that progression.

I’ve been feeling this way all week, perhaps because our family and friends have been here, making the difference in my comfort level obvious. During that time, I’ve had at least two or three Portuguese people greet me in English, then change to Portuguese in surprise when I greeted them in that language. One lady even asked if I was Portuguese or Brazilian. That has certainly never happened before.

I can finally make small talk about the weather with the guy who takes my card at the gym, or chat about the World Cup match with the waiter taking my order at lunch. When I walked by the restaurant on the corner yesterday during the tense moments of the Portugal-Brazil match, the waitress there gave me kisses on the cheek and lamented the lack of a score on either side. And on our way to the metro last night, I bid a good evening to the old lady who lives next door to us, who recognized me on the street.

Finally, I am at the point that I envisioned for myself when we started this year. I’m not by any means fluent, either culturally or linguistically, but I can get by. More importantly, I feel more comfortable in my own skin here, almost — almost — as if I belong.

Something has shifted, imperceptibly, subtly, something that has further blurred the line between outsider and local. And I didn’t realize any of this until I heard the fado last night, when I saw with a shock that this most essential Portuguese art form couldn’t get beneath my skin — because it was already there.


Photos from yesterday’s escapades, starting with the World Cup match, then on a tour of the old water system running under the hill above us, and finally Alfama festas and fado at the castle.

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