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I Don’t Know Why I Love Lisbon

The grilled sardines lying on my plate are much larger than those stunted little things packed in tins that go by the same name in the U.S., and their eye sockets stare up at the ceiling, where hanging light fixtures are shaped like gourds. The aroma of sardines led me here, the scent sharp at first as it hit the nose (perhaps too sharp), until the smoky complexities took over, akin—at least for me—to a bouquet of wine. I take another sip from my glass of vinho verde and peer up at the small square of the TV perched on a high shelf beside the restaurant’s open door. The screen displays a smaller green rectangle of a soccer pitch, with the even smaller figures of the players racing back and forth.

Across the table in this typically narrow and crowded Lisbon tasca (mirroring the long and narrow streets of the Bairro Alto, an appealing neighborhood mix of funky shops and clothes drying on balconies), my 19-year-old ponytailed son, Nathaniel, sits enthralled by the beginning of this World Cup game: Portugal against the Netherlands. We’ve both caught some of the local futebol passion through a sneaky process of cultural osmosis, because there’s been no escape from the billboards, metro announcements, and TV ads that nearly all celebrate the World Cup games. For only the second time in history, a Portuguese team has made it to the second round, and tonight they’re fighting for a berth in the third round, the final eight. My normally sports-averse son is actually interested, maybe because I mentioned a few days ago that Jack Kemp had once denounced soccer, on the floor of the House of Representatives, as a “socialist sport.” It’s a well-worn tactic—as a kid, he finally ate his broccoli after my wife and I told him that the first President Bush hated the stuff. But Nathaniel also has a real gift for geometry, and maybe that’s what secretly attracts him as he keeps his eyes on the TV—the constant reshuffling of the players’ patterns on the pitch.

Already in the first minutes, the Dutch team has begun some serious harsh play, enough to draw two yellow warning cards, in what seems like an attempt to intimidate Portugal from the get-go. Nathaniel shuffles nervously in his seat, glances at me. On the flight over, I’d made the mistake of reading aloud passages about fan hooliganism from Franklin Foer’s marvelous How Soccer Explains the World. At the time, a description of one soccer thug’s arm that “folds around in a direction that would defy a healthy network of joints and tendons” made for some good head-slapping, eye-rolling camaraderie on a long flight, but now I’m regretting it, because I’ve had to nag Nathaniel all day to get him to watch tonight’s game in a public place. I try listening in on the conversations of the people sitting at neighboring tables in an attempt to catch their mood, but spoken Portuguese—with all its succulent oos and ooshes, oishes and aows—still glides by too quickly for me, even after years of tutoring in the language.

Still, I’m happy just to be here. I love Lisbon.

I don’t know why I love Lisbon. But I jumped at the chance to participate in the international short-story conference being held here this week. What a gig—all I have to do is give a reading of one of my stories, manage as a panelist to say something remotely intelligent about literary editing, and collaborate on a video essay on the conference with my technically astute son, and then I get to wander around one of my favorite cities. When I’m walking its stone-cobbled streets, catching glimpses here and there of the bordering Tejo River, or taking in, from a vista on one of the city’s hills, the glorious staggered topography of the white buildings and their salmon-colored tile roofs, I feel that I’m also traveling some interior landscape, that those streets are leading to a place inside myself I haven’t yet located.

Our neighbors cheer and our waitress swirls an impromptu dance—Maniche, the Portuguese midfielder, has scored the first goal, one of those beautifully aimed strikes that, in replay, has an inevitability about it, as the ball slices through the shifting, open spaces of a tumble of defenders in a direct elegant line to the corner of the net. His long dark hair plastered in sweat against the sides of his exultant face, Maniche wades through an eruption of his teammates’ joy at the seemingly impossible having been so artfully accomplished.

I take another sip of the house wine, watch the continuing replays of the goal. I don’t know why I feel at home here, but I have a theory. My family on my father’s side is Scottish and Catholic. It’s not a popular mixture back in the home country, which is why my dad’s parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles emigrated en masse to New York in 1927—typical bad timing, two years before the Depression, but that’s another story. Why, when, and where, I’ve often wondered, did my family shed its Presbyterian roots?

On the banks of the Douro River in northern Portugal, there’s a port-wine vineyard called the Quinta dos Malvedos. In 1820, two Graham brothers who lived in Oporto, William and John (my grandfather’s first name was John, and my father’s, William!), worked for a trading company based in Glasgow (where my family comes from!), and they founded that quinta. Couldn’t my father’s family, almost 200 years ago, have raised grapes on the banks of the Douro River and eventually converted to Catholicism? And if some returned to Scotland (black sheep, certainly—why else leave a vineyard?), then back in Glasgow they paid the piper for their unwelcome faith.

It’s probably all bullshit, but I hold that shred of possibility to help explain why the full-throated, plaintive twists of a fado song can sometimes bring me close to tears, or why Portuguese saudade—a complicated feeling that combines sorrow, longing, and regret, laced perhaps with a little mournful pleasure—fits so easily in my own emotional baggage. There’s something beyond romantic delusion, something deeper, that beckons me: it’s a genetic thing, a need to cross the centuries and return home, if only for a little while. I’m sure any Scottish genealogy service could easily burst this fragile bubble, which is why I’ll never consult one.

Cries of despair rise around us. The Dutch team has gone a little crazy in their attempt to even the score. Cristiano Ronaldo, a team star, is the victim of a vicious kick and is forced to leave the game. The baby-faced player cries as he exits, which make his features appear even younger. Those damn Dutch—they made a little kid cry! Minutes later Cristiano’s teammate, Costinha, returns Dutch fire with a nasty foul—his second of the game—and he’s ejected with a red card. Yet, for all the rough stuff on the screen, the Portuguese maintain their good spirits. Nathaniel relaxes, nods at me: we’re far from English-soccer-fan hooliganism here.

During halftime, I continue to scrape the delicious sardines down to their spinal columns with great care and deliberation. I know I can’t make these babies last until the end of the game, so I order more wine, and if the match goes into overtime there’s always dessert to order and slowly savor.

Once the game resumes, it threatens to become a brawl. The referee is in over his head, and he starts throwing out so many yellow cards that the commentators on TV seem to have lost count. His attempts to control the roughhousing only further incite the players on both teams, and the foul fest continues. Even the Portuguese goalkeeper, Ricardo, draws a yellow card. It’s become the kind of game that could set off any number of silently ticking heart attacks.

Nathaniel starts throwing those looks at me again, but now they’re just a joke, because it’s clear that our amiable Portuguese neighbors take it all in lightly while tucking into their sardines and grilled pork ribs, and I feel a rush of affection for these people I don’t know. Yes, this is an important game, a crucial game, but I sense no barely suppressed rage beneath the surface. My neighbors seem to have their heads on straight: they’re enjoying the game, win or lose. I like these people. I’m even happier that Lisbon will soon be my home for the coming year, though it still seems more an imagined future than one that’s rapidly approaching. In a month I’ll return with my family, and my wife, Alma, will ply her anthropological skills studying Cape Verdeans, our daughter, Hannah, will start the sixth grade at a Portuguese school that’s a five-minute walk from our apartment, and I’ll finish writing a few books that have been begging for extended time and attention. I’ll finally learn Portuguese—because isn’t it true that simply breathing Lisbon air helps in memorizing the irregular conjugations of the preterit?

Now that we’ve passed the midpoint of the second half, the Dutch are deep into need-to-score desperation, and maybe their chance will come—the Portuguese team has been a man down since Costinha was ejected, and fatigue is setting in. Suddenly, Figo, the team captain, writhes on the ground, his hands covering his face, and everyone around us gasps at this possible further loss.

After the Dutch player Boulahrouz is ejected with a red card, Figo makes a remarkable recovery. On replay it’s clear that Figo was only lightly brushed on the chest by Boulahrouz’s elbow during a tight run for the ball and then, after a half of a tenth of a split-second’s hesitation, Figo reared his head back and began his face-clutching and wriggling dramatics, pouring it on for the benefit of the referee. It’s such flagrant fakery that we all cluck approval at the theatrics. After all, Boulahrouz was the one who injured Cristiano in the first half, and we’re satisfied with this imprecisely accomplished justice.

Soon, two more red cards cast a player on each side out of the game. Both teams are now, incredibly, playing with only nine men on the field. Somehow, the Portuguese manage in the final minutes to tough out their one-goal lead, and then the tasca crowd cheers and the waiters and waitresses rush out to the street to dance on the cobbled stones and sing a souped-up version of the national anthem.

Nathaniel and I wend our way through the dancing streets down to the subway, and while we wait, the Portuguese seem a bit surprised to me, as if they secretly didn’t believe they’d win this game. Perhaps unrestrained expressions of joy aren’t exactly local tender, perhaps worries already abound because the heavily favored English team will be playing Portugal in the next round. Then the subway cars arrive packed with revelers, many sporting goofy porkpie hats in the colors of the Portuguese flag, and again I get a sense from these celebrants—a slight, barely perceptible hesitation here and there—that any happiness leaving saudade behind may be uncharted territory.

Nathaniel and I reach our stop, and, as we begin our climb up the stairs to the street, the tiled walls echo with countless honking car horns from the street above. Outside, we watch the broad avenue packed with a traffic jam of delirious fans hanging from car windows or just managing to balance on the roofs, waving flags and shouting victory: Portugal! Portugal! Maybe it’s not so hard for saudade to take a temporary backseat after all. Back in our hotel room, I lean out of the window and listen to the horns and cheers echoing off of the same streets I’ll be wandering in the coming year, while I try to discover why I love Lisbon. I give in to my own glee, and for hours into the night the whole city sings.

Excerpted from The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon | University of Chicago Press, 2009
Article and photo © 2009  Philip Graham. All rights reserved.