Where are you now?

Meg Robson Mahoney
7 min readApr 2, 2019


my aunt asks when I call.

“We’re still in Lisbon.”

“Still?” She says, with a tone that speaks an unasked question: What do you do for so long, in a place you’ve been before?

You stay in a new neighborhood to see the city from another angle.

We’ve stayed in some quieter corners in the past. Alfama, with fado songs drifting down its mystifyingly twisted streets at night. And Lapa, where we watched sunlight shift along the Tejo River throughout the day, beyond the Museum of Antique Art. Then Santa Catarina, where our corner apartment had two views — up the street to a cathedral and across to the changing landscape of laundry on a line.

On a corner in Santa Catalina

This time we’re right downtown near Rossio Square. One floor up from the heater-skelter search for parking and a steady stream of passers-by. We lean out to watch the construction workers maneuver around the tourists. To see a tour bus escape after accidentally turning down our street. Or to track a noisy hoard of students in black cloaks, said to have inspired the uniforms at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School.

On Rua Sao Jose near Rossio Square

You hunt for grocery stores to stock the fridge for cooking and eating at home.

Our supermarket of choice

Early on, we turned a nearby corner to see a butcher in the doorway of his shop, talking with a neighbor across the tiny street. Puzzled as we approached, he stepped aside to let us in. We gestured toward the chicken breasts and found the Portuguese word for two. When he offered to slice them, we weren’t quick to understand, so he just wrapped them up. As he gave us change, Jake pointed to a photo on the wall behind him: a head shot of a young bullfighter. The butcher nodded yes, 50 years ago. Now, when he asks about slicing the chicken, we manage se faz favor for please.

The kitchen gets dirty. You clean it.

Someone mentioned organic vegetables at a Sunday market in Principe Real. I’d seen mention of it on the internet last year, but we were only here one Sunday, with not many home-cooked dinners. This year we found it. I bought rye bread and carrots, bananas and eggs, asparagus, herbs, and red pepper — too busy to take any pictures.

You notice repeating events.

As I passed the theatre on the way to my Portuguese class every day, there were children sitting on the steps — the littlest ones dressed in their not-to-be-lost school colors — and having a snack before going inside to see Rapunzel. A new crowd every morning.
On my way home, I passed a woman turning on a pedestal, painted antique gold. When I dropped some coins in the can at her feet, she turned a beautiful smile my way, each day.

There are things you’ve seen that call you back and new things to discover. You can dig a little deeper.

One day we walked to a gallery suggested by a friend, at the Arpad Szenes-Vieira da Silva Foundation. It was closed for a change of show, but we talked with the man behind the desk. He’s from Angola. We talked about tired knees: his mother’s, his aunt’s, and ours. He lives and works in art museums here — this one and the Gulbenkian. His sister is still in Angola, working for a bank. She makes more money, but he says his is a better life, services in Angola being sporadic at their best. When we returned 10 days later to see the exhibition, we talked again, this time of things he’s learned about Portugal that he didn’t learn in books.

The art gallery is across the street from Amoreiras Plaza, which is bordered by a Roman aquaduct.

You take your daily walk, up a hill and around a corner, into a different neighborhood every time.

What would this neighborhood be like to live in?

Up this stairway and around the corner, I found a flock of pigeons that someone must be feeding.

In the busy neighborhood near Luis de Camoes Plaza, we visited a public library with a view...

…of the Tejo River…
…and people reading quietly among its whimsical statues.

Meanwhile, you’re thrilled to discover some of the secret ways to get from hill to hill without a climb.

We found the Elevador da Baixa, a public elevator inside a building. It carried us up a floor to let us out across the street from another elevator inside the parking lot of a Pingo Doce grocery store, which carried us six more stories up to an overlook on the road to Castelo Sao Jorge at the very top. Which was still uphill, but so much closer.

And this:

It’s easier on the way up than down, near Martim Moniz.
The Ascensors Gloria and do Lavra climb two different hills.
And in a subway station, accessible for free, there’s a set of six or seven escalators.
You go down two & up five or down five & up two, depending on whether you’re trying to get up or down.

Over time and several visits, as it gets easier to get around, you may have lost your astonished eyes, but you’re still gaining new perspective. Lisbon has no end of miradouros — the squares that overlook the city.

Our favorite miradouro is in Graca, where we drank dark beer and listened to buskers with a view we hadn’t seen before: the April 25th Bridge across the Tejo River from behind the castle and just as high.

Late afternoon in front of the church at the top of Graca with buskers and beer

From up there, we counted construction cranes above the skyline. Things are changing here, just like at home in Seattle. We see more tourists. Prices are higher. A Portuguese friend told us 21,000 new airbnbs and hotel rooms were added in Lisbon just last year.

You step around construction sites as you walk, noticing buildings in three stages…

fresh and polished,
ready for love and money,
or under construction.
Whole blocks are cloaked in the fabric that signals work.

Sometimes you just stay home. Home. You miss home. But being away is a way of gaining perspective. As days goes by, life replicates itself: groceries, reading, friends, grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch or dinner. After all, you brought yourself along.

Finally you realize your days are running out. There are things you still won’t see. You do what calls the loudest, cross things off the list, and begin to plan whatever’s out ahead.

I don’t tell my aunt any of these things. She tells me about her trip to Portugal, sixty or seventy years ago, traveling with a friend: A hailstorm along the Algarve coast broke the front window in their rental car, and then it turned to rain. They traded off driving all the way to Lisbon, the driver with a faceful of wind and rain and the other crouched in the back seat. She remembers it well.

Going forward we won’t have time to look back that far, from sixty or seventy years in the future.

Which memories will rise for telling once you’re home?

We certainly had great weather.