A Streetcar Named Desire

February 16, 2011

I just returned to Belgrade after a week or so in Lisbon. Immediate observation: It’s cold here.

It was my first time in Portugal (which is cool because it means I get to add that to my list, woo hoo). Lisbon is a very unique city, it felt something like San Francisco to me, but that was probably just the streetcars. Naturally, I got a kick of out exploring the public transportation system. The streetcars look super cool, most of them are little tiny vehicles (very old-fashioned) ideal for plying the narrow streets of the center. Beyond that, however, the headways and operating hours (not to mention capacity) on most lines are problematic enough to render it more of a quaint historical artifact than a scalable and usable network; that’s what the metro is for though.

The weather was good for the first part of my stay there, consistently sunny (or partly cloudy) with very warm weather. Toward the end the skies opened up and poured torrentially (what is with Firefox’s spell checker?! Torrentially is most-definitely a word…).

I was staying in Bairro Alto, which feels to me like the Capitol Hill of Lisbon. It’s packed with hipsters and any sort of bar you could imagine. Stepping out my front door I was immediately within a five minute walk to myriad bars and restaurants. Invariably, there was much drinking. The bar culture there is quite interesting, by default, the beers are tiny and one is meant to drink many more of them over the course of the night. This may sound inharmonious to those of us not from places like that, but I assure you, it’s quite a good idea. What it affords is a night punctuated by visiting more places, which is oftentimes (although not always, I suppose) more fun due to increased diversity. Rather than having a few beers here, a few more there, and perhaps a few more at a third venue before going home sufficiently imbibed, the Lisboeta will have visited easily twice as many places and drank twice as many (albeit half-sized) beers before going home imbibed to the same extent.

Coming from -10c in Belgrade, it felt like summer to me, but the natives were aghast at my scantily-clad appearance (jeans and a button-up), I was comfortable nonetheless not wearing a jacket all over town. In spite of the harrowing 15c temperatures, the Portuguese have a tendency to hang out outside the bar, rather than sitting inside to take in their libations. Walking down any given street in Bairro Alto at night is a mass of people standing outside hole-in-the-wall bars (I’ve been assured by my Portuguese friends that the streets of Bairro Alto are considerably more packed in other seasons) with their various beers or wine glasses. The latter of which is an interesting honor-system, the glasses are typically quite nice, yet the bar allows them to be taken out into the street (and quite possibly to their untimely demise on the cobblestones) and trusts on good faith that they will be returned when the drink is finished. It’s also not entirely unheard-of to return the glass to a different bar, resulting in a sort of a “glass share” program.

The more traditional Portuguese restaurants had an interesting setup as well. They were quite narrow, with cafeteria-style table orientation, several long rows of tables typically with eight or ten places at each. Generally, if the place was crowded, which it often was, you’d get seated right next to another group of people. At first I thought it was uncomfortable as I tend to like my space, but after the first time I got quite used to it. Overhearing conversations (albeit often in a language I don’t know) all around and seeing what other people had ordered ended up being pretty fun.

All-in-all I had a great time. I plan on visiting my Portuguese friends again at a warmer time of the year.

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