10 Apr 2022

Lisbon, and the Tiny Woes of a Generic Europe

Map by me, made with marceloprates/prettymaps. Data © OpenStreetMap contributors.

My last memories of Europe are strong and fond. I spent a year in Zurich, Switzerland as a student in college. I made so many friends—both locals and transplants—studied and worked in the city at various times, and did my damndest to learn the local language.[1]

It’s jarring now to visit a city (Lisbon, Portugal) that brings back potent European vibes, but as a complete outsider.[2]

I made a list of what struck me the first few days in Lisbon:

  • Cobblestone everything — streets, sidewalks, paths
  • Narrow winding roads always intersecting at odd angles
  • Universally ~4-story buildings
  • Due to the street width vs building height ratio, there’s rarely direct sunlight in all but arterials
  • Cars drive unbelievably fast in the available space. Passing others on sidewalk requires going into the street. A stupid death feels readily available.
  • Due to narrow streets and omnipresent cars, constant smell of gasoline.

  • Teaming abundance of tourists. For a surprising radius in the city. Locals must hate us. I would.
  • Portuguese sounds like Spanish mixed with Russian. Reads very similar to Spanish.
  • Old men greeting locals with grumpy barks. They like it. Or each other with hugs.
  • Portuguese chain smoking by empty beer glasses at cafes without any signs, with plain tables crammed together in a single whitewashed rectangular room. These are local joints.

  • Egg tarts are dangerously as good as everyone said they would be.
  • Every meal out has been well-salted and well-cooked. Subtle herbs and spices, pleasant, difficult to pinpoint.
  • It’s so cheap.

… but I still have no idea what this place is actually like.

Without knowing locals, and without speaking the language, it feels like you can go a mile wide and still only make it an inch deep. I’ve been eating and seeing and doing for a week, and I don’t feel like I’m making forward progress.

Anyway, just a tiny woe—and one obvious in hindsight—to accept. Good impetus to find old friends and make new ones. And overall, it has been lovely here.


  1. For those of you familiar with Swiss German, this is a complex undertaking. I really just learned high (AKA “standard” AKA “Germany”) German and reveled in the few Swiss words I picked up. ↩︎

  2. Writing this now, I’m reminded that being an outsider is a fractal. My feeling after a year in Switzerland was that if I’d stayed and worked my whole life at it, I’d always remain an outsider. The degree and nature just change. A friend there said it best: “All it takes is the slightest emphasis on the wrong syllable and you know: they’re not truly from here.” This gave me mad respect for everyone who immigrates to another country. Tenfold if you can’t obviously pass—after all, I felt this as a European-looking guy. ↩︎

Monthly digest