Letter From Lisbon

After a hard day’s drive, we have at long last pulled into another comfortable campground just South of Lisbon where, after much driving around, we have at long last managed to find a vacant spot with but a single tent nearby, a small mountain pup tent belonging to a young couple who also like privacy. Jean-Claude is French and his wife Anna is Portuguese. She is finishing up at the university near here, and the two of them are living in their tent. We find them quite likable and have become friends. Anna is from Coimbra, a famous Portuguese university town. We were delighted to learn that she is also a lover of fado; in short order she had us in a wonderful little restaurant named Caesaria in the Alcantara section of Lisbon. Caesaria has an authentic fado floorshow and most of the waiters and waitresses there are musicians who serve food and make music. The clientele last night appeared to be exclusively Portuguese.

Fado is a sort of Portuguese version of the Spanish flamenco. Both are distinctive folk musics heavily endowed by the Arab occupation, flamenco the more so. Fado is mellower, usually in a minor key, more haunting and melodic, and a little easier for most Western tastes to appreciate. The pop song April in Portugal is a fado melody.

Fados have a bluesy, lamenting quality about them and often speak of tragedies such as unrequited love and death. A lone singer is accompanied by a Spanish guitar and by a Portuguese guitar, a smaller mandolin-like stringed instrument, unique to Portugal. The accompaniments are complex and imaginative, and the music of such a caliber as to require substantial musical skills to perform. We had a wonderful evening, Zerky.

Lisbon is a city of air, sunlight and bright green hills nearly surrounded by water. It reminds us of San Francisco, although Lisbon is much larger. As soon as we arrived here, your mother, as is her tendency, immediately headed for the old section of town where we spent a foot-sore day threading our way in and out of streets so narrow that the blue tile covered walls of the tilting old buildings sometimes nearly touched overhead. You, comfortably seated backwards in your pack on my back, were quite a sensation with the Portuguese women. Apparently they had never seen a baby on a back before. One of them made her disapproval loudly known when she stopped me and began to harangue me in the middle of a street full of people. She made it very clear to everyone around that I was abusing you and no doubt worse. You had fallen asleep in your pack on my back and had been partially dangling out of it, as you often do when you get bored. But fortunately you woke up and stuck up for me by giving me your usual winning smile. Had you chosen to start crying, I might have been stoned by the crowd.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

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