Cian on Graça, the part of Lisbon where he lives:
“Lisbon is all hills, and Graça is right at the top of one of them, just along from St. George’s Castle, which dominates this eastern side of the city. The other main hill in the city centre contains the Bairro Alto, where we London School teachers usually ended up each weekend night. Between the two hills is squashed the low-lying Baixa area, where the streets are all set out in a grid pattern, like an electric circuit-board, and where most of the shopping is concentrated. The two hills stare stonily across at one another, the traditional Graça/Castle side suspicious of the bohemian debauchery of the Bairro Alto. They both look down with disdain on all the vulgar commercial fuss in the Baixa below.
From the viewing area next to the Graça outdoor café you can see nearly all of this and more. The river is just visible off in the distance to the left, as a glimpse of grey water in the daytime and a dark absence at night, and the regular sized buildings that the grid creates are laid out like morsels, little cookies you almost want to reach out and nibble on. The castle juts out too, on the same level as Graça, stony and stern. Yet from Graça there is also a view of deeper into the city, away from the open presence of the river, a view of Socorro and Intendente and Avenida da Roma, where the streets lose their grid shape and become as chaotic and random as they should be in a city like Lisbon. The view from the castle makes the city seem organised and tidy, but from Graça you see more of what it really is, you can look down like God at all the mess and traffic and frantic movement of people.” (p.34)
Cian on his flatmates, Charles and Charlotte:
“More even than Joanne and Rahul, I soon noticed that Charles and Charlotte were almost never apart. Literally never. About ten days into my stay in the flat in Graça I walked into the kitchen and found Charlotte on her own, stirring something in the frying pan. I looked around the room for her partner and realized that, for the first time ever, she was unaccompanied. I was just about to ask her where Charles was when I heard the toilet flush and he walked through the door, drying his hands. In fact, I was surprised that they even took a dump separately, such was their union. They slept together, shopped together, cooked together, they even had the same teaching timetables so that, although they couldn’t actually be together in each others’ classes, they were always in the vicinity. Apart from the four or five hours teaching a day, Charles and Charlotte shared the same physical space at all times.
They also hardly ever left the flat. They were in a foreign country, with beautiful October weather and a city full of cheap activities to do, and yet number 24, Largo da Graça, first floor, was seemingly the only place they wanted to be. They worked at more or less the same times as me, and on Saturday nights they did go out, but always after I had begun my night, and they consistently returned hours before I did. They were always there, always at home, always together.
So it was no surprise that the Two Charlies’ presence soon became oppressive. There were only two communal areas in the apartment, the kitchen/ dining area that looked on to our bare back yard, and the interior, windowless living room. The rooms were next to each other, and both had doors that opened on to the long corridor that ran the length of the flat. Charles and Charlotte had perfected the technique of inhabiting both rooms simultaneously. While cooking dinner they would wander over and back between the rooms, one watching a programme on television while the other chopped or stirred or fried, then they would meet up and discuss the progress of the dinner, or the soap opera, or both, before swapping places and shouting in and out instructions, updates, pieces of news, as if nothing was really worth experiencing if it wasn’t experienced by both of them simultaneously. There was no escape from them.
And then there was the PDA problem. Of course it’s hard to call them Public Displays of Affection, when technically they were in their own home, but I was a member of the public and I didn’t need to be a witness to the daily kissing, stroking, squeezing and rubbing that went on. Especially as neither Charlie wore anything more than a light t-shirt and shorts around the house. My digestion – usually so unflappable – became slowly knocked off balance by having to watch Charlotte rubbing her mate high up on the thigh, or him massaging her feet while I tried to eat my evening meal. They seemed to make absolutely no concession to the fact that I was now living in the house. There remained the possibility, though, that the way they acted with me in the house actually was a modification of their previous behaviour, that this was them toning things down for my benefit. The mind boggled.
So whether they meant to or not, they drove me out, out into the streets of Graça and Alfama. The apartment had become so claustrophobic, so filled by the overwhelming presence of my amorous flatmates, that there was only one escape, and that was the front door. If I spent more than a half an hour in my own room I began to get the impression that the walls were closing in, making my box-shaped space even smaller. I had to get out of there.”
Cian on the Lisbon trams……
“Those toiling, block-shaped trams soon became a constant part of my days, they were the only form of public transport that reached us up there on the hill. The window of my room gave on to the Largo da Graça, where there was a tram stop. So the first sound that I heard each morning, whether I was aware of it or not, was the rumbling of the number twenty-eight as it approached, then the screeching and the squealing of the brakes that sounded like metal animals being tortured. Out on the street later, at the stop, at the beginning of my daily journey to work, the ground carried the message of the tram’s imminent arrival before it even swung into view, the vibrations travelling thirty, forty, sixty metres ahead of the slow-moving yellow vehicle. The trams also had a staccato, insistent bell that would sound impatiently if any puny car dared to get in their lumbering way. They were relics of the early twentieth century, cutting edge when introduced but faintly comical in the year 2007, yet were still a vital part of the city’s transport system, and were the only way – bar walking – that I could get from the hill in Graça down to the centre of things, the Metro stations in the Baixa.
As I have said, it was never mundane to me, riding one of those creaking yellow boxes. It was always novel, there was always someone to watch, some old Senhora dressed in all black, Spanish tourists talking loudly as if they were in their own country, adolescents hanging near the back and trying to decide if they were going to pickpocket anyone that day. At a number of points along the way the road was so narrow, squashed between two old, tall buildings on either side, that it seemed impossible that two trams could pass each other going in opposite directions without doing some kind of damage. They were on rails, and had done it thousands of times before, of course, but every time it happened, every time two of the rickety yellow trams met – one going up to Graça, one going down – I would wait for the sound of the scraping of metal on metal, wood on wood. The sound never came. They always managed it unscathed, the windows of each tram close enough that the passengers could reach out and touch hands in passing though the vehicles themselves never so much as kissed.” (p.35/36)
Cian returns to Ireland for Christmas:
“I tried, but I couldn’t really sleep on the flight. I was in a middle seat, with two dozing passengers on either side. There wasn’t much room and I was preoccupied with the fact that Ireland was waiting on the other end of the journey. I had managed my escape, and now I was going back.
Dublin airport was in the first stages of bedlam when I arrived. At the baggage reclaim alone there were hoards of travellers, some already drunk, others with tinsel in the hair, offering kisses under the mistletoe. Baggage trolleys were full with presents, gaudily wrapped, piled high. The Arrivals area, basically an unadorned cavern, was a carnival of signs and balloons, screams and crying and embracing, with a Santa Claus or two wandering around. The diaspora had come back, with kids with London, Sydney, New York accents, dollars, pounds in their pockets. And then I realised, as I watched grandparents meeting grandchildren for the first time, that I was officially one of them now, an emigrant, one who had left.
The city was frosty, with white edging roads, buildings and bridges. Pedestrians breathed out mist. It seemed like darkness was closing in, though it was still mid-morning when I caught the coach to Heuston Station. It really felt like Christmas, there was a giddiness in the air, an atmosphere that is only experienced at one other time of the year in Ireland, namely on those out-of-the-blue sunny days in April and May when the place is transformed and people forget the claustrophobic, stubborn country that they really live in. There is a licence about Christmas time, a sense, maybe not that anything could happen, but that if it did it wouldn’t be too surprising.
I was hoping for a seat on my own on the train, but on December twenty-first there was no chance of that. I had to settle for sitting beside an elderly man from Ennis who smelled a little, of damp and porridge and old age. He wore a worn suit and flat cap, and insisted on asking me about my ‘people’ and telling me about his – he had been up in Dublin for a few days staying with his nephew and the nephew’s wife, who had been “awful nice” to him. Eventually I faked exhaustion so I could close my eyes, and then realised that I didn’t have to fake, and fell into a staccato sleep.
I was awoken by loud voices, screeching, I thought someone was being harmed in some way, but it was just a bunch of teenagers in the seats ahead, tickling each other. By the time we had passed Limerick Junction, fifteen minutes from the city itself, the full force of the country I had returned to had hit me hard. It may sound idiotic, but I had forgotten just how Irish Ireland was. After sixteen weeks away from all I had known, the various aspects of Irishness, all at once, was a lot to take. The accents, the bad skin, the quick courtesy, the determined superficiality, the horror of being considered impolite, the softness of the facial features, the apparent lack of guile. Is this what we are? I thought. Were we always like this and I hadn’t noticed? I hadn’t been confronted by my nationality before in this way, and suddenly being surrounded by the kind of mass of Paddies I had been separated from since September was eye-opening.”