Como apagar um rio em chamas?
How to douse a burning river?1
FORA + Júlia Barata + Christina Casnellie + Vasco Martins
Lisboa - 2016
The cruise ship is about to arrive in Lisbon. X is anxious, She prepared in advance for this trip reading everything she could about Lisbon. She knows it all: the ships, the empire, the revolutions, the sardines, the fado, the tram….everything! And she can’t wait to live it.
The ship arrives. She steps out and the first feeling is one of immense peacefulness and quiet. There is a monotonous sound of people talking but she can’t really see anyone. “It’s pretty early in the morning”, she thinks. Only the tourist guides are standing in front of them gesticulating in a synchronized way, telling them to form smaller groups so they can start the tour of the city.
She steps into an open top mini bus and off they go. First stop is at Praça do Comércio. X is really impressed by the grandness of it. The tourist guide, a young guy with a melancholic look on his face, says something about how this square was once the main entrance to the city.
A replica of a XVth century caravel is docked at Cais das Colunas and X thinks how small and fragile that ship looks compared to the massive cruise ship that brought her to Lisbon.
The tour is going up the hill towards the castle, when suddenly the bus stops abruptly. There are two men fighting in the middle of the street. X can’t understand what they are saying but it almost sounds like they are singing. Then, suddenly, one of the men hits the other one on the face with a sardine! Everyone on the bus starts to laugh but her. She doesn’t feel like laughing. She just feels weird. There is a strange deja vu feeling to this situation. “But how can that be?”, she thinks. And then she remembered that W, a friend of hers who had been in Lisbon just some months ago, told her she had witnessed the same exact scene. “What a strange coincidence!”, she thinks.
After lunch, the group of tourists goes for a walk in Bairro Alto. “One of the oldest neighbourhoods in Lisbon” says the melancholic tourist guide. Everyone was hanging clothes, carefully organized by colour. X looked up and she was amazed by the choreographic precision of this simple daily routine. There was a woman hanging a white towel but she misses the rope and the towel falls down to the street. X runs to get the towel so hopefully it doesn’t get too dirty. She grabs it and it’s perfectly dry. The towel isn’t wet. The tourist guide quickly takes the towel from X’s hand, says something to the woman and leaves the towel hanging on the door nob.
The tour continued peacefully. At the end of the day, when she was looking back at Lisbon from her cabin window, X thought how beautiful the city was. She had really enjoyed the day but she couldn’t help having a strange feeling that there was something wrong with this city.
Z wakes up to the sound of the alarm clock. It’s a lovely day. The sun is shining and it’s quite warm despite being November. He gets up and goes to the balcony. All around the courtyard, his neighbours are busy with their morning routines. He looks down at the square, in the middle of the park, and some people are already preparing for tonight’s communal assembly. “It’s Wednesday!” he remembers. That means he has to be on the outside by 10 o’clock. He rushes to the shower.
Z is a freelancer. He normally works from home but, like everyone else, he has to dedicate at least five hours a week to performing activities on the outside.
Z steps out of his apartment into the gallery and looks again around the courtyard. It’s hard to imagine that this beautiful garden was once the ruins of a previous Lisbon. Everything happened so fast.
Not so long ago, people actually lived on the outside. Until it became unbearable. By that time, everyone had rented their apartments to tourists. Strangers that would come and go, leaving nothing behind but empty beer cans, plastic cups and an occasional vomit. Years passed by and the coexistence between locals and tourists became more and more difficult.
If you weren’t into tourism you had no other choice but to leave the city. Social instability was escalating and the image of a pile of souvenirs being burnt in the main square became daily news.
Tourists stopped coming. Buildings were left to decay and the city started to crumble. Only the facades were left standing, supported by huge metallic structures. It was the government's last hopeless effort to preserve the once number one tourist destination: Lisbon.
No one can really explain what led to the following succession of events. It was Easter time that year, when the ones who had left Lisbon returned to the city all at once. Word had spread that Lisbon was again free of tourists. There wasn’t much left of the city but that didn’t worry the immigrants. On the contrary, it was an opportunity to make a fresh start and reinvent the city. There was a collective grudge towards the old streets and facades. It reminded people of the city’s failure, of their own failure. So people started to build their new houses on the metallic structures that supported the old facades. And they realized that they didn’t need the old city. They could live on the inside of the blocks. It was almost as Lisbon had turned inside out.
When he is going down the staircase Z stops for a minute. The metallic structures that evenly cover the courtyard facades are really impressive in their elegance and transparency. The trees reflected in the windows merge with the lively interiors making it impossible to distinguish inside from outside. This diaphanous scenario resembled a giant scaffold inhabited by people. A constant work in progress of a city to become.
Z goes into the café. The place is full with people having their morning coffee and energetically discussing yesterday’s events. The tunnels near the river were flooded last night and they are going to be closed for the next few days. Luckily, that doesn’t affect Z’s plans for the day. He grabs his coffee and walks across the courtyard. A group of children passes by him in a hurry, hasted by the sound of the school bell. They are late.
"So am I” he thinks and rushes to the underground. His activities on the outside are pretty simple today. He just has to walk around and look like he belongs there. When he emerges at the surface he takes a deep breath: “Was the city really like this before everything happened?” he thinks. “It looks so unreal.”
Illustration by: Júlia Barata
1. from "The Marriage Plot", Jeffrey Eugenides, HarperCollins Publishers, 2012. "Which invited the question of how, exactly, did you douse a burning river? What could you do, when the retardant was also the accelerant?"