‘The food is delicious! And the people, so nice! So friendly!’ My bloke jokes that no matter where we go on holiday, we always say this upon our return and he speculates that maybe food tastes better and people are nicer because we’re more likely to notice these things when we step outside of our everyday routine and our senses wake up to what life has to offer.
When I arrive in Lisbon, my feet are the first to awaken. My winter-chilled tootsies are loving sandal life, but what is this smooth, knobbly, slightly slippery surface underfoot? It looks like stone cobbles but it’s kind of soft (limestone, perhaps?) and laid out in black-and-white patterns and designs. Imagine a city where everyone’s feet are pleasured by the sidewalks! Or maybe it’s only us high-on-Lisbon tourist types who feel how happy our feet are.
Some of my more subtle, empathic senses are being stirred up by this visit too: feelings that could be described by the Portuguese word saudade – a sense of nostalgia and melancholic longing for something that will never return. I experience this when I visit the ancient, twisty streets of the Alfama district, where front doors only reach the height of my armpit because this neighbourhood has been here so long that human beings have grown taller, and where I see the locals shrinking to the sidelines as the pink-faced, backpack-and-trainer-clad hordes swarm through their limestone- cobbled alleyways, cameras at the ready. I’m all mixed up inside: charmed by this ancient place, struck by the sensation of saudade because of the tourists ruining my ‘authentic’ experience, and hotly culpable when I start noticing the ironic ‘LISBON FOR SALE’ graffiti next to the Sotheby’s realty signs on all the buildings.
Lisbon is hot property and it’s in the middle of a fast change, turning into one of those ‘authentic’ places we yearn to experience, clawing and tearing at the delicate ecosystem of culture and neighbourhood to get a better look. They’re going to have to raise the height of those Alfama doorways soon to get the backpacks inside.
Right. That’s enough cultural sensitivity for one working holiday. Back into sensory overdrive, where my pattern-hungry eyes – and, by extension, my DSLR camera and phone camera – are starting to overheat. There is so much to look at and I stumble along in a stop-start photographic feeding frenzy, overwhelmed by street after street of tile-covered facades. Shops, houses, office buildings, hotels – all covered in tiled patterns. It’s exhausting.
To funnel my eye energies productively when I travel, I usually establish categories of things to photograph and soon enough I have my list: gates and grilles, colours, signage and graphics, and tiles (subway tiles, repaired tiles and lost tiles).
I have three categories for tiles because that’s the reason I’ve ended up in Lisbon. I’m here as a teacher on the Lisbon Ace Camp, where in three days’ time I’ll be teaching eight students from around the world all about how to generate pattern, with tile design as my medium. And while I’d done my research on Lisbon’s centuries-old azulejo heritage before I arrived, I simply had no idea that there would be so much pattern and so many tiles.
Sadly, the tile heritage is at risk of being destroyed by opportunists who steal tiles from buildings to sell to tourists and it’s not uncommon to see gaping areas on homes once covered in hand-painted tiles. The feeling of saudade must have inspired the few gestures towards repair that I spotted here and there, where photocopied ‘tiles’ had been pasted into gaps.
My own particular interest was in hunting down the tile designs of Maria Keil, a Portuguese artist who was commissioned in 1957 to create tile installations for 19 Metro stations. She spent a period of roughly 25 years putting together these pieces and played an important role in reviving the art of azulejo. Myself? I end up spending an entire day in the subway system, dining from vending machines and popping up at each station to take photos of Maria Keil’s famed tiles. Not a bad way to beat the summer heat – and definitely worth it for the pattern riches I discover.
So, I’ve just come back from 10 days in Lisbon, and you know what? The food was delicious! The people were so nice and friendly! I might be back in my familiar spaces but I still have those vibrant patterns imprinted on the backs of my eyelids. This city had my senses wide awake and on high alert from dawn till dusk. If I’m honest, after all that excitement a little bit of sense-dulled routine is exactly what I need. It’s good to be home.
For more from Heather Moore, visit skinnylaminx.com.