Every pin-cushioned mass and glowering rage stands the bull, panting. My mother, a tiny figure in a black suit and high-heeled boots, enters the arena. The forcado who threw his gorgeous hero at the middle-aged men who were sitting on the stands of the Campo Pequeno – not expecting a receiver – his hand over his cape. Despicably my mother waves the bright pink silk. The bull lowers his head. I squeeze my eyes closed.
It is 1979, I am 12, and this is my first holiday abroad, tagging along with an advertising industry jamboree to which my father was invited in Lisbon. This moment – a private bullfight for the delegates (none of them expecting one of the wives to enter the ring) – is one of a number that will mark a kind of coming of age, my own Age of Discovery in a city who built a monument to him.
Before now, memories are fragments, tiny fragments that barely illuminate my childhood. But during those 10 days in May I made a series of memories that I can recall more than 40 years later. Travel will do that, of course.
According to psychologist and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, each of us is “remembering yourself” and “experiencing yourself”. The experienced knows only the psychological present – millions of opportune moments that leave little or no trace. It is the sufferer who answers when asked, “Does this hurt?” Whether he who remembers the answer will decide the question, it is he who will judge which moment is worth remembering.
Kahneman describes our own memory as the internal storyteller, not only preserving the story of the past, but shepherding us into the future based on the anticipation of creating new memories. This is exactly why we want to go on vacation, Kahneman explains. People want lives with good stories. Or at least, interesting.
I don’t remember the difficulty my father had to breathe on the long ship to Lisbon, but I see him sitting in his five-star hotel bed, the oxygen tank in the other elegant room. The Portuguese doctor said with invincible prescience that he will soon be dead if he does not quit smoking.
I may have heard the word before but now it’s printable: emphysema. The yellow fingers have for many years been putting their pipes down on their white sheets; tubes trailing from his nose like silicone snot. It is a complex mixture: revulsion and shame.
He succeeds, at least enough, to attend the conference. While the men talk market share and sales pitches, the wives are taken on sightseeing tours in and around Lisbon. The palace of Sintra, especially the Palace of Pena – its bright yellow Moorish turrets and ornate icing reminiscent of a fine dessert – evokes nothing short of parochial to my eyes.
Then the conference ends, and it’s just the three of us. We revisit the sights of Lisbon, taking photos from the ramparts of Castelo de São Jorge; monochromatic disturbance nice cobbled streets of Cascais. We eat Portuguese seafood lobster and rice. We are a happy family for the last time.
When I finally return to Portugal, I am 56, two years older than the age my father died. My husband and I check into Hotel das Amoreiras, a jewel box of a hotel overlooking the Jardim das Amoreiras, an oasis shaded by ginkos and maple trees, but still walking distance from the buzzing bars and restaurants of Principe Real.
In my handbag is an envelope with faded photographs; May 1979 scrawled on the back of each in my mother’s handwriting. These will be my guide: I will revisit all the places where we were sitting, I will try to find some remnant of the burdened girl in the photos, dead to me as a father.
Lisbon is not the first city I trawled for traces of the young girl I can no longer remember. Johannesburg is the city where I grew up, but the City of Gold is a pure palimpsest, the past constantly clashing with the present, a constant reminder that prosperity does not mean the life to come. And why should it, when the prosperity is not shared. Rot is a form of social justice.
Lisbon, by contrast, is booming – and not just because Portugal’s economy is the strongest it has been in years. The city spends its heritage well, without fanfare, people living their lives – short as butterflies – under the gothic arch ways Mosteiro dos Jerónimos from the 16th century, or went up the limestone steps in the Torre de Belém. Even the views have changed little – from Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte to the recessed arches of the Se Cathedral, which emerges from the 28 tram.
In Cascais I find O’Pescador, the restaurant we visited several times in 1979. I show the waiter a photo of my father and me, standing at the entrance. The sign has changed, the path widened into a pedestrian street, but the facade is the same.
He leads over to a burly man with a chunky watch sitting in the corner – the second generation owner would have been more or less my age when I last ate at his father’s restaurant. He sends the photo back with a glass of 30-year-old tawny port. We offer a silent toast to each other. “Don’t wait another 40 years before you come back,” he shouted as I left.
In the marble foyer of the Palácio Estoril I am introduced to the manager of cash duties, Jose Diogo. Unbelievably, Jose has been working in the hotel since 1964; be here until May. He smiles at my excitement, a middle-aged woman seems to be looking for the past in a hotel that hosted European royal refugees and a “nest of spies” that included Ian Fleming, who stayed here in 1941.
In the name of research I knock back Fleming’s favorite martini and Jose explains that nothing has been changed in the wood-panelled bar, then leads him into a high-ceilinged reception room where breakfast was served in the 1970s, chandeliers hanging like giant grapes. past tables full of pastries we stole for lunch, then out to the swimming pool, huge as I remember.
We spent the last days of the conference here, my mother and I, avoiding more sightseeing. She escaped the bull unscathed, but because of the bravery that separated her from the deputies’ wives, perhaps jealous of her husband’s respect.
On our last night in Lisbon my husband and I ate at Brilhante (00 351 210 547 981), a new restaurant but even more of a reflection of the past than O’Pescador. My father hated home cooking – “you had no choice, and you can’t send it back” – so restaurants were our de facto dining rooms; booth seats my first childhood beds.
Lined with banquettes in dark red velvet, rose gold mirrors with ribbed details that reflect a richly textured interior, my father would have loved this louche boudoir.
In the middle, stainless steel chefs bend as they focus intently under the crushed ceilings painted black blood red, oblivious to the audience before them on leather seats with brass buttons. The steak also has a form: slightly seared on the outside and very rare – just the way he liked it.
Under pools of light cast by task-edge lamps, the red cut glass tumblers shine like jewels. I raise one, drink to the man who shaped me. The photos I took are a bread trail to where we went, but as for who it really is, I still don’t know.
How to do it
Easyjet flies to Lisbon from Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester; Ryanair flies from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Stansted and Manchester; British Airways flies from Heathrow. TAP Air Portugal flies from Heathrow and Manchester. Doubles from €196 per night at Hotel Das Ameiras (00 351 211 633 710), including breakfast.