The Case For Lisbon

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

It’s always a little odd the first time you cross into another country — especially an English-speaking one — and suddenly find yourself surrounded by a completely different culture and unfamiliar language. This happened to me crossing from English-speaking South Africa — where many neighborhoods could easily be mistaken as outliers of Phoenix — into Portuguese-speaking Mozambique, where my feeble Spanish-language skills were no match for those seemingly garbled constructions thrown at me in the passport office.

Driving into the country, the influence was immediately apparent. As I bit into a pãozinho and watched as open-air schoolyards surrounded by pastel-colored, stucco buildings (that could easily have been home on the shores of the Atlantic) passed by, I thought about how you could travel almost anywhere around the world and likely run into the remnants of what was once Portugal’s vast empire. From Macau, India, Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, French Guinea, Barbados, to even the Canadian Maritime, Portugal’s influence is hard to avoid.

But what about the homeland? Though its empire has slowly been receding (China took back Macau in 1999), Lisbon itself has been undergoing something of a renaissance, landing on many of those “Top Places to Visit” lists, and even getting a little indie-cred with the rock-and-roll set (Animal Collective’s Panda Bear calls Lisbon home). This week, the the SF Chronicle visits Lisbon, stopping by the newly-opened Museum of Design and Fashion, roaming hip Santos for new designs and a few drinks, and discovering how the once “sleepy, inward-looking, dowdy, Lisbon,” a city known for not changing, finally has.

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