Visiting Lisbon as a Dumb Teenager

Image Credit: [Renard frak, Top View of the Tower]

Image Credit: [Renard frak, Top View of the Tower]

When I first arrived in Lisbon I noticed three smells. One was cigarette smoke, from the streets of a city that smokes like America did in the 50s. The second was espresso, from the carts that sit and steam on every street corner. The third I couldn’t place, something slightly sour and bitter, like if the smell of broken rock was somehow soft and mushy as a jack-o-lantern in December.

My father was there for a Rotary International conference, having just been dubbed president by a secretive council of elders that met on Thursdays at lunch in the back of the Corvallis Country Club. I had little interest in that, and a Che Guevara t-shirt that I was very proud of, so I got a week with which to scamper around a city that I didn’t know had been freed from the hands of a right-wing authoritarian dictatorship during the Nixon administration. There was a lot I didn’t know.

I was sitting in a large public square that had probably been used for some revolution or other, trying to choke down a bica (espresso, one of the first words I learned) when I saw an honest-to-god protest break out. An ordered group in green tee-shirts unrolled a long painted canvas reading JUSTIÇA PARA BRASIL! Beneath it, for my benefit I assume, Justice for Brazil! My father had just learned the secrets of the camera hidden in his iPhone, and was taking pictures as the protestors, each with a Brazilian flag painted on their face and printed on their shirt, chanted in Portuguese.

When my father left for the convention center, I was free to talk to them without risking him scooping me into a forced and embarrassing picture with some uncomfortable revolutionary.  I learned via French, the only shared language between me and a young political science student, that the Brazilian government’s decision to host both the FIFA world cup and a Summer Olympics had led to a horrific exploitation of laborers made possible by the high unemployment rate. My new friend’s father was a day construction laborer who was being charged a third of his daily wages to simply take the bus to work. The funding that had previously gone to the public transit system, she yelled over the press of the crowd, was going to the increasingly racist military crackdowns on crime-ridden neighborhoods. The discourse that pervaded the higher echelons of the government was akin to “taking out the trash”, with the idea that the inhabitants of the favelas were an embarrassment who needed to be safely swept under the rug or imprisoned before the international community arrived in force. I was fascinated, partially by the insight into the dark side of FIFA and partially because she reminded me of Hermione Granger.

The idea that soccer could be anything but an international bonding experience was shocking. I’d always seen it as a sport perfectly in line with my teenage globalist ideology, as dictated by Coca-Cola ads of African, Latin American and European children running around having a good time, oblivious to words like “corporate colonialism” or “sweatshop labor”. The evidence to the contrary was in front of me, telling me about the eight builders who’d died from unsafe conditions and the thousands who were kept in the most abject forms of wage (and in some cases literal) slavery.

When we left, we connected through Los Angeles, and took a train into town during our layover. In one of the stations I noticed a familiar smell, the one I hadn’t been able to name in Lisbon. Rare in the streets of my college town, but common enough here. Sacks of garbage overflowed from the dumpsters, souring in the heat. I still miss the smell of coffee, cigarettes and garbage sometimes, when I forget the blessing of clean cool Oregon air.

By: Wynton Davis