Lisbon was packed. Thanks to a volcano in Iceland that was preventing planes from coming and going, and no one knew when flights would resume.
Many of the stranded travelers, impatient to return home, had camped out at the airport. But a number of others refused to be held hostage by a volcano. And since they hadn’t yet had their fill of the Portuguese spring, they ventured back to the city, heading straight to the Praça do Comércio’s café terraces, where they lounged in south-facing chairs. Some opted instead for a few more rides on the rickety trams making their roller-coaster runs between Graça and Alfama. Still others went off to see sites that they hadn’t managed to visit before. In any case, all of them joined the hordes of tourists who had already flooded the streets of Lisbon before the airport had closed and who were now also
stuck. A great many of them were French.
My situation was different. I had treated myself to a brief weekend alone, but I almost as soon as I arrived I had begun to feel feverish and thus had remained holed up in my hotel room, knocked out by migraines and medicine, for two days. I only learned of the disrupted air traffic as I was beginning to emerge from my illness, on television. I called the travel agency at once.
“There’s nothing we can do,” they said. “Extend your hotel reservation. We’ll let you know about your flight.” I received the news like a gift: I was feeling better, I was hungry, my headache was gone, I could stand on my own two feet and I would now be able to take full advantage of Lisbon.
It was noon, a beautiful day, I remember. The thought of it reminds me of the delicious paradox of my condition that day: I was still a bit weak yet I was ferociously hungry for life.
Or perhaps I was just hungry. I quickly got ready and headed for the hotel restaurant. The first thing I did was order a glass of port:
Quinta do Noval Colheita 2000. I definitely had my wits about me.
I can still taste the port, full and noble. Each sip brought me a bit more back to life. I savored it, not wanting to lose a drop of this swig-by-swig resurrection.
Then I ordered lunch. To tide me over while waiting, the waiter, having seen that I was famished, brought me octopus salad and a platter of codfish fritters. I dug right in.
This did not escape the notice of my neighbor at the next table.
She, too, was French. And, like me, she was alone. She was no doubt longing for conversation, so, pointing at my two plates, she said, “The hotel’s pesticos are wonderful.”
Surprised, I looked up from the octopus with which I was busying myself.
“Tapas, if you prefer,” she said.
Then, indicating the waiter, she sighed: “Even here they say tapas. Globalization — there’s nothing to be done. And the Portuguese language is so rich! What a disaster…”
She was waxing nostalgic. I wondered about her age, studying her face.
A facelift, unfortunately, had rendered her ageless. Her elegance was perfectly modern, though. Her posture was good, very straight. I thought she must have once been a model.
Five minutes later, we were sitting at the same table. It was strange how the volcano brought people together at that time. The interruption of air traffic had given rise to an unbearable emptiness, prompting strangers to confide in the first person they met. I was the first person Christine Garnier met.
“I come to Lisbon twice a year. A long time ago, when I was a journalist, I managed to get an interview with Salazar. Even though he never gave interviews. Imagine the hubbub that made, my interview, the buzz as you say nowadays. Especially because I was new to the profession. I had started as a model. I worked for the best, Dior, Balenciaga, Jacques Heim. A friend said to me, ‘You can’t do this forever.’ I was charming and afraid of nothing, so I just jumped right in. I was good. And so one day, Salazar, as I told you… I sold the story all over the world and then turned it into a book. Salazar was delighted, he invited me back again and again, I learned Portuguese, visited the country, I grew attached to it and came back dozens of times. So this morning, when I was at the airport and everything was grounded, I said to myself: ‘I’m going back to Lisbon. After all, in a way, I’m at home there.’ I called the hotel and everything was set in no time. I come here twice a year, they always give me the same room. By the way, Salazar… Do you know who he is?’’
I knew. But old lady Garnier (I say “old” because, as her story advanced, she seemed to emerge from a more and more distant past) didn’t give me a chance to let her know.
“People say Salazar was a dictator. But I knew him well… What devotion to his country! Have you been to Portugal before?”
“No, I’ve only just arrived.”
“Walk around in Lisbon for an hour, you’ll see. The city is in ruins.”
“I like fading beauties.”
“And the people? What about them? The life they must lead?”
I didn’t know what to say. But she didn’t care. She was already back to Salazar:
“What a handsome man he was… The first time I met him at the Palace… When he appeared, dressed entirely in black and white, I nearly fell over. Later, he invited me to his country house… Imagine that: No one had been there. A worldwide scoop!”
She was starting to repeat herself, so I interrupted:
“When was that?”
She giggled, and then said dramatically:
“We wash our bodies. We must also thus wash our destiny. Change lives like we change our clothes.”
“That’s a nice image.”
“Oh don’t be silly! C’mon — these aren’t my words! They’re Pessoa’s. The glory of Lisbon! But have you even heard of Pessoa?”
“Yes, ‘The Book of Disquiet,’ ‘The Mariner’… And… I… I can’t remember…”
My lunch was turning into an oral exam. I was stammering.
Once again, she couldn’t have cared less, blindly pursuing her own train of thought:
“Pessoa didn’t believe in the real world. He only trusted his feelings. They led him to believe that life was in fact a thousand lives. He was convinced that we lead parallel lives. Ghostly lives.”
“I’ve never heard that.”
“People don’t know anything anymore.”
She paused again, nostalgic. Then she continued:
“If Pessoa had not believed in parallel lives he would never have invented so many heteronyms.”
The port had made me sluggish and I was having trouble following her. She noticed.
“What? You didn’t know that? And you said you know Pessoa?”
I had caught on to her system and so preferred to just wait for whatever came next. I was right, and it didn’t take long:
“Pessoa didn’t stop inventing identities. So much so that we still haven’t found them all. Another quote from him, which I offer you as a gift: “We are who we are not, life is brief and sad.’ ”
I had come upon a Pessoa fan. But I didn’t know enough to keep up with her. It was time for a ruse: “Do you like sadness?” I asked.
“It’s Portuguese,” she replied. “Like fado music. Fado, saudade – does that mean anything to you?”
To show off her mastery of the language, she pronounced the words Lusitanian-style.
“Those melancholy love songs so dear to the Portuguese, right?” I ventured.
Old lady Garnier stubbornly ignored my answers. Her gaze had already drifted to the window, as if to catch in mid-flight a stray memory that might be floating along the avenue. She then continued, solemnly:
“Fado is a type of music, but the word really means fate. That’s what threw me into Salazar’s path, for example. And saudade… There’s no translation. A desire for the past, perhaps. Wanting to return to the past with the same intensity that you want to sleep with a man. And not being able to satisfy that desire.”
A look of profound melancholy came over her face. I deduced that she had slept with Salazar, and I would love to have known more.
But she had already reverted to her literary preoccupations: “Like Pessoa, I believe that we move through life like ghosts. And that we are in fact ghosts. Me, for example: I’m a journalistic ghost who is returning to the scene of her crimes.”
There was a long silence. The time it took for her to improvise, I assumed.
“You,’’ she then said, “you’re a ghost who is impatient to leave this table so you can visit Lisbon.”
Madame Garnier was a nasty one. And nothing escaped her.
She had read my mind but now softened her tone: “Don’t imitate the tourists, you’re better than that.”
“This is the first time I’ve been to Lisbon. I have to see what there is to see. And I don’t have much time. Unless I hire you as my guide!”
She gestured toward a cane leaning against her seat.
“You didn’t noticed? Osteoarthritis in the hip.”
I hadn’t noticed. I didn’t know what to say. But once again, she softened: “I’m going to give you a key that will allow you to see Lisbon like it should be seen. Even in the places infested with tourists.”
She looked like a witch now. I don’t know why, but I said the exact opposite: “You’re a fairy godmother!”
“O.K. Because we like each other so much, we can meet back here tonight to see how your visits went, if you’d like. In the bar, here, at 8?”
I was aware that she was finagling me into spending the evening with her. But I wanted the key to Lisbon, so I accepted.
I must admit that she was good about it: “Perhaps you won’t come back tonight. But I promised you the key, so I’ll give it to you.
Lisbon is a city of ghosts. You will keep meeting them.”
“What do you mean by ghosts?”
“Ghosts from your own life. In Lisbon, more than anywhere else, fate is lying in wait on every corner.”
“What would you recommend as a bullet-proof vest for protection then?”
“A line from Pessoa: ‘Who I was is somebody who I love. Yet only in a dream…’ ”
I wanted her to explain. And to tell me more about her story with Salazar. But she had closed up. She didn’t say another word, except to ask the waiter for the check, raising an imperious finger with a painted nail. And then she announced, royally: “I’m treating you!”
She signed the bill as soon as it arrived. Next to her signature, which was illegible, she wrote her room number: 230, I remember well. She then got up, took her cane, bid me a somewhat theatrical, “Until tonight!” and left. She wore her osteoarthritis like an evening dress.
Within minutes I had set out to discover Lisbon. Having neither guide nor map, I was determined to let the streets take me where they would.
They were steep, and I sensed that they were leading me to the wharfs, to the Tagus laced with the odor of algae and salt. In less than half an hour, I found myself on the vast esplanade of the Praça do Comérico. I was suddenly overcome by fatigue – most likely an aftereffect of the flu. I entered the first café that I saw.
It was the right one: No sooner had I taken my place at the bar than a figure from my past appeared, just as Garnier had predicted. Alas, there was nothing romantic about it. The man had been the principal of a high school where I once taught early in my career.
He spotted me first. And he seemed not the least bit surprised to find me here: “So, you’re doing the circuit?”
“The Pessoa circuit. Café Martinho is a must! The time he spent here… Look there in the backroom. He had his own table. His picture’s hanging above it.”
Then, just as when I had worked for him, he put on his superior airs: “You’re not going to tell me that you didn’t know!”
I lied, shamelessly: “Of course I know.”
“I’m at the end of the circuit,’’ he said. “”It looks like you’re just starting it? Of course, it’s possible to do it either way, backwards
I agreed. Sighing contentedly, he began sipping his coffee again.
He then launched into a lengthy spiel about the decline of the teaching profession, the joys of retirement and how teenagers today aren’t what they used to be. Given the choice, I would have preferred Garnier’s Salazaristic nostalgia – it was more attractive.
Luckily, he was one of those Stakhanovite tourists. He cut to the chase: “We’re chatting away here, but I haven’t done everything on my itinerary yet. I have to get going.” And off he went.
Now I was alone at the bar. And, to be honest, of two minds.
On the one hand, I was proud that I had managed purely by instinct to find this place that had been so dear to Pessoa. And I was delighted to have had my first “ghostly encounter,” as the old hag at the hotel would have said. “At least tonight I’ll have something to tell her,” I thought.
But at the same time, this had not been a particularly enchanting encounter. “I always hated that moron,’’ I thought. “If that’s all that
Lisbon has to dig up from the depths of my past…”
I left the Café Martinho without even looking at Pessoa’s table or photo. Outside, on the corner under the arcades, a shop was selling French travel guides. I bought one. And I decided that I would change my method. I opened the book at random, and, with eyes closed, pointed to a line on the page. So, leaving my fate to chance, it was thus determined that my next stop would be the fish cannery, which sold traditional cod, octopus, sardine and mackerel specialties.
According to the map, the cannery was only three streets from the Praça do Comérico. So I walked. But when I came to the cannery – which was actually a store – I wanted to turn right back around:
A long line stretched down the street. A long line of tourists, that is, all armed with cameras and wearing the regulation uniform of jeans or shorts, t-shirts, panama hats.
The spirit of Lisbon, or of Pessoa, still seemed to be with me, though, because I heard a woman calling to me: “Do you recognize me? What are you doing here?”
She was a friend from college. Like everyone else, she had read the travel guides and was now calmly waiting in line for her turn to duly purchase the cannery’s products, which, as the high school principal would have said, are obligatory.
It took me awhile to remember her. Overexposure to the sun had ravaged the voluptuously ravishing features of youth. Diets had done the rest, leaving her looking hollow, dry and wrinkled. In a voice made hoarse by cigarettes, she was insistent:
“C’mon, you can get in line with me. You can’t miss this store – it has the best sardines in Portugal!
Were you stranded by the volcano, too? Unbelievable! At the airport this morning…”
She launched into a story about low-cost plane tickets that I didn’t understand. I spinelessly chose to imitate my old principal:
“Yes, I have the same problem,’’ I said, “so I really have to get going. I’m meeting someone…”
I vaguely indicated the other end of the street. She believed me.
After giving her my email address, which she had requested, I was free from this new ghost.
I headed into the labyrinth of streets. It was 3:30. I figured I had time for two or three more sites before returning to meet Christine Garnier at the hotel bar.
I opened the guidebook and decreed: “I’ll make a 180 degree turn.
Instead of going along blindly, I’ll meticulously follow the book’s instructions.”
In gushing prose, the book advised starting in the Alfama quarter:
“It’s the soul of Lisbon. It’s the capital’s oldest, most famous neighborhood, emblematic of eternal Lisbon. You see it arising between the Tagus and the Sea of Straw, gleaming among the peeling facades and Baroque churches, as blue as the azulejos lining your way along the steep, narrow streets, haunted by memories of the fishermen of yesteryear and the conquest of India…”
I hailed a cab. Climbing into the back seat, I noticed in the rearview mirror the face of a man who looked remarkably like the caretaker of a building where I had lived for a short time in the ‘90s. “Antonio. Antonio Figueiredo. I’m sure it’s him,” I thought.
He was also studying me in the mirror. I looked away. So did he.
But I couldn’t resist, and looked again. So did he.
We went on exchanging these furtive glances for 10 minutes or so. Around us, tramways posed a constant danger to the cars at every corner. And the past was doing the same thing, endlessly challenging me: “You can see it’s Antonio, so speak to him! He was nice, Antonio, he spoke excellent French, he liked you! You can’t act like you don’t recognize him…”
I struggled: “No… Those big warts, there, around his mouth… and the old scar across his cheek. Antonio never had a scar…”
It was no use; I was more and more convinced that it was indeed him. I rolled down the window. Outside, Alfama was a perfect reproduction of everything the book had described: steep streets, hairpin turns, dilapidated facades, the scent of olives and grilled octopus, bougainvillea, walled up alleys, long azulejo frescos emerging beneath porches, wrought-iron balconies overlooking the Tagus. The impeccable resemblance was reassuring. I was still in the real world.
The taxi arrived at my destination, the Miradouro da Santa Lucia.
Again, everything was just as the guide had promised: a splendid panorama of the river and old Lisbon that should have been soothing. Unfortunately, at that very moment a cloud passed before the sun. Until then white and dazzling, the city was suddenly drowned under a leaden sky. It was depressing, and for some reason I was reminded of the dismal months that I had spent in the building where Antonio was caretaker. And finally I couldn’t help it: “Do you remember me? Paris, 58 rue Botzaris…?’’ I asked. “Antonio, your name is Antonio, right?’’
The man turned around, bewildered, and then, after a long pause, told me that he didn’t speak French. In English, on the other hand,
he did quite well. He said he had never set foot in Paris. He said he would have liked to, though; it would have been a welcome change from the war in Angola. He almost died there. The scar was from a machete. “I could tell you were looking at it,’’ he said, “but I don’t pay any attention anymore; I’m used to it.” I gave him a big tip and turned away from the river.
But it didn’t matter. Barely 45 minutes later, just when I thought I was safely hidden away in a maze of deserted little streets, marveling at a shark painted bizarrely on the base of a Roman column, I came face to face with the banker who had lent me the money to buy my apartment. A real shark, as it were. This time, I didn’t hesitate. I ignored him. And moved on without a word.
I returned to the hotel long before 8. Although I was exhausted, I wanted to report back to Garnier. I had it all planned out in my head, word for word. She was not going to intimidate me this time:
“Your ghost story, what a load of bunk! Yes, I did run into people who I knew. But they were in no way ghosts. Pessoa was talking about something else. He meant people who had mattered in our lives. People we loved, who had touched us, affected our destiny.
The people I ran into this afternoon didn’t change my life in any way.
They had no impact on my life, they were of no significance. The banker who lent me money, sure, maybe. Or maybe not… If he hadn’t given me a loan, someone else would have. So, Madame Garnier, my meetings can be easily explained. In April, Lisbon is an affordable tourist destination. It’s two hours from Paris, the lights and hotels are cheap. Sunshine and a change of scenery are guaranteed, the Portuguese are Francophiles. A French invasion is logical. And then the volcano erupts. The arriving tourists are added to those stuck at the airport. Which means a greater probability of running into familiar people. I repeat: For Pessoa, the word ‘ghost’ is just an image. It’s a melancholy
figure, a metaphor for nostalgia… saudade…”
It was 8 o’clock. My brilliant little speech was ready. I went down to the bar. But it wasn’t long before I had forgotten my plan: At 8:30, Madame Garnier was still not there. I went to the front desk.
The hotel employees were generally cordial. Yet when I came to the desk and asked, “Can you please call Madame Garnier in her room?’’, the attendant’s reply was curt: “There is no Madame Garnier here.” And when I insisted, “Madame Christine Garnier…” she responded haughtily, “I’m absolutely certain, madame.”
I didn’t give up: “I think her room number was 230…”
“I don’t think so.”
“I had lunch with her today. I saw her sign the bill.”
Her face darkened. She had agreed to look it up in the computer, but her fingers then stopped short on the keyboard and she mumbled: “Yes, it’s 230. You had lunch with Madame Micheline Desprées.”
Micheline Desprées, Christine Garnier: No phonetic confusion was possible. Why had she lied to me?
“Can you please call her?’’ I asked.
She looked up, distraught, and her colleague, who until now had been leafing through a stack of bills, came to her rescue:
“Madame Desprées fainted this afternoon. She was taken to the hospital.”
“Where? Which hospital?”
“She’s no longer of this world, madame.”
His colleague then added, sniffling: “She was a regular here. 70 years old… That’s so young to pass away in our day and age…”
A lie and a death, and, finally, a genuine ghost. It may have been mentally satisfying, but it was difficult emotionally. I returned to the bar and ordered the same port I had had at lunchtime when recovering from the flu.
In addition to its considerable gustatory qualities, the Quinta do Noval Colheita 2000 was endowed with highly restorative properties. Halfway through my glass, I had recovered my senses, pulled my smartphone from my pocket, launched the search engine and typed in the name Christine Garnier.
I swallowed the remaining port in one gulp: She really existed.
Or, more precisely, she had existed. She had been a model, like my late old friend. And a famous reporter. She had indeed interviewed Salazar and written a book about him, which had caused a commotion upon publication. But she had died in 1987.
The search engine also turned up a few photos of Christine Garnier. Even taking into consideration a facelift and age, she bore no resemblance to the woman I had met. Nothing fit anyway: She was born in 1915, and, if my calculations were right, Micheline Desprées was born in 1932. They shared only two things: their style and their taste for pseudonyms. Christine Garnier’s real name was Raymonde Cagin.
I then recalled what her double had told me over lunch: that Pessoa had been passionate about multiple identities. But he invented them, whereas Micheline Desprées had usurped someone else’s name. Which was itself a pseudonym. The lies were dizzying.
And now, having just entered my life, Micheline Desprées was already gone, leaving me with no hope of learning more. I said to myself: “I have to talk to the front desk clerks.” But I dropped the idea immediately. I had done enough roving along the unstable border between the real and the imaginary. I went to bed.
I slept straight through the night. And I would have slept for another hour had I not been woken up by a phone call from the travel agent. In far-off Iceland, the winds had shifted. The ash clouds from the volcano had moved toward the North Pole, clearing the way for air traffic to resume.
That night, I was back to real life in Paris. I had no desire to know who Micheline Desprées really was. No doubt she had become fascinated with Christine Garnier as a young girl, then started to emulate her. The rest of the scenario was easy to imagine: One day, she had traveled to Lisbon. She, too, then became Salazar’s mistress. He liked women, after all, and maybe he was also chasing ghosts: My smartphone had informed me that he had had difficulty getting over Christine Garnier after they split up. With age and its incumbent solitude, Micheline Desprées had mixed herself up with her idol. Intensive reading of Pessoa – “Who I was is somebody who I love, yet only in a dream” – had messed with her mind.
An incurable romantic, she had imagined that she really was her ghostly double, even dying at the scene of her parallel life.
Pessoa would have loved it. I vowed to return to Lisbon. Writers have a soft spot for ghosts.