The world remembers the summer of 1969 as the summer when man landed on the Moon, when Woodstock, the one-of-a-kind music festival, and Stonewall, the gay liberation movement, all happened. That was one great and hard to equal summer. Fifty years later, in 2019, came a summer that, to me, meant just as much as the summer of 1969 meant to the world. I called it the summer of me. The summer of me has nothing to do with space travel and social movements, and yet, that is when I made my own “giant leap” toward liberation and had a taste of freedom like never before. Released from the corporate world after almost eight years in the grind, this summer allowed me to be myself again, in fact, to just be. And isn’t this the greatest kind of freedom a human being can ever hope for?
The passage from darkness to lightness did not happen overnight and most of the time I had no idea it was happening at all. I decided to follow my instincts. My instincts said I should book an apartment in Lisbon for the month of June. (They actually said I should book it for two months, but it was too expensive.) For all I knew, I had to escape Amsterdam because to me, Amsterdam was the place where I got hurt. And for that, I resented it. Lisbon was the total opposite, a place I had always been associating with love and lust for life and where I had amazing holidays for years. If any place had the power to save me, then Lisbon was that place.
Soon after Tom and I arrived in “the land of TAP”, as he put it, after a two-week holiday in the South of Spain, things got quiet. I can’t think of a better word to describe the transition from the incessant murmur of Andalusian cities at night to our uneventful, domestic life in Lisbon, which included grocery shopping, cooking, having meals on the balcony while looking at the planes flying by, doing the laundry, watching television, and reading. In the beginning, the weather was not glamorous either, and I was a bit upset with that because I had only been to Lisbon at melting temperatures and was not used to ever have to wear a cardigan here. I was nevertheless looking forward to spending the next five weeks in the city of my dreams.
Tom did not share my enthusiasm initially. I knew he loved Lisbon, only that now he was in between jobs, starting the new one much sooner than I – I had no prospect of a new job yet – and he was a bit anxious because of that. Part of me understood, part of me was pissed off. How dare he ruin my dream? How dare the sun not shine? I remember the words of my ex-therapist: “You are in a continuous quest to optimize your life.” There I was, in Lisbon, my soul city, the place I was always longing for, living in a gorgeous apartment, and yet something was off. What was it? Was it really my boyfriend? Was it really the weather? Or was it maybe me, the perfectionist, the unsatisfied, the one who only wanted everything? I guess it was a combination of the above. But that was only the tip of the iceberg, as they say. The unseen part were my fears and insecurities. What if nothing would change? What if coming to Lisbon was nonsense? How could a city save anyone?
The first couple of nights after Tom left, I could not sleep. The apartment felt huge and, as much as I liked it, I could not find a solid reason to be there. “This is not my house and this is not my life,” I kept saying to myself. “This is me hiding from reality. The reality of my messed up life – in Amsterdam. All that is waiting for me at the end of this journey is another stupid job.” The most confusing part of all was that I was not using my time the way I had imagined. I had come to Lisbon to write. I had imagined a sweet routine when I would wake up in the morning, make coffee and breakfast, then go to my desk and write until lunchtime. After lunch, I would go out for a walk, take some photos maybe, sit by the water at Cais do Sodré for some reading, come back home, cook dinner, then write some more. But none of these was happening. Instead, I could not sleep, I woke up exhausted, and was in no mood for creation. I could hardly bring myself to go out. Where was I supposed to go anyway? I had already gone everywhere in the city. That was one of the reasons I came here: to avoid distractions. It soon became obvious that what had made perfect sense in Lisbon in the context of a holiday no longer made sense in my current situation. I felt lonely. Walking the city streets by myself was an effort. I had previously come to Lisbon either with my boyfriend, my boyfriend and sister, or friends. Never alone. I felt so clumsy, I always ended up at Rua do Carmo, in the shopping area, where everyone seemed to be more or less by themselves, and where I could imagine I was not alone, I was just shopping.
This is the kind of state Elizabeth found me in when she came for a short visit. Un-slept, uncomfortable, unaware of what the hell I was doing there. We met at the docks, at Cais do Sodré, then we walked to the centre in search of a place to have dinner. We dined, we drank, we caught up with our lives. It felt great. What an amazing power a friend can have, I thought. A friend can transform any place into a home. That night, I walked back to my apartment feeling glorious. Things were finally coming into place. So deep was I in my thoughts, I hit my head against a metro sign on my way out of Marques Pombal stop. Reality was messing up with my plans again. People stopped to ask if I was fine. I was fine, all right. More than anything, I was embarrassed. I walked the five minutes from the metro to Rua Ferreira Lapa cursing. Why was I so unlucky? Why was I not paying attention? I was not allowed to make mistakes, it seems, because my stay in Lisbon had to be perfect, my life had to be perfect.
My headache was telling a different story. Once at home, I walked straight into the kitchen, opened the freezer, and put a bag of frozen green peas on my left temple. I looked in the mirror and I could swear my head looked asymmetrical. I was thinking to call my boyfriend in Amsterdam to tell him what happened. But how could he ever help me from 2000 kilometres away? But what if I was going to die? I had heard of accidents when people hit their heads, feel alright, go to sleep, then boom, they never wake up. Tom should at least be warned. So I called him, crying not because of the pain, but because of the anger. He thought the situation was funny and soon, his lightness about it made me feel better.
“I feel so stupid,” I said. “Just like in the movies, you know? I never had to put something cold on my head before.”
“You’ll be fine. Make sure you put the frozen bag in a cloth, else it will burn your skin.”
“What do you mean it will burn my skin?” I panicked again.
“I mean, it might be too harsh for the skin if applied directly.”
By the time he finished the sentence, I was already in the kitchen, looking for a cloth to wrap the frozen bag in.
I had a mild headache for the next couple of days, which might as well have been induced by my fears rather than by the hit itself. But those were also the days when I started to let go of any expectations. I was reading “The Book of Disquiet” by Fernando Pessoa, something I had accidentally come across at a fair at Parque Eduardo VII. Pessoa’s words soon became my mantra. So what if there was no purpose in my life? What was the purpose of my life having a purpose when there was no purpose in life anyway? Pessoa’s thoughts seemed so similar to my own. He called it “the beauty of renunciation.” In a text I had written in winter, I called it “grace in defeat.” So many beautiful ideas and words poured from the pages of that book. It was just what I needed. Pessoa was giving me permission to just be and I have no idea why I had to wait for this. It just happened to be so. Just like it happened that one day, on my way to Gomes Freire bus stop, a two-minute walk from my apartment, I passed by a house with rounded corners covered in beige tiles, with a metallic plaque on it stating that “Fernando Pessoa lived here between 1917-1919.” I thought that must be a sign. I thought that must be magic.
There I was, with a new feeling under my skin, walking the streets of a city I felt I was discovering for the first time. Never before had a visit to Lisbon made me confront the realities of this place such as this one. Living in a real apartment, away enough from the city centre although still quite close, going for groceries at places where Lisboetas themselves were going, such as my favourite, the Continente Bom Dia on Avenida Duque de Loulé, taking the bus to Cais do Sodré to simply sit by the water and stare at the river, the bridge, and the ships, to Príncipe Real or to Largo de São Paulo to reconnect to previous experiences I had in the city, to Miradouro de Santo Amaro and Tapada das Necessidades to make new memories in Lisbon. Wherever I went, known or unknown, I felt connected to the place. Most importantly, I felt connected to myself. That was my life, as real as my life in Amsterdam, and I was making that happen. The thought gave me confidence. And that’s how the sunny persona came to the surface, the only I that I was meant to be: self-indulgent, satisfied, sensual, living on sunshine, words, and day-dreaming. It happened under the blessing light of the Iberian sun, with the soothing undulations of the Tagus river and the words of Fernando Pessoa. I was allowing myself to just be and observe life. No obligations to do anything. No pressure to create if creation was not what I wanted. On the streets of Lisbon, in June, I was reborn. But I was not aware of this yet. I guess my fear was that once back to Amsterdam the dark clouds would swallow me again as it had happened before.
Although my stay in Lisbon was planned, what was not planned – the sweet works of destiny – was meeting friends and family there. First was Elizabeth, then Natalia, then my sister came for a whole week. Also, Tom returned for the last two weeks of my stay, too. The meeting with Elizabeth was special not only because she truly is a golden girl, but also because it was so needed. The evening we spent together at Miradouro de Santo Amaro, taking photos, then just gazing at the wonder in front of our eyes and deciding with absolutely no doubts that Lisbon was the most romantic place in the world, is one of the highlights of my summer. Natalia made me laugh hard and re-introduced me to wine drinking (I had quit drinking alcohol in November the year before) and just seeing her connecting to the people around, to the point where she was making old ladies her friends, sharing jokes and laughter wherever she went – Natalia is Brazilian, so she did speak Portuguese – taught me a lesson in what it really means to be human. I loved her for that. Sharing the same flat in Lisbon with my sister, like we did back in September 2016, also contributed to me feeling more and more at home in the city. It was, after all, a big bunch of “home” my sister was bringing me, and seeing her so happy in Lisbon made me happy in return. Tom returned in time to overlap with my sister’s stay, which meant a full house for some time. It was more home than I had hoped for. Each and one of these totally unplanned encounters reminded me that, no matter how much of our plans we achieve and how many of our dreams we make come true, surprises, these magical ways of destiny, are still the best.
Before I knew it, I developed a routine in Lisbon. It was not only about things I liked to do or places I liked to go to. Even now, as I’m writing this in my living-room in Amsterdam, there are certain fragrances that remind me of this particular stay in the city, because they were part of this routine. Such as the perfumed body oil from Nuxe I had bought prior to my visit and used all throughout my time in Lisbon. It did offer me a sensorial experience. With it on my skin, I felt like a summer goddess. I used it all throughout July and August, too, in Amsterdam. Same effect.
But if I were to choose my absolute favourite moments in Lisbon, I would definitely go for my lonely times. In retrospect, they seem so gracious. Waking up alone in Lisbon on a Saturday morning and having no clue what to do with myself, but pulling the shutters open and letting the sun in anyway. Sitting by the water at Cais do Sodré in the company of a lousy Sagres beer and listening to George Clanton at my earphones until the undulating movement of the water and the music became one and the same, like a hallucination. I was so happy because at that very moment it made perfect sense for everything not to make any sense at all. I felt free from all expectations, mine or other people’s. That moment with myself on the docks is the one memory of my time in Lisbon I cherish the most. Reading Pessoa over a cup of coffee at Copenhagen Coffee Lab, the nice location on Rua de São Paulo, is another moment I would bring to this selection, although this happened more often in the company of Tom when he came back.
Was I ready to leave Lisbon at the end of my fifth week in the city? To my surprise, I was. I was ready to go back home, ready to face what I used to call my real life. Back in Amsterdam, I realized my apartment was just as nice as the one in which I had lived in Lisbon. The streets of the city, though different, were treating me with the same mood the ones in Lisbon did. Coffee tasted just as good, perhaps even better, and I still felt like a summer goddess. I felt great. I was floating and my senses were happily intoxicated by the joy of living. I met my friends and told them about my revelation: “This is what life must feel like to people who are not depressed.” For the first time in years, I felt that I could be happy in Amsterdam again. I even wanted to speak Dutch!
My case is classic: I extended my personal misery to the place where I lived and to my relationships. Everything was bad for me in Amsterdam because I felt bad. I was depressed and had no idea just how depressed I was. I thought I was just feeling bad because I lacked the courage to change things. But how was I to change anything from that position? I was stuck. I could not move a finger. For eight long years, I had been trying to convince myself that it was OK to have a job that had nothing to do with me as long as, in parallel, I pushed hard on what I was identifying myself with, which was writing and photography. I ended up having two jobs at the same time – my office job and my creative job – and they were both exhausting. I was burning myself out and had no idea I was doing this. Because isn’t this what we are constantly being told? That we should work hard to make a living out of those things we enjoy most, all while sticking to a day job until that happens?
I now dare to disagree. What if those things we really enjoy doing are our only chance for freedom, and by this, I also mean freedom of expression? I still cannot help being jealous when I hear that X got a photo assignment or that Y is a freelance writer. But would I really want that photo assignment? Would I really want to be a freelance writer? How many assignments, for both photos and writing, have I not accepted throughout the years only to feel totally uninspired and miserable at the end? No, I don’t like to take photos of weddings, people or places I don’t like. No, I don’t want to use those key-words in the first paragraph and write about your boring product. When it comes to my creativity, I don’t like to be told what to do. Isn’t this the definition of being creative? I only want to take photos of what I find inspiring, and I only want to write about what I consider writing-worthy, such as this piece about my summer of 2019. If making a living out of my pleasures means to give up pleasure itself, then I choose myself over any assignment. I only need to make sure my next 9-to-5 job is more in line with who I am – if that is even possible.
Now that I am back in contact with myself, I want to never let go of myself again. It’s my only purpose, really. For this, I need to keep my ways of expression free from any constraint. Expressing myself in a free way is not always easy though. I still feel strange when posting photos of myself because I know the freedom of some makes others very uncomfortable. I used to be very uncomfortable when confronted with the freedom of others. In time, I will get better at it. The real reason why I have started taking photos of myself again is that I want to remember the way I am right now. It is also a way of saying that the best time is right now. The nostalgic in me is always searching for references in the past when presumably I looked better and life itself seemed better too. And I am a bit tired of glorifying the past.
I had a constant interlocutor throughout the summer of 2019, the summer of me. Whether in Lisbon or Amsterdam, my interlocutor asked me the right questions at the right time, pretty much as a good therapist would. The last question was: “What would you want, besides having a job that everyone needs?” Easy. I want to be responsible enough to live well, but I also need to have enough freedom to get a little crazy sometimes, or else I’m miserable. This has always been the most accurate definition of myself, and I am a bit upset that, in the last eight years or so, I seemed to have drifted away from that, only focusing on the responsible part. The freedom I am talking about is my creative expression. I was OK with having a responsible life – a rent or a mortgage and a job to pay for it – as long as I still had the freedom to be myself, which in my case meant and still means expressing myself through writing and photography – my kind of writing and photography. And this is where I failed soon after moving to Amsterdam. I stopped being free in my expression, for various reasons. Whatever these reasons were – a society with less sympathy for emotions, a pragmatic boyfriend, me getting older and thinking I should perhaps be more preoccupied with the world rather than with myself, a meaningless job that threw me in the claws of depression or simply not feeling comfortable with people reading my personal thoughts – they made me miserable. I am never willing to give another f**k about any of these reasons. This, too, was decided in the summer of me.