A weekend away with friends. An April escapade with mates from high school, an occasion to appreciate how much we’ve grown – cancel that, how much we’ve aged in the last years. There were calls to girlfriends, wives, pregnant wives and nagging work emails. But nothing and no one disturbed us at that undefined hour when dinner is a hazy recollection, the beers tally has reached double figures and, on our way to a club… we stopped at a bar.
Oh, I just realised I haven’t actually said where that bar was. How bad of me. Lisbon. We were in Lisbon.
In my defence I have to say that memories of that night are, shall we say, blurred. What day of the weekend it was, I wouldn’t be able to say. Why we stopped there, neither. What I do remember is that it wasn’t much of a bar: people spilled out on the cobbled street. I remember that there were parking spots on the opposite side of the road and that a young man succeeded in squeezing his large car into an impossibly tiny space. Punters cheered him and he took a bow.
We stopped there for another beer to nurse in the queue that, almost without saying, we were diving headfirst into. By that time the Super Bock’s taste – a bit too flat and sweet for my buds – had grown acceptable. Repetition is the trick, compadres. Two of us got the orders and we entered.
The place was larger than a cleaner’s sluice but not by much. And it was packed.
Men and women sat at the bar, or perhaps they stood there. Who can tell. Others milled around, sardined in the smallest of spaces. A few bottles of indescribable alcohol stood on the shelves between the drinkers and the bars, the pumps for Sagres and Super Bock – only them, always them, tertium non datur – standing as defences. Behind them was a hurried woman, busy filling the flimsy plastic pint cups. Above her an old TV transmitted the footie, but no one cared. Vaulted roof, beige; the bar, fake wood; add a tiled floor that no one could see for there were too many legs in the way. Beers were filled and passed on in a human chain. There was a window, protected by some iron bars: sometimes, answering some shouted indications, beers moved in that direction and flowed out the window, into the street. For reasons that will become evident later, I can’t tell you if there was any music. We screamed our orders, passed the money on, intercepted our beers as they crowdsurfed forward and got out.
I liked the place, I liked the street. The clientele was different from the Bairro Alto watering holes we’d pilgrimaged through earlier. The cloud of hashish that hung above the street certainly helped but what sealed the deal was the music.
Smack-bang at the centre of the crowd were a small posse of those kind of guys that, normally, you’d see hanging around train stations. Dreadlocks, baggy trousers, faded clothes. These guys and girls also had drumsticks and upturned plastic buckets. The rhythm, the music, the voices were undeniably, unmistakably Brazilian. I dare you, standing there in the smoke haze, hearing the syncopated rhythm of a samba, watching the crowd dance, not to feel as if you’d just been transported to Rio, to Bahia, on a wet tropical night around Carnival, where bars serve cold beer poured from a garden hose. I felt the urge of getting a caipirinha and a good moqueca de peixe.
I returned to Lisbon alone, to get to see the city in a slightly less inebriated state of mind. As it always happens when I try to find something again, I had only a foggy idea of where to go.
It was reasonably late, pushing 1AM. Late enough for the locals to have left the restaurants and be hitting the bars. I’d been sharing gossip with an old colleague outside a bar in Largo do Intendente, a place where you could pay two bottles of Sagres with 3 euros and still receive a dollop of coins as change. Our reminiscing done I set off, walking downhill past Praça Dom Duarte, the hulking figure of Hotel Mundial presiding over a nightscape of waiting taxis, sleeping vagrants and other shadier, shiftier figures. Bass music buzzed from a club perched atop the hill.
A series of straight roads, with junctions placed at right angles, opened next. I knew where I was going and, before long, I’d walked past Praça Do Comercio and into the neighbourhood. The hunt was on.
Everything was as I remembered it: packed with people, clouded by the occasional tidal wave of weed smoke, plastic tumblers rolling from sidewalk to sidewalk, the bars heaving with revellers. You only had to make eye contact with someone, anyone, to be offered coke or smack. I pushed on.
The church was where I remembered it, at the end of the dark square of a park. The bar had to be on the left and, indeed, there was the street. The potholed tarmac, the cars, the upmarket restaurant, chairs stacked and floors swept after an evening of fine dining. Everything was there.
But for the bar.
The street, alone in the neighbourhood, lied empty. There was no bar, no beers flowing out of the window and definitely no Brazilian dancers. Only closed doors, padlocked grilles. And no music but the sound of an idling car.
I walked the grid back and forth once, twice, three times. I worked methodically, starting at the Ascensor da Bica and pounding each alley, each road between there and the statue of the Duke of Terceira. By the second time the pushers had learned not to offer me drugs: wasted breath.
Yet the bar wasn’t there. The bar wasn’t anywhere.
I grabbed a beer from a stall and walked back. The bar was indeed perdu but I wasn’t feeling bad about it. Somehow its ephemerality added to the charm and character of an evening to remember. Later the following day I’d speak with some of the participants of that weekend, and it emerged that they could barely recollect the place. Perhaps it’d all just been a dream.