The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Encounters with Inspiration at Lisbon’s Old Town Hostel
“What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”
William Least Heat Moon
People say travelling is a journey to the inner self. Being confronted with new cultures and people makes you find out more about who you really are, as your behaviour is no longer ruled by rituals and daily routine like at home. Whenever I am in Lisbon, meeting exceptional people makes me get closer to who I am. These people make me see how ephemeral life is and how important it is thus to carpe diem. This is why I would like to share with you some of the encounters I had in the Portuguese capital, which is called the “White City” because of its numerous dazzlingly white houses and streets.
Lisa M. Louis
I first came to Portugal for a two-week stay in spring 2008. I had taken some Portuguese lessons during the last two years and I thought the next logical step would be to practice my language skills with native speakers.The Lisbon Old Town is located near the Bairro Alto, the heart of the city’s youth culture and nightlife. It is also close to Baixa, Lisbon’s main shopping and banking district. At the time, the hostel seemed rather plain from the outside: the light-blue painted house with white and green shutters was hidden behind a 2- to 3-metre high white wall, which today is covered by an orange-black design.
When I passed the threshold for the first time, I was astonished to find a little bridge painted in red leading to the hostel itself: 30 metres beneath me was a courtyard, where pigeons were strutting around. Until today, only the two upper floors of the house are renovated, so they build a stark contrast with the three lower tiers, which seem old and dusty.
I walked over the bridge and entered the main house, where a brightly smiling João welcomed me with the words “Good to see you, I hope you had a nice flight!”
During my stay in Lisbon, I had the opportunity to explore most of the city and nearby places like Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
However, I felt my Portuguese was still very basic – I had difficulty understanding what people said and could not express myself properly in the language.
Looking for affordable ways to come back, I came up with the most exciting idea of working at a hostel! As I already felt very attached to the Lisbon Old Town with its warm-hearted staff and nice atmosphere, I plucked up all my courage to ask if they still needed staff for the coming August – and they did!
That’s how I first met Elena, one of my colleagues at the Lisbon Old Town Hostel. Whereas I was only stopping by for a couple of weeks to improve my Portuguese, Elena was planning on staying for longer – actually, maybe forever. However, this hadn’t seemed likely just one year earlier, when she was still working as a commercial manager in an international home improvement store in Milano, Italy.
Many women her age (she is now 34) would dream about having such a job, she once told me. “But for me, it was like a nightmare”, she added. “I had to work 12 to 14 hours a day and had no time whatsoever for myself.” So she decided to take a sabbatical year and backpack through Latin America before finally arriving in Portugal. There, she found the job at the Lisbon Old Town, which seemed perfect to her: she had more time for herself, met interesting people, and could learn other languages while working.
That was two years ago. Nowadays, Elena isn’t a hostel employee anymore – she owns her own hostel! And even though she still has to work long hours sometimes, she enjoys what she does for a living – and where she does it: “Every time I fly into Lisbon, I start crying for joy,” she told me last month, when I went to Lisbon for my almost annual visit.
When I saw her this year, Elena took me to an authentic Fado café. Fado is a traditional Portuguese chant, which is characterised by mournful tunes and often describes the life of the poor. Just the very presentation of fado is a spectacle in itself: the so-called “fadistas” show up at the fado bar, where they have to sign up to perform. One by one, they each sing three or four songs in a row, while the audience listens in awe and claps.
Everybody seems to hang on the fadistas’s every sung word, with especially dramatic parts of the songs inspiring people to spontaneously stand up, moan with pleasure and sometimes even sing parts of the song in a canon. It is almost like some religious ritual and everybody in the bar gets so carried away that it is nearly impossible not to be infected by the fervor.
This was not the first fado performance I attended, but it was even more emotional than the other times, as there were almost only locals around who seemed to be engrossed in the show, feeling the music from the bottoms of their hearts. And while I was almost drowning in my own emotions, I managed to get a glimpse at Elena: her hands were clinging to her heart and her eyes full of tears.
Another passionate person I met in Lisbon is João, the co-owner of Old Town Hostel. João used to be an environmental engineer. But after just one year on the job he felt he couldn’t stand it anymore:
“I was sitting inside all the time,” he explained to me, “and found my job really boring”. So he quit. Almost simultaneously, his father – also an engineer – was laid off. Together, they opened the hostel.
“I just love what I do now,” my friend said, when I worked with him two years ago. “You constantly meet new people and learn a lot about foreign cultures.” And somehow, ever-smiling João manages to pass his love for his job on to the guests, many of whom have told me they feel very welcome at the Lisbon Old Town – like part of a family.
“This hostel is one of a kind,” a guest once said to me. He had fallen ill during his travels and had to stay in bed during almost his entire stay at the Lisbon Old Town. So João looked after him and provided him with soup and medicine.
I also met Sabi from Budapest, Hungary through my job at the Lisbon Old Town. The two of us were the hostel’s resident night owls, working alternate overnight shifts. Our paths only crossed in late afternoons and evenings, as we tried to catch up on sleep during the day when not working.
Sabi is the kind of day dreamer you easily imagine sitting alone outside a wooden cottage overlooking some forlorn mountain lake while writing a novel. “He almost constantly has his head in the clouds,” João’s father used to say, smiling.
And that vision of the mountain lake might actually become reality one day: Sabi is studying Portuguese literature and by the time I met him he had already written a couple of poems.
Sabi not only discovered his love for the hostel job in Lisbon. He also met his future girlfriend there, who stayed at Lisbon Old Town for three nights. You might think three days are not enough to establish a deep bond between two people, yet the last time I spoke to him a couple of months ago, he was about to move in with her in a city on the Hungarian-Slovenian border.
Elena, Sabi and João are people who make me feel that it is possible to live one’s dream. And although I do live a full life as a freelance journalist in Paris, one day, I might just join Elena and João, and live that full life in the White City full of passion I love so much.