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Brave Old World

As I follow Marta through several brightly colored rooms covered in kilims, she explains that the African statuettes scattered about the place are the work of the Bura tribe, who, it was recently discovered, lived sometime between the 3rd and 10th centuries A.D.

It's puzzling that no one seems very interested in Portuguese crafts. I ask Marta whether she has anything from Mozambique or Angola, two of Portugal's former colonies (the very ones whose struggle for independence led to revolution back home). "No," she says, "there isn't much there worth importing." Really, nothing?No statues, no baskets, no weavings equal to those of the Berbers or the Bura?I can't help wondering if her remark isn't rather self-deprecatory, symptomatic of the kind of national insecurity immortalized in such folk lyrics as "Lisboa não sejas Francesa—tu és Portuguesa" ("Lisbon don't be French—you're Portuguese"). After all, this is a country whose citizens were moved to teary-eyed expressions of thanks when Saramago won the Nobel Prize last fall—as if not just he, but Portugal itself, had finally been deemed worthy of international recognition. Then I think, well, maybe not, maybe this embrace of all things Asian and tribal and not Portuguese isn't a reflection of a national self-esteem crisis, but simply of the West's most recent "orientalist" turn.

I make my way a few blocks down from Marta's, to another store, the Loja da Atalaia. Here, sixties and seventies furniture—Bertoia-style chairs, early Philippe Starck, and Eero Aarnio designs, collected from flea markets in France and Germany—mixes with Eames-inspired pieces by Portuguese designers. Neo-Moderne is definitely the look of the moment, even if, as designer Pedro Seiça Ramos later tells me, it's hard to sell to a public that never quite lost its taste for the baroque.

Ramos shares a studio with his sister Ana in the once low-rent neighborhood of Campo d'Ourique. Displayed to perfection in room after spacious room are furnishings of steel, wood, and glass; metal doorknobs and curtain rods; cement sinks and countertops. Pedro, who's fashionably interested in feng shui, describes his collection of lamps and glass pieces as "Zen but not Zen." I'm more interested in his next project—designing the hallways, bathrooms, and kitchens of a new apartment complex. The building will occupy a lot near the Belém Cultural Center, a showcase for contemporary art built in 1993. It's hard to imagine yet another postmodern structure competing with the pastel-colored houses that once formed the only frame for the neighborhood's centerpiece: the ornate 16th-century Jerónimos Monastery. Clearly the nineties have witnessed a radical shift in the fabric of everyday life in this city—and not just for those with equal amounts of taste and money.

THE LAST WORLD'S FAIR OF THIS CENTURY was erected on Lisbon's eastern outskirts, in what was once an area of junkyards and abandoned warehouses. A funicular afforded last summer's crowds an overview of Expo '98's numerous pavilions; it still runs from one end of the site to the other, though there's hardly a soul on it the day my friend and I arrive. Along wide avenues hugging the river, pavilion after pavilion stands empty, though each is slated for some function or another—a ministry of such and such, a center for this or that. Only the Utopia Pavilion, a fair impression of a grounded UFO, seems to have found a new vocation: hosting rock concerts by everyone from eighties Goth band Bauhaus to fathers of trip-hop Massive Attack. Unfortunately, the doors here are locked when we arrive, as they are in the Álvaro Siza-designed Portuguese Pavilion, so we're stuck gazing at the outlines of this brave new world. There is something almost nostalgic about these structures, with their allusions to the utopianism of Modernist architecture. Perhaps that's because all around them, the future (utopian or otherwise) is still under construction: office towers and brightly colored apartment blocks have begun to colonize the surrounding area, but among them still stand a few tiny houses with equally tiny garden plots. Only at the new train and subway station, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, has the future really arrived. Its glass-and-steel-roofed arcade bathes commuters and city buses in a space-age glow.

Since we're touring the site long after the Expo officially ended, I'm hopeful that we'll have the Oceanarium, with its tri-level central tank, largely to ourselves. It's easy to spot. Sticking out of the water like an oil derrick, it seems a more fitting setting for Terminator 2 than for the interminable line of chattering schoolchildren, clad in identical blue gingham smocks, snaking toward the entrance. While I attempt to determine if there's another, no-kids-allowed line, a bus disgorges its passengers onto the plaza: a group of little old ladies from the countryside, black kerchiefs tied under chins, faces creased by years in the sun, knobby fingers clutching vintage handbags. To them, this really must look like another world.

FOR ALL THE EXPO'S FRESH-FACED POTENTIAL, the building project closest to the city's heart is undoubtedly the reconstruction of the Chiado. It was here, at the top of these near-vertical hills lined with hundred-year-old shops and cafés, that my mother, as a student in the fifties, would wait for exactly the right taxi to ride home in—a Mercedes, of course. Here, too, was the Ferrari—not the car, but a mirrored tearoom where my sister and I had sipped fruit shakes under the watchful eyes of white-jacketed waiters. In 1988 a fire tore through much of this area, and when I visited Lisbon the following year scaffolding still covered the damaged façades. The Ferrari was gone, and along with it, it seemed, those gilded afternoons.

Now, 10 years later, my friend and I weave through the crowd on the Rua do Carmo. Few signs of the fire are visible—until we get to the corner. There, only partially covered by billboards, stands the burnt-out shell of the Armazen do Chiado, an ancient department store that I'd entered once or twice as a child, and never again, convinced that all the merchandise pre-dated World War II. But it is one of the few remaining scars. Just up the street, steps lead to inner courtyards around which Álvaro Siza has built angled apartment houses and office spaces, as yet unoccupied. Indebted more to the mutable forms of Adolf Loos and Alvar Aalto than to the austerities of the Bauhaus, these structures of pale stone, irregularly spaced windows, and shadowed hollows effectively marry the Neoclassicism of neighboring buildings with rationalist form. For all the fears that a Modernist sensibility would destroy the soul of the Chiado, Siza's careful integration of old and new seems oddly right.

At the top of the Chiado, the Livraria Bertrand displays endless copies of Saramago's collected essays and novels—and an anniversary edition of As Três Marias, a feminist ode to sexual liberation published pseudonymously 25 years before. Across the street, inside the Brasileira café, the dark wood and Belle Époque murals speak of another age. We take a seat near an impeccably dressed octogenarian, his hand resting on a polished cane. Moments after we sit down, his equally well dressed friend joins him. It's clear they meet here often, perhaps have done so for years. When I next look up, they're exchanging effusive greetings with a French doctor, and the octogenarian is introduced as one of the founders of Portugal's socialist party, "responsible for putting Mario Soares in power." I wonder who he might be—perhaps a member of the government when Soares was elected president in 1983. Mostly I wonder how it must feel to be his age, looking out at a city that has changed more radically in his lifetime than it has since the mid 18th century, when the Marquês de Pombal gave grandeur to this labyrinthine metropolis by cutting several wide boulevards through its center.

And of grandeur, or at least glamour, Lisbon again has plenty. Along the city's southwestern docks, restaurants and clubs have largely replaced the tin-roofed warehouses and giant cranes of a working port. Businessmen, blue-suited yuppies, and teenage clubbers crowd the biggest and most popular development, Doca de Santo Amaro, in Belém. A short ways east, on the Doca de Alcântara, is a huge gay club—formerly known as Kings & Queens, and now, perhaps more appropriately, as just Queens—flanked on one side by a blues-and-jazz club and on the other by Indochine, a Vegas-like tribute to 1930's Shanghai.

The voguish set, it turns out, actually congregates on the other side of the highway adjacent to the docks, at places like Alcântara Café, a former printing plant transformed into a restaurant. Its horseshoe-shaped bar is crowned by a full-size bronze replica of Winged Victory. On a Friday night, the tables are packed—women in little black dresses, men in tailored suits ordering champagne, oysters, and nouvelle portugaise cuisine. I have a clear view of two Cape Verdean women in matching, cleavage-baring snakeskin outfits shooting pool. (Yes, there are billiard tables in the restaurant.) As if this approach to creating atmosphere weren't strange enough, my friend informs me that the men's-room urinal is a floor-to-ceiling mirror terminating in an ice-filled trough. When we leave just after midnight, teenagers—the girls in platform sneakers, the boys straddling motorbikes—are milling around fried-food caravans, fueling up for a night at the club next door.


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