All pin-cushioned mass and glowering rage the bull stands, panting. My mother, a tiny figure in black catsuit and high-heel boots, steps into the arena. The forcado who threw his haughty gauntlet at the middle-aged men seated on the stands of the Campo Pequeno – never expecting a taker – hands over his cape. Awkwardly my mother waves the bright pink silk. The bull lowers his head. I squeeze my eyes shut.
It is 1979, I am 12, and this is my first holiday abroad, tagging along to an advertising industry jamboree my father has been invited to in Lisbon. This moment – a private bullfight staged for the delegates (none of whom expected one of the wives to enter the ring) – is one of a number that will mark a kind of coming of age, my own Age of Discovery in a city that built a monument to it.
Prior to this, memories are fragments, tiny shards that barely illuminate my childhood. But during those 10 days in May I bank a series of memories that I am able to withdraw more than 40 years later. Travel will do that, of course.
According to psychologist and behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman, each of us has a “remembering self” and an “experiencing self”. The experiencing self knows only the psychological present – millions of expedient moments that leave little or no trace. It is the experiencing self that answers when asked, “Does this hurt?” Whether the answer matters is decided by the remembering self, the one who evaluates which moment is worthy of memory.
Kahneman describes our remembering self as the inner storyteller, curating not only the past narrative, but herding us into a future based on the anticipation of creating new memories. This is exactly why we like going away on holiday, Kahneman explains. People want lives with good stories. Or at the very least, interesting.
I don’t recall the difficulty my father had breathing on the long haul to Lisbon, but I see him propped up in his five-star hotel bed, the oxygen tank an off-note in the otherwise elegant room. The Portuguese doctor saying with unremarkable prescience that he will soon be dead if he does not stop smoking.
Perhaps I had heard the word before but now it is imprinted: emphysema. Fingers stained yellow by years of tamping down his pipe are splayed on white sheets; tubes trailing from his nose like silicone snot. It is a complicated mix: revulsion and shame.
He recovers, at least sufficiently, to attend the conference. While the men talk market share and sales propositions, the wives are taken on sightseeing trips in and around Lisbon. Sintra’s palaces, particularly Pena Palace – its bright yellow Moorish turrets and domes ornate icing on a pretty confection – evoke nothing short of awe in my parochial eyes.
Then the conference ends, and it is just the three of us. We revisit the Lisbon sights, taking photos from the ramparts of Castelo de São Jorge; the monochromatic swirl of Cascais’ pretty cobbled streets. We eat lobster and Portuguese seafood rice. We are, for the last time, a happy family.
When I finally return to Portugal, I am 56, two years older than the age my father died. My husband and I check into Hotel das Amoreiras, a jewel box of a hotel overlooking the Jardim das Amoreiras, an oasis shaded by ginkos and maple trees, yet strolling distance from the buzzing bars and restaurants of Principe Real.
In my handbag is an envelope with faded photographs; May 1979 scrawled on the back of each one in my mother’s handwriting. These will be my guide: I will revisit all the places we posed in, try to reach some remnant of the gauche girl in the photos, dead to me as my father.
Lisbon is not the first city I have trawled for traces of the young girl I can no longer recall. Johannesburg is the city I grew up in, but the City of Gold is pure palimpsest, the past constantly effaced by the present, a constant reminder that prosperity does not mean posterity. And why should it, when the prosperity isn’t shared. Decay there is a kind of social justice.
Lisbon by contrast is thriving – and not just because Portugal’s economy is its strongest in decades. The city wears its heritage well, without fanfare, people living their lives – brief as butterflies – under the gothic archways of the 16th-century Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, or ascended the limestone steps in the Torre de Belém. Even vantages – from Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte to the recessed arches of Se Cathedral, hoving into view from the 28 tram – are virtually unchanged.
In Cascais I find O’Pescador, the restaurant we visited several times in 1979. I show the waiter a photograph of my father and me, standing at the entrance. The sign has changed, the pavement broadened into a pedestrian street, but the facade is the same.
He takes it over to a burly man with a chunky watch sitting in the corner – the second-generation owner would have been more or less my age when I last ate in his father’s restaurant. He sends the photograph back with a glass of 30-year-old tawny port. We raise a silent toast to each other. “Don’t wait 40 years again before you come back,” he calls as I leave.
In the marbled foyer of the Palácio Estoril I am introduced to the silver-haired duty manager, Jose Diogo. Unbelievably, Jose has been working in the hotel since 1964; would have been here that May. He smiles at my excitement, seemingly unfazed by a middle-aged woman looking for the past in a hotel that has played host to European royal refugees and “a nest of spies” that included Ian Fleming, who stayed here in 1941.
In the name of research I knock back Fleming’s favourite martini while Jose explains that nothing has ever been changed in the wood-panelled bar, then trail him into a high-ceilinged reception room where breakfast was served in the 1970s, chandeliers dangling like giant grapes over tables laden with pastries we stole for lunch, then out to the pool, enormous as I remember.
We spent the last few days of the conference here, my mum and I, eschewing further sightseeing trips. She had escaped the bullring unscathed, but the display of bravery separated her from the delegates’ wives, jealous perhaps of their husbands’ admiration.
On our last night in Lisbon my husband and I dine at Brilhante (00 351 210 547 981), a new restaurant but even more of an evocation of my past than O’Pescador. My father hated home-cooking – “no choice, and you can’t send it back” – so restaurants were our de facto dining rooms; booth seats my first childhood beds.
Lined with banquettes in dark red velvet, rose-gold mirrors with ribbed detailing reflecting a richly textured interior, my father would have loved this louche boudoir.
In the centre, chefs bend over stainless steel in fierce concentration under pressed ceilings painted oxblood red, oblivious to the audience facing them on brass-buttoned leather seats. The steak too has form: slightly charred on the outside and very, very rare – exactly how he liked it.
Under pools of light cast by tassel-fringed lamps, the red cut-glass tumblers glitter like jewels. I raise one, drink to the man who shaped me. The photographs have been a breadcrumb trail leading me to where we went, but as to who he really was, I still don’t know.
How to do it
Easyjet flies to Lisbon from Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester; Ryanair flies from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Stansted and Manchester; British Airways flies from Heathrow. TAP Air Portugal flies from Heathrow and Manchester. Hotel Das Amoreiras (00 351 211 633 710) has doubles from €196 per night, including breakfast.