Kirby Olson


Lisbon: Big Pleasures in a Tiny Country

If it is true that the french fries in Lisbon were not the size of steel girders and that it did not take twelve waiters to lift an entire blue swordfish on to my plate, or that the cups of coffee were as big as hot tubs, then it is also false that nothing else I am about to write will be true. In fact, when the bell boy shoved open the enormous door to my suite, I was relieved to find that it was no bigger than a typical gymnasium, a room in which I could relax and feel snug. I got in the fork lift and dropped a couple of trees on the fire, and laid back and looked out the enormous window at the terraced fields filled with workers growing all that big stuff to eat.

The smooth olive skinned waiters carried out an enormous swordfish on a silver plate. Dripping in lemon sauce. Piled around the edges were tomato slices, olives, and green and red peppers. I had already finished a twelve-foot deep salad with fresh shrimp, lettuce, tomatoes, avocadoes. The waiters set down the swordfish, mopped their brows, and went back to the kitchen to lift the wine jugs.

After polishing off the swordfish and tossing back the wine, I took the steam train down to the beach on the Atlantic. Enormous clouds rolled by as I rolled by. The white sand sunny beach was filled with men and women and babies kicking an oversized beachball. A grin invited me to kick it back. It was ten feet wide but as light as a dirigible. It sailed up in the air when I kicked it and it got caught in the wind and started to go to America when it turned back as if on a whim.

That night I lay in my room dreaming of the fairy city of Lisbon: rococo marble buildings gleaming as pink as giant sea-shells. Huge spires like children's graceful fingers pointed at the blue sky, blue the color of the azulejos (blue tiles) all over the city's walls depicting scenes of the first great ships, their sails full of the mighty breath of the Renaissance sailing to the New World. I fell into a deep trance, thinking of the abstract floral patterns laid into the marble sidewalks of Lisbon, and walking along these sidewalks past perfect gardens of roses, saffron, and other exotic foliage.

With one of those jet-lag driven somnambulisms which force the weary traveller out of bed and into the night, I walked along the alleyways, where orphaned children stood in rags. The monstrous hidden life of Lisbon crawled out of drain pipes and materialized in doorways like ghosts. A huge burly man dressed only in a burlap sack and hiking boots stumbled towards the future seeking to devour it with his cavity stricken teeth. I thanked the Lutheran God again for my protected status in the face of Catholic hunger while I climbed three-foot wide streets which twisted and turned unpredictably until morning.

At the foot of a Moorish citadel, white peacocks strutted past lakes surrounded by arabesque trellaces of roses. The air was so clear I could see a black cat walking on a red-tiled roof a half-mile away. A rich boy sat on his back steps with a plastic pinball game on his knees. He flipped his long dark hair back and grinned as a red ball landed on a 500. His ball had landed on Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who was the first man to sail around the world.

Looking across the bay at sunset, pastel-colored laundry hung from beautiful iron staircases. A portly little policeman jogged past chasing a thief. The policeman was as round as an olive, while the thief looked like a toothpick. Both of them smiled at me and waved as they jogged past. A supertanker with a Brazilian flag was sailing up the golden river Tagus. I took one of the tiny green trolleys which labor to carry Lisbonese businessmen in grey pin-stripes along to their serious 20th century affairs. The sidewalks were made of smooth black and white stones. They form abstract patterns, mainly floral, which culminate in gracious, tree-lined parks with fantastic representations of roosters. Roosters are the national symbol of Portugal because one woke up the Portuguese during a night-time Moorish invasion in some long ago century. I heard such a rooster and awoke after my long nap, after a much too long sleepwalk around the fairy city of Lisbon. I rang room service, and they loaded a cup of coffee into the fork-lift, and brought it up to my suite.

Drinking it was a pleasure, and the entire city seemed to tremble as I drank. Whether it was a heart attack or a trembling of the earth didn't matter to me, but there was an unaccountable trembling. I was thirsty, and this was good brew, and I drank continuously for an hour before the cup was done, and then sent out for more, which was quickly brought on a train car that clacked along the tracks to my room.


Las Vegas -- San Diego

He had a scary face -- he had but one tooth and all the veins in his face had exploded from excess of drink. His eyes looked cruel like a dog's that had been whipped from birth. I didn't like being in the same Greyhound Bus Line in San Diego after the MLA conference. At this point, an older woman entered the line and the man asked her if she was not Diana something or other who had lived in Las Vegas thirty years ago. She nodded.

"You were so beautiful then!" He said.

"Weren't you a drummer for Tommy Dorsey?"

"Yes," the guy said.

The woman still retained some elegance, but had fallen on really hard times.

"Who was it you were with then?" The guy asked. He named some small-time Italian gangster.

"I have no good memories of that period," she said. "Ten years with him and not one good memory. Except the shows. I loved the shows. What are you doing now?"

"Not much. Drinking a bit. Retired."

"Sixty stars have died this year," the woman said.

"Sixty-one," he said. "Don't forget Burt Lancaster."

My bus was called, and the two elderly Las Vegas citizens helped me get my stuff up to the front of the line, and the woman called me Dear.


New York Revisited by Michael Mohrt
translated by Kirby Olson

Michel Mohrt was born in 1914, and has been on the editorial staff at Gallimard since 1952. He is the author of 34 volumes including a history Of North American literature and many novels. He has taught at Yale and Middlebury College, and continues to publish. The following travel essay is from his 1991 volume L'air du Temps, published by Le rocher editions in Monaco.

To have been young and to be so no longer, in a city that one has loved, brings up various feelings: tenderness, nostalgia, sometimes vexation, almost ennui: it is like coming across an ex-lover. New York has changed its skin, but under the sleek and brilliant facade of the newest skyscrapers, the length of Madison and 57th Avenue, I recognize her. At the corner of 57th and Lexington, the least luxurious of the avenues, a glass building stoops to welcome a little square, whose out-of-order fountains shower passersby copiously.

Not far from there, on Park Avenue, there is an enormous hothouse, pitched in front of a building (if not the Copper, it's a neighboring building); an exotic forest makes its stand in this prison of glass. There are, of course, other marvels as well in this central part of the city.

But in the streets of the lower city, bordered by filthy red-brick or disintegrating buildings of weathered stone, with fire escapes seemingly attached like spiders' webs, nothing has changed. Art galleries, and stores where a jumble of objects are tossed together, objects usually destined to decorate get-aways and country gardens, are open. I parade past the boutiques, peer at the bric-a-brac offered on counters, or go ecstatic over the twisted brass ornaments, which if straightened out and put end-to-end would stretch more than a kilometer: the last lucky find of an artist tired of jam jars and old boots... [Apparently a reference to artist Walter de Maria's 'Broken Kilometer'? -- Trans.] It's the Flea Market, Portobello Road, with some aspects of Rue St. Honore.

At the intersection of Madison and the streets above 57th, there are luxury boutiques -- fashion, handbags, shoes, -- among which are numerous French shops, grouped together, as if chasing the art galleries.

But surprise! At Brooks Brothers, where Scott Fitzgerland went to buy his knit ties and shirts with button-down collars, nothing has changed. The Gloucester House where we sipped the best clam-chowder in the city is Still there. And also the oyster-bar of Grand Central where, before the last train for New Haven, I ate a delicious soup with oysters lightly powdered with paprika: alas! I did not find it to have the same taste. And the "old-fashioned" that they served me, in great balloon glasses full of crushed-ice into which the orange slice disappeared, has lost the taste of bourbon.

The fleecy sky, above the West Side Towers that, from the flocks of trees in Central Park, emerges as from an ochre and red sea, is still as beautiful at sunrise as sunset. Before the Hotel Plazza, which is still unchanged, the little checkered taxi-cabs and their melancholy drivers still await the customer. And I rediscovered, near 42nd Street, the bar where I kept my rendez-vous. Under its make-up and its latest finery, I recognized New York.

Did New York recognize me?