It is one of those Facebook memes: travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer. All the studies on happiness suggest that you get more of it by purchasing experiences instead of things. There’s something about escaping our everyday context and remaking ourselves in a new place that makes it easy to believe anything is possible. I’ve even heard from a couple of people who haven’t needed their anxiety medication since arriving in Lisbon. And I think I understand why.
It isn’t that the city has magical healing powers, given the troubled mind of Lisbon’s long-ago poet laureate Fernando Pessoa and his continuous cycle of anxiety, despair, and sadness. But it might be the city’s reaction to Pessoa’s mental illness: they don’t seem to have thought of it as an illness. A few scholars have argued Pessoa suffered from schizophrenia. They cite his pen-names, fully-formed alternate identities he sometimes adopted when he wrote, a few of which wrote reviews and criticisms of the others. But the city erected a statue of Pessoa with a book in place of a head, their way of saying, We get it—Pessoa’s mind was crowded, a fact we will celebrate. America’s own native son Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am vast. I contain multitudes.” Lisbon embraces that idea—and maybe, by giving us permission to be anxious and to hide behind other versions of ourselves, it reduces our anxieties. When happiness is not the standard, failing to feel happy is not a failure.
But another theory occurred to me while walking around the Alfama, a medieval neighborhood that is notoriously confusing by design. The Moors occupying the castle built the Alfama between themselves and the city docks in order to confound invading armies. The idea was that enemies would get so hopelessly lost wandering the labyrinth of narrow streets between tall houses, never seeing more than a hundred feet ahead, that they would just give up the invasion and go back home. At the very least, the Alfama bought the defenders some time. Streets merrily jut off in two directions at once. A steep hill spills into a courtyard, off which three new streets embark. Navigation by starlight is impossible in a sliver of sky.
Contemporary travelers will notice different peculiarities, like never knowing what a store is selling until standing in front of it; or shuddering at the thought of trying to drive a car through this neighborhood, where there is no such thing as turning around if the driver misses an address, nor going around the block. The only option is to slow down. Meander the corridors and lanes, nodding hello to the locals. Buy a bag of the inexpensive, intensely flavored apricots or figs. Watch for signs of the neighborhood’s changing identity as artists and bohemians move in beside the old-timers and immigrants who formerly predominated. Understand why the neighborhood has always had a reputation for tight-knit community, vicious gossip, long feuds, and uproarious festivals. This is what it looks like when people live so close together there is no hope of escaping each other: they learn how to put up with just about anything.
But my theory about why Lisbon might defuse some of an American traveler’s anxiety doesn’t concern living in the Alfama—anyone moving into such a neighborhood is an outsider for life, which is the way of small-town America, too. My theory has more to do with the feeling of embrace the Alfama and other parts of Lisbon can give, especially to people accustomed to streets designed on a grid that stretch to the horizon. I’m thinking of the basic comfort in not seeing too far down the path—there’s less pressure to guess, at all times, what will happen when we get there. The animals we are feel safer when enclosed and enfolded inside a community of fellows. Under these conditions, animal behaviorist Temple Grandin has taught the world, cattle will even march calmly, sedately to their death. While there is a kind of anxiety that comes from not knowing what will happen next, another, more pernicious anxiety results from feeling like we should know the answer when we’re not even sure of the question. That is the anxiety Lisbon reduces. Will I give the wrong answer? Probably, says Lisbon, but who cares? We are just as confused as you.
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