Margaret and Dick   


September '05: Fado

We decided to spend five days in Lisbon as part of our “see the world from Limoux” program.  Portugalis less than two hours by plane but sufficiently isolated to feel like another world.  Friends had visited Portugaland loved the food, the culture, and the music, Fado.  Sudhira described Fado as flamenco on Prozac, although I think that flamenco on Quaaludes may be more apt. 

An internet search yielded typical “Dick & Margaret” lodging:  cheap with loads of character.  The Sé guesthouse, which offers five rooms with two shared baths, was perfectly located in the Alfama neighborhood.  We love the character of small inns, and the Sé guesthouse did not disappoint.  Access to the lovingly maintained second-story residence was provided by a stairway that was a wreck.  But we looked out our balcony window onto the narrow street in the heart of the Alfama neighborhood and declared it perfect.

Alfama, the oldest quarter of Lisbonand the cradle of Fado, crawls up a steep hill toward the castle.  The streets are narrow and winding, often evolving into stairways.  Few streets are accessible by car.  The neighborhood has almost no hotels and, therefore, few tourists.  The tour books recommend asking a cabbie for an authentic Fado club frequented by locals...but there are no cabs where there are no cars!  Alfama is a working class neighborhood, with a mom & pop store on every block – and Fado wafting down every alleyway.   

Many countries can be described by the prevailing mood of the people.  America can be characterized by self-sufficiency.  The mood of Portugalis melancholy.  Fado (fate) is poetry set to music.  It expresses the yearning for things that are not, for things that used to be, for things that will never be.  The song emanates straight from the soul and delivers straight to the heart.  Even without understanding Portuguese, we were moved to tears.  The current Fado superstar, Mariza, is Patsy Cline reincarnated.  I’m pretty sure this is true – I’ll leave it to you to check the dates.

Oh people of my land

It’s only now that I perceive

This sadness which I carry

Was from you received.

Like the best vacation adventures, our Fado pilgrimage was not planned.  On our first evening, we splurged on the fancy Club do Fado that features the stars.  It was conveniently located across the street from our guesthouse.  We ordered carefully from the somewhat expensive menu and soon were charmed.  The lights go down and all motion stops when each set begins:  a singer, accompanied by a Portuguese guitar, a guitar, and (in this upscale club) a bass.   After four or five songs, the lights go up and the food service continues until the next set.  Each singer was better than the last, and the emotional impact of the last set by Ana Sofia Varela left us almost unable to breathe.

Our next Fado venture led us to a tiny room of eight tables that featured the acoustic equivalent of open-mike night.  The club was filled with regulars, and the door manager chose which singer would perform the next set.  Earnest men, sultry women draped in black fringed shawls, and a lively grandmother sang in turn.  A man sitting at our table proffered his CD.  By the end of the evening, we no longer felt like the American visitors.  We began asking for our check at about 11:00, but our waiter (charming and cute as can be) refused.  “It’s not over yet.”  Finally, at nearly , the last and best set featured our waiter, baring his soul in song.  “Where are your CDs?” I asked as the club was closing.  “I don’t like the commercial side.  I just do it for love.”  I had to smile.  I’d wager he gets all the love he wants.

As we walked down a narrow alley one day, lost again in Alfama, Mama chased us down in the street and described her little restaurant.  “No tourist restaurant…authentic...good Fado…no minimum.”  If Mama’s in the kitchen, the food should be good.  We managed to find that alley again for dinner on our last evening.  Mama beamed a happy welcome at us. Dinner was great, pork chops served with sautéed shrimp and crispy potatoes, accompanied by the inexpensive local wines that we enjoyed.  It was actually Papa, not Mama, in the kitchen.  The music was provided by this club’s stable of singers and the usual Portuguese guitar and traditional guitar.  The maitre d’, looking dapper in a tuxedo, was featured in one of the photos of the Fado singers in the window.  His baritone was somewhat corroded by years of smoking, but he sang poignantly and intensely.  The female singer who sang in alternate sets was less emotionally connected to the music.  During the evening, the suave maitre d’ slipped us a copy of his CD, which we were happy to purchase.  We will not be forcing it on you any time soon.

But something wasn’t right.  The restaurant served good food, and the Fado was reasonably good.  This was Saturday night, and there were almost no other customers.  A quick calculation showed that the economics couldn't possibly work:  $30 per couple times three couples couldn’t begin to cover Mama, Papa, the kitchen helper, the waiter, two musicians, and two singers.  At one point between sets, Mama came by the table and expressed her frustration.  Her rant, in Portuguese, was pretty clear:  good food! good Fado! no people! and she kicked her foot in the air.  Uh, yeah, we concurred.  Strange. 

But then we noticed that between sets the musicians would disappear.  Papa would disappear when he was not actively cooking, and the waiter too.  Finally the waiter rushed in with a breathless announcement to the few of us who remained in the restaurant.  The kitchen radio was turned on and tuned to a big soccer game of the Lisbonteam.  Mama’s kicking gesture suddenly made sense.  The rest of the evening alternated between heart-rending music and radio soccer broadcast.  When our dessert was served, Papa disappeared for the duration to the television down the alley. 

As we prepared to leave, we paused to chat in pidgin Portuguese with the waiter, the maitre d’, and the musicians who were smoking outside the restaurant.  I tried to convey our amusement.  “Es surreal,” I began, then realized that surreal did not translate.  Fado, football, Fado, football…”

Ah, sim,” smiled the waiter.  Portugal!” 

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On to 2006:  Cars and cooking