The London Promise

(originally published on my now defunct Medium page, sometime in 2014)

I was enamoured of London long before I had even visited it and for two very specific reasons, random as they may sound: Walt Disney and Foyle’s bookstore.

I first saw “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” at around age ten, and loved it from beginning to end, as a ten-year-old would. One scene (or rather, a song) however, was to stay indelibly etched in my mind: Portobello Road.

It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that my image of Portobello Market during the war was, of course, a complete illusion: the scene isn’t filmed in London at all but rather in a studio set in Burbank, California. It didn’t matter: by then the damage was already done.

To this day I can’t exactly determine what fascinated me so much. It wasn’t the song per se; after all, it’s not as if I was expecting to one day visit London and see people spontaneously spring into song and dance in the middle of the street (these days, with the advent of flash-mobs, I’m less certain.)

Perhaps it was the sound of the (fake, I know) cockney accent of stall-owners and spivs offering everything from vegetables and fruit, to jewellery, to books, and even secret instructions (for a fee) on how to find the Star of Astaroth. Or maybe was it seeing the music and choreography being adapted on the spot by Jamaicans, Sikhs, Australians, Irish, and many others, making Notting Hill their own and yet shared.

Come to think of it, it may very well be due to the simple fact that these were children like myself, in a shady market, late at night, during the war, when despite all the horror which only later I came to comprehend, all rules seem to have been suspended. To me it felt like an adventure; slightly dangerous, slightly forbidden and slightly mischievous, much as good adventures ought to be.

Depicted, a magical flying bed. You can tell it’s magical because it glows. Obviously.

Least of all, let’s not forget that they had a magical flying bed. It is a known fact that childhood memories of magical flying beds are character-forming. I mean, think about it: it’s a bed and it flies, I can’t stress it enough.

The origin of my fixation with Foyle’s, on the other hand, has proven impossible to trace despite many attempts to do so. Its spot on my “top ten list of memorable… stuff” was never endangered even though it sometimes changed positions. It has proudly occupied the rarified atmosphere of the top three positions for a long time, but is now in danger of leaving it; it appears that the Charing Cross Road location is being sold, and the store is moving somewhere else. (update: it has, right next door)

At the beginning all I knew of the place from pictures and from reading about it was precisely its current location and peculiarities, later confirmed by subsequent visits: inconceivably large for those times, a labyrinth of shelves and corridors that connected the five floors of three different buildings, hastily merged into a single space while keeping the layout and floor-plan of each. Like a family whose members aren’t necessarily keen on each other but have no choice but to live together; not exactly ideal but still better than having to move in with strangers.

And books. Pile upon pile of dusty books. Fifty kilometers of shelves, it is said, in two and three rows, on tables, on the floor even, mixing used books with new ones, from floor to ceiling, either organized by a sadist or else simply left abandoned; the purpose seemed to be to make it as difficult as possible to find the volume you were looking for. My own extended speleological surveys of the space later revealed that this chaos served me very well: after all this wasn’t a bookstore where you went to buy the books you wanted but much rather a bookstore you went to want books you didn’t yet know.

Organizing books, as imagined by Kafka.

After having discovered your volumes, or as some would argue, they had found you, exhausted from the travels to the darkest ends of the mysteriously winding corridors — some leading apparently nowhere, changing subject-matter mid-way for no logical reason — and in anticipation of the wonders buried in those pages, you still had to overcome the greatest hurdle of them all: you had to pay for them.

You wouldn’t normally suppose it to be a problem, had not the sadist in charge of organizing the books also designed the check-out procedure: there were two, sometimes three, queues. You had to surrender your book in one in exchange for a note, obtain an invoice for that note in another queue and finally pay the invoice in yet another queue. All were written by hand by less than inspired clerks, some of which didn’t even speak English at all. Only then could you have your book.

The whole experience felt as if Foyle’s was appalled that you (dishonestly, surely) had found something you wanted to buy and gave itself a moment of reflection on the merits of your disposition before allowing you to walk out with what sometimes felt like a brick of the house itself; it wasn’t just a purchase, it was a test of character.

At any rate, my childhood obsession with both Foyle’s and Portobello Road gave me a purpose: I studied Tube maps, photographs, movies, books (the ones I could understand), and descriptions from anyone I knew who could tell me something about London.

My first visit at thirteen wasn’t the grand event I had anticipated: it was incomparably better, a familiar surprise. I knew exactly where I was and where I wanted to go first: Central Line to Notting Hill Gate, walk down and back up ever so slowly Portobello Road. Still walking, cross Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, catch the Piccadilly Line at Knightsbridge, hop off at Leicester Square. From there it’s a short walk up Charing Cross Road to Foyle’s. In the event of having survived it whole reward myself with a visit to Convent Garden by way of Trafalgar Square.

I have since been to London more often than I can remember, and my perception of it has become a palimpsest of memories of events, people, scents, colour, all-important conversations, life-changing emotions and a whole collection of many other sights, from the preppy times of drinking Bellinis at the Claridge’s, to the punk years of the bug-ridden bed-and-breakfast near Victoria Station. The city and I are inextricably, and I now realise, inexplicably linked to each other.

Every now and then I convince myself that it forgot about me which makes me a little sad and a little anxious as if I was discovering once again for the first time a promise that’s impossible to keep.

Most of the time, however (and misquoting Whitman) I just know that we were together, the rest I forget.

 

• • •

Mind The Gap

(originally published on my now defunct Medium page, sometime in 2015)

You will never know how much music has transformed you, not until it has, but by then you won’t remember what it was like back when it hadn’t. You’ll swear that it was always like this, that it didn’t so much transform you as it unlocked something in you.

And yet it did transform you: there were neurological changes, dormant nerve paths awoke, new ones were discovered, tiny and impatient little specks of light now travel through you, an imminent and familiar menace, one to which you cannot wait to capitulate.

It is your mother-tongue now.

You never saw it coming, did you?

• • •

The Spring Apprehension


(originally published on my now defunct Medium page, sometime in 2015)

This puzzles me:

I hear the expression “words were said that cannot be taken back”, and yet I don’t know where or how we draw the conceptual line that separates words that can be taken back from those that cannot. I mean we can all easily differentiate between monstrous statements and innocuous ones, yet I suspect that there exists a grey area where we cannot do that at all, one which contains many more words than both extremes.

It all depends on who hears those words I suppose. If that is the case, maybe it should read: “there will never be a correct apology for the words you’ve said”, or in other words: “the separation line is clear to me, regardless of where you think the line is”.

It all sounds very final.

As if it were supremely important that Spring must die or else never be.

• • •

The Love Recipe

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(originally published on my now defunct Medium page, sometime in 2015)

Hell is the incapacity to be other than the creature one finds oneself ordinarily behaving as.

Aldous Huxley — Eyeless in Gaza

Love is easy, here’s what you do:

  • Tell her you love her every day, several times a day. Fucking mean it as if your life depended on it. Hell, your life does depend on it.
  • Did you have a fight? Are you carrying a grudge? Slow down, don’t call her just yet. Go first look at a picture of her, the one you like best. Yes, that one where she’s happy, complete and laughing as if nothing else mattered. Talk to the picture, tell it that you’re a sorry moron (because you know you are) and that you love her and fucking mean it. Now call her and tell her that.
  • Can’t call just now? Did she hurt your feelings badly? Are you sad? Well boo-hoo-fucking-hoo. What are you going to do? Mope? Sulk like a child whose toys have been taken away? Or are you going to grow a pair and grasp that you’re the shithead who provoked it? Make amends you simpleton. Remember that once you’ve been your usual cretinous self it’s almost always too late to make amends. The longer you wait, the worse it gets. Do it now.
  • Your fucking “standards” don’t matter, you pathetic little nitwit. Don’t ever be so arrogant as to think that you have deserved to be loved by someone like her, you haven’t. You were just lucky that someone peeked inside you and found a flame to kindle, remember that. We should all be so lucky.
  • When she shares something with you, no matter how trivial, understand it for what it is: you have been chosen to carry a fragile and unique gem that you need to protect and tend to. And guess what, no one gives a flying fuck about your accounting of the credits and debits of the laying bare of souls. A single one is enough for you to carry a debt you can never hope to repay.
  • Know every millimiter of her body as if it were your own, know it better that your own. There is a place for lust of course, but unless you’re an animal, don’t succumb to it until you’ve accepted how the simplest of her gestures or a flick of her hair can floor you and leave you breathless. Don’t be a fucking animal.
  • You don’t absolutely need a constant confirmation of her love for you. Don’t be an insecure little shit and trust your instincts. Only contemplate asking when you feel completely like yourself and of good cheer. Only then. There is darkness inside us all yes, but try to get rid of it (and for fuck’s sake don’t think for a minute that the darkness makes you any more “interesting”). The both of you are one now, not a unit of you plus her. Darkness will only get in the way and cast doubt when it finds the slightest opportunity.
  • And by the way, did you tell her you love her? Did you fucking mean it?

 

If you didn’t, if you can’t, if you’re not sure about all this, if you are stupid enough to think that you “need to think about it” or even if, hey, you reach the conclusion that maybe you’re not in love with her, then get the fuck out of her way.

Stop wasting her life and go be an imbecile on your own time.

• • •

Purple


(originally published on my now defunct Medium page, sometime in 2013)

 

Yes, it hurts, just a little, and there is no way to avoid it.

The damned conjugation of life’s little ploys always ends up pushing you to the edge of a cliff where you are exposed, defenseless, where anything, no matter how trivial, can make you loose balance and plunge you into the pit.

Even your surprise at finding yourself here is predictable.

You’ll try to argue, to reason: No, not me, why me, I had no demands, not this time. I didn’t screw up, not that much, I was good, I was courteous, I was delicate. I was prepared to be hurt, for fuck’s sake. I shouldn’t even be here. Look, that moment, that stupid awkward moment, that hesitation? It meant nothing that can’t be undone, right? Right?

See, so long as you don’t accept that you are the only part in this, that no one is punishing you, no amount of protest will ever save you; so you know, if you crave redemption, you first need to know from what.

Rest now. Everything will be alright. Messy and chaotic.

Flawless.

 

 

• • •

Blush


(originally published on my now defunct Medium page, sometime in 2013)

 

I want to know exactly how many of your skin’s goosebumps would fit under my finger.

Applying pressure where it is softest, very lightly of course (after all, it is important to not scare the papillae away), moving the tip of my index a fraction of a millimetre above that dimple at the very end of your back, upwards so slowly that it would take a lifetime to reach the base of your neck.

I wonder if you’d close your eyes, sigh softly, and surrender.

I could finally count them, then.

• • •

Poetry

(originally published on my now defunct Medium page, sometime in 2014)

 

I know exactly bugger-all about poetry.

It’s not that I haven’t tried, I have very often and very hard, too: after all how could I resist the temptation, led on by a high-school teacher’s remark, that reciting poetry was the surest way to impress girls? So and in step with was being discussed in class I attacked Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and all of the poètes maudits with unparalleled determination: all my other ploys to dazzle girls having met with various degrees of failure, poetry couldn’t conceivably fare worse, I thought.

I could already picture my then unrequited crush on her veranda hopelessly swooning at my declamation of the Fleurs du Mal under the full-moon. I was going to be Cyrano, damn it, and without stupid Christian de Neuvillette, too.

Sadly, reality intervened: no matter how much I read I invariably rebelled in anger after a few pages, jumped from my chair, paced the room furiously, yelling the by now familiar, for-fuck’s-sake-get-to-the-fucking-point-what-in-god’s-name-are-you-trying-to-say-make-it-stop-it’s-making-my-head-melt-oh-hell-yes-I’ll-have-another-drink-or-ten-et-meeerde litany. Also and to add to my despair, try as I might, I couldn’t memorize a single verse.

I had no problem with the poets themselves, mind you: their biographies were fascinating. After all, how many drug fiends, gun runners, absinthe drunkards, runaway criminals and suicidal maniacs does it take to make me take notice? Not many and there were plenty of those.

The fact is that Roxane looked very distant now.

It is true that I may have been an arrogant little twit back then and simply didn’t have the tranquility and wisdom that may have been needed to fully appreciate the rhythm, flow and music of the words. Today, as time has changed me into a much bigger arrogant twit, poetry doesn’t anger me as much and I do read some of it with great pleasure. Always careful, always on the look-out for the signals that are going to make me boil again and sufficiently wise as to simply put down the book should I feel attacked again.

Not that I understand it any better, though. Some of it stuck much like the many other passages from authors who aren’t poets and often for reasons that aren’t especially noble. I can quote Verlaine’s first stanza of the Chanson d’Automne for instance (les sanglots longs/des violons/de l’automne/blessent mon cœur/d’une langueur/monotone) but the explanation couldn’t be more pedestrian: it is prominently featured on the movie The Longest Day. And by the way can you spot the apparently arbitrary separation of sentences and how irritating that is? Right.

Perhaps the word “poetry” has a very specific connotation in my mind, one which doesn’t correspond to what it is usually understood to mean; Shakespeare, to me, isn’t classified under “poetry” for instance. Not even his sonnets, which, incidentally, have served me well with many a Roxane. Or a few. Well, at least one. Who would’ve thought that one day I’d softly whisper into some beautiful ear, …Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved? And yet I did, and the words worked wonders.

My high-school teacher who I’ve now come to realise must have been an incorrigible romantic failed to tell me about the most important fact about wooing your love interest with poetry: namely that in the dance of courtship it is equivalent to the thermonuclear solution.You don’t simply pull out the verses for no good reason and offer them trivially: for one your ammunition is limited (trust me, it is) and then the effect is lost if it is used too often.

You could always use your charming struggles with poetry, instead. I’m told that it works extremely well.

• • •

Eduard

(originally published on my now defunct Medium page, sometime in late 2013)

 

Votiv Kirche, Wien

Votiv Kirche, Wien

 

We met by coincidence on a lazy Viennese afternoon, but I still have no idea who Eduard Kosmack was.

While exploring my new surroundings I came across a museum of modern art right next to where we lived. There was no elevation in any of this, no thirst for art, no sublime sharpening of the inner vision. The truth is simply that I was out of cigarettes and the museum’s coffee-shop was the only establishment open on Sundays. As it turns out it didn’t sell cigarettes either.

But,

There were two enormous paintings downstairs: one by Roy Lichtenstein and another by Warhol (the Orange Car Crash, maybe?), which promptly made me forget why I was there to begin with. I had never seen so closely anything quite like it. I had heard about both painters, had read about them and seen their work in books. I even knew a little more about Warhol due to a slightly alarming teenage fixation with the Velvet Underground but this was different. There was texture and dimension, there was light pouring in from the majestic bay windows of the palace, there was space!

I must’ve run up and down the stairs of the three floors of the museum hundreds of times that day. So much so that when I finally came out of it, exhausted and lighthearted, I had to sit down on a bench on the Fürstengasse to try and catch my breath and catalogue everything I had just seen.

It was of no use. All that was left was an incomprehensible and chaotic blur: giant photorealistic paintings danced in my mind to the music of deconstructed pianos while fat ladies had tea and Picasso watched mockingly as Jasper Johns painted a perfect target, ever so patiently. Moderns, Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus, Pop-Art, Actionism, I did remember the labels but that was about it. Despite my unavoidable compulsion to devise a meticulously organised mental library I couldn’t say who went where or why anymore.

Nor could I believe that I lived a few hundred meters from such an exhilarating pandemonium for that matter—it was inevitable that the Palais Liechtenstein should become my surrogate living-room for the next few years. I enjoyed every single corner and wall of it seemingly becoming an integral part of it and it of me to the point of knowing most of the staffand every single piece exhibited by name. I was a jealous visitor too; only when truly forced to it would I share the palace with someone: I couldn’t bear the prospect of a real voice disrupting the conversation in me. Mine.

Despite my increasing familiarity with the collection there was always one single very clear image that kept creeping back, calling me. It wasn’t a painting of striking dimensions (around 1m x 1m), by comparison with some others and it hung modestly in a smallish isolated room on the very last floor, as if put there to be discovered by the worthy alone and ignored by the others.

What caught my attention first were the eyes.

It was a portrait of Eduard Kosmack, by Egon Schiele, but I didn’t know that then. I just felt his eyes, looking at me, only at me, waiting.

 

Egon Schiele, Porträt Eduard Kosmack, 1910

Egon Schiele, Porträt Eduard Kosmack, 1910

 

The very first time that I paid any sustained attention to it, it made me uncomfortable and vaguely angry. After five minutes I made myself leave and promised to not give it another thought.

Which didn’t last for very long.

I couldn’t let go of Kosmack’s uneven eyes, the awkwardly and simultaneously defensive and defying position, the writhing of the hands, the face, as if cut into shape by a knife. He was waiting. He was waiting for me. He was waiting for me to ask him something. He was waiting for me to ask him something or to answer a question I didn’t know how to ask. I hated it to the point of having to come back again and again just to look at the one portrait, ignoring three or four floors of joyful, pensive, mischievous, and flirtatious accomplices.

With time we became accustomed to each other. Those initial sessions of five minutes turned into more minutes and then into dialogues where time wasn’t a consideration anymore. I sat in front of him as one sits with a friend and we talked.

I asked him about his city, told him about the apparently unsolvable paradox of being, at the same time, fascinated beyond words by my new habitat and yet absolutely terrified at having been once again uprooted and transplanted somewhere. Of having become the battlefield of the memories I had left behind and those that were now forming, asking me for a ruling, as there seemed to be no place for both. Of new and old friends. Of both the pettiness of some days and the grandiosity of others. Of ups and downs. Of love and hate and indifference and sorrow and joy.

Through it all he was patient. “Slow down”, he seemed to say, “breathe”.

And as time passed my respiration grew even and my compulsions slowly gave room to a quieter contemplation both defying and defensive in pose, hands not writhing but impregnable, relishing at the prospect of, first of all, waiting.

Some days (like today) I miss Eduard.

• • •

The Silent Sea

(or, my first true gesamterfahrung of the French language.)

Il fut précédé par un grand déploiement d’appareil militaire. D’abord deux troufions, tous deux très blonds, l’un dégingandé et maigre, l’autre carré, aux mains de carrier. Ils regardèrent la maison, sans entrer. Plus tard vint un sous-officier. Le troufion dégingandé l’accompa­gnait. Ils me parlèrent, dans ce qu’ils supposaient être du français. Je ne comprenais pas un mot. Pourtant je leur montrai les chambres libres. Ils parurent contents.

Vercors — Le Silence de la Mer

I did have some contact with it before that, but not at the level of actually analyzing literary works. As a portuguese high-school student my experience of it had been a very formal and limited one, where many grammatical rules were taught, verb conjugations were reviewed with an iron resolve and vocabulary was an afterthought. It is little wonder that I consistently and predictably flunked the class, year after year after year.

It was more a source of concern for my parents than it was for me, seen that my grades were generally acceptable but for French and I really couldn’t see the point of the whole thing.

All of that changed very quickly: from nowhere it was announced to us that we would be moving to Belgium. In seven days. As in, leave-everything-behind-that-you-cannot-carry-and-ship-to-a-country-that-you’ve-never-even-heard-of-seven-days which, at age thirteen, sounds adventurous rather than disquieting. We were ecstatic: among many others, language was certainly a concern, but we were moving there as a whole family and if you combine that with the fact that Portugal invented the very concept of desenrascanço, what could possibly go wrong?

As expected, the whole thing became markedly less amusing once we arrived in Brussels.

We, or at least I, seemed to have overseen a small but crucial detail: every single person was a stranger to me with little incentive to correct my very approximate command of the language. This was at times funny but infuriating most of the time: I retributed by hating them all immediately.

School of course was a whole different matter: for one, with the exception of Dutch and English classes, all of the syllabus was in French. Mathematics, History, Geography, Physics, Chemistry all of them in French. French in French, obviously. Even Physical Education was in French. It was assumed that I was sufficiently adroit as to follow along, which I mostly did. Not that I hated any of them any less, mind you.

I will never forget the first lines of Le Silence de la Mer as long as I live. The memory of the anguish they produced in me when I first read them is etched so deep in my brain that I can remember the temperature of the room, the cover of the book, the colour of the teacher’s shirt and the sudden sweat in my forehead, as if it had all happened five minutes ago.

I couldn’t even begin to understand it. Grand, deux, maison and français vaguely rang a bell but that was about it. And yet Il fut précédé par un grand déploiement d’appareil militaire, incomprehensible as it was, was under a 3/4 sway which was hard to ignore, like a charming valse musette (but I only found out about those much later.)

It took me months to get past that first paragraph, but I finally managed to not only get past it, but more importantly to enjoy it immensely. The way Vercors prepares a story in a single paragraph, transmitting at the same time a feeling of triviality and impending doom with so few and so well-wrought words is mesmerizing. What first astonished me was: Ils me parlèrent, dans ce qu’ils supposaient être du français. Je ne comprenais pas un mot or, They spoke to me in what they supposed to be French. I didn’t understand a word. It sounded as if he was describing me.

I can’t objectively claim that the whole novella is as brilliant as I think it is. It is to me, if not for the language (which is wonderful), at least for the simple fact that, for once in my life, I can place an exact date, location and feeling to what would become a life-changing event.

At some point, after many books and many teachers I finally dreamt in French. Not by choice or determination, but because the music was irresistible. And I didn’t hate them at all, how could I?

I was them now.

(Dédié à Nath, à qui j’aurais dû raconter cette histoire il y a bien longtemps☺)

• • •