The travel guide I bought in Berlin had summed up Lisbon under the term sadness. “Get lost in the city of sweet sadness”, it said on the cover. A reference to an apparently famous Portuguese word, saudade, which stands for embracing unease with the general state of the world.
I got the allure. I didn’t need sadness in my life or was particularly keen on reveling in it; but finding a place with manifest melancholy nevertheless seemed an interesting prospect.
So there I was, trudging through the fog on a Lisbon morning, overexposing all my photos to punch out the colors. In place of saudade I noticed an intense sense of discovery: The fog slowly lifted and began revealing the city, a suddenly powerful sun bathing its patterned facades in a warm light.
Turns out that’s another thing Lisbon is famous for: Light. There’s probably some geographic explanation for it, the location at the edge of the European continent, the nearby Atlantic, the river cutting across the city. Maybe a combination of them all. On that January morning it made Lisbon seem removed from the rest of the world. A place with pockets of brilliant light, surrounded by a wall of fog.
Many years ago, I read an interview with Noah Lennox, the musician known as Panda Bear. In it, he spoke about how in Lisbon he had found his perfect place to be, invoking pastel-colored buildings, and those chaotic alley that somehow feed into his layered music. I couldn’t find the interview again, but in that moment I got it: Not just the fascination with Lisbon, but with finding a place that speaks to you—be it through sweet sadness, bright lights, or just the feeling it conjures.