A dispatch from a foreign land, when crafted by an attentive and skilled writer, can be magical, transmitting pleasure, drama, and seductive strangeness.
In The Moon, Come to Earth, Philip Graham offers an expanded edition of a popular series of dispatches originally published on McSweeney’s, an exuberant yet introspective account of a year’s sojourn in Lisbon with his wife and daughter. Casting his attentive gaze on scenes as broad as a citywide arts festival and as small as a single paving stone in a cobbled walk, Graham renders Lisbon from a perspective that varies between wide-eyed and knowing; though he’s unquestionably not a tourist, at the same time he knows he will never be a local. So his lyrical accounts reveal his struggles with (and love of) the Portuguese language, an awkward meeting with Nobel laureate José Saramago, being trapped in a budding soccer riot, and his daughter’s challenging transition to adolescence while attending a Portuguese school—but he also waxes loving about Portugal’s saudade-drenched music, its inventive cuisine, and its vibrant literary culture. And through his humorous, self-deprecating, and wistful explorations, we come to know Graham himself, and his wife and daughter, so that when an unexpected crisis hits his family, we can’t help but ache alongside them.
A thoughtful, finely wrought celebration of the moment-to-moment excitement of diving deep into another culture and confronting one’s secret selves, The Moon, Come to Earth is literary travel writing of a rare intimacy and immediacy.
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The moon, come to earthDISPATCHES FROM LISBON
By Philip Graham
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2009 Philip Graham
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI DON'T KNOW WHY I LOVE LISBON
The grilled sardines lying on my plate are much larger than those stunted little things packed in tins that go by the same name in the United States, and their eye sockets stare up at the ceiling, where hanging light fixtures are shaped like gourds. The aroma of sardines led me here, the scent sharp at first as it hit the nose (perhaps too sharp) until the smoky complexities took over, akin—at least for me—to a bouquet of wine. I take another sip from my glass of vinho verde and peer up at the small square of the TV perched on a high shelf beside the restaurant's open door. The screen displays a smaller green rectangle of a soccer pitch, with even smaller figures of players racing back and forth.
Across the table in this typically narrow and crowded Lisbon tasca (mirroring the long and narrow streets of the Bairro Alto, an appealing neighborhood mix of funky shops and clothes drying on balconies), my nineteen-year-old ponytailed son, Nathaniel, sits enthralled by the beginning of this World Cup game: Portugal against the Netherlands. We've both caught some of the local futebol passion through a sneaky process of cultural osmosis, because there's been no escape from the billboards, metro announcements, and TV ads celebrating the World Cup games. For only the second time in history, a Portuguese team has made it to the second round, and tonight they're fighting for a berth in the third round, the final eight. My normally sports-averse son is actually interested, maybe because I mentioned a few days ago that Jack Kemp had once denounced soccer, on the floor of the House of Representatives, as a "socialist sport." It's a well-worn tactic—as a kid, Nathaniel finally ate his broccoli after my wife and I told him that the first President Bush hated the stuff. But Nathaniel also has a real gift for geometry, and maybe that's what secretly attracts him as he keeps his eyes on the TV—the constant reshuffling of the players' patterns on the pitch.
Already in the first minutes the Dutch team has begun some serious harsh play, enough to draw two yellow warning cards, in what seems like an attempt to intimidate Portugal from the get-go. Nathaniel shuffles nervously in his seat, glances at me. On the flight over, I'd made the mistake of reading aloud passages about fan hooliganism from Franklin Foer's marvelous How Soccer Explains the World. At the time, a description of one soccer thug's arm that "folds around in a direction that would defy a healthy network of joints and tendons" made for some good head-slapping, eye-rolling camaraderie on a long flight, but now I'm regretting it, because I've had to nag Nathaniel all day to get him to watch tonight's game in a public place. I try listening in on the conversations of the people sitting at neighboring tables in an attempt to catch their mood, but spoken Portuguese—with all its succulent oos and ooshes, oishes and aows— still glides by too quickly for me, even after years of tutoring in the language.
Still, I'm happy just to be here. I love Lisbon.
I don't know why I love Lisbon. But I jumped at the chance to participate in the international short-story conference being held here this week. What a gig—all I have to do is give a reading of one of my stories, manage as a panelist to say something remotely intelligent about literary editing, and collaborate on a video essay on the conference with my technically astute son, and then I get to wander around one of my favorite cities. When I'm walking its stone-cobbled streets, catching glimpses here and there of the bordering Tejo River, or taking in, from a vista on one of the city's hills, the glorious staggered topography of the white buildings and their salmon-colored tile roofs, I feel that I'm also traveling some interior landscape, that those streets are leading to a place inside myself I haven't yet located.
Our neighbors cheer and our waitress swirls an impromptu dance —Maniche, the Portuguese midfielder, has scored the first goal, a beautifully aimed strike that in replay has an inevitability about it, as the ball slices through the shifting open spaces of a tumble of defenders in a direct elegant line to the corner of the net. His long dark hair plastered in sweat against the sides of his exultant face, Maniche wades through an eruption of his teammates' joy at the seemingly impossible having been so artfully accomplished.
I take another sip of the house wine, watch the continuing replays of the goal. I don't know why I feel at home here, but I have a theory. My family on my father's side is Scottish and Catholic. Not a popular mixture back in the home country, which is why my dad's parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles emigrated en masse to New York in 1927—typical bad timing, two years before the Depression, but that's another story. Why, when, and where, I've often wondered, did my family shed its Presbyterian roots?
On the banks of the Douro River in northern Portugal, there's a port-wine vineyard called the Quinta dos Malvedos. In 1820, two Graham brothers who lived in Oporto, William and John (my grandfather's first name was John, and my father's, William!), worked for a trading company based in Glasgow (where my family comes from!), and they founded that quinta. Couldn't my father's family, almost two hundred years ago, have raised grapes on the banks of the Douro River and eventually converted to Catholicism? And if some returned to Scotland (black sheep, certainly—why else leave a vineyard?), then back in Glasgow they paid the piper for their unwelcome faith.
It's probably all bullshit, but I hold that shred of possibility to help explain why the full-throated, plaintive twists of a fado song can sometimes bring me close to tears, or why Portuguese saudade—a complicated feeling that combines sorrow, longing, and regret, laced perhaps with a little mournful pleasure—fits so easily in my own emotional baggage. There's something beyond romantic delusion, something deeper, that beckons me: it's a genetic thing, a need to cross the centuries and return home, if only for a little while. I'm sure any Scottish genealogy service could easily burst this fragile bubble, which is why I'll never consult one.
Cries of despair rise around us. The Dutch team has gone a little crazy in its attempt to even the score. Cristiano Ronaldo, a team star, is the victim of a vicious kick and is forced to leave the game. The baby-faced player cries as he exits, which make his features appear even younger. Those damn Dutch—they made a little kid cry! Minutes later Cristiano's teammate Costinha returns Dutch fire with a nasty foul—his second of the game—and he's ejected with a red card. Yet for all the rough stuff on the screen, the Portuguese maintain their good spirits. Nathaniel relaxes, nods at me: we're far from English-soccer-fan hooliganism here.
During halftime, I continue to scrape the delicious sardines down to their spinal columns with great care and deliberation. I know I can't make these babies last until the end of the game, so I order more wine, and if the match goes into overtime there's always dessert to order and slowly savor.
Once the game resumes, it threatens to become a brawl. The referee is in over his head, and he starts throwing out so many yellow cards that the commentators on tv seem to have lost count. His attempts to control the roughhousing only further incite the players on both teams, and the foul fest continues. Even the Portuguese goalkeeper, Ricardo, draws a yellow card. It's become the kind of game that could set off any number of silently ticking heart attacks.
Nathaniel starts throwing those looks at me again, but now they're just a joke, because it's clear that our amiable Portuguese neighbors take it all in lightly while tucking into their sardines and grilled pork ribs, and I feel a rush of affection for these people I don't know. Yes, this is an important game, a crucial game, but I sense no barely suppressed rage beneath the surface. My neighbors seem to have their heads on straight: they're enjoying the game, win or lose. I like these people. I'm even happier that Lisbon will soon be my home for the coming year, though it still seems more an imagined future than one that's rapidly approaching. In a month I'll return with my family, and my wife, Alma, will ply her anthropological skills studying Cape Verdeans, our daughter, Hannah, will start the sixth grade at a Portuguese school that's a five-minute walk from our apartment, and I'll finish writing a few books that have been begging for extended time and attention. I'll finally learn Portuguese—because isn't it true that simply breathing Lisbon air helps in memorizing the irregular conjugations of the preterit?
Now that we've passed the midpoint of the second half, the Dutch are deep into need-to-score desperation, and maybe their chance will come—the Portuguese team has been a man down since Costinha was ejected, and fatigue is setting in. Suddenly, Figo, the team captain, writhes on the ground, his hands covering his face, and everyone around us gasps at this possible further loss.
After the Dutch player Boulahrouz is ejected with a red card, Figo makes a remarkable recovery. On replay it's clear that Figo was only lightly brushed on the chest by Boulahrouz's elbow during a tight run for the ball and then, after half of a tenth of a split second's hesitation, Figo reared his head back and began his face-clutching and wriggling dramatics, pouring it on for the benefit of the referee. It's such flagrant fakery that we all cluck approval at the theatrics. After all, Boulahrouz was the one who injured Cristiano in the first half, and we're satisfied with this imprecisely accomplished justice.
Soon two more red cards cast a player on each side out of the game. Both teams are now, incredibly, playing with only nine men on the field. Somehow, the Portuguese manage in the final minutes to tough out their one-goal lead, and then the tasca crowd cheers and the waiters and waitresses rush out to the street to dance on the cobbled stones and sing a souped-up version of the national anthem.
Nathaniel and I wend our way through the dancing streets down to the subway, and while we wait the Portuguese seem a bit surprised to me, as if they secretly didn't believe they'd win this game. Perhaps unrestrained expressions of joy aren't exactly local tender, perhaps worries already abound because the heavily favored English team will be playing Portugal in the next round. Then the subway cars arrive packed with revelers, many sporting goofy porkpie hats in the colors of the Portuguese flag, and again I get a sense from these celebrants—a slight, barely perceptible hesitation here and there—that any happiness leaving saudade behind may be uncharted territory.
Nathaniel and I reach our stop, and as we begin our climb up the stairs to the street, the tiled walls echo with countless honking car horns from the street above. Outside, we watch the broad avenue packed with a traffic jam of delirious fans hanging from car windows or just managing to balance on the roofs, waving flags and shouting victory: Portugal! Portugal! Maybe it's not so hard for saudade to take a temporary backseat after all. Back in our hotel room, I lean out the window and listen to the horns and cheers echoing off the same streets I'll be wandering in the coming year while I try to discover why I love Lisbon. I give in to my own glee, and for hours into the night the whole city sings.
SO WHO SAYS OBJECTS ARE INANIMATE?
The apartment is larger, the rooms more spacious, than I expected. Something about the clean line of the walls seems typically European to me, though I'm not quite sure what I mean by that. Windows in every room—there'll be lots of light, even though now the sun is low on the horizon of this neighborhood perched above the monuments of Belém. I'm not crazy about our location on the ground floor, but three of the rooms open to a patio that's part of the apartment complex's private garden, and if I crane my neck out through the living-room window, I can see a sliver of the far side of the Tejo River. So this is the space where my wife and daughter and I will be living for a year. I want to say something out loud, but how do you introduce yourself to a new apartment?
Somehow we'll make these rooms our own, breathe into them something of ourselves. Now, though, after a long haul of flights that has finally deposited us in Lisbon, it's a daunting prospect to even consider springing our clothes from their luggage prisons and relocating them in new rooms, new dresser drawers and closets. An unsettling time, this settling in, and we barely hear the rental manager as he gives us lots of apartment advice in quite good English—a blessing, since our Portuguese is not up to par.
Still, we have enough energy to pick up some essentials at a nearby store, and on our return Hannah summons a deep reserve of eleven-year-old life force and begins organizing her room. Alma and I listlessly examine the furniture and the pictures on the walls, which all exude a cool aesthetic intelligence. The sun is setting and so we check the lights. In the kitchen, there's a raft of flat switches set together, and together Alma and I start to press them.
The lights shut off and an alarm begins a steady, aptly alarming whine. "Why are the lights out?" Hannah calls from her room, and Alma moans, "Oh, no, what did we do?" We start pressing the switches in various frantic combinations, but the damage has been done and we quickly give it up.
Alma runs down the hall to search for any helpful neighbor while I stay behind with Hannah and search for something, anything, in the apartment—I'll even accept help from the little scuffs of lint and dust in the corners if necessary—that might suggest an unlikely solution to our troubles: a magical Reverso button that erases blunders would be ideal, but I'm having trouble finding any help in this apartment that grows darker and darker. On and on, the alarm screeches, and I realize we've added this current mess to a family tradition of First-Day Settling-In Disasters. Like the last time we lived in Africa.
We'd just arrived in the Beng village of Asagbé, in Côte d'Ivoire, where Alma had been doing her anthropological fieldwork off and on since 1979, and during the punishing twenty miles of dirt road that was the last leg of our journey, too many golden memories of that route returned to me: two cracked chassis, four shattered windshields, and more flattened tires than I cared to recount. I had another problem with this road: I'd once taken a nasty tumble off a bike, and some villagers believed not only that spirits were responsible but that they were still possibly gunning for me. I would have preferred navigating the unreliable rural bus system for this three-month stay, but we'd brought our then six-year-old son, Nathaniel, with us and needed guaranteed quick access to medical help in case of an emergency.
After arriving in the village we quickly settled into our new two-room mud-brick house, but the next morning we woke to the car alarm's unnerving howl, a rhythmic pulse of unhappiness that wouldn't stop no matter how I fiddled with the ignition and poked at the engine. All the rattling on the dirt road the day before must have loosened the car-alarm thingy, but just where was that thingy?
Our friends in the compound gathered, eyes fearful, and were soon joined by a crowd of villagers. Still the siren screamed, and an animist priest in the next compound called for a chicken to sacrifice so he could appease any displeased spirits, who are the Beng people's usual go-to explanation for any confounding trouble.
No amount of poking about the engine and its mysterious wiry, hoselike whatchamacallits produced any solution, and I cursed myself for my cozy middle-class American ignorance of mechanical basics. I wasn't going to solve this, and the car alarm might eventually run down the battery. The only chance was to turn around and return the way we came, to the small town of M'Bahiakro at the other end of those nasty twenty miles of dirt road. There, any number of itinerant mechanics would be happy to take on the challenge.
Excerpted from The moon, come to earth by Philip Graham Copyright © 2009 by Philip Graham. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I Don’t Know Why I Love Lisbon
So Who Says Objects Are Inanimate?
365 Days of Pork Surprise
Alchemy: From a Rube to a Local
Bread, Bread; Cheese, Cheese
Let’s Throw a Festival!
Isn’t There a Law against Filching Calçadas?
The Moon, Come to Earth
Those Tricky Subgestures
Nearly the Same Substance
Another History Lesson
We Capture the Castle
Light for Light
Este espectáculo cruél
Particle and Wave
Goodbye, Good Luck
Sip by Sip
On This Side of the Ocean
Sources of Literature Quoted