Humans should, as the philosopher maintains, be willing to burden themselves in order to be free. If you always choose the path of least resistance, the alternative that offers the fewest challenges will always take priority. Your choices will be predetermined and you will not only live un-freely, but also lead a dull life.Erling Kagge, Walking: One Step at a Time (2018)
Moving to Lisboa at this moment—the start of autumn 2020—seems, 10 days in, to have been a good decision. Rains pour in Amsterdam and the UK and France report ever more thousands of COVID cases every day. Shutdowns seem imminent. My beloved Paris bookshop struggles.
None of this is to say that Lisboa is not also suffering. On the contrary, mask-wearing is compulsory in almost every area of public life. It feels oppressive, and there is a conspicuous emptiness to the public squares which would normally be teeming with tourists. But long days and months of sunshine await me here; warmth to bask in, to soothe my wounds, to help me on dark days. Because I have come to fear the darkness.
What have those who still have their health lost to this pandemic? A sense of opportunity, for one; it goes beyond the simple withdrawal of the choice to leave the house, to see people, to watch films at the cinema, and enjoy new places. It is a deeply penetrating sense of diminishment, in which all that we love is being drained of its vitality, its lifeforce, and any activity we partake in will be in a (sometimes grossly) impoverished form. We have lost confidence. We have lost chance encounters, romances, our collective mental resilience; on a vast scale we experience heightened anxiety, uncertainty, and drooping energy levels. General wellbeing, spontaneity, capacity for conversation; all this has suffered. The psychology of confinement is in many ways worse than the material reality of it.
Looking back, now six weeks in, I feel more than ever that Portugal was a good place to come to. I have been exposed to wonder: the fabled big waves at Nazaré, surfed by Maya Gabeira from Brazil. Today, I write from the heart of LX Factory, a place I almost stumbled upon and which delights me with its resemblance to Brick Lane in East London and Christiania in Copenhagen. It is made up of a jumble of sun-drenched cafés with wooden benches and gentle creeper plants, colourful murals, quirky record shops, and a wonderful bookshop with a dreamy open ceiling and a little coffee stall inside. The market is closed, but will hopefully reopen after COVID settles.
All told, I find myself reflecting on what happiness is, really. Certainly, happy moments can be strung together, like coloured lightbulbs over a scene, and that best characterises my state of mind for the past year or so. Yet truly, it is that flesh-level contentment I miss, that ongoing layering of self-confidence and inspiration that makes one burst spontaneously into a smile, or go around the house humming, or hug someone, or be always able to see the best in people, such is the feeling of overflowing positivity and abundance. It is feeling that you always have more to give, that there is always something else to see and do, that you can define your day by encountering one apt quote in a second-hand book. Nothing to prove, nowhere to go.