Fernando Pessoa and the End of Lockdown in Lisbon

‘For the traveller who comes in from the sea, Lisbon, even from afar, rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear-cut against a bright blue sky, which the sun gladdens with its gold’ — Fernando Pessoa.

Lisbon ‘rises like a fair vision in a dream’. Photo: Nick Leonard.

The first person to emerge from Lisbon’s coronavirus lockdown was Fernando Pessoa, who died in 1935.

The enigmatic poet, immortalised in bronze twice in the Chiado neighbourhood of Lisbon where he was born, had gone into his own version of quarantine a month before any COVID-19 cases were discovered in Portugal.

In early February, the more famous of the two Pessoa statues was fenced off and then covered up as work began on repaving the surrounding pedestrian walkway.

The statue, in front of a café that Pessoa often frequented, depicts him sitting next to an empty chair that represents the alternative personalities in his mind — the heteronyms that produced some of Portugal’s greatest poetry.

For over two months, Pessoa was out of sight but somehow ahead of his time; while he was covered up, the coronavirus reached Lisbon and the rest of the city eventually followed him into lockdown.

The repaving work around the Pessoa statue continued, however, and in mid-April, the poet was released from his confinement.

But the Lisbon that greeted him then was not the city he knew so well that he once wrote a guidebook about it. The nearby cafés were shuttered, lisboetas had been ordered to stay home, and Portugal was in a state of emergency.

In the empty streets of Chiado in those days, the only people surrounding Fernando Pessoa were figments of his imagination.

And ‘modern Portugal’s great trickster poet’, as Pessoa scholar George Monteiro called him, had a trick played on him instead: when the statue was uncovered, someone with a sense of humour fitted it with a surgical mask.

This week, following a two-month absence, something resembling Fernando Pessoa’s Lisbon has begun to reemerge.

‘Anyone new to Lisbon is at once struck by the unparalleled beauty of the Tagus basin, one of the views that may be had from the top of its seven hills, of its gardens and monuments, of its old streets and latest arteries’ — Fernando Pessoa.

The famous Lisbon neighbourhood of Alfama, seen from the Portas do Sol lookout point. Photo: Nick Leonard.

After six weeks under the state of emergency, Portugal transitioned to a new phase in its coronavirus response early this month, one that has so far shown more promise than its name — the ‘state of calamity’ — might have suggested.

When the three-phase plan for restarting the economy was announced, the beginning of the second phase on 18 May was circled on calendars as the date when reopening would begin in earnest.

Although some small non-essential shops opened as part of the first phase on 4 May, the government still told its people they had a ‘civic duty’ to stay home.

As the second phase began this week, however, that message has changed. Prime minister António Costa had breakfast at an outdoor table at a café in Lisbon when it reopened on Monday and urged people to restart their lives ‘with all caution’.

Restaurants in Lisbon are now open, too, albeit at only 50 per cent capacity and offering a somewhat surreal experience.

As the only diners at a once-popular Baixa restaurant on Wednesday, my wife and I watched our waitress disinfect the now plastic-covered menus before handing them to us and then clumsily attempt to use a fork and spoon to clasp napkins as a way of transferring them from tray to table.

Unusual as it was, restaurants simply being open is a sign that in this city of light, the darkness is receding.

Another sign is that in Chiado, Fernando Pessoa is no longer alone.

The cafés near his statue on Rua Garrett in the heart of Lisbon reopened on Monday, and the outdoor seating surrounding the poet has begun to fill up with locals tentatively resuming their lives.

But while people are beginning to return to the streets of Lisbon, life in the city won’t simply revert to the way it was.

And the biggest indicator that the new normal isn’t like the old is that the statue of Fernando Pessoa is still wearing a mask.

Compulsive traveller, Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Olympic journalist and light-chasing photographer.

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