Midwinter in Lisbon. Even with much of its tourism and nightlife stifled by the pandemic, this cosmopolitan city has a gentle buzz, and its eighteenth-century streets are flooded with the light of southern Europe and the surrounding sea. Set on an estuary flowing into the Atlantic, it feels, climatically and culturally, both warm and cool. For a northern European with a southern soul, it’s a good place to be.
But since arriving in Lisbon what’s struck me more forcibly than the light is the pants. On my first morning, making my way down the steep steps from Castle Hill into the centre, I was surprised to see underwear hanging shamelessly against the tiled walls of the townhouses. A pair of male briefs here, some large white knickers there, interspersed with the odd tea towel – the local approach to laundry seems to be ‘little and often’, the visibility of underwear due to the lack of outside space in the city’s apartments. ‘Today, Lisbon is one of the few European capitals you can spot underwear hanging out to dry close the centre,’ writes Barry Hatton, in his excellent history of the city.
In the commercial streets, underwear shops are plentiful, but they’re a far cry from the chains that dominate London, with their brightly-coloured thongs and lacy bras. These are old-fashioned, independent shops, their windows displaying flesh-coloured bras designed to provide maximum support and big, comfortable pants. They’re staffed with attentive, knowledgeable sales folk, ready to take one of the vests on the shelves behind and unfold it for inspection on the counter. (The last time I saw such a shop was a quarter of a century ago in Islington, when I was mortified by the male shopkeeper’s use of the phrase ‘wide gusset’.)
Lisbon, which has in recent years become a hub for digital nomads, attracting fleet-of-foot professionals of all nationalities, remains very much a city of old ladies. You see them everywhere, making their way cautiously along the slippery stone pavements or chatting in the street. And while most Lisbonians are generous with information, it’s the old ladies who are my go-to people when I’m lost: fixing me intently with a steady brown gaze, they provide directions in slow, clear, Portuguese, which they repeat before, with a pre-pandemic pat on the arm, sending me on my way. Lisbons’ older ladies are, I suspect, the continued existence of the city’s underwear shops.
For reasons of baggage allowance, I have myself already been in search of pants in Lisbon. But as a newcomer who’s still quite sprightly, I’m not yet ready for a discussion about gusset-width nor, as respectable woman, do I want a pair of scarlet minis from Tezenis. So I’ve been frequenting the Chinese shops that sell everything from mugs to socks for a euro or two. I’ve been impressed by their range of cotton pants, but puzzled by the fact that most of them are labelled ‘XL’ or ‘XXL’ until a casual ‘European medium’ from a sales assistant brought home the humiliating truth – from an Asian perspective, we white people are on the large side.
So reinforced by some warm underwear, I’m better equipped to appreciate the famed light of Lisbon. It has a white quality that Hatton, in his cityography, attributes to the white limestone – the calçada portuguesa – that paves its streets. And unlike when I started researching the lesser-known face of urban Europe, this time – having acquired Portuguese residency just before Brexit – I’m less a visitor, more an inhabitant. In these changing times, I’m exploring not just one more continental city but what it means to be a European in a more personal way. And so the three cities I am writing about have become four.