gromco
adventures in foreignness

Weimar ao Mar: Lisbon, 2017

By Val Borisov | Posted 29/Jun/2017

Lisbon has been on tourists’ and expatriates’ radar for as long as the words denoting these groups have had their modern meaning, which is to say for about a century, give or take. Many are drawn to the city by its mild climate, good food, and a host of cultural attractions – available at most inviting prices. In recent years, however, this popularity has turned into something that the generals at the Pentagon might be inclined to call a “surge.” A record 22.5 million passengers travelled through the city’s airport last year, roughly double that of ten years ago. This record is likely fall once the head-counting for 2017 is complete. Lisbon hotels are now clocking double-digit growth year in and year out. In the centre, tourists are everywhere. Blending in at times with them and at times with the locals, newly arrived expats suddenly seem to be reaching a critical mass sufficient to inflict serious changes onto the very form and character of the city.

I am myself a grunt in this blitzkrieg, though I participate in it, appropriately enough, at my leisure: I come and go as I please, subject mostly to the health of my credit lines and the stay limits currently in effect in the Schengen zone. This past spring, I crossed a kind of Rubicon with a full six months of Lisbon residence spread over approximately as many visits made during the past two years. By now I have lived in four different apartments and in four different neighborhoods: Martim Moniz, Campo dos Mártires, Avenidas Novas, and Príncipe Real. Despite their differences, which were many and which I won’t go into, I couldn’t help but notice a common theme which linked the ambience of all four of my temporary bases: construction noise.


Actually, my first pad didn’t promise to be very noisy, at least not initially: damn cold it was, for sure (see From Lisbon, With Gloves), but otherwise the motto evidently adopted by the building’s residents was the time-honored “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And so they didn’t, for what might have been quite a long time. (In modern urban planning literature, this attitude is sometimes called “deferred maintenance.”) Then, one day – or rather, one night – suddenly and noisily, “it” all became “broke” in the stairwell. My first, instinctive interpretation of the sudden ruckus I heard as the ain’t-broke/broke phase shift was occurring was that somebody had had it with their grandma’s big old fridge and, acting in a fit of frustration, pushed it down the stairs from the top landing. When the rumbling subsided and I dared to open the door to peek outside, however, I saw no scattered fridge parts: the din’s proximate source was a mere partially collapsed wall (thankfully, the building still remained upright). Bombeiros arrived, sirens ablaze, in about 20 minutes and could soon be heard discussing possible causes just outside my door. I think a nearby construction site was mentioned as a factor, though I am not sure I understood everything they were saying. For the rest of my stay in the building, I was treated to a daily concert of various electrified construction tools against the background hiss of the countless gallons of water being pumped upstairs through a long hose. While this was the only semi-emergency I’ve experienced, I’ve heard similar stories from other short-term renters in the city. Two French graphic designers I met at a “digital nomad” gathering (read on), a couple, contacted me barely a week after our first meeting asking for tips on housing search: with no notice at all, they had to move out after the apartment they were renting was flooded and thus rendered completely uninhabitable.

At each of my next three abodes, the noise came with less of a surprise factor. Typically, the sounds had to do with at least one nearby apartment – upstairs, downstairs, or next door – being gut-renovated. In one case, the renovation involved a whole floor (directly underneath) and was serious enough to require jackhammers. My alarm clock became almost superfluous as an accessory, since I could count on being woken up at 7:30 am sharp by a slight vibration of the floor – nothing too bothersome, I concede, and definitely no more than 5 or so on the Richter scale. At another apartment, the extra accompaniment was generated by an earnest, watch-the-ripples-in-your-morning-coffee effort put in demolishing a nearby building. Some mornings I would sit there at the kitchen table, peer into my mug and reminisce about my physics class in school. (To be honest, I've never liked physics.) During my residence there, I rather came to appreciate the Portuguese work ethic, since there were usually only three or four noisy hours per day – a couple of hours before lunch and maybe one or two after. This seemed like a very humaine approach to work – especially construction work – and I decided to be in favor of it, no matter how it affected the country’s GDP numbers.


Though it may seem hard to believe now, the current state of affairs has not, historically, been the norm in Lisbon – in fact, quite the opposite. The city’s real estate market has been in doldrums for such a long time that no one I talked to seemed to be able to remember a time when it wasn’t. Buildings, even those located in the most central areas like Baixa, Chiado, and Príncipe Real, were routinely abandoned (except by pigeons) and left to stand empty for decades. It didn’t help matters that the city lost almost a third of its population between 1981 and 2011, as the young and not-so-young emigrated elsewhere in search of work opportunities. The capital’s housing stock deteriorated along with the economic health of the nation. Last year, the Lisbon city council estimated that 12,000 buildings in the city needed repairs.

But these days the number of dilapidated structures seems to be trending lower every week. Hundreds of buildings all over town, but especially in central areas, sport emerald safety netting on their façades and, more often than not, a construction dumpster in front. Thus bandaged-up properties should count themselves lucky: not every structure will survive the current renovation boom. On my last visit, I saw a few old buildings dutifully disassembled and carted away, brick by brick, with barely any use of heavy machinery.

It was pretty obvious to everyone I've spoken with that the main reason for this miraculous turning of real estate fortunes had everything to do with the recent influx of both tourists and new residents into the city. Tourism has been growing very rapidly and while hotel bookings have also been growing (at about 13% per year on average), it was widely assumed that demand was outstripping supply and the “slack” was being picked up by private-sector accommodations. And quite a slack it was! AirBnB, a good proxy for the whole sector, published some numbers specifically for Lisbon (its “top destination”). The rate of growth in bookings is staggering: 100% (i.e. doubling) in 2015 over 2014 and a further 60% jump in 2016. To judge by the number of building nettings and construction dumpsters, this state of affairs is going to persist. It’s widely known that many AirBnB “hosts” are no longer treating the platform as a way to make some extra cash on the side, but rather as their main occupation. That is, they buy, renovate, rent out, and subsequently derive most of their income from the properties set aside specifically for their “hosting” business, with the vast majority of the guests coming from abroad.

While there are obvious benefits to fixing old housing stock and reviving dilapidated neighborhoods, it does not take a genius to intuit that not everyone is likely to benefit from the process. Many Lisboners are already grumbling (mostly privately – unlike, say, Barcelonians) about there being too many moneyed foreigners, including those of them who stand to benefit from the fact directly. I recently had a nice chat with a local language school director. She was very excited about the doubling of her Portuguese class enrollment in less than two years. Later in the same conversation, however, she also bemoaned all those pesky foreigners who were making Lisbon unaffordable to her, her friends, family, and social circle. I wasn’t entirely sure if she saw the link between the two phenomena, even though she was literally talking to someone who was responsible for them both, so I decided not to insist on this point. Instead, I nodded sympathetically and repeated my favourite Portuguese word of all: “pois.”

If business owners can at least be expected to acknowledge the double-edged-sword-ness of the whole situation, hip cafés, new gourmet shops, and fuller Portuguese language classes offer only cold comfort to the retirees that are being displaced from many of Lisbon’s oldest, most iconic neighborhoods. To be fair, this displacement started well before the current boom: I remember reading about hipsters moving into Bairo Alto (a 500-year-old central neighborhood, now a nightlife mecca) back in the early 2000s. Already at the time, they were replacing retirees who were often paying double-digit rent: even the underemployed bohemians could beat that. Still, the process definitely accelerated during this decade.

Like Bairo Alto, another iconic and previously moribund neighborhood across the downtown area, Alfama, is now also teeming with 20-somethings. I’ve heard French, English, and other non-local languages spoken a lot. It’s hard to say whether the speakers were exchange students or tourists, but I am sure the neighborhood has a fair share of both. Alfama and Bairo Alto are both famous for their big role in the development of traditional fado music. Naturally, bars and restaurants with fado nights still exist there, but they are gradually reorienting their programming to target foreigners, mainly 20- and 30-somethings, who now comprise the majority of their audience. The effect can be almost comical, as when half of the tables in a small tasca are occupied by twenty-year-old, six-feet-tall Teutonic blondes all listening intently to soul-rending songs about love, poverty, music, and fate (fado’s perennial topics; hence the style’s name). It is a sight to behold.

Just north of Bairo Alto, in the Príncipe Real neighborhood, one can now hear almost as much French as Portuguese (I can confirm this after spending three months living there earlier this year). This small central district, around and downhill from the Jardim do Príncipe Real, is only a short distance away from the Lycée français, where French-speaking parents (and not only them) take their offspring for their daily schooling – en français, bien évidemment. The language of Molière is heard a lot around the Lycée, too. Similar story downhill, near the Cais do Sodré train station, and around Bica, especially after the sun goes down. Both are active nightlife spots that are crawling with foreigners. Warning: if you’re a foreign-looking male and go out anywhere downtown, mentally prepare to be offered drugs. Many, many times. There are streets in which “walking” feels more like running the gauntlet and someone who looks like me will be constantly swatting away offers of “Hash? Coke?”

At daytime, most tables at the old-school Lisbon coffee houses (A Brasileira, Martinho da Arcada, Pastaleria Suiça; all located in the Baixa/Chiado district) are occupied by grey-haired, map- and guidebook-carrying masses, while a younger gaggle of students, expats, and assorted citoyens du monde prefer to sip their lattes in newer establishments: Fabrica Coffee Roasters (Avenida de Liberdade), Copenhagen (Príncipe Real), Le Petit Prince (also Príncipe Real), Heim Café (Santos), and others of the same mold. These new places typically offer artisanal “third wave” coffee and some international fare to nibble on. Which is hardly surprising: all of them were opened in the last three years by fresh intra-European arrivals to Portugal (from Moldova, Denmark, France, and Ukraine, respectively). In other words, it’s newcomers serving newcomers. But who exactly are these newcomers anyway?


Out of thousands of expats who have recently made Lisbon their home, retirees and early retirees are probably the best-represented. Portugal took some steps to make retiring in the country easier for both EU citizens and non-Europeans (the latter, in order to obtain their residence permits, need to demonstrate that they are able to live in the country on passive sources of income). In fact, they did such a good job at it – by providing generous tax benefits to first-time passive-income residents – that some high-tax EU countries even accused Portugal of engaging in unfair competition. (The issue is moot for Americans, who have to pay taxes to the U.S. no matter where they live).

Another group of newcomers, overlapping with the one above, consists of those who qualify for “golden visas,” issued to the moneyed folk who make a substantial investment in Portugal. Real estate purchases over 500,000 euros (sometimes less, depending on the property’s location) qualify for this purpose and have been one of the main immigration vehicles for the non-Europeans – principally, the Chinese – wishing to settle in the country. The program has had its share of controversy and scandal, but it is still in effect and still attracts property investors. Walking past several real estate agents’ shop windows, I have seen the words “Golden Visa” printed above the “for sale” listings custom-tailored to the needs of foreign buyers. As if by coincidence, many apartments were priced just above the minimum investment threshold.

Not a very substantial group in terms of raw numbers, but one capable of bringing lots of… shall we say, followers, is foreign celebrities. They are jumping in on the act, too. Just a couple of weeks ago, in June 2017, it was reported that Madonna was property-shopping in the area. If she buys in Lisbon, she’ll be joining other (non-Portuguese) film, media, and entertainment stars with pieds-à-terre in the city; the list includes Monica Bellucci, Christian Louboutin, and others.

Rather on the other end of the economic spectrum (though they’d sure hope otherwise!), artists and bohemians are moving in, too, attracted by the same things as everyone else but additionally (or perhaps, mainly) by the fact that many other artists have done likewise before them. When they reach the friendly shores, they seem glad to find out that studio rents in the city are affordable, at least for the moment. Artnet recently reported that individual artist’s studios in Lisbon rent for 200-250 euros per month – considerably cheaper than in Berlin (the oft-used benchmark city) or other “creative capitals.” Secondary effects of this ongoing colonization, in the form of cafés, galleries, and other “artistic” hangouts, are starting to become visible in many neighborhoods – for example, in the previously rundown district around the Anjos metro stop. Last year, I had a chance to attend an opening and concert at a gallery there and met some of the colonizers. Nice people, I tell’ya! I was particularly glad that no one had pressed me too hard to comment on the highly conceptual art that was being unveiled: I have not (yet?) acquired the ability to talk or even think intelligently about art of any kind – conceptual or otherwise.

One more group of new residents consists of members of a peculiar technology cult often called “dot-com entrepreneurs.” While the city doesn’t boast too many large VC firms for the moment (in case you didn’t know, “dot-commers” survive mostly on highly speculative venture capital money; how long this charade is going to continue is anyone’s guess), the combination of Lisbon’s low cost of living and running a business, high number of college graduates – including coders – looking for work, and of course, nice weather, proved irresistible to quite a few startups, even prompting gratuitous comparisons to San Francisco, the undisputed capital of dot-com start-ups. The hills, the trams, and the iconic bridge notwithstanding, such a comparison may be a stretch, at least for the moment: the city doesn’t yet have any obvious dot-com “stars” like AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, Twitter, Pinterest, or Slack (all based in/around SF). But many local startups are humming along quite nicely, thank you very much, and at least three of them – Uniplaces, TalkDesk, and Codacy have raised millions of dollars in funding. Last year, the WIRED magazine included Lisbon in its annual list of “startup capitals,” whatever that designation entails. The city also hosts Web Summit, an annual tech confab, with attendance in the thousands.

A group that sometimes gets lumped with the techies of the dot-com persuasion (let’s not dwell on the accuracy of that grouping) consists of so-called “digital nomads.” If you’ve never heard of this tribe, don’t strain too much to remember the moniker: my feeling is that it may already be fading in popularity. But the concept is rather simple. Basically, the group includes those who can do their work on their laptops, remotely, and are willing to let go of most of their material possessions in order to live the dream life (at least in the imagination of many others) that allows them to travel and work concurrently. By definition, they are not “married” to any specific place, so they do not reside anywhere (not even in Lisbon), although some seem to be traveling in a loop, revisiting the same places over and over. Come to think of it, this fits my own modus operandi.

I’ve had a couple of opportunities to hobnob with “digital nomads” in Lisbon and managed to get a rough demographic sketch. If you wanted to give someone a reasonably descriptive stereotype of the digital nomad, I would go with this: a 25-to-35 software engineer, male, of Northern European, British, or North American origin, with strong libertarian leanings. This portrait and its minor variations probably cover well over half of all digital nomads roaming around and it seems to be just as valid in Lisbon. The “rest” are a varied bunch. I’ve met many women (though they are clearly in the minority; besides, there seems to be a cut-off age when they stop traveling around), a few couples, and even a real, functioning parent (a rather oddball case, though, to be frank). In addition to coding, the list of fields open to remote work includes design, illustration, copywriting, translation, marketing consulting, e-commerce, ad account management, maintaining web sites, and, of course, travel blogging. The latter is a particularly pernicious idea: I will admit to having been infected by it a long time ago and much to my chagrin. I was not alone in falling prey. To make a very long story short, I now think that becoming a successful travel blogger (by which I mean one whose travel and living expenses are completely paid by the advertising income derived from his or her web site), is about as likely as becoming an A-list Hollywood star. Which is to say, not very. But it does not stop thousands upon untold thousands from trying. As always, there are exceptions and nuances. Here’s one such a nuance. A couple of “travel blogger” nomads I’ve met – in Lisbon of all places – having imbibed a few truth-serumy alcoholic beverages, privately admitted to me that while their blog’s ad revenue is pathetic, becoming a shill for some travel-related “brand” (i.e. deriving income not as much from advertising as from writing paid posts mentioning the brand or the place) pays much better and can provide some nice supplemental lucre. Overall, though, this is hardly a long-term career path (as usual, a handful of cases excepted). Bloggers beware!

I have met other interesting people who had recently made Lisbon their home, including those of Portuguese origin born abroad: they were quite enthusiastic about their having relocated to the country of their parents or grandparents. Whether these form a separate demographic or are merely individual cases, I can’t yet say. But I can say this: it is the presence of the categories of foreigners that I’ve just listed (to recap, retirees, investors, students, celebrities, artists, techies, and the rotating cadre of nomads) that seems to be what makes the Lisbon of 2017 so different from that of 2007, with all the benefits and costs that this new state of affairs implies. In the next installment of this series, when I get around to write it, I will attempt to analyze why it is today’s Lisbon, as opposed to some other city, that is so attractive to them all.