A Travel Fiction on Authenticity
“In the vast ocean of humanity, there are a few ports where all walks of life can find safe harbo— ”
“Vast ocean of humanity?” His friend and travel partner interrupted, “You sound like a nature show narrator, man. That’s not you.”
He closed his notebook and sighed. This was why he didn’t like reading his notes aloud to his friends. “I know it’s not me. I’m trying to branch out. Become a serious writer, you know?”
“Serious? You are a serious writer. You’re writing allll the freaking time!” The friend waved his hands around. “Look, man, we’re in Portugal. This is supposed to be a vacation. Take in the sights and enjoy the town instead of keeping your nose buried in your notepad. You want another drink?”
His partner was right. This was a vacation. The sun was out. Families and tourists and backpackers crowded the waterfront plaza just past the patio where the two of them sat, enjoying bread and meats and chilled wine on a warm day in the most colorful port town in the world.
“But, look,” the not-so-serious writer hesitated. He pulled out a book he had found while sightseeing the day before. “Listen to this lady. It’s real stuff. She makes me sound like a kindergartener:
‘Being a poet means being higher, being greater
Than everyone! Biting like it’s a kiss!
Begging like a beggar, and giving like a king
Of the Kingdom of Either Side of the Sea of Pain!
It means hungering and thirsting for the Infinite!
Donning each gold and satin morning as a helmet…
Condensing the world into a single shout!’”
“Let me see that,” his partner grabbed the poetry book and thumbed through a few pages. “This lady? She wrote a poem about being a poet? C’mon, it doesn’t even rhyme! And ‘begging like a beggar’? She couldn’t come up with any other words?”
“It’s translated from Portuguese! I’m sure it would rhyme better if we spoke the language. She’s one of Lisbon’s most famous poets! Besides, she really is amazing.”
“Well,” he pointed, “it says here that she committed suicide after three attempts so…you sure you want to be a serious writer like her?” He lifted his eyes from the book and looked at the writer’s slumped shoulders, “Look man, you’re a good writer and it seems to me like a fun hobby. Side hustle. Whatever you want to call it. Heck, maybe even a career one day. All I’m saying is, just be yourself when you do it, you know? You don’t have to try to be fancy and verbose.” He put the book back on the table.
“You understand the irony of using the word verbose while telling me not to be so fanc — ”
“Oh, shut up and finish your wine, will you?”
They sat quietly for a few minutes, watching the hordes of people crowding around the statue in the plaza, dozens of pictures being taken, none of the tourists really knowing who the statue depicted, why it was built, or when. Didn’t matter though. What mattered was that they had photographic proof that they were there. That they had travelled and were cultured. Besides, they could just google what the statue actually was later, if they felt like it.
“Just be myself, huh?” the writer mumbled over his drink. “You know, another huge Lisbon poet — not the one who killed herself, a different one, probably the most famous even — had dozens of fake names. Almost a hundred. Seriously! Not just names, actually, entire personalities. He gave all of them their own backgrounds and interests and writing styles. Each of his fake identities were all basically fully developed writers. So, every time he wrote, he was pretending to be someone else, but they were all different parts of him.”
“Yeah? Well, dude, that sounds a little schizo if you ask me. You know? So, how did Lord Crazy Poet, the greatest in all of Lisbon, first of his name, turn out, then? Rich enough to buy a hundred houses? One for each personality? Did he make enough money to put food on the table to feed all of his imaginary friends and go drinking with them on the weekends?”
“Well…Uh, he died penniless of some liver disease in his 40s, I think.”
“Yeah, he, uh, was…an almrph — ” the writer mumbled too low for his friend to hear.
“I’m sorry, a what?”
“An alcoholic,” he sighed, “He…was an alcoholic.”
“Oh, well, that’s lovely!” His friend boomed, throwing his arms up in the air, “It’s good to know that Portugal’s greatest writers — the ones you want to be like — all had such happy lives. Your mother should be so proud of your life goals, dude.”
They sat in silence again, ordered more drinks and watched some young Europeans with oversized backpacks trek across the square with determined faces — guide maps, phones, and water bottles in hand.
“How does the rest of it go?”
“No, the travel thing you were going to write. How does the rest of it go?”
“Well, I didn’t get very far. I thought I should open it with the whole ‘vast ocean and port’ thing since Lisbon is historically a voyaging city and Portugal was a big seafaring and exploration type country. Something like:
‘These places may belong to their individual nations, but they are, in reality, the first true global cities. The kinds of towns whose real culture is a mix of everything that washes up on their shores or has been brought in on ships, trains, and planes for centuries. When asked to think of places like these, you might list off New York City, London, maybe even Tokyo and Shanghai. But, let me tell you today about Lisbon, a seaside haven as colorful and lively as the Great Barrier Reef.’”
“Ok, that’s not the worst opener, I guess.” He shrugged his shoulders, “Still doesn’t sound like you, though, man.”
“Well, then what do I sound like?” The writer crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged again, “You write funny stuff. Witty stuff. Existential, self-realizing type jokes. Remember that thing you wrote for Sarah’s birthday that was a short story about Sarah’s birthday? It was so trippy and hilarious.”
“Existential. Like the lady who wrote a poem about being a poet?”
“Shut up, man, I’m making a point here.”
The writer thought for a bit, “That story I wrote made Sarah’s head spin.”
“You literally wrote that into the story! I remember. You wrote in your story for her, ’Reading this story made Sarah’s head spin,’ and then you ended the whole thing with something like, ‘and then Sarah took the author in a passionate way to the broom closet to sha-’ ”
“I did not write that!” He threw a piece of bread at his friend.
“You might as well have; she loved it.” His friend finished his wine and looked at the list for the next one to try. “Man, how have I been missing out on how great wine is? So much better than that crap beer we had in college. The smell, the taste, the buzz? I take back all the jokes and insults I made about those snooty girls at those parties.” He took another sip. “No wonder that poet guy had liver problems. They got good wine here.”
“I think he was more into grappa, actually. And be careful what you say about him. He’s a national hero. The people here really love him. And, his poetry is unparalleled…no matter what language you read it in.”
“Grappa,” his friend thought aloud, ignoring the rest of what the writer said, “Dude, we should try some while we’re here. I don’t think I’ve ever had it. Anyways, what else were you going to write about Lisbon?”
“Well, I wanted to talk about how packed it is with tourists of all kinds. And have you noticed how everyone, everyone, has the exact same little guidebook? All taking the exact same advice to visit the exact same places at the exact same time taking the exact same pictures with the exact samehashta-”
“Yeah, dude, I get your point. How can I not notice them. One guy stood in front of me at that castle and took, I swear, hundreds of photos of himself all from barely different angles. You remember the lady at that coffeeshop this morning?”
“The one who was like, ‘Excuse me, I was told that you guys had the best coffee in Lisbon, but your menu only has five items and it’s all, like, espresso stuff. Am I supposed to ask for the full menu or the specialty drink list or something? Do you do frappés? And why are the drinks so small?’ ”
“Right, and then when her latte came out, she was upset that there was no whipped cream.” The friend chuckled.
“So, I wanted to write something about that, and how people are, I don’t know, missing the point of traveling. Maybe not the point, but missing out on some important stuff. But, I don’t want the whole piece to be only about that. I also wanted to write about how most tourists don’t realize that one of Lisbon’s proudest cultural points is their poets and how the city values literary art so much.”
“Well, if they really valued it,” his friend mumbled under his breath, “maybe they could’ve treated their poets better when they were alive…” he started working on the latest drink the waiter had brought him. “Dude,” he pointed at his glass, “you should write about the wine, too. But not the part about me thinking those annoying college girls were right all along.”
“Yeah, man, for sure,” the writer smiled.
“Be yourself, though, man. Don’t worry about trying to be some great, fancy writer, or like any of these poets.” He pointed at the plaza, “Trying to write like someone else is exactly like those tourists. They’re just following what they think is the right way to do things — the right way to do Lisbon,” he curled his fingers in air quotes, “instead of just being natural. Original. They’re missing out on what’s real. Just like you will if you don’t develop your own…” he searched for the right word, “…thing. Style. If you follow whatever writing is popular, you’re just like everyone else out there. What good is that? Besides, there’s enough troubled, alcoholic artists in the world already.”
The two finished their drinks and, with suitably full stomachs, got up to walk through the city streets without a clear destination in mind. The writer tried to make mental notes of what they were seeing: the cobbled streets, the colorful, tiled buildings, enough street art and graffiti and laid back partyiers to make you think that you were walking through South America instead of Southern Europe.
His friend tried speaking Portuguese to everyone they came across. He mostly sounded like someone who was trying to speak Spanish by using French letters and a Russian accent. The locals just smiled and offered him wine.
It was a good trip overall. The writer did try to craft a beautiful, elegant story worthy of the great classic travel writers. Something that compared the backpackers of today to the Portuguese explorers of old. He threw in some riffs about being overly reliant on guidebooks and comments about appreciating the “true meaning” of travel — but it came off as too condescending and pretentious. He was going to throw in some hyperbolic phrases about the food, culture, and life of the city, but it just didn’t sound right.
In the end, he tossed his notebook in the trash and tried something different. After all, there was already enough travel writing out there in the world. Life was already flooded with too many trip guides, elegant and wordy descriptions of cities, advice articles on how to ‘really’ travel, ‘must-see’ listicles, and ‘4 Perfect Days in Insert Whatever Trending City Here’ stuff.
So, in the vast ocean of human literature, he simply enjoyed the poetry while throwing out the guidebook — and decided to just be himself.
(Drink pairing: Ginjinha served in a chocolate cup)