I lived in some pretty crazy apartments in Lisbon, Portugal from 2003 to 2008. The crazy being a combination of culture shock and general degradation of the older buildings in Lisbon. Here are some highlights.
Note: While Americans tend to be more specific when they refer to their form of housing, whether it be a room, an apartment, a condo, or a house, the Portuguese generally refer to them all as casa (home).
While living in a hostel for the first two weeks after my arrival in Lisbon I made a lot of embarrassing calls to non-english speaking landlords. After my Portuguese classes started at the university I discovered that they had a directory of student housing available and I rented my first room for €450 from a nice, slightly crazy part-time model law student.
Nothing really crazy happened here, except for when I got depressed for a whole week and couldn’t get out of bed. Thank god for television. The most difficult thing about moving that I always forget about is my local social support network (aka friends). Oh, I should also mention the time I walked into the neighborhood market and accidentally asked for penises (pilas) instead of batteries (pilhas).
Next I moved in with my girlfriend for a couple of months. There was a churrasqueira right across the street. Wow, that thing smelled bad.
Soon afterwards we moved in with a Portuguese-German capoeira-dancing couple. The street we lived on wasn’t a street, nor was the next one it intersected with. It’s a little hard to explain for those who have never seen it, but the old neighborhoods of Lisbon have plenty of addresses that exist on public stairs winding up through the city, branching off into hidden sidewalks. We lived in one of these neighborhoods called Bica.
It smelled from the dog shit everywhere, but it had a great view of the Tejo river and a weird abandoned backyard across the wall with chickens and cats.
Around the corner and down the stairs about 50 feet away I moved in with a friend who had recently acquired hot water for the first time. There was no door on the bathroom and I could hear everything my housemate did, but my share of the rent was only €125! In the photo above I cranked up the shadows to reveal more detail. There was an old barber across the stairs who charged €5 and had some 1980s pornographic calendars on the wall. The best thing about these last two houses was that they were a block away from the biggest open market in Lisbon where I could get a pound of fresh olives for €3!
The weirdest thing that ever happened was when my housemate lost a tooth and didn’t get it fixed for days. Or was it when the other housemate starting doing drug deals in the living room maybe?
This was the best and last place I lived in Lisbon. Half of the reason it was great was because my housemate and friend Rafa was producing records. There were three bedrooms so we had a pretty respectable home studio setup. The other half was that it was big, cheap, and had a great view of the river, the train station, and people standing in line at popular Lux dance club at night. There was a scary abandoned apartment on our floor where the ceiling had caved in and the Brazilian neighbors seemed to be holding some kind of seances, but here is the story I really wanted to tell you:
For the first couple of months that we lived there we had free electricity and free water. That is, we never received any bills and no one every came to inspect the equipment, until one day. I heard someone coming up the stairs so I peeped out of the peep-hole and watched a water-company rep turn some valves in our hallway. Then he left and the water was off. Huh, that’s simple, I thought as I inspected the valves. All I need is a wrench. My girlfriend and Rafa cautioned me against it, but I was determined to steal water, so I turned the valve ever so slightly. It gave so I assumed I was doing the right thing and kept turning.
Before I knew it the valve shot out, water was spraying down the stairs, and my imminent extradition from the country flashed before my eyes. I was so scared. Rafa came to the door and said, “Nathan what have you done?” I looked around wildly trying to think of something. Then, at the base of the stairs I saw the valve that had shot off. I grabbed it and shooved it back into the pipe. Luckily, it held and I ran back into the apartment to hide. Turns out the screw was threaded in reverse. Whoops.
I’m still not really sure how I got out of this. I called the landlord to tell him that the wall was leaking so he called a plumber who just came and fixed it. No questions asked. Later I had to make several trips to the office of the water company to get our service back. Apparently no one had paid the bill in 10 years and they held me responsible. I said, “I’ve only been living there 2 months. How could I have used that much water in two months?” To that the water rep said, “I don’t know, maybe you have been filling up a swimming pool every day.” Awesome.
Now about the electricity. Should I tell you the details, or just let you generate some mental images of Rafa, standing on a stool, replacing the hand-made jumper to bypass the main fuse?