It seemed both needlessly grand, and yet somehow fitting, for Lisbon to be the place I should launch my new book, set my newest baby in its paper boat out to sea. As it happened, this was how things came to pass, and it was my great luck and privilege that they did.
I was invited, in November, to give a couple of workshops and a reading from my new book, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a cold War Spy’s Daughter, at the Portugal meeting of the European Council for International Schools. This is a yearly event at which teachers from around the world gather, in a rich and festive atmosphere, to share tricks of the instructional trade as well as the emissions of their bright, curious and adventurous minds. Yes. Bright, curious, adventurous: this was my impression of school teachers, of whose company, it turns out, I have been too long deprived. Teachers of the young, it seems, are an exceptionally interesting, hospitable, polymathic and world-gobbling breed. As they graciously greeted my suggestions for drawing writing from their students, and warmly welcomed into their midst my young book—as I imagine they greet the young beings who fetch up in their classrooms—I spent my time soaking in their zest for the world. I am immensely appreciative of this rare treat.
As for my impressions of Lisbon, the site in which all this eager exchange was taking place: This former empire, a place of once-gleaming tiled abodes and grand palaces, seemed down at heel—and somehow, spectral. (Aren’t we all, perhaps, from our imperial babyhoods onward, and in the end, former empires? And on the broader canvas, and in the end, and especially now, aren’t all countries headed that way?) At the same time, it seemed a place where the best things are available: meals of fish, potatoes and olives, rides in tiny, old wooden trolleys, and warm people, with nothing to prove. Simple, delicious.
I would like to share with you, in photographic form, my two strongest impressions of the place. This first image shows the Monument to the Discoveries, a massive, stone, peopled prow which honors Henry the Navigator, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, and others who opened up sea routes through the world during Portugal’s Age of Conquest.
This second image shows just a few of the winged cherubs that seem to pop out—laughing and cavorting and generally creating mischief—from alley niches, cathedral alcoves, and, indeed, atop serving tureens, turning Lisbon to a celebration and festoon of romping babies.
It occurs to me that this is how we should all take up life: with the grand vision of a Portuguese explorer and the unself-conscious chortle of a baby.
My Eyewitness Lisbon guide reads, “Although the Hindu ruler of Calicut, who received him wearing diamond and ruby rings, was not impressed by his humble offerings of cloth and wash basins, da Gama returned to Portugal with a cargo of spices.” In Lisbon, I launched—with trepidation, gulping for bravery–my little prow, my book, my humble offering of personal perspectives. Perspectives on: what it is to grow up the daughter of a spy; what it means to live with secrets; how it is to traipse across the world, discovering other cultures but in a pitched battle for identity; how it is to watch a father and a spy engage in secret activities and grow increasingly dismayed; and what it means to be an American in this world. I returned from that still-grand city with a cargo of spices.
In this periodic blog, it is my plan to offer my cloth and wash basins: my thoughts on writing, global nomad adventures, spies, and other clandestine and miscellaneous affairs. I will try to make the missives shorter than this one. Perhaps you will share your spices with me.