Lisbon, Portugal is not like the rest of Western Europe. But I must admit that ‘drug dealing creeps’ are probably a universal experience.
As we touched down over a city that could best be described as “sun baked, potentially fun,” my sister and I imagined we were in for the start of the usual backpacking around Europe. I.e. it’s not really that big of a deal to travel alone when you’re young and female. But that was before two different men approached us within the space of a minute on our first full day.
We had been to Italy with our family beforehand, where the common travel advice is something along the lines of: ‘Hey, Italian men are more touchy-feely and might call a blonde American girl “bella”.’ This did not happen to me (and I tend to look somewhere between ‘homeless middle-schooler’ and ‘get away from me I’m not a morning person’) or to my classically beautiful, platinum blonde sister.
Portugal was a different story. After six months studying abroad in the UK, I had become a bit more outspoken when it came to odd men approaching me, the obvious tourist, to sell stupid things like selfie sticks and dancing cartoon characters.
On this particular occasion, my sister and I were on a desperate search around the city for a mall that supposedly sold iPhone chargers near our hostel in the Rossio train station. As we walked up a flight of stairs for the second time, the first greasy older man approached us. He opened his knee-length overcoat, revealing clear plastic bags of green stuff like some kind of parody of a true-crime drug peddler. (My first thought: Is this real life?) I brushed past him with my sister at my heels, beginning to get angrier and angrier at the entire situation.
Then two seconds later, stepping into the main, touristy Praça Dom Pedro IV square, (not far from the famous Santa Justa Lift) greasy man’s greasier twin approached us in the middle of our fight about the screwed up Google maps search. Not one for mincing words, I shouted something along the lines of ‘No, I don’t want whatever the hell you’re selling.’ He mumbled under his breath in Portuguese, giving me the side-eye like I was deranged or psychotic.
Two Young Girls Should Travel Alone
This is one of those vivid memories from our multi-week trip beginning in London and ending in Barcelona that is always up for a re-telling. When I relate the story to friends and family, I add in my indignation at the thought that anyone would assume I would want a mystery bag of what could be spinach greens for all I know. But that’s not what I’m getting at here.
The point is this: Traveling alone when you’re young and female is not that big of a deal. Just prepare yourself to yell at/ignore people peddling weird shit. Use your voice and don’t back down. Yes, you are a visitor in a foreign country and you should be open-minded and respectful of their culture. And no, this is not indicative of every Portuguese person.
But no more of the meek ‘No, thank you’s’ to men (and women) who invade your personal space.
[Seriously on that whole ‘men and women’ front. When we were in Sintra, Portugal, land of the multi-colored castle and huge waves, I was stupidly counting cash out in the open and my sister had to bodily fend off a woman who approached us. In this case, I got so freaked I ran away and left my sister to deal with the coins. Oops.]
I don’t care if you’re actually a high-functioning drug addict in your down time and consider Amsterdam the ideal travel destination because of their coffee shops. You should still be entitled to a semblance of boundaries whether you want the mystery greens or not.
My sister and I continued to explore Lisbon, making our way on foot (because I hate the metro everywhere in Europe, including the Tube, with Barcelona as the exception) through half-deserted, beautiful streets and main sites like the Praça de Comércio. We sat on steps that lead into the water of the Tagus River, the sun beating down on our heads. It felt like we were sitting on the edge of the world. I live for these moments.
Here’s the beauty that you don’t get when you’re angry or scared:
Lisbon for the Old Soul
Portugal reminds me of the artwork of surrealist Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, especially paintings like Mystery and Melancholy of a Street and The Nostalgia of the Infinite. You can find yourself all alone only a block from a teeming square of tourists. That’s part of the allure.
We bought hand-painted tiles from a woman at the base of the Castelo de S. Jorge. Gorgeous stalls of fresh fruit lined the path up to the castle. We stood in awe of the Igreja de Santa Engracia, a monument of architecture situated in the middle of a residential area. We met lots of ‘way cool, groovy’ people in Lisbon, from the chill front desk attendants at our hostel to the knowledgable tile-seller (who gave us advice about what not do as a tourist in Lisbon, as we seem to attract both the weirdos and the concern of friendly locals).
The fact is, we enjoy a lot of privilege in our travels because we are white and American. As women, we don’t always get the best treatment, but we generally have it easy. So next time you’re wondering if you should embark on a backpacking trip of Europe, do some research and buy that plane ticket.
Tl;dr: Lisbon has a lot of older creepy men. So does the rest of the world. So does America. You should still visit.
All Images by Jenna Brady, 2015