It was definitely not a great start to a city visit. Pressed down by a heavy pile of blankets and comforters, I was coughing almost non-stop. The cold that I had attempted to shrug off before taking a plane for Lisbon was now in full force and non-negotiable. I had a headache and something nasty clumping in the back of my throat. Worse, I had no painkillers or anything similar that I could take. A rather naïve suitcase packer, as it turned out, I had put all my first-aid-type things in the suitcase I checked with Vueling.
But let me back up just one day. Upon landing in Lisbon, I spent about twenty minutes waiting in vain at the baggage carousel. A few forlorn bags were spinning around, but not mine. This brief stretch of time was followed by standing in line for close to an hour in order to file a missing bag claim. Finally, with a receipt bearing the case number in my back pocket, having received a casually insincere apology for the inconvenience (the agent’s “Sorry!” sounded as if she had just stepped on my toe), I took the metro downtown. It was half past nine in the evening.
The apartment I had rented looked old-fashioned and quaint but, in a way, charming. It had two old beds (I would need only one), a few folding chairs and a kitchen table whose two leaves could also be folded away, making it into a stand-type piece. High ceilings. The exterior roller shutters were rolled all the way down. I dropped off what little of my possessions that I actually had in my possession (basically my laptop bag) and went out to get something to eat. It was only when I returned, very late in the evening, that I noticed one substantial detail that had previously escaped my attention: the apartment had no heating.
When I say “no heating,” I mean there were no radiators - neither electric nor the hot water kind. I later learned that this was quite typical of Lisbon apartments, especially the older ones. And it made sense: in a city where the weather is really cold maybe two months a year (I chose to visit during one of them), radiators and central heating was a luxury that could be easily dispensed with. Once again, I was reminded not to bring my Canadian assumptions with me when I travel abroad.
There were two 900-watt portable oiled-based heaters in my apartment, but, as I found out soon enough, those were woefully inadequate at the task of making even just one person’s body feel warm, at point-blank range. Meanwhile, the indoor temperature was seemingly approaching that of outdoors: to wit, roughly 10 degrees centigrade (50 Fahrenheit). I held the palm of my hand against the base of one of the window frames. A stream of cold air tickled it, making the quality of insulation refreshingly obvious.
It was time to go to bed. I carried both portable radiators into the bedroom, plugged them in, piled up all the blankets (2) and comforters (2) I could find, undressed, climbed underneath the towering pile on the bed, and tried to stop shivering. It was difficult.
The next morning, it became clear that my cold was not getting better. In fact, it was getting worse. Curiously, though, it was not quite bad enough to make me lose my appetite, so "sleeping it off" was not an option. Willy-nilly, I had to keep going: get dressed, go outside, buy some groceries, cook something, maybe work a little bit, and try to get over the damn cold. Adjust. New city, new language, new indoor temperature to get used to… in yesterday’s clothes (which, in due course, became the clothes from the day before yesterday and then those worn three days prior).
In all honesty, I can’t say all this was that much of a struggle. Millions are living – permanently – in far worse predicaments than the one I found myself in, without making a peep. I had food. A roof over my head. A functioning mobile phone. A layer of blankets to crawl under. The Internet. I even had running water – both in the kitchen and in the bathroom. Still, as far as European city visits go, my starting conditions in Lisbon were probably less than ideal. And, above all, uncomfortably cold.
To my great relief, the airline eventually found my bag – a mere four days after my arrival (on a direct flight, I should point out). An elegantly dressed gentleman swung by in a minivan, checked my passport, asked me to pick my bag in a police-style lineup of about a dozen candidates piled up in his vehicle (I picked the correct one), inquired about the plans for my stay Lisbon and wished me good luck in studying Portuguese.
“It’s not that different from French. You’ll be fine.” – he said, before driving off down the narrow street. I think he was right.