Arriving in Lisbon, Portugal was almost eerie for me!
As an American kid, I was taught that most of America's historic architecture and city planning was shaped by Europe. Europe set the model, America followed.
Lisbon was about to send my nicely ordered, round world into orbit around Jupiter. Into a backwards orbit, no less.
I'd been away from my old home in San Francisco for some time, and I was still missing it terribly. San Francisco, if you've never been there, is a charm-packed, cozy human-scaled city built on seven steep hills. It has antique cablecars that still clang up and down the town. And of course everyone knows its Golden Gate bridge—which visitors are always surprised to discover isn't golden, but rust-colored.
San Francisco, I'd always thought, was a one-of-a-kind city like no other place on earth.
I was excited to visit historic Lisbon. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Portuguese empire made it a global epicenter for maritime trade. It powered the colonization of Brazil, Angola in Africa, Bahrain, Goa in India, Macau, Mozambique and more. I have friends from these far-flung parts of the world who have Portuguese ancestry and names, and I was going to see a part of the world that helped create and shape them. I expected great moments in history to jump in my head at every turn.
Everything did jump. But backwards.
Lisbon looked like San Francisco.
San Francisco has seven hills. Lisbon has seven hills. They've both been razed by devastating earthquakes and rebuilt. Both have fog and maritime climates.
OK, but neither city created its geography, right? Those were just cool coincidences. It's a few steps later that things get weird. For me anyway.
The late Portuguese dictator, General Salazar, hired a San Francisco bridge building company to construct a suspension bridge across the Tagus River in 1958. The thing is, it looks an awful lot like the Golden Gate bridge, which opened in 1937. It's even the same color.
Looking at this not-quite-exact replica from my hotel's rooftop, I was feeling achingly homesick and a little unsettled. It was like the Golden Gate, but not quite. It was painted the precise same International Orange color, but the houses across the river were different. Both bridges were long, but the Lisbon bridge, called the Ponte de 25 Abril, was almost a fifth shorter.
Well, I thought, maybe it's just a fluke. Why would a proud city more ancient than Rome copy a place across the planet? Must be my homesickness kicking in.
The next day, I went for a walk. I found myself in a neighborhood of older row houses. They were spaced about exactly the same as in SF, at the same heights. (It turns out the cities are of similar sizes too).
The houses all had San Francisco-style Queen Anne and Edwardian (in other words, very modern for historic Lisbon) bay windows affixed to them.
Was homesickness for my old city warping my brain?
Then I saw the cable cars. Art deco-style, from the late 1920s.
San Francisco invented the cable car. In 1873.
These, like the bridge, were bought from America!
But at least I wasn't from Rio de Janeiro. I'd been there, and I'd seen its iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer, built in 1922. Lisbon had ... well, have a look below.
Lisbon is led by its people now.
I hope you let other places emulate you, Lisbon. I hope your elaborately-tiled façades, your plaintive fado melodies, your delicious pastels de nata, plus all the things a tourist never perceives are what come to shape your future.