Spring break at Oxford is six weeks long. Some students have exams and stay in town to study, but many others travel. And because visiting students, like us, have no exams, excursions around Europe are very popular. A few friends and I are now in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. The city was built in a valley that slopes into a bay. Most of the buildings have red brick roofs and cream-colored walls, a common design in the Iberian Peninsula and, it seems, still alive from another era. (In the national art museum there’s a drawing of Lisbon from the sixteenth century that looks eerily similar to today.)
Virtually all of the streets here are paved with small white stones that have been smoothed over by countless pedestrians. Like many European cities, some streets are plotted on a straight axis while others wind around like small rivers. Getting around is hard without a phone map. There is a metro we use to go long distances, but we walk if we can because of the scenery.
Lisbon is clearly a wealthy city; the buildings are pristine and the streets, barely wide enough for cars to drive down much of the time, teem with cafes and music at night. The popular thing to eat here is tapas — small plates with cheeses, meats, bread or a combination of all three. Some places will even set the sausage dishes on fire at your table. When food is served, it’s partly a performance. Lisbon is also famous for its music scene. There are the jazz clubs everyone talks about, including one right across from our hostel that plays until late into the night. And then there is something the Portuguese call “Fado,” where people gather in a café or bar and listen to people sing solos. Anyone who wants to can get up and perform, and everyone receives equal applause.
During the day we’ve been visiting the historic sites around the center of town. Portugal saw its prime during the Age of Discovery, when explorers set sail from Europe to seek the New World. There’s even some debate about whether or not Christopher Columbus was Portuguese himself. At the water’s edge, there’s a frigate-shaped stone slab called the “Monument to the Discoveries” that depicts a ship and its crew as if they’re rising out of the ocean. The spirit of adventure seems to be propelling the vessel and its crew upwards as well as outwards. The main figures are called the “Early Discoverers,” who include Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan. There’s something poignant about the Age of Discovery, a time when curiosity was king, and about a culture that so prized its missions across the sea. Of course, Portugal peaked about five hundred years ago in military and economic power, but it still offers an electric, gorgeous culture to those who visit its shores.
The only reason Oxford vacations are so long is to allow students to recharge for the next term. In spare moments, I’ve been buried in Henry Kissinger’s “Diplomacy,” preparing for a tutorial on international relations in the Cold War in a few weeks. Even while you’re on vacation, abroad while studying abroad, the work doesn’t disappear. You just hope that one can inform the other.