In the world, there are some intrinsically happy places and intrinsically sad places. Take Wellesley, for example. On the outside, a campus that boasts of its natural beauty and abundance of ambitious, self-sufficient students, it seems like Happy Valley, a utopian community of laughing women who love to learn, encourage each other, and pet smiling dogs they pass on their way around the lake. From the inside, however, Wellesley looks like a suffocating bubble within which anxious, lonely perfectionists struggle to keep up with their overfull schedules and maintain some semblance of success. You could say Wellesley is one of the saddest happy places. It’s a happy place, but the life within it is sad.
In these terms, Portugal is home to one of the happiest sad places. In Lisbon, there’s something poignant about the hazy, gray skies that hang over the oily, black water and the decrepit houses—their windows broken and walls covered in bright graffiti—standing right beside the palaces. The pristine and the grungy are all mixed up together. It’s at once depressing, terrifying, tranquil, and inspiring.
I first knew Lisbon as the mistress in William Beckford’s geographic love affair. Lisbon was an escape for the troubled English author; it had something that kept drawing him back. I picture the city on a hill, overlooking the Tagus River, offering Beckford a beautiful, haunting place that could make him happy without force. Lisbon wouldn’t mock his melancholy with abundant sunshine; it would indulge him.
When I finally visited Lisbon on tour with my college choir, I traveled with Beckford in mind. Compared to the wine country we had already seen in northern Portugal, Lisbon wasn’t very pretty. Most of the time it felt like one of the urban maps of a Tony Hawk video game: a cool spot to skateboard, with plenty of white surfaces to tag, narrow alleyways, and guardrails to grind. Lisbon felt edgy, and it inspired us to become edgy while we were there. We stayed out late and screamed over club music until four or five, knowing we would have to sing in a cathedral the next morning.
The scenery of the city was drab and colorful at the same time. An array of pastel colors made up a row of buildings, but the way the paint had faded and cracked, with tiles broken and falling off, smudged what could be gaiety to a dull wistfulness. At night, young and old people alike flooded the streets. A Thursday night looked like a festival. Jazz music blared out the windows of dark bars we passed. The friends I made explained their academic studies as a means to get out of Portugal. They seemed surprised Americans even knew where the country was. But despite the movement to escape Lisbon, they had a lot to show us. It was like adolescence embodied by a city: people were desperate to move on, but they also knew it was the most fun experience they’d ever have.
Everything I saw in Lisbon was exciting, sad, and confusing. One night, we accidentally started a street fight. We had been outside of a cramped bar in the Santos neighborhood when some boys encouraged us to go to a club called Kapital. We said we’d think about it while we got a second opinion from a table of five or six boys. They recommended a different club, called Urban. “Why Urban?” I prodded. “Those boys over there told us Kapital is the best,” I said and pointed. Instantly, they leapt from their chairs, which I took as mock indignation. As they began to violently knock drinks off the table, breaking glasses before they flipped the whole table over, I realized it wasn’t a joke. Some of the angry Urban boys ran at the Kapital boys. In a matter of seconds, the breezy, flirtatious ambience of teenagers wandering the streets had turned into a brutal scuffle with boys beating each other in the middle of the road and girls screaming. We ran away, laughing, terrified.
I returned to Lisbon a year later. This second trip confirmed my first impressions of the city: not unlike a carnival—a sad looking place cloaked with amusements, making it both fun and eerie. Whether we were congregating in the streets, meeting people, or sparking fights, there was always life going on everywhere around us. People were always out. That never happened at Wellesley—not even in Boston. A friend I met in Lisbon put it well: “In America, it’s work hard, play hard. No work in Portugal. It’s just play.” Lisbon’s economy is in bad shape, but rather than making its people sad, it frees them to just be people.
Or so I think, as an outsider. Maybe if I moved in for more than a year, I would understand all of Lisbon’s brokenness with the same clarity I have at Wellesley. Maybe you have to live somewhere to see that it’s not a happy place, that there’s no such thing as a happy place, that people are the same no matter where you go. I’m sure all the smiling visitors, getting out of their van with New Hampshire plates to take photos of each other with Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker; and all the Wellesley moms from the Ville, speed-walking in pairs around the lake; and my own parents, commenting on how beautiful it is here and how smart and wonderful my friends are and how I’ll probably never want to come home—I’m sure all of them see Wellesley as a happy place. They don’t know that it makes me angry to see them bopping about while I run, sleepless, to an exam. I wish the happy onlookers wouldn’t peer at us like visitors to an aquarium. Sure, it’s beautiful. I boast about Wellesley’s beauty when I’m away from it, and I give a good tour when friends visit. But we constantly feel cut off from the real world in this little paradise. Maybe the key to a happy place has nothing to do with aesthetics; maybe the trick is making sure there’s no inside and outside. An aquarium is an illusion of happiness, like Wellesley, because it’s fun for the people passing through, but the sea creatures inside can’t go home at the end of the day.
Or maybe it’s the place’s government that makes its people happy. According to the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index, Denmark has the highest experienced well-being—that is, Danish people feel happiest. I’ve been trolling the internet, trying to figure out why, but I think the answer is simpler than any data can convey. People are happy when they feel supported doing what they want to do, and Danish public policy supports its people through health care, gender equality, and paid maternity leave for men an women. At Wellesley, we can explore our interests to some extent, but we are all limited by academic expectations. Because the institution thrives, we struggle within it. In the poor economic conditions of Lisbon, on the other hand, perhaps the city's struggles enable its residents to thrive in a different way. Slim job offers make it impossible for everyone to follow the same career track. People have to get creative, silly, happy.