Finding (and Getting Lost in) the Future in Lisbon

Tomorrow, I head back to the US after six days in Lisbon for the LaFutura 2019 conference. LaFutura, for those who may not know, is an international organization for trend professionals; this year marked their 10th anniversary. I talk about LaFutura at length in my forthcoming book, and will have more to say about the conference over the next several days.

But now, I want to talk a little bit about Lisbon. I will disclose from the outset that it just took me two hours to get home from the LaFutura closing reception, after a subway outage, two failed Uber rides, some aimless walking, and finally a kind cabbie who became the second person this trip to tell me to “be patient.” So I am a bit on edge. As Doug Lansky, travel consultant and one of the LaFutura speakers astutely noted, even people who love to travel hate to travel.

This trip was geared toward finding the future, but it was so much about finding the past. Past as in traditions–pastel de nata and port wine, fado and the winding well Quinta de Regaleira. Past as in old buildings (some of them palaces!) being repurposed into galleries and innovation hubs. Past as in the sound of the 28 tram as it chugs by fruit vendors and electronic stores and restaurants selling pizza and Indian food. In Lisbon, past and future feel like they are on a collision course, which I guess is another way of saying that it’s a city steeped firmly in the here and now.

When you come to a new place as a tourist, these juxtapositions may be interesting, but they are also inherently frustrating. The future is not here yet insofar as there are still language and cultural barriers, still time zones, still petty discomforts (tiny bus seats, dishonest store clerks) and maddening inconveniences (spotty data, unfamiliar currency, long periods between bathroom breaks). Lisbon is not a city for the weak, and I mean that literally. I didn’t count, but if I had to guess I climbed somewhere on the order of 15,097 stairs over the course of this trip, ascending and descending punishing meters as I tried to find this cafe or that shop. I clutched my phone like a rosary, as if it would bring me salvation, while Google maps struggled to make it clear whether I was to follow this or that ridiculous cobblestoned hill. And power! Electric outlets are always hard to come by unless you know where you’re going, and my phone battery drained fast and refilled slow. On a quest for the future, I lost the future. I also got lost.

Always wear sneakers in Lisbon

And isn’t this why we travel? Not for sameness, but for difference. Yet even as I type that, I know that global sameness continues to proliferate, and that it too has its purpose. Lisbon has its fair share of McDonald’s and Starbucks and Zaras, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to finding a fair bit of comfort in that, even if it also made me feel disappointed in myself for thinking so. At the same time, even homogeneity doesn’t really homogenize. Some of the trappings of 21st century cosmopolitan hubs felt funny here, especially the city bikes like the one pictured above, sponsored and installed by Uber even though Lisbon is by far the least bikeable city I’ve ever been to. (That is, until someone creates a bike that can contend with staircases, cobblestones, narrow streets, tram lines, blind corners, and death-defying changes in elevation… I mean, seriously Uber.)

And that may be my biggest lesson of this trip. The future is not one size fits all, and it shouldn’t be. Travel could be easier, but–with apologies to Mr. Lansky–it should stay hard. It’s the thing that reminds us that we are different, that we are human, and that we love home.

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