Postcards from Lisbon: Transgender Travel and Friendship in a beautiful city

The thing about seeing friends you haven’t seen in a while is twofold—there is the catching up, but there is also just how quickly we slip into the comfortable space friendships inhabit.  What’s even better is to do it in a “new” place, or at least one that isn’t your usual haunt, as so much of catching up on an emotional and spiritual level can come through just walking around together, shopping together, reacting to the views together, and talking about life as it unfolds.


This is a beautiful city.  I was reminded of a story from many moons prior, when I was working in Portugal—up North in Oporto and had come down to Lisbon to our office for work for a few days, and had decided to stay on for the weekend.  In conversation with my mother, I noted where I was.

“Oh goodie,” she said, “you can get me some cut glass doorknobs.”

“Cut glass doorknobs?”

“Yes, cut glass doorknobs.  Lisbon is famous for them.”

“What do you need cut glass doorknobs for?”

“We want to replace all the doorknobs in our house with cut glass doorknobs.”

“How many do you need?”

“Maybe 20 sets or so.”

“All right I’ll look.”  Mistake.  But that was a snapshot of our lives.  She once brought me a suitcase of mesquite from Texas, where she was living, to France, where I was living, so I could throw a proper Texas BBQ for my French friends.  God bless our Mothers.

I asked in my hotel, to the concierge, where I might go.  He looked a blank at me.  “Cut glass doorknobs?” he asked.

“Yes, Lisbon is famous for them.”  He raised his eyebrows at the assertion.

“No idea.”  I vowed to upgrade hotel.  A concierge who has ‘no idea’ does not deserve the job title.

“Antique shops?”

“Yes, maybe.”  He showed me an area on his map that had a few antique shops.  I went there.

“Do you have any cut glass doorknobs?” I asked in my best Portuguese, having now learned the precise terms.  

“No,” he said.

“Do you have any idea where I might find some?”


“I was told that Portugal, Lisbon, was famous for cut glass doorknobs.”

“Samosas, yes,” he said kissing his fingers and making a lip-smacking flourish, “but cut-glass doorknobs, I have not heard of.”

“Do you have any idea of who might know?”

“No, I’m sorry.”

It was the same in every shop.  I was beginning to think that my mother had been mistaken in her memory.  But then I got a lead.  One shopkeeper suggested I focus on art nouveau antique shops and that there were a couple of them clustered in one neighbourhood.  He showed me on my map.  Other side of town.

Thirty minutes later I was in a somewhat run-down shop piled high with everything, and before I even asked, I saw them, a small tin tub of cut glass and painted porcelain doorknobs.  They weren’t all in great shape, but I managed to find two sets that looked good.  I asked the shopkeeper where I might find more.  And so it was.  At shop after shop, I found a few, and by the end of the day, I had collected two dozen sets.  They were quite heavy.  I bought another suitcase to spread the load.

A few months later, I was home for Christmas, and I had put together a nice box with all lf the doorknobs wrapped up in tissue paper, kind of like a display box.  I gave it to her as a Christmas present, not having mentioned any of it before.

“What are these?” she asked on opening the box.

“Portuguese cut-glass doorknobs.”

“What for?” she asked.

“You asked for them,” I said.

“I did?”

“Yes, you said you wanted to replace all the doorknobs in your house.”

“Well, they’re lovely,” she said appreciating one pair with her discerning eye.  “But why on earth?”  We had a good laugh about that.

I don’t know if this was the beginning of a mental decline that she experienced later in life, or whether it was just her…she was always a bit creative and random with things.

Lisbon Today

Is a much-modernised city.  The historic centre has been beautifully spruced up, with gorgeous freshly painted facades everywhere.  The sidewalks are paved with black and white stones in decorative patterns, and many of the streets have been returned to cobblestones.  Tram networks and funicular railways weave through the city creating a gentle transport fabric which drapes easily over the hilly waterfront city.

In the late 1ate 1800’s the city was devastated by a powerful earthquake and Tsunami.  Portugal was a very wealthy country at the time—oh, the joys of colonialism—and so was able to rebuild in a remarkably homogeneous style.

There is a lively dining scene, and we ate some lovely meals.

Monte Mar Restaurant on the Waterfront

Down on the riverfront, there are a number of warehouses which have been converted to fabulous dining spaces or night clubs.  With such lovely weather on offer, we opted to sit waterside and enjoy a lovely meal built around shellfish.  Platters of local delicacies including razor clams, baby clams, oysters, barnacles, crab, rock lobster, and lobster were soon tucked away, all washed down with some lovely light white wines from the Alentejo region.

Rocco Bar at the Ivens Hotel

Tucked away on a little side street, this bar is an elegant gilt and mirror fin de siècle spot that is a joy to start an evening with. And they make a delicious negroni.

Fado Evening

An elderly woman with a group of other older women and one burly middle-aged man, all locals, came to watch the show.  While they were standing and waiting for the their table, one of the eldest women had a case of diarrhoea straight onto the floor.  She didn’t blink an eye.  The son indicated something to the wait staff, and they just led her to her table where she and her relatives all sat down while one of the waiters just mopped it up.  And I thought how refreshing in Europe that something that might be traumatizing somewhere else is just treated as an accident of life.  And I guess this might be one of the advantages of wearing a skirt.

There are many places to hear Fado performed, the plaintive songs of Portugal, sometimes called Portuguese blues.  Many offer a meal as part of the experience.  It is surely worth going to a good place and doing it once.  I have always loved the music of Maria Creuza, a Fado star who has an amazing voice.

What I wore

It was important to me to look my best, as it generally seems to be when I am presenting female.  Still, no makeup or jewellery other than my lovely necklace.  

One evening I wore a short leather skirt by All Saints, one of my favourite London designers.  It is a light brown suede with brass zippers and black trim.  On top I wore an elegant and ornately patterned shirt dress with perhaps 30 mother of pearl buttons.  Don’t tell anyone but I got it at Zara, though it looks just like Etro.  They do that a lot.  Must drive Etro nuts.  I can’t believe they can get away with it.  Fast fashion.  

The top is quite tight fitting, and normally I would have to wear a corset to pull it off, but the changes in my body seem to be moving things around a bit, and so it fit perfectly as it was.  The black detail in the dress matched the black trim on the skirt, which matched the black high heels I wore.  I can’t wait until it is a bit chillier out and I can it wear with leather trousers and black pumps.

Another day I wore some very light but long brown trousers by Marni, with a wide ochre leather belt and a dark blue and brown paisley top laced with gold thread.

My women friends want me to go shopping with them.  That’s my idea of fun.

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