When I first arrived in Lisbon, the only way I can describe my initial experience is as an assault on my senses. Although it was late September, the city was still hot and steamy. The hotel new teachers were put up in until they found accommodation was situated on a noisy main artery into the centre of the city. All human life was here, although unfortunately I couldn’t understand a word of it. Added to which, I couldn’t make head nor tail of any of the local café-restaurant menus. Consequently, I mainly subsisted on “tostas mista” (ham and cheese toasties) for a significant period, as they were the only thing I was able to order, safe in the knowledge of what I would be eating.
Before long, I’d found a flat-share in the heart of Lisbon and got down to the nitty-gritty of teaching. Coincidentally, my first school was literally round the corner from the hotel I’d first stayed in. Both buildings were close to one of the bigger, more prestigious universities in Lisbon. By day, the area swarmed with locals going about their business and budding engineers. By night, others were getting busy, by virtue of the fact that it was notoriously populated by street-walkers.
In later years, I came to be known as the “Freak Magnet” at school, which is a label I wore like a badge of honour. The writing was on the wall during my first year of teaching. One of my late evening classes was an unusual collection of individuals, with a core group of three, who despite the valiant efforts of the school director, succeeded in driving away potential new members of the class on a serial basis. I understood why. One unfortunate, but smiley, gentleman was already repeating this pre-intermediate level and was clearly never going to progress much further. A second, a man in his thirties, prone to sporting a blouson jacket, spent the lessons winking at the ladies (including me). To cap it all off, the third was a middle-aged chap in the midst of what was clearly a very difficult divorce. I had my work cut out.
As one generally does after traumatic experiences, I’ve blanked out most of those lessons, but one towards the end of the academic year stuck with me. The soon-to-be-divorcee arrived late and very drunk and proceeded to giggle manically throughout the rest of the lesson. Waiting, drained, at the bus stop to go home after class had finished, the “winker” kerb-crawled me (still winking, perhaps it was a nervous thing), but sped off sharpish once he realised he was soliciting his English teacher. I later learned that the love-lorn and inebriated student subsequently managed to involve himself in a brawl, in the café under the hotel I’d once stayed in, after class. I have no recollection of what the pleasant but simple soul that completed this triumvirate was doing throughout proceedings, but can only assume that he was grinning as inanely and uncomprehendingly as ever.
The only explanation for my return for a second round of teaching the next academic year on the back of this debacle is that I was a glutton for punishment. That, and also that I’d fallen big time for Lisbon – as well as for the man I’d later set up home with. And surely I’d just been unlucky? I would never encounter students such as this again. Would I?