It’s Beethoven’s birthday and as the picture shows today, I’m not in Portugal. Well, actually I am, but this is Bonn, close to where Olivia grew up and where Beethoven was born. Whilst we were there earlier this year, we went into the legendary house, now a museum, and closed our eyes and went back to 1770, to that moment 250 years ago. I don’t know if you saw the film Immortal Beloved (1994) with Gary Oldman but the subject matter and title is Beethoven’s life and who was the letter he wrote and never sent actually for? Addressed to his Immortal Beloved, the film claims that it is his sister-in-law Johanna Reiss, historians disagree.
In the exhibition inside the house, there are headphones that give you examples of what Beethoven could hear at different times in his descent to deafness. I’m not sure how they knew but it was terrible if it’s true. Beethoven died at the age of 56 in 1827, he’d left Bonn at the age of 21 and made Vienna his base and it was there that he composed his most famous works, you don’t have to be into classical music to know the “riff” of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – the Smoke On The Water of classical riffs. Happy Birthday, Ludwig.
The streets of Porto were a mixture of emptiness and action tonight. We left the flat at 6.30 PM to go to the shops. It was 11 degrees and after 5 minutes I realised I was way overdressed – again. I don’t seem to be able to dress according to the temperature, it doesn’t help when it’s the Centigrade scale (11 degrees), I need the Fahrenheit scale (51 degrees) but in reality, even that doesn’t tell me much. So I was soon hanging my big coat over my bag, if it’s not really cold or really hot I’m confused. Well, at least it wasn’t raining. Around the corner I had my first offer of hashish, it was from one of these men who stand by the road at night trying to draw cars into parking spots, I guess it’s for tips. The problem is that there are lots of parking spots so I’m not sure that a driver would need any help and want to pay for it but these people need those small amounts, desperately trying anything however unlikely.
Further up the street, a police car’s dazzling blue lights were spinning around and there was a small crowd of people standing around with one man on the ground. It was all happening opposite the fountain where the crack smokers hang. It looked like the man on the ground had OD’d. There were three people standing, a policeman talking to one of them and a woman sitting by the fountain also being talked to by a policeman. She looked upset, I don’t know how it played out, they were gone when we came back this way.
Up past São Bento station, past the dormant taxis and the huddle of taxi drivers ogling Olivia as we walked by, I gave them two fingers. One hesitates to stereotype taxi drivers or the patriarchy of southern Europe or groups of men, but the reality is if I wasn’t with her it would be worse as she describes to me often when she has been out alone – anywhere. We walked on up the street, taking a different route to the supermarket to avoid the super steep hill, past the DJ shop with turntables and speakers galore, headphones, and flashing lights. We walked past the music shop with the Portuguese guitars in the window, local traditional instruments mixed with effects pedals and electric guitars, electronics, and modern gadgets.
In the supermarket, the veggie products section remains almost empty, as if they’re surprised that we buy them. We were in and out, we know the shop now and where things are. As we headed back through the centre to Ribeira by the river, another offer of hashish. No thank you I said, he seemed grateful that I replied so politely. It hadn’t got much colder and as we walked through the streets downhill towards the river, many restaurants were open but there were few people inside. We just missed the closer supermarket where we buy the water, saves carrying the heavy bottles across town. I realised that it doesn’t feel like Christmas, despite the lights in the trees and the decorations in the street and it’s not just because we are in the city where it doesn’t snow, it’s the lack of joy, of celebration, there’s no hustle and bustle of Christmas shoppers, no shops staying open a little later the week before the big day. It’s the end of a traumatic year that the whole world wants to be over.
Music today is, you guessed it, the Black Sabbath, the Deep Purple, the Led Zeppelin of classical music, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (1804-1808).