The Moon, Come to Earth
The Moon, Come to Earth (University of Chicago Press, 2009), published as a paperback original, is an expanded edition of the popular series of dispatches that first appeared on the McSweeney’s website as “Philip Graham Spends a Year in Lisbon.” The book has been published in Portuguese translation in February 2012, with a new title (Do Lado de Cá do Mar), by Editorial Presença.
“A beautiful Valentine to Lisbon. Philip Graham and his family take their artistic keenness to Portugal and capture its mystery and contradictions: Whether it’s visiting the set of a reality TV show where famous writers play hosts, or overlooking a gorgeous stone labyrinth used to trap wolves, Graham adores the offbeat even as he captures the soul of the city with good humor. There’s a taste of wine here, and giant sardines, and carnivals, and saudade, and a moon made of canvas with a light like a glowing heart. This is about a family living everyone’s dream of trying out a year abroad. But it might be the saga of the daughter, Hannah, and how the adventure abruptly becomes a journey into the loss of childhood, that grips the reader most deeply.”
—Katherine Vaz, author of Saudade, Fado & Other Stories, and Our Lady of the Artichokes and Other Portuguese-American Stories
“In The Moon, Come To Earth Philip Graham takes us on the best kind of journey, as he simultaneously reveals the fascinating city of Lisbon – its neighborhoods, its writers, its customs, its cuisine – and offers an intimate portrait of his beloved family. With his far-reaching intellect Graham is the ideal traveling companion and The Moon, Come to Earth is a beautiful and surprising book.”
—Margot Livesey, author of Criminals and The Missing World
“The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon is so enchanting: It dances and sighs. It twitches and hums and stumbles and then rights itself, with a winsome smile. It’s like a living thing, filled with desire and uncertainty and joy and regret . . . Graham is a nimble, witty writer with a penchant for teasing out the small, telling detail from the crowded scene around him. . . and this book is the perfect companion as one contemplates those mysteries, those ceaseless journeys outward and inward.”
–Julia Keller, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, from her review for the Chicago Tribune
“The wonderful collected memoir . . . The Moon, Come to Earth lifted me up from my humdrum life and transplanted me into the Graham family’s Lisbon adventure. It was a day-to-day adventure, full of the familiar, full of new routines and small struggles. It was a bit sad to leave it all, a bit of saudade creeping into my own life.”
-Andrew Saikali, The Millions
“Philip Graham shows us how to write honestly and well about an unfamiliar culture . . . [W]ritten like a poem, and full of the poignant details one only notices when embedded in a new culture, not just passing through . . . The Moon, Come to Earth should be required reading for all those about to travel abroad, especially if they plan to pack along pen and paper.”
–Dinty W. Moore, Brevity
“The genre of the dispatch–those brief, quickly composed messages meant to travel the world with utmost haste–lets Graham do the work he describes in the title. He can keenly describe the life and culture of Portugal, but he can also order us to come along for the voyage. And while these essays are brief (most are around five pages long) they are by no means slight . . . Graham is an astute observer of the idiosyncrasies of place, and his feel for people–especially his own family–is equally honed . . . Graham is just as wiling to look inward at his own family as he is willing to look outward and observe daily life on the streets of Lisbon . . . And while we can never fully understand Lisbon from a book, Graham makes us realize what’s special to him and his family–a prize that’s just as rewarding.”
–Ryan Teitman, Indiana Review
Interview with Philip Graham about his Dispatches From Lisbon, at Write the Book.
Excerpt from the dispatch “I Don’t Know Why I Love Lisbon” :
I don’t know why I love Lisbon. When I’m walking its stone-cobbled streets, catching glimpses here and there of the bordering Tejo River, or taking in, from a vista on one of the city’s hills, the glorious staggered topography of the white buildings and their salmon-colored tile roofs, I feel that I’m also traveling some interior landscape, that those streets are leading to a place inside myself I haven’t yet located.
Excerpt from “365 Days of Pork Surprise”:
Back in the United States, pork avoidance is a relatively simple procedure, like viewing distant storm clouds and having all the time in the world to head for shelter. But here in Portugal just saying no to pork can be the trickiest of culinary obstacle courses, and only the strong survive.
Our first full day in Lisbon, we begin the initial steps of a gallop (a molasseslike gallop) through various Portuguese bureaucracies to establish our new household. Hannah is patient through it all, reading a book or drawing in her notepad, so Alma and I, tired and crabby, decide to reward her when we come upon a Chinese restaurant a few doors down from our new bank: an ideal treat of familiar food. Along with our meals, we order a plate of rice, and the waitress comes to our table with a neatly shaped oval mound that’s flecked, we see upon closer inspection, with tiny cubes of ham.
Excerpt from “Bread, Bread; Cheese, Cheese”:
I sit on a shaded bench, close my eyes, and simply listen to the speech of people passing by. I love the sound of Portuguese, I really do—it’s more than music to my ears. It’s such an indefinably delicious sonic feast that I imagine I’m falling from the clouds.
But for all my infatuation with the language, I do have a complaint—oh, do I—the kind of complaint that insists on calling bread, bread.
The Portuguese swallow their syllables.
It’s almost a national pastime. They can take a perfectly fine sentence and, when they speak, reduce it to a half or a third of its original length. When it comes to spoken Portuguese, what you don’t hear is as important as what you do. Estas certo!—You’re right—becomes Sta cert! A 50 percent linguistic reduction is impressive, but when Eu estou—I am—can be snipped to something that sounds like tou, we’re talking a 75 percent drop in syllabic reality. I imagine that if the Portuguese dictionary were written as the language is truly spoken, the book would be the size of a pamphlet listing the late-blooming flowers of North African mountaintops. I’d bet the barn that if Abraham Lincoln had been Portuguese, he could have delivered the 286 words of the Gettysburg Address in about twelve seconds . . .
Excerpt from the dispatch “The Moon, Come to Earth” :
Our evening has been long on walking, short on inspiration. Still, we continue down the hill into the Chiado neighborhood, in search of the festival’s next art installation. A turn here, a turn there, and we find Lune, a huge sphere sitting in the corner of a recessed plaza, made of some sort of durable white canvas; it’s lit from within like a giant light bulb, and across its surface are painted stretches of lunar craters and mountain ranges. More than a few of the people passing by stage goofy poses before it, casting themselves as temporary stars of their own remake of E.T.
Perking up, Hannah murmurs, “So pretty.” The moon, it appears, has come to earth tonight, magically, just for her, and even if it has left the shifting clouds behind, Hannah radiates concentration and lines up her shots. I decide to give her all the time she needs, suspecting that my daughter must feel some kinship with this fallen moon. After all, they’re fellow travelers, taken out of context and isolated. I lean back on a stone bench and marvel at just how private public art can be.
Alma and I have always dragged our children along with us over hill and dale, a family ethos we’ve never really thought to question, but tonight, watching Hannah take tentative steps toward the moon for a close-up of the craters and ridges, I can’t help doubting myself. She takes one last photo. “Goodbye,” she says wistfully. Then Hannah turns and half smiles at me across the plaza, a sad and dreamy expression that almost breaks my heart. With a step, my daughter pulls away from her moon.
Excerpt from the video essay “Bring Me the Head of Diogo Alves!” :
From there I made my way to the aqueduct, which transported water from the countryside to the city’s reservoirs. Soaring across Lisbon’s Alcantara valley, the aqueduct is so well built it survived the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The walkway was closed in mid-nineteenth century, following the gruesome handiwork of Diogo Alves, the aqueduct serial killer (and a Spanish immigrant, the Portuguese like to point out). After strangling his victims, Alves threw them over the side. It’s a long way down.
Excerpt from the dispatch “Fairly Medieval” :
The musicians continue to play as they slip to the side, giving way to these figures waving fiery arcs, who then give way to bare-chested men dancing on stilts, the bottoms of those long wooden legs blazing with fire. Then a couple of women take their place, swinging over their heads what look like giant bat wings, though these shower sparks and flames, until six woman arrive swinging pots of fire in circles, their faces eerily expressionless. The whole spellbinding panoply rages on and on, drums chasing multiple rhythms, bagpipes spinning a tumble of notes like berserker music, a trancelike call to overwhelm some enemy that will be real sorry, real soon.
Two excerpts from the dispatch “On This Side of the Ocean” :
I pick a CD of Mário Laginha’s piano improvisations, and immediately, on the first cut, “Do Lado de Cá do Mar”—“From This Side of the Sea”—a restless baseline of the left hand pushes and pulls at haunting high notes of melody on the right, shifting somewhere between the modal jazz of Miles Davis and an ancestral memory of a Portuguese guitar’s ringing tones. As I’ve learned from my year in Lisbon, Portuguese music doesn’t have to be fado to be drenched in saudade. Those odd intervals, shifting from restless to reflective, pluck at something raw inside me, and when the last notes fade to a whisper, I jump up and press replay, as I almost always do.
Then Alma and Hannah are exclaiming over a well-stamped package from Portugal, a collection of holiday gifts from her friend Sara: photos, earrings, bookmarks, a blouse, and a copy of the CD that Hannah and Sara’s chorus recorded with a Portuguese opera star, Teresa Cardoso de Menezes. In short order the CD is out of its case and in the stereo tray, and as Alma and Hannah settle on the couch at first I hesitate. Yet when I sneak a glance at Hannah her eagerness decides me, and I scroll to the first song where the chorus appears, “Se Essa Rua Fosse Minha”—If This Street Were Mine—a popular Brazilian folksong. When we lived in Lisbon I fell hard for a wild, Django Reinhart-inspired rave-up of a version by a local band, O’ Que Strada, but here all is slowed and hushed, beginning with the measured plinks of a single harp gently anticipating the singer’s crystalline voice, and when the children’s chorus finally enters, their voices sound like the hovering spirit of any traveling soul.
(My intention is merely to spread the word of this gorgeous music. If the artists would like me to take down the two MP3s highlighted above, I would be happy to oblige them.)