On Starting…What only you can offer with Yolanda Tati

Photo by Luis de Barros

Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another. ~ The Law of Conservation of Energy


When I first met Yolanda Tati, I was visiting Lisbon and was a guest at her guesthouse, Tête-À-Tête. My boyfriend had chosen our accommodations for the trip, and I figured we would be staying at another average city hostel. Nothing special, but what did we care? We were always too busy exploring to be in our rooms for very long anyway. So when we arrived at Tête-À-Tête, I was greeted with pleasant surprise after surprise. Not only was the guesthouse impeccably designed with exquisite wallpaper and a jazz theme for each room (we stayed in the Nina Simone room), but there was the owner, Yolanda, standing before us in a trim black shirt and a fitting pixie hair cut welcoming us to the place in flowing detail.

Yolanda beamed presence.  I suddenly felt like a rock in the desert, grateful to be warmed by such a strong and encompassing sun. I admired the poise with which she held herself and the way she put her words together, with the novel connections of a non-native speaker and the precision of a studious learner. She told us about how she was melding jazz and macrobiotics into her guesthouse experience — two things that were close to her heart and that she wanted to share with other travelers. As she guided us around the guesthouse, which was one level of an apartment building, two flights up, right outside of the heart of Lisbon, I could feel myself becoming lighter. I had caught that feeling of excitement you get when you discover something “special,” the kind of something that you’ll rave about to friends over dinner and urge other people to go and see for themselves.

Over the course of our trip, I became accustomed to seeing Yolanda periodically throughout our days. Tête-À-Tête played host to musical acts two evenings of our stay and it was refreshing to only have to return “home” to be privy to a local nightlife experience. One night, after a show had come to end and the other guests had gone home or to bed, we shared some wine and conversation with Yolanda and a few of her old high school friends. I could feel the bounds of the host/guest relationship giving way to the edges of friendship.

And that’s why I knew I wanted to share Yolanda and Tête-À-Tête here with you. Because I have a hunch that Yolanda makes a lot of people feel this way, privy and welcome. As I got to know more about Yolanda and her past, I learned how she studied to be a petroleum engineer and launched Tête-À-Tête as a way to create an outlet for her passions on the side, a channel to grow other facets of herself that were just as alive and yearning for a place. I was also floored to learn she was only 24, her composure hinted at a much older number. Not to mention, I didn’t know many 24-year-olds who were in the position to start a guesthouse. Starting anything can be a challenge, but starting a guesthouse at a young age with no prior experience, only a fierce desire to share the things one holds dear —  now that felt remarkable. I knew, though, like anything else, it’s surely not all pie in the sky, and I was curious how Yolanda’s apparent poise and methodical nature played into her success. I wondered about what she struggled with, what she hoped for and the work that goes into it all behind the scenes. More than anything, I wanted a chance to share Yolanda’s joy with all of you, her way of being in the world, because isn’t that what always leaves the most meaningful impression in the end?

When I called Yolanda for this interview, her voice sung through the phone like we had only left Tête-À-Tête yesterday, rather than the seven months that had actually passed. She’s now gone back to working full-time as a petroleum engineer while continuing to manage Tête-À-Tête, but in-between her busy schedule, she found time to talk with me and answer all of my wandering questions. If I could make everyone reading this stop what they are doing and go to Lisbon to meet her and stay at Tête-À-Tête, I would, but, since that’s likely not an immediate option, you can soak up some of her words and wisdom through our conversation below.

Take a moment, grab a coffee and dip into the world of Yolanda’s Tête-À-Tête, you’ll come away with more radiance for it.

Yolanda Tati_Lisbon Guesthouse Tete a Tete

 Photo by Sara Pinheiro

Can you talk about your background and how that has led you to Tête-À-Tête?

I did my bachelor’s in civil engineering and then after three years I decided to do a master’s in petroleum engineering because I’m really passionate about geoscience. During my first year of my master’s degree in petroleum engineering, I got seven proposals from petroleum companies like Chevron, Total and Transocean to come work for them. I ended up deciding to work for Total because they had the best options for me to go back to Angola, where I’m from. I left Angola when I was three years old. So during my last year of my master’s while finishing up my thesis, I went back to Angola after 20 years of not living there. I would go back for holidays, but it was the first time I went back to actually live there. It was such a moment for me because I had always wanted to go back to my country. It was very rewarding and meaningful for me.

But the thing is that while I was getting my education, I always had so many different influences. I did theater, I was a part of reading clubs, science clubs and more. So, yes, I made the decision to become an engineer, but I’ve always had this wide variety of other skills that I wanted to develop, from social skills to cultural skills to educational skills, etc. Tête-À-Tête was the opportunity to do this, it was a way. I never dreamt about having a guesthouse exactly, but I was always pretty sure that I wanted to have a place in which I could apply the languages I’ve loved to learn, to get to know new people from different cultures and different countries and to provide them with a nice experience in the city I know best, which is Lisbon. This was how Tête-À-Tête started, and it’s also why Tête-À-Tête is such a rich variety of different components: the jazz component, the macrobiotic component, the comfort component and the Lisbon component. It’s a way of getting people together and getting to know people, and we’re always thinking about comfort and paying attention to the small details for someone that wants to get to know the most genuine and authentic part of a city as lovely as Lisbon.

Can you remember the first time you thought of the idea for Tête-À-Tête?

It basically stemmed from my travels. I like to travel a lot. I’ve been to Asia, Africa and all over Europe, and while traveling, I started using Couchsurfing. And this was back in the days when no one was Couchsurfing. I would also host people in Lisbon, and it got me thinking about how to be a near-perfect host, while at the same time, showing the most authentic part of the city to someone, not just the things that are in the guide books or the things that most of the people are doing that are super expensive. So that was actually when Tête-À-Tête first came to my mind, because it was the perfect mix of everything that I love and everything that I imagine together. Also, Lisbon is growing so fast and finally showing itself to the world and it is actually, in my point of view, the most underrated city in Europe. It is lovely, super safe, super cozy and just delicious. In 2015, I saw that it was the perfect moment to unite this potential of a super city to the experience I have traveling and hosting people. I wanted to make it public. I wanted to be able to provide this general benefit to people.

So I quit my job as a petroleum engineer in Angola. For the past ten years, it had been my goal to be in Angola. I had decided that Angola was my country and I always wanted to live there. But when I got there, I was really surprised as an individual, as a woman, as a person in general, that Angola wasn’t really my country, although I was born there. The way of living, the costs of living and the social dynamics that you can feel in Lisbon were not there. So I gave myself the opportunity to quit a nice job. Everyone was saying “woaaah, how can you do that?” It was very unpredictable, but I gave myself the chance to find a way to live here in Europe. Then I dedicated myself to the goal of having my own company, because although I’m a civil engineer and a petroleum engineer, I don’t identify with many of the interests of these industries. I wanted to have an escape. I wanted to have a place in which I could feel that my interests were in sync. I wanted to finally give myself the space to do what I really liked.

Then, fortunately, it happened that when I returned to Lisbon I was able to open Tête-À-Tête. It is getting more and more difficult in Lisbon to rent a place with the purpose of providing accommodations, but finally after 5 months, I found the place and then Tête-À-Tête was built in two weeks. It was so very fast because I was already paying for the rent, and I just wanted it to be as profitable as possible, as soon as possible. And that was it, that was when Tête-À-Tête started. It was built by all my friends and my cousins as well — everything was made with a lot of love. We found a lot of second-hand pieces, so it’s very antique and very vintage. We also painted all of the rooms, and I chose the pictures very carefully. All of the decor was thought out to the maximum detail and everything was chosen for a specific purpose. It all follows my love for jazz, my love for the arts, for our body and our nature.

Tete a Tete Lisbon_Yolanda Tati

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Photos by JL Fotografia

That’s amazing! Let’s rewind a bit. Once you decided you were going to start Tête-À-Tête, what were your first steps towards making it a reality?

First of all, I tried to understand how many businesses like mine already existed in Lisbon. I tried to understand why foreign people wanted to get to know Lisbon. Next, I tried to determine the effective costs of maintaining a house with such a number of rooms and what the real value was that travelers were willing and able to pay in Lisbon.

Did you have anyone you looked to in order to learn this process, or did you figure it out on your own?

I did it mainly by myself. Because I’m a civil engineer I took some courses on optimization and management. And, really, being an engineer is all about management. So I just opened a spreadsheet in Excel, and I figured out the costs for rent, for the bills, for everything, all the expenses, and then I optimized it with some mathematical functions in order to understand what prices would be acceptable in order to maintain expenses. I analyzed it per month, per semester and per year. It was up to me to gather all of the data and to understand how viable it would be or not. Carlos, my partner, was also very important in mentoring and guiding me through so many of the technical aspects.

It’s interesting because when you think petroleum engineer and running a guesthouse, they seem so different, but it seems like you applied a lot of the same skills in both of them.

Yeah, it happened really like that. When managing Tête-À-Tête, I have to switch on my social skills and be able to kind of direct people in a way. They’ll tell me what they are willing to have in terms of accommodation, in terms of the perspective they want to get of the city, and I help them. But, at the same time, it is very numerical because if I don’t manage to handle the numbers, I won’t be able to have people here. So it really combines a wide variety of skills in terms of organizing the numbers and also the backstage work, like doing the shopping for the breakfast, the food, the laundry service and organizing all of the logistics and all of the systems for it to be perfect. All the while, making sure not to take the focus off of the guests really being able to enjoy the city. It is super multi-tasking.

I wanted to have an escape. I wanted to have a place in which I could feel that my interests were in sync. I wanted to finally give myself the space to do what I really liked.

Yolanda Tati Tete a Tete Lisbon

Photo by Sara Pinheiro

What part do you find most challenging?

For me, it was very difficult to learn how to manage my staff because you really have to be clever in order to make people aware of what you want to transmit in terms of message about the business. Since I’m not able to be there 24/7, I had to find someone who was able to clean and who was also able to speak different languages at the same time, and that is very difficult. I never thought about it before, but usually people who are good at cleaning at doing more practical tasks are not very good at speaking languages like French, English and Spanish. But people who are clever enough to do this are usually not very good at cleaning, at organizing the house and at making it comfortable and organized for the guests to live in and to have a nice experience in.

So my most challenging task at first was to find my staff and find a way to manage them so that they would be happy. Because if your staff is not happy, your service will suck because they are the people that have to smile. They have to be stable and comfortable and satisfied so that your guests feel those comforts, so that your guests feel safe and well-served. That was the most challenging part of this whole process. And also, for me, because I’m super practical and direct, it was difficult sometimes because I would say something that I thought would be super direct but maybe it would also hurt someone’s feelings a bit. And personally, for me, that doesn’t happen because I am very pragmatic. But I had to deal with it, and nowadays, I am a much calmer person. Not that I wasn’t calm before, but now I always find a way of saying it more gently so that the message will hit home and the person will feel motivated to reach the same goal that I want to reach.

How’s it going now? Do you feel like you’re in a good place with that?

Yeah, so nowadays, I’m super happy because the people I have working for me are very independent, autonomous and proactive. It feels very good because I know that they understand the concept, and the guests are happier and happier. It is very rewarding because I feel like the concept is starting to spread organically. You know we have the same guests, the same Portuguese guests and even some of the same foreign guests that come back to Lisbon. They are returning to Tête-À-Tête. They are coming back. They are calling and saying, “Yolanda, it’s me! Remember me? I wanted to stay with you again, and I’m coming with more friends. I really want to show them Tête-À-Tête!” It is very special because something that started in my mind is finally going out into the world and people can feel it, and we’re actually providing a benefit to people. We are providing a place of love, a place where everybody has their own space, where everybody is accepted and everybody can feel comfortable and make Tête-À-Tête their home.

I mean, I felt that way when I stayed there. It’s such a unique concept, because you know, you’re looking on Booking.com and you’re coming across hostel after hostel and they’re all kind of the same. And then you see this concept with macrobiotics and jazz and you’re like what? What is this? It’s not something you would expect.  

The very important thing is, and I didn’t have this idea at first, but now that you say it, it’s very clear to me that the concept itself is molding to what people want, because we are focusing on people’s needs. So, for example, we have a library now, we have a whole set of books that people can just dive into and spend some time getting ideas about philosophies, about macrobiotics, about music, about art and culture. And I’m also very excited because we now have Spotify playlists for each room so instead of saying, “this room is about Nina Simone” or “this room is about the 70s”, people can just enter Spotify, search for the playlist of the room that is written on the door and they can get the vibe of it.

Tête-À-Tête is a concept that is uniting a wide range of people who are really into funk, soul, jazz, poetry and the like. It is a place where people can eat nourishing food while they’re traveling, foods that are thoughtfully prepared and sourced. It is a place for artists. We actually just had a poet staying with us for about two months who was from Germany, and we organized some poetry jam nights and talks. It was nice because all of our guests were able to experience Lisbon, but then, at the end of the day, they would come back to this very cozy atmosphere of wine, tea, healthy food and some reading and introspection as well. It’s very interesting, and I’m happy with how it is evolving as time goes by.

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Yolanda_Tete a Tete_LisbonPhotos by JL Fotografia

How did you decide to weave jazz into the guesthouse experience?

When I was 16, I got really into jazz and I found my peace in it. I loved the way that the different instruments and the different sounds combined themselves and had such a special conversation with each other, each one contributing something. So I started exploring more and more about jazz. My diva is Nina Simone. For me, she’s everything. And, for me, jazz is just the most genuine way of expressing yourself as a musician. Of course, that may sound ignorant, because you can also express yourself with classical music, with punk music, with rock, but, for me, jazz is the one that speaks directly to my heart. It is super expressive, it is super soulful and by linking Tête-À-Tête to jazz, I wanted to show people that we have a heart, we have this sensitivity and we are willing to listen to people.

It also has something to do with the name, Tête-À-Tête. It is a French phrase but it is a universal phrase as well. It exists in the Portuguese dictionary, the English dictionary and others. It means face-to-face, one-on-one. It is a private talk. It is a moment of sharing something intimate with someone you can trust. Tête-À-Tête is that. Tête-À-Tête is sharing. Tête-À-Tête is caring, and Tête-À-Tête is paying attention to the other, to the details. Tête-À-Tête is being able to take a moment to look at yourself in the mirror. It is paying attention to what you experience and paying attention to the things that put other people at ease and into a comfortable situation, into a comfortable place.

Part of the reason, I think one of the main reasons, why everyone wants to keep coming back to Tête-À-Tête is you. You have such a warm heart and when a guest first arrives, you introduce yourself, you explain the concept, and you make people feel immediately at ease. So I was curious, have there been any influential people or experiences in your life that contribute to your sunny outlook?

Yes, the thing that I have been acknowledging for the past, I would say, about five years is my early experiences and their influence on me. I was born in Angola, and I came to Portugal when I was three. Back in those days it was a much more closed Portugal, and I was this chubby African child who was always struggling to fit in. I was always trying to find my place, always trying to be desired by people. My father had a great influence on me. My father is also an engineer, a mining and geological engineer, and he taught me that I could win people over by showing them that I had knowledge, by showing people that I could offer some help, some utility, some benefit in general — and that is Yolanda. I’m the kind of person that is always trying to help because I know that there are a lot of bad things in the world, and if I can provide some small amount of positivity to people, that makes me happy. That’s why, instead of having a closed and shy face, I always choose to smile and have my arms wide open to receive different cultures, because I come from a different culture, to receive different minds because I know that my mind can be a bit tricky and sometimes not very understandable.

So I guess that has made me a really open person, and the fact that I was able to travel a lot has grown that side of me. When I traveled, I would work for the whole summer to save some money to be able to reach these different cultures. This opened my eyes so that now, at first, I recognize a person’s nature. I respect them, and I also recognize a person’s effort. I’m always aware that I have no clue as to what the other person’s story or path is. I have no clue about their struggles, and that is why I always make the decision to be as positive and as welcoming as I can. Tête-À-Tête is also an extension of that. I always want to be good with people, I always just want everything to be fine, you know?  Of course, there may be some disappointments along the way, but that is why I try to be like this.

by linking Tete a Tete to jazz, I wanted to show people that we have a heart, we have this sensitivity and we are willing to listen to people.

Yolanda Tati _Tete a Tete Lisbon

Photo by Sara Pinheiro

During the hard times in starting Tête-À-Tête, what has been your greatest source of strength and stability?

My family, no doubt. My father came to Lisbon in 1995 because he had a really good opportunity to study in the university that I got my education from as well, Instituto Superior Técnico of Lisbon, but then afterwards he could never find a job as a mining and geological engineer in Portugal so he worked in construction. My mom worked as a cleaning lady. So I always knew my parents had the education, the values and the strength, and growing up, I never had the idea that I belonged to a low social class. I didn’t see this until I started to work and was able to view things from above, because my parents always found a way of giving us the best education and the best opportunities. They always exposed us to knowledge and instilled in us the sensitivity to understand other people and be ready for the world. They did this by sacrificing everything they had in order for us to be good professionals and good people.

So my plan was always to find a way to provide stability to my family. I didn’t have everything when I was growing up, so I’ve grown up with the idea that I don’t want my kids to have everything, but I also don’t want them to feel like they can’t have some special things. This mentality gave me certainty to change my circumstances and also because my parents always showed me that I had to fight hard for my things since I had the capability of doing that. They always did their best to show that it is really important to be independent and to be able to decide what future I want to have and what kind of life I want to live. So I always took that very seriously. Since kindergarten, I was always the kid with the best grades. It was really important for me to make them proud because I could see everything they were leaving behind in Angola, and I knew that my colleagues had a totally different reality. That gave me strength.

Also, throughout this entire process, my partner Carlos has been my shoulder to lean on. He is my structural element and was there with me every step of the way.

Yolanda Angola

Growing up, how did you think about Angola and how did that differ once you returned to live there as an adult?

Angola for me is a very difficult subject because the Angolan people have lived through a civil war until 2002. Many difficult situations are happening there right now but people cannot really speak out. It is the perfect system in which people are completely controlled and no one is happy, but no one has the strength to change anything because no one wants to see blood again. There’s no one in Angola who didn’t lose at least one member of his or her family in the war. So it is very difficult to look back at Angola because we have an awesome culture, we have awesome values, we have awesome traditions and our country is beautiful. It is one of the few countries in Africa in which you can go from savannah to rain forest to the desert to a beautiful beach with waterfalls. It is very diverse and very rich, and then we also have loads of oil reserves, and that is also our biggest regret, because many foreign countries have taken advantage of us. Our government is completely sold and corrupt.

So it is very difficult to approach the Angolan subject because we have everything yet we have nothing. And I’m concerned because, to be honest, once I wanted to live up my country, I wanted to enjoy the fact that I’m Angolan, that I belong to this aaaamazing culture that is very present in me, in the music, in the memories that I have, in my family, in the values that are important to me. I wanted to be able to show my kids one day that they also have these roots and that they also belong there. But it is very difficult because you cannot find a proper education there, everything is super expensive, everything is super inaccessible, there is no social security system, no healthcare system — you don’t have anything that can provide you with the means to enjoy your country. It is very difficult, seriously. We have all the potential and it’s like we’re dying on the shore..I don’t know if you have this expression in English, “After swimming the whole ocean, you die on the shore.” And that’s it, it’s difficult. I guess it will take at least 30 or 50 years for the situation to change. We don’t have freedom of speech, we don’t have freedom of thinking, we don’t have the minimum conditions for feeling free enough to sit on a terrace like I’m doing now, for reading a book outside, for just enjoying yourself and enjoying nature.

Tete a Tete_Lisbon_Yolanda

Tete a Tete_Lisbon Portugal

Photos by JL Fotografia

Let’s turn to the idea of starting, because sometimes just starting can be the hardest part of any venture. Sometimes you just think about an idea forever and you don’t take any action. Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to start something new?

Yes. First of all, be completely aware of your surroundings, because you might not be the best, but you gotta be the most prepared person. You might not be the most intelligent, but you gotta make sure that you have everything in its place and acknowledge everything that is important before taking the first step. And afterwards, always be conscious that everybody can help you and that everybody can be a benefit for what you’re trying to do. So always be gentle, always be paying attention to what people tell you. Be all ears. Listen more than you talk. People will tell you more information than you could ever predict.

Another thing is to always be humble, because you cannot do everything by yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help whenever you’re trying to do something new, and know that everything you’re going to be doing is going to be new because it is being done by you. Because of that, it’s special. Acknowledge that, but go further, and really pay attention to what is important to you. Your inner voice is telling you something that no one else can tell you, and you’ve been paying attention your whole life to something no one ever paid attention to — because you are you. And no one else is you and that is your power. So if you are trying to do something that is yours, just put your identity and everything you can put from yourself into it.  Just go ahead and do it because you might find that there are many more people feeling like you than you could ever imagine. We are unique, but we are not that unique. We are special, but maybe not that special. Because we have sensitivity and we are making everything out of people, out of experiences. Use that, because we are people of people.

Yolanda Tati _ Tete a Tete Lisbon

And finally, just share something that you would want someone else to share with you because that is going to be special no matter what and people are going to feel it. People are going to catch the love and the message no matter what, no matter how much time passes by. Invest yourself in making it work because if you have an opportunity to speak out, if you have an opportunity to share something in public, just take the best out of you to do it because otherwise it would have no point at all — for me…(laughs).

That was beautiful. Switching gears a bit, what are your greatest fears around Tête-À-Tête?

I’m afraid of our current situation worldwide. I’m afraid that a terrorist attack will happen in Lisbon and that would really jeopardize the business. People would be afraid of exploring Lisbon. People would be afraid of traveling to this amazing place. So I’m afraid of something that can completely change the circumstances of life here because living in Lisbon for me is a privilege. You can stay out until late in the night, you are safe walking alone, and it is super shiny and super sunny. So I’m afraid that something will change the present situation.

And what about your personal fears?

My biggest fear is being alone. Being alone because I know that I am what I am because of the people that I’ve met. So the moment that I start being alone, I’ll be all myself. And then I will stop learning, stop developing myself and stop being a better person — and in being a person at all actually — because I believe that people only exist because we’re people as a whole. If other people do not exist, you’ll be just a being, not a person.

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Photo by JL Fotografia

Your inner voice is telling you something that no one else can tell you, and you’ve been paying attention your whole life to something no one ever paid attention to — because you are you. And no one else is you and that is your power.

What are your greatest hopes and dreams for Tête-À-Tête?

I would like Tête-À-Tête to be recognized as a place of love and intention, and I would like Tête-À-Tête to be able to… actually, Tête-À-Tête is pretty much everything that I want, but I would just like more people to know about it and for more people to hold it as a safe place. I would like Tête-À-Tête to be a reference point for artists. I want artists coming to stay and to perform. I want more people to know about Lisbon, about jazz in Lisbon. I would love to have people meeting for jazz at Tête-À-Tête and to think of it as a meeting place. I want it to gather more and more people together to deepen it. I want artists, and not artists and everybody to come.

Do you have anything you tell yourself when you’re doubting yourself or feeling unsure?

I tell myself: there’s no pain that is eternal and that everything is relative. I also tell myself that there’s always a place for everything and that people attract people. You attract the energy that you transmit and everything is mutable. Everything can change, and everything can be transformed into something good.

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Thank you beautiful Yolanda for sharing your story with us! Everyone go check out Tête-À-Tête on Facebook and be sure to give them a visit if you’re ever in Lisbon!

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