I spent the day mostly alone yesterday, which was a huge relief. For an introvert like me, after ten full days of constant companionship and crowds of people, solitude is a balm for the soul. I did all kind of responsible things: caught up on work, emails, studying, did more laundry, and tried to balance my bank account.

I say tried, because apparently the new security measures they’ve installed online didn’t like my “typing rhythm” when I entered my password, so it locked me out. Great. Gabe encountered a similar problem later on when he tried to request a doctor’s appointment online. In both cases, we ended up having to wait til after our dinner to make phone calls and remedy the problem. Aren’t computers supposed to make living overseas easier?!

It was a beautiful day out, clear, windy, and “cold” (by Lisbon standards anyway), so in the late afternoon, I headed out for a short walk and a trip to the gym. As I did so, I remarked to myself once again that my daily life here is little different from my life at home: my days are mainly spent at home, working, with a trip to the gym providing me with enough social interaction to get by until Gabe gets home. When he does so, he has spent the whole day around people, so we are both happy.

However, it’s been over ten years since I lived in a non-English speaking country, and I forget the extremely isolating effect of the language barrier. I did a quarter in France when I was nineteen, but even then I had been studying the language for five years, plus I lived with a French family and had daily classes or excursions with a group of American students from my university. And while I was both lonely and acutely homesick while at grad school in London, it was of course English-speaking and came with a custom-made community of people in the same program.

So the experience of being in a non-English speaking country without a built-in community is a completely new one for me, and tends to magnify my existing tendency towards isolation. For example, when I do go to the store or the gym, I don’t understand the majority of the conversations that flow around me, nor can I start one up without a great deal of effort. I dread that initial blank look that I get when people don’t understand me, the total lack of comprehension on their faces as I struggle to make myself understood. So for the most part, I spare myself that incomprehension and don’t even try, and instead stare at people with a hopeful smile on my face, like a little puppy wagging its tail.

Sometimes, I hate this isolation and get frustrated with my inability to express myself. Other times, like last night, I embrace it. As I stood in the locker room and listened to people’s conversations, I enjoyed the silence within me, the safety that comes with the knowledge that no one could understand me and I could not understand them. I felt like an island in a sea of senseless noise, quiet and self-contained, peaceful.

That feeling won’t last forever, I know. The isolation and my frustration with it will continue to come and go as I become more comfortable with the language and with living here. But last night, it was a relief to embrace it, to stop struggling against the language barrier for a short while and just be what I am: a stranger in a strange land.

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