The first step to any trip for me is always to clean the house, because there’s nothing I hate more than coming back to a dirty messy home. It’s bad enough coming down from the high of a trip, especially when you’re jetlagged, but when you come home to a nice clean place, everything seems a little more OK. At least to me anyway. So yesterday I cleaned, which I’m getting a lot better at — I can now do our entire flat in about 90 minutes, 2 hours if you count changing the sheets and folding laundry.

Soon, it was time for us to get out of the house before nightfall. So we walked up the park again, which like most walks in Lisbon involves a not-insubstantial elevation gain. This one’s a bit more subtle than most though, so by the time you’ve reached the top of the park, you’re looking out over the whole of Lisbon, and only when you see the castle on a level with you do you realize how much you’ve climbed.

Yesterday was a beautiful afternoon, chilly from the sudden cold snap we’re having, but still warm enough for all the young families to turn out in force. We passed kids rolling down the gently sloping hills in the planted strip at the center of the park, babies passed out in strollers, and bundled-up toddlers clutching lollipops, bags of popcorn, and towering piles of cotton candy from the vendors that have cropped up around the base of the gigantic Christmas tree.

Along the way, we even saw the tail end of a wedding photo shoot. The videographer and two guys with cameras preceded the bride, who was walking along the path in her enormous white dress, clutching a bouquet of red roses as her gray-clad groom trailed after, her train caught up in his hand.

We didn’t have time to dawdle, however, as we were on a deadline to see a movie. We went to our usual theater, forgetting of course that it is in a shopping center — and yesterday was a Saturday, less than two weeks before Christmas. The crowds were out in full force, shopping their little hearts out, and we scurried through as fast as we could, making a beeline for the theater. We made it in plenty of time, especially with all the ads and trailers they play before the movies here, and settled into our seats for what turned out to be two full hours of heavy-handed, preachy, but still somehow powerful movie-making.

We saw Agora, which was set in Alexandria at the end of the Roman empire. I might not have chosen to see it at home, but since our options are limited here, we take what we can get. There were no good guys in this film: pagans killed Christians, Christians killed Jews, Jews killed Christians. They all killed each other, and all in the name of religion. Gabe found it entirely too heavy-handed, and I did think the violence a bit gratuitous and the plot overly long. But it was historical, and history was by nature heavy-handed, especially when it came to religion.

Although it did rather hit me over the head with it, I still valued the lesson the movie tried so unsubtly to demonstrate: we are all the same, and we have more in common than we do dividing us. This is especially so for certain universal, scientific and mathematical truths, ones that the main character, Hypatia the philosopher, strove to discover, even in the face of religious uproar and civil unrest.

Perhaps the past three months have made me more receptive to this lesson than I would’ve been otherwise. In order to become comfortable in my new city, almost daily I have had to look for the commonalities between myself and the people around me. It’s been a recurring theme on this blog, as you know, and now I am able to see past the differences almost without thinking about it. Smiling at the cute little kid with the glasses and the striped beanie? That’s a universal truth. Laughing at the shaggy dog chasing the ball on the lawn? Same all over the world. The impulse to gather with one’s family during this time of year, no matter what language or the reason or the affiliated icons that go with it? Also universal.

Nothing brought this point home more strongly for me than when we passed by the Christmas tree on our way home. By now it was night time, and the giant tree was lit up, its flashing, changing light display accompanied by the inevitable Christmas music (in English, ironically enough).

As the shadows rose and fell with the lights, they revealed people all around — clustered in the park above, standing in the small plaza below, walking along the sidewalk. The kids we passed stared up at the tree, mesmerized. The parents laughed and joked with each other, and shared their kid’s bags of popcorn and cones of roasted chestnuts. Grandmothers carried sleeping babies, fathers took pictures of their families in front of the tree, couples kissed and hugged. People were happy, and they were together, and all because of this one huge fake tree with the silly angels and stars on it.

It wasn’t the tree itself that mattered, it was how it brought people together.

That for me is the truth to these holidays, no matter which you choose to celebrate or how you choose to do so. That may not be what it was historically, as I realize there’s been a lot of blood shed into the cracks dividing these traditions. But now, in this day and age, it should be the only thing that matters. And to me, it is.

These thoughts stayed with me all the way home, accompanying me from the Christmas tree and carols of my youth to the candle-lighting and prayers of my present. We came home and added another candle to our makeshift menorah, and I could almost hear our nieces singing the prayers along with us. I can’t wait to be back with our own families this week, to follow centuries of tradition on both our sides and come home for the holidays.

Being with the people we love: that is what matters most to both of us, even despite the differences in our upbringing. And in that, we have far more in common than we do dividing us.

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