Yesterday was another working day, made much more productive by Gabe hooking up the big flat screen monitor to my computer so that I could take over the world, er, work on the website more easily. Although I felt like a ginormous geek sitting there with cables, keyboards, and external mice running all over my desk, it did increase my productivity by a large amount:

Even after taking a lengthy break in the afternoon, by the time 6 PM rolled around, my eyes were officially turning rectangular. We decided to go to a movie, although we skipped our usual meal at the food court, since it tends to be far more crowded on weekends. It wasn’t so when we got there, but when we got out, there were massive lines for every single restaurant. At 9 PM. On a Friday night. Laugh all you want, but I’m telling you, the mall food court is the hot place to be in Lisbon.

We watched “Up in the Air,” which my mom and I had tried and failed to see at least five or six times while we were home. It was a good movie, and gave a bleakly accurate account of work and romance in the modern world. People are lonely, whether they are struggling to make ends meet or have wildly successful, high-profile careers, and they address that loneliness in a variety of ways — some of them more harmful than others.

George Clooney’s character, Ryan, deals with his isolation is by embracing it. He pushes people away, reinforcing and defending his solitude by creating a lifestyle almost unfit for human habitation. His job is thankless, his lifestyle is minimalist, he has alienated his family and has no time for friends, let alone romance. What’s more, he gives “inspirational” lectures on how to create a life just like his own, telling his audience to “empty their backpacks” of possessions both physical and emotional. No objects, no relationships, just an empty backpack.

Of course this made me sad, as it was supposed to. But it also made me think about our year abroad in a slightly different context: right now, Gabe and I are living with relatively light backpacks. When Ryan said to put all of your physical belongings into your backpack, I had to laugh: I spent two months last summer trying to get rid of as many of our belongings as possible, and the rest are in a storage container in Castroville! Granted, what we have here in Lisbon would hardly fit into a backpack — in fact it barely fit into four huge suitcases on the way here, let alone the way back. But still, it’s a far more streamlined life than what we or many other people are used to.

The same goes for our emotional backpacks. Here, we have each other, and not a whole lot more. We stay in touch with everyone at home, but having just been home and connected with our loved ones in person, I can say for sure that it’s not the same thing at all.

Carrying a backpack that light is extremely challenging for a lot of people — which was precisely Ryan’s point, and why people paid money to hear him speak about it. It is challenging for us as well, no doubt about it. Our flat can at best be described as spartan, and we miss a lot of the conveniences and objects we have at home. Much more so, we miss the people there, the relationships and connections that make up our emotional backpacks. Unlike Ryan though, Gabe and I are not ones to eschew human contact, in fact quite the opposite. Possibly the hardest part of being here for us both is the lack of our family and friends.

However, as going home last month proved, our much bigger backpacks are waiting for us when we get home. In the meantime, we have each other, and we have our tiny flat, and it is both fascinating and frightening to live life with such a dramatically lightened load. I don’t think one should take it to a pathological level, as Ryan did, but as a temporary experiment, it is often humbling and always educational.

To prove the point, we ended our night at a tiny wine bar just outside of the flat we’d looked at for my mom earlier in the day. Although it’s literally two minutes’ walk from our flat, we’d never seen it before, and were delighted by its cozy, laid-back intimacy and amazing wine — for under 3 euros a glass. So we sat, and drank, and talked, and marveled at the wonder of living in a foreign country that most Americans can’t place on a map. In fact most of them can’t even distinguish it from Spain. Sigh.

Without having taken the plunge and lightened our backpacks, we would never have found that wine bar, or the mall food court full of people at 9 PM, or the internet cafe we discovered earlier in the day — tucked away inside the post office, of all places. So yes, it’s uncomfortable to travel light (relatively speaking), and yes, I miss my home. But just for a while, just for this year… I think that Ryan character might just have it right.

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