After waiting so long to feel like part of the community here, suddenly it seems that it is starting to happen. I don’t mean that the locals put up a huge banner across the road and threw us a ticker tape parade celebrating our advent as members of the neighborhood. No, our acceptance is showing itself in much more subtle ways, ways I probably wouldn’t even notice had I not grown used to feeling like an outsider.

Take for example our morning walk down the hill, to the metro for Gabe, to the gym for me. We do this walk together a couple times a week, so we soon grew used to the regular morning denizens. There is always the fish lady on the corner, who sells wrigglingly fresh fish out of the back of her van while her husband, presumably the fisherman himself, sleeps stretched out across the front seat. She does a brisk business, but I have prohibited Gabe from ever buying fish from her — as fresh as they are, I refuse to eat fish that’s been sitting on ice surrounded by flies for who knows how long. At least I’ve stopped being grossed out by the bins of glassy-eyed fish as we walk by, but the smell and the buckets of entrails lying around still get me. With good reason.

Every morning, we see the fish lady sitting on one of the concrete bollards at the side of the street, the day’s catch spread out in styrofoam trays at her feet. She is always wearing a wild assortment of clothing: multiple layers of baggy sweat pants and sweaters, often with another sweater wrapped around her dark head when it’s cold or raining. On her feet she wears sandals or slippers, and one day last week she was sporting a pair of mismatched Crocs, one blue with ratty white furry lining, one orange.

Somehow though, she never fails to make all of this look intentional, and she perches on her concrete seat as if it were a throne, regally awaiting her customers. Gabe has taken to greeting her with a respectful “Bom dia, Senhora,”which she always returns with a dignified nod and a “Bom dia” in return. Even this small recognition from such a wonderfully colorful and stately person never ceases to thrill me.

The fish lady is one thing, but the two bakery ladies around the corner are another. We’ve been stopping there to buy bread at least two or three times a week for the past five months, and until recently, they’ve never let on that they recognized either one of us. They are tough cookies, but somehow, I’ve always suspected them to have a sweet filling.

My favorite is the older one, who is probably about a foot shorter than me, and sturdy from years of lifting pans of heavy dough into the oven. She talks with a wry twist to her mouth, as though filled with a weary amusement, and when you earn a rare smile, it’s a crooked one. We always quiz her on the ingredients of the various pastries arrayed in the glass cabinets, most of which are pork, and she always answers with that same sardonic twist to her mouth. I can almost hear her saying, “Crazy Americans.”

A couple weeks ago, we passed this same lady on our way to the metro. I recognized her immediately, but didn’t think she’d see us. Thus I was thrilled to get a nod and a “Boa tarde” in return for our greeting as we walked by — she knew who we were! Even this small acknowledgement was worth a thousand enthusiastic hugs from someone more effusive. The next time I went in with Gabe to buy bread, she immediately knew who we were and why we were there. Rapid progress indeed.

Similarly, the trainers at the gym are gradually accepting me into their elite (read: stuck up) circle. When I was lifting weights yesterday, almost every trainer that passed me either nodded, winked, or said hello, regardless of whether they were with a client or not. I was a little shocked by this, as usually even the ones I’ve talked to before completely ignore me if they’re training another person. (If I was paying that much for a trainer, I wouldn’t want them to talk to anyone else either!) Apparently I’m now enough of a gym rat that even the professional gym rats recognize me as one of their own. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but I’ll take it.

The ultimate accolade, however, came from our local special needs individual, whom I’ve mentioned here before. He is kind of the neighborhood Forrest Gump, always friendly and helpful, and just a little bit touched in the head. He seems to know everyone in the area, and I see him at least once a day, popping in and out of the corner store or the bakery, talking to people in front of the bar or the small restaurant around the corner, helping ladies carry their groceries. Early on, he started greeting us with a cheerful “Boa tarde, tudo bem?” whenever we saw him, but I couldn’t tell if he actually recognized us or was just being generally friendly.

On my way home from the store yesterday, I was surprised to run into him on the far side of our ‘hood, which was as far away from home as I’d ever seen him. He lit up with his huge goofy grin when he saw me, and I thought, “Oh no, will I have to stop and try to talk to him? Is he going to offer to carry my groceries? This could be awkward!” But as he was walking directly towards me, I couldn’t exactly avoid him or pretend I hadn’t seen him. So I stopped, and said hello.

To my huge surprise, he leaned in, kissed both my cheeks, then wished me a boa tarde and continued on his way. Instead of being freaked out by it, as I might have been had any other strange man tried to kiss me on the cheeks, I was delighted. I really felt like I’d arrived as an accepted member of the community.

I know these are all superficial marks of approval, and it’s a long way from making any kind of lasting connection. I also know that if I tried to talk to any one of these people, our conversation would last for all of about ten words before running into fatal roadblocks. But having felt like a total outsider for nearly six months now, even this almost imperceptible increase in warmth feels like a huge step. I don’t expect to be welcomed into these people’s homes any time soon, but still. Acceptance is a good place to start.

At my Portuguese lesson later in the afternoon, I met a new fellow student, a pretty young Norwegian who’s studying here. Whenever my tutor pairs two of her students together for the first time, she asks us to introduce ourselves and gives us a set of questions to answer, always ending with, “What do you think of Portugal and the Portuguese?”

My answer to this question has evolved during our time here, as have my perceptions of this place and its people. Yesterday, I said that the people here are very warm and friendly — but you have to get to know them first. To my surprise, my tutor agreed with my assessment.

It’s such a different way of doing things than in California, where everyone is automatically warm and friendly, but you never know how they really feel. Yes, the surliness of the store people here is shocking compared to the level of over-attentive customer service at home. But once you get used to their superficial surliness, you also start to see the genuine care these people have for their customers and their neighbors. The lady with the crooked smile now tells us when fresh bread is coming, so that we can wait a minute or two and take home steaming hot, delicious loaves. Forrest Gump kisses me on the cheek. The fish lady nods.

Slowly but surely, we are proving ourselves to be more than just tourists to these people, and are very much reaping the benefits. It almost makes me wish we were staying longer.

******

In other news — we saw Alice in Wonderland in 3D last night. I didn’t expect much, other than to be mildly entertained. It couldn’t possibly be worse than Avatar… right?!

Instead, I was utterly and completely transfixed and blown away. It was amazing, fantastical, a true demonstration of how that technology ought to be used. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I felt a sense of wonder while watching a movie. It made me feel like a child again, perched on the front of my seat, eyes wide, grin plastered on my face.

I couldn’t wipe that grin off for about an hour afterwards, and was still hyped up and excited when we got home almost an hour later. In fact I was so mesmerized when I walked out of the theater that I left my water bottle behind in the drink holder! Luckily some kind soul took it up to the ticket desk, where Gabe reclaimed it some time later. Clearly, it was a wild ride indeed!

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