Last night, we had an Indian dinner to say farewell to a friend of my mom’s, who had been here in Portugal on vacation for the past ten days. Over the course of our meal, we compared notes and impressions of Portugal, which quickly led me to see just how much my own feelings towards the country have changed since we first got here.

Exhibit A: the Portuguese people. I was talking about a woman at a store we’d gone to in search of souvenirs earlier in the day, who insisted on wrapping up the T-shirt I was buying for Gabe in fancy wrapping paper with a bow on it. I told her she didn’t need to, really, it was just for my husband, but no, nothing would do that it had to be beautifully presented. (She also mentioned she’d be there til 7 PM, so I imagine she was pretty bored.) It was all I could do to keep her from drawing a heart on it, which she repeatedly threatened to do.

As she was preparing this ornate gift of love, she took my few choppy sentences of Portuguese to mean that I spoke it fluently. So off she launched into a lengthy one-sided conversation about how she had to make the present pretty for such a pretty customer, and then on to say that she couldn’t find a good man, that it was good to treat mine right — or at least I think it was something along those lines. The flow of Portuguese was too fast for me to really tell. But even so, I knew she just wanted to chat, and probably doesn’t get a chance to speak Portuguese much to the tourists that come through her shop all day. So I nodded and expressed approval at strategic points, and she seemed happy with my performance.

When recounting this story to our friend later in the evening, I explained that my lack of comprehension or participation doesn’t seem to stop Portuguese people from talking to (or at) me. They just like to chat, and do so in all forms, at all times, in every situation: on the street, between balconies, in shops, restaurants, cafes, and especially on the phone (although that is much more monosyllabic, made up entirely of a chorus of “‘ta bem, ‘ta bem. Pois. ‘Ta bem.”)

Our friend was shocked, and said, “Really? They weren’t talkative with me at all! They just gave me the blank stare of incomprehension.” When she mentioned that look, I immediately thought back to our early days here, when everyone around me seemed cold and unwilling to interact. The vehemence of their conversations sounded to my mind either hostile or angry, and my few attempts at speaking in any language usually garnered me that same blank stare she mentioned.

Now, I find the Portuguese garrulous and friendly, warm and welcoming, but I can’t quite put my finger on when and how my perceptions changed. It’s not like I’m fluent in the language now, not by any means — I know a few key phrases and set sentences, but once I tread outside of those well-worn grooves, I am totally lost. I think it was a more a matter of changing my expectations more than anything. For an American, friendliness means greeting strangers with a big smile and a “How are you doing today?” My dad always found this behavior startling, even after living in California for nearly forty years.

The Portuguese are friendly in a much different way. On the surface, they can appear surly: they don’t greet you with a big smile, and don’t ask about your day when they really don’t give a crap. But they do greet you with a dignified “Boa tarde” when you run into them on the street or walk into their store, and like the waiter in our favorite Indian restaurant, they remember your face, where you sat, and what you ordered the last time you were in. Or like the lady in the store yesterday, they tell you about their romantic history and bemoan the lack of good men to be found. To my mind, that’s much more genuine than our way of doing things, and one I would’ve remained completely unaware of had I not lived here for long enough to see past the blank stares.

Later in the evening, our friend asked if I was glad we had done this year abroad. My immediate response was, without hesitation, “Yes.” I explained that I had struggled at first, but have grown to love it here. In fact earlier in the day, as my mom and I were walking home along the now green and leafy boulevard after another extended round of hunting and gathering, I even commented on how much I am going to miss this place when we leave.

Six months ago, I wouldn’t have expected to feel that way. But now, as we hurtle through April and stare down the barrel of May, with my mom’s long-anticipated visit nearly over and my once far-off birthday almost a month away, I know that I will miss all the daily patterns of our lives here. I will think back to these leafy streets and slippery cobblestones, the warmth of the people I meet on the street and in the store, our trips to the butcher for meat and the fruteria for fruit, and I will smile.

At the same time though, I feel a familiar dull ache down deep in my chest, that old longing for home. I know that when the time comes, I will be more than ready to return home, and I will slip on our life there like an old comfy robe. Soon, this will all seem like a far-off dream.

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