My early birthday party last night was a smash success. I discovered long ago that the bigger the plans you make for “special” days, like birthdays and New Years, the bigger your disappointment can and probably will be. So even though I love nothing more than making a plan, I keep those special days very minimal. Then, when the time comes, I can sit back and reap simple joys out of simple things.

The number one ingredient to a successful low-key celebration: people I care about. Even before we went home for Christmas, I asked Gabe if we could go home again for my birthday, since I figured that was the best place to go to find people I love. Never did I expect that six months later, I would myself sitting on a bench in a beautiful park right here in Lisbon, looking out at an amazing view of the city and surrounded by a small group of people whom I care about very deeply. No 15-hour flight, no jetlag, no weird hunger pangs in the middle of the night. None of that. All I had to do was walk up the hill. What a concept!

We started out at the mirador, eating snacks and drinking wine provided by our wonderful friends. We even had a tablecloth — how civilized! I opened my goodie bag of presents, all of them reminders of Lisbon, which I’m sure will cheer me up when we’re back in foggy Santa Cruz and I’m missing these long summer evenings on the mirador. Plus every one of them was small, light, and easily packable — lovely and thoughtful, to boot!

After the wind got too chilly, we went down the hill to the little restaurant that just opened up down the street from us. We were a little skeptical of taking our friends to a new and untried restaurant, but they seemed game, so we went. We asked the lady (who now recognizes us from the myriad times we’ve walked by and said hello) if she had room for ten people, and she jumped up from her seat outside, saying “Oh yes, we’ll set you a really nice table, it’ll be great!” I think we were their entire income for the day. She was thrilled.

We completely filled the tiny downstairs space, which was warm, cozy, and soon very noisy with the sound of our voices. There was only one little grill in the kitchen upstairs, so it took them quite a while to prepare all ten dishes, but no one seemed to mind. Once the food came, it was very salty but delicious, and we ate it quickly, talking nonstop the entire time. It’s always such a relief to bring a bunch of different people together and have them get along.

Everyone was tired, as they were either sick and/or had been up late the night before, so we parted ways soon after dinner ended (at nearly 11 PM!) I went to bed deeply happy, grateful for the people we have come to know here. I miss my friends and family, but I have spent many birthdays with them, and have many more to come. So last night, I was surprised to discover that I didn’t want to be anywhere else but right here, surrounded by the small community of incredibly intelligent, generous, warm people we’ve found here. And that was the best birthday present of all.

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