Tourist season has without a doubt arrived in Lisbon. As I wrote a little while ago, the grocery store where I usually shop is now mostly filled with non-Portuguese speakers. As I make my rounds, I laugh quietly at their efforts to figure out what everything is, or what food they can prepare in their hostel kitchens. Some of them stand in line for ages just to buy a pack of Kleenex or a bottle of water. I want to tell them, “Really, it’s OK to drink the water here.” But I resist.

When Gabe and I went to the store after getting back on Friday night, the lines at the registers reached far back into the aisles. Since it was already 8 PM, we’d been gone for a week, and we had nothing in the fridge, we resigned ourselves to waiting. Luckily, we were provided ready entertainment by a crew of Kiwi teenagers in the line next to us. I’d seen them wandering the aisles, debating over buying an expensive bottle of port, stocking up on chips and soda. The girl in front of them happened to also be a Kiwi of about the same age, and, on overhearing their accents, she struck up a conversation.

I watched with great interest as their friendship evolved. All three were painfully sunburnt, as is almost every other tourist I see here (haven’t they ever heard of sunblock?) By the time we all reached the register, the two girls had invited the third to come to their hostel and go out with them that night. They were going to drink at their hostel before going out to hear some Portuguese music called “fay-doo” (I assumed they meant fado) and then to the bars later on. The lone girl agreed to meet them in an hour, paid for her solitary box of juice, and left as the other girls purchased their chips and a bottle of cheap vodka.

We’ve overheard similar conversations everywhere we’ve been this year. We’ve even had a few ourselves, like when we met a couple from the East Bay at breakfast in Porto. In a place where everything around you is different, the natural tendency is to grasp at even the most superficial of commonalities. Language and accent are the lowest common denominators of all, and unite people that would otherwise have never spoken to each other in their home country. While it prevents you from getting to know many locals, talking to a fellow country person is a quick way to ease the loneliness and isolation of travel.

But what happens when you’re not just visiting somewhere for a short time? What if you’re staying somewhere for a month, six months, a year, ten years? Then the boundaries of commonality become a lot more blurry. Sure, we spoke the same language as the four Brits we sampled port with in Porto, and had a grand old time joking around with them for an hour or so. But they were only there to sample the port, drink cheap beer, eat some frozen sardines, check out the waitresses (and me), and then go home with fuzzy memories and a lighter pocketbook. Ditto more or less for the Kiwi teenagers in the grocery store, who were here for the sun, the “fay-doo,” and the alcohol. Who did we have more in common with: the Kiwis, or the Portuguese woman behind us in line, who was buying a huge bunch of leafy greens for dinner on her way home from work?

Welcome to the no-man’s land of being an expat. We’ve lived in Portugal for nearly nine months now, which hardly makes us natives, but we’re not sunburnt tourists anymore, either. We know to wear sunblock, for one thing. We know where to shop and when (8 PM on a Friday being a prime example of when not to do so.) We know that maps are useless here, and which routes to take to avoid hills. We know which end of the train to get on in order to get to the next one that much faster, and we know which direction to take the 28 tram in to avoid the crowds.

So where exactly do we fit in? Do we have more in common with the Americans we are seeing more of every day, who come for a week and leave with red skin and fleeting memories of cobblestones, steep hills, and streetcars? Or is it the Lisboans, who live on our street and go about their daily lives here just as we do? I think the answer is neither, which is why our community here is formed largely of other expats. Canadian, French, American — we all know what it means to defy the neat, easy categories of nationality and language, to exist in the cracks between local and visitor. This fragile balancing act can be very lonely, as I discovered during our first months here, but also extremely rewarding, if you can master it.

We are short timers though, which separates us even from the expats we know who have built their lives here. We have passed this whole year in a state of limbo, belonging neither to our home culture nor in our adopted one. As you’ve read here, this is something I have struggled with off and on throughout our time abroad.

I can’t help but wonder how it will feel to go back to our own society after so long abroad. Will we have reverse culture shock? Will we miss the gruff warmth of our Portuguese neighbors? Will it be overwhelming to hear so much English again? Stay tuned for those impressions, brought to you in a mere two months’ time…!

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