Last night, we were roasting, er, sitting in our living room waiting for my cousin to arrive. I was reading, Gabe was managing some stocks, and the World Cup match was on in the background, vuvuzelas buzzing away in counterpoint to the commentators’ voices.

When I heard the distinctive throaty sound of a taxi pulling up outside our building, I jumped up to look. I was disappointed to see not my cousin, but rather a family of what looked like Germans disgorging from the station wagon taxi along with their luggage. I assumed they were heading for the upstairs holiday flat rental, and after having a good long spy on them, I went back to my book.

After they’d stood there on the street looking bewildered for a good five minutes, I took pity and offered to let them into the building while they waited for the flat’s owner to show up. They seemed hugely relieved to get in off the street, but I couldn’t figure out why until the man, dragging a large suitcase behind him, asked me in excellent English, “How is this area, is it nice?” The wife, coming in the door behind him, chimed in by saying, “Yes, it is safe? We weren’t sure from the way it looks…”

I was shocked by their perception of our very nice, quiet street, and assured them that no, it’s a great area, really central, quiet, and yes, safe. I left them to their own devices after that, but couldn’t shake my surprise at their reaction. “How could they think such a thing?” I wondered. “Can’t they tell this is a great area?”

Almost immediately, I had to chide myself for judging them, because of course I thought the exact same thing when we first arrived in Lisbon. Everything looked run down and dirty, graffiti, dog poo, and trash were everywhere, the buildings were crumbling, the stores were tiny and seemed to have only dusty, ancient food in them. My first reaction, in other words, was none too positive — and yes, I too wondered about how safe it was.

Of course since then I have come to realize that we came in on the worst possible day, a Sunday, when nothing is open, no one is around, and the trash service doesn’t run. We were also staying in a less touristy and more gritty area of town, which to my very spoiled American eyes was clearly a den of iniquity and danger. So by the time we found the area where we’re now living, it seemed like a paragon of cleanliness (or at least mere grubbiness,) surrounded by shady parks and sweetly shambolic houses. So no, this area has never once felt unsafe or unsavory to me, hence my surprise at the Germans’ reaction.

Of greater surprise was my own reaction to their question. I felt almost defensive of our area, and wanted to point out the little old lady next door who walks her tiny yappy dog at all hours of the day and night; the restoration artist across the street who lets his grandson play in his shop while he works; the neighborhood special needs man who helps everyone with their groceries; or the gang of little African children down the street who play soccer in the street and run wild all day long. Even the group of guys who hang out at the bar on the corner are totally harmless — they’ve never even hassled me once as I walked by on my way to the gym or store. See?! Totally safe! I felt less secure when I lived in central London, for God’s sake! What’s wrong with you people?!

How things change.

In other news, I just stopped in at a little store to buy sunglasses after lending mine to my cousin. As I was doing so, I not only asked the clerk which pair she preferred, but I talked to her about the weather and agreed it was altogether too hot. All of this — drumroll please — in Portuguese. Not perfectly spoken, but intelligible, enough so that she didn’t even ask where I was from nor attempt to speak to me in English.

This is what I have longed for all year: to be able to make small talk with the clerks in the stores, to break free of the isolation imposed by the language barrier, to not feel silenced. And of course I achieve this just as we have a slew of guests, who have given me plenty of conversation over the past weeks, and also right as we’re getting ready to leave.

Better late than never, I suppose…

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