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Today I returned to my hairdresser here, which was largely unremarkable except in that it was so unremarkable. All I did was get in my car, drive for 15 minutes, sit in the chair for a couple hours, chat with the hairdresser, read some trashy magazines, then drive to the grocery store and go home for lunch.

Really? No linguistic hazards, no trying to guess how to say what I want done and ending up with a buzz cut? No 45 minute bus rides, or tube rides plus 20 minute walks over railroad bridges and through winding side streets? No buzzing the doorbell of a tiny apartment and being surrounded by batty old Portuguese women who coo at me while I smile and nod through their ministrations? How very boring.

More than anything, my return to a normal American hairdressing experience sums up the differences between living here and living in Lisbon. There, even the most mundane of tasks was an adventure requiring the utmost mental and physical agility. Here, all it takes is a short drive, and I get a relaxing morning spent in the chair.

What difference does a hairdo make? Turns out, a lot.


Yesterday I made my final trip to see my hairdresser here, which from past experience has always been an epic trip that takes up the better part of an afternoon. (As my cousin points out, I am lucky to have a job where I can take a half day during the week to get my hair done…!)

Lisbon is technically a small city, but it somehow takes an amazingly long time to get around it. So while my hairdresser is actually not that far from where we live distance wise, it’s always a trek. She works about equidistant from three different metro stops, all of which are at least 20 minutes’ walk away. In hopes of finding a way to shave off a little bit of the commute time, I’ve never gone the same way twice. While none of them have actually proven any faster than the others, my attempts have provided me with great entertainment. (Remember the railroad bridge the first time I went? Yeah.)

This time, I decided to take the bus. For Gabe and I, the bus is the Lisboan final frontier. We’ve gone all year without ever really making use of the excellent bus system here, instead relying on the metro and foot to get us where we’re going. But necessity, also known as 85 degree heat, is the mother of invention, so I decided that any method involving more than 10 minutes of walking was not for me.

That left me with the bus, which conveniently ran from just outside Gabe’s uni (where I went to have lunch) to about two blocks away from my hairdresser’s. I was skeptical of my ability to A) catch the right bus and B) get off at the right stop, but since sweat was already running down my face after the short walk down to the bus stop, I decided to stick it out.

One thing we’ve discovered about the Portuguese is that they simply love to help. Whatever it is you’re trying to do, they will always relish the chance to advise you on the best way of doing it. If you’re looking for the best way to cook your bacalhau, they will not only tell you that, but also the best place to buy it, what side dishes they prefer, and what dessert to serve. If you’re going to your grandmother’s house with a stop for bread along the way, they will tell you the fastest route, the best bakery, where to pick up some flowers for dear granny, and the best coffee shop just in case you get tired along the way. Of course if there’s more than one person contributing to the discussion, they can never agree on any of these things, but that’s all right — they also love debating.

So when I wound up at the bus stop with two Portuguese people, a middle-aged man and an older lady, I was not at all surprised when they started to ply me with instructions. All it took was a single glance at the bus map and they were off, telling me which bus to take, where to get off, which stops each bus passed along the way — and oh, that one goes to the airport, it’s not the one you want, but this one would work. They seemingly knew where each and every bus was going, and provided commentary on the effectiveness and validity of each one’s route.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that I had showed the man where I was going on a map, he still didn’t get where I was trying to go. So he told me to take what I knew was the wrong bus, and continued to insist that I just jump on the next one that came, because they all go to Entrecampos and you can walk from there. No, I can take the metro to Entrecampos and walk from there, thank you, I was trying to avoid that walk.

Since I couldn’t explain all of that, I just smiled and nodded my agreement to each of his suggestions, pretending to think each one over and weigh it in my mind — even though I’d made my mind up which bus I was taking hours before. Eventually he said, “I’m not sure if you’re understanding what I’m saying.” Oh, really? That’s perceptive of you!

So I sheepishly admitted that I was American, which shocked both of my would-be helpers, who agreed after much discussion that they had both thought I was Spanish. Spanish! I was overjoyed. After living here for nearly a year, I can finally pass myself off as being vaguely Iberian instead of the obvious English speaker that I really am. Huge success!

I did reach my destination in the end, although as usual I got off too early for fear I would miss my stop. But it was still less walking than if I had taken the metro, and my haircut was also a huge success, which made the whole trip worth it.

My new love affair with the bus system did not withstand the ride home, however. I was thrilled to discover that the same bus line ran from where I’d gotten off all the way back down to Avenida, near where we live. Woohoo! Perfect. Why hadn’t I done this before? I soon realized the reason: rush hour traffic. It took me an hour to get home, and that was after I hopped out of the bus where it had been sitting at a stop light for ten minutes and walked the rest of the way home. Sigh.

Oh well, at least I can say that I conquered the bus system, and was given the ultimate compliment of being mistaken for a Spaniard! All that plus a great haircut — a good day indeed. (Needless to say, a 4 hour round trip from door to door meant I didn’t get anything else done with my day yesterday, but that’s entirely beside the point.)

Haircuts will be so mundane from here on out.

If Tuesday’s kisses on the cheek made me realize that this town is becoming more comfortable with me, yesterday showed me that I am becoming more comfortable with it. For once, dear readers, I am happy to report that everything went right:

Both subway trains came right as we walked up to the platform, so despite having left the house late, we arrived at lunch just as Gabe’s colleagues were sitting down to eat.

I negotiated the trip from Gabe’s work to my hairdresser’s without incident — and without getting rained on. (The lack of rain really helps things, especially my mood!)

I even got there early, so I stopped in to the store next door, where I admired a long necklace with chunks of colored stone set between big rings of silver. When I asked its price, it turned out everything in the store was on sale. The man took first 20% off, then lowered it even further, so I got a beautiful necklace for 13 euros, or about $20.

The hairdresser once again did a great job, dying my hair so dark that it’s almost black, but will fade to a dark brown with a few washes. Just the other day, I was looking at old pictures and wishing for dark hair again. Now presto! It’s back. What’s more, it cost literally half of what I pay at home.

I got out earlier than I’d expected, and walked back down to the other metro station, across the famous railway bridge that it took me so long to find last time. This time I found it without incident and crossed confidently, knowing exactly where I was going and how to get there. As I did so, I looked out over the tracks and the buildings beyond, all lit in the soft afternoon sunlight, which is glorious to see after so many weeks of clouds and rain. I thought to myself, “I’ve beaten you this time, railroad tracks. This place is mine.”

Once again, the train arrived just as I got to the platform, and I swooped right in without even breaking stride. When I came back up to the street at the other end, I took a deep breath of the cool clear air, and looked around myself at the still-bare trees lining the boulevard. I was — wait for it — happy. More than that, I was content: with myself, with where I am, with what I’m doing.

Back in November, I crossed some invisible line between being miserably homesick and accepting that I was no longer at home. Now I think I am crossing the next one, which lies between mere acceptance of where I am and feeling like that place is home. Finally, living here is starting to feel like less of a constant uphill battle. I for one could not be happier with this trend, and very much hope that it lasts.

In three weeks from now, I will be on a plane to London, there to catch a plane HOME. So in three weeks and 17 hours from now, I will be Home. And that is a very very good thing.

I hit a new milestone in my Portuguese abilities yesterday, although whether it was a low or a high, I still can’t decide. I went back to my hairdresser, this time for color and a trim, as my hair was already getting thick after last month’s chop. I hurried through my workout and showed up on time, but I should’ve known better — this salon doesn’t just run on Portuguese time, it runs on Brazilian time. Silly me! So as I came in, my hairdresser was just starting to do a very elaborate updo on a woman who could not have looked less excited about the entire affair.

Having just come from the gym, I was armed with my Kindle, so I happily sat at the manicurist’s station and read. I glanced over frequently as the woman’s hairdo progressed, wondering all the while why she was getting her hair done like that on a Monday afternoon. Early holiday party? Wedding? Just for the heck of it?

Pretty soon, the person helping my hairdresser picked up a shopping bag that I’d noticed lying on the ground, which had three rather wilted-looking white roses sticking out the top. She pulled out a clump of fake white flowers and proceeded to cut them apart while the hairdresser stuck them into the confection she’d created on this woman’s head.

Aha, I thought, she’s getting married. But why on a Monday?!?

At the end of this process — even though she had all the salon ladies oohing and ahhing all around her, even when the hairdresser presented her with a mirror to see the back of her ‘do — the bride’s face did not deviate from its bored, tired expression. I think I saw her crack a smile maybe once during the entire process.

This was without a doubt the least excited bride I have ever seen in my life. Saddest of all, there was absolutely no one there with her — no friends, no mother, no one. I was hoping maybe this was just the run-through in preparation for the big day, but then they proceeded to put on her makeup, leaving me with little doubt that she was in fact getting married on a Monday afternoon at the end of November.

By this point my hairdresser was busily applying my own hair dye, so I tried in my broken Portuguese to ask her when the lady was getting married (learning the word for “wedding” in the meantime, to my hairdresser’s great amusement.) I asked if it was today, and she said no, but I didn’t understand the rest of her answer. So unfortunately, the glum bride and her actual wedding date will forever remain a mystery.

Unfortunately, that was not the only casualty of the language barrier between us. Granted, this time I was better able to make small talk with her, managing to pronounce that it was cold (woohoo!) and make a couple of small jokes along the way, which I took as progress from my last (entirely silent) session.

When it comes to my hair, however, we are still not seeing eye to eye. I went in mostly concerned about the color, worried she’d misinterpret my wishes for dark brown and dye it black. But having voluntarily dyed my hair black, blond, red, and even blue in the past, I wasn’t too worried about having outrageous hair color. It always grows out. Not to worry though — the color is a dark, beautiful chocolatey brown, just what I wanted.

The cut was a different matter. Despite my best efforts to tell her to thin it out and only cut a little bit off the back and the front, she once again proceeded to chop it all off. In fact I think it’s even shorter this time than the first! Apparently this woman is determined to make me into a pixie. The fault could have been mine though, as the only way I could think of to tell her to “thin” it was, “I look like a mushroom, please make my hair nonfat.” (Can you tell I’m learning most of my vocabulary at the grocery store?) I wonder which part of that wasn’t clear?!?

Whichever part it was, she smiled and nodded anyway, and then kept repeating the word “mushroom” to herself throughout my haircut, as if to say, “Crazy American, what the hell are you on about?”

As the hair fell away on all sides, I could only laugh to myself and decide that a few inches of hair is worth it for a great story like that. Plus it is once again a great haircut, albeit not what I’d intended to walk away with, and as I said — it’ll always grow back. So in the meantime, why not embrace my pixie-fied self?

And so I did, assuring her that it was beautiful — and assuring myself that next time, I’ll go to someone who speaks English.

The other day, my husband sent me an article from Elle magazine last spring about a girl who suddenly lost a large percentage of her body weight. It describes her journey as she adjusts to her new body and struggles with her own and other people’s reactions, which started with her euphoria over being considered conventionally beautiful and ended up with her feeling ugly and guilty over something that was completely out of her control. Turns out that she had a bacterial organism she’d picked up in Belize, but no one (including her doctor) knew that. Instead, everyone assumed she had an eating disorder.

As my husband knew it would, this article really resonated with me. I’ve discussed the subject of my weight loss here before, but she did so in a much more in-depth and sophisticated way. To quote:

People apparently feel it’s appropriate to comment on your weight if it falls toward the low end of the scale. It’s assumed that, as the saying goes, one can never be too thin; telling someone she’s too skinny is like telling her she’s too smart. But that’s not how it felt: It was like being constantly reminded of how sickly I looked. And of course, I hardly need to add that had I instead been gaining weight, not a soul would have dared ask about my dietary habits.

Amen, sister! Now that I have been thin for a couple of years, I get less comments as people get used to the way I look now. But I had to deal with the same questions and comments all over again at my high school reunion last month. One person that I knew all the way through junior high and high school actually drew me aside and asked with concern, “OK I’m worried about you. What did you do???” Um, it’s called exercise and diet, and combining the two to put my metabolism on overdrive. Nothing to see here, move along. I know they are well-meaning, but really — is it appropriate? I think not. And would you say that if I’d gained a lot of weight? I also think not.

I also liked the author’s perspective on men’s attitude towards her new body:

Many men, I quickly learned, really do like frighteningly lean women, whatever they may claim to the contrary. As an average, medium-size young woman, I was unremarkable, innocuous. As a skinny slip of a thing, I was something of a sensation.

It is so true. I got a lot of looks when I was a curvaceous size 14, but now that I’m a 4, it’s a whole different ballgame. Disgustingly so. Once again I was newly reminded of this change at my reunion. Boys who wouldn’t give me the time of day in high school were now ogling me from across the room. One guy, who I was actually friends with in high school, came up to me at the end of the night and said, “So you’re the hot girl standing over here! We’ve all been wondering who you were.” Hey, at least he was honest — I had to give him that much at least.

I can’t imagine how much worse this would all be if I hadn’t had any choice over why I look the way I do. I worked hard to lose the weight that I have, and continue to work hard to keep it off. But the thought of having that kind of weight loss happen completely outside of my control — and then having people judge me for it — is frightening. I’m just glad this woman was brave enough to write about her story, and to share her observations about society and its crazy standards of beauty in such a humorous and human way.

For an introvert, one of the main (and wholly ironic) advantages to having an office job is that it requires you to interact with people other than the one living in your head. While these interactions range from mildly pleasant to downright excruciating, they do have the added benefit of keeping your otherwise poor social skills at least somewhat up to par.

Conversely, finding a vocation that fulfills your inner need to be quiet and alone may feel to you like coming home. Unfortunately, over time it will also make you less and less suited for public consumption, until finally one day you realize that it’s been multiple days since you talked to someone who wasn’t either married or related to you.

At least I have found it to be so since leaving my job. As my inner world has increasingly taken precedence in my daily life, so my external considerations have all but dropped away. So what if “dressing up” these days constitutes putting on my black yoga pants instead of my muddy jeans, or if I haven’t taken a shower in two days? I’ve been gardening! And yeah, maybe I talk to myself a lot more… hey, it’s allowed when you’re in the garden. And the garden center. And Ross. And Trader Joe’s…

OK maybe that’s stretching it, but still, I usually manage to get by without too many mishaps. I even remember to put a smile on my face, quiet my inner dialogue, and go through the motions of small talk with the people I encounter, from the person at the checkout to the various acquaintances I run into around town. Silly me, I thought I had everyone fooled into thinking my life was still normal. Ha.

Then yesterday, while out at the garden center with a good friend, I encountered someone I used to work with. Apparently she didn’t recognize me the first time I smiled at her, because when I caught her eye again, she actually had to confirm my identity. I said, mostly as a joke, “I guess I do look a little different right now!” She replied, with astonishment clear in her voice, “I know, you always look so polished at work!” Read: “Wow, you look like total shit!” Umm… thanks?

The comment stuck with me, and later on it occurred to me: what exactly is one supposed to look like when going through hell on a daily basis?

You see, I’ve had some conflicting input on this front. Apparently, some people think that you’re supposed to look like crap when you’re caring for a dying person. Thus they are surprised to see that you can in fact muster enough energy to lift the mascara brush to your eyelids, put on clothes that match, and perhaps even wash them and put them back in your closet again afterwards. (I’m still working on that latter one today.)

Both my mother and I have had people we know remark with surprise on how good we look. Perhaps they expect the illness to rub off by association, making the caretaker look like they’re the ones who are dying. Or maybe it’s some kind of consolation prize, as in, “Well, your life really sucks, but hey, at least you look good!” I never quite know how to take it. Again, umm… thanks?

Then there’s the opposite side of the spectrum, which usually comes from people who don’t know you that well. Those are the ones who make comments like the one I got at the garden center. I mean, there I was, actually emerging from my self-imposed social withdrawal long enough to spend some time with a good friend on a sunny Saturday afternoon. And what, I’m expected to look “polished,” too? Do you think I gave more than 30 seconds’ effort or energy to my appearance after tearing myself away from the garden? No, because that time might have been sufficient to talk myself out of going at all. I just wanted to laugh at her and go, “‘Polished’? Honey, you’re lucky I even got out of bed today!”

I’m not sure what’s worse: people lowering their expectations because they know what you’re going through, or holding you to normal standards when they don’t. Either way, I just wish people would let me go about my stinky, solitary business, or let me get gussied up and feel like a normal human being for a day, all without comment. I mean really. Is that too much to ask?

On returning from my run this afternoon, I bent over to pluck some weeds that I’d overlooked earlier in the day. I stood up and looked at a truck passing by, only to find two grinning teenage kids leering at me out of the window.

I had to stop myself from turning around to see who they were looking at. I hadn’t taken a shower since the night before, and my run was only the culmination of a very muddy, sweaty, solitary day in the garden. My outfit consisted of an ancient wifebeater, brightly colored spandex from Ross, and painfully white new running shoes (I swear I’m not a newbie, I swear!)

In other words, I looked like a crazy woman. Hot, you say? Why yes, apparently it was.

In general, I don’t seem to get as many looks these days as I used to. Few make it past the force field generated by the bauble on my finger, and when they do, I don’t notice it as much because I am less threatened by the attention. I no longer dress very provocatively (i.e. I look like a boy myself most of the time!), so no matter their actual age, guys with adolescent tendencies don’t really pay me much notice.

So it was definitely a shock to see these guys leering at me — granted, I was wearing spandex, but still. Then it hit me: am I nearing the age of MILFdom? These boys were clearly at least eight to ten years younger than me, if not more so. Looking at me through their eyes, I saw not a dirty crazy person who’d been in her garden all day, but rather a fit, slightly older woman in tight clothes, bending over to pick something up. Hello? So what if she’s older, man, leer away!

As my husband so kindly points out, I am of course missing the key ingredient to the status of MILFdom, that being the “mother” part of it. OK, granted, but still — I think I’m well on my way. A MILF in training, if you will. All in all, I felt pretty damn good about myself, and gave the guys a big grin in return for their efforts.

Last night, we met up with some friends to see a Cuban band at a local bar. Partly it was to commemorate the huge changes going on in a country very near and dear to my heart, but mostly just to have a break from what has been an insanely difficult and busy month for both of us.

The band was awesome, and the salsa-dancing crowd formidably good. Needless to say I didn’t let my oh so uncoordinated feet anywhere near that dance floor, but contented myself instead by swaying to the beat on a stool close to the side of the stage. And, within minutes of starting their set, at least two members of the band had taken a decided interest in said swaying.

Now, being noticed by a Cuban man is an entirely different experience than being checked out by an American dude. Five years have passed since I went to Cuba, and I had forgotten just how brazen their stares can be. But oh, are they brazen. I mean, there I was, sitting with my husband’s hand on my leg, wedding ring prominently displayed, and still they continued to turn and stare.

At first this disconcerted me, until I remembered that the Cubans in general seemed to have a much healthier attitude towards sexuality than we do. Yes, they stare, and yes, they are forward, but they never intend any disrespect. They are just being honest in their appreciation, nothing more. It’s more like appreciating a work of art than anything, and really, why wouldn’t you express your sentiments over a lovely piece of ass, I mean sculpture?

More than anything, I think any comparison with our own society only reflects poorly on our attitudes towards sex. In Cuba, I quickly became accustomed to hearing regular expressions of masculine approval. Once I realized that these men were just voicing their approval of women’s beauty in general, I felt way more comfortable with the whole concept. Other women might not agree, but I for one have always been extremely direct, and appreciate directness in return. I always tease my husband that when we met, he pursued me with all the subtlety of a herd of rhinoceros. And hey, it worked, right?

But here, when men check you out it’s almost surreptitious, like their appreciation for your beauty is something to be ashamed of. Soon, you start to feel like maybe your beauty is something to be ashamed of, too, and the whole dynamic goes from being a simple matter of appreciation to something slightly darker.

The Cuban women, on the other hand, work it more than any I’ve ever met. No matter what they look like, they have no qualms about sporting the hottest little spandex outfits, the highest heels, the tightest jeans. (I could never figure out why the Cuban men would even look twice at me, since I was always wearing travel-wrinkled clothes, a sheen of sweat on my skin, and a completely bewildered expression on my face. I think it must have been the novelty of my blue eyes.)

Comparing the attitudes of our two societies, I can’t help but feel like the Cubans have it a little more figured out when it comes to sexuality. It’s kind of like underage drinking — if you’re open and honest about it, people will eventually figure the whole alcohol thing out for themselves. But if you make it something hush-hush and forbidden, people are sure to have an unhealthy attitude about drinking from the get-go.

So last night, I took a page from the Cubanas’ play book, and acknowledged these mens’ attention while at the same time politely deflecting it. They got to look, I got a little ego boost, and my husband’s pride remained unchallenged — and all with good music, good beer, and great company to boot. How very Cubano!

Last night, I put aside the emotional upheaval of the past few weeks for a couple of hours and entered a whole new world. My friends over at Red Bat Photography (who also shot our wedding photos) wanted me to do a model shoot for their portfolio, and I happily obliged. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was blown away by how much fun we all had.

In my day to day life, I spend most of my time wearing the same old pajamas or yoga pants. I hardly ever wear makeup, especially now that I’m not working, and I rarely spend longer than three minutes on my hair. So it was an untold luxury just to spend an hour gussying myself up on a Tuesday night and picking out the most fun things I own, most of which are rotting away in the back of my closet. But to follow that procedure with almost three hours of wardrobe changes, wine, aesthetic discussions, and two very good friends… well, I was in heaven. Not to mention that I got to hear how beautiful I am on an average of every 30 seconds or so. All in all, not a bad way to spend an evening!

At one point in these proceedings, they showed me a shot that actually brought tears to my eyes. There is still a hideously self-conscious little girl inside me, one who spent about fifteen years hating her chunky — excuse me, “curvy” — appearance, and she simply could not believe that the person on that tiny two-inch digital screen was actually me. I have experienced life both as a size 14 and a size 4, and frankly I felt exactly the same in both incarnations. But the way the outside world sees me has changed dramatically. Yes, it’s superficial, but to be seen as conventionally beautiful after being the fat girl for so long… it’s still a totally novel concept.

And yet, when I came home, I washed all the makeup off, put on the same old pajamas as I always wear, and curled up next to my husband on the couch to watch Sex and the City. And you know what? My appearance made absolutely no difference in that scenario. He would have loved me if I was still a size 14, just as he loves the size 4 me while I’m wearing my PJs with my hair sticking out everywhere. He sees the me that I’ve always wanted everyone to see, whether I was a chunky adolescent girl or a stick-like — excuse me, “willowy” — young woman. I am a history geek, I am a huge dork with a ridiculous sense of humor, I am a semi-neurotic, impatient, mildly obsessive runner who over-analyzes everything, and I don’t cook. I am and have always been these things, and am lucky enough to have married someone who sees all of this along with my appearance… and still has the balls to love me.

That is the lesson to be learned here, one which I wish I could go back and impart to that same miserable teenager. It doesn’t matter what form you take, or whether or not people want to take glamorous photos of you. It matters who you go home to at night, who you curl up next to on the couch, who offers you no judgement about your weight, the zits on your chin, or any other part of your appearance. And, if you just stick it out long enough, you’ll find that person.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure if I would’ve listened. But it sure would’ve been nice to hear.

“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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