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I have to admit something to you: I am an American.

I have spent so many years traveling and living in other countries that I’d almost convinced myself I was some half-breed, falling somewhere between Europe and America. On a good day, I might have even have imagined that I embodied all the positive aspects of each culture without any of the negatives: I’m friendly without being loud, but also reserved without being snobbish. Etcetera.

However, after being back in the States for a month, I have to admit — somewhat sheepishly — that I am far more American than I would have admitted before our year abroad. Why? Not because I eat only hamburgers — I don’t — or drive a big car. But rather because I have that most basic of American tells, the fundamental difference in temperament that sets us apart from just about every other country in the world: I strike up personal conversations with random strangers.

I hadn’t given any of this much thought til I read the endpiece in this month’s Smithsonian magazine, “So Where Are You From?” Initially, I sympathized with the fish out of water scrutiny she describes, which can only come from living in a foreign country, where just opening your mouth immediately sets you apart. But as I read on, I realized that I am not the foreigner in this piece. No, I am one of those Americans.

For us, it’s normal to make personal conversation, to ask questions of total strangers that might conceivably make them uncomfortable. Living here, it’s easy to forget that what we take as mere curiosity and friendliness can be misconstrued by people who didn’t grow up in a culture of idle small talk. My dad, for one, never did get used to it, despite having lived in the States for more than forty years. He always used to make fun of the people at stores or restaurants who would give a cheesy grin and say “CanIhelpyou?” He’d always pronounce it all as one word, said with an exaggerated American accent (or his version of one.)

Reading this piece brought something home to me that had been dancing around the edges of my consciousness all weekend. When we’re in Santa Cruz, I assume that I will talk to people, because I’m comfortable there and recognize a lot of people, even if I don’t know them personally. But even while traveling outside of my comfort zone into the strange reality that is LA (see my last post), I still managed to strike up a conversation with just about everyone I came into contact with. The Aussie couple walking the cliffs outside our hotel, our waitress at dinner, the weird long-haired hippie dude who came in to get breakfast in his bathrobe, the woman selling jewelry at a street fair, the crew members of the ship we were on, the people behind us in line to board said ship. I spoke with every single one of them, not just a polite “hello how are you,” but long enough to actually learn something about each one of them, to make them laugh or at least smile.

I continued to notice this disturbing habit of mine yesterday, when I came away from the grocery store having made two new friends. First was the grocery guy, who by the end of my shop was running back and forth to hand-select my fruit and veg for me. And next, the cashier, who told me all about the tulip and daffodil bulbs she got at Costco last year, and how pretty they were in the spring. As I left, I told her how different an experience it was from grocery shopping in Europe. After going to our local grocery store in Lisbon every week for nearly a year, I finally managed to get a faint smile of recognition out of a couple of the cashiers. Sometimes. After 45 minutes in Safeway, I knew more about these two people than just about any of the Portuguese I met in Lisbon.

Throughout all this, it’s been dawning on me: I actually enjoy talking to people. I’ve said it before, but I’ve always considered myself an introvert, a quiet wallflower who would rather sit back and watch a party than be the life of it. This self-concept of mine prevailed until we moved to Portugal, when the language and cultural barriers meant that I literally couldn’t make small talk any more.

Even if I had spoken Portuguese fluently, I don’t think it would’ve been the same as it is here. Their communities are much more tightly-knit than ours, so their intimacies are patterned differently. They know fewer people much more deeply, down to what they had for lunch and where they go for holiday every August. That’s all very well and good of course, but only if you’ve had years to become a part of the community. As a foreigner, well, a year just doesn’t cut it.

Bottom line is, as strange as it may seem to people from other countries, I enjoy our culture of small talk. I like making connections with people, no matter how brief or superficial they may be. In Portugal, the little old men sit around in cafes every afternoon, year after year, and the women chatter to each other as they clean and cook and raise their children. Here, we exchange pleasantries with strangers, be it “CanIhelpyou?” or “Where are you from?” To others, those questions might seem invasive or artificially friendly. But to me, they are the basis of our life here, and something we take entirely for granted until we can’t do it any more.

So today, be an American and go out and strike up a conversation with someone random. Just because you can. Seriously. It feels better than you might think.

Progress continues, at what feels like a slow pace but is actually much faster than we packed the house last summer. After a week, we still have boxes lying all around, but the basic infrastructure of the house is set up: the kitchen is equipped, our clothes are hung up, the bathroom drawers are full and organized.

We even have couches to sit on and a TV to watch, although borrowing our neighbors’ internet while waiting for ours to be set up makes life somewhat difficult. (We decided not to get cable when we got back, and instead bought a little black box that streams Netflix and other on-demand channels directly to our TV. Fancy, convenient, and without ads, but sadly, completely dependent on having fast internet access.)

In fact, the internet and phone have been one of the more annoying sagas of our return. We signed up for a new service (with a provider who will remain unnamed, although I will say that it begins with A and ends with T) the weekend we returned, with the promise that it would be active prior to this Monday the 16th at 8 PM. That deadline came and went without either internet or phone being active, so after many hours on the phone, Gabe finally produced a technician to come and repair one of our three phone jacks. Why he didn’t do all of them is unclear, but at least we had a phone working, which Gabe could then use to spend more time figuring out why our DSL wasn’t working.

As it turned out, the modem wasn’t working because — ready for it? They sent us the wrong one. The phone company — which will remain unnamed, but includes an ampersand in their title — sent us hardware that will not work with their system. What’s more, this is not an uncommon mistake. Wow. Are we still in Portugal here people? I expect more efficiency from the US of A!

Speaking of, it’s taking me some time to get used to living here again, and it seems to be the little things that trip me up more than the big ones. For example, I went to Cost Plus yesterday to pick up some shower curtains I’d seen there last week, which of course involved wandering around gazing at all the stuff there for a good half hour. When I finally walked up to the register, the cashier was already ringing up another person in front of me. Unfazed, I got ready to wait in line.

The cashier, however, looked up at me, smiled and greeted me (I nearly fell over just at that), and picked up the intercom to call for a second cashier. I laughed and said, “I don’t mind waiting, it’s OK!” To which she replied, “Well there’s another person, oh, two people behind you, so…” I looked behind me, and indeed saw two other people behind me. Still, in Portuguese terms, that hardly even qualified as a line, much less one worthy of opening a whole other register.

Nonetheless, I was shortly whisked over to said register, where I told the new cashier why I was mystified by this behavior. She acted dutifully amazed by my tales of lines stretching back into the aisles, and how your usual waiting time at the grocery store is about ten minutes, but I really don’t think an American can fully grasp the concept of long lines. We get restless when we have to wait for longer than five minutes, and that really only happens when you insist on going shopping the day before Thanksgiving or Christmas. We are so spoiled!

My wonderment grew when my shopping trip continued on to Trader Joes, which I have missed lo these many months of absence. Ready-made yummy food! Good cereals! Whole grain everything! The sheer variety and volume was positively overwhelming, and I made absolutely no effort to resist temptation. In fact the cashier there claimed to have never seen a cart so full, although I think he says that to all the girls.

Later in the day, I again had to laugh at myself when I got in the car to drive to the newest branch of my gym, which opened up just ten minutes’ drive away from our house. In Portugal, I walked ten minutes to my gym. Here, I drive for ten minutes, and think that is excellent. I always forget just how much of our lives we spend in the car here, but really, this is a car-oriented culture.

All other differences aside, the best one was yet to come. After I returned from my first spin class in many months, Gabe and I ate dinner sitting outside on our patio, surrounded by our wild and overgrown garden. Other than TJs, this is one of the things I missed the most: having our own outside space. In Lisbon, if I wanted to go outside, I had to go out in public. But here, I can just walk outside in my fluffy slippers, hair awry, and sit without a care.

Just a few of the many differences I notice every day that we’re back. Better to record them now before I forget there was ever any other way of doing things.

And now… back to unpacking.

During the past month, we’ve been part of a quintessential European experience: World Cup fever. I’ve mentioned the World Cup games in passing a few times, but now that the final is almost upon us, I thought perhaps this particular mania deserves a little more attention.

It’s no secret that football (aka soccer) is a much bigger deal here than it is in the States. That, we knew. But just how big a deal is a constant matter for amusement. While Portugal was still in the running, every time their matches were on, the city came to a complete standstill. When my friend C and I went shopping during the epic match against North Korea, we were shocked at how few people were around. Sure enough, as soon as the game ended, the streets were flooded again. Later on, our landlord refused to come by and do a preliminary inspection of our apartment on the night Portugal played Spain, claiming that everything south of the Pyrenees would be shut down that night. (I’m sure he was right.)

Same for the Brazil games, of course, as there is a huge Brazilian population here. But even when other teams have won, we’ve heard partying in the street, horns honking, the whole deal. No matter who wins, there are fans here in Lisboa.

Take for example the herd of Spanish fans we ran into with Gabe’s family last week — they were dressed to the nines, in costumes none of us really understood, but which seemed to feature both drinking and the color red quite prominently. One girl had a fake cast on her hand with a glass built into it, and another was dressed as Obelix, with her friends all in white. The significance was lost on us, but their zealotry was not. (Click on the photo to enlarge.)

Even if you’re not a zealot yourself, you literally cannot get away from the games. Every tiny little cafe has a TV on, with the bigger ones attracting huge crowds, all of them glued to the television. Last weekend, we went to the upscale wine bar down the street, and even they had a huge projector screen on the wall so that you could watch the game while drinking your expensive wine. When I went to the gym the other day, at least three of the TVs were tuned to the semi-final game, and at home, every game is broadcast on at least one of the four or five main network television channels.

Just a guess, but I have a feeling that in the States, you’d have to tune to some obscure sports channel to find World Cup coverage. Here, you can’t avoid getting sucked into it, even if you’ve never watched a game before in your life. World Cup soccer truly is a national pastime here, in a way that American football or even the Olympics, which is just as global in nature, just can’t compare to at home.

I can’t say that I’ve become a soccer convert, but I’ve enjoyed watching the games, and even bought myself a souvenir Portugal World Cup T-shirt the other day. Most of all though, I’ve enjoyed watching and hearing the people watching the games, from the Obelix girls to the Brazilian waitress down the street, with whom we shared Portugal’s tragic final game last week. This was truly a great year to live in Europe, if only for the cultural experience of the World Cup.

Really looking forward to the final game on Sunday! In the meantime, entertain yourself with this: Germany has an octopus that has reliably predicted the outcome of every major sporting game they’ve had for the past 3 years. Including last night’s, to their chagrin. Discuss amongst yourselves!

Remember when I got caught in the filming of The Bachelorette back in March? Well, my friend let me know on Facebook the other day that she saw me on that night’s episode! Check it out here — I walk across the screen at 6:34. There’s also some really great footage of Lisbon, although totally Hollywoodized. I love the thought of getting a 28 tram all to yourself! Ha! As if…

In the end I did take another mental health morning yesterday, and stayed at home to work while Gabe went off to wait in line for another 2 hours (and that was with an appointment!) to pick up his permanent resident card. So three months and four hours of queuing later, he is finally officially a resident of Portugal. Hooray!

Getting the same status with my E.U. passport, by the way, took about an hour, most of which was spent trying to find the right building and then waiting in line once we were there. The actual process itself took less than ten minutes. There are definite benefits to having that pretty red British passport — living here would’ve been a lot more hassle for us both if I weren’t a dual citizen.

During my Portuguese lesson later that afternoon, however, I was also given cause to be extremely grateful for my lovely blue American passport. You would think that living in America and living in an E.U. country would be much the same, or at least I thought so before coming here. I’m quickly finding out that that was a mistaken assumption.

First, we discussed the subject of sexual harassment in universities, which came up when I mentioned that Gabe is a professor. My tutor immediately asked — as many people do — if I had been his student. I always have to laugh at this, because the thought of me taking any kind of engineering class is quite simply hilarious. If that had been the case, the sole reason a romantic spark would’ve been struck between us would have been because I spent so much time bugging him for explanations as to what the hell all this cryptic nonsense meant.

Regardless, apparently sexual harassment is a big problem here, and my fellow student said it was the same in Greece. They both agreed that there is nothing a student can do if a teacher is sexually harassing them, which was a completely alien concept to me. I said we have the completely opposite experience — there is an extremely heightened awareness of sexual harassment in American society, from the university level on down to childcare, where the workers aren’t allowed to touch the children for fear of being sued. My tutor was shocked to hear of the litigious society we live in, and I had to agree that sometimes it can be taken a little far. But really, would I rather live in that society or one where a professor can fail a student for resisting his overtures?

We then started discussing the age at which one is considered a legal, consenting adult. As with most European countries, both Portugal and Greece consider you an adult at 18, one worthy of drinking, driving, voting, killing, partaking in sexual activity, or doing just about anything else. It’s all the same.

I explained that in the States, we have tiers: you can drive at 16; vote, enlist, and be tried as an adult at 18; and drink at 21. My tutor was so shocked by this that she actually wrote it down. She took notes on what I was saying! To her, it was a totally foreign concept that you could drive but not vote, or enlist in the army but not drink. (Not to mention drink, drive, and die for your country but not rent a car. But I didn’t go there.)

To me, of course, all this was just fact. It doesn’t make any sense, and while I was growing up the stretch between driving and voting, or voting and drinking, seemed to take for…ev…er. But that’s just the way it is, and we all go through it. We all drive before we’re legally allowed to, we all drink before we’re allowed to, and we complain about all of it in between. It’s almost a rite of passage to be denied these rights. For the Europeans though, this strange hierarchy of ages made absolutely no sense, and when seen from their perspective, I kind of had to agree.

Next it was my turn to have my mind blown, once again. We then talked about learning how to drive and getting your license. Both my tutor and the Greek guy said that the entire experience here in Europe is expensive, difficult, and corrupt. In Portugal, for example, the driver’s education courses, which are only offered through private companies, cost anywhere from 500 to 1000 euros (read: $750 to $1500!)

Once you’ve done that, the test itself is extremely hard to pass, with many trick questions — subtle technicalities about the official name for a zebra crossing, for example, or what weight of truck can go on a certain kind of road. You can miss three questions out of thirty, and then you fail.

Unless… ready for it? Unless you pay! If you bribe the person offering the test, you don’t even have to take it to pass. No wonder the drivers here are all bat-shit crazy — most of them don’t have a valid driver’s license!

As an admittedly rather sheltered American, the whole concept of this driver’s ed mafia was completely shocking to me. Much more so was the matter of fact way that my tutor described it — and the Greek agreed! As if it were just a fact of life that you had to bribe people to get your driver’s license. When I told Gabe about it later on, he just nodded and said, “Oh yeah, that’s how it was in Brazil” — again, as if it were just a fact of life. Wow.

So on the side of my red passport we have blatant, commonly acknowledged corruption and sexual harassment with no recourse. On the side of my blue passport, we have a paranoid, litigious society that allows people to drive before they can drink or vote. Which is better? Hard to tell.

I can say that the most telling part of the whole conversation was the shocked reactions on both sides. We each revealed aspects of our respective societies that we take for granted, but appear very strange when taken out of context. Ultimately, that is why we are living here, and why I am taking these lessons — to see things in a different context.

For a visual illustration of today’s lessons, here are two videos about cultural differences that my tutor sent us after class. They are about Italians, but as she said, the same pertains to the Portuguese:

Somewhat ironically, since yesterday was a holiday in the US, Gabe and I spent the entire day working. This actually came as something of a relief.

The nature of both our jobs means that we can spend a year in another country, or take a month off and travel home, but it also means that we never really take time off. So while we were home, we were both constantly stealing snippets of time to send an email or ten, update a web page or a stock trade, have a meeting on the way to dinner with the family or a conference call in between errands and the gym. In my case I was actually staying with my boss, so most days breakfast turned into a morning meeting even before I was done with my second cup of coffee!

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have that kind of flexibility. But after a month, it can also be somewhat exhausting. Sometimes it’s nice just to focus entirely on work for a day without worrying about losing out elsewhere. So yesterday Gabe went in to uni, I stayed at home in our newly rearranged office, and we both spent the day taking care of business. It felt great to have a really productive day, even though my lingering exhaustion from the trip back kept me from being at the top of my game.

The work I did do at home was often in a coffee shop, sneaking in an hour or even twenty minutes to take advantage of faster wireless than what was available at home. One of the last coffee shops I went in before I left was a Peet’s, and even though I was there for strictly recreational purposes, I still had to laugh at the difference between that coffee shop and the ones you find here in Portugal.

In California, a lot of people go to coffee shops (as I do) to work, to get themselves out of the house or office, maybe have some social interaction, use the internet, and have some good coffee to boot. Recreational users are often outnumbered, and it can be difficult to find a seat with all the laptoppers monopolizing the tables for hours at a time. (Guilty as charged, though I do try to buy enough drinks and food to compensate for my usage.)

In Lisbon, people go to coffee shops expressly NOT to work. They have their morning coffee break soon after they get to the office, then an hour or two later they have lunch, followed by — of course — more coffee. Then there’s the afternoon coffee break, then lanch (the pre-dinner meal, since they eat so late here.) Then dinner in the evening, and their after-dinner coffee. That’s a lot of caffeine. No wonder they stay up so late!

So the coffee break is almost a sacred thing here, and the concept of working while having your coffee would I think deeply disturb the average Portuguese person. Coffee is a social activity, and at almost any given time of the day, you can find myriad tiny little cafes with people laughing and talking raucously over their tiny cups of espresso. They never linger for very long — just like their coffee, their breaks here are short but intense.

It follows then that coffee shops themselves are a very different beast here than they are in California. Here they are loud, bustling, full of clattering plates and cups, conversation and laughter. The tables are crammed, and the coffees are tiny and very black, as milk is considered for sissies. If music is playing at all, it is generally inaudible over the ruckus.

Compare that to the Peet’s I was in last week:

People sitting quietly, either working at a table or reading the newspaper in deep, comfy armchairs. The loudest sound, other than the espresso machine, was the classical music playing over the speakers. Any conversation was quiet, subdued, and sporadic, as it seemed almost out of place in such a serene setting. The patrons all sat and lingered long over their large milky coffees, and generally there was no more than one person per table.

What a contrast! I think such a coffee shop would have violated some unwritten part of Portuguese law were it to exist here. Part of me wishes there were more Peet’s-like places in Lisbon, simply so I could have a place to work outside of the house. But most of me is glad that there is a sacred separation between work and coffee here, as it is symbolic of a larger difference in Portuguese priorities and pace of life.

To that end, it’s back to work for me this morning. But first… perhaps I’ll have some more coffee.

Still waking up after our big night out last night. After a quiet day, we went out in the early evening and caught the strangely caterpillar-like tram down to Belem, where we went to see Gal Costa, a Brazilian bossa nova singer who was a staple of Gabe’s teenage years in Rio.

This was the second time we’d been to Belem, and once again, we managed to go when all the museums and the famous monastery were closed. Go figure. But we did arrive early enough to ruin our dinner with a few pasteis de Belem, which we did as soon as we got off the tram for fear that we wouldn’t have time later on. It was simply inconceivable that we’d go all the way to Belem without eating a pastel, which I’d been dreaming of ever since our first experience.

We’ve had other pasteis since then, but nothing comes close to the real thing. I can say no to most sweets, and even if you put a big hunk of delicious chocolate cake in front of me, willpower usually wins out after a bite or two. But these things are like a drug — once you start eating that gooey cripsy creamy goodness, you just can’t stop. I tried my best to only eat half of my pastel, but with a word of prompting from Gabe, the rest quickly went down the hatch. Seriously. Those things are amazing.

Full up with cinnamony custardy wonder, we rolled our way back down the street to a small restaurant I’d spotted on our last visit. For once appearances did not lead us astray, as we were rewarded with attentive waiters, excellent food, good atmosphere, and even some fellow diners who were not tourists — all at the ungodly hour of 7:30 PM. We even got to listen to Christmas carols as we ate, which was slightly incongruous in this rustically charming little spot, with its exposed beams and dried hams and gourds hanging from every square inch of the ceiling.

After dinner, we made our way over to the Cultural Center of Belem, a gigantic, gorgeous modern music and art complex close to the waterfront. We climbed up to our seats on the balcony, and settled into the perfume-scented darkness to share 90 minutes of amazing music with a packed audience made up mostly of 50- and 60-year-old women. This concert was definitely not aimed at newcomers to Brazilian bossa nova, but rather at the people who had been listening to these songs for the past forty years and knew every note, word, and intonation — even down to the Brazilian accent on their Portuguese.

The concern soon became more of a group singalong, including a loud accompaniment by the guy sitting right behind us, who luckily had a very nice voice. At regular intervals, Gal would stop singing and hold up the mike to amplify the crowd’s voices, acknowledging their praise and inviting them into her performance. If I’d been there for the music alone, this probably would’ve bugged me, but as it was, I found it enchanting, and somehow very, very Portuguese. The whole community participation thing seemed so fitting in this setting, and the obvious joy that both the audience and the singer took in these old songs was infectious, even if I didn’t understand a word of the lyrics.

So I leaned on Gabe’s shoulder and took in the whole thing, audience, singer, guitar, and all. I particularly enjoyed the way that the singing man behind us completely ignored the dirty looks he received from the very prim and proper old lady sitting next to me. She was there with her grown daughter, who took great care of her, constantly tucking her jacket around her shoulders and directing interpretive comments her way. The daughter apologized profusely to me after I had to climb up and over the back of our row to visit the toilet, and I assured her repeatedly that I didn’t mind. Honestly, I’m not about to make your poor old mom laboriously get up and down five times just to accommodate my tiny bladder.

Again, the facets of Portuguese community and culture I saw through this performance — the group ownership of the songs, the dynamic between the old lady and her daughter — were worth far more to me than the price of the ticket itself. Although the language barrier does isolate me, it also gives me a unique perspective: that of a silent observer looking in at the warm, bustling, chaotic world of Portuguese life. It makes me miss my own society a great deal, where I can be a participant rather than merely a witness, but it is fascinating all the same. (Funny what it takes to finally overcome my introversion and make me crave interaction!)

As it turned out though, the cultural highlight of the evening was yet to come. Instead of spending at least an hour waiting for the tram and then walking back to the flat, we decided to treat ourselves to a cab ride home. After missing two cabs in a row, Gabe very cleverly (or so we thought) finagled his way into the next one by standing in front of a girl who was already waiting. In retrospect, we would’ve been better off letting her take it, as it turned out to be one of the most hair-raising experiences of my life.

Immediately after we got into the cab, the driver popped the hood and jumped out to check something in the engine. Off to a good start, clearly. But we took off without further incident, and careened our way through the crowded Friday night streets of Lisbon, going no faster or more haphazardly than any other cab ride we’ve had here.

At one point though, we were waiting for another car to finish pulling out of a parking space. As is usual for cabbies the world over, any obstruction or momentary hesitation in their way merits a honk or at least an engine rev, but this guy just sat there. And kept sitting there, waiting, even after the cars in front of us had gone. Surprised, Gabe shook his arm and asked if everything was OK.

Everything was not OK. The man was fast asleep. We had been stopped for a total of 10 seconds, and the guy fell asleep. Holy crap. We were still far from home, however, so we let him continue on his way… and then he fell asleep yet again, this time while stopped at a stop light. He woke up when it turned green, but our eyes were getting wider and wider in utter disbelief. After completely missing the turn down to our street, he asked if we wouldn’t mind if he smoked a cigarette. Although I was already feeling sick from the guy’s jerky driving, I thought it might just be worth the added stink if it meant he didn’t fall asleep again!

By this point I was ready to walk any distance just to get away from this guy, so once he’d zoomed down yet another street in the general direction of our house, I said, “Let’s just walk from here! Please!” I didn’t think my stomach — or my nerves — could take any more. We got out with great relief and walked home through the refreshingly cool night air, glad to be on solid ground once more and laughing at our surreal experience with the narcoleptic cab driver.

All in all, a night full of enriching and sometimes hair-raising cultural experience, from pasteis to bossa nova to crazy cab drivers. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Lisboa.

My mood was much improved yesterday, after a good night’s sleep and a lazy morning, and the world seemed like a much better place. I was finally able to see some of the beauty here, underneath and in fact because of the shabbiness. It is a vibrant, alive, and energetic place, which is exciting but also exhausting. Particularly when combined with the effort of trying to understand as Gabe negotiates apartments and bank accounts, plus the physical effort of climbing hills shod in flip flops over smooth and slippery cobblestone sidewalks…!

In the morning, we went to see the university where Gabe will be working, then had a quick (and surprisingly excellent) sushi lunch with his colleague. We wandered around for a bit afterwards, and by the time we got back to the room in the afternoon, I was more than ready for a break. The place felt like an oasis of calm and quiet, when just the day before it had seemed small and dirty. How things change!

We went out again later on to meet with an estate agent nearby. We were only gone for a couple of hours, but even so, I still got to the point where I was so tired I could no longer think straight, much less face ordering dinner in a different language. So we got a roast chicken to take home instead, and once again ate dinner in our little dorm kitchen, then finished the night with some more of the movie we had started the night before.

Or so we thought. Turns out everyone here operates on Gabe’s schedule — the estate agent was on her lunch break at 5 PM, so we went for a walk, and saw a huge group of children who were just getting out of school. Later on, after the estate agent couldn’t find a single furnished apartment in our price range, Gabe emailed some people about holiday rentals we found on Craig’s List. They turned out to be no different. By 10:30 PM, we’d received and answered three responses, including our phone number in one of our replies. We were not expecting to hear back again til the morning, but at 11 PM, the phone rang. It was a guy calling about an apartment, giving no apology, just launching straight into a discussion of when we can come by today.

After finally shutting down for the night around 11:30, this morning I woke up and ate some prune yogurt. Yes, prune. Welcome to living in a different culture, as seen last thing at night and first thing in the morning.

Here’s some pics I snapped yesterday — the first is of Gabe’s university, and the rest are of the amazing tile work on some of the buildings, as well as the Moorish influence and the amazing contrasts between new and old:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “More Lisbon“, posted with vodpod

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.

In my morning reading, I came across a link to an advertising video that has recently gone viral, i.e. been sent from one person to the other because they find it funny, or they identify with it, or whatever. This was in the context of its marketing purposes, and various blogs were dissecting it to figure out just how it became viral.

All marketing genius aside, the video quite frankly pissed me off. I’m not going to do it the dignity of linking to it here, because I’d only be contributing to the spread of the virus. And I don’t think that a piece of advertising that not only plays on gender stereotypes but expects to capitalize on them should reach one more person than it otherwise should.

So — a recap instead. The basic premise of the video is that a man has bought his wife a vacuum cleaner for their anniversary. She is dissatisfied, so she takes him and puts him in a small house where dogs live. (I’m not even going to let search engines tag this post by naming the video.)

This small house turns out to be an underground bunker, filled with men folding laundry, listening to recordings of women saying things they should be doing right instead of giving their partners horrific gifts, like a vacuum cleaner or — gasp! — a thigh master. The men can only get out when a review board of women says they can. So far, the only one to successfully win free of his punishment is someone who apparently figured out that he needed to buy his wife a diamond necklace (this is the only place in the whole video that any actual product placement appears).

I really don’t even know where to start on this one. The poor protagonist is a bewildered, well-meaning young man, who actually thought that buying a nice vacuum cleaner was a great gift for their anniverary.

His shrewish, apparently selfish and domineering wife disagrees and punishes him, along with all the other bumbling, stupid husbands who have had the misfortune of buying mistaken gifts for their loved ones. Hello? Do you know of any women who are actually like that? I have at least one friend that I can think of who would be absolutely overjoyed to have a nice vacuum as a present.

Have we come so far as a society that now it’s OK for us to turn gender stereotypes around and ridicule men in this way? Or denigrate women, for that matter? Are we really that materalistic and shallow that we expect diamond necklaces for every gift?

Imagine an ad where the roles were reversed… where the woman was trying to please the man, and was “punished” for it by being locked in an underground room with all the other unsatisfactory women. Do you think that kind of video would go viral? No it certainly would not. I can guarantee that no women would send it to each other saying, “Oh you know how this feels!” Or men would post it on their Facebook pages saying, “If only we could really do this!” It would be called outrageous, a throwback to the bad old days before feminism, and would probably be pulled from the internet within hours.

This ad made me ashamed to be a woman, that anyone would actually think we could be so shallow and demanding. It made me ashamed to work in marketing, that anyone can think that playing on such blatant stereotypes would be appealing enough to sell their products. And most of all, it makes me ashamed to be a member of the internet community, one where enough people did find this video amusing to make it “go viral” — an almost impossible feat that every marketer is desperately trying to achieve for their message.

Seriously people. You should be ashamed.

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

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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