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It’s been a busy week around here.

Last night, Gabe and I celebrated Rosh Hashanah with his family for the first time in two years. As we sat at my sister in law’s beautiful house, surrounded by family, giggling with Gabe’s nieces, eating excellent food, I was immensely content — and it wasn’t just the wine. Holidays just aren’t the same without family.

We also spent last weekend with our nieces, who came down to spend the long weekend with us while their parents had a mini holiday to themselves. We had a tremendous time, exploring tide pools and wandering around town for hours. Nothing like having kids around to make you feel like one yourself.

Today, I did my favorite trail run with my brother, followed by barbecue with my family. Sensing a theme here? I sure am. I think Gabe and I would be content to travel the world for ages if it weren’t for the deep ties we both have to our loved ones. Adventures are all very well and good, but nothing fulfills and contents like family.

In other news, I also found out last weekend that the piece I submitted to the online journal before leaving Portugal has been accepted, and will be published very soon.

And last but not least, to add to our own little family, I think we are adopting a Maine Coon cat next week. Stay tuned for adventures in fuzzy kitty land.

A very good week all around.

During our time in Stockholm, I read a piece by Helen Keller that was published in The Atlantic ages ago. It was a speculative article about what it would be like if she could suddenly regain her sight for just three days, and all the things she would want to do and see in that time. As was probably intended, I went around for a few days after reading it with renewed wonder in my eyes, grateful for the ability to see even the littlest of things, from tulips growing in the park to an old man riding his bicycle down the embankment.

I also couldn’t help but comparing what Keller described to our cousin B’s situation. What does it feel like to have gone your whole life not knowing anything about your family, then suddenly be thrown into the midst of this warm, exuberant, loving group of people that I call my in-laws? To my mind, it must feel something akin to regaining one’s sight after a lifetime spent in darkness.

At first, the sudden onslaught of sensation would be completely overwhelming, as I’m sure it was when B first came to visit California. But after some time, you would start to grow used to the idea, to enjoy and appreciate this strange new world. No matter how much time passed though, you would never ever start to take it for granted. You would always retain that sense of wonder, as people who have lived their whole lives with sight, or with the knowledge of where they came from, can never do.

During our week with B and his family, we learned more about the story of their discovery, and I kept coming back to this same allegory. I saw B give a start when Gabe referred to “our grandfather,” as their fathers shared the same father. Even though B is now used to the idea of his other grandfather, the actuality of it was still clearly a thrilling novelty to both him and his family. They repeated that phrase, “our grandfather,” for the next few days, the wonder of it never quite leaving their faces.

Perhaps even stranger was how similar B and Gabe looked, which people commented on repeatedly throughout our time there. When B and S’s neighbors came over for dinner one night, they looked at both of us in turn and said, “OK, so which one is the cousin?” I really hope they were joking, because their relation is plainly written all over B and Gabe’s faces. They share the same nose, the same lips (or lack thereof), the same way of moving their arms. (Click on the photo to enlarge.)

They even have similar personality traits and interests, and spent many long hours in deep discussion about a huge variety of things. Listening to them talk, you would not believe they had only just met, as it sounded more like the continuation of a lifelong conversation between good friends. Or cousins.

To spend more than fifty years wondering about where you came from, not knowing anything about one half of your heritage, and then to find a man who looks and acts just like you but grew up on the other side of the world… if there was an emotional equivalent to regaining one’s sight, that would be it.

Just as with the Helen Keller piece, learning more about B’s story made me see my own family with a renewed sense of appreciation. It would be all too easy for me to pity myself for having lost a parent before the age of 30 — but at least I knew him, was raised by him, can recognize which parts of me are his. And I know our family, as convoluted as it might be, with all my various siblings and cousins and nieces and nephews (and great-nieces and -nephews…!) I am blessed to have had my father before I lost him, to have all the memories of my childhood and early adulthood with him, and to have all the rest of my crazy, far-flung family to boot.

True, I take them for granted sometimes, but not this week, not after thinking about all this. This week, I look on the tulips and the old man on his bike and all my wonderful widespread family with newly grateful eyes.

Tomorrow we go to Stockholm for a week, where we are staying with Gabe’s cousin, B., and his lovely family. These are very recent additions to Gabe’s family — or at least we only found out about them recently. It’s a pretty amazing story, something far more fitting for a soap opera or a documentary than real life. I wanted to write about it in detail after we met them in January, but somehow never got a chance to do so. Here’s a brief rundown, although I would love to write a much longer piece about their story.

B. is the son of Gabe’s uncle, D, and a Swedish woman that he met as a young man. Both D and the Swedish woman have passed away now, but B. only found out who his father was towards the end of his mother’s life. Since he had gone most of his own life without knowing much about where he came from, he was happy to continue that way, but his two girls were not. They started searching for their grandfather, and last year, they met with success.

With the help of the Salvation Army, the girls contacted Gabe’s cousins in LA (Uncle D’s other children), and an email correspondence ensued. That was all that B. and his family ever expected to come from their discovery — maybe a few emails or phone calls, some history about the family, and that was about it.

Little did they realize just what kind of family my in-laws are. Like myself, they are family junkies. That’s why it’s never really mattered to them that I’m technically not Jewish — I get what their holidays are about: food and family. Lots of both. So for them, finding out they have new family members is like a kid in a candy store. Woohoo! More family! More fun! So a simple exchange of emails was just not going to cut it.

Before long, B. and his family had made plans to visit California over the holidays. We were lucky enough to meet them when we went home, and I was hugely impressed with their sweet, quiet natures (the quiet part must be from his mother’s side!) and their ability to withstand a maelstrom of attention and activity. Every day was filled with crowds of new people, many of whom burst into tears at the sight of B., who apparently resembled his father a great deal. They also did a full whirlwind tour of both LA and the Bay Area, walking up and down Telegraph Hill, taking cable cars, going to lunch in Marin… the whole nine yards. Even I was exhausted after only a few days of their hectic pace, but they never seemed to flag one bit.

When they left, we all promised to go and see them — as one does. But when we got back to Portugal, Gabe and I looked at each other and said, “You know, I think I really do want to go and see them.” Even though we’d barely met them, and that in a pressure cooker of introductions and new people, they’d made a great impression on both of us, and we wanted to get to know them better. (It helped that they live Stockholm, of course. We may have been less inclined to visit them if they were in a more distant or less picturesque location. “Siberia? Oh, how nice for you.”)

So tomorrow, off we go. They are very excited to have us, and are planning to take the whole week off to show us around Stockholm. I don’t blame them — if I’d grown up not knowing anything about where I came from, a visit from brand new family members would be an exciting thing indeed. I just hope we make a good showing for the California clan — such pressure!

I will try to write while we’re there, but you can be sure that I will take lots and lots of pictures. I know you were worried! A bientot, mes amis…

There have been a few days this year where I’ve wanted very badly to just throw in the towel, catch the next flight home, and go home to my mama. Our first day here was a prime example of that, and many of the ones following. In the past months, I have (thankfully) felt that way much less often. But yesterday I came close to feeling that way again, reminding me once more that I am not an island. Nor do I like being one.

This is not intended to be a pity party or sob story — oh yeah, poor me, living in Portugal and traveling to far-off places. No. That is not my intention. I recognize the amazing privilege we have in taking this year off, and I am immensely grateful to whatever fates aligned my path with Gabe’s lo those four years ago now. (Has it really only been that long?!)

So when I say this year is hard, it’s not “hard” in the same sense as giving birth, or learning how to care for a toddler and a newborn at the same time. It’s not “hard” in the same way as a long-distance relationship is hard, or training for a triathlon, or starting a career in a new field. It’s certainly not anywhere in the same league as having a loved one with a chronic or terminal illness — that I can say from experience. (All of these are things that close friends of mine have done while we’ve been away, by the way, chapters of their lives that I’ve missed, conversations I haven’t had. The new babies are by far what I regret missing out on the most.)

But with all of that said… sometimes, this year has been and continues to be just that: hard. Difficult. Sometimes, it feels as though time is just flying by me, and I’m loathe to leave this lovely city and go home to our regular lives. Other days, my whole being longs to be Home, to smell the ocean, have lunch with my mom and coffee with a girlfriend, even to see all the crazy fellow endorphin addicts in my morning spin class. In case you haven’t guessed yet, recently I have been trending towards the latter side of that spectrum.

One day last week, I took a look back at my calendar from last May to see what I was doing a year ago. I was shocked at the amount of stuff I saw on there: spin, lunch, and coffee, yes, but also therapy sessions, wine dates with girlfriends, movies with Gabe (OK so I still do that one), meetings, dinners out with friends, book club… the list went on and on. I tend to think of myself as a fairly unsocial person, but my calendar tells a different story. I commented on this to Gabe, who was somewhat less surprised. He said, “Yeah, I’ve never really believed it when you said that you weren’t social.”

OK so maybe I am more of a social animal than I thought. While here though, I’ve welcomed the chance to be solitary, to lick my wounds after a difficult few years, to put myself first for a little while after learning the hard way to put others’ needs before my own. Some days though, it’s not as fun. And yesterday was one of them.

Being here has really made me understand the importance of having a social group, not just for the company, but as a support network. Last May, I was just coming out of a very difficult period in my life, so every one of those lunches, dinners, coffees, or what have you was not just a social outing, it was a way of healing myself. For a long time, I thought that my friends weren’t being supportive or understanding enough. Now, I see that you don’t have to talk about something directly to be supportive — any social contact helps.

It’s during my darker days that I realize how thin my support network really is here. With time, I know there are a few of our friendships here that could turn into very strong relationships. But I don’t have that time, so a part of me has always held back from laying down the groundwork for that next level of friendship. Sometimes, I regret not having done so.

Thanks to the wonders of Skype, however, I have an easily accessible virtual support network. Within the past twenty four hours, I have had a video conversation with my mom and brother — always guaranteed to cheer me up — and a quick “natter” with a girlfriend from grad school as she walked to work this morning. It’s not the same as actually having breakfast with my family, or nattering on for hours over coffee or a glass of wine, but it does make a huge difference.

So. The lesson of the day, brought to you by Skype: when life is hard(ish), reach out and touch someone. No matter how far away.

(As a side note: This weekend we’re off to points north — Coimbra, Porto, along with the Pope, and then the mountains near the Spanish border — so I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to write. But I will take lots of pics, of course, and post them when we return next week. Til then, abracos e beijinhos, or hugs and kisses.)

I had to damp down my excitement last night because otherwise I knew I’d never be able to sleep. Yes, I am like a little kid — any excitement or anticipation at all, and boom, wide awake. But I managed to sleep in the end, and now it’s morning so I can be excited because… my MOM GETS HERE TODAY!!!!!! Woohooooo!!!!

When we came here, my mom’s visit seemed like it was in the far, far distant future, one I couldn’t even conceive of reaching… which is exactly what I said when we went home in December. All these far-off milestones, which somehow get much closer when you turn your back and are busy elsewhere for a while. Before you know it, we’ll be home again… crikey.

Coincidentally, tomorrow we will have been in Lisbon for six months, so it’s the perfect opportunity for me to take a look back at our second quarter abroad.

Our first quarter ended with our holiday trip back to California after three months of living here. We were starting to feel the first semblance of familiarity, but I was still awkward, homesick, and uncomfortable. When we left, I was proud of the progress we’d made, but thrilled to go back to a place where I spoke the language and everything was easy and made sense.

When we got back to Lisbon in January, I was afraid that I’d have to start all over again, that the long cold months of winter with no visitors and no travel would make me even more homesick than before. But our trip home reassured me that it would always be there, with the people and places we love, and I could go back out into the great unknown with the knowledge that it wasn’t going to last forever. Since the day we got back, I have hardly had a day of homesickness, only twinges, and nothing at all like what I struggled with in the fall.

At the same time, this place has started to feel more and more like my home. Yes, I still have my setbacks — post office and grocery store fiascos among them — but for the most part, I am comfortable here, I know my way around, and I am no longer as silenced by the language difference as I once was. I don’t have to spend an hour in the grocery store parsing all the labels to figure out what everything is, and instead sweep through almost as quickly as I do at home. I haven’t committed any horrific faux pas at the gym, at least not that I’m aware of, and I can even hold my own when ordering a meal at a restaurant.

Even so, my language skills aren’t exactly what I’d hoped they would be at this point. When we came here, I imagined that I would be totally fluent by the time my mom arrived, and I would blow her away with my amazing conversational skills in Portuguese. Hmm. Not so much.

I do think I’ve made a great deal of progress though. I had my final lesson yesterday, since we’ll be doing too much traveling over the next few months to continue. Even before she remembered that I wouldn’t be coming back, my tutor pronounced that I’m doing well and my accent sounds much better (read: less Mexican.) She then started planning out our next sessions together before I gently reminded her that no, I was done for the moment. That made for a somewhat anticlimactic goodbye, but still, I feel like I am just getting to the point where I can speak and understand more fluidly. Of course I will probably lose that ability in no time, but hey, at least I got there.

By far the best progress we’ve made over the past three months has been in our friendships. We have now started to build a small community for ourselves here, composed primarily of Gabe’s colleagues, our doppelganger French couple, and the Princetonian family. On a more superficial daily level, I have my peeps at the gym and my tutor, plus of course the neighborhood regulars.

We were just saying last night how much we’ll miss all these characters in our Portuguese drama when we move home, which I don’t think was the case when we left in December. Back then, we had acquaintances. Now, we have friends. People in the neighborhood know and recognize us, they know we’re not just here for a week or two, and they greet us accordingly. And what a difference that has made.

Looking forward, things change significantly from here on out. First, my mom gets here, and then we do a great deal of traveling over the next few months: Morocco in a week or so, Israel in mid-April, Stockholm in late May (since we’ve now almost officially decided not to come home for my birthday — sorry guys), and then back to Lisbon in June to welcome two sets of guests. That brings us to July, when we’ll be busy packing up and saying our goodbyes before going to England for a week or two and then at last home in early August.

The list of trips and visitors tumbles out one after the other, like a chain of dominoes, and I know time will fly even faster than it already has. Looking forward from this day is kind of like standing at the top of a ski slope and anticipating the steep route to come. You know once you start, you’ll be at the bottom in no time at all, which makes you enjoy the ride even more.

Essentially, this has been our quarter of immersing ourselves in the day to day life of Lisbon. We spent the first quarter getting settled, set up, and used to all the strangeness. The next will be full of travel and visitors, and soon Lisbon will become more of a base, a place to recover between adventures. I can’t help but feel like we’re leaving just as soon as we’re really starting to get somewhere, both in terms of language and relationships. But I’m sure that all our time away will make this feel all the more like home to us — which will make it very difficult indeed when it comes time to pack up and leave in the final quarter of our year abroad.

But that is a long way off. In the meantime, we have much exploring to do and adventures to have. I hope you’ll continue to join me as we make our way through this wonderful, frustrating, enchanting year abroad.

Our guests left early this morning, leaving us with a too-quiet flat, an empty fridge, and lots of work and laundry to catch up on.  We had a fantastic time with them, and in fact I realized this morning that this was the longest I’d spent as an adult with my half-brother and his wife. We traveled with and visited them frequently as kids, and I had the occasional (not frequent enough) dinner with them during grad school, but that’s different than spending nearly 96 hours of quality time with them as an adult, hosting them in our home as they have done for me so many times in my life. I truly enjoyed the experience.

We spent our three and a half days together more or less as a microcosm of what Gabe and I have been doing for the past five months. We walked all over Lisbon and beyond, stopping for lunch, dinner, and various snacks in between, talking, drinking, and laughing, and of course playing our favorite killer card game every evening.

The weather cooperated for the most part, and the much-threatened rain held out until late last night, when we had to run home from dinner through a heavy downpour. Luckily we’d chosen last night to eat at the local haunt around the corner, so we didn’t have far to sprint. Other than that though, we only had a couple of showers, and even a few periods of gorgeous sunshine, both on the day they arrived and again on Friday. Of course we’d thought of contingency plans for rain, but the relatively dry (though cold) weather let us do what we really wanted to do: walk them into the ground, showing them our favorite haunts and neighborhoods, stopping at museums and monuments along the way.

A quick summary of said mission:

Day 1, Weds: We picked them up from the airport in the late morning, dropped off their bags at the flat, then took advantage of the surprisingly clear afternoon to  walk through our neighborhood, around through the shopping areas of Chiado and Baixa, up to the castle, then back down again through the labyrinthine alleyways of Alfama on the far side of the castle. That night, we made dinner at home, and caught up on gossip, news, and honed our Racing Demons skills.

Day 2, Thursday: Despite the threatening clouds and cold air, we took the tram down to Belem, as they wanted to see a couple things down there  — and we had never made it down there while the monuments were actually open. So at last we saw such famous sites as the Tower of Belem, which guarded the riverfront in older, more dangerous times, and the Jeronimos Monastery, a huge monument to the riches brought in from the Portuguese colonies. It was stunning, but I couldn’t help but wonder: how could the monks possibly focus on their vows of piety and poverty when surrounded by such massive wealth?!

Our reward for such culturally enriching activities was to introduce our guests to the pasteis de Belem, those heavenly pieces of custardy delight that I am developing a serious addiction to (and already wondering how I’ll live without when we go home!) I was looking forward to my pasteis all day, but was slightly disappointed when they arrived slightly less fresh and warm than in the past. That didn’t deter us from inhaling them, however, as did the masses of people packed into every table in the cavernous array of dining rooms. Could have had something to do with the rain that had started falling just before we ducked into the restaurant — little wonder everyone else had the same idea as we did!

We returned to the flat for a few hours of down time, then ventured back out again that evening to our favorite Goan restaurant, where Gabe and I ate on Thanksgiving. To our amazement, the guy remembered us, even down to where we’d sat and what we’d eaten. Now that is good service! He quickly sussed out that these particular patrons were well endowed with a sense of humor, so he teased my brother mercilessly, joking that he’d already eaten all his food, refusing to give him another beer, etc. Despite his jokes, the service was impeccable, and the food as excellent as before. Our waiter summed it up when we asked his advice on ordering. He said, “You came here to eat. I will take care of you.” And so he did.

Day 3, Friday: The day dawned clear and slightly warmer, so we set out on another walking tour, this time up and around the area on other side of our flat. We walked to the end of aqueduct and the park we love, then up to the park and basilica at Estrela (where we also stopped for a quick coffee near the duck pond). We walked by the Casa da Fernando Pessoa, then caught the 28 tram back to the other side of town. It let us out just past the castle, so we took the opportunity to walk up and over the highest miradouro in Lisbon, which we visited last weekend (via a much easier route, since we were already on top of that hill). We stopped at last for lunch at the miradouro of Torel, which faces our house, and then limped our way home to rest for a few hours before dinner.

Revitalized, we went out for dinner at a place we’d ducked into with our friend on Carnival day: the Casa do Alentejo. We’ve walked by it a thousand times, never suspecting that the drab storefront with the neon lettering housed a spectacular Moorish interior coated in tiles and delicate arches, with a giant ballroom and two packed dining rooms upstairs. We went just to see the interior, but were pleasantly surprised both by the traditional Alentejan food and the service — the waiter, while rushed and surly, saw my brother lift his empty beer glass on his way to the kitchen, and returned with another flagon before we could even ask for it. Good man!

Day 4, Saturday: We completed our whirlwind highlight tour of Lisbon with a trip up to Sintra, my favorite town, with its hills and queijadas and castles in the clouds. Despite the rain that started pouring down almost as soon as we set out, we persisted, and got off the train to a clear blue sky — only going to prove our theory that the weather in Sintra is always the opposite of what it is in Lisbon.

We explored the first castle before lunch, which was far emptier than it had been when Gabe and I visited it in November. Among other advantages, that enabled us to have a chat with the guy stationed in the main audience chamber, who in his boredom was more than happy to explain the intricate symbolism of the ornate paintings and tiles on the ceiling.

After a delicious lunch at the same cafe we’d gone to on our first visit, we split up. Gabe and my brother hiked up the hill to the Moorish castle while my sister-in-law and I took the bus, agreeing to meet them at the entrance. (I couldn’t let her get lost, you understand!) Some time later, we met our puffing, sweating menfolk on the trail up to the castle, and we all entered its grand walls together. Gabe and I had been discouraged from going inside on our previous visit, as it was so stormy and misty that day that the ticket guy said we wouldn’t be able to see anything, so it would be a waste of our money.

Now we knew why he had deterred us: from the castle walls, you can see for miles and miles around, all the way back to Lisbon on one side, and the nearby Palacio da Pena on the other. I’ve seen quite a few castles in my lifetime, but this was by far one of the best. It was spectacular, foreboding, and seemingly impenetrable — although as my brother pointed out, I’m not sure what stopped the invading hordes from just going around it, since it was so far up the hill that it would’ve taken ages for the defenders to make their way down to the plain below. Oh well.

With the skies looking increasingly somber, we went over to the last palace on the circuit, the fairy tale patchwork castle that I love. Inside we found all the tourists who had forsaken the first castle, so we slowly wound our way through the intricately maintained chambers, with their ornate Oriental trappings, tiny books, and china tchotchkes. Whenever it got too crowded, we just skipped over that room, knowing we’d be back again in the future. It’s nice to be a repeat offender when it comes to tourism.

We caught the bus back to the train station and returned to Lisbon, once again thoroughly spent from all that walking (even those of us who didn’t climb the hill!) For dinner, we decided to go to the restaurant around the corner — wisely, as it turned out. Gabe and I have long been fascinated by this place, for despite its size, it is always packed, at any hour of the day or night. We wanted to know what they were doing right, so we used our guests as guinea pigs. Once the table of rowdy beer-drinking regulars calmed down a bit, we had a surprisingly good (if slightly salty) dinner, accompanied by some excellent people watching.

After running home through the rain, we stayed up late yet again playing cards, then saw them off early this morning. We had a great time, and already the house seems too quiet and empty without them. Most of all though, their visit highlighted how comfortable we’ve become here, and how much ground we’ve covered in just five months — which we can now distill into a highlight reel of the best of what’s around.

Now it’s back to real life for a while, although as we discovered by seeing our city through others’ eyes — real life here ain’t so bad.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

So. We’re back. Where to start?

The trip home was amazing, even better than either of us expected it to be. Of course we had expected to spend much quality time with our friends and family, and we did. What we hadn’t foreseen was just how much time we would get to spend with our respective families, living our daily lives with them in a way neither of us had done in years.

When we’re living in Santa Cruz, we’ll frequently eat dinner with my family, or meet them out for a movie, but really the only time we ever stay over at my mom’s house is on Christmas Eve. Similarly, the most we ever visit Gabe’s family is for a day or two, generally staying one night and then coming home the next day. But this time, we each got to spend multiple nights and days in a row with our families, which for a couple of family junkies like us is pure heaven.

For me, it felt like going home for Christmas break during college — without all the insecurities and other crap that accompanied those years. Now that I no longer had to worry about boys and What To Do With My Life, I could just relax and enjoy the company of my family, my mom’s cooking, and the beautiful surroundings I’ve missed so much.

Every morning, I had coffee waiting for me when I got up, which is pretty much my idea of bliss. I had dinner with my family every night, sometimes at a restaurant, but mostly at home. In between those two fixtures of my day, I worked, shopped, and ate almost every meal with my mom; ran and laughed myself silly with my brother; and talked with, drank tea, and watched Jon Stewart with my aunt and uncle every evening.

I caught up with dear friends over coffee, tea, lunch, and during walks. I drank as many nonfat cappuccinos and ate as much cottage cheese as I could stand… then had some more. I met new babies, saw new houses, and chatted with total strangers at the store — just because I could. I ran so much I injured myself, I walked on the beach and in the forest, and I revisited my favorite spin class. At night, when Gabe was with his family, I stayed up reading for hours and luxuriated in having a whole bed to myself for the first time in months.

I shopped literally until I dropped, and came back with an entire plastic storage bin worth of food, vitamins, and other sundries that we can’t get in Portugal:

(In related news, I am thinking of opening my own resale business here, selling vitamins and Luna bars at only a small markup. What do you think?)

For his part, Gabe went snowboarding twice, stayed up late talking with his parents, sister and brother-in-law, helped our nieces practice the piano, attended their various holiday plays and piano recitals, ate marvelous food made by his sister and mother, and generally enjoyed being around his family again. I joined him up there for a couple of wonderful and action-packed weekends, including his 42nd birthday dinner as well as a weekend with his newly discovered Swedish cousins (more on that to come.)

Basically, we had an amazing trip home, and have returned to Portugal fully revitalized and refreshed by the time spent with our loved ones. Even though I was sad to leave home, I’m surprised to find that I am glad to be back in Lisbon. I have missed our little flat, the bustle and shabbiness of the streets, the endearing and infuriatingly casual nature of it all. Most of all though, I missed my husband, as he was the one person I didn’t see that much of during our month at home! So it’s nice to catch up with him, to have our usual routine back again, and to trade impressions of home and how it feels to be back.

Strangely, we’ve agreed that it doesn’t feel strange at all to be here. It’s still foreign, yes, and different. But now it’s a difference we know and can navigate. Going to the big department store supermarket on a crowded Saturday afternoon, for example, wasn’t as overwhelming as it would’ve been when we first got here. Now we know more or less what is available and what we like, so even though we were tired and jetlagged, it was only a matter of finding what we needed in a store we weren’t used to navigating.

To my surprise, I am finding the switch back to Portuguese from English almost relaxing. Because I don’t understand it, I can tune out background conversation and the buzz of voices in a way that I’m unable to do in English. At home I could once again make inane conversation, and relished my ability to do so. But I also found myself incredibly irritated by having to hear and understand everyone else’s inane conversations around me — at least here they sound pretty!

In other words, we’ve already done most of the hard work of adjusting to life in Portugal. Now we can relax and enjoy our second quarter here, content and full with the knowledge that our home, friends, and family will always be waiting for us back in California.

And of course, here are pictures from our time at home — some taken with our brand new red camera! Thanks Santa! These start with photos from my weekend in San Fran with Mom, including the Dickens Faire, continuing through tree decoration (v. 1, since the tree fell over that night and had to be redecorated all over again!), Christmas, random photos with my new camera, eating Eggettes (a Japanese waffle) with Mom the day before we left, and our goodbye Moroccan dinner and belly-dancing extravaganza with Gabe’s family, also the night before we left.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Home for the Holidays“, posted with vodpod

Well, we did it: the two family junkies survived missing the biggest family holiday of the year. Barely, and then only with the help of modern technology, which made it far easier to connect with our families than it was on my last expat Thanksgiving five years ago.

So we actually managed to see Gabe’s family as they were getting ready to sit down to their dinner, and we could “sit” in the kitchen with mine as they started their Turkey day with fruit and granola. Truly, for all purposes of staying connected while far away, I heart technology. It’ll never be the same as being there, but what a difference it makes!

The rest of the day was disappointingly, almost surreally, normal. It’s strange living in a country and going about your daily life on a day that you think of as a holiday but to everyone else is just another day. I went to the gym in the morning and was somehow disappointed when no one there wished me a happy Thanksgiving, which they would’ve been doing all week at home. (On the other hand, I couldn’t have gone to the gym at home yesterday, so there’s one benefit!) I felt like shaking people and saying, “Don’t you people know?!? It’s a holiday! Jeez!” It was very strange.

So I decided to give myself a holiday, even if no one else was observing it — including Gabe, who went into uni in the morning. I took the chance to have some alone time at home, drinking tea and reading my new and much-anticipated book (Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, which is worth every moment of anticipation.)

I felt much better for having had a workout and some down time, and got up to prepare some more food before leaving for my Portuguese lesson. Gabe got home soon afterward, and we spent a companionable hour jammed into our tiny kitchen, listening to Brazilian music, chopping veggies and prepping yet more dishes for tonight’s dinner. Suddenly, the day felt much more like Thanksgiving.

I had no real desire to leave, but off I went to my Portuguese lesson anyway, since it isn’t a real holiday here and life had to continue as normal. Besides, my conversations with my tutor usually leave me feeling energized, as I enjoy them a great deal. She’s the closest thing I have to a friend here, even if I pay to spend time with her, and as such it seemed fitting to see her on Thanksgiving.

My heart sank however when I walked in to find another student sitting in the classroom. I enjoy having a double lesson, but it’s a different experience than one-on-one, and the latter was what I’d been looking forward to. But oh well. This guy turned out to be Greek, and has been taking daily lessons with my tutor for a month now so that he can do a degree here.

Apparently all of us had woken up with cotton in our brains yesterday. My tutor couldn’t recall my name at one point, and I pulled similar blanks when it came to simple vocabulary and verb conjugations. Towards the end of class, we played a game where we had to name words beginning with a certain letter in five or six different categories — colors, objects, Portuguese cities, names, etc. I chose the letter “L,” and then could not think of anything for the city category. As soon as my Greek compatriot said “Lisboa,” I groaned. Hello! All I could say in my defense was that it was a holiday at home, and clearly my brain was participating.

As soon as class ended, I made one quick stop on the way to pick up the last couple of fresh fruits and veggies we needed, and then went straight home, eager to make what we could of our Thanksgiving evening. (Interesting cultural tidbit: when you buy grapes at the fruiterias, as I did last night, they don’t let you pick them out and bag them yourself. Instead they choose them, cut them, and bag them for you. But only the grapes, not any of the other produce or fruit. Hmm.)

When I got home, we decided it was late enough to call our families, so we hooked up Skype and called home. It was great to hear their voices and see their faces, and, feeling much revitalized by a hit of family time, we went out to have our own version of the holiday dinner.

We’d decided to have Indian, since it was the furthest thing away from turkey we could think of — and plus as Gabe pointed out, the word for India in Hebrew is the same as the word for turkey. So there you go. We went with a guidebook recommendation, and made our way into what turned out to be a whole Indian area of town. The restaurant we were looking for was tucked down a tiny side alley, with no sign to be found anywhere on the door. Always promising.

The place was called Temptations of Goa, and tempting it was indeed. We stuffed ourselves silly with some of the most delicious Indian food I’ve ever had, surrounded by gregarious Portuguese people and quirky, rich-colored decor. The waiter was very friendly, in a gruff kind of way, and spoke great English, happily explaining in both languages what the various exotic dishes were.

We had a chicken dish with an “x” in the name, which we were promised had at least 15 spices in it; a fish curry that I could not seem to stop eating; and for dessert, creamy mango ice cream spiced with cardamoms. Turkey and pumpkin pie it wasn’t, but amazing nonetheless. Thanks to an entire bottle of wine, which we hardly ever have, the evening passed merrily, and when we finally rolled ourselves out of there, we were shocked to discover it was 10:30 PM. Our timing is improving!

We wandered home through the chilly evening — it’s down to 10 degrees C at night here now! — and stopped to take some nighttime snapshots. In them you can see one of my favorite buildings here, a giant Art Nouveau hotel that appears to be closed for renovation. It features a huge open atrium in the top two stories (complete with full-sized palm trees), an ornately carved facade, and big glass spires reaching to the sky. Such an odd, fantastic building, especially when lit up at night.

So that was our Thanksgiving. Untraditional? Yes. Lonely without our families? Certainly. But full of good food and surrounded by the people we spend our lives with? Well, yes, in a way. I saw my tutor and the people at the gym, and Gabe saw his colleagues, all of whom in a way are our family here. And while we’ll do the whole Thanksgiving ritual at home many times throughout our lives, I can guarantee we will never do it in this exact way again. So it was almost worth it to be far from home — almost.

Looking at Thanksgiving from the outside also made me appreciate what a singularly American phenomenon it really is. My tutor asked me to explain it, and all I could say was that it’s an excuse to see your family and to eat. All of that is true of course, but as I read my Americans friends’ status updates on Facebook, I was struck by its real importance. Even if the true motivating factor is the food, Thanksgiving also gives us a chance to appreciate where we live and whom we live with. I think it makes people stop for at least a second to think about what they have to be grateful for — and in America, that is a whole hell of a lot.

For us though, the real celebration is yet to come. Tonight: the expat’s Fauxgiving! Pictures and stories tomorrow… assuming of course that I can roll myself out of bed. (The pictures below include some of our tiny little fridge stuffed to the gills with food — and that was before yesterday’s additions!)

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We spent the weekend with a veritable maelstrom of family, who all came into town for my dad’s third (and final) memorial.

Saturday night we hosted everyone at our little home in the country, with my uncle barbecuing like mad, my mom and aunt creating salad after salad, and our guests bringing many many more salads, chutneys, desserts, beers, etc to place on the long dining room table. They all arrived in a massive caravan, giving the country roads and villages a larger parade than they’ve no doubt seen in years.

In fact, we decided that we hadn’t had a gathering this large since my half-brother’s wedding over 25 years ago, as the intervening get-togethers have usually had at least two or three branches of the family missing. Not this one. I had cousins from Ireland, a friend from Scotland (my dear friend from grad school took the train all the way in from Edinburgh to be here — a total of 12 hours travel), a sister from Reading, brothers from California, Oxford, and London, an aunt and uncle from California, nieces and nephews from all over, and even a great-niece and -nephew from Wales. We stayed up talking, drinking, and of course, laughing. The whole time, all I could think of was how much my dad would have loved having everyone in one place like that.

The thought stayed with me throughout his memorial the next day, as even more far-flung cousins, colleagues, and friends poured in to Oxford to say goodbye to a great man. I was finally able to place faces with names I’d been hearing for my whole life, and they very clearly felt the same way about both Gabriel and I. The memorial itself was lovely, with each person reading a piece of the long biography my mom and half-brother wrote for my dad’s first memorial in February. It provided just enough structure that people didn’t go off on too many tangents, but still provided room for people to share their personal memories, making for much laughter and tears all around.

The day continued with drinks, food, punting, and more food, all of which my dad would’ve strongly approved. We scattered his ashes in the river near one of his favorite pubs, saying our goodbyes in a manner truly fitting to his life.

It was a wonderful and moving day, and I think he more than anyone would’ve had a grand old time. Perhaps, somewhere, he did. I hope so.

I just read part of an article in Newsweek about a “leadership lid” for women. Sarah Palin notwithstanding, women are still not making it into the upper echelon of business, law, banking, you name it. Every time I read about these inequalities, it just makes me wonder: what if they’re not there because they don’t want to be? Isn’t it unfair to hold women up to a measure of success as created and defined by men — and then find them lacking?

I am a smart, capable woman. I probably could have gone far in business, academia, perhaps even law. Instead, I chose to go far within myself, putting my family first and my career second. I’m pretty sure my mom made the same choice around my age, and it has taken her to heights of success that she could not have imagined at that time in her life. But it’s true, she’s not the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Nor do I think she would want to be. Instead, she has built a great career and raised two children to adulthood, who are now mostly sane and well-balanced individuals in their own right. And, unlike certain high-powered women currently in the political spotlight, neither of us had teenage pregnancies (or foisted them on others, in the case of my brother).

My mother is and has always been a wife and mother first, career woman second. Yes, that does mean she doesn’t have a private yacht, a closet full of Armani, or her face on the cover of magazines. But I’m pretty sure that’s OK with her. I have made and will continue to make similar choices, choices that allow me to put the intangibles before tangible career success. This does not mean that I am lacking in ambition, talent, or intelligence. It simply means that my intelligence lies elsewhere, and you can’t measure in the same concrete way as say a successful politician or the partner of a prestigious law firm.

I realize that I’m coming off as extremely sexist. Don’t get me wrong — of course I think women should have equal opportunities, and it’s a shame that institutionalized sexism can still keep women from attaining all that they are capable of doing. But when examining the evidence for claims like these, I think it often goes overlooked that women are different, biologically and emotionally. They have different goals and priorities than men do, and they make vastly different choices. Measuring them by the Fortune 500 rubric and then saying they don’t add up only devalues the choices and contributions that they do make on a daily basis.

Trust me — I’m pretty sure that women can do just about anything they put their minds to. So if they still aren’t as prevalent in the upper ranks of leadership, even in this day and age, then that makes me pretty damn sure that their minds might be elsewhere.

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

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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