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I’m finding it quite startling to have a social life again, as it seems that everyone wants to see and catch up with us after our return. I actually double booked myself today, and am trying to avoid doing so over the weekend.

After a year of hobbitude, this is a totally foreign concept. I am happier with things this way, but part of me also yearns for the simplicity of my Portuguese hobbit days, which were so much less complicated and required a lot less planning.

Alas.

So we continue our string of Lasts in Lisbon. Sundays are a special thing here in Portugal, at least for an American accustomed to the all-out pace of modern life, which stops for no man, God, or weekend. Here they actually believe in taking a day of rest. Everything is shut down on Sundays, the streets are empty, people go to their family’s house to have long, leisurely lunches with their loved ones (that’s how I’ve imagined it anyway — perhaps they just sit by themselves all day and watch TV.)

We arrived on a Sunday, which in hindsight was bad timing on our part, since it meant that we (or at least I) got a very skewed sense of the town when we first landed. The streets looked desolate and deserted, the trash hadn’t been picked up since Friday night, the bathrooms in our temporary grad student housing hadn’t been cleaned in two days, and no restaurants or stores were open. I was none too happy about all of this.

Since that unfortunate first Sunday, we have come to cherish our domingos as a day off, when we have the streets to ourselves and the museums are free til 2 PM.  Every other day of the week, the frenetic pace of the city bears down on you as if to say “Look how busy we all are, rushing to and fro! What are you getting done today?” But from the minute I wake up on a Sunday, I feel relaxed, as there’s no pressure for me to accomplish anything because no one else is doing anything either. Everything seems slower, more chilled out. Sundays are a good thing in Portugal.

To make the most of our last one here, we plan on going to a museum we haven’t been to before, and then stopping to eat our final pasteis de Belem — which will be a very difficult goodbye indeed.

In that same category, we said goodbye a couple of our Portuguese friends last night, J and A, those with the new baby. They invited us out to A’s birthday party, which was held at J’s mother’s house in a beachfront town called Costa de Caparica, across the river to the south of Lisbon. Even though the town itself is only about a fifteen minute drive away, to get there without a car required a metro ride to the bus stop, then a very crowded and noisy 45 minute bus ride to Costa. All of which served to completely ruin the good mood I was in earlier in the day.

I soon cheered up again when we got to our friends’ house, with their young son in my arms and their beautiful backyard blocking out all thought of busy buses and city streets. We spent an hour or so with our friends before the rest of the guests started showing up, including both of their families and a few of their other friends. It was wonderful to meet everyone in our friends’ lives, and even more so to be included in such an intimate and warm gathering.

Of course everyone was speaking Portuguese, but as soon as Gabe explained to people that I understood it, they had no qualms with including me in the conversation and letting me respond in English, which everyone more or less understood. In this manner, I managed to get through an entire party without once making an ass of myself, or even feeling left out at all.

If we’d gone to a party like that when we first arrived, I would’ve felt hugely uncomfortable, and probably wouldn’t even have wanted to go. But yesterday, I didn’t even give it a second thought — I was far more concerned with how long it would take to get there, and didn’t care at all that I’d be surrounded by people with whom I didn’t share a language. Goes to show how far my comfort zone has expanded this year.

In fact I felt more comfortable than I do at most English-speaking parties, because at least I had an excuse for being my usual introverted self. Every time Gabe explained to someone that I don’t speak very well, I thought to myself, “Wow I wish he could do that for me at every party — just tell people I don’t like to talk! It works like a charm!” Alas, it’s a little antisocial when there’s no language barrier. Perhaps we can just pretend I’m Russian or something…

After bidding a very sad adios (or ate breve, I hope) to our friends, we got a ride back to Lisbon with A’s sister, her boyfriend, and a whole freeway full of Lisboans returning from a day at the beach. I didn’t mind the traffic though, as anything beat being in the bus again. As we crossed the April 25 bridge, we had an amazing view of the sunset over Cascais and Belem to our left, and the twinkling, sparkling city with the castle presiding over it to the right.

That first Sunday, all I wanted to do was go home. Last night, looking out at the city putting on her sparkles for a big Saturday night, I caught myself wondering what it would be like to stay, to make a real life with these people, this place. I know it could never happen, but just like when you’re a house guest, it’s always better to leave while you still wish you didn’t have to.

In my opinion, that’s an excellent note to leave on.

I’m starting to think of our family’s visit as a kind of goodbye tour for us. As we’re introducing them to the people and places we’ve come to love over the past year, we’re also saying goodbye to those same things. Once again, bittersweet, to realize how much we’ve created for ourselves here, and how soon it will be gone.

Yesterday we got a very late start, in fact it was more of a non-start than a late start. But we did manage to get out in the late afternoon, do a bit of shopping and wandering and coffee drinking, then went to S&S’s house for dinner. They hadn’t been able to make it to our little get together last weekend, and we wanted Gabe’s family to be able to meet them as well. S is going back to France on Thursday, not to return til the day we leave, so our time with her is drawing to a close at an even faster rate than the others. I’m trying not to think about it.

As we entered their beautiful, airy apartment, which is deceptively quiet during the daytime, it occurred to me that it may well be the last time we do so. I tried to put that thought out of my head, however, and focus on the moment at hand, which involved our family, good friends, a lot of snacks and veggies and quiche, and excellent port wine. That was followed by a trip to our favorite wine bar down the block, which we’ve tried to take S&S to before but never when it was actually open. It turned out that one of their colleagues was having his retirement party there, which they’d been invited to anyway, so we just joined in and went along for the ride. Small town, as usual.

So the backwards countdown continues: last trip to Sintra, last pasteis de Belem (there’s always time for more of those!), last time in our friends’ flat… etc. Of course just as we’re doing all this and getting ready to leave, I am realizing just how sweet our life here really is, and how hard an adjustment it will be to go back to “normal” life at home.

The weather is not making it any easier, either — after a year of epic rains, it’s finally gotten nice for our last month here, and has been up into the 80s every day for the past 2 weeks. So after having chosen Portugal mainly for its good weather, we will have had a grand total of about two months out of ten that were actually consistently warm. Way to go, us.

Next time, southern hemisphere, I’m telling you.

Meanwhile, here’s us on the elevador, riding up the hill to dinner…

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My dear friend C has gone back to colder climes, and already her absence is making itself felt. I walked into the office/guest room this morning and was greeted with a waft of her perfume, left behind as a reminder of the warmth and friendship she brought to our flat this week. Having her here was bittersweet: one part wonderful, to have a friend here after so long on my own; one part sad, as it made me realize just how lonely I have been. The resulting mixture made me even more eager to return home, in just six short weeks from today.

This week, we also officially passed the one-month marker til our departure from Lisbon. So as we are wandering these sights we’ve seen so many times now — Belem, Sintra, the castle — at the back of my mind, I’m constantly aware that it might well be the last time we do so. Again, bitter and sweet. But mostly sweet, as it’s been great to show our loved ones around, to see things anew through their eyes and discover the wonder of our adopted city all over again. A good reminder to have just before we leave.

Today is a work day, so I can’t write much, but I will leave you with some photos of the past week:

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What a delight it was after such a long year alone to turn around on the streets of Barrio Alto yesterday and see not only our family but also one of my best friends in the world trailing along after us. It made me so happy to see.

Even more so when a few hours later we were surrounded by (almost) all of our friends here, drinking wine and eating snacks and cookies, chatting as if everyone had known each other for ages. It’s always fun to bring together good people from different parts of your life and see them get along so well.

In particular, Gabe’s brother in law and our friend J had a great time, talking wine and politics and cars and planes late into the night. Ever since we met J, I have wanted him to meet Gabe’s family, as I knew they would get along like a house on fire. And oh, it’s nice to be right.

Today, more of the same. Happy day.

Right now I’m sitting on the futon in our office, listening to the world wake up (including unfortunately the jackhammering guy at the construction site around the block, who kept me company all day yesterday, too.) Across the valley, I can see our friend J’s apartment, and just below it, a swirling gyre of swallows, picking out the early morning bugs. I will miss this view, and this small flat as well, this place that has provided me with sanity, quiet (most of the time), and refuge in an overwhelming, intense city.

Another thing I will miss deeply is our friends here. I’m kind of surprised by that realization, because up until a few months ago, I wouldn’t have expected that to be true. But friendships have a way of sneaking up on you when you’re least expecting them.

After our friend S stayed the night on Saturday, we shared breakfast while Gabe was sleeping, and we talked. It was the first time we’d ever really talked one on one, as our respective partners have always been with us whenever we’ve met up before, so we’ve never had a chance to really bond. I knew I liked her, but in talking with her at length, I discovered a great depth of feeling and complexity that I had only guessed at before.

Of course I figure this out five and a half weeks before we leave Lisbon, of which she is going to be in France for the last 3. Go figure.

Even so, I am so pleased and surprised to have made even one real friend here, someone that I can truly confide in and talk with about what’s going on in our lives. I hadn’t expected to really, as good friendships happen maybe once every couple of years, if you’re really lucky.

So here’s a lesson to be learned about sabbatical: it takes six to nine months to start to make that kind of friendship. You meet good people, you cultivate them, you tend your relationship carefully. Then, just as you discover that your efforts have paid off, it’s time to leave.

But as the saying goes, better to have loved and lost, etc. The same goes for friendship. I am glad to have made this and all our other friendships this year, as we’ve certainly found an extraordinary group of people here.

My early birthday party last night was a smash success. I discovered long ago that the bigger the plans you make for “special” days, like birthdays and New Years, the bigger your disappointment can and probably will be. So even though I love nothing more than making a plan, I keep those special days very minimal. Then, when the time comes, I can sit back and reap simple joys out of simple things.

The number one ingredient to a successful low-key celebration: people I care about. Even before we went home for Christmas, I asked Gabe if we could go home again for my birthday, since I figured that was the best place to go to find people I love. Never did I expect that six months later, I would myself sitting on a bench in a beautiful park right here in Lisbon, looking out at an amazing view of the city and surrounded by a small group of people whom I care about very deeply. No 15-hour flight, no jetlag, no weird hunger pangs in the middle of the night. None of that. All I had to do was walk up the hill. What a concept!

We started out at the mirador, eating snacks and drinking wine provided by our wonderful friends. We even had a tablecloth — how civilized! I opened my goodie bag of presents, all of them reminders of Lisbon, which I’m sure will cheer me up when we’re back in foggy Santa Cruz and I’m missing these long summer evenings on the mirador. Plus every one of them was small, light, and easily packable — lovely and thoughtful, to boot!

After the wind got too chilly, we went down the hill to the little restaurant that just opened up down the street from us. We were a little skeptical of taking our friends to a new and untried restaurant, but they seemed game, so we went. We asked the lady (who now recognizes us from the myriad times we’ve walked by and said hello) if she had room for ten people, and she jumped up from her seat outside, saying “Oh yes, we’ll set you a really nice table, it’ll be great!” I think we were their entire income for the day. She was thrilled.

We completely filled the tiny downstairs space, which was warm, cozy, and soon very noisy with the sound of our voices. There was only one little grill in the kitchen upstairs, so it took them quite a while to prepare all ten dishes, but no one seemed to mind. Once the food came, it was very salty but delicious, and we ate it quickly, talking nonstop the entire time. It’s always such a relief to bring a bunch of different people together and have them get along.

Everyone was tired, as they were either sick and/or had been up late the night before, so we parted ways soon after dinner ended (at nearly 11 PM!) I went to bed deeply happy, grateful for the people we have come to know here. I miss my friends and family, but I have spent many birthdays with them, and have many more to come. So last night, I was surprised to discover that I didn’t want to be anywhere else but right here, surrounded by the small community of incredibly intelligent, generous, warm people we’ve found here. And that was the best birthday present of all.

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My birthday celebration (slightly early) with our Lisboan friends is this evening, and inevitably, I was so excited that I couldn’t fall asleep last night. I may be turning 30, but I’m still ten years old when it comes to much-anticipated events: can’t sleep a wink. Sigh. Of course the warm night and the loudly barking dog outside our window didn’t help matters much, but still. Some things do not change with age, although I am still holding out hope that this one will, eventually.

For said celebrations, we’re planning on meeting some friends at the mirador, having some wine and snacks, enjoying the sunset, and then perhaps going on to dinner or whatever later on. Last night, Gabe and I did a practice run, just to make sure everything would run smoothly, of course.

It was a gorgeous evening, warm and still, the kind of night we’ve waited all year to have. We don’t get nights like that in foggy Santa Cruz, which does make for easier sleeping conditions, but also means that taking a walk at 8 PM without a sweater of any kind is still a total novelty.

As we were standing in line at the wine bar, we noticed a familiar face in front of us: our landlord. Just a month or so ago, we ran into him in a similar situation, when he was in front of us in line at the movies. We must stop meeting like this!

With his typical hospitality, he greeted us and immediately asked what we wanted to drink. So we stood by the kiosk, drinking our wine with him and one of his sons, whom we’d met a couple times while in the process of renting the flat last autumn.

They are truly funny guys, far more British than Portuguese, with a slight twinge to their accent, a certain taste in their wardrobes, and of course that wry, sly sense of humor. They also know everyone under the sun, including the DJ, the guys who owned the wine bar, and someone in Sweden that they told us would provide us with a list of insider’s tips for our visit next week. They are the definition of well-connected, and it’s easy to see why, with their easy good looks, quickly generous nature, and what is clearly a keen familial business sense. Funny guys, all around, and unexpected yet good company for our Friday night glass of wine at the mirador.

We finished our wine and continued on down through the town, encountering many tourists and a regional food and craft fair set up in the Rossio square. Once the Inquisition burned people in that same square, but now you can go there to listen to Portuguese folk music and buy cheeses from the Serra da Estrela or tastes of ginjinha, strong sickly-sweet cherry liqueur sold in little chocolate cups. How things change.

Tonight, we will repeat the first part of this experience with the small but lovely group of people we’ve come to call our friends here in Lisbon. Community, like comfort level, is something that grows so gradually that you don’t even realize it’s there. Then you look around, and suddenly, you know people. You run into your landlord and have drinks with them, you greet your neighbor in the street and ask about their grandson, you bemoan the warm weather with the local shop owner, and you celebrate your birthday with people you have come to value and love.

When the nights are warm, the wine is cool, and the company is good — life is sweet indeed.

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.

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

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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