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On Saturday, our tour of the Moorish castle and the Palacio da Pena was haunted by a group of four young American exchange students. I knew that’s what they were because try as I might, I couldn’t help but overhear their loud conversations saying as much. The two girls were kitted out in skirts, leggings, big scarves, and tall boots, while the guys were dressed at their nattiest, with slicked hair, leather jackets, and fancy decals on the back pockets of their jeans. One of them was even wearing aviator sunglasses (on a rainy day) and a big cross pendant with fake diamonds. Nice touch.

At first, they were mildly entertaining. When they passed us on the way out of the Moorish castle, one of the girls was saying, “You know, Madrid and Barcelona were like, the same, so like, I didn’t care which one I went to.” Right. Two major European cities, with centuries’ worth of history. Exactly the same. Sure. We had a laugh over that, and forgot about them.

Until we ended up right behind them on the tour of the palace. They dissolved into laughter after peeking into one of the rooms on the ground floor, and one of the girls said loudly, “That painting looks like Abraham Lincoln naked!” Oh jeez. Really, I’m so proud to be an American, I can’t even tell you. We hurriedly bypassed them, skipping a few rooms, and went up the stairs in search of my half brother and sister, who had gone ahead of us while we bought tickets.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the last we saw of these four. Since we had left the palace after it closed, there was a huge crowd of people waiting for the bus to go back down to the city, and we couldn’t all fit onto the first one. So we waited around in the cold for fifteen minutes til the next bus came. When it did, I quickly pushed my way on and found a seat, and Gabe came to stand in front of me when he got on the bus some time later (I don’t deal well with waiting in big lines.)

To my regret, the two American guys ended up standing right beside me, so I was privy to both the blinged-out cross and their inane conversation. The girls got seats further back in the bus, so the two guys took the chance to gossip about them and puff their chests out a bit. “I think she likes me, dude. Why would she do that if she didn’t like me?” I didn’t mind at first, as I always think it’s funny to find out that guys talk about girls as much as girls talk about guys.

Pretty soon though, their conversation got obscene and really distasteful, and I gritted my teeth and grimaced out the foggy bus window as they got more and more crude. Finally, I’d had enough. I turned to them and said, “Hey guys, other people can understand your conversation here. Some of us speak English and know what you’re talking about, so why don’t you save that conversation for later, OK?”

The shock on their faces told me I’d judged correctly: they thought they were safe to talk like that on a crowded bus because they’ve grown used to assuming that no one can understand them. I remember doing the same thing when I was nineteen and living in France — my friends and I thought English was our secret language, and used it to gossip just as we did in French back at home. In a suburban community in the south of France, it was usually a fairly safe bet that we spoke too fast for most people to understand. But at a major tourist destination, it’s slightly different.

To be fair, although they continued talking about their girl friends, their conversation did clean up after that. I turned back to the window, embarrassed and somewhat shocked at myself. I felt like such an old prude, correcting young boys for their language, unable to handle their posturing and attempts to feel tough. But I had to say something, as I didn’t want them to think that treating girls that way was acceptable — and I certainly didn’t want that to be the image other people have of Americans!

In the past, I would’ve just continued to grit my teeth, no matter how much their conversation bothered me. But I think that our time here has raised my standards in terms of respecting women, and I couldn’t just let it slide.

European men are indeed more open about their appreciation, which I think puts a lot of Americans off. Yes they look, and sometimes they even flirt, as one of the trainers at the gym did yesterday. But other than the man who tried to grab my ass in the grocery store, I have been treated with nothing but respect and honor by every man I have encountered here. To me, that kind of open appreciation is a whole lot better than the sly, secretive perversion I heard from those two boys on the bus, which is more or less what I grew up with and took for granted for most of my life.

In fact, it wasn’t until I met Gabe that I realized it didn’t have to be that way. He is an exception to the American rule, an old-world kind of guy, one who opens doors, pays for dinner, and pulls out the chair for you to sit down. At first all of that bothered me, but I’ve grown to take it for granted now as a sign of the respect he holds both for me as a person and me as a woman.

It was with all of this in mind that I scolded those two boys, prudish and old lady-like as it made me seem. I’m sure none of what I said actually made a difference, but I felt it was my responsibility to show them just once that it wasn’t acceptable to treat women in that way. Unfortunately, the girls they were talking about probably had no such compunction, as so often in our culture, the bad guys do get the girls. Sigh.

Of course the four of them then ended up on the same train car as us on the way back to Lisbon, but thankfully they sat at the other end. Instead I was treated to overhearing another group of American students, who were sitting at the our end of the car. Although their conversation was innocuous, even their accents made me cringe. I was certainly not feeling proud to be an American at that point, and couldn’t wait to get back to Lisbon, where I could safely tune out all the conversations around me.

I’m telling you — kids these days. No respect for their elders. Or their women. Or themselves.

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Yesterday provided a sad and ironic addendum to my earlier observations about feminism in Portugal. Working theory: it is not live and well. At all.

We spent the afternoon working in a cafe again, with plans to go to the gym later on. I needed to ask them to put my membership on hold while we’re home next month anyway, and I thought I could use a swim to get out the last dregs of a difficult week. So down we went, and dealt with the bureaucracy of putting my membership on hold.

Now, a word of context about our gym here in Lisbon. We chose this one solely because it’s convenient — less than five minutes’ walk from our house. But we knew at the time that it was a big, impersonal chain, like the McDonald’s of gyms: you always get the same experience, wherever you go. It’s a big change compared to my small, funky, community-oriented gym at home, but for less than a year, it’s OK.

Increasingly though, this gym has been working hard to lose my allegiance. They are all about bureaucracy and rules — and using them to nickel and dime their members. Don’t have a lock for your locker? We’ll sell you one for 13 euros. Want a big towel so you can shower? OK, but it’ll be 6 euros a month, on top of the 80 you’re already paying. Forgot your swim cap, which oh by the way, you are required to wear in the pool or hot tub? No problem! We’ll sell you one for 5 euros.

Oh and PS, you can’t wear indoor shoes in the gym or pool areas, and have to put on lame little plastic booties like you’re in a hospital. (At least they don’t charge for those!) And you’re required to have two “wellness checks” with a trainer during your first year here, the second of which will cost you 30 euros.

The list of rules and requirements go on and on, but after a month, I thought I had most of them covered. Wrong.

After changing for my swim, I went to the bathroom prior to entering the pool area. Now, keep in mind here that I only own bikinis, and do not own a one-piece swimsuit. My torso is freakishly long, so I find them uncomfortable to swim in. In the month I’ve been a member at this gym, I have been wearing my two perfectly adequate bikinis in the pool or hot tub at least 3 or 4 times a week. So far this has never been a problem.

This time though, there was a staff member in the bathroom area, getting ready for work. When I came out, she stopped me and asked if I was going in the pool. Although I understood her perfectly well, I gave her my patented blank “I’m an American, I don’t understand” look to hide my real thoughts, which ran along the lines of, “Are you a moron?! I’m wearing a swimsuit, of course I’m going in the pool!”

Switching to English, she said, “You can’t wear this in the pool, you must have a…” She didn’t know the word for one-piece swimsuit, but I understood full well what she meant by her pantomiming in the area of her stomach.

I said, “OK, well I haven’t seen anything that said that, but I will get one for next time. I promise. OK?” I took her lack of reaction as assent, and even though I was angry and upset by this treatment, I steeled myself and went out to the pool anyway. Anger always makes for a better workout, and this was no exception. The first 15 minutes of my swim were great, really powerful, fueled by righteous anger and the residue of my hard week.

Just as I was getting tucked into the freestyle portion of my workout, however, I came to the end of the lane to find legs and feet waiting above. I looked up to find another staff person standing there, with lame plastic booties on her feet and an apologetic look on her face. She spoke no English, other than “I’m very sorry,” but I knew what she was about. I told her, “I’ll get one for next time, I promise,” but she wouldn’t budge. I actually had to cut short my workout and get out of the pool, with this woman apologizing at every step of the way.

Now let me get something straight here: the swimsuit I was wearing was by no means revealing. It had string ties, yes, but it was certainly no more revealing than the off-white, paper-thin Speedo I’ve seen one man wearing a couple of times, or the girls who wear nothing but low-cut sport bras and hipster spandex pants to spin class. Do they get their workouts cut short? I don’t think so! Um hello, double standards?!?

Even if I had been wearing a particularly skimpy swimsuit, there were at the time a total of two other people in there with me: a man working with his personal trainer, both of whom were completely absorbed in what they were doing. There are almost no open windows onto the pool, so no one walking by can see in — although you can see down into the pool from the reception area, which must have been how I was busted. But basically there was very little risk of shocking anyone with my scantily clad self.

What’s more, this rule about wearing a one-piece wasn’t posted anywhere that either Gabe or I could see. Nowhere. These people make no bones about posting their rules and regs, either — there are signs saying “You must wear a swimcap!” or “No street shoes allowed in the workout room.” Nothing about bikinis though. This was the first I’d heard of it, and like I said, I’ve been wearing nothing but to swim for a month now.

And the crowning glory, the ultimate irony, of all this: the gym recently added a class called “Made in Brazil,” a workout aimed at your glutes. They plastered posters and fliers for this class all over the place — in the locker rooms, on the cardio machines, everywhere. Every single ad for it has a picture of a girl’s torso and butt (and a very nice one at that), taken from an upward and very revealing angle. Frankly even I was a little shocked when I first saw it.

And what, you might ask, graces this butt that we are all supposed to envy and emulate? A bikini. Of course.

So they will use sex to advertise their classes and guilt-trip women into going to them, but if you happen to actually wear something similar, you are prevented from finishing your workout. Beautiful. Wonderful. Irony. The paradigm of the madonna and the whore is apparently alive and well in Portugal.

This was the last straw for me. For the last ten years of my life, exercise has been my refuge, my safe space, the place I retreat to when the world gets overwhelming. Upset? Go for a run. Tired? Do yoga. Got too much on your mind? Simple: sweat it out. No matter what, no matter how busy or stressed or depressed or angry I’ve been during college, grad school, work, my dad’s illness, our move, whatever — exercise has always been the answer, or at least a way of reframing things so that I could eventually work my way through to the answer. And after a week of feeling isolated, lonely, and dealing with far too much emotional crap, all I needed was a nice powerful swim, my head in the water, no one talking to me in any language, just movement and silence and the water rushing by. Simple.

But no. Because of this gym and their prudish double standards, their petty rules and lame enforcement, I couldn’t get more than a 15-minute workout in. How is this customer service? I pay way too much to be told what to wear when I exercise! Ridiculous.

I quickly showered and changed, told Gabe what had happened, and left as fast as I could, feeling embarrassed and confused, rejected by the one place where I was starting to feel the beginnings of community.

Somehow though, outrage and hurt aside, the absurdity of this episode made for a fitting end to a week that really just needed to be written off anyway. We did so by going up to the same multiplex we’d been to after Gabe’s illness, eating at the same cheap but delicious buffet we’d gone to before, and seeing The Brothers Bloom, a fun, quirky, silly movie that we’d somehow missed at home.

Because really, after being confronted by such blatant absurdity in the real world, what else is there to do but retreat into fiction for a while?

Most of my day yesterday was perfectly normal and pleasant. I went for a swim in the morning, studied Portuguese for a while, talked to my mom on Skype, then took a different, longer way to class so that I could do a bit of exploring on the way. Class went well, although once we get beyond simple thoughts and opinions in Portuguese, it’s far too easy to lapse back into English. Alas.

As I was walking home through the warm, drowsy sunlight of the late afternoon, I had such a huge sense of well-being, enjoying every new run-down building I came across, really soaking it all in and almost pinching myself as I thought: I really live here!

All this was blown apart, however, by one chance encounter with a pig of a man in the grocery store. I debated whether or not to write anything about it here, but I think it serves as an example of something I haven’t really touched on yet: Portuguese men’s attitude toward women.

This particular man was the worst I’d encountered yet — one of those people who just takes up a lot of room, physically and psychically. As a result, he dominated the entire tiny grocery store that I stop in on my way home from class: talking loudly on his phone, making comments to the guy working there, and taking up as much room as physically possible in each narrow aisle. It seemed that every time I turned a corner, there he was, blocking my way and then forcefully brushing by me, even when there was plenty of room on the other side.

At one point, he pulled this little trick while he was walking behind me, which resulted in the back of his hand oh-so-nonchalantly swiping my backside as he walked by. I’m sure if I’d confronted him he would’ve played the innocent, but it was clearly an intentional accident. As it was I was so astonished that I just turned around and gaped at him as he walked away, outraged and speechless to protest in any language, much less Portuguese. Luckily I was almost done with my shop, so I bundled up my anger along with my lettuce and cucumber and grumbled my way home.

So there went my nice afternoon, which was later redeemed somewhat by walking up to the miradoure above our house with my sweet, respectful, gentlemanly husband and watching the sun set over the city.

My point here is not to prove how European men are pigs. In fact I’m telling this story to illustrate that this idiot was an exception to the norm here in Lisbon — a norm I’ve gotten so accustomed to that I didn’t even realize how much I took it for granted until it was violated.

Don’t get me wrong, men here are definitely more open in their appreciation of women. Time after time, I have seen men on the street openly stare at and evaluate every single woman who walks by, no matter what their shape or description. It’s funny and predictable, but thoroughly harmless.

I have also been the subject of such frank evaluation myself, but have never once felt threatened by it. When I’m with Gabe, men always look away, respectful of another man’s woman. But even when I’m by myself, they leave me alone — unlike other countries I’ve gone to solo, where I’ve had to retreat to my hotel room when I got tired of the comments and stares. Although the men here are far from subtle in their appreciation, they are not disrespectful, and I never feel unsafe.

Until yesterday, that is, when this guy crossed that invisible boundary between appreciation and disrespect. I wasn’t as much angry in my own right as much as I felt that he had violated some unspoken rule of conduct, crossed a line that is for the most part inviolable in this society. Just as I found in Cuba, the appreciation for women’s beauty here is combined with a deep respect for them, an old and almost chivalrous attitude, especially towards married women. So as much as this guy pissed me off, it’s nice to know that this kind of behavior is far from the norm. Thank goodness. But watch out for those skinny supermarket aisles — they’ll get you every time.

Speaking of which, in unrelated and much better news — we were pleasantly surprised last night by the early arrival of our hypermarche delivery, which was scheduled to come between 8 and 10:30 PM. It being Portugal, we were prepared for it to arrive at the later end of that window, but the truck pulled up as we were sitting down to dinner at 7:45! The guys proceeded to carry everything inside in one fell swoop, and left us with a plethora of bags on our floor.

This weekend, serious organizing and nesting awaits me. I can hardly wait.

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.

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.

I read an article yesterday that pissed me off. It was probably intended to do so, and if so, well, it succeeded. It was called “Are Men Boring?,” from the summer edition of Intelligent Life, a new (and rather intelligent) lifestyle magazine from the Economist. The author, Sabine Durrant, recounts story after factoid after study to prove that men are more “boring,” self-centered, introverted, and downright sullen than women.

OK, fair enough — I will admit that we girls like to bond through talking things over, again and again, until we are blue in the face. I won’t deny that.

I will contend, however, that not all men are boring. In fact, I am married to a man who, by Durrant’s standards, is far less boring than I am myself. He is a much better conversationalist than I am, and when we go to parties or social gatherings, I rely on him to keep the flow of conversation going. I am too much of an introvert to have much of a knack for small talk. Durrant quotes Paula Hall, a counsellor, in attributing our differences to “Jungian personality types,” wherein “the introverted is attracted to the extroverted.” According to Hall, women often complain that their men “just sit there”.

I don’t doubt that opposites do attract. In our case, however, it is often me and not my husband who “just sits there,” at least in social settings anyway. It’s much easier for me to let him take the burden of keeping the conversation going, which he seems to do effortlessly. I’m generally far too fascinated by group dynamics to actually uphold my own responsibility to be a part of that group. I prefer to sit back and watch the flow, seeing how certain things affect certain people, feeling the undercurrents of human interaction. With my extroverted husband around, I don’t have to worry about leaving awkward silences trailing behind me as I fade into the background. It suits us both perfectly.

My husband isn’t alone in his defiance of gender stereotypes, either. For the most part, all of his friends are sociable, friendly fellows — and not in a boring, self-important way, as the men of Durrant’s acquaintance seem to be. Their conversations are generally well-informed and entertaining, ranging far beyond just their personal accomplishments or professional lives.

What’s more, all of my husband’s friends love to talk. In fact, when they come to visit, usually I am the first to cry mercy and head off to bed, leaving the boys to stay up talking til all hours of the morning. But not so for the men in Durrant’s life. In the article, she describes a friend’s dinner out with her husband, a rare enough event for two new parents. Her friend later told her about her husband’s complete silence during their dinner, marveling, “If I’d been with you or another girlfriend, even if we’d seen each other earlier in the day, we’d have been gabbling away 19 to the dozen.”

When I read this story, I just had to laugh. See, my husband is currently on the last day of a four-day bachelor party trip to Tahoe with his friends from graduate school. That means plenty of cat time for me, alone and quiet in the house. But it also means tons of dog time for him, hanging out and talking with old friends he hardly ever sees any more. The one time I have spoken to him all weekend, their voices were loud in the background, chatting and laughing just as much as my friends and I did on a similar bachelorette weekend back in May. Nineteen to the dozen indeed. Now who’s gabbling?

And really, it’s not just men that I know, either. Last weekend, my brother and I did a trail run in the local state park, which tends to be crowded on summer weekends. A group of three men, older than us but clearly highly proficient runners, passed us both on the way out and on the way back. (Here I noticed my competitive, military-trained brother yearning to speed up, but he survived the temptation and generously kept himself to my more sedate pace.)

Both times they came roaring up behind us, I swear it could’ve been a gaggle of women for the amount of loud, high-spirited chatter flowing between them. They were all three talking excitedly in rapid, breathless bursts, gossiping and laughing their way up and down the trail. Besides being in awe of their ability to talk so much while maintaining such a rapid pace, I just had to laugh at the sheer wonderful exuberance of their conversation. Anyone who truly believes that women talk more than men just has to listen to a group of guys like that, or to my husband and his friends, and they will be hard pressed to maintain their belief.

Perhaps Californians really are different than the rest of the world. Or perhaps Durrant just isn’t socializing with a large enough group of people. Instead of finding men “crashingly dull,” as she seems to, I have always found that some of the most fascinating and entertaining people in my life, hands down, are men. I spend about 75% of my time with either my husband, my brother, or my dad, which to me says a lot.

So I’m sorry, but no, men are not boring. Some of them are, but I’ve also met my fair share of abysmally boring women, too. In fact, to many who meet me in a social setting, I probably appear quite boring myself! In general, the men I know are just as diverse, funny, profound, loving, and sociable as the women, and in some cases much more so. To say otherwise seems to me both sexist and small-minded, or at least far too quick to lump the majority of interesting, verbose men in with the few bad apples that are taciturn and, well, boring.

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

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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