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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now… back to unpacking.

Last night, we were roasting, er, sitting in our living room waiting for my cousin to arrive. I was reading, Gabe was managing some stocks, and the World Cup match was on in the background, vuvuzelas buzzing away in counterpoint to the commentators’ voices.

When I heard the distinctive throaty sound of a taxi pulling up outside our building, I jumped up to look. I was disappointed to see not my cousin, but rather a family of what looked like Germans disgorging from the station wagon taxi along with their luggage. I assumed they were heading for the upstairs holiday flat rental, and after having a good long spy on them, I went back to my book.

After they’d stood there on the street looking bewildered for a good five minutes, I took pity and offered to let them into the building while they waited for the flat’s owner to show up. They seemed hugely relieved to get in off the street, but I couldn’t figure out why until the man, dragging a large suitcase behind him, asked me in excellent English, “How is this area, is it nice?” The wife, coming in the door behind him, chimed in by saying, “Yes, it is safe? We weren’t sure from the way it looks…”

I was shocked by their perception of our very nice, quiet street, and assured them that no, it’s a great area, really central, quiet, and yes, safe. I left them to their own devices after that, but couldn’t shake my surprise at their reaction. “How could they think such a thing?” I wondered. “Can’t they tell this is a great area?”

Almost immediately, I had to chide myself for judging them, because of course I thought the exact same thing when we first arrived in Lisbon. Everything looked run down and dirty, graffiti, dog poo, and trash were everywhere, the buildings were crumbling, the stores were tiny and seemed to have only dusty, ancient food in them. My first reaction, in other words, was none too positive — and yes, I too wondered about how safe it was.

Of course since then I have come to realize that we came in on the worst possible day, a Sunday, when nothing is open, no one is around, and the trash service doesn’t run. We were also staying in a less touristy and more gritty area of town, which to my very spoiled American eyes was clearly a den of iniquity and danger. So by the time we found the area where we’re now living, it seemed like a paragon of cleanliness (or at least mere grubbiness,) surrounded by shady parks and sweetly shambolic houses. So no, this area has never once felt unsafe or unsavory to me, hence my surprise at the Germans’ reaction.

Of greater surprise was my own reaction to their question. I felt almost defensive of our area, and wanted to point out the little old lady next door who walks her tiny yappy dog at all hours of the day and night; the restoration artist across the street who lets his grandson play in his shop while he works; the neighborhood special needs man who helps everyone with their groceries; or the gang of little African children down the street who play soccer in the street and run wild all day long. Even the group of guys who hang out at the bar on the corner are totally harmless — they’ve never even hassled me once as I walked by on my way to the gym or store. See?! Totally safe! I felt less secure when I lived in central London, for God’s sake! What’s wrong with you people?!

How things change.

In other news, I just stopped in at a little store to buy sunglasses after lending mine to my cousin. As I was doing so, I not only asked the clerk which pair she preferred, but I talked to her about the weather and agreed it was altogether too hot. All of this — drumroll please — in Portuguese. Not perfectly spoken, but intelligible, enough so that she didn’t even ask where I was from nor attempt to speak to me in English.

This is what I have longed for all year: to be able to make small talk with the clerks in the stores, to break free of the isolation imposed by the language barrier, to not feel silenced. And of course I achieve this just as we have a slew of guests, who have given me plenty of conversation over the past weeks, and also right as we’re getting ready to leave.

Better late than never, I suppose…

Last night, we took Gabe’s family for a true Lisboan experience. We started with dinner at one of the street festas in Alfama, a reprise of our new favorite meal: grilled sardines, bread, salad with grilled peppers on top, sangria, and caldo verde (cabbage and potato) soup. All of this was eaten al fresco, sitting on homemade benches perched on temporary scaffolding on top of a long staircase. No permits here, nuh uh. Just pure street vendor goodness.

We then made our way up the hill to the castle, where there was fado music playing at not too ridiculous an hour. Most fado clubs, or the good ones anyway, get going around 11 PM or midnight. This concert started at 10 PM, which was much more reasonable for the girls, who are still getting over jetlag — and for myself, although I have no such excuse.

I didn’t really know what to expect from such a concert. I thought it would be purely for the tourists, to let them say they’d seen real fado in Lisbon. But the audience was mainly Portuguese people, all of us rattling around in the front of a massive seating area facing a brightly-lit stage, all of it overlooking the beautiful nighttime cityscape.

The musicians came out more or less on time, and I waited for the the fado to begin — the quick, rhythmic guitar, the sad, slow woman’s voice. Instead, we were greeted with a steady, up tempo drum beat. Soon, the uber-cool bald bass player to the other side of the stage joined in. And then the usual intricate guitar notes layered themselves over the bass rhythm. Certainly not what I’d expected. By the time the women started singing, two or three songs into the set, I was hooked. I think it was a modern interpretation of fado, which I (heathen that I am) appreciated a lot more than the traditional.

Soon, their opening act was over, and the two singers gave way to a succession of three men fadistos, each more famous than the last. Or so we were told. In Portugal, there are two types of fado: one from Lisbon, and one from Coimbra, the city up north that we visited last month. In Coimbra, only the men sing fado, whereas in Lisbon it’s traditionally women’s voices that you hear.

The final singer, a very old man whose hands shook as he held the microphone, belted out his songs in a voice made slightly higher by age, but no less powerful for it. When the crowd joined in on his last song, and then followed it with a standing ovation, I knew that we were witnessing something special. Who he was, I still have no idea, but judging by their reaction, he was a big deal.

After he made his way slowly off the stage, the first group took over again. As I relaxed back into their rhythmic, almost Celtic sounding melodies, I looked around myself at the castle backlit in front of us, the 25th of April bridge twinkling in the distance, and at my beloved husband and his family sitting next to me. One of our nieces was snuggled up between us, rapt attention on the stage, my hand in hers, my scarf covering her legs from the chilly air. It occurred to me then that I literally could not get any happier. It’s taken me all this time to find happiness in Lisbon, but I think at last it’s here, less than a month before we leave. Or maybe it’s been here for longer, and I just haven’t recognized it until now.

Listening to that music, I felt I’d finally gotten a glimpse of the pulse of Lisbon, the beating heart of it all. What else could give rise to such open sorrow and anguish in a culture’s popular expression? Seeing the soft underbelly of this gruff, tough city catalyzed a growing feeling that I’ve had recently, as though I’m right on the edge of really understanding this place, of being a part of it, or at least reaching the next level of that progression.

I’ve been feeling this way all week, perhaps because our family and friends have been here, making the difference in my comfort level obvious. During that time, I’ve had at least two or three Portuguese people greet me in English, then change to Portuguese in surprise when I greeted them in that language. One lady even asked if I was Portuguese or Brazilian. That has certainly never happened before.

I can finally make small talk about the weather with the guy who takes my card at the gym, or chat about the World Cup match with the waiter taking my order at lunch. When I walked by the restaurant on the corner yesterday during the tense moments of the Portugal-Brazil match, the waitress there gave me kisses on the cheek and lamented the lack of a score on either side. And on our way to the metro last night, I bid a good evening to the old lady who lives next door to us, who recognized me on the street.

Finally, I am at the point that I envisioned for myself when we started this year. I’m not by any means fluent, either culturally or linguistically, but I can get by. More importantly, I feel more comfortable in my own skin here, almost — almost — as if I belong.

Something has shifted, imperceptibly, subtly, something that has further blurred the line between outsider and local. And I didn’t realize any of this until I heard the fado last night, when I saw with a shock that this most essential Portuguese art form couldn’t get beneath my skin — because it was already there.

****

Photos from yesterday’s escapades, starting with the World Cup match, then on a tour of the old water system running under the hill above us, and finally Alfama festas and fado at the castle.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This weekend marks nine months since we moved to Lisbon. By the time we leave, it will have been ten. While I have seen and done and learned many things during that time, I am ashamed to admit that speaking Portuguese is not one of them.

My lessons, which were largely ineffective at teaching me anything other than how to blunder my way through a conversation with totally ungrammatical panache, ended three months ago. Whatever limited skills I had after that point have now been washed away in a tide of French, Hebrew, Swedish, and the English words that make up my daily life. At this point, I think I have actually managed to become less proficient at Portuguese than I was when we first moved here.

Case in point: dealing with not one but two utilities guys who came to the flat yesterday. I spend pretty much all day every day working in our flat, and have done so more or less since October. During all that time, I have buzzed quite a few gas and water guys in to read the meters, but they always know where they’re going and don’t bother me once I’ve opened the outside door for them. But yesterday I got two guys, a water and a gas, who didn’t know what they were doing. Both were convinced that the meter they were looking for was in our flat, although how I would’ve missed such a thing in a place that’s the size of our living room back at home, I’m not quite sure.

Both guys insisted on coming in to the flat and looking into the corners, in the kitchen, behind the door. As I followed them around, wondering at the wisdom of letting strange men into my home, I felt like saying, “Dude, I know this place. It’s tiny. There are no meters here.” But of course I couldn’t say that, nor did I know where the meters actually were. (Gabe did, which he told me when he called later in the afternoon. Oh well. Turns out they’re in the stairwell above our flat.)

After each one left, I realized that I had understood not a single word either one said. Not a one. Yet somehow I knew what they were looking for, although it did take the water guy a little more time to explain it, using a circular gesture with his finger to indicate the meter and one English word, said very loudly to convince this stupid lady of its import: “WATER.” Yes, I got that one: agua. Thing is, I have no idea what you want to do with my water. Take a shower? Wash your clothes? What? Oh right. Read the meter. (I thought he wanted to use my computer!)

I do this all the time — I’ll have a conversation using about ten Portuguese words (always the same ones), and understanding maybe one in five of the barrage they throw at me in return. But most of the time, if I’m lucky, that one word is enough to clue me in to the overall context of their response. Usually I can come away with whatever answer I was seeking, even though I could not tell you what exactly, word for word, the person said.

In other words, I’ve become very good at understanding the meaning of a sentence without actually understanding its individual components. This does run the risk of making me look like a complete moron if I answer in the wrong way, but I’ve also gotten good at giving noncommittal answers based on the gist of the conversation. I watch the person’s reaction carefully, and if the first one doesn’t get the right response, I try another, and if that’s still not right, then I finally admit that I don’t speak Portuguese very well. In case they hadn’t guessed already. Maybe they thought I’d been dropped on my head as a child, who knows. I wouldn’t want them to come away thinking that, now would I?

I’m getting so used to communicating in this way that I even did it to Gabe last night. I was lying in bed reading, wearing my earplugs to shut out the sound of the TV in the living room. He came in and said something to me, and I answered the tone of his voice and the context of his question (I don’t even remember what it was now) without having actually heard what he said. For a minute, I wondered if I’d said the right thing, but judging by his lack of reaction, I guessed that I had. Or maybe he just figured I was sleepy and making no sense. Either way, it worked, and I went back to my book.

So that’s what it’s like to live in a country where you don’t speak the language: hearing the world through earplugs. You watch people’s body language and facial expressions, you try to catch key words, just enough to clue you in to what the person is talking about. Then based entirely on this sparse information, you launch a response into the great unknown, wondering all the time if it will make you sound like an idiot. I wonder if that’s also what it’s like to gradually go deaf. If it is, I’m set.

One thing that has improved is that I am no longer quite as worried about people thinking I’m an idiot. When the two guys came through yesterday and I could barely understand what they were looking for, much less help them find it, I didn’t really care. Six months ago, that would’ve sent me into a tizzy of remorse, thinking how I really needed to learn this language so that doesn’t happen again. Now, I just shrugged and figured hey, it’s their job, they’ll find them on their own.

What a very Portuguese attitude. Perhaps I’m learning more than I thought.

****

We have family and friends arriving this weekend, so I won’t be able to write for a while. But we are very much looking forward to showing our loved ones around our host city! Watch this space for more adventures — and pictures — to come soon.

As I was falling asleep last night (disgracefully early, I might add — I think the Portuguese were just starting in on their appetizers,) I was trying to imagine what it’ll be like when go to Britain in six weeks’ time. As I’ve said before, Gabe always teases me about anticipating everything too much, to the point where I often work myself into a sleepless frenzy. But lack of sleep aside, I find that the anticipation increases my enjoyment of something if I get to live it twice: once in my head, once in real life.

Since I’ve been planning our trip to Britain these past few days, naturally I am already entering into anticipation mode. By the time we get there, it will have been more than six months since we’ve been to a country where English is the first language. True, some of the places we’ve been to hardly count (Israel and Sweden, I’m looking at you), but still, English is not officially their first language.

When we were in Sweden, I was thinking how strange it will be to actually understand road signs and billboards again. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m looking forward to understanding them, or to being forced to understand all the inane conversations that I overhear. Here I can tune everything out as mere noise, which means I’m pleasantly isolated in my own little world. Of course that presents a problem when someone does actually start talking to me, as most of the time I either miss it entirely or am too spacey to piece together what they’ve said.

For example, as I was checking in at the gym the other day, the guy put a glass bowl filled with slips of paper on the counter in front of me. I thought they were trying to get me to sign up for something by putting my name into the bowl, so I said, “Nao, obrigada.” Eventually, after three of the employees all explained it to me simultaneously in rapid Portuguese, it seemed that I was intended to take a paper out of the bowl, as it was a promotion for the spa they had downstairs. I did as I was told, and ended up with 50% off any spa service. Now that would have been one unfortunate misunderstanding!

For the most part though, I’ve gotten good at watching body language very closely to see when someone’s talking to me, and then saying, “Excuse me?” as if I simply hadn’t heard what they said. Fake it til you make it — that’s my main motto for living here.

But soon, I won’t have to worry about that any more. I won’t have to wrack my brains when trying to ask the simplest of questions, or make the smallest comment about the weather. I won’t risk missing out on discounted massages at my gym, and no longer will food labels be an arduous task of decoding that makes a trip to the grocery store take hours. The most dire miscommunication I might have in Britain will be getting a funny look for ordering a cappuccino “nonfat” instead of “skimmed.” After all my linguistic and cultural mishaps this year — getting thrown out of the swimming pool, running out of money in the grocery store — that will be one mistake I can handle.

When we arrived here from England, nearly nine months ago now, I found Lisbon strange, foreign, overwhelming. Now this is my life, and while still overwhelming at times, at least it’s somewhat less foreign. What will England seem like now? Will I be shocked by the sleek modernity of it all, as I was in Sweden? Or will I find it sterile and cold, and miss these graffiti-clad, tumbledown buildings? From here, I think it’ll feel like I’m one step closer to Home, which will be a very welcome step indeed.

As I said, anticipation is the salt of my life, the accent that makes all experiences just that little bit better.

Tourist season has without a doubt arrived in Lisbon. As I wrote a little while ago, the grocery store where I usually shop is now mostly filled with non-Portuguese speakers. As I make my rounds, I laugh quietly at their efforts to figure out what everything is, or what food they can prepare in their hostel kitchens. Some of them stand in line for ages just to buy a pack of Kleenex or a bottle of water. I want to tell them, “Really, it’s OK to drink the water here.” But I resist.

When Gabe and I went to the store after getting back on Friday night, the lines at the registers reached far back into the aisles. Since it was already 8 PM, we’d been gone for a week, and we had nothing in the fridge, we resigned ourselves to waiting. Luckily, we were provided ready entertainment by a crew of Kiwi teenagers in the line next to us. I’d seen them wandering the aisles, debating over buying an expensive bottle of port, stocking up on chips and soda. The girl in front of them happened to also be a Kiwi of about the same age, and, on overhearing their accents, she struck up a conversation.

I watched with great interest as their friendship evolved. All three were painfully sunburnt, as is almost every other tourist I see here (haven’t they ever heard of sunblock?) By the time we all reached the register, the two girls had invited the third to come to their hostel and go out with them that night. They were going to drink at their hostel before going out to hear some Portuguese music called “fay-doo” (I assumed they meant fado) and then to the bars later on. The lone girl agreed to meet them in an hour, paid for her solitary box of juice, and left as the other girls purchased their chips and a bottle of cheap vodka.

We’ve overheard similar conversations everywhere we’ve been this year. We’ve even had a few ourselves, like when we met a couple from the East Bay at breakfast in Porto. In a place where everything around you is different, the natural tendency is to grasp at even the most superficial of commonalities. Language and accent are the lowest common denominators of all, and unite people that would otherwise have never spoken to each other in their home country. While it prevents you from getting to know many locals, talking to a fellow country person is a quick way to ease the loneliness and isolation of travel.

But what happens when you’re not just visiting somewhere for a short time? What if you’re staying somewhere for a month, six months, a year, ten years? Then the boundaries of commonality become a lot more blurry. Sure, we spoke the same language as the four Brits we sampled port with in Porto, and had a grand old time joking around with them for an hour or so. But they were only there to sample the port, drink cheap beer, eat some frozen sardines, check out the waitresses (and me), and then go home with fuzzy memories and a lighter pocketbook. Ditto more or less for the Kiwi teenagers in the grocery store, who were here for the sun, the “fay-doo,” and the alcohol. Who did we have more in common with: the Kiwis, or the Portuguese woman behind us in line, who was buying a huge bunch of leafy greens for dinner on her way home from work?

Welcome to the no-man’s land of being an expat. We’ve lived in Portugal for nearly nine months now, which hardly makes us natives, but we’re not sunburnt tourists anymore, either. We know to wear sunblock, for one thing. We know where to shop and when (8 PM on a Friday being a prime example of when not to do so.) We know that maps are useless here, and which routes to take to avoid hills. We know which end of the train to get on in order to get to the next one that much faster, and we know which direction to take the 28 tram in to avoid the crowds.

So where exactly do we fit in? Do we have more in common with the Americans we are seeing more of every day, who come for a week and leave with red skin and fleeting memories of cobblestones, steep hills, and streetcars? Or is it the Lisboans, who live on our street and go about their daily lives here just as we do? I think the answer is neither, which is why our community here is formed largely of other expats. Canadian, French, American — we all know what it means to defy the neat, easy categories of nationality and language, to exist in the cracks between local and visitor. This fragile balancing act can be very lonely, as I discovered during our first months here, but also extremely rewarding, if you can master it.

We are short timers though, which separates us even from the expats we know who have built their lives here. We have passed this whole year in a state of limbo, belonging neither to our home culture nor in our adopted one. As you’ve read here, this is something I have struggled with off and on throughout our time abroad.

I can’t help but wonder how it will feel to go back to our own society after so long abroad. Will we have reverse culture shock? Will we miss the gruff warmth of our Portuguese neighbors? Will it be overwhelming to hear so much English again? Stay tuned for those impressions, brought to you in a mere two months’ time…!

I took a look at the calendar this morning — as I do — and realized that out of the eleven weeks we have left til we go home, only one of them is actually free of any and all obligations. Otherwise, starting next week, we have ten weeks of travel, guests, packing, and more travel. After that the real fun begins, when we move back into our house and get it ready in time for Gabe to start teaching again. Whew! I’m exhausted already.

But in the meantime, normal life continues day to day, and I’m trying not to let the anticipation of all this ruin my enjoyment of our last two months of living in Lisbon. Yesterday I went about my regular routine — write and work, eat lunch, then head down to the gym and the grocery store before going home to work some more before Gabe comes home for dinner. It’s a good routine, quiet and simple, and suits me just right.

One major difference I noticed yesterday — besides the sudden heat and how much longer it makes that walk feel, especially with groceries — was that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of tourists. The grocery store was filled with them, and for the first time, I actually heard the clerks there speaking English. I didn’t even know that they could!

What’s more, the clerk that rang me up actually spoke to me in English, which surprised me. Usually I try to travel incognito as much as possible, but apparently I had a sign on my forehead that said “estrangeiro,” or foreigner. I made a point of replying in Portuguese, and complimented her on her English. She proudly told me my total in English, which I admired and thanked her for. Go figure — we’ve lived here for nearly ten months, and now I find people who speak English just fine! Jeez. Where was she when I didn’t have any money at the other grocery store back in January?!

As I wove my way home between the earnest, lost-looking couples sporting sunburns and guidebooks, I marveled once more at how far we’ve come. Not so long ago, we were one of those couples, trying desperately to use a map to figure out how to get from one place to another. Little did we know how deceptive those maps could be, as none of them show you that the shortest way (i.e. up a hill) is not necessarily the fastest! Now I walk with confidence through these winding cobbled streets, avoiding hills where I can, knowing where I’m going and where I belong. It’s a good feeling.

Isn’t that always the way it goes… you realize you’re getting the hang of things just as you’re getting ready to leave. Sigh.

For the first time since getting back from Israel, I actually spent most of yesterday out of the house, which came as a welcome change. In the morning, I went in to the university to watch Gabe playing with his airplane, which is getting really close to operational (see pics below.) Despite the fact that it looked like it was diving straight for me more than once, it was fun to watch.

We then went on to have a lovely lunch with his colleagues, all of whom I have grown fond of and am going to miss when we leave. During lunch, our Italian friend told me a funny story about coming home on the tube Sunday night during the Benfica soccer celebrations. He said every time the doors opened at the metro stop, a huge wall of noise would come in, and then stop just as suddenly when they closed. This happened at every stop all the way down the line: train stops, doors open, sound of massive crowds yelling. Doors close, silence. Repeat. Hilarious.

Also hilarious was having to explain to him the distinction between “passed out” and “passed away,” which arose when I said that I hadn’t heard the fireworks because I was “passed out.” He was quite alarmed by this, and even more so by my description of how Gabe could see the fireworks in the reflection of the building opposite. That behavior would have seemed very callous indeed if I had in fact “passed away!” Oh, the tricks of our language. They are endlessly entertaining.

After lunch, I walked up to my hairdresser’s, as it wasn’t raining and I was glad for the chance to get outside. Now that I know where that damn railroad bridge is, it’s not as hard to get up there from this side of the tracks! Crossing the bridge, I was reminded of the first time I went to see her back in February, when it was raining and I got thoroughly lost and soaked through. That was already 3 months ago now… which is more time than remains to us here. It really doesn’t seem like it’s been that long.

Hair newly coiffed, I walked back down to meet Gabe at the cinema via a stroll through the gardens of the Gulbenkian Museum. The sound of rushing water drew me to the artificial stream flowing through the middle of the park, which I soon realized reminded me of one of my favorite places at home. In the state park that I like to run in, there’s a spot just a little way off the trail where you can sit on the bank of the river and watch it rush by, totally removed from other people on the trail and the rest of the world.

I visited that spot often when my dad was sick, as it always brought me a sense of peace and perspective. I think my feet led me to that stream in the Gulbenkian for a reason yesterday, and I felt much more centered and relaxed after sitting by it for a while — never mind the people walking by and the two streets with roaring traffic on either side of the park.

The movie we saw was mindless, terrible fun, perfect brain candy, and we came home to make dinner and chill out before bed. And so goes our year, one day of normal everyday life after another, until suddenly, you look up and it’s almost gone. Amazing how that happens.

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Last night, we had an Indian dinner to say farewell to a friend of my mom’s, who had been here in Portugal on vacation for the past ten days. Over the course of our meal, we compared notes and impressions of Portugal, which quickly led me to see just how much my own feelings towards the country have changed since we first got here.

Exhibit A: the Portuguese people. I was talking about a woman at a store we’d gone to in search of souvenirs earlier in the day, who insisted on wrapping up the T-shirt I was buying for Gabe in fancy wrapping paper with a bow on it. I told her she didn’t need to, really, it was just for my husband, but no, nothing would do that it had to be beautifully presented. (She also mentioned she’d be there til 7 PM, so I imagine she was pretty bored.) It was all I could do to keep her from drawing a heart on it, which she repeatedly threatened to do.

As she was preparing this ornate gift of love, she took my few choppy sentences of Portuguese to mean that I spoke it fluently. So off she launched into a lengthy one-sided conversation about how she had to make the present pretty for such a pretty customer, and then on to say that she couldn’t find a good man, that it was good to treat mine right — or at least I think it was something along those lines. The flow of Portuguese was too fast for me to really tell. But even so, I knew she just wanted to chat, and probably doesn’t get a chance to speak Portuguese much to the tourists that come through her shop all day. So I nodded and expressed approval at strategic points, and she seemed happy with my performance.

When recounting this story to our friend later in the evening, I explained that my lack of comprehension or participation doesn’t seem to stop Portuguese people from talking to (or at) me. They just like to chat, and do so in all forms, at all times, in every situation: on the street, between balconies, in shops, restaurants, cafes, and especially on the phone (although that is much more monosyllabic, made up entirely of a chorus of “‘ta bem, ‘ta bem. Pois. ‘Ta bem.”)

Our friend was shocked, and said, “Really? They weren’t talkative with me at all! They just gave me the blank stare of incomprehension.” When she mentioned that look, I immediately thought back to our early days here, when everyone around me seemed cold and unwilling to interact. The vehemence of their conversations sounded to my mind either hostile or angry, and my few attempts at speaking in any language usually garnered me that same blank stare she mentioned.

Now, I find the Portuguese garrulous and friendly, warm and welcoming, but I can’t quite put my finger on when and how my perceptions changed. It’s not like I’m fluent in the language now, not by any means — I know a few key phrases and set sentences, but once I tread outside of those well-worn grooves, I am totally lost. I think it was a more a matter of changing my expectations more than anything. For an American, friendliness means greeting strangers with a big smile and a “How are you doing today?” My dad always found this behavior startling, even after living in California for nearly forty years.

The Portuguese are friendly in a much different way. On the surface, they can appear surly: they don’t greet you with a big smile, and don’t ask about your day when they really don’t give a crap. But they do greet you with a dignified “Boa tarde” when you run into them on the street or walk into their store, and like the waiter in our favorite Indian restaurant, they remember your face, where you sat, and what you ordered the last time you were in. Or like the lady in the store yesterday, they tell you about their romantic history and bemoan the lack of good men to be found. To my mind, that’s much more genuine than our way of doing things, and one I would’ve remained completely unaware of had I not lived here for long enough to see past the blank stares.

Later in the evening, our friend asked if I was glad we had done this year abroad. My immediate response was, without hesitation, “Yes.” I explained that I had struggled at first, but have grown to love it here. In fact earlier in the day, as my mom and I were walking home along the now green and leafy boulevard after another extended round of hunting and gathering, I even commented on how much I am going to miss this place when we leave.

Six months ago, I wouldn’t have expected to feel that way. But now, as we hurtle through April and stare down the barrel of May, with my mom’s long-anticipated visit nearly over and my once far-off birthday almost a month away, I know that I will miss all the daily patterns of our lives here. I will think back to these leafy streets and slippery cobblestones, the warmth of the people I meet on the street and in the store, our trips to the butcher for meat and the fruteria for fruit, and I will smile.

At the same time though, I feel a familiar dull ache down deep in my chest, that old longing for home. I know that when the time comes, I will be more than ready to return home, and I will slip on our life there like an old comfy robe. Soon, this will all seem like a far-off dream.

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

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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