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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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We fit in another quick walkabout yesterday, as our afternoon was somewhat abridged: we got a late start, and we had plans to see a movie with our French friends later in the day. (Which felt like sacrilege on such a nice day, but since I’m hoping we’ll have mostly nice weather from here on out, I didn’t feel too bad.)

For our Sunday walkabout, we went back to the area around the ferry terminal, which we hadn’t really explored before. We wanted to check out the Mercado da Ribeira, a huge market building across the street from the Cais do Sodre train station, which features food all week and collectibles on Sunday mornings. We were disappointed to find that “collectibles” meant exclusively coins and stamps, not antiques and other oddities, as we’d hoped. But as usual, our destination was chosen merely to provide us with an excuse to wander, which we happily did anyway.

We walked down through the streets of Barrio Alto, stopping to admire the Ascensor da Bica, the little tram on that side of the hill, which has been newly recovered in shiny aluminum siding as an art project. After musing over the odd wares on display in the Mercado da Ribeira, we went back up the hill — since all roads lead to a hill here — and back through the winding streets of Bica.

Among other amusements, we passed a guy grilling bell peppers over a barbeque right out on the street, surrounded by scaffolding, laundry, and of course graffiti. Close by sat his car, windows open, music on, a small boy playing in the back seat. The best part was that the peppers were intended not for his own consumption, but rather for the restaurant on the corner. Talk about curbside service!

Just after the outdoor kitchen, we walked down a street where an old lady was throwing crumbs out her third-story window to feed a huge flock of pigeons on the street below. As we picked our way past them, I noticed that you could actually hear the small crackling, crunching sounds as the pigeons gorged themselves. That’s how quiet it is here on Sundays — literally no one is around. It’s like a ghost town.

Slightly further up the hill, we saw a girl with a small Pomeranian tumbling around her feet, whose bushy fur rather resembled the post-Saturday night tangle of hair on its owners head. As they walked by, a much bigger dog started barking at this transgression on its territory — luckily it was restrained by a fence, because otherwise the Pomeranian might have become a snack. The Pomeranian, blissfully unaware of its inferior size, started to bark back in a tiny but valiant defense of its mistress. We couldn’t help but laugh at its ferocity, especially when it finally got smart and scudded on down the street like a red furry tumbleweed. Oh, such a brave little thing!

Somehow our feet once again took us to the mirador of Santa Catarina, where we’d stopped for a drink on the day we were both sick a few weeks back. What a difference the sun makes! Both cafes up there were packed, and the mirador itself was filled with the vagrants and other unsavory characters we remembered from our visits there last summer.

Of course we couldn’t just pass it by, so we grabbed a table and spent a good half hour basking in the warm sunshine, letting the flow of other people’s conversations and colorful personas wash over us. We’re already seeing a lot more tourists, mostly French and British, which I know will only increase exponentially as the summer goes on. It makes me feel as though I have to justify our presence in some way, or wear a sign that says, “No really, we live here!” But then, I often feel that way in Santa Cruz too.

So ended our short but sweet walkabout, and we came home for an hour or so of work (with the windows thrown wide open!) before meeting up with our friends for the movie. We saw The Hurt Locker, which came out here a couple of weeks ago. Initially it only had two show times, but after it won the Oscar last week, they magically added more showings! Apparently both the theater and the Portuguese decided this movie about an American war might be worth seeing after all, since the theater was packed when we went in. (Movie going on Sunday afternoons really is the thing to do here.)

We have a running joke with our French friends that any movie they like, we don’t, and vice versa. They loved A Serious Man, which we weren’t crazy about. We loved Alice, which they didn’t like. So we were hoping that maybe this would be one movie we could all agree on.

And we were right. None of us could say that we liked it, exactly, as it was too powerful and difficult a movie to really be able to like. But it was an important one, and extremely well done, so much so that I almost couldn’t finish watching it. I know at least two people who have been to Iraq, and I have never been able to contemplate what they must have seen there. This movie held it up in front of me and wouldn’t let me avert my eyes. Like I said — an important movie to see, but one that I can’t claim to have liked per se.

After that intense experience, some alcohol was definitely required, so we went back to our friends’ beautiful, lofty-ceilinged flat for some port and petiscos, or snacks. The good wine, food, and company did much to push away the ghosts of the movie for a while, and we were soon laughing and talking in a fluid mixture of French and English.

The more time we spend with this couple, the more we discover that they are scarily similar to ourselves: the girl is slender, stylish, and dark-haired, introverted yet quietly funny, and loves books and words as much as I do. (I came away from their flat with a huge stack of English language books — so excited!) Her partner is outgoing and talkative, laughs a lot, works in education, and is extremely good at what he does. Hmm… sound familiar? I’m pretty sure they are the French version of us!

So ended another in our recent string of good, sunny, active days. Today it’s back to work for a while, but at least the sun continues!

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After nearly six weeks of nonstop rain, someone flipped a switch this past week and decided that now, it is time for sun. Yesterday was our fourth day of sunshine in a row, which is great for my mood but terrible for my work ethic.

Being inside feels very wrong somehow, as the blue sky reaches in my window, takes me by the hand, and says, “Come outside and play!” What it really makes me long for is a long run in the springtime redwoods or a bike up the coast in the weak March sunshine, both things I love to do at home after a long, wet winter. But I can do neither here, so instead I compromise by working at an outdoor cafe and then going to the gym when the day cools off.

As it turns out, that is exactly what we did yesterday. We went up to the cafe at the park across from our flat, which is one of our favorites, as they have outdoor seating and free wifi — a rarity indeed. I am also a big fan of the petite blond waitress’ outrageous outfits, which I have started to collect with great interest.

This time, she was wearing a tiny turquoise skirt with black tights and a black off the shoulder shirt, which revealed tattoos that perfectly matched the color both of her skirt and the scarf around her neck. Her shoes were canvas sneakers printed with a snakeskin pattern, well worn from working many shifts on her feet, and her bleach-blond hair was swept up off her face, then adorned with two small white flower clips.

With her leather jacket, eyebrows plucked into thin high arches, and a lip piercing just below her nose, she reminded me oddly of the flapper character in the book I was reading — kind of a modern day, punk rock version. I am totally fascinated by this creature, who greets most of her customers as old friends and spends most of her time sitting outside and smoking.

Despite her innovative stylistic creations, neither she nor her equally bepierced coworker are the fastest or most astute of servers (see our earlier adventures with the three cups of coffee.) But we weren’t feeling rushed either, so it was no problem — we were happy to soak in the semi-warm sunshine as we waited for our coffee and tea to arrive. Apparently water takes longer to boil up there, you know?

The big sliding glass doors were thrown open to the breeze, and jazz wafted out of the little CD player, cleverly disguised as a miniature 1950s style radio. People drifted in and out, getting cafezinhos or toasted sandwiches, playing backgammon on a portable set outside, taking off jackets and putting them back on again. I couldn’t think of a better place to work.

After rousing ourselves for a quick trip to the gym, we wandered home via the corner market (a tiny place crammed with an improbable amount of goods, run by an Indian man and a Russian woman) and the bakery. We didn’t even need bread, but I wanted to say hi to the ladies, to maybe earn a glimpse of that crooked smile. Once again, I felt an increased warmth and familiarity from these fixtures of our neighborhood, and even though I couldn’t understand a word they said, I smiled and nodded and laughed with them anyway.

I continue to be enchanted by the sense of community here, which I have never felt in the States. We lived in the boonies while I was growing up, with our closest neighbors probably a half mile away. Now Gabe and I live in a quiet, totally residential neighborhood, where we know only our immediate neighbors. In fact just yesterday I opened a letter forwarded to me from one of our neighbors down the street, soliciting donations to the American Heart Association or some such. We’ve been gone for six months, and she didn’t even notice. How sad is that?!

But here, everyone is always in each other’s business. While I was hanging up laundry in our front window yesterday, I watched the drama of our little street play itself out. The restoration artist across the street helped his grandson toddle his way shakily down the cobblestones until his grandmother came out to fetch him. She swooped him up and took him into the workshop, but soon ducked back out again to consult with the fish lady, her head elaborately wrapped as usual. The little old lady who lives next door wandered by to throw her trash into one of the communal trash bins, and of course had to weigh in on the day with the restaurateur’s wife. And all this in the span of about five minutes! It’s a never-ending parade of life lived in the open here, and I am growing to love it. Life in the States is going to seem so tame when we return.

Even with this glorious afternoon, the best part of the day was yet to come. How could such a day be improved upon, you ask? Why, with taxes and zombies, I say. Nonstop excitement, I tell you!

We originally had plans to go out, but Gabe had gotten so absorbed in doing our taxes that I figured it was best just to let him get them done. And finish he did, which we celebrated by watching a movie he’d found for me the night before: Dead Snow, a movie about Nazi zombies attacking a bunch of rich, spoiled German med students on their trip to the snow. We’d seen the trailer a while back, but somehow missed it in the theater. Hard to believe, I know, as I’m sure it was a huge hit. So Gabe was thrilled when he stumbled across it on Netflix, and presented it to me as a surprise. Que romantico!

Just as I’d suspected, it was gory, disgusting, hilarious, and totally fantastic. I loved it. What girl wouldn’t like spending her Friday night watching people get disemboweled? What a romantic husband I have! Doing my taxes and then surprising me with a zombie movie. Wow. I am one lucky girl!

After waiting so long to feel like part of the community here, suddenly it seems that it is starting to happen. I don’t mean that the locals put up a huge banner across the road and threw us a ticker tape parade celebrating our advent as members of the neighborhood. No, our acceptance is showing itself in much more subtle ways, ways I probably wouldn’t even notice had I not grown used to feeling like an outsider.

Take for example our morning walk down the hill, to the metro for Gabe, to the gym for me. We do this walk together a couple times a week, so we soon grew used to the regular morning denizens. There is always the fish lady on the corner, who sells wrigglingly fresh fish out of the back of her van while her husband, presumably the fisherman himself, sleeps stretched out across the front seat. She does a brisk business, but I have prohibited Gabe from ever buying fish from her — as fresh as they are, I refuse to eat fish that’s been sitting on ice surrounded by flies for who knows how long. At least I’ve stopped being grossed out by the bins of glassy-eyed fish as we walk by, but the smell and the buckets of entrails lying around still get me. With good reason.

Every morning, we see the fish lady sitting on one of the concrete bollards at the side of the street, the day’s catch spread out in styrofoam trays at her feet. She is always wearing a wild assortment of clothing: multiple layers of baggy sweat pants and sweaters, often with another sweater wrapped around her dark head when it’s cold or raining. On her feet she wears sandals or slippers, and one day last week she was sporting a pair of mismatched Crocs, one blue with ratty white furry lining, one orange.

Somehow though, she never fails to make all of this look intentional, and she perches on her concrete seat as if it were a throne, regally awaiting her customers. Gabe has taken to greeting her with a respectful “Bom dia, Senhora,”which she always returns with a dignified nod and a “Bom dia” in return. Even this small recognition from such a wonderfully colorful and stately person never ceases to thrill me.

The fish lady is one thing, but the two bakery ladies around the corner are another. We’ve been stopping there to buy bread at least two or three times a week for the past five months, and until recently, they’ve never let on that they recognized either one of us. They are tough cookies, but somehow, I’ve always suspected them to have a sweet filling.

My favorite is the older one, who is probably about a foot shorter than me, and sturdy from years of lifting pans of heavy dough into the oven. She talks with a wry twist to her mouth, as though filled with a weary amusement, and when you earn a rare smile, it’s a crooked one. We always quiz her on the ingredients of the various pastries arrayed in the glass cabinets, most of which are pork, and she always answers with that same sardonic twist to her mouth. I can almost hear her saying, “Crazy Americans.”

A couple weeks ago, we passed this same lady on our way to the metro. I recognized her immediately, but didn’t think she’d see us. Thus I was thrilled to get a nod and a “Boa tarde” in return for our greeting as we walked by — she knew who we were! Even this small acknowledgement was worth a thousand enthusiastic hugs from someone more effusive. The next time I went in with Gabe to buy bread, she immediately knew who we were and why we were there. Rapid progress indeed.

Similarly, the trainers at the gym are gradually accepting me into their elite (read: stuck up) circle. When I was lifting weights yesterday, almost every trainer that passed me either nodded, winked, or said hello, regardless of whether they were with a client or not. I was a little shocked by this, as usually even the ones I’ve talked to before completely ignore me if they’re training another person. (If I was paying that much for a trainer, I wouldn’t want them to talk to anyone else either!) Apparently I’m now enough of a gym rat that even the professional gym rats recognize me as one of their own. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but I’ll take it.

The ultimate accolade, however, came from our local special needs individual, whom I’ve mentioned here before. He is kind of the neighborhood Forrest Gump, always friendly and helpful, and just a little bit touched in the head. He seems to know everyone in the area, and I see him at least once a day, popping in and out of the corner store or the bakery, talking to people in front of the bar or the small restaurant around the corner, helping ladies carry their groceries. Early on, he started greeting us with a cheerful “Boa tarde, tudo bem?” whenever we saw him, but I couldn’t tell if he actually recognized us or was just being generally friendly.

On my way home from the store yesterday, I was surprised to run into him on the far side of our ‘hood, which was as far away from home as I’d ever seen him. He lit up with his huge goofy grin when he saw me, and I thought, “Oh no, will I have to stop and try to talk to him? Is he going to offer to carry my groceries? This could be awkward!” But as he was walking directly towards me, I couldn’t exactly avoid him or pretend I hadn’t seen him. So I stopped, and said hello.

To my huge surprise, he leaned in, kissed both my cheeks, then wished me a boa tarde and continued on his way. Instead of being freaked out by it, as I might have been had any other strange man tried to kiss me on the cheeks, I was delighted. I really felt like I’d arrived as an accepted member of the community.

I know these are all superficial marks of approval, and it’s a long way from making any kind of lasting connection. I also know that if I tried to talk to any one of these people, our conversation would last for all of about ten words before running into fatal roadblocks. But having felt like a total outsider for nearly six months now, even this almost imperceptible increase in warmth feels like a huge step. I don’t expect to be welcomed into these people’s homes any time soon, but still. Acceptance is a good place to start.

At my Portuguese lesson later in the afternoon, I met a new fellow student, a pretty young Norwegian who’s studying here. Whenever my tutor pairs two of her students together for the first time, she asks us to introduce ourselves and gives us a set of questions to answer, always ending with, “What do you think of Portugal and the Portuguese?”

My answer to this question has evolved during our time here, as have my perceptions of this place and its people. Yesterday, I said that the people here are very warm and friendly — but you have to get to know them first. To my surprise, my tutor agreed with my assessment.

It’s such a different way of doing things than in California, where everyone is automatically warm and friendly, but you never know how they really feel. Yes, the surliness of the store people here is shocking compared to the level of over-attentive customer service at home. But once you get used to their superficial surliness, you also start to see the genuine care these people have for their customers and their neighbors. The lady with the crooked smile now tells us when fresh bread is coming, so that we can wait a minute or two and take home steaming hot, delicious loaves. Forrest Gump kisses me on the cheek. The fish lady nods.

Slowly but surely, we are proving ourselves to be more than just tourists to these people, and are very much reaping the benefits. It almost makes me wish we were staying longer.


In other news — we saw Alice in Wonderland in 3D last night. I didn’t expect much, other than to be mildly entertained. It couldn’t possibly be worse than Avatar… right?!

Instead, I was utterly and completely transfixed and blown away. It was amazing, fantastical, a true demonstration of how that technology ought to be used. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I felt a sense of wonder while watching a movie. It made me feel like a child again, perched on the front of my seat, eyes wide, grin plastered on my face.

I couldn’t wipe that grin off for about an hour afterwards, and was still hyped up and excited when we got home almost an hour later. In fact I was so mesmerized when I walked out of the theater that I left my water bottle behind in the drink holder! Luckily some kind soul took it up to the ticket desk, where Gabe reclaimed it some time later. Clearly, it was a wild ride indeed!

This just in: the sun is shining. Yesterday it rained without stopping for more than twelve hours, but this morning I woke to painfully bright blue skies and not a cloud to be seen. Thank God.

I hate to harp on the weather so much — I feel like I’m being true to my British heritage here — but it’s become a topic of very personal importance. Not having a car makes it very difficult to do anything other than just stay at home while it’s raining, especially because the rain here is inevitably heavy and steady, soaking you in an instant. So sunshine promises much better things, both for me and for you, dear readers (all five of you.)

And to top it off, I’m finally feeling better. In fact, I had problems falling asleep last night, as if my body was saying, “No way! All I’ve done for the past week is sleep! Time to play!” Or perhaps I was just over-stimulated by watching the Oscars last night, having recorded them the night before. Scintillating as the hosts’ jokes were, I didn’t think they were worth staying up til 1 AM to watch! Either way, the fact that I could do something other than collapse into bed and pass out at 10:30 PM is a sure sign that I’m feeling better.

So things are definitely looking up. Watch this space for more springtime excitement, coming soon. I promise!

First, an addendum to yesterday’s post. A germ-conscious friend on Facebook pointed out that I was a naughty girl for going to the gym and sauna while I was sick and spreading my germs around. Good point!

I am always cringing at other peoples’ lack of germ awareness, especially here. But it seems I have been a germ hypocrite (would that be a germocrite?!), and even though I’m not exactly coughing on the baked goods, I am still guilty of the same crime. I guess I figure what’s the point, since it’s all germ-infested anyway, but it’s true — I should be more aware of where I spread my ickies. Thanks for the head’s up on that one.

Good news is, I am finally feeling much better. After writing to you yesterday morning, I was still feeling lethargic and drained, and even the effort of taking a shower was enough to send me back to bed for a good twenty minutes before I could muster the energy to finish getting dressed. Gabe plied me with soup and liquids, and under his gentle ministrations I was soon feeling more energetic, enough so that I could walk down to the local pharmacy with him to pick up some more aspirin.

I have to say — I still can’t get over the fact that picking up more supplies is a simple matter of a ten-minute stroll around the neighborhood: first to get medicine, then juice at the corner store, then the bakery for fresh, hot bread. We certainly couldn’t do that at home.

Of course I was thoroughly spent after that, and took a long nap in hopes that I could manage an outing to the movies later in the afternoon. Adventurous, I know! The furthest and longest I’d been away from home in nearly a week. How sad is that. I awoke from my nap feeling even better than before, and gladly changed out of my sick clothes (resisting the urge to burn them afterward) into something more presentable.

The day had turned sunny and almost warm, enough so that we could both take our jackets off while waiting for our friend at the metro stop. Even with this improvement in the weather though, the theater was completely packed, with long lines for every ticket window. It took us 20 minutes to get our tickets, by which point the movie was already starting, but luckily everyone was seeing Alice (I was jealous of their spiffy glasses!), so we still got good seats.

After last weekend’s serious movie, we decided it was time to balance ourselves out by seeing The Wolfman, which has a much better title in Portuguese: O Lobishomem. It was of course terrible, but in a way that I could handle: blood and guts (literally) flying everywhere; stilted, cliched dialogue; and even a really bad makeup job on O Lobishomem himself. It was the perfect B movie, with no pretensions otherwise.

I loved it, and sat there cackling to myself and cheering as people got ripped apart and beheaded — yes, I am turning into my mother, who has always embarrassed us by laughing out loud during action movies. It was supremely satisfying, and to me, way better than the Oscar-nominated film we saw last weekend. Told you I’m a heathen — or, to put it in a better light, I’m a sucker for story. Forget that insight into the human condition crap. Give me story, people, story! Even if it’s cliched and terribly written!

Once we got out, I was wasted and ready to go home, especially after we’d fought our way through the crowds back down to the Metro. But I was upright and out of the flat for nearly three full hours, which at this point is a record. One that I’m hoping to improve on today, if the weather would only cooperate…!

Whoa. March. I’ve been looking forward to March for so long, for so many different reasons, and here it is. Truly hard to believe. We are officially at the halfway point of living in our flat: we moved in on October 1, five months ago, and will move out on August 1, five months from now. That still seems like a really long time, but I know it will go quickly, as we now have nothing but warm months ahead of us, full of travel and family. We’ve almost made it through the long, lonely winter — hooray!

You couldn’t tell by this weekend’s storm, however, of which I see that Gabe’s kite was not the only casualty. I’m sorry that it hit other places so badly, but at least in Lisbon, the rain wasn’t as bad as we’d expected. It did keep us from doing a day trip this weekend, but we still made it out yesterday for a highly cultured afternoon.

We had plans to meet up with our French friends to see the latest Coen brothers’ movie in the late afternoon, so we decided to make it a cultural overload by visiting the modern art museum nearby. This museum is part of the Gulbenkian, but was closed when we visited on our first weekend here back in September. Since most museums are free on Sundays, it was easy to remedy that loss with a quick afternoon visit yesterday. I’m not usually a fan of modern art, as it’s a little too esoteric for me, but the huge lofty building was itself worth a visit. And having a warm, dry place to wander around and look at art for free on a rainy Sunday afternoon is always a good thing.

So wander we did, admiring the odd statues and monotone paintings, skimming quickly over the more grotesque or violent images, and lingering over some giant photographs of old bunkers from World War II, which are now crumbling and tumbling down into the sea. The size of the prints made them look more like alien spaceships, plunked down to explore otherworldly coastlines, then neglected and forgotten. Very cool.

All that culture made us thirsty, but the line for the museum cafe looked to be about an hour long, so we headed elsewhere for refreshment. Gabe remembered that the place where I’d gotten lunch during his kidney stone incident looked promising (not that either of us were really focusing on it at the time), so we went back there.

It was indeed a nice place, very sleek, decorated in black and red, with TVs showing footage of models striding down a catwalk wearing the most absurd outfits and wigs. I admired their ability to keep a straight face while wearing a three-foot high bright red afro wig. Impressive. The coffee was also good, and Gabe ate a massive pillow-sized croissant — “It’s mostly air,” he says. Right.

Even after taking a snack break, we were still over an hour early to meet our friends, so we wandered around through the grounds of the Gulbenkian museum. There I spotted the first signs of spring: some of the trees were actually starting to leaf out, their tiny bright green fronds poking bravely into the still-cold afternoon, and the heavily pruned roses were showing their first leaves as well. I was overjoyed to see these impending signs of spring, which I’ve been watching for assiduously.

After we had killed enough time, we headed up to the theater for our rendezvous. Our friend had warned us that it was the place to be on a Sunday afternoon, so we should get there early. Sure enough, despite the fact that the shopping center itself was closed, there were three gigantic lines at the ticket desk, the likes of which we’d never seen at this theater before. It really was the place to be, apparently!

As for the movie itself, well… I didn’t expect much. I went for the company rather than the movie, as the Coen bros. movies I’ve seen in the past were kind of like the modern art we’d seen earlier: deep to the point of being obscure, bleak, and at times ugly or grotesque. I say this with full knowledge that it makes me a heathen, but I can’t help it. For me, the point of fiction is to transcend real life, not magnify its misery and shortcomings. I prefer heroes (however badly written) to anti-heroes, and badly written plots to no plot at all. I believe in escapism, whether it’s in the form of blowing things up and cars flying through the air, or cheesy lines and unrealistic endings.

This movie, however, had none of that. It was Jewish life in 1960s Minnesota, pure and simple, with all its manifest woes and ugliness magnified to the point of almost physical discomfort. The main character was so weak that I don’t think he finished a single sentence for the entire film, and instead spent his time squirming and equivocating while everyone walked all over him, from his children and brother on up to his boss, his students, and the man his wife is leaving him for. Jesus Christ man, I wanted to shout, get a backbone! I hoped that maybe in the end he would redeem himself by making a stand of some sort, or maybe just losing it and going crazy, but no. Nothing like that.

Instead he just flailed his way through the movie, with everyone taking advantage of him wherever possible, and nothing got resolved. Ever. Every single plot point was left hanging, and nothing. Was. Resolved. I get that it’s supposed to be a commentary on life, oh so cleverly tied in by the Uncertainty Principle that the guy explains in a dream, which states that we can never know how anything ends. To me, it was just lazy. I realize I am criticizing a movie that is nominated not only for a best movie but also best original screenplay at the Academy Awards, but hey, what can I say? Told you I was a heathen. Give me Bruce Willis blowing crap up any day, and I’ll be happy. Existential angst and societal commentary? No thanks.

Our friends really liked the movie though, so with a massive effort, I kept my opinions to myself and suggested instead that we go drink some alcohol. Stat. So we returned to the Chafariz do Vinho, the fountain of wine near our house, which we’d visited with them last month. This time I took pictures (see below) of the water coursing down from the cistern in the hill above us. Such a cool place.

The wine did help calm me down, and was a fitting end to a weekend full of high culture. Classical music, modern art, and Oscar-nominated cinema all in one weekend — wow! Think I need to go drink some cheap beer and watch rugby now, just to bring myself back down a few notches.

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A quick word of explanation about the new header here, since a gentle reader inquired about it.

This photo was taken in a small alleyway in Belem, one wall of which was covered with a whole flock of ceramic sparrows. They are a folk symbol of Portugal, an image of spring, warmth, and family. Since swallows return to their home from the south every year, bringing with them spring and warmer weather, people put these ceramic swallows on their walls in the hopes that they will bring good weather all year round. (Apparently this winter the swallows didn’t work hard enough!)

I’d seen them for sale at a nearby store, and even bought some stick-on sparrow decals for some good friends’ new baby, but I’d never seen them displayed like this before. I had to snap a shot of it!

Yesterday was another quiet day. I went to class in the afternoon, where I was rewarded for my progress with a four-page test taken in part from the language certification test in Portuguese. Guess she thinks I’m progressing quickly! Luckily I could take it home and do it for homework. Thank God.

After class, I walked up the street to meet Gabe at our favorite cinema (now that we’ve been to a few more here, it’s clear that this one really is the best.) We saw Valentine’s Day, a cheezy romantic comedy, which as our Princetonian friend pointed out, succeeded in being neither romantic nor comedic. It was mildly entertaining and occasionally touching, but that’s the highest praise I can give it. (There’s a new genre for you: instead of a romantic comedy, try a mildly touching entertainment!) The plot points were contrived, and the characters had no chemistry whatsoever, so the romance they tried for felt forced and unconvincing. That said, I did laugh and even cry at a few points, so I guess it wasn’t a total loss. We have limited cinematic options here, so you take what you can get.

What I enjoyed most about the movie was that it was set in California — well, LA, which to my mind counts as a different state (world? dimension?) entirely, but still. As when my family and I saw Clueless while living in England fifteen years ago, there were many cultural references that you just wouldn’t get if you weren’t from California. Ditto with that wine movie that came out while I was living in London, which I absolutely hated — except for the scenery shots of Napa, which my fellow homesick Californian expat and I drooled over.

During last night’s movie, there were a number of small cultural references that made me laugh as only a California girl could — i.e. when Ashton Kutcher has to borrow a souped-up “hybrid” lowrider, and goes bouncing down the freeway in all its pink and purple glory. Yeah, it’s funny, but all the more so when you grew up seeing those on the street.

So ended another Lisboan day without incident. Still, I spent most of the afternoon feeling slightly stifled, cooped up in the flat and needing to get out. The pendulum has again swung from needing solitude to feeling isolated — oh it happens so quickly! So today I will go in to university for lunch, and then out with some friends this evening… after which I’ll feel overstimulated and in need of solitude. And so the cycle continues…!

Yesterday was another working day, made much more productive by Gabe hooking up the big flat screen monitor to my computer so that I could take over the world, er, work on the website more easily. Although I felt like a ginormous geek sitting there with cables, keyboards, and external mice running all over my desk, it did increase my productivity by a large amount:

Even after taking a lengthy break in the afternoon, by the time 6 PM rolled around, my eyes were officially turning rectangular. We decided to go to a movie, although we skipped our usual meal at the food court, since it tends to be far more crowded on weekends. It wasn’t so when we got there, but when we got out, there were massive lines for every single restaurant. At 9 PM. On a Friday night. Laugh all you want, but I’m telling you, the mall food court is the hot place to be in Lisbon.

We watched “Up in the Air,” which my mom and I had tried and failed to see at least five or six times while we were home. It was a good movie, and gave a bleakly accurate account of work and romance in the modern world. People are lonely, whether they are struggling to make ends meet or have wildly successful, high-profile careers, and they address that loneliness in a variety of ways — some of them more harmful than others.

George Clooney’s character, Ryan, deals with his isolation is by embracing it. He pushes people away, reinforcing and defending his solitude by creating a lifestyle almost unfit for human habitation. His job is thankless, his lifestyle is minimalist, he has alienated his family and has no time for friends, let alone romance. What’s more, he gives “inspirational” lectures on how to create a life just like his own, telling his audience to “empty their backpacks” of possessions both physical and emotional. No objects, no relationships, just an empty backpack.

Of course this made me sad, as it was supposed to. But it also made me think about our year abroad in a slightly different context: right now, Gabe and I are living with relatively light backpacks. When Ryan said to put all of your physical belongings into your backpack, I had to laugh: I spent two months last summer trying to get rid of as many of our belongings as possible, and the rest are in a storage container in Castroville! Granted, what we have here in Lisbon would hardly fit into a backpack — in fact it barely fit into four huge suitcases on the way here, let alone the way back. But still, it’s a far more streamlined life than what we or many other people are used to.

The same goes for our emotional backpacks. Here, we have each other, and not a whole lot more. We stay in touch with everyone at home, but having just been home and connected with our loved ones in person, I can say for sure that it’s not the same thing at all.

Carrying a backpack that light is extremely challenging for a lot of people — which was precisely Ryan’s point, and why people paid money to hear him speak about it. It is challenging for us as well, no doubt about it. Our flat can at best be described as spartan, and we miss a lot of the conveniences and objects we have at home. Much more so, we miss the people there, the relationships and connections that make up our emotional backpacks. Unlike Ryan though, Gabe and I are not ones to eschew human contact, in fact quite the opposite. Possibly the hardest part of being here for us both is the lack of our family and friends.

However, as going home last month proved, our much bigger backpacks are waiting for us when we get home. In the meantime, we have each other, and we have our tiny flat, and it is both fascinating and frightening to live life with such a dramatically lightened load. I don’t think one should take it to a pathological level, as Ryan did, but as a temporary experiment, it is often humbling and always educational.

To prove the point, we ended our night at a tiny wine bar just outside of the flat we’d looked at for my mom earlier in the day. Although it’s literally two minutes’ walk from our flat, we’d never seen it before, and were delighted by its cozy, laid-back intimacy and amazing wine — for under 3 euros a glass. So we sat, and drank, and talked, and marveled at the wonder of living in a foreign country that most Americans can’t place on a map. In fact most of them can’t even distinguish it from Spain. Sigh.

Without having taken the plunge and lightened our backpacks, we would never have found that wine bar, or the mall food court full of people at 9 PM, or the internet cafe we discovered earlier in the day — tucked away inside the post office, of all places. So yes, it’s uncomfortable to travel light (relatively speaking), and yes, I miss my home. But just for a while, just for this year… I think that Ryan character might just have it right.

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

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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