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Um, wow. It’s October. I am not exactly sure where this year has gone. Oh that’s right, it went all over Portugal, Morocco, Israel, Sweden, and England. Not to mention home. As you’ve seen, it’s been a busy one, and I for one am glad that we’re heading into fall. I love these crisp, cold days (or will once this past week’s heat wave has gone, which it seems to have done today), and I especially love the holidays. More than anything, I love being home with our families for the holidays. As much fun as we had last fall, exploring Lisbon and Venice, it just wasn’t the same.

And of course we can’t forget the newest addition to our lives this fall, Bola the wonder cat. This week he has gone from sweet cuddly kitten who has been deprived of human contact all his life, to testy adolescent cat intent on pushing all the boundaries we set for him. Oh, I can’t play with the marbles on that fancy chinese checkers set that was a wedding present from a dear friend? That’s what you think! After not using the squirt bottle on him for the first ten days he was with us, we’ve now squirted him at least 4 or 5 times in the past two days (and every single time was for playing with those dang marbles.)

We also have some moments that make it all worth it, such as last night, when he was leaping two feet in the air after a new toy we bought him last weekend. Such are the joys of kittenhood.

On a wholly different note: back in the spring, I submitted one of my many many Morocco photos to an online photo contest. Voting for the People’s Choice Award opens today, so please, gentle readers (all ten of you!) head on over and cast your vote (here’s how.) My photo is on list #2, photo 16.  Many thanks!

And now, to start October.

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Two days later, and progress has slowly been made. Or at least that’s what Gabe tells me, although as usual all I can see is the mountainous pile of boxes that remains to be unpacked.

On Thursday, we recruited various large and burly members of my family to help unload the container box, which resulted in a much emptier box and a much, much fuller house. We had originally planned to go a lot slower than that, unpacking the box as we went along, but as usual, our best laid plans were eclipsed by the fog of moving, and there we were.

The actual unpacking of boxes didn’t begin until yesterday afternoon, after a quick trip over the hill to buy some desks we’d seen advertised at a great price. It felt silly buying more things when we quite literally didn’t know what to do with everything we already had, but hey, sometimes you can’t pass up a good deal.

As I dove into the boxes marked “Kitchen”, my first thought was: Wow, I did a really good job of organizing and packing these! After that, all I could think of was how happy I was to see all our stuff. It was like Christmas, digging through boxes of old magazine pages to find the next carefully wrapped object, then extracting it from its cocoon to find… a jar of spices! The coffee mug from my favorite cafe at college! A gorgeous ceramic platter made by my mother-in-law!

The excitement went on and on (and on…!), occasionally interspersed by the odd, “Now why did we keep that again??” Most of those went back into a separate box, to be given away after all is said and done. But for the most part, I was delighted to see every once and future denizen of our kitchen shelves.

After a year without stuff, I thought myself above the temptation of object affection, free from material attachments. But each mug and plate that came out of that box was like an old friend, greeted with affection, wiped down thoroughly and placed carefully back on the shelf. It was humbling to feel so attached to these things, as if I were unearthing a piece of myself from underneath the piles of crumpled paper.

Perhaps in the end that’s exactly what I was doing: uncovering the sedentary part of myself, the part that owns plates and mugs and vases and utensils, and putting away my suitcases for another year’s adventuring.

Once again — say it with me now — it feels good to be home.

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Pictures from our first excursion into the house — notice the new paint! And the new linoleum! No pictures of the new patio paint outside… couldn’t bring myself to do it.

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And from our first day of unpacking yesterday, including some of our new desks, Gabe purchasing said desks with the online coupon while sitting in the store, our new contact paper (ooh! pretty!), and the growing pile of empty boxes:

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We’re having a great time here in England, lots of family, friends, and food, a much needed reintroduction back into our real lives. A few photos as evidence…

First, our last night in Lisbon and goodbye to our flat:

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Then we get to England, where we’re staying in a lovely little village in the Cotswolds in a holiday home that’s a converted chapel. Our family all visited for a weekend of punting and a trip to the local farm park to see the animals:

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A trip to Bristol to see friends of the family and the SS Great Britain, the world’s first iron steamship:

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And last but not least, today we did a long ramble through the countryside with a delicious pub lunch in the middle and a cream tea at the end:

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Which brings us to tonight, when we are sitting inside reading, working, and feeling grateful that the rain that’s now pouring down did not do so while we were walking earlier today.

Tomorrow, another Oxford day, and then Friday off to Edinburgh early in the morning.

Well, here it is: our last day in Lisbon. This is the last morning I’ll lie in bed and watch the swallows dance above the rooftops, or eat my breakfast with only the sound of the cranes outside and the incessantly yapping dog to keep me company. (OK him I won’t miss.)

And so this whole crazy experience, truly a once in a lifetime event, draws to a close. As you’ve seen from my posts over the past weeks, it is certainly a bittersweet goodbye, no more so than today, when we’ll go in to uni to have a farewell lunch with Gabe’s colleagues.

For both of us, this year has truly been what a sabbatical is intended to be. For Gabe, it has been not only a mental and physical break from the routine of teaching and research, but also a time to expand his horizons professionally, to make new connections and do things differently than he would’ve done at home.

For me, it was more of the mental and physical break type of year. This was a year of solitude and introspection, of working on my body at the gym and my mind in our office, a time to sit by myself and read, write, think, feel, to recover from the past few years and get ready for what is to come.

In some senses, this year hasn’t gone the way I thought it would, in that I expected to use my spare time to build up my publicity business, design a website for myself, get business cards made, etc. Instead I’ve realized that I’m perfectly content with my business the way it is, and have focused on my writing, which has given me unexpected joy and much-needed stability this year.

To that end, I submitted my first piece for publication in an online journal yesterday. I have no idea if it will be accepted, but even the sending of it was a big step. I feel like I’ve come full circle this year, and yet I know it is just the beginning.

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Here are some pictures from our last walkabout yesterday — thought I’d give you a tour of our neighborhood, street by street, square by square, snack by snack. (Description is below the photos, so keep reading.)

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First we take you to Praca das Flores, which is kind of cheating because I forgot to take pictures on the way there from our house. But you get the idea. Then we walk up through the streets to Barrio Alto, past a little fruiteria and some old men playing cards outside of a cafe.

Once through Barrio Alto, we come to the mirador of Santa Catarina, where we stop at one of the first cafes we ever went to here, overlooking the bridge and the docks. Moving along, past a bollard that Gabe had to ride up and a mini-sized delivery truck, we get to Praca de Camoes, where you see two 28 trams and three churches, all in a row.

That leads us into Chiado, the fancy shopping district. We stop in a store selling sweet little espresso cups with the 28 tram on them, which to our relief were completely out of stock (as is our baggage allowance.) She wouldn’t even sell us the display model. But look at them! So cute.

Nearby, we take a picture of the tourists taking pictures of themselves in front of A Brasileira, the famous cafe where Fernando Pessoa spent so much time writing that he now has a statue outside. I turn around to take a shot of my favorite old bookstore, Bertrand, which takes up half a linear block and has been there since time immemorial.

Then on to my favorite place of all, the coffee shop, where we go in to take a whiff of the air. Gabe asks the guy about the various fancy coffeemakers on display, which leads to a lesson on the difference between all of them. Meanwhile I eye the candy, and inhale deeply, trying to absorb the old-world essence of that little store.

Onwards, down through the Chiado mall and out onto the streets below, where we look up towards the Santa Justa elevator. We turn right, through the end of Rossio square, where once the Inquisition burnt people for kicks; past the streets of Baixa, looking towards the arc at the end; and on into the Praca de Figueroa, where the tram for Belem leaves. On that corner is our second favorite place to get pasteis, the Confeiteria Nacional, which has been making Lisboans fat since before our country was a country.

There we order pasteis, and since they could be our last, we ask for them to be heated up. She leaves them in for too long, which has the strange effect of separating the butter from the dough, making the plate yellow and greasy and the whole thing taste like salty butter. Slightly anticlimactic. Nonetheless, we eat them so quickly we both burn our mouths on the hot custard inside.

Next stop, our nearby grocery store to pick up a roasted chicken for dinner, then past the ornate front of Rossio train station and back up through Restauradores square. We walk along the path of the elevador da Gloria, which took off just as we came along, and up onto our street, where many scary alley cats live. I took a picture of my favorite, the scariest by far, who barely has any ears left and is always haunted by a younger, more ear-endowed, and equally black companion.

That takes us past the local restaurant where we had my birthday dinner, although the waitress who usually says hi was nowhere to be seen last night. And finally, to our block and our red building, where we take our chicken and eat our dinner, trying not to think of how few hours of relative peace remain to us here.

So there you go — that’s our ‘hood. Hope you enjoyed our last excursion as much as we did…

Last night, we went out to a fabulous dinner to celebrate my sister in law and her husband’s wedding anniversary. The restaurant was set in a former convent (they’re all over the place here!), wonderfully decorated in a rustic, earthy yet very tasteful and upscale way.

Our table was in what was previously the cloisters, under arched roofs, with candles and potted vegetables growing on our tables. Dinner began with tapas, many of them, plate after plate of small yummy things, so many that we were already full by the time we ordered our main courses.

My favorite part of all though, the part that made me feel like this was a truly Portuguese experience, was that people also lived in the upper floors of the building. So there we were, eating incredible food in this beautiful, peaceful courtyard, looking up at the sunset above us… and seeing laundry hung out to dry on the walls opposite the restaurant.

When the power went out about two hours into our meal (luckily after we’d finished!), the upstairs windows showed flashlights reflecting wildly off the walls, and people came out onto their balcony with a laptop and a headband of glowing red lights to provide them with illumination.

To me, this was far more Portuguese than any of the food or wine could have hoped to be. Eating dinner at an upscale restaurant in a nunnery surrounded by people’s clean socks and T-shirts. That, my friends, is Portugal.

We’ve also taken a couple of (relatively) early day trips recently, including one to Obidos on Tuesday:

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And on Monday, we went out to explore the Botanical Gardens:

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My birthday was great — very very chill, which is exactly what I wanted. How things have changed! Birthdays in high school usually turned into a popularity competition to see who could accrue the most flowers, balloons, and other crap from their friends throughout the day. Of course it was cheating to put it in your locker, so everyone would walk around all day laden down with festivity.

In my first couple years of college, birthdays were an excuse to drink and go crazy (as if we needed one!) Later on, my activities became more sedate, but I still tried to fit as much into the day as possible — breakfast here, coffee there, dinner and dessert with my family, etc.

Now, my idea of a perfect birthday is a big breakfast (French toast made an excellent substitute for pancakes this year), a good workout, and a quiet afternoon with a book, a walk, and a bit of shopping. Dinner was leftover salmon, rice, and ratatouille from the night before, warmed up and eaten at home with my husband. I must be getting old!

To add a Portuguese touch to the celebrations, my birthday cake was a pair of pasteis de nata, my favorite creamy gooey custard treat. Gabe brought them home from work, then warmed them in the oven as we were eating dinner. Stick a couple leftover Hannukah candles in them, cut up an orange to provide a little bit of health food, and voila! The perfect Portuguese birthday cake.

My favorite part of any birthday, but especially this one, is the outpouring of love you get. My inbox was crammed full of ecards, emails, and Facebook notifications all day yesterday and on until this morning, as the good wishes continued coming in well after I’d gone to bed last night. I got calls from friends at home and in England, texts from my Portuguese friends, had a Skype call with my mom and uncle, and even got a phone call from my hairdresser here, who wanted to wish me a happy day.

Maybe things aren’t so different from my high school birthdays after all — the flowers and balloons just take a lighter, more portable electronic form these days. Either way, it is wonderful to feel so loved, and a small part of me wished that every day this year had been my birthday.

Today things are back to normal, or at least as normal as they can be two days before we take off on our next trip. The fun never ends!

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Here’s some pics from my bday, as well as a walk we took on Sunday afternoon. We came across a massive book fair in the nearby Parque Eduardo VII, with booths stretching all the way up one side and down the other. There were food booths, portable cafes, and even signing booths, with a few bored-looking authors on display for signing books.

It was a carnival of books, and there was an accordingly huge crowd of people, kids, dogs, the whole deal. I was amazed! I’ve never seen such a thing in the States. It was great to see the appreciation of literature and books so alive and well here.

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More pictures from the Douro and Manteigas, including some of Beiras the mountain dog, as requested!

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And also some from our drive up, up, up… and then down.

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Pleased to report that for the past two days, I’ve actually been getting some work done. With all the traveling we’ve been doing lately, then my cold, my responsibilities (such as they are) have been sorely neglected. And I’m acutely aware that once we go to Sweden later in the month, there won’t be much time for working again until, oh, September.

So now that I’m feeling better, we are home and no visitors are here, there are no longer any excuses. Nor do I need them, as it turns out I love my job, especially on days when I find out that a book I’ve helped promote ends up on the New York Times bestseller list (yippee!), and my office looks like this:

Or this:

And yes, that is a couple of guys sitting in the park playing a trumpet and a guitar. They weren’t bad, either, other than when the trumpeting individual with long dreadlocks (where are we again? Santa Cruz?) was making hooting noises into the guitar’s soundbox, I guess to tune it. That, not so nice.

Yeah. Life is good.

The last set of photos from Israel, then we’re all caught up. These are from our last couple evenings in Tel Aviv, mostly demonstrating the amazing expressiveness of the sky there…

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To continue on our visual tour of Israel… here’s a set from our trip up north last weekend, to Ceasarea, a Roman pleasure villa on the ocean, then on to Haifa, where we stayed with family near Acho.

The next day, lunch with more family on their kibbutz near the Lebanese border, then a wandering path back down to Tel Aviv, via a stop to see some more friends. On down through Tiberius to wave at the Sea of Galilee before hitting up a late dinner with yet more friends in Tel Aviv. Good Lord, I’m exhausted just writing about it…

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

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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