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Over the weekend, we finally unearthed our new desks from under the piles of boxes that have been sitting on and around them for the past ten days:

As you can see, Gabe was taking his return to work very seriously.

So now the chaos has been contained to the far back room, which has a door that we can shut on it, along with a few miscellaneous boxes of decorations and pictures to be hung up as we get to them. So a year to the day from when we left it last summer, our house is once more fully operational. I like the symmetry of that timing.

With that milestone though, I no longer had any excuses to keep from returning to work. I did just that yesterday, which inevitably turned out to be the warmest day of the Santa Cruz summer so far. Luckily, one reason I love living and working here is the killer break room:

Which makes the whole thing more tolerable, somehow. I don’t mind working under those conditions, not at all.

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One year ago today, I sat on my mattress (which as I wrote at the time was the last remaining horizontal surface in our house) and wrote these words:

“As of today, my life is boiled down to less than 100 pounds of belongings. I will load them on my back (and tow them behind me), and I will see what my old friend the road has to show me this time.

Goodbye, house.”

Shortly after writing that, my family arrived to help us pack the last of our belongings into the storage container, which was then loaded on to a truck and taken away, not to be seen again until just last week. A momentous day indeed.

A year later, I am sitting on our wonderfully comfy couch, with my belongings arrayed all around me, more or less in the order I want them. That twelve months on the road is now behind me, and I am glad for it. While I enjoyed the trip, I am a homebody at heart, and it is good, once again, to be home.

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.

This whole process of unpacking and moving back into our house feels like being Dorothy in slow motion: There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home… Every box I open, every item that goes back on the shelf or into the closet is one more step towards being home. And every step feels better and better. It’s shocking to me just how good it feels to be here — I guess I had forgotten it was possible to feel this grounded.

On Saturday, I finished unpacking the kitchen while Gabe put away the tools and camping gear into the hall closets. Yesterday we focused on the bedroom, sorting through old clothing and putting away some of what we’d brought back from Lisbon. Along with a huge food shop at the gigantic new Safeway down the street, that made the house finally livable. We celebrated by setting up our outdoor furniture and sitting outside on the patio with a friend of mine who came by — and we were even able to feed her! What a concept.

And then, last night, we slept in our own bed, on our lovely foam mattress, for the first time in a year. It was wonderful, and even more so to wake up in the quiet of our house, tiptoe out to the kitchen, and have my breakfast all on my own, on my favorite seat on the couch. The only thing missing is our cat, whom we had to give away when we moved. But all in all, it feels really good.

Like I said — there really is no place like it.

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.

****

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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Today was a big day: the day we returned to our house.

We’ve been home in California for five days now, but between jetlag and catching up with family and friends, we hadn’t actually been Home to our house until today. But early this morning, we set off into the fog in a car laden down with many bins and suitcases, heading for home. Our agitation increased as we made the familiar half-hour drive, and at last, as we turned the final corner, I could hear the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey playing somewhere in the back of my mind.

Of course after all that buildup, the actual experience couldn’t help but be slightly anticlimactic. I’d forgotten the quintessential curse of being a homeowner: no matter how good it looks, you only see the things that need to be done. So the brand new dusky blue paint on the outside only served to highlight the wretched state of the garden, whose dry, blasted earth looked like the gophers had reenacted all the great battles of World War I on our doorstep. The interior paint — which is blessedly simply white, after all that agonizing — also looks fabulous, but provides a lovely backdrop to the dingy, dated tiles on the kitchen counters. Sigh.

As we wandered the echoing rooms, we reacquainted ourselves with the boundaries of our lives here. And so far, they are much, much bigger. We’ve gone from a tiny two-room apartment to a long, low three-bedroom bungalow, whose dining and living room encompass most of our entire Portuguese apartment.

Thankfully, before too much time had passed, the truck bearing our container of belongings arrived. I had a strange sense of deja vu, as we waved goodbye to it almost exactly a year ago, on a morning just as foggy and cold as this one was. The driver even remembered us, and said, “Hey, you said it’d be about a year!” On rolling up the door, we found everything much as we left it, with plenty of things (cleaning products, packing materials, sheets and mattress) stuffed in at the last minute.

We made a desultory effort at unloading a few boxes, but before we could get too tucked in, lunchtime arrived, along with a dear friend of mine, and Gabe had to head off for his first meeting back on campus. Faced with the prospect of summer traffic at the other end of lunch and meetings, we reluctantly called it a day, but are newly determined to go back and make a proper dent in the unpacking tomorrow. Both of us are eager to get moved back in, tired of living out of suitcases, and very ready to resume our lives.

(Will post pics later…)

Last day of sabbatical. Heading home. Can’t believe it. The next time I wake up in a proper bed, eat breakfast and have a quiet cup of coffee in the morning, it will be in California, that legendary place of all my dreams for the past year.

Somehow though, despite having looked forward to this day for so long, now that it’s here, I seem to have mixed feelings. I am of course excited to go back, and very ready. But I’m also sad to give up this year of fun and freedom, rest and travel, tiles and graffiti, food and drink and museums and tiny winding streets and trams and boats and buses of all sorts… the list goes on. It has been an incredible ride, and I thank you all for sticking around to hear about it.

And now, for home. Wherever that may be.

Late last night, it finally hit both of us how sad we are to be leaving. We’ve both been so future-focused — trying to get our stuff ready, looking forward to getting home — that we hadn’t really focused on how much we’re going to miss this place. But finally, I realized that we only have two days left here in our little flat, on these narrow stony streets, with these crazy, warm, ebullient people. Two days.

Today we’ll go for a last walk around our favorite places in our ‘hood. I know we will come back here again in the future, but not for a while. So for now, this will be the last time I see the fantastic old cedar in Principe Real, or the oddly familiar view from Santa Catarina. Today I will walk into my favorite coffee and candy store and inhale their pungent air for the last time, and look at the ruins of the Carmo convent, then walk to the top of the Santa Justa elevator and take in the view.

Two days.

Last week’s stretch hurry up and wait inactivity is finally over, and we’re now getting much closer to go-time. We packed up most of our remaining stuff yesterday, including one giant bag full of stuff we won’t need til we get home. After much packing, weighing, repacking, and reweighing, that brings us to two big bags at exactly 23 kilos each, along with two very heavy carry-ons, which we will pack on Thursday.

We also got the flat cleaned last night, after some small miscommunication with the owner of the flat upstairs, whose cleaner and cleaning products we were hoping to use. He thought he was just introducing us to the cleaner, to be scheduled later this week, whereas we thought she was doing the cleaning then and there. Luckily she had the time to do both his flat and ours, although I did feel bad when we got home from our movie at 10 PM and she was still there, after having told us she had to leave at 9:30. But the place is now immaculate, and with all our personal trappings taken down, it now looks very sterile, almost like a hotel.

Most important of all, we were able to wrest most of our security deposit out of our landlord, who had been incommunicado all weekend. After sending him a series of increasingly frantic texts and emails over the past few days, we got a text on our way home from the movie telling us to “Relax!” It’s all being taken care of. Um yeah, it’s a little difficult to relax when you owe us a significant chunk of money and we’re closing out our bank account and leaving the country in three days.

He did come by with most of the money late last night, and said he’d send the rest to us in the States after figuring out expenses on house repairs we’ve incurred while living here. I won’t hold my breath, but at least that’s more or less settled now.

So what remains? Today, a day of work, at Uni for Gabe and at home for me. Tomorrow, probably a bit more work and a last stroll around our neighborhood, as Thursday will be busy with last-minute packing and cleaning. Add in a few goodbyes and a final dinner at a new restaurant we’ve been wanting to try, then we’re out of here, giant bags in hand, on Friday morning. Still so hard to believe…

Forgive the break in regularly scheduled programming this morning, friends, but my head got lost in a paint bucket — or at least a virtual one. Turns out trying to choose paint colors from thousands of miles away when you haven’t set foot in your house for nearly a year is ever so slightly difficult.

We wanted to stick with white because we thought it’d be simpler and safer than trying to choose a color from far away, but oh no, simple is one thing it has not been. Creamy white, yellowy white, grayish white, pure cream, taupe, beige — I even looked at one called “Mayonnaise,” although I much preferred the names “Mouse Back” and “Timid White.” I think we have finally settled on “Moonlight White,” which has all the right calm, peaceful vibes that I need. (You can’t tell me names don’t matter in the house of someone as enamored with words as I am.)

That means the painting can start this week, which in turn means the construction work is already done… and that leaves only the cleaning lady to come in the week we get back. I don’t think we’ll even recognize our house when we return! How exciting. Of course the state of the garden will bring the overall effect waaaay down, but hey, it’ll be a challenge.

Today: a trip to the gym, perhaps some packing (or maybe not, since it’s already noon), and a friend’s birthday party on a coastal town south of Lisbon. Good times.

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

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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