I’d like you guys to meet the newest member of our household:


This is the kitty formerly known as Taiga, although we have yet to rename him. The top contender, almost unwittingly, is the name Bola, which means “ball” in Portuguese. Gabe and his nieces still talk about the Chow puppy named Bola that they met in Cascais, and how it was the perfect name because he was a ball of fur. After we first met this kitty on Wednesday night, I was trying to think of his name, Taiga, and out came “Bola” instead (must be the “ah” ending.) So far that has stuck, despite our original intentions to name our future kitty Sushi. Some things are really not up to us.

In fact the entire decision of getting this particular cat was not really up to us. As my friend pointed out the other day, it never really feels like we own cats, but rather the inverse. This relationship is no exception.

We started our search for a cat about a month ago, fully intending to get a mature cat, as we (read: I) didn’t feel like dealing with the kitten crazies. As you can see from the picture, that plan worked out really well.

We thought we’d found a cat through Craig’s List a few weeks ago, but as can happen with a system based on trust, the owner backed out at the last minute, saying they’d decided not to give up their cat after all. Much disappointed, we resumed the search this week, and went to an adoption fair to see a kitten I’d spotted online. By this point, we’d decided that unless we knew the home they were coming from, older shelter cats would bring too much baggage with them. So we’d widened our search to include older kittens.

So. Adoption fair. We weren’t well impressed with the kitten we’d come to see, who was so freaked out he was almost comatose, and didn’t engage with either of us. Gabe of course fell in love with a very dog-like fluffy black kitten, but I was less excited about his habit of biting fingers. Just as we were getting ready to go, the lady said, “Oh let me pull out one more for you,” and went to a cage on the side that we hadn’t seen.

As soon as she did so, I had a suspicion that I was sunk. The cat she pulled out was beautiful, a ball of silvery gray fluff, with huge paws and a long feathery tail drifting behind. She put him on my lap, and I was immediately impressed by how alert he was: not afraid or hyperactive like the other two kittens were, just watchful, keeping a big yellow eye on everything from kids to gerbils to huge German Shepherds. I was still holding out some last defenses, however, until he decided it was OK to fully relax. He wrapped himself all the way around my waist, tucked his head into my elbow, and said, quite firmly, “You’re mine.” Indeed, I was doomed.

Yesterday afternoon, Gabe IMed me to say, “What do you think about the cat? I think we should get him. I think we should pick him up tonight.” Whoa, I said. Whoa! Really?! Are we ready for this?! I mean, it takes me two weeks just to decide if I want to keep a pair of jeans that I’ve bought. This is a cat, which we will have for his whole life. I don’t want to rush into anything, you know? (Never mind the fact that we’d been looking for nearly a month, and talking about this particular cat for 24 hours. This is about as impulsive as Gabe and I get.)

So off we went to pick up our kitty, who is still temporarily nameless. He’s only been here for twelve hours, but already he owns the place. By the time we got home, he was purring away in the car, and by the time we went to bed two hours later, he’d already checked out the whole house and was ready to pass out next to me on the bed. Our last cat, a foster for some friends of friends, took a week to even come out from under the bed, and two more to explore the whole house. This cat is fearless in comparison, and hugely friendly, purring at the slightest touch from either one of us. I get the feeling he’s been starved of human affection, having spent most of his young life in a shelter.

During that same twelve hours, I have already asked myself (and Gabe) “Why did we get a kitten again?” For one thing, it does make it a little difficult to sleep when someone’s jumping on your head every other hour or so. But I only half mean it, because I know exactly why:

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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.

I’m in LA this weekend, helping one of my clients do very important research (yes, life is tough.)

We decided to drive down, as these days it’s a wash between flying and driving to SoCal. It took seven hours to reach our destination today, seven hours of flat, straight, boring driving. When we drove for that long in Britain, we reached a different country. When you drive for seven hours in California, well, technically you’re still in the same state, but in reality, it feels like a wholly different country. Maybe even universe. I’ve been to a lot of very foreign places this year, but LAsia might be one of the most different.

When we went to dinner tonight, it was all I could do to wrench my attention away from our fellow diners long enough to appreciate our incredible view of the sunset. At one long table was a birthday party for a teenage girl, which kept expanding as new people arrived and asked to add chairs. It was a laid-back, casual family affair, with multiple generations partaking in the huge salad bar with equal enthusiasm.

About half way through our meal, a tall, skinny woman with long black hair and black clothing tottered in on chunky heels, her husband also dressed all in black. They were early, so sat down at the second huge table in the room and ordered tall drinks, talking on their phones while they waited.

When the rest of their party arrived, I didn’t know who to look at first. It was mostly men, all of them wearing skinnier jeans than I would ever rock, carefully messy hairstyles, and that aggressively nonchalant swagger that screams “hipster.” Their girlfriends were wearing outfits worth more than I’ve spent on clothing in the past year, and spent time telling each other about how law school is so hard they have to start drinking at 2:30 PM, or how they only gained 27 pounds during pregnancy and here’s how to lose the weight, etc.

Half of the party had Australian accents, two were pregnant, and every one was painfully, beautifully hip. We just don’t see creatures like that in Santa Cruz, and we never saw them in Portugal, so I was captivated. Luckily, the dinner was equally good, so my staring wasn’t too obvious.

Tomorrow, more adventures in LAsia, but first: I’m officially a published writer. Tada! (Click on the link for Summer/Fall 2010 on the right side of the page to download the PDF.)

It’s been a busy week around here.

Last night, Gabe and I celebrated Rosh Hashanah with his family for the first time in two years. As we sat at my sister in law’s beautiful house, surrounded by family, giggling with Gabe’s nieces, eating excellent food, I was immensely content — and it wasn’t just the wine. Holidays just aren’t the same without family.

We also spent last weekend with our nieces, who came down to spend the long weekend with us while their parents had a mini holiday to themselves. We had a tremendous time, exploring tide pools and wandering around town for hours. Nothing like having kids around to make you feel like one yourself.

Today, I did my favorite trail run with my brother, followed by barbecue with my family. Sensing a theme here? I sure am. I think Gabe and I would be content to travel the world for ages if it weren’t for the deep ties we both have to our loved ones. Adventures are all very well and good, but nothing fulfills and contents like family.

In other news, I also found out last weekend that the piece I submitted to the online journal before leaving Portugal has been accepted, and will be published very soon.

And last but not least, to add to our own little family, I think we are adopting a Maine Coon cat next week. Stay tuned for adventures in fuzzy kitty land.

A very good week all around.

Yesterday I went up to San Francisco to catch the tail end of the Birth of Impressionism exhibit at the new and improved De Young museum. It was a great exhibit, though very crowded, and even better, it gave me an excuse to spend a rare clear, warm day in Golden Gate Park with one of my favorite people.

It’s still such a novelty to be able to actually do things on a whim with the people I love, to be able to call up friends or family and say, “Hey, wanna get together?” Of course that is wreaking havoc on what little work ethic I have left after the past six months of traveling and moving, but that is entirely beside the point. I can work when I’m dead. Or not.

On the way home, however, I was struck once again by the American culture of the car. We left San Francisco at 4 PM, just at the start of traffic, but once we hit the carpool lanes, it wasn’t too bad. As we raced by at the incredible pace of 50 miles an hour, hundreds and hundreds of single-passenger cars crawled next to us, making their slow way home through the winding warren that is San Jose during rush hour. I marveled as they stretched on and on for miles, knowing that most of these people do this same thing every day of their lives, morning and night, five days a week, all year long.

I realize that there is traffic in all of the places we went to this year, Lisbon and London especially. Since I didn’t drive though, I was much less exposed to it, even while living in a crowded capital city. So last night, I looked at all this traffic with new eyes, and was painfully aware that every single one of those people not in the carpool lane could have been driving with someone else, or taking the bus, if there were such a thing. (We didn’t see a single bus on the freeway, mind you. Not one.)

This reaction told me that I’m not accustomed to being back yet. That and the fact that I keep writing the date backwards, i.e. 1/9/10, which I wrote on my to do list this morning. Whoops.

You can take the girl out of Europe, apparently, but you can’t take Europe out of the girl just yet.

A large part of our homecoming has involved catching up with friends and family, which is a beloved task indeed. Many dinners, lunches, coffees, drinks, and afternoon strolls have occurred in the past three weeks, and every reunion has naturally involved us telling tales about our year abroad. As we’ve done so, I’ve seen some themes emerging, connections being forged through the natural evolution of conversation.

I made one such connection on Friday night over drinks at our friends’ house. During the course of the evening, we told them in turn about our trip to Venice at the beginning of our year abroad, and later on, about our trip to Fez in the spring. It was Gabe who made the comparison between the two, which I found to be particularly astute.

Both are worlds unto their own, microcosms that remain utterly incomprehensible in theory until you witness how they work in real life. A city built on water, passable only by boat? Sounds bizarre and almost impossible — that is, until you go there. By the time you leave, it’s the most natural thing in the world to see a concrete truck riding on a barge, or people lining up to receive their grocery delivery by boat.

In hindsight, this alternate world was very similar to the Fez medina, a city built of tiny streets, wide enough only to hold heavily laden donkeys and a never-ending, fast-running current of humanity. Until we went there, it was hard to imagine the sheer scale of the medina, much less the fact that none of it was actually accessible by car. I can’t say we knew our way around by the time we left, but we definitely had the full experience.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the medina did indeed have a very similar feel to the tiny streets and canals of Venice that we’d explored six months before. Despite their logic-defying nature, both cities had been getting along just fine for centuries longer than California has been a state.

In the weeks to come, I’m sure I’ll be thinking further about the similarities between the places we visited this year: Israel and Sweden? Portugal and the UK? Hmm. Stay tuned.

I’m finding it quite startling to have a social life again, as it seems that everyone wants to see and catch up with us after our return. I actually double booked myself today, and am trying to avoid doing so over the weekend.

After a year of hobbitude, this is a totally foreign concept. I am happier with things this way, but part of me also yearns for the simplicity of my Portuguese hobbit days, which were so much less complicated and required a lot less planning.

Alas.

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.

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.

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

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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