I’m feeling Pioneer-y

This is the epilogueof my stint in Portugal.  Wayne and I are headed back to the US tomorrow.  It was three years ago that I quit my job and we began making preparations to move to Portugal.  A great adventure, friends either said “wow, I wish I could do that” or “why are you doing that?”  Please read back through our blogposts if you want to know about our time here, but, this post is about our exit, and the emotions attached to it.

Disclaimer #1: After some previous posts, I’ve had responses of people wanting to know why I’m leaving Portugal – like there must be some dark secret of something wrong with the place.  We arrived here with the mindset of trying it to see if we liked it.  There’s nothing wrong with Portugal.  There’s so much that’s brilliant with Portugal, and there’s some stuff screwed up about Portugal.  Just remember, every place has its mixture, no matter where you go.

Disclaimer #2:  Many expats, some Americans, have moved here before me, have been here many years, and will stay til they die.  They are definitely pioneers.  I say, kudos, it worked out for them.  Some Americans, yet to make the move, are asking multitudes of questions that seem like they want reassurances that this will be the place for them.  I say, go with your heart, you’ll find out.  This is not a post about suggestions or advice, it is only my little story of my experience.

When we arrived in Setúbal on October 1, 2016, very few people here spoke English – the tourist centers and a few restaurants.  We were an oddity – Americans in Setúbal.  We were interviewed by Casa da Baia as the only Americans in the town.  People often mistook us for French, only because it was obvious we weren’t portuguêse and those were pretty much the only other foreigners in town.  In short, we were the darlings.  Many folks we met thought were adorable with our feeble, awkward attempts to speak the language and that we were not European yet still living in this town.  We walked up, out and about, just thrilled to be exploring this new town and new country.  We enrolled in Portuguese language lessons for 3 hours a week.  We found a fabulous apartment after our initial 6 mo lease was up and settled in to life near our lap pool, our language lessons and our favorite park.

What I began to miss was an ease of chatting.  I joined a local needle craft group.  I attended the local Qi Gong classes.  We tried to provide community service several ways.  We joined the municipal pool.  All these experiences were conducted in Portuguese.  We even taught a 10-week ballroom dance course em portuguêse.  They were great for learning the language, but, I couldn’t just chat as I like to.  I simply wanted to tell a checkout clerk that I liked her blouse.  I merely wanted to joke a little with a waiter.  I also missed the ease of complaining or researching what I needed to know with stores and businesses.  Lack of the local language is limiting. 

Then we were blind-sided by the coldness of the buildings during our second winter.  If you look at the temperature averages for the winters here, they seem not so bad.  We had no preparation for the cold of the concrete buildings which had no central heat.  It was usually less cold outside than in our home during the second winter.  I observed our neighbors wearing knit caps and jacket inside their homes.  It was tough to do my creative work, because my studio was just too f’ing cold.  When I can’t create, I go into a dark place.

After two years, Wayne and I decided that we would return to the US.  The reasons for us were simple.  Life every day was just harder than we wanted it to be and we had no “village” to have fun with.  Between the language challenges and the cultural differences, any task took a full day to accomplish and a full day to recover from the stress and effort.  Although we have a few lovely, generous Portuguese friends, and can speak more Portuguese than I ever would have dreamed of when starting lessons, there was still no sense of ease as one has with buddies.

Here’s the rub.  We visited the US in autumn of 2018 to scout out places to live.  Upon our return, we were committed to returning to the US and focused on dispensing with the kitchen machines and furniture which we had bought 2 years before.  Satisfied with the decision.  Ready to move back and reclaim a community.  I decided to attend a meetup I noticed online for expats in Setúbal.  I admit my motivations were purely mercenary.  Maybe someone there would take all this stuff off our hands.

We met some great folks who not only took the furniture and machines, but, the apartment off our hands.  The ironic part of the story is that we wish they had been here 2 years ago.  We will miss them dearly.  What is also happening is a tsunami of Americans not only coming to Portugal, but also coming to Setúbal.  Many of the Portuguese folks who did not speak English when we arrived have since learned and now speak it.  There is a regular English-speaking meetup group.  There’s a women’s group that goes on regular outings.  There is a supportive community developing that I dreamed of when we first arrived.  Kinda like how Chinatowns and Little Italys developed in the US.

This is where I feel like a pioneer.  I came to explore and discover, did my best to create a life here until I no longer had the stamina, breaking a path for others to follow with a bit more ease. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no saint.  I certainly didn’t move to Portugal for the benefit of anyone but myself and my husband.  It’s just a bittersweet glance over my shoulder that what I deeply longed for when we first arrived is now blossoming as I leave.

What’s that you say?  If it’s becoming what you want, why don’t you just stay?  My answer is, I’m just done.  We arrived too soon – it’s too little too late- it’s just time for me to go.  I know that I will always have a huge welcoming committee whenever I decide to come back to visit.  There are many happy, glorious memories for us here and a big warm spot in our hearts. I learned so much about myself and perspectives of other cultures.  I enthusiastically recommend for anyone that can, to live in a country that uses a different language than yours…for at least a year.   

I move to my next community where I will have my creative space, happy hour gal chats, community contributions, and my ocean.  Whether deserved or not, I will enjoy feeling that we helped to clear a path, we were respectful of the culture and the language, we made it somewhat easier for others to find their bliss, as we now find ours. 

Foi um prazer grande meus amigos e Portugal.  Beijinhos.  Até logo. 

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Armação de Pêra: 11 Apr ’19

So we’re in the Algarve now.  Everyone says it’s the most beautiful place on earth.  But then, what do they know?  Everyone in Portugal says they have a “house” in the Algarve.  This goes back to the ‘80’s when Portugal joined the European Union.  The EU made a lot of money available to the country and Portuguese banks were eager to lend it.  Everyone either got a mortgage or bought an expensive German car.  The interest rates must have been very low.  I’m told these purchases didn’t even require insurance.  You still see some of these cars – you can recognize them by the rust and the grinding noises they make. 

As for the “houses” in the Algarve, they’re really apartments in beach towns that are like forests of high rises.  In Portuguese, the word would probably be “casa”, which has multiple implications, like “home” or, I suppose, “destination”, or who knows what else?  Portuguese is a very complicated language.  Any given word may have multiple forms, each one meaning something very specific.  A classic illustration I’ve read is the English word “do”.  We have only four to six versions of the word – do, doing, did, done, and maybe with modifiers, to do, have done, or about that.  The comparable word in Portuguese is fazer, for which there are 22 forms.  So, calling their place in the Algarve a house is the best they can do in English.

We arrived in the Algarve in the beginning of April and will stay through May before returning to the US.  What we found when we got here was, yeah, the sky and the ocean are beautiful.  The town itself can be middling charming when the sun is out, but the aforementioned forest of high rises doesn’t do much, not like some of the villages you pass getting here with white plastered walls, orange tile roofs and charming cafes.  However, what we also found was, it was cold. Okay, okay, so it’s only April, what did we expect?  Well, everybody told us it would be warm here, that’s what! 

This brings up another thing about Portugal, the weather indoors and out.  It’s screwy.  In the summer, it can get way too hot outside; and often, it’s cold inside.  We attended a gathering of expats the other day, a group called AFPOP, for Foreigners in Portugal, which has branches throughout the country. We and another couple were the only Americans there.  The others included a couple of French and Belgians, but most of them were Brits. 

Anyway, a British lady there confirmed our prejudice about the weather, saying she could never move here because it  gets unbearably hot in the summer, but since there’s no central heating in this country and all the housing is made of concrete, you have to wear an overcoat inside if the outside temp drops below about 63°.  I think Portugal has advanced the art of mixing concrete to an advance degree.  Just about every structure in this country is made of the stuff.  I guess it’s all been built since 1974, when the fascist dictatorship was overthrown and the modern state created.

(Parenthetically, Barbara just came in from sitting in the veranda and commented that she stepped inside only to discover it’s freezing in here.  She also pointed out she hung up the laundry out there the other day in the pouring rain, and commented, “that’s how we do it in Portugal.”)

Then, finally, the sun came out and we walked on the beach, and My God, it’s beautiful!  I sit and look out at the ocean, and it changes my life.  It does more for my mood than taking a tranquilizer.  All the tension in my body washes away.  I don’t care about anything else, don’t regret anything or wish for anything other than to stay there forever and just look at it.  It’s the reason when we go back to the states, we’re going to settle in an area where the ocean looks pretty much like it does here – probably the Assateague/Chincoteague area of Maryland or Virginia. 

Then, I don’t think anyone will ever get me off the beach again.

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A Guitarra do Fadista

As we prepare to leave Portugal, we are communing with the many beloved friends we have found here. Such friends are Jorge and Paula. Paula happens to be our landlord, but, she and Jorge have taken us on a low-tide walk along the river and then home through the mountains. They have taken us to a lesser known site, a place called Bonita with flamingos. The most precious of all, is the several times we have been invited into their home (just us) to hear the golden round tones of Jorge’s fado singing while he plays his guitar. We are privileged and blessed to have received this gift more than once. After last Wednesday’s visit, a poem arrived in my head (while I was trying to sleep, of course). Sempre vou manter boas memórias de Portugal.

Click on this link if you’d like to listen to Fado while you read: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_J-3HCCNr38
You will have to endure a 5 second ad, but, it’s worth it!

A Guitarra do Fadista

(The Fadista’s Guitar)
by Barbara Miller

Once I was new
A blushing young goddess
bursting to give,
untouched, full of promise
 
Your eyes twinkled brightly
Your smile gently grew
you caressed me securely
I was yours, I knew
 
You stroked my smooth neck
And tickled my belly
As your voice grew intense
with profound melancholy
 
Our notes rang together
Your voice, my chords
The saudade of fado
It’s pain as reward
 
I felt the sweet kiss
Of your rough fingertips
As all of my strings
quivered like lips
 
We rolled and we swirled
We reveled in rapture
both sorrow and passion
our union had captured
 
A few hours of heaven
Our talents combined
Then you tucked me away
‘Til another time

I sit in the dark
Under clutter and dust
Abandoned, neglected
Please hear me – you must!
 
You forget that you miss me
Your life full and fine
But ever connected
I’m yours, you are mine
 
Your lover is precious
To her I’m no threat
She craves the dark corners
only I can beget
 
It’s not in her fate
to fill your abyss but
When you cradle my curves
She soars in the bliss
 
No matter your mask
You cannot conceal
The ever-there void
I’m able to heal
 
Whispering softly yet firmly
Persistent as rain
You know that you want me
Come hold me again.

Some folks wonder why we are leaving if Portugal is so wonderful. And we agree that it is magnificent in many ways. I can only say to you, it’s like trying to explain the saudade of Fado – impossível.

Até logo – Beijinhos,

Jorge, Paula, us and Sra. Custódia (Paula’s mom)
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Exchanging Places

Sorry for the long silence.  We’ve been distracted.  Wayne and I have been sorting through emotions and practicalities of “stay” or “go” regarding Portugal.  When we first set out on this adventure, it was open ended.  People asked is we were returning to the US or staying forever.  We were noncommittal because we didn’t have a specific intention.  We felt we would try it for at least 2 years and see how we felt.  The luxury of retirement.

Fast forward, for 2 ½ years we have been living in the cozy town of Setúbal.  Not one regret about coming, staying as long as we did, or deciding to return to the US.  We have lived everything we came for.  We wanted to be immersed in a European country where the language and the culture were foreign to us. We wanted to visit different spots throughout the country.  We wanted to be surrounded by a culture that was shaped by ancient events and multiple civilizations.  Just to experience what it’s really like to be the “others”.  We are the foreigners (“estrangeiros”) here and we try to respect the customs of another land.  It’s fair to say that we desperately want to avoid being viewed as “ugly Americans” …to a fault.  I’ve watched some other American friends breeze about, swing into restaurants and stores, speaking only English and feeling completely at ease.  That’s just not us.  Despite our history of running dance studios and events, we are quite shy and unassuming folks behind the masks.  We do our best to speak Portuguese when we can.  It was our own restriction to not own a car.  We get out there to attend events and join the local community centers.  We even taught a 10-week ballroom dance course in Portuguese dammit.  The locals are warm and welcoming, especially our dance students who gush over us.  The list of plusses goes on and on…the weather, the wine, the beaches, the bread, the fish…and we both still come back to wanting to go home.  I rarely forget that we enjoy the privilege of having a choice.

Perhaps we predestined our fate by allotting 2 years to decide about wanting to stay, but that’s about how long it took to realize that we don’t. There was a brief period of indecision.  So many expats have lived here for over a decade and will never go back.  Even more Americans are planning to move here every day.  It seemed like if you don’t just adore living here forever then there’s something wrong with you.  Are we crazy, are we missing something really obvious?  Well, if you’ve ever made a decision, you know that’s the most difficult spell.  Once a decision is made, the rest is just a to-do list.

Enter Serendipity.  Having made our decision, we attended a local meeting of the Expats in Setúbal Facebook group in December.  Curiosity and a craving for spoken English were factors, but primarily our reason for going was blatantly mercenary.  We had an entire apartment of furniture and machines to dispose of by the end of March – we had rented our apartment unfurnished.  At that meeting was a lovely couple who was fresh off the plane from Ohio – with a familiar fresh glow of adventure and discovery about them.  Tim and Susan are staying in a short-term place and were planning on scouting for apartments.  Most long-term rentals here are unfurnished; only the vacation rentals have beds or fridges, let alone light fixtures in the ceiling. 

You see where this is going.  Yes, out with the us and in with the them!  It’s difficult to think of a more symbiotic circumstance than the 4 of us.  They love all the things we love about our apartment – 9th floor, 2 varandas, views galore, central location, spacious 3BR-2BA.  They are delighted to not have to find, buy and transport furniture and machines like we did.  We are delighted not to have to try to sell off articles piecemeal and/or donate to the local charity.  Even deadlines aligned.  We leave March 31 and they must vacate their rental by April 12.  Our landlord is delighted to re-rent the apartment immediately.  All of our lives are so much simplified by that one meeting. 

We’ve taken them to a few of our favorite places and activities; even hooked them up with our language teacher.  I have always felt the professional responsibility to train my replacements.  Fact is, we just like them a lot.  The bittersweet pill is that our playdate is brief.  I appreciate this overlap time more because I know we are not just leaving town, but eventually the continent.

We’ve set our sights on the Maryland Eastern Shore, probably Ocean Pines or Ocean City.  There is absolutely no way to explain this with logic or words, but, when we visited last fall — even the beach just felt more like home.  We have been blessed to find amazing homes, as well as the towns they are in.  I expect nothing less than wonderful at our next perch.  It will find us just as all the others did. 

After leaving Setúbal, we have 2 months of leisure in the beach home of our friend, Helena, in Armação de Pera.  After that, we head north to the Lisbon airport and across the Pond.

Countdown Portugexit begins…

We’ll be visiting the ponies soon
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Time Ago

Living in Portugal, we’re not as intimately connected with the Hollywood scene as we used to be. We’d heard of the movie Green Book but didn’t really know much about it. Something about a white guy hired as driver for a black musician in the segregation days Then it showed up at our local art theater after receiving five Oscar nominations; so, three of us expat couples trooped over to see it.

It was only a couple days before seeing it that I read the musician’s name was Don Shirley. The name rang a tiny bell in my brain. I’ve been a jazz fan ever since my teen years. It was jazz that saved the music world from the likes of “How Much Is That Doggy In The Window?”; and, merged with the blues, was a precursor to rock ‘n roll.

Having listened to a fair amount of jazz in my teens, I figured the name was just one of many I’d heard in those days. But then, as it whirled around in my head, it seemed more and more familiar. In fact, the more I repeated “Don Shirley”, the more I warmed to the name, emotionally.

While watching the movie, which by the way was as excellent as cranked up to be, an image formed in my mind. I had a big old cardboard packing box in those days in which I stashed my personal LP collection. I had that box of records from my early teens through college and beyond. That, a suitcase, and a white canvas laundry bag were my entire inventory of possessions. I was a minimalist before anyone could pronounce the word.

I remember reading an article somewhere about Don Shirley and the release of one of his albums, which impressed me. Something about his being a groundbreaker in jazz and the complexity of his sound. I then scoured my local record stores until I found it. In my memory, I imagine the exact place it sat in my LP box.

Click to listen while you read.

When we got back from the theater, I went online to a list of his albums. The name grabbed me when I saw it – Water Boy, released in 1965; I was 16. Barbara and I sat on the sofa and listened to it on YouTube.  He did a couple versions of it on different albums; but, in the title album, he took the simple old blues tune through a series of arrangements, making it sound like a pop song, a schmaltzy ballad, a semi-classical etude, gradually increasing the volume and tempo until pounding it out, like plantation hands stomping out of the fields waving fists and carrying torches.  At the end, he brought it down — quiet, subversive, threatening.

It took me back to those days growing up in Atlanta I hadn’t thought of in years. I remember the old white columned mansions and the azalea gardens and being sixteen again, and having the excitement of life ahead of me instead of behind.

But it was also when times were changing, of which even a privileged white kid was made aware. Even as a young child with family moving from Chester, Pennsylvania, I remember the signs in public buildings saying “Colored rest room”, and wondering what color they were. I remember the full page newspaper headlines and photos in the Atlanta Constitution of police on horseback running down freedom marchers. From later on, I remember the crowds lining Auburn Avenue as MLK’s funeral cortege came by.  Joining a march one night at college in Athens, Georgia, to protest a rash of church burnings in black neighborhoods, looking across the police line at guys dressed in white sheets.

Mostly, though, I remember feeling like everything could be fixed. Now I know better. But, for a moment, that sensation, faith, confidence, came over me again. It was nice to feel that way. Listening to Don Shirley.

 

 

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Splatty Flat Cat

by Barbara Miller

I see it in dogs
Enjoying their rest,
But far and beyond,
the cats do it best.
 
After stalking and hunting
And planning attacks,
And, of course, after eating,
They’re flat on their backs.
 
Reposed and prostrate
Exhausted from fun.
They recline and stretch out
In a warm piece of sun.
 
Eyes squinched into slits
With a palpable bliss.
The cat becomes flat
As its own dinner dish.
 
Tummy up with legs splayed –
Exposed and laid bare.
No sense of danger,
Not one single care.
 
How luscious that is,
To know nothing of worry.
To drift into dreamland
Soft, warm and furry.
 
It’s the best kind of sleep,
Secure, safe and strong,
Deep, pure and sweet.
Can I come along?
 
The temptation’s too much.
That belly’s inviting.
It’s warm and it’s fuzzy.
My hand wants delighting.
 
Invading the space          
As my fingers outreach.
Feel the heat, hear the purr
The trance is now breached.
 
While sating my senses
By rubbing its belly,
I sense no alarm,
Still flaccid as jelly.
 
…purrrrr

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A Charmed Day in Setúbal

A Charmed Day in Setúbal

Some days are better than others.  Some are perfect and some are just shit.  Then there’s yesterday.  The washing machine suddenly decided to no longer function, so all the laundry had to be handwashed.  All our normal everyday chores ended with freak slippages, droppages, etc.  …how did that get in there?  Everything about our normal routine just got more difficult than it should be.  I had a wave of anxiety about how to handle the washer problem here in the country where people speak Portuguese.  Wayne and I got in such a funk we finally just went and took a nap (a measure I heartily recommend).  A little reminder to enjoy the present moment for what it is.

We had planned on attending an outdoor jazz event at a nearby Largo (plaza) at 5pm.  Overall, we’re pretty good at wrangling funky moods, so Wayne suggested we leave early IMG_0683and just take a walk.  We get outside, we get some exercise, and we’re at the event by 5 p.m.  – Poifect!  We took our 25 minute jaunt to the river and sat on our favorite river-viewing bench.  Once there, we simply watched life go on around us.  The weather was its typical divine self.  Two boys were swimming in the river using heroic dives, then climbing the slippery weathered stone steps back up. A man was fishing off the edge of the dock, caught a respectable cuttlefish (octopus family), then packed up and went home with his dinner.  A spunky dog decided to leap into the river for no apparent reason, was unpleasantly surprised by what he’d gotten himself into.   With some effort, he courageously swam himself back to the dock and climbed those same stone steps.  And then it was time to go to the jazz concert.

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Largo da Ribeira Velha is a cozy niche carved into a side street off the main Avenida Luisa Todi.  One entrance is through an ancient tunnel in an old but recently renovated apartment building.  A large sprawling tree is the center, with a small stage built around it.  A few cafés and restaurants define it as a popular spot.  Strings of paper decorations stretch from the branches of the tree to the upper floors of the surrounding buildings.  A gentle, cool breeze is passing through the dappled shadows.  People gradually gather to listen to the music.  It’s the first jazz I’ve heard here that was completely instrumental a nice change.  In keeping with the laid back mentality of Portugal, shop owners don’t care how long you hog up a table.  We bought wine from one café and sat at a different one’s table because none were available at the first one.  Another couple later joined us after doing the same thing.  No one cares.  You can buy as little as a water or a cracker and sit at that table for hours.  The concert was exactly one hour.  I’ve also noticed that jazz seems to be the only thing here that starts and ends on time 😉.

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On our way to the river, we had noticed a huge stage being set up in one of our favorite hangouts, Praça du Bocage.  This busy, expansive square enjoys cafés, shops, the city hall and a historic church around its edges.  In the center is an impressive statue of Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage.  The man was French but the Portuguese revere him as one of their own beloved poets. As it happens, this weekend was a holiday celebrating said gentleman.

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After the jazz, we passed back through to see what all the fuss was about.  A popular, long-famous Portuguese band, Ala dos Namorados, was to be performing there that night at 10pm (too late for us), but they were doing a warmup and sound check.  The lead singer is spectacular.  The band is tight, rhythmic and emits a big sound.  We received a surprise free concert on our timetable.  The Praça was teeming with energy.  It was invigorating to soak it all in.  In the azure sky, birds were soaring overhead and a plane flying by above them.  On the ground were tots and dogs running and teasing with each other, exploding with joy.  Scattered everywhere, on anything that could be a seat, were the people of our town, relaxed, happy, glowing with well-being.  Even the memory of the collective energy is exciting.

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Sound check over, time to move on.  We head toward home by one of our favorite restaurants, Confraria do Bonfim, in the lush Parque do Bonfim, a few minutes from our apartment.  The park is laced with little streams that converge into a pond with fountains.  Ducks are the pond’s main tenants, who are overseen by one magnificent swan.

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We enjoy our dinner al fresco with the soothing splash of the fountains next to us.  Since we overordered on the wine, it was dusk by the time we finished.

We arrive home just about 9 PM and collapse in a happy heap.  What’s that we hear?  Down at the café at the side of our building, there’s a female jazz singer on guitar accompanied by bass, trumpet and drums.  From our ninth-floor veranda, we look up at the night sky and survey our domain.  The woman is singing the English lyrics to “Smile” and her voice is velvety smooth.  We listen dreamily until Wayne decides to go to bed.  I want to hear more, but, I’m so wine tired I can’t sit up in the chair.  I place a pillow on a little end table, put my head down like a first grader, close my eyes and just listen.

Who’s to say how any given day will unfold?  If you stop to listen, there’s probably music.  A nap doesn’t hurt either.

 

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