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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Posted in Leisure travel freedom, Living abroad, road trip, Stay as long as you like, writing

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.

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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.


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 😉.


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.


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.


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.


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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Posted in Leisure travel freedom, Living abroad, writing

That darn Muse

That muse just keeps niggling me.  I did this art (colored pencils and ink) during the winter as a soulself portrait.  Then Miss Muse spoke some playful words.  When I remain open, she speaks.  Love and Peace.

A Musing

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My Muse is Back!

Apparently I am at the mercy of a poetry muse.  It seems she didn’t care for last winter either, and she vanished.  Our friends and we were discussing the health of his mother recently.  It made me think of many parents of our generation, both dear and departed.  And then Miss Muse delivered this.


This is sized as 8.5×11″ if you should care to print it off.  Please let me know what you think of my poetry.

Obrigada e beijinhos meus caros.

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Bite Me 19 Apr, ’18

A couple months ago, I was coming back to the apartment from an errand.  My route takes me through a pass-through tunnel on the first floor of our building, threading my way among the tables of an outdoor café.  At one table sat a lady of some years duration – I’ve stopped using the term “old” since, in my case, it’s passed its expiration date – with a cane propped up on one side of her and a tiny creature on the other.  I suspected the thing was a dog but it might well have been a long haired rat for all I knew.  You know, one of those hairy things with a stove-in face and ears twice as long as its body.  A miniature or toy dog with an Oriental name like Cheat Sue, PeekInThese or Me Too Gai Pan.  As I went past the table, the animal launched into a series of loud, sharp, high-pitched yips.  It sounded like some kind of Morse code — “YIP,” (beat beat) “YIP YIP” (beat) “YIPYIPYIPYIP” (etc).

I passed it by, but the creature followed me, continuing to bark.  I don’t know why it went after me unless it thought I was supposed to pay a toll or something.  I guess it found me threatening, or it was just showing off who was boss.  Either way, it was doing its best job of furious behavior.  I wasn’t in the mood to negotiate with it so I turned to leave.


At which time it bit me on the heel.

I can’t remember the last time I was bitten by a dog.  I’m not entirely certain I’ve ever been bitten by a dog.  Maybe once or twice when I was a child and pulled its tail.  Otherwise, I’ve been bitten by a horse and kicked in the stomach by a cow.  I refuse to talk about these incidents, so don’t bother asking; suffice it to say, the animals had good reason. The point is that such things don’t happen very often, so I was understandably surprised.

That was the start of it.  Since that time, whenever I left the grounds, if the nasty little turd-replica was there it stopped whatever it was doing and came after me.  The distance from our front entrance to the pass-through is about thirty yards. The animal must’ve waited and watched for me, because it started barking as soon as I come out the door.  Even at that distance, I could see the malevolent expression on its face.

I noticed the advanced-in-annual-premiums lady who owns the dog did absolutely nothing while this was going on.  Typically, she didn’t even acknowledge anything was happening, not even by the narrowing of an eyebrow or the twitch of that little nerve at the corner of her mouth.  She just stared off into the distance with a blank expression as if remembering the days when she came in sixth out of six in the Miss Portugal contest.  If the dog had me down on the ground ripping its teeth into my groin and tearing my intestines out inch by inch, I believe she’d ignore it as an impolite intrusion on her otherwise pleasant little day.

It’s not that the attention bothers me; it’s amusing to be singled out that way.  I continue to wonder what its motivation was.  I may have stepped a little too far into its territory and my foot slid under its chair.  It may simply have felt compelled to show how mean and dangerous it is.  You know, there’s always that runty kid in school who’s overly sensitive about its size so it’s determined to look dangerous.  If it acts mean and sounds mean, maybe the bigger kids will be distracted enough to leave it alone.  Meanwhile, it always has an escape route in case somebody calls its bluff, so it can get away in time.

I wondered what might happen if I tried to confuse it.  The next time I came out and it began barking, I turned and looked the other way then crouched down and pretended to ignore it.  It kept barking for several minutes until, as far as I could tell, it forgot why it was doing it.  It got this look on its face as if to say, “I know I had a reason for this, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what it is.  I’ll just sit here ready to catch whatever comes by, then everyone will see what a tough guy I am.”  That approach got pretty boring for both of us. Eventually, I had to go, by which time the dog had fallen asleep.

The next time I came through, we had a standoff.  Senhor Sh** For Paws, as I came to call it, ran up barking its head off and I responded in kind.   While it did its “Yip Yip Jump around” routine I put my hands on my hips, stared at it angrily and gave a high pitched “Rrhup!” (or something to that effect).

The dog hesitated for a second as if it wasn’t sure it had heard me, then launched into a furious cascade, to which I responded “AH Rauff!” (or something to that effect)

To which it answered “Arararar!”  It redoubled its efforts to look tough by snapping its head at me and running a couple of steps toward me, I suppose to make me think it was charging.  So I cut its display with another “Rauff!!”

(I’m doing the best I can with these human-animal translations, so gimme a break.  They’re a lot better than my attempts to speak Portuguese.)


At this point, the dog got confused; things weren’t going its way.  It didn’t seem to know what to do next.  It tried a couple more yips but now with a puzzled expression.  I think it wanted to go to Plan B but had missed the Plan B training class at doggie daycare. For my part, when it was clear the thing didn’t have nothin’ else, I left the combat zone to go about my business.

The feud continued for weeks — I came out of the building; the dog was watching for me to come out of the building; the dog attacked me; I barked at the dog, and so on.  I’ve always got things to do when I go out, so I’m the one who usually breaks it off.  The problem was the dog was going around telling everybody it’s the winner.

That pissed me off; it wasn’t fair. I found myself getting angrier and angrier about it all.  Whenever I went out, I immediately started barking.  I increased my aggressive display and looked for the dog.  If I didn’t see it immediately, I’d sniff around the area until I picked up its scent. I’d bare my teeth, point my ears, throw my weight onto my front paws, and my tail went straight up.

By now, I was attracting attention from the neighbors.  I noticed some of them giving me strange looks, and they’d walk away when I approached.  They’d do a wide circle around me like there was some barrier between us.  Barbara tells me she got a call from our landlady saying several of the residents were complaining.  Some have heard of a disease Americans get in foreign countries, a type of distemper, and wondered if I might be a victim.

Barbara covered for me by telling them I had become a supporter of our beloved President Donnie T**.  She claimed I’m in line to be the next ambassador to Portugal, because he’s running out of people to work for him.  This explanation satisfied them; it lined up perfectly with their opinion of the way things are going in the US nowadays.

Then not long ago, I rushed outside ready to do battle with The Little Creep.  Strangely, it wasn’t waiting for me.  I went in search of it and finally saw it down the block in company with another dog.  The two of them were sniffing at each other’s crotches with blissful expressions.  Nobody was barking, no tails were up.  No one was interested in me.

They completely ignored me.  Nobody cared about me.  It left me kind of sad.  Abandoned, almost.

I went around in a funk for the next couple of days.  A gray cloud hung over me.  (That could have been the weather; it has continued to be unusually wet this year).  In any case, I finally expressed my feelings to Barbara.

So,” she responded, “what you need is to find another way to anger the local animal kingdom, disturb the neighbors and generally make a fool of yourself.”

“That’s it exactly!” I exclaimed.

“You shouldn’t have any problem with that.  Trust me.”

Leave it to Barbara.  She always knows just the right thing to say to make me feel better,

Até logo.

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