Today, Portugal has become an extremely popular destination for American expats. The weather mild, crime rate low, cost of living reasonable, real estate prices more attractive than in the States.
Discussing all the plus factors with Elizabeth made me recall my first visit there years ago. Understandably, so much has changed.
My overnight flight from Los Angeles had been uneventful, not bad overall, although I woke up slightly disoriented just before we landed in Lisbon. A bit drowsy and confused.
For me, an overseas airplane flight triggers a disruption of the senses. You arrive on a different continent in another time zone, sometimes the following day, to discover a new culture, hearing words from an unfamiliar tongue being spoken.
This experience provides the incentive to disengage and leave one’s past worlds behind. I could let go of a life I truly wanted to shed. To this end, I chose to place a disruptive five-year time frame in proper perspective to be able to move on. Sounded easy. The process, however, would prove more difficult.
Portugal, once a Roman province, had been a true world power in the late and high Middle Ages during the 15th and 16th centuries.
It had possessed one of most the dominant naval forces and ruled a colonial empire during the golden age of discovery, stretching from Angola to Macau, from Brazil to Genoa to Mozambique and even to Bruges in Flanders.
So much for those glory days long gone. I prefer the simpler, more modern-day Portugal that now flourishes.
I felt a brisk breeze from the Atlantic. It provided refreshing relief as I wound my way up the hills of the Almafa district of old Lisbon. I followed a snakelike, cobblestone street barely wide enough for an old-fashioned tram to pass. Without scraping either side.
Nestled halfway up, on a forty-five-degree curve, was a quaint little café. I wandered in, claimed a seat at a front table, an arm’s length from the tracks. There, I literally could reach out, touch the side of the tram and hand the passing driver a cup of black coffee without the least disruption. When a single car passed, it was so close for a second, the driver and I could stare each other down.
The area’s whitewashed landscape reminded me of an urban mosaic – one filled with an army of unfamiliar faces. I discreetly studied each as I began to nibble on a platter of sardines fresh off the hibachi. A crisp, green-tomato salad sat alongside a half-liter of wine, a young green, to quench my thirst.
As I ate, I found myself serenaded by the buzzing from a nearby colony of bees. Puzzled, at first, I soon became hooked on the rhythm. The sound calm, stimulating and strangely sad – reminiscent in a way of Fado, a traditional Portuguese folklore played on guitar.
I was reminded of Lauren, my ex-girlfriend. She also played classical guitar. I loved listening to her back in LA and could recall so many other wonderful things about her. But recently I caught her by surprise.
She had been playing for Dennis, a good friend of ours who happened to be married with three kids. Unaware of my untimely presence, he was passionately embracing her.
Neither Lauren nor Dennis had any way to explain these events. Fortunately, they didn’t try.
I bit my tongue and struggled to keep my cool. I showed zero enthusiasm when asking Lauren if she would like us to mend our relationship. The option unfortunately held negligible appeal.
Neither of us relished the prospect of an inevitable argument. Staying tranquil I swallowed my anger, my pride and suppressed any desire to lay blame. There was no point. We, instead, found ourselves in agreement. The time had come for us to gain some emotional distance.
Although we each silently acknowledged the many unforgettable moments we shared together, the handwriting had become frightfully clear. Especially after Dennis discreetly slipped away.
As a pragmatic alternative, I offered to give each of us some space and announced plans for my trip to Portugal. Only later, did I find out Lauren already booked a three-stop trip of her own to Asia.
Sure, I was hurting. Didn’t know if she was too. Our bond, however, had been broken. Lauren, an expert at hiding her emotions, revealed only what she felt she absolutely had to share. In this case, she said nothing.
The abrupt blast of an airhorn from an orange-and-white tram shocked me back to where I sat at the café.
A green, leather-bound notebook was about to slide off the next table. My reflexes responded as I instantly reacted, lunged forward and snatched it up.
Marlene, a young, redheaded, British woman, just returning, smiled and thanked me. We then chatted ever so briefly. She suggested I visit the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum and the National Gallery to see several works by the 15th-16th-century, Dutch fantasist Hieronymus Bosch. We made a date to go together.
That evening I caught up with Jimmy, who headed the Lisbon office of an international entertainment giant.
I had worked with his legendary dad several years back. But I first met Jimmy on the phone earlier in the afternoon.
Turns out, he was a gifted polyglot same as his father. I always felt at a loss linguistically speaking. Never having had the ear, I felt envious of Jimmy’s natural affinity to learn a new language each time he moved to a new position. A trait, I’m proud to say, Caroline has and is building on.
Later, a few of Jimmy’s international friends met up with us at a local night spot.
Erika, an advertising exec from Norway, was one of them. She explained how her first exposure to English came from singing along with the lyrics of rock tunes she’d hear but hadn’t the slightest idea of meaning or context.
Yet, once loose on the dance floor, she came alive singing and dancing up a storm. What’s more, by then being fluent, she could’ve passed for 100% American.
Never realizing the hour nor how little sleep I’d had, slowly sipping a glass of tawny port made me feel right at home. Thoughts of California slipped further and further away.
Soon Jimmy apologized, said good-night and left as he had an early meeting in the morning.
Erika, however, stayed and Marlene somehow found me. Together, the three of us went on to sample a bit more of Lisbon nightlife. Quite by chance, we eventually found ourselves at a café that had just stopped serving. We sat sipping coffee and watched a red dawn break over the city.
The three of us decided on the spur of the moment to fly south to the Algarve for a couple of days. There, the Atlantic swings East toward the Mediterranean. It was going to be spectacular to behold the sun, the sea and the convergence of their brilliant colors.
We landed mid-morning in Faro and caught the heart of a European tourist onrush. I wept going on reserve energy I never knew I had. I even looked up a friend’s girlfriend from L.A.
Mary G. had a charming little beach house right on the water. She could wake up and dive right into the Atlantic. If I had ever been to paradise, this was it. Global warming and glacial melting were yet to become issues of any concern.
Elizabeth, originally from Poland, now has her curiosity piques about Portugal. She questions whether it poses a particularly desirable option, one where we could eventually go to settle back in Europe.
About the Article
Exploring an expat life in Lisbon, Portugal yesterday, today and possibly tomorrow.