Relocating to a foreign country isn’t for the faint of heart, even if the choice is an English-speaking country, there’s cultural shock. No matter what you’ve read in the popular International Living, life in an unfamiliar territory, is a reality check. You’re not on vacation.
Over the years, thoughts of living abroad, were ignited with what-if conversations with friends over Anthony Bourdain’s televised international travels, a growing library of tourism magazines, and balancing tight budgets for two-week European vacations.
An important decision came after I took a trip to Paris about eleven ten years ago. My mother, who was terminally ill from cancer, visited me in Oregon. It was bitter-sweet as her time was slowly losing ground. Mom, her caretaker nurse, and I spoke about her determination to see me, her eldest daughter. It was enormously difficult accepting my mother’s situation, because of her years of chain-smoking cigarettes. Mom, many times, talked through fatigue and ongoing chest pain. I soon comprehended her mission was to impart her life’s legacy. She talked about lost ambitions and goals, while we sat on the porch watching the world in my gentle neighborhood of vintage houses and abundant gardens. She warned, before it was too late, not to postpone my dreams. The threads of these conversations wove us together tighter than one of my grandmother’s homemade quilts. Mom’s hopes ended too soon for both us. I leaned of her desire to move away from a small Ohio town and live in New York City, travel, and to study classical piano. Mom finally settled her dreams into one basket, late in life, and relocated to California with my sister, where me and my aunt (Mom’s sister) resided.
Several months after Mom died, our conversations still permeated my heart and brain. I took her advice and traveled to my always favorite city, Paris, and lived in the Bastille Neighborhood. It was this experience I tucked away and swore I’d repeat on a more permanent basis.
Fast forward, United States’ energy and environment morphed drastically. It felt more foreign than Europe. The assessment and challenge to find a new home outside of my comfort zone, obsessed me. Endless research looked for a country culturally welcoming, affordable, exceptional high marks for safety, healthcare, and culinary cuisines. I finally found a useful need for Facebook, to connect with like-minded people who lived outside the U.S. Portugal won after visiting the country several times. With a real estate agent, attorney, and ample funds transferred to a Portugal Bank—a top floor apartment with city views was purchased without a loan. But don’t break out the champagne, there’s no elevator! Upstairs, past my two neighbors’ (one French and one Portuguese) units, is a twenty-nine-step trek, giving a remarkable workout if you run up. My apartment, in an authentic, charming Portugal neighborhood, has multi-ethnic cafes, art galleries, grocery stores, excellent public transport, lots of tourist sites like the short walk to the bookstore Livraria Lello. Hint: J.K, Rollings wrote in there before she was famous and the bookstore was revamped. As you enter, Harry Potter’s school library’s staircase, stained glass, and shelves replicate Livraria Lello’s.
As I started this piece, I pointed out to the reality check anyone feels, even if you’ve moved with family or for employment. The personal dilemma creeps up the moment you start exploring. Brace yourself, you’ll hear very little spoken English from pedestrians: The words, “Fala English?”… translated: “Do you speak English?” are a good starting point for asking questions. Even though most food severs, taxi and Uber drivers speak English, a high school’s graduation requirement, the best way to learn any language is with a tutor (they are reasonable in Portugal) or accessible Duolingo. Portuguese isn’t an easy flowing language like the other romance languages. My sunshine comes by leaning and practicing new words and phrases each day!
The oldness of Europe is in your face as you journey about. Finding my way around is with comfortable shoes, because narrow sidewalks have small, uneven tile inlays, some built on inclines (not as bad as San Francisco). I don’t have a car. The purchase price, fees, and taxes are enormous. Gasoline prices are high. I don’t have a garage to store a car, and if I did, I’d rent it out as a parking space!
The other day I was in a small bookstore and a woman from Amsterdam, almost in tears, spoke to me. Here is a bit of our conversation: “My name is Leah and I’m a teacher. Tell me, how is it that many profound African American books from authors and poets are banned? My husband and I took our son and daughter to Washington D.C., and heard Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb. I’m shocked that her book was banned.” *
I followed Lisa’s expressive eyes, while clinging to my own soap-box thoughts killing me. We hugged. I replied I had no answers, just hostility.
She said, “To be a lifelong learner, you need to have a curious and humble attitude, seek feedback and mentorship, and pursue relevant learning opportunities. Do you have Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between The World and Me”?
In that, we shared another point, because I had a copy as well. I explained the book was a father’s legacy to his young son about the police violence, in the United States, against Black people. Sadly, students at Chapin High School alleged a teacher made them feel ashamed for being White. The book was banned. Pen America called this an outrageous government censorship.
“Yes, ignorance is a bad disease,” she said as she left.
I walked home, passing non-threatening people. I thought, being alone in the world isn’t the way of life, reaching across waters creates bonds that transcend fears of not knowing the language.
I’ll be sharing more of my time in Portugal and travels throughout Europe. The pros and cons, the challenges and triumphs. Life is too short to live an ordinary life.
* That was actually an error by the AP saying it was banned. They later corrected that headline error, but the mistake had already gone viral. What actually happened is that at one elementary school in Florida, a parent complained about the poem among other books. In that district, they kept the book but restricted access to students in upper grades.