Every act, every decision, over the last two years has been made against a backdrop of first the pandemic and now a war.
Five years ago this week, I arrived in Portugal, in Coimbra, for the first time. Although there were several trips back and forth to the states to deal with visas and the like, after that first trip, I never really left.
One thing Coimbra has taught me is perspective. Portugal has witnessed centuries of fortune and misfortune, including forty years of a dictatorship that only ended in 1975. The view from my apartment takes in the Sé Nova, the New Cathedral, whose construction began in 1598. The Sé Velha, the Old Cathedral, dates from the 1100’s. We walk under the Torre de Almedina, part of the town’s original medieval wall, on our way to our favorite ice cream shop. The University dates from 1255. Very different from the U.S., where old is 1700, and whose history doesn’t include kings and castles and Moor invasions. Or dictatorships. So yes, perspective.
Coimbra has been very good to me. The shopkeepers in Celas, my neighborhood, have never tired of my asking como dizer . . . how do you say . . . and I’ve had adventures and made many very good friends here.
But, I’m moving south next week.
The Algarve, which hugs the southern coast, is known for miles and miles of beaches and acres and acres of golf courses. Not in any way where I ever saw myself. I don’t like sand, or even sun. I certainly don’t play golf. But, because of the horses I so enjoy there, I spent nearly all winter poking around the nearly empty winter beaches and towns large and small. Loulé, Alte, Silves, Tavira, Olhos de Agua. While the sea does dominate – you can see it in the light – there’s more to the Algarve than popular tourist spots that hug the coast. I’ve chosen Boliqueime.
As much as I’ve loved Coimbra, I missed the trees and air and light of my Connecticut cottage in the woods. Now, I’ll be living in a cottage in Boliqueime that looks out over an orchard. A cottage within walking distance of a quiet café with a panoramic view of the sea. A place close to the stables, and close to Loulé, a city with a vibrant Mercado and art and music venues. I’m trading the expanses of Coimbra for the light and air and wide-open skies over the sea-hugging Algarve. It is, in a way, a replication of my Connecticut life, near where cows grazed. Sheep graze near my lane in Boliqueime.
In the wake of the pandemic, many re-considered their lives. Priorities shifted. My own decision to leave Coimbra was made in the wake of feeling the pandemic had stolen two years. But the worst was behind us, right? Wrong. A fresh war has shocked us out of that peculiar complacency. Moving day will come as waves of refugees are still fleeing Ukraine.
Sure, packing up is tough. Dismantling a life I know and like to one I may or may not like as well . . . but I’m only leaving one beautiful part of the country for another. Ukrainians and other refugees from war torn places are fleeing into abysses of unending uncertainty.
As I fill a box, as I take a memory off a shelf, I find myself wondering, is this the right choice? How foolish. How embarrassing. I’m only leaving Coimbra for Boliqueime.
All those who are grieving, all those who are displaced. Perspective.
My good friend Sara P. told me a story I have never forgotten. During an earthquake relief mission in Guatemala, she sat in a tiny, cramped shelter with a woman who had lost everything. Sara, having little on hand in the moment, opened her purse, found a lipstick, and gave it to the woman, whose response was a smile as bright as the sun. The lipstick might as well have been gold. What the woman needed most in the wake of tremendous loss was to feel human.
Last evening, Shirley Raines earned CNN’s Hero of the Year Award for her tireless efforts with the people on LA’s Skid Row. Her mission started simply, with free haircuts and makeup. Ms. Raines understood the importance of feeling human.
This from CNN:
Raines and her non-profit Beauty 2 the Streetz have been a mainstay on Skid Row for the past six years, providing food, clothing, and hair and makeup services to thousands of people.
Every week, Raines and her team of volunteers set up shop and transform part of Skid Row — home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of homeless people — into an outdoor beauty salon.
She pushed forward:
. . . Raines’ efforts evolved into a full-scale operation, with music playing and lines forming around the block, she [now provides] more supplies and essentials: rape whistles, tents, sleeping bags, hygiene items — and [has] teamed up with local health officials to offer more services.
Surrounded by crises and corruption, it’s important for us to remember there are people who have not given up, who have the courage not to be discouraged.
This week we are stunned by devastation across Kentucky and Arkansas, by the photos and stories coming from communities shredded by tornadoes.
No, makeup and haircuts won’t reconstruct lives, but I take comfort knowing the Saras and Shirleys of this world are there helping people feel seen, feel human.
I’m not! See what I mean in Necessary Madness’s “Cocooned”
A woman on Instagram in the U.S. wrote she was feeling homesick. All she’d done is sit down at a café on the same block where she lived.
I’m planning a trip south in April but struggle to imagine myself at the train station, much less inside a train. It’s been five months since I’ve been outside Coimbra’s city limits. Weeks since I’ve been at a café, months since being inside one. I suggested in my last post that we might be subject to a new form of agoraphobia. Most of us American ex-pats came here planning extensive European travel, but with much of the continent either still shut down or going back under lockdown, we are asking ourselves when – even if – we will be up to facing the planes and trains and hotels of Rome or London or Prague.
It’s been fifteen months since I’ve seen my sons, but, unless there’s an emergency, I won’t go until I have a vaccine. At the same time, I’m very aware of how out of practice I am wrestling international airport crowds, layovers, cramped cabins.
My ancestors made the dangerous ocean crossing from the Netherlands in the 17- and 1800’s. Once here, they stayed put in their small farming communities. Growing up among them, I knew many of my aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins had never been much more than a hundred miles from the towns of their birth. One aunt didn’t ride an escalator until she was in her 50’s. Living in New York State, they’d never been to New York City. Still haven’t.
I’m far more sympathetic after this last year of confinement. All that space out there. All those people. All that’s unknown. Beyond the state line? The town line? What does it matter? We have everything we need right here, and all we can deal with. Births, deaths, illnesses, joy, marriages, meals, money, laugher. I get it. I understand. I’m sorry I ever thought them silly. Or cowardly.
A part of me is exhausted striving to be upbeat while wondering if and when everything will be okay. The waiting, the worry, the setbacks. Covid coming far too close to my family. Watching the numbers rise and fall and rise again. Lockdown after lockdown. At the moment, we can’t travel between towns. We are, however, happy that coffee and juice and small items are, as of last week, “venda no postigo” – literally sold through a peephole, meaning by way of small windows in shop fronts.
I am very aware my situation is privileged compared to that of so many others. I’ve spent the pandemic inside the ease and safety of a cocoon, with a solid safety net of friends. We have all longed for reopening, but the truth is, the closer it gets, the more disconcerting the day the cocoon can be unwrapped. How many of us will choose not to?
Hello all! After a long hiatus, I’m back to Necessary Madness. Kindly check out my new post. Hope you are all safe and well.