New to blogging, I’ve neglected to take photos of the many wonderful and often helpful people I’ve met here in Portugal. But I have words. Here are a few.
Early on, when I asked a taxi driver in Porto why there were so few dogs, he offered to show me areas outside the city conducive to dog-keeping next time I’m in his cty. “All green!” he said. “Big dogs! German Shepherds! Do you have a German Shepherd?” No, but a big one. “Bring her!”
Here in Coimbra, I found myself beside a woman heading down a steep alley. Unsure I was headed in the right way — the path ahead looked like a dead end — and not wanting to have to climb back up for nothing, I asked her whether it was the way to the Old Cathedral. She turned out to be a professor of medieval history at the University, and so filled me in on the remarkable history of the 12th century fortress on our breathless — there is no other way — descent.
At one point, she glanced at my shoes, worried I hadn’t come prepared. I had: rubber soles. When I suggested the walk kept her healthy, she laughed, and pounded her heart.
There was the woman who, when I asked for directions to the Jardim Botanico da Universidade, looked askance, and, I sensed immediately, pointed the wrong way. I found the right way. It’s gorgeous, even in March. I took my first selfie there, but I’m not sharing. So, magnolias instead.
There was also the woman who pulled up next to me in her car and asked directions in rapid Portuguese! I looked like a native!
My favorite might the earnest young man working as a guard in one of the University buildings. I had peered through a series of windows down into a grandly furnished hall where there seemed to be something important going on. Sure enough: a PhD oral exam.
He led me back to the windows to explain. “The jury, he said, “sits there, and do you see the woman with the robes? She is the judge. In fact, my exam for my Masters is coming up and will be there.” He was becoming flushed and nervous, even sweating. A Masters in . . . “Education. And friends and family sit there.” They can watch? “Oh, yes.” It makes you nervous just talking about it? “Yes. Very much.” You will do beautifully. “Thank you.” He also told me that the room had originally been the Front Room. The Front Room? “Where the king sat on his throne.”
But a formal exam in an arena taken seriously. Education taken seriously. Education that matters. A degree that matters. Degrees earned from a university proud on its hill since 1537. No gift grades in Coimbra.
I do have one people picture, this one of the fine chef Eva and her crew at Maria Portuguese.
When you come to visit me in Coimbra, we will feast there. She’s turning me into a foodie!
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For months I’ve imagined two of us on the upcoming Portugal trip, but, alas, a family emergency necessitates my friend Susan’s staying home. When word of this came, I worried about her situation, and her disappointment. She had been such an eager participant. It took me two or three days to fully comprehend I’d be landing in Porto alone, renting a car alone, navigating alone, considering how I might turn a few-day foray into a long-term stay alone. To process, as they say, the change. She says the same thing happened to her. She was still imagining herself on the plane long after it was evident our plans had dissolved.
I’ve traveled alone before. Quite a lot. But this trip is different, because it’s not for business, not for sightseeing — although there will be plenty of that, too. This is a reconnaissance trip. An exploration. I expect it to be fulfilling. But I expected it to be shared.
I’m okay. I’m not okay that her family is in emergency mode, but I’m happy to report there’s steady improvement on her home front. I have stopped imagining how we might spend the seven-hour flight, and started downloading podcasts and music to stay occupied. I’ve stopped imagining us getting lost on back roads together, and decided to invest in the GPS option on the car rental. I’ll be a different sort of explorer. This situation better mimics what living in a new country alone might feel like — just as, I might add, a low-residency MFA program might better duplicate the frequently solitude writer’s life better than full residency when one is surrounded with like minds.
Susan has left me with two pieces of advice, fulfilling her role as navigator in a different way: As I drive, be calm, be patient. wait for the right exit, wait for the right turn. But, if I exit too soon, turn left instead of right, simply change my destination.
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Poignant…Humorous…Brutally Honest! A collection of personal reflections guaranteed to keep you inspired and entertained on that journey we all travel together: The Journey of Aging
Twenty-four authors contributed essays for the Goddess Press release, Still Me After All These Years. eBooks are available for pre-order now. Hard copies will be available in a few weeks. All proceeds are going to a non-profit devoted to aging. My own entry: “Facing Forward.” An abbreviated version appears as a blog post: Necessary Madness, A Writer on the Move.
BY MURIEL RUKEYSER
The world is full of loss; bring, wind, my love,
my home is where we make our meeting-place,
and love whatever I shall touch and read
within that face.
Lift, wind, my exile from my eyes;
peace to look, life to listen and confess,
freedom to find to find to find
Nothing has changed except Angela Dunnewald. Sustained by a large, rich inner life, she’s seen to her husband Ross and his wishes with little trouble for nineteen years, and stayed best friends with Lydia for twelve, but her will, her ability, to care about the things they do has dissolved. For Ross, there’s keeping their social calendar full, making sure their housekeeper Ina has hung his carefully starched shirts in his closet by color, buying steaks only from King’s. For Lydia, there’s her gossip and flirtations and need for attention. Angela loves them, she supposes – maybe not enough – but she’s come unglued.
There’s this: The very things closing her in and making her feel half-crazy – reminding the gardener to prune the matching crab apple trees afternoons never mornings; answering invitations the day they arrive; getting ready for a Lydia outing – put corners on her days, and give them shape and substance. But then, when Ross is gone, and he’s often gone, nerves surface, disorganization, and a sort of self-loathing.
And this: During the first moments Ross is out the door, she’ll feel weightless, free, and open to possibility. She’ll garden, read, get a full night’s sleep. She’ll have a party, invite friends in for lunch, or see something new at the galleries on Newbury Street. But she doesn’t. She walks from room to room, window to window, waiting for morning, waiting for Ina, waiting for Lydia to call with an idea as to how to spend the day, defenseless against pellets of nervous energy that skid under her skin like metal balls on a metal tray.