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.
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?
It’s our addiction. No, not Portuguese wine or port or fancy liquors. Hand sanitizer. Over the past year, I have become a connoisseur. Ask me anything. I can tell you where to find any kind you long for. I can explain the pros and cons of the sticky gels, the watery concoctions, the lavender-scented, ammonia-scented, scented-to-hide-the-scent scented. Even when we’re not looking, it’s looking at us via spritz bottles, spray bottles, and foot-pedalled dispensers. Store employees, when stores are open, greet you as greeters used to with perfume samples at Bonwit’s and Macy’s. Going in, they beg, desinfeta, por favor. Coming out, they beg, desinfeta, por favor. Dose after dose after dose. And then there are the containers we carry in our backpacks and pockets. Long after the pandemic is over, I will look for the free bottles of alcohol that now reside in the doorways of stores and restaurants and even buses, while patting my pockets for my own supply. I’ll never be free from the warm, cool, sticky, thick, watery, sweet, medicinal, disgusting stuff. Will you?
Likewise, masks. Now that we know more than we ever knew there was to know about the aerosolization of speech, spit, and snot, and know in visual, computerized detail, exactly how far the droplets of our shouts and whispers and songs travel under what circumstances – light wind, no wind, hurricanes, air conditioning – who among us will breathe in unmasked air? Vaccines are wonderful, but how about a liquid of another sort, a tinted chemical we can spritz into our personal space to judge the quality and quantity of the viral loads that surround us? Who’s working on that? There should be a prize.
Count me among the new breed of agoraphobics. Touch a menu? Touch coins? Borrow a pen? Join a crowd on an elevator? Not a chance. How are you?
I was twenty-five and living in Manhattan the first time I rode. I’d never even been close to a horse. With nothing more than “wear boots,” a blind date took me to the Claremont Stables then located on the Upper West Side. He rode his horse, Kojak, and rented something for me. Why I would agree to sit on a half-ton animal to walk up Columbus Avenue and over Ninety-seventh Street to wait at the light on Central Park West to enter the park, I have no idea. I remember little about that day except being unable to steer.
The relationship soon ended for reasons having nothing to do with horses, but I rode every weekend after that. I would take Kojak or rent one of Claremont’s horses, and, not knowing anyone else who was interested, often set off alone. Children set firecrackers off under hooves. Occasionally a rider-less horse would skid and clatter across the asphalt on its frantic way back to the stable, having left its rider somewhere in the park. But I kept at it.
As an engagement gift, I acquired a chestnut mare instead of a diamond ring. Through the years, I owned a series of horses and rode as much as five times a week, even when I had small children, and was in graduate school, and volunteering, and teaching. I didn’t see how I would ever do without. I didn’t travel, buy clothes, get my nails done, or eat out. I rode. Giving up everything else was the only way I could afford it.
They say that if you haven’t fallen, you haven’t ridden. I fell. A mare collapsed under me. A Claremont horse named Orfeo rolled us both in deep mud. I wasn’t hurt, but one whole side of my body was thickly mud-caked. No one came near me on the bus ride home. When Kojak decided to go left while I went right, I slammed my hip against the edge of a tree stump so hard it left a dent I still have. Later, I broke a finger and still later a collarbone after badly calculated jumps. A mare named Lady Espalier bucked me into a wall, breaking my coccyx.
But I also raced through the woods on hunter paces, toured the Loire Valley on horseback, learned to jump, and took more delicate classes in dressage.
Twelve or so years ago, divorced with kids in college, owning was no longer an option, so I borrowed horses from friends. One stable’s riding ring was at the top of a steep, rocky hill overlooking the barn. One day, after exercising a large black mare, I walked out of the gate and loosened the reins so she could pick her own way down – something I’d done hundreds of times. But something happened. I’ll never know what. She spooked and took off and careened down the hill at a speed I hadn’t thought possible. The reins flew out of my hands. I couldn’t catch them, so I couldn’t stop her. I watched the reins flip and flap around her head and ears, spurring her on faster. My fingers dug into her mane. Her neck. I stayed in the saddle, but was way off balance. The trees raced by in a keen green white blur. I screamed and screamed. She galloped faster.
Through instinct and habit, horses will return to their stalls. At the bottom of the hill, while still at full speed, she took the sharp turn towards hers. I didn’t. I fell, hitting the back of my head on a rock with such force my helmet split.
The severe concussion left me dizzy and disoriented for weeks. In the aftermath, I felt vulnerable, not just around horses, but driving, walking, going down stairs. I tried to ride after I’d recovered, but I wasn’t the same. After all those falls and broken bones, it was the spooking that undid me. The suddenness. The unpredictability.
Not knowing what had gone wrong, what had spooked her, or even if she had spooked, made me feel I was always at risk. I hand-walked horses down that hill. I never again rode on the trails. I stopped jumping. I’d approach the time to ride with a nervous stomach. My knees sometimes went to jelly. What was the point? After a few months, I gave up. I couldn’t really afford it. I certainly couldn’t afford to get hurt again. I needed to work. After more than thirty years, it was time.
But I missed it. I missed it so much I often dreamed I was riding. I had long known that simply being near the horses was how I’d tamed parenthood, an impossible marriage, and a difficult job situation. But, riding was behind me, nothing would replace it, and there was nothing to be done.
Then, a chance encounter here in Coimbra led me to Melanie, a woman who owns a horse. She needed help taking care of him. I wouldn’t ride, I was clear about that, but I’d be happy brushing him, standing next to him, taking him to graze, feeding him and his companions carrots. It was wonderful. Eventually, with great hesitation, I rode a little, very little, but even with that, some strange inner tension fell away.
Since Melanie moved to the Algarve last year, I’ve being travelling down to visit. Little by little I’ve ridden more, with glee, but all the while imagining all the worst things that could happen and all the bad things that had. My body would be on a horse in the ring practicing maneuvers or on the beach at sunset while my mind raced down that steep, rocky hill. I worried when a bike or car or motorcycle or someone’s stray dogs came by us, or when we had to walk through a herd of cows with their bells clanging. On the beach, there were flapping umbrellas, bathers shaking out towels, the rush of incoming waves, all sorts of things that could spook a horse. I imagined myself on a runaway on a beach that stretches to Spain. But, too, there were moments of magic. Last week, there was only magic.
Coimbra is enchanting. I have many friends, there’s always something to do, and I’m not planning to leave. But I’ve been restless for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on. I now understand.
Here in Coimbra, even when outside, I feel I’m inside. I can’t seem to get outside, not even when in the Botanical Gardens, or Choupal park. These places are contained, bordered. From my apartment I can see distant hills, the river, sunrises and sunsets, but I also face unrelenting stones and walls and windows looking inward.
Last week, as we trotted freely along the nature trails and through a herd of sheep and swerved around corners and up dunes, I was fully outside, and free from all that otherwise keeps me earthbound.
When I lived in New York, in Manhattan, the morning news would often bring word of an overnight homicide. I would pause to hear where the body had been found, where the shots had been fired, and, once assured the location was, as it often was, down on the lower east side, or up in Harlem, or on the platform of a subway line I never took, I’d resume getting ready for work.
I was not alone in this habit. It was a way to cope with living in a city that could be dangerous. We’d reassure ourselves: oh, okay, not here, not in this neighbourhood, not where I live, or where I work. It’s over there, or up there. It’s sad, but I’m safe.
Early on, didn’t we cope with mass shootings in much the same way? With horror, but ‘not here’ relief? Angry, outraged, empathetic, but, well, it happened over there. Not here.
One morning, Anderson Cooper appeared on television in front of the restaurant where I’d had dinner not twelve hours before. Some kid had shot his way through windows and bodies at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, a place I knew well.
In the wake of tragedy, people often say they never thought it could happen to them. That morning, I realized it’s not that people think they are blessed, or special, or set apart. It’s that no one expects Anderson Cooper to broadcast from their street. No one expects to be caught up in a media maelstrom. No one expects to drive down their Main Street between a funeral for still another child and a wall of police cars and media vans. No one expects the President of the United States to be sitting in a classroom of their high school working on words for their torn and bleeding community.
But more and more and more of us find ourselves in a similar position. Two more communities in just the last twenty-four hours: El Paso and Dayton. It’s here. It’s us. It’s now. It’s Anderson Cooper or one of his colleagues about to stand in our neighborhood.
After Newtown, the feeling was that the conversation would, finally, change. It did not. Agonized parents discovered that no one paid attention if it was ‘only’ about gun control, or ‘only’ about the lives of tiny children, so they added mental health to the equation. To little effect.
I grieve. With each new shooting, I relive that December morning. I am not alone. Survivors and residents of Newtown and Las Vegas and Parkland and Columbine and Orlando and more, and now El Paso and Dayton, and the list will grow, do the same.
This is our national consciousness. This is what we share.