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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Proud of myself for discovering cheap, long-term Newark Airport parking in a Hilton right across the street, I’m not so proud to report that, while I could see the hotel, I couldn’t find the entrance, only the exit at an awkward angle. After circling once, then twice, the third time I swerved into the out door. I feared this was an inauspicious start.
But not ten hours later, I was sitting in my first café.
Porto is a pile of a city, with buildings built cheek by jowl at crazy angles filling all available space. Steps and streets go up and up and down and down. Yesterday I counted 274 just here:
The Cathedral is central to Porto’s culture and history.
Inside it, this ‘jail.’ For disbelievers? I steered clear.
Around every corner, charm:
My first day ended on these stairs to Livraria Lello heaven, often called one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world.
There, a lovely woman, who saw me scanning poetry books, suggested this one:
Today, I’m off to Coimbra.
Virado para a frente.
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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Leaving a comfort zone means boarding a roller coaster. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter to receive updates about my whereabouts and adventures in your e-mail.
My plans – traveling, writing full time – necessitates giving up this house, the only house I’ve ever felt truly at home, with its Narnia of tall trees and stone walls and its funky floor plan with loads of bookshelves and interesting spaces. There’s more. House hunting at the same time I was working on Vanishing Point, this property popped up for sale the same week I began searching in earnest. Central to the story is a studio located in the main character’s backyard. In the back corner of this yard, a studio, nearly identical to the one in my book. I looked no further, and finished Vanishing Point at its windows.
I’ve loved all that teaching has provided these ten years, all the sharing with and learning from scores of marvelous students, but for thirty years I’ve wanted to be more totally immersed – the words ‘more totally indulged’ also come to mind – in writing.
Rodin’s belief that to work is to avoid dying while living is now mine. I’d begun to feel I was dying a little bit each day, not because I was teaching, but because I was teaching too much while not writing enough, not reading or painting or walking or looking around me enough. As I write this, I have some forty essays to grade – some semesters I’ve had a hundred. But now, with a book about to be released and a new book started, I’m on the verge of a better balance.
But a better balance means selling the house and paring my belongings down to a bare minimum since I long to travel and live in faraway places. So, at the same time I’m giving myself permission to assume the right life, I’m relinquishing elements of identity embedded in this quirky, lovely, very-me cottage and studio, elements of identity embedded in possessions saturated with memory.
Some days go better than others. I’ve carted odds and ends to Goodwill. Donated some books to a nearby prison for women. Decided what will be stored – very little – what will be sold – a lot. Severing ties with objects rich with pleasant memories is difficult; severing ties with objects that carry mixed memories, with thorns in the skin of their beauty and warmth, liberating.
But, there are questions. Will I easily and often recall love and family and laughter without these particular Christmas decorations, this particular table around which my family gathered for twenty years? Or, is the important question whether dumping all that’s tainted will wash away regret and pain?
Only time will tell.
The decision to change my name didn’t arrive as a whim! Here’s the real story in my latest blog post, On the Eve of Change. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter to receive updates about my whereabouts and adventures in your e-mail.
When I hear the name Linda, I often think of what T.S. Eliot said about cats: We don’t know their true names. Peering out from behind “Linda” has always felt like a false front, as if, as outlandish as it sounds, I were lying.
Years ago, I mentioned my discomfort to my sister, Lana, whose name is spot on. I have nothing against the name in and of itself. I know plenty of Linda’s who belong in it. But Lana agreed. There was something wrong with it for me. She suggested Eve. I recognized myself in it immediately. It felt true. But I was already working and publishing under the name Linda. However small my audience, would a name change seem silly? Even to my friends? What would a name change say about me?
When my novel Connected Underneath came out, I liked the cover design very much but cringed at the Linda on it. When I was announced at readings, I cringed. When I introduced myself to people as Linda, I cringed. I cringed at my website, not the design, but that name in the banner. I was presented with a cover design for my second novel, Vanishing Point, and there it was again: Linda.
Here’s something else: It’s well known that J.K. Rowlings was told no boy would read her book if she used her own name. As with all the arts, women’s work is often given short shrift. As Jennifer Weiner points out in her essay “Twitter, Reconsidered,” (Hungry Heart, Atria Books, 2016), of the 545 books reviewed by the New York Times between June 2008 and August 2010, 338 were written by men, leaving only 207 by women. Of the 101 receiving two reviews in a single week, one in the daily edition, and one in the Sunday Review, 72 were by men, with only 29 by women. During the same time period, similar disproportions can be found in the number of published pieces written by men versus women in the New Yorker (449 to 163), the New York Review of Books (88% versus 22%), and other periodicals that we trust as fair, balanced, and unbiased. More recent research indicates a slight improvement, but a substantial shift in the short term seems unlikely.
While I’m far from this echelon of the publishing world, in terms of getting a book title noticed, why bother exchanging a Linda for an Eve?
A few days ago, my sister and I were in, of all places, adjoining bathroom stalls in the Naples, Florida shopping area Tin City, waiting to board a boat for a cruise around the bay. In a flash, the solution rose up through the center of my brain.
“I’ve got it!” I exclaimed. “I know what it should be!”
Lana couldn’t figure out what on earth was happening. The room was small and crowded. Toilets were flushing. She couldn’t decipher my words, only that they were emphatic. While gleefully sudsing my hands, nearly dancing, other women, alarmed, backed away. But I was jubilant.
I would be Eve. I would publish under E.V. Legters.
From the boat’s top deck, I IM’d my publisher, Steve Berman: I’m changing my name.
Are you transitioning?
No. Well, yes, in a way.
Can I ask why?
What’s in a name? For years I’d told myself the concern was superficial, even silly, but now that the solution’s been found and the decision made, I feel completely myself for the first time. Compared to a gender transition, this is a mere filament, but I suspect the sensations are similar. Presenting myself with an appropriate label, instead of one that has always felt off-kilter? Priceless.
And, this: A friend shared with me that it is a Judaic tradition to change a name after a traumatic or life-changing event in order to fool chasing demons. I hadn’t noticed any demons, but now I see that they are gone.
It was late summer, 1974. A friend and I were staying in a villa overlooking Florence. One afternoon, the villa’s gardener offered us a tomato. Resting on his palm was a fruit worthy of a Renaissance still life, and, ever since that moment, I’ve had the notion I’d live somewhere other than the U.S. at some point; Florence, the Lake District in England, or a town outside of Paris, perhaps. But career and family choices kept this plan out of reach, and now, I believed, it was out of my price range.
Then, by chance a lunch companion said, “Did you know you can live in Portugal for half of what it costs here?”
“I did not.”
Is this true?
It’s true. Not only for Portugal, but for parts of France, Italy, and Malaysia. For Belize. And Ecuador.
Could I make it true for me? Now that my sons are on their own, could I navigate visa regulations, foreign real estate offices and languages, solitude in a strange neighborhood? Could I write my next novel somewhere other than my Connecticut studio? Somewhere utterly new?
I could. I can. I will.
Over the next year, if all goes well, or even reasonably well, I’ll be on a journey I wouldn’t have expected even a few weeks ago. You are invited to come with me via this blog where your comments, support, and laughter will be more than welcome.