One day last week, I set off with three women I’d only recently met via expat Facebook groups, to explore Portugal east of Coimbra. There was Fran, our ringleader, with specific destinations – a house for sale and a famed Cerdeira village – Laura, her niece, their friend Jayne, and myself, although I shouldn’t leave out Lydia, our bff GPS.
Jayne, intrepid, drove our tiny stick shift around and around the many roundabouts, and negotiated hairpin-curve mountain roads even as they threatened to turn us upside down. Laura and Lydia were fearless navigators; Fran and I excellent back seat drivers.
Lydia dutifully sent us off towards Cerdeira Just outside Coimbra, there is clear, sad evidence of the recent forest fires, but the landscape is resilient and grand, with great sweeping vistas.
It was Laura who realized our road was about to turn to dust. My guess is that the village woman watching us knew how lost we were long before we got to her door. She was happy to help – in Portuguese – but then suddenly and excitedly waved down a Jeep: the people knew English! While the driver and his wife gently explained our error – there are three Cerdeiras, not one! — other women ventured from their houses. Jayne needed multiple maneuvers to U-turn in that narrow cobble-stone lane. Everyone helped, in English, in Portuguese, with universal gestures. The couple led us back to the main road in their Jeep, even taking time to warn us about a scary intersection. It took that village to set us straight. Off in the right direction we went, maybe a little embarrassed, but jolly.
The people in the Jeep were surprised we were willing to backtrack and drive so much longer to reach the right Cerdeira. (No a/c, by the way.) “It’s an hour,” they kept saying, “more,” as if we didn’t understand. But Fran and Laura greet every direction as the right one, because in every direction there’s adventure, and Jayne agrees. I can’t vouch for Lydia, but I had no argument. The Portuguese landscape is beautiful, textured, alluring, its people kind.
Mysterious Schist Villages dot a wide region. Painstakingly made of the local stone, no one knows exactly when they were built, or when they were abandoned. All that’s known is that they are hundreds of years old, and without running water or electricity or year-round inhabitants.
Until recently. Now, artist colonies are being organized; in time, a main one will be in Cerdeira. As we explored the deep clefts of rock and home, Fran dreamed of being a part of it all.
Right now, only seven people live in Cerdeira year round — here is where they wash their clothes.
So we expected lunch to be challenging. We’d each experienced scant offerings in out-of-the way places. A bit of cheese on a roll. An ice cream bar. Instead, the patio restaurant offered big ceramic bowls of wood-oven roasted pork ribs – enormous – and potatoes and broccoli. An omelet for me, vegetarian that I am, and a fresh, fresh salad. Here’s Jayne, Fran, and Laura with their feast:
Down the mountain’s twists and turns – frighteningly close to cliff edges – we wound our way through orchards, towns, and villages, following directions that went something like this: “just beyond the small café, turn right after the curve, the small curve, not the big one, and take the second left after the first right near the sleeping dog.” Naturally, we each had opinions as to what constituted a big curve and which sleeping dog to consider, but after a stop at that small café, that very small, very male café with the very large big-screen tv showing soccer, we arrived at Quartz Cottage, the property for sale.
A young man working with a local art initiative took us through the beautifully refurbished, traditional house. At its birth, animals lived below, and the family above, a common old European practice, but now the house is full of fresh, intelligent design, which seems to be the new Portuguese tradition. Beside the house, its stone barn full of rough beams and potential. Fran – all of us – left with ideas for studios, community, art.
We reached Coimbra – briefly by way of the wrong side of the river – still laughing, still joking, still telling stories, still finding ourselves hilarious, with energy leftover. So, leaving Lydia behind, we headed up the university hill for the lofty Loggia restaurant with its potent view of the city, and a well-earned pitcher of Sangria.
Friends and strangers alike often used the word brave to describe my decision to move to Portugal after having spent only two weeks here, and without knowing anyone except ex-pats on Facebook. The word seemed all wrong, but I was too busy with travel and moving prep to sort it out. Now, only five days in, the problem with the word becomes clear.
The assumption seems to have been that life in Fairfield County, in Newtown, Connecticut, was easy, and that life here will be one of loneliness and homesickness.
But think of this: Living on income derived from the precarious life of an adjunct isn’t easy. Teaching 5 or 6 courses a semester, facing as many as 125 new students every six months, and navigating gossip-plagued and intrigue-rich academic departments, isn’t easy. Waiting weeks and weeks for brief winter and summer breaks – during which I often also taught – for time to work on manuscripts or canvases isn’t easy.
Caring for an 80-year-old house while asking it to endure new winter snows and ice, and new summer storms sometimes bringing hurricane-force winds, isn’t easy. Outlasting two power outages totaling 22 days with body and mind intact isn’t easy.
Witnessing the Sandy Hook School massacre, the aftermath, complete with daily reminders . . .
Until recently, moving away wasn’t an option. I was fortunate to find a job at the start of the Great Recession, at an age others were planning for retirement. And the house served as a necessary base of operation for sons working summers during college, preparing for grad school, holding local internships.
While putting one foot in front of the other day after day, year after year, I didn’t think to define it. In hindsight, though, the word brave better describes the years behind me, not the ones ahead during which I will explore Europe after a hiatus of twenty-eight years, while easily living within my means. Instead of waiting for semesters to end, I will now be free to sink into whatever art form strikes my fancy on any given day.
Revision — that essential conduit — isn’t just finding a better word or building a better sentence or re-visualizing a scene. It’s searching a narrative for the emotional truth at its center. By shedding safe layers and any layers of delusion, we writers discover what, exactly, is going on in our own stories, and why, exactly, we write about what we do,
So, what’s the true narrative as I pack and sort and prepare myself for my move to Portugal at the end of the summer, prepare to say goodbye to my house, to easy access to my family and friends, and to my dog, who will soon go off to a new home? What am I feeling? What am I really feeling as I decide on a departure date? Trepidation? Anxiety? Exhilaration? Impatience? All of these?
We humans have this strange huge capacity to feel multiple, often contradictory, emotions simultaneously.
When I look beyond the logistics of leaving, my imagination takes me inside the Coimbra apartments I see available online to what it might be like to live there. My imagination takes me back to the cafes and walkways I discovered in March. To the beaches and gardens and ancient ruins near the city I look forward to exploring. To museums in London, Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam, all only quick flights away. And my imagination takes me to the terrifying territory of exactly that I’m working toward: total immersion in my writing projects, which means total immersion in my own mind. Oh. My. God.
What if I don’t like it in there!
This isn’t a new concern. When my children were small and constantly interrupting, I complained that they did at the same time I might have secretly thanked them. It was safer pouring juice than wrestling with new stories. When the demands of teaching full time meant shutting down my computer, I could be both bothered and relieved. Now, I can always put a manuscript aside to clean out another closet. Coincidentally, in light of my new book’s title, an artist friend and I refer to the point of complete immersion as the vanishing point, that point on the horizon when the distance between our projects and our selves dissolve. It can be the best place. It can be the worst place. The brightest. The darkest.
Some writers say they don’t like writing, but do like having written. I pretty much like all parts of the process. But I’ve always had diversions. If what lurked behind the vanishing point was too scary, I could always emerge to feed a child or walk a dog or drive to a class. What will writing be like without these excuses? Will I find myself revising the paragraphs and pages of my own mind in order to live there?
I’m kidding. I think.
I can always fly off to Paris.
(Image: Google Images.)
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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