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.
I drove! I rented a car in Vilamoura down in the Algarve last week and drove for the first time here!
Not having been behind any wheel in well over a year, and having watched Portuguese drivers zip about, I was tentative. But, I thought, if I can drive in New York, I can drive here, and, as my son told me when he was first learning, it’s just not that hard.
But. The unfamiliar car, the unfamiliar villages, the unfamiliar roads, the unfamiliar laws, the unfamiliar kilometers, the steep, narrow curves, the British voice in the GPS, and those roundabouts. Roundabouts abound. Every few feet, it seems, even in the wilds. More than once I’ve circled round and round the roundabout that connects the rest of Massachusetts to the Cape trying to negotiate my exit. It’s downright embarrassing.
Nevertheless, I set out. I gave Liz, what I called the British GPS woman, names of random towns along the coast, along the Spanish border, in the interior, intent on seeing places off the main roads. I eased into roundabouts, eased around corners, eased up and down hills. And then remembered, I’m good at this.
Over the course of two days, I drove over three hundred kilometers. I didn’t slow down for any reason, not to photograph the fields of wildflowers, the sleek, handsome goats with the herders in their caps, the road lined with white-barked trees, the beaches, the mountains, the occasional ruin. I didn’t eat. I didn’t go to the bathroom. I didn’t stop. I drove. I took those corners, those hills, those roundabouts.
Someone mentioned it was good I’d rented a car, gotten out of my comfort zone. Ah. No. Not driving was the uncomfortable zone. I’ve found my way back to this good place, and feel ten years younger.
Feeling young might also have something to do with my riding again, something I thought I’d forever left behind. Here I am with Estrela, Portuguese for star.
I’m already planning my next adventure. In May, I think, and June. And July . . .
Saudade: This Portuguese word specifically expresses the longing that accompanies missing something that has been lost or is out of touch. Saudade is an accurate expression of what I’ve been feeling for the woods I grew up in, wandered in, played in, walked dogs in, rode horses in, and got lost in. I hadn’t realized, or had been afraid to acknowledge, the extent to which they nourished my work even as I rarely mention trees or woods or even the outdoors in my stories.
For the last decade or so before moving here, I reveled in the moment to moment changes at Holcomb Hill, in meadows emerging from winter into spring, erupting into summer, and settling back into fall. I felt a hunger any day there hadn’t been time to take the dogs there. On winter mornings, I’d put cleats on my boots to take Eddie and Butch and then Annie to the icy fields, even if it was too icy for them to go very far, just so I could see the sun gleam across frozen, untouched expanses. How I miss that.
Years before, while still living in the city, I kept a horse at a stable in Westchester County. I’d get up on weekend mornings to ride in Pocantico Hills, a vast park, to explore its hills and paths on horseback, a huge tract of woods with ponds and fields and trails, sometimes lush and green, sometimes red and gold and orange, and sometimes white with snow.
During the winter, after a fresh snowfall, I’d get up extra early, to be the first with my mare through the powder. It was exhilarating. Like nothing I’d experienced in my life, and like nothing I’ve experienced since.
As a child, I played in a nice patch of woods behind my suburban house, a patch that seemed as big as a world to me, with my secret forts and cottages and stories. Summers, I’d visit my grandfather and roam in the woods behind his house. Later, I sometimes drove north from New York City when the maple sap runs in March, to meet my father at my uncle’s, where they were doing the hard work of gathering that sap and boiling it into maple syrup.
In Connecticut, on simpler days in my writing room, I’d watch the sun play through what I thought of as my woods, the more than two acres of woodland I could see from where I sat, as the sun stretched at low angles across trees’ knees and thighs as the morning began, rose along their chests and arms through the day, and, sinking towards sunset, left the clouds high above their heads pink and gold. How I miss that.
There is something wrong with the trees here. Their bark and branches and crowns don’t look right. I’ve tried to like them. I’ve taken their pictures, sat under them, drawn them. But come on. Is this tree not crazy?
Are these even trees?
Except for one, they’ve disappointed me.
This one, an ancient fig, with huge roots that extended some forty feet in interesting patterns, and with branches arching so widely a concert was held under her last year, was destroyed last fall in the hurricane. I haven’t been to the gardens where she lived since.
There is so much right about Portugal, I don’t like to complain. I hardly seem like a nature person, and some parts of me are quite urban, so I’ve mostly kept this saudade to myself. But it’s been leaking into conversations, and leaking into dreams. I even began to think I’d have to find a town other than Coimbra, a more rural town, a greener town, to at least attempt to satisfy the yearning.
Last week, I ran across Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mangroves”, written after she’d left her northern woods for Florida. I almost laughed.
About the mangroves, she says, “Mostly I walk beside them, they discourage entrance.” And,
The black oaks and pines
of my northern home are in my heart,
even as I hear them whisper, “Listen, we are trees, too.”
Okay, I’m trying.
I know what she means.
Last Sunday, friends took me for a ride through Coimbra surrounds where in fact I’d been some months before and guiltily thought, ‘nice, but . . .’, or, in Oliver’s words, ‘Admiring is easy, but affinity, that does take some time.’
During the latest drive, keeping her poem in mind, I sat back and recognized the very different drama of Portugal’s countryside. I’m not drawn in yet, I didn’t long to get out of the car and explore the paths, but the poem’s last line resonates, as the mangroves speak to Oliver:
We are what we are, you
are what you are, love us if you can.
This poem extends to more than trees, of course, to place and people, to culture and identity, but for now, for me, it’s trees. It’s helping.