Last night I got to do what so many of my American friends cannot, and it’s unclear when they will be able to again: I sat in a large theater and listened to an orchestra. The theatre reminded me of a sparse lecture hall because people were so spread out. Everyone wore masks, including those in the orchestra not playing brass or wind instruments, and audience members were seated about 3-4 seats apart from their nearest neighbor. Orchestra members even bumped elbows at the end of particularly intense songs.
The whole evening felt pretty normal, which, given the socially-distancing-still-in-a-pandemic-will-there-be-a-second-wave state the world is in, was glorious.
New formal concert attire during COVID.
It’s weird to be American and living in a country that more or less has the virus under control. In my home country, there is a staunch political divide over whether to wear a mask or not. People have shot store employees when told to wear a mask. I’ve seen photos of anti-maskers holding up “My Body, My Choice” signs as if wearing a cloth mask is the same as the choice to push a baby out of your vagina or not (in case you’re wondering: it’s not). It is actual insanity and I am now embarrassed when people ask where I’m from, less they associate me with a country full adults throwing temper tantrums over a piece of cotton fabric that’s the size of your hand.
The COVID Response in Portugal
Portugal went into lockdown on March 15. We stayed in that state for about 3 months. Businesses went fully remote, bars, theaters, and malls shutdown, and restaurants could only operate with take-away. We were luckier than other European countries like Spain, Italy, and France because we were still allowed to go outside for walks or runs, but you could only be in groups of two or three. One afternoon from my balcony, I watched as a family of nearly ten was told to disperse and go home.
As restrictions and quarantines fell into place in March, everyone in Portugal went along with it. Sure, there were some people who complained about having to wear a mask, but they did it. Since my Portuguese is still at the level of my boyfriend’s newborn niece, I don’t follow Portuguese news very closely, but I never heard about a shopper spitting in a store clerk’s face because a) the shopper was asked to wear a mask or b) the unmasked shopper was so enraged that the store clerk was wearing a mask. People weren’t storming political buildings with guns or having giant protests because they were asked to wear a simple piece of cloth across their delicate faces just in case they get sick or infect others. We just did what we were asked.
A woman waiting for a concert in Matosinhos, Portugal. Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi via Unsplah.
I didn’t write much about what the actual quarantine in Portugal was like mostly because it felt like a non-event. I was fortunate to still have my job, I did Zoom parties with friends, and I caught up on a lot of reading and Netflix.
Now, eight months into this pandemic (I’m counting the time in Portugal starting with the lockdown), and five months after the lockdown was lifted, Portugal has found a sense of normalcy that I wish my native US had: We wear masks on public transportation and inside public buildings. We sanitize before entering stores. Hair salons and most restaurants have plastic shields separating tables and customers. When we eat at crowded places, we try to sit outside. Menus have largely been replaced with QR codes. We have parties! My boyfriend and I have even traveled to the Algarve and southern Spain. We’ll leave for a trip to Luxembourg in a few days.
Does this sound horrible? Does this sound like some weird 1984-style nightmare that many of my fellow Americans thought would take place if they god-forbid did not get a haircut for a few months?
No. It doesn’t.
COVID-inspired artwork in Aveiro, Portugal.
There are a few inconveniences now. There are often long lines to get into shops. You have to sanitize so much that you wonder if there is such a thing as permanent damage from too much cleanser. You might get turned away at a restaurant because seating is now limited. You need to have your mask with you at all times in case you go inside a store or public transport. A handful of times I have beeped my card at a metro stop only to realize I left my mask at home, so I run back to the apartment, get it, and wait for the next metro.
But really, is this actually an inconvenience compared to possibly being put on a ventilator or causing someone else to be put on one? No, it’s not.
It’s a small cloth mask. And if you wear it, you might get to go out to the theater, too. You might even get to go to a football game, which, where I’m from in the US, is more important than life itself. So where the mask, socially-distance, and maybe you can also return to a sense of normalcy like Portugal!
Current COVID Restrictions in Portugal
- You must wear a mask when on public transport and in public areas.
- Grocery stores cannot sell alcohol after 8 p.m.
- Bars must also close/stop serving at 8 p.m.
- Anyone staying at a restaurant, bar, cafe post 8 p.m. must have food in front of them (or else the establishment gets a hefty fine).
- Anyone standing at a restaurant, bar, or cafe must wear a mask. You can only be unmasked while sitting.
- Social gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited.
On a gloomy August morning, I walked to a public Portuguese clinic armed with my EU residency card, a screenshot of Portuguese Immigration saying my expired card had been temporarily extended, and a letter from Finanças (the Portuguese IRS) confirming my third address change in one year. My purse held prescriptions for several different antibiotics. I was headed to the clinic to get a public health number, which would help cover the costs of these antibiotics. My plan was to get the public health number and then take it and the prescriptions to the nearest pharmacy.
My boyfriend, E, had offered to go to the clinic with me to serve as a translator, but I declined. I’d already depended on him to translate throughout the entire COVID pandemic; he drove me to the myriad of doctors appointments I suddenly found myself faced with and, to top it off, I’d officially moved into his place. I fall into routines easily and I worried about getting too used to someone taking care of me. I needed to get my health number on my own, less I lose some of my staunch independence.
Walking into the clinic and up one floor, I whispered into my mask the phrase E had told me to say: Eu preciso o saudade o tens. (Anyone familiar Portuguese already knows that I’d misunderstood E and was actually repeating nonsense, but I hadn’t yet figured this out.) Red arrows lined the ground, dictating where people could walk or stand. Entrada and Saida signs hung on opposite doors. There was a prominent sanitizing station in the middle of the room. I turned in circles looking for a word that might mean this is where you get official stuff.
Most of my time during the pandemic has been peppered with medical visits like this. Since March, I’ve gone to three different gynecologists, five uterine biopsies, an MRI, dermatology check, eye exam, a cardiologist, and, soon, a neurologist. Each doctor I have seen mercifully speaks English, but the nurses and staff members typically do not. Because of COVID, I enter each hospital alone. The minutes before each appointment are usually punctuated with me wandering around until a nurse checks my temperature and then points me in the right direction. Afterwards, I wander again, punching my ID into the first kiosk I come across, and then wait to see what happens. Twice I have accidentally left without paying, simply because I didn’t know how and didn’t have the words to ask.
An older woman standing on one of the red arrows noticed me and asked if I needed help. At least, I think she did. The Porto accent is thick and people talk fast. Whatever her question was, I responded: Preciso o tens? She stared at me for a moment and then ushered me to a waiting room. A nurse behind plexiglass looked up and I again repeated: Eu preciso o saudade o tens? He pointed for me to go up one more floor.
Upstairs, I waited in line for two more nurses behind plexiglass. The brunette nurse immediately guessed we would struggle to communicate and gestured that I wait for the blonde one. While I did, a line formed behind me stretching into the hallway. Because of social distancing, no one could see that the brunette nurse was free and only the blonde one was helping someone. I didn’t know how to tell the person behind me that he could go ahead, so I just stood there waiting…and consequently making everyone else wait, too.
At this point, I was sweating from nerves, my mask, and the lack of AC. My glasses fogged and I kept trying to adjust the placement of my mask on my nose. I tried to discreetly run my hand under my bangs. I felt like a waterfall was cascading down my head.
As per usual in expat life, there are countless times when you find yourself not understanding a language, custom, or standard way of life in your new country. Maybe there are some expats who, overtime, come to accept their own immigrant blunders and brush them aside as easily as if you sneezed in a quiet library, but I am not one of those expats.
Living in Portugal, I am constantly ashamed and embarrassed at my struggles with Portuguese. Even if I know enough to communicate with someone, most of the time I pretend like I don’t even know how to say how are you? simply because I don’t want to wade through the back and forth of someone not understanding me, correcting me, and possibly eye rolling at their bad luck at getting stuck with a foreigner. Some of this fear comes from being a wordsmith, and having an insane need to speak properly at all times in all tongues. Another part comes from a few people who corrected me too harshly upon my arrival to Portugal, and I can’t seem to gain back the confidence they so quickly knocked down. However, the biggest source of embarrassment is: I’m American.
When locals say to me, ‘I’m sorry, my English isn’t great,’ I always respond, ‘I’m living in Portugal. I should be the one who is sorry for not speaking Portuguese.’ As an American, I am acutely aware of the negative global perception my country, people, government, etc. have. And, if I were to ever forget, I have a rolling news cycle and opinionated coworkers to remind me. Online videos surface constantly of white people in the US shouting at not-white-people to “speak English” and “go back where you came from.” Being pasty white, blonde, and blue-eyed, I look like the antagonists from these videos. This amps up my shame when I live in another country and can’t speak the language because the insecure ticker tape running through my head reads: you look like a “Karen” who would yell at someone for speaking Spanish in Walmart. You have to be better than “Karen” and show that you want to adapt and integrate. When ultimately I can’t and have to force someone in their own country to speak in English with me, I feel like I might as well stamp KAREN across my forehead.
When the blonde nurse was finally free, I approached the desk and handed her my documents. By now, I’d figured out I’d been saying a nonsense phrase. What I should have been saying was: Eu preciso o numero saúde utente. Basically: I need a health user number. Before, I had been saying something like: I need the have missing.
Even though I’d figured out what to ask for, the blonde nurse and I still struggled to understand each other. I used my phone to show her a saved Notepad, where I’d typed my phone number, address, and social security number. I tried to explain that my visa was expired, but “in process” due to COVID. Instead, I may have accidentally said I had COVID at some point (although the jury is still out on whether or not I did). I also had to explain why my residence card said I lived in one town, but my letter from Finanças said I lived in another.
Finally, she handed the documents back to me. “Precisas o medico?” she asked.
“Medico?” I repeated.
I pointed at my purse as if she were a mind-reader and could see the prescriptions I needed to get filled. “Preciso antibiotic…o?” I said.
She motioned for me take a seat in the waiting room until my name was called. When I did, I suddenly realized my error. I texted E: I think I just made a doctor’s appointment. I relayed the question the nurse had asked me, and my answer. E confirmed: Yes, she asked if you needed to see a doctor. You responded that you need antibiotics.
Thankfully, the doctor I saw spoke English. I pulled my prescriptions out of my purse (which, in hindsight, I should have done from the beginning) and explained everything to her. She took them to the blonde nurse and returned with the public health number. “You had to be issued a number anyways in order to see me,” she explained. I felt like I had taken a really long 45-minute scenic detour for a trip that should have only been a 5-minute drive.
With the public health number in hand, I marched to the pharmacy triumphantly. I again went through a small song and dance of communication errors, before finally being issued my trove of medication. Back at home, I pulled out my phone to enter my new public health number into my saved Notepad of important numbers. This was the Notepad I had shown the nurse, the doctor, and the pharmacist. It’s the same screen I show a lot of people whenever I don’t want to even try repeating my address and various numbers. This Notepad is also where I sometimes write a quick note to myself for later.
As I opened the Notepad to add my new number, my jaw dropped. I suddenly remembered typing a Portuguese phrase in it a week ago. A friend had taught it to me, and I thought it would be funny to bust out in front of E one day.
Now, my face flushed realizing I’d been showing this screen prominently to so many people.
Right above my phone number was the phrase: Meu tesão. Slang for: “I’m horny.”
**Be sure to check out the last time I faced fun language barriers in a hospital!**
When the Western world started to slowly work its way into mandatory quarantine, I saw this meme posted on Facebook: “Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was quarantined for the plague.” My email inbox filled with essays about how to channel your quarantine boredom into a creative output. The BBC published an article about how extreme boredom sparks creativity. Neil Gaiman was quoted as saying: “You have to let yourself get so bored that your mind has nothing better to do than tell itself a story.”
In 60+ days of quarantine I hadn’t written a thing. After work (where I am a full-time content writer, but the writing I’m talking about now is my own creative stuff) each day, I sat in front of my laptop and stared at blank pages. I made minor line edits to works-in-progress, sent a rough essay draft (which had been finished pre-quarantine) to friends, and scribbled in my journal maybe once every two weeks.
Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague.
I started to hate seeing this phrase popping up all over Facebook and Twitter. If I wasn’t finding the energy to write during mandatory do-not-leave-your-home time, would I ever? People posted things saying, “If you’re not doing the things now that you always put off because you ‘didn’t have time,’ then you were never going to do them.” Was that true? For the first time, I started to wonder if I was going to be one of those people who got an MFA degree and then never ended up doing anything with it.
As the two months of fica em casa (“stay in home”) gradually wore to an end and shops and cafes started to allow 25% capacity, I realized the problem hadn’t been that I’d been sitting at home doing nothing. As per usual, I’d managed to do a lot. Extreme boredom wasn’t sparking great creativity because I hadn’t been bored. Restless? Sometimes. Bored? I wish.
My Portuguese quarantine started in my living room. I sat with my boyfriend on the twin bed that I used as a couch. We’d just learned that the president of Portugal would declare an official state of emergency in the evening.
“Do you want to stay at my place?” E asked.
We wouldn’t know what a state-of-emergency meant until the president spoke. Portugal’s COVID numbers were low, but Spain’s were skyrocketing. Because Portugal’s only borders are with Spain and the Atlantic Ocean, it seemed like an immediate strict lockdown was likely. But would the lockdown be the same as Italy and Spain where people couldn’t even go for runs and needed special permission to walk a dog? Or would we have some leniency?
E and I had only been dating for a few months. We lived in separate Porto suburbs. His brother and sister-in-law were currently at his apartment, visiting him from Brazil. Staying with him during quarantine wouldn’t be a cute couple’s retreat; it would be a sudden immersion into the family unit.
Then there was the language barrier. E’s brother and SIL speak as much English as I do Portuguese (but, honestly, they speak way more English than I do Portuguese, but none of us have the confidence to really converse). In a normal circumstance, I could handle living in an apartment where 75% of the occupants spoke the same language, and I was the odd person out. But when that 75% is also your boyfriend’s family? Meaning I couldn’t just hide away in a room less I be pegged as “that rude, aloof American E is dating”?
Thus my quarantine options looked like two equally stressful situations: either see it out by myself and have a possible Marquês de Sade from Quills moment, or make like Antonio Banderas in The 13th Warrior.
After creating a quick text poll among close friends and family members, I agreed to go. I felt further bolstered by the fact that the quarantine rules in Spain and Italy still allowed people to travel to their personal home within a city. E’s apartment was 14 km (about 8.5 miles) from mine. If anything really went awry, I could always walk home.
Empty tourist areas in Porto.
I lived with E and his family for about two weeks. The experience was about what I expected: me staying quiet most of the time and trying to keep up with the Brazilian-Portuguese conversations as much as I could. Most of the time, E served as a translator for the group. I spoke broken Portuguese and was answered in broken English.
When E’s family was finally able to return to Brazil, I thought that maybe this would be the time for me to finally be bored and write, but no. E and I are lucky that we both kept our jobs throughout the pandemic. As a content writer, I spend 40 hours a week writing about the relocation policies and How Tos of countries around the world. By the time 5 p.m. rolls around, I’ve written so much that I barely want to respond to text messages. And unlike when working in an office, moving from writing on a couch to writing on a bed doesn’t seem to help my mind shift enough from work writing to my writing.
As the 15-day state of emergency was extended three times, I kept waiting to write. Instead, I kept getting sidelined with news about how my native US is basically imploding; a doctor’s call telling me that the results of an exam required a further check that couldn’t wait until after the quarantine; I moved apartments (I’m not talking about packing a bag and moving into E’s place for a while; I mean moved from my one-bedroom beachside suburban apartment into a studio near the downtown); had a month-and-a-half long fight with my previous landlord and his realtor, and eventually lost nearly €600 to the spineless goblins.
But still: Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine. Hadn’t he been stressed, too?
So, what’s Portugal been like during the pandemic? Portugal has remained relatively stable throughout the global crisis. For such a small country, with an even smaller health system, we could have easily had an Italy-like catastrophe, but the government went into a strict lockdown pretty early on, which I think it saved a lot of lives.
For about six weeks, we were all told to stay inside. You could go to the grocery store, pharmacy, and for “short, personal exercise.” Any group larger than a pair was told to separate. During a run one day, a cop drove past me. Via a loudspeaker, he told me and another jogger to return home. When I did, E and his family said they saw the cops arrest a group of three teenagers. I’ve heard rumors that the Portuguese police are often criticized for not being forceful enough, so these may have been more of take-us-seriously! tactics rather than a brief foray into a military state.
Other Quarantine Notables
The Car Accident
Mid-quarantine, a car accident happened late at night right outside E’s window. A drunk driver slammed into two parked cars, jack-knifing one of the cars into the cement gate outside E’s building. From the balcony, E and I watched as neighbors poured into the street. The man with the nicest car was held back from beating up the drunk driver. The men lit cigarettes as they waited for the cops to arrive and the women took photos of the scene with their phones. At some point, the drunk driver managed to slip away. He made it one block around the corner before a mob of eight pajama-wearing locals chased him down and brought him back to the scene he’d so stupidly caused (it is also worth noting that the driver was the only person involved and he was not hurt). When the cops arrived, they wouldn’t get out of the car until everyone social distanced/went home if they were not the owner of one of the cars involved.
Runners, Walkers, and People Who Just Need to Move
I need to rant really quick about everyone needing to get out of their house during the quarantine. As someone who also needed a long walk or jog each day, I completely understand this, but what I could not stand were the couples who walked side-by-side and refused to move when I passed. Then there were the groups of three or more, who slightly social distanced between themselves, but when the blonde jogger intersects them? Nada. During one jog, I stayed in the road with the cars. I wanted to shout at these people, “We all have to social distance! You’re practically bumping into me! Just walk single-file for one second when people pass and then you can claim the entire sidewalk as yours again.” I also briefly thought about approaching them and coughing, but that seemed a bit mean.
I have to confess that E and I broke quarantine once: we had a friend over for dinner and then the three of us zoom’d with other friends for a happy hour. We had been following quarantine rules and so had our friend, so we figured that the three of us meeting in a private home wouldn’t be that bad, but still. And, if I’m being totally honest, I guess we technically broke quarantine two other times with another friend, but the timeline of when restrictions were in place and loosened are a bit blurry in my mind. What month is it?
Although my writing has stalled during quarantine, my reading has flourished. As a writer and the daughter of a librarian, you would think I would consume books like Pringles, but I don’t. I am an incredibly slow reader. On average, I read about 5 to 6 books a year (except when I was in school). During quarantine, I’ve already flown through four, and am nearly done with the fifth. Any suggestions for the sixth?
Go Easy on Yourself
I think my main takeaway during quarantine is that we should all go easy on ourselves. As restaurants and shops slowly start to reopen here, there’s still a small tinge of anxiety in the air of but will we still get sick? How many people is too many people in one space? Are we just going to have to quarantine again? For expats not living in their own country, I think this stress is magnified because when can we easily travel between our two homes again? There are many of us sitting abroad and wondering if/how we can return to our home country if a loved one gets sick, and then will we be able to return to our new residency?
I’ve spoken with friends, too, who feel somewhat stuck mentally and emotionally during all of this. If you or a loved one are not actively sick, it feels like we have nothing to complain or be stressed about, but I think it’s valid for everyone to feel a bit uneasy and uncertain. Does this mean we need to storm capital buildings with automatic weapons like some sort of crazed militia (sorry, not “some sort of”–they are a crazed militia)? No, it doesn’t.
So yes, Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague. That’s great. Will I write some great novel during this plague? Probably not. But I can at least congratulate myself for writing and editing something even if it’s only for work and not the creative pieces that I crave. And even if there are people out there who aren’t doing anything–if there are artists who haven’t produced or touched a scrap of creative work–does that make them not an artist? No at all. It just makes them human during a scary-to-be-a-human time.
When friends back in Asia ask me what the dating scene is like in Portugal, I don’t know what to say. Fine? Active? Normal? It’s not that I don’t see a difference between dates in Bangkok and dates in Porto–I definitely do. It’s more that I didn’t know how to describe it.
Then a friend posted this to Instagram:
For months I couldn’t get this out of my head.
Comparing dating in Bangkok and Portugal is like salsa and guacamole, although whether it’s the guys, the culture, or something else is yet to be determined.
Bangkok–and most of Thailand–attracts people with sex. Not just sex, but sex is a big part of tourism in the Land of Smiles. When you meet a westerner in Bangkok they typically fall into one of two categories: thriving off the sex culture or exasperated by it (and the thriving ones are usually white guys, although I did meet a handful who were miraculously not in this niche).
This heavy emphasis on sex also seeps its way into the casual dating scene. When friends and I went on dates, the typical MO was to go out for drinks, get fairly hammered, and then back to someone’s place for a hookup. If you didn’t hookup on a first date, then the date was probably a bust and you’d likely never see or hear from that person again. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this, and I am all for sleeping with whoever you want and however much you want, but when I later tallied my count from my 15 months in Bangkok (including about 9 months of seeing just one guy), I was a bit shocked.
What I also realized upon listing all these dates out was how much BS I had put up with in Bangkok. There were guys who were cute, but could barely handle five minutes of conversation; there were guys who I didn’t even find that attractive and were also obnoxious; and then there were the straight up jerks. Yet–did I typically wake up with every single one of these guys? Of course. Why? Because: Bangkok.
Dating in Bangkok as a western woman can be hard and usually likened to wandering through the desert (shameless self plug!) in search of a glass of water. However, metaphor aside: I wasn’t wandering through the desert and I didn’t need water–real or metaphorical.
Still, this seemed to be the way dating in Bangkok worked for everyone. Men, women, Asian, non-Asian–we’d all lamented at some point or another about putting up with someone we knew wasn’t worth it…and yet there we were. Putting up with it.
When I moved to Porto, my dates did a complete 180. I’d go out with a guy, we’d chat, and then the night would end with the polite side-cheek kisses and ciao. No one suggested more drinks. No one got wasted. No one asked to come to my place, nor did they ask me to go to theirs.
At first I took this personally. I called one of my good friends from Bangkok, who I’d gone on many double dates with. “Is it me?” I asked. “Am I unattractive in Europe? Or is this how dates are supposed to go? Is this what real dating is like? Are we not supposed to just get drunk and hookup?”
“Bangkok’s weird,” my friend agreed. “I look back on a lot of my dates there and wonder what I was thinking.”
I thought about my friend’s comment and the guacamole versus salsa a lot during my next several months in Porto. One guy in Porto asked me out twice, and each time he asked what I wanted to do. I would say “get drinks?” He would counter with, “How about dinner and then drinks.” The second time this happened I had to confess: “My default is just drinks. I don’t know what else to do on a date.”
“Ok,” he said, “we need to change that.”
Oh god, I thought. He wants to hangout? Sober? Why? To talk? About what?
As it turns out: to talk about everything. Life, our jobs, my writing, his knowledge of Portuguese history, etc. He wanted to chat like people normally do on dates: sober, and maybe with a slight buzz at the end so that one of you can sum up the courage to go in for a kiss.
After this guy, I continued to meet and go out with more genuinely nice guys. They didn’t all lead anywhere, but they were at least all absent the slightly shameful feeling I’d having many mornings in Bangkok of, “Oh god, why did I do that? That wasn’t even fun!”
For me, that’s the biggest difference between dating in Bangkok and dating in Porto. In Bangkok, everyone is salsa: you are salsa to your dates and your dates are salsa to you (not all the time–I’m generalizing a bit; those of you who weren’t salsa know who you are). Obviously, dating is both awesome and shitty so no matter where you are you may still be salsa at times, but, for me, the difference is that in Porto, I can actually be guacamole.
Confession: I wrote this post back in August 2019, but did not post due to some online harassment I was receiving and therefore felt hesitant to provoke that further. Now: whatever. And I am happy to report that in the seven months that have passed since I originally wrote this, wanting to be “guacamole” has worked out very well. Thanks, Portugal.
When people asked why I was going to Germany for five days in late November, I had a few standard replies: I’m going to see where I used to live; I just want to go to a country where I speak the language; cheap tickets. I only told a select few the truth: I was going to find my dead father.
Three years ago, during the wake after my father’s funeral, a family friend said she felt my dad’s presence. She’d been standing at the kitchen sink, washing some glasses as more people arrived. “I felt like he was standing right behind me,” she said. “Like I could turn around and he would be there.” A few hours later, another family friend said something similar. The next day, my sister said he visited her in a dream. I asked my sister when would I get to feel the presence or have a dream visitation.
I have never been a spiritual person, but I also don’t discount the possibility of an afterlife (growing up in the Bible Belt starts to rub off on you after a while). I hoped maybe I’d feel something–an inexplicable breeze beside me, a fuzzy aura, a dream with Dad that feels so real that I have to convince myself it wasn’t upon waking. My sister said I was too overcome with shock and grief to allow anything to happen. “You have a wall up right now,” she said. “When the wall comes down, he’ll come.” My therapist also suggested that I would be one of the last people Dad would want to say goodbye to.
A year following my father’s death, my mother said he visited her in a dream. I threw my hands in the air. My mother is less spiritual than I am, so if either one of us would be “open” enough to have a spiritual visit, I thought it would be me. Even if the whole ‘he doesn’t want to say goodbye to you’ thing was true, wouldn’t he come at some point? Why everyone else and not me? Would I ever get a visit?
If you’ve been following this blog, the rest you already know: a little over a year after my father’s passing I left the US and moved to Thailand. Then I moved to Portugal. As I near one year of living in Portugal, I’m taking more opportunities to travel throughout Europe. A few months ago, I realized I needed to use up some vacation days before the end of the year. I am not even sure what led to my decision, but after a week of looking up flights to Prague and Malta, I suddenly saw tickets to Frankfurt and thought: I can find Dad there.
My father was an art teacher for the US Department of Defense. His job is what led to me living part of my childhood in Cuba and Germany. In Germany, Dad and I lived in a small town about an hour and a half outside of Frankfurt. The town had just one gas station, a train stop, and nary an English speaker in sight. When I played with the kid who lived across the street, all we did was name objects in our different languages.
When I think of my childhood, I think of Cuba and Germany. I think about spending whole days with my dad because he taught at my school, so we’d ride the train into the city together, he’d drop me off at my class, and I’d spend my free time and after school time in his art room. Even speaking German was something Dad and I shared as well as a continued love for German food and culture even after we moved back to the US to be with my mum.
As I typed my information into the RyanAir site, I kept shaking my head. I’d been back in Europe for over six months. How had I not thought about this before? If I were to ever feel my father’s spirit, I was sure it would be in Germany, specifically in the small village where we used to live.
When I landed in Germany, I was surprised at how much it felt like home. Anytime I arrive in a new country, even if it is one I have been to before, there is that feeling of “this is different.” Whether or not it’s an English-speaking country, signs are still written a bit different than how they are in the US; there are different brands, different foods, different ways of dress, etc. Obviously, whenever I fly back to the US I don’t get this feeling because it’s my country, my people, my culture, and just all around my familiar. In Germany, I felt the same as if I’d landed in the US: like this is my home.
I spent the afternoon in Frankfurt and then took a train up to a town called Lollar. The town where Dad and I lived, Kleinstadt*, is so small that I couldn’t find a hotel or AirBnB. Lollar, about 7 km south, was the closest town I could find. I figured I could walk to Kleinstadt.
The next morning I set out for Kleinstadt. My walk led me across the river from Lollar, through some farmland, beside a small highway, and into another town. I walked for over an hour before realizing I’d somehow walked in a full circle and was back on the path to Lollar. I turned around, chose a different direction at a fork-in-the-road, wove my way through quiet neighborhoods, and accidentally followed a teenage girl for about twenty minutes.
The neighborhood streets suddenly disappeared as I crested a hill. I looked down and gasped. Just beyond the hill, through a wall of trees, and across a highway, was a small, open field. The field was bare except for grass, making it look perfect for a football pitch. Bordering the field were trees and a quiet river. Across the river was a car park and a train stop. I stared at the field, taking in every single detail as if it was a historic painting. I hadn’t realized until that very moment that it wasn’t Kleinstadt I’d come to see: it was this field.
Because I’d taken the wrong turn and come in through a back road, I ended up being beside my old house in just two blocks. I was surprised at how little had changed: there was a new gate and a sporty, red car in the driveway, but everything else looked the same. The barn was a weathered white and brown Tudor design. The apple trees in the side yard were shedding their leaves. The house stood wider and taller than I remembered. Rubber snowflakes covered the windows and a plastic red and yellow hot air balloon hung from one of the porches. The house sat on the sharp, blind curve of the town’s main road. Dad always warned me about leaving the house alone because speeding cars would never see a child crossing at such an acute turn.
I walked past the house and down the street towards the town’s only gas station. Just before crossing the bridge that would take me out of town, I turned to the right and into the open field I’d seen from the hill above.
When we lived in Germany, my dad walked our dog in this field every day. One of my most distinct memories as a child is waking up early in the morning during one of the first weeks that Dad and I had moved to Cuba. I was about six years old. It was still dark out and I went looking for my dad. When I saw I was alone in the house, I was convinced he and the dog had gone back to Cuba without me. Determined to catch them before they went back to Cuba (or maybe I thought I could head back to Cuba myself) I put on my jacket and rain boots and started walking down the street, sobbing the whole time.
I reached the bridge and heard the familiar jingle of dog tags. I called out my dog’s name. The jingling stopped. I called out the name again, and my father responded. I ran across the field to my father’s voice, much to my dog’s delight and my father’s dismay (re: dangerous, blind corner). I told him I thought he’d left me for good. Dad said he walked the dog in that field every morning. “You’re usually not up at five,” he said.
As a 31 year old adult, I thought about this early morning childhood memory: the complete devastation of being abandoned in the house, followed by the shock, relief, and utter joy of finding my dad and dog in that field.
On this day, no one was in the field but me. I walked along the edge, letting the wet grass soak the cuffs of my jeans. I imagined taking the same steps my dad had every chilly morning. My father’s military dog tag, which I wear when I travel, clanked against the zipper of my coat. The sound reminded me of the jingle of my dog’s collar, and I imagine see her sleek black and gray body zooming up and down the small mounds of grass around the field.
The sky was overcast, coloring everything with silver light. I’d been wondering why I felt the siren’s call to come to this town in November of all month’s and it suddenly hit me: if there was a Heaven, this is what my father’s Heaven would look like: cold and overcast so that he could wear one of his favorite Icelandic sweaters, quiet, surrounded by nature with a small village just up the street. Dad wasn’t a sun and beach person. He liked the countryside and mountains, where he could light a fire and take long, cool walks with his dogs.
There is a point in Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild where she scatters her mother’s ashes and finds a small piece of bone. “I put her burnt bones into my mouth and swallowed them whole,” she says. When I read this years ago, I remember thinking that that was strange. How would swallowing the bone make you feel better? Wouldn’t it hurt going down? Scratch up your throat or make you nauseous? And the bone wouldn’t stay in your body forever–so why?
After my father’s death, I get why. One month after he died, I got a tattoo of his artwork and art signature on my shoulder. I wanted to carve the reminder of him into my body, but even that didn’t feel like enough. Like Cheryl Strayed, the loss was so great that I wanted to absorb the memory through my skin and into my actual muscles and bones. I wanted to swallow it whole.
Walking around the field in Kleinstadt, I thought about digging my hands into the mud and eating it. Instead, standing at the far edge of the field, at a spot where I was sure Dad had stood while he let our dog have her fun, I said, “Goodbye.” I said ‘goodbye’ out loud and over and over. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Dad the day he died. I didn’t get to say anything because his death was so sudden and unexpected.
Each time I said goodbye to the field, I felt the knot in my chest that has squeezed there for three years and three months loosen just a bit. It didn’t disappear, though. It never will. Grief doesn’t vanish. Instead, it absorbs into your life. I don’t honestly know if I felt my father’s presence in the field in Kleinstadt. I just know that it’s the closest I’ve gotten to feeling something, and for right now that’s good enough.
*Not the real name.
There are many things to regret about dating a gaslighter. You regret being naive, you regret selling yourself short, you regret the years you probably took off your life from the stress of someone continually making you question your own mind. When I first met the Gaslighter, I was swept off my feet. He was charming, funny, and seemed as interested in me as I was in him. Five months later, I was having regular panic attacks and questioning whether I could trust my own memory because of how often he convinced me I didn’t say that or you’re imaging things and you’re just being difficult.
For those who don’t know, to “gaslight” is to manipulate someone into questioning their reality. The term comes from the early 1900s book/movie: Gas Light. In the story, a husband tricks his wife into believing she is losing her mind. At one point, he makes the house gaslights flicker. When the wife asks why they are flickering, the husband tells her they’re not and that she’s imagining things.
A gaslighter distorts someone’s reality so much that they, the victim, no longer trust their reality or their own mind. A gaslighter does this (whether intentionally or unintentionally) by constantly telling the other person that the way they perceive things is incorrect. They’ll accuse someone of “overreacting” or “making things up” or “being too sensitive.” Overtime, the gaslighter will repeat these claims so often, and mix it in with some positive reinforcement, that the victim will start to question if they really are just overreacting or if what they are feeling is valid. Did they mishear the gaslighter when they said they’d come over Saturday? Because now the gaslighter says his plan was always to go to Pattaya with his boss and you are being controlling if you say that that hurts your feelings. Whose memory is correct?
It took me longer than it should have to permanently kick the Gaslighter out of my life–and I only managed it when he said something unbelievably cruel about my 12 yr old Thai students. When I did, I was able to so clearly see the red flags that had made me miserable during my time in Thailand. I scoured my journals and found all the breadcrumbs of “Gaslighter said this, but I don’t think that’s true…but maybe it’s me? Am I being unreasonable? Maybe I phrased my concern the wrong way and he misunderstood.” I wanted to jump back through the pages and slap my past self.
Now, living in Portugal and seven months removed from the Gaslighter, I have a gnawing fear that somehow I will get into this situation again. I have a heightened awareness that the moment a date does or says something that rubs me the wrong way, I bolt. In the past, I’d let moments of rudeness slide. Now, with an emotionally exhaustive cocktail of grief from a death, a major breakup, and someone making you legitimately question your sanity for nearly a year, I’ve found that I am more blunt than I used to be.
Which brings me to an event from a few weeks ago: the second worst date of my life (still not the No. 1 Worst, but it came really close).
The Awkward Engineer and I met a month and a half ago. I give any guy I date a nickname: Gym Boy, the Marine, One Lung, The Tall One, The One I Actually Like, etc. Awkward Engineer earned his nickname because a) he’s an engineer and b) on our very first date he kept constructing houses out of Legos as we talked in a bar. I liked the Awkward Engineer right away. He was smart, easy to talk to, and asked me questions about myself–something that has been severely lacking in my dating life in Portugal. We ended our first date by playing foosball against another couple and having a last drink at a rooftop bar.
For our second date, Awkward Engineer came over to my apartment. We had a few drinks, a good conversation, and he fixed a piece of IKEA furniture that I had failed tremendously to put together.
Our third date was less than spectacular, but I chalked it up to my mood. I’d not only been toiling under a deadline at work, but I’d also recently started tutoring a colleague in English. Our class that day had completely drained me. Awkward Engineer is Portuguese and his English is decent, but at times he has to pause to search for words or asks me to define and re-explain. After eight hours of work followed by 1.5 hours of teaching, I didn’t have the energy to explain to someone that sea and ocean are the same thing and no, I don’t know why we use both in English–English is dumb.
For our fourth date, Awkward Engineer called me before my evening run. “Do you want to take a beer?” he asked.
“How about wine at my place?” I suggested.
At 9:45 p.m., Awkward Engineer was at my door with a bottle of vinho branco. By 10:00 p.m., I was debating whether to pay him back for the wine and throw him out of my apartment, or just throw him out and keep the wine.
The date began to teeter when Awkward Engineer asked how my tutoring was going and I said that my student was improving, but slowly.
“Your student is doing fine,” he said.
“Your student: he’s fine. He is doing better than you think.”
I pulled the cork from the bottle. “Yes, I know that?” I said. “He’s doing well, but the vocab he has to learn for our company is hard, so he’s struggling.”
“Come on, he is improving!” Awkward Engineer insisted. “You need to be patient.”
I stared at the Awkward Engineer. I wanted to ask where in my sentence did I sound like I wasn’t being patient? Also, what did he know about my teaching or my student without ever being in the room? “I am being patient,” I said. “He needs to learn English for his job, so I feel a lot of pressure for him to do well.”
“He is doing well,” Awkward Engineer said. “You should calm down.”
In Bangkok, the Gaslighter would constantly twist my words or ignore them all together. I would tell him that it hurt my feelings when he ditched me to get drunk and high with his boss. Once, we slept together and within five minutes he was leaving my apartment. “My boss wants to get a drink,” he said.
“But I thought we were hanging out?” I said.
“No, no–you’re tired.”
“I drank coffee just to hangout with you. When did I say I was tired?”
“You are very tired.”
“But I’m not.”
“Okay, get some sleep. I’ll see ya later!”
This is just a snippet, but Gaslighter would constantly tell me I felt one way, when I was sure I didn’t. In fights, he’d even reference stuff that I said–stuff that I was positive I had not, yet he said it with such conviction that I wondered if maybe I had said it? Or maybe I phrased something the wrong way and he misinterpreted? Towards the end of our relationship, I started recording our fights on my phone just so I could listen to them later and understand if I was losing my mind or if the Gaslighter was just screwing with my mind (turns out, it was the latter).
As the Awkward Engineer continued to tell me how my student was progressing, despite not knowing a bloody thing about my student, I realized that that’s what had bugged me on our third date as well: he kept explaining to me the way that I felt. I said I was stressed from teaching, he said I wasn’t. I said I was worried about a hurricane hitting my hometown in the US, he said I wasn’t. I felt my mood slipping and slipping, but, because apparently I am a slow learner, I just shouldered the blame and figured something was wrong on my end, not his.
The Awkward Engineer and I cheers’d our glasses of wine. “My student is fine,” I said, with a bit more annoyed emphasis than I intended to. “I think I can judge it myself.”
“You sound like Trump.”
I choked on my wine. “Excuse me?”
We sat on my couch, which is really just a twin bed in my living room
“You sound like Trump.” Awkward Engineer smiled widely.
“Because we both have northern-sounding accents?” I asked.
“No, no,” he said. “You’re very direct in the way you talk. You say something and then you are like no one can tell me I’m wrong.”
“Because I said I’m being patient with my student? You don’t know anything about the student or how I teach–”
“And your vocab is similar,” he added.
“WHAT?!” I asked if he was joking just to get a rise out of me. “Donald Trump has the vocab of an eight year old. That’s insulting to say to a writer.”
Awkward Engineer said he wasn’t joking. “You use small words,” he said. “Very direct.”
I wanted to tell him that his English wasn’t good enough (and my Portuguese is shit) for me to use my typical vocab, but I didn’t want to be rude.
“Let’s change the subject,” I said. “Tell me about your new job.”
Instead of telling me about his new job, Awkward Engineer proceeded to tell me how, as an American, I must like Trump and I obviously voted for him. We went back and forth on how not every American voted for or likes Trump. Awkward Engineer then said how Hillary Clinton would have been worse.
“I don’t want to talk about politics,” I said. “Seriously–tell me about your new job.”
“Come on, you can’t think Hillary would have been good for the US.”
“What I think is that we should change the subject.”
Awkward Engineer then shared his opinion about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“That’s great,” I said, finishing my glass of wine. “At least you left one President off of your list.”
“Obama?” Awkward Engineer furrowed his brow. I held my breath. “That’s because he wasn’t a president. He was a ‘yes-man.'”
I threw my hands in the air and stood up. “Are you trolling me?” I asked. “What the hell is happening with this conversation?”
Awkward Engineer scoffed. “You can’t tell me you like Obama?”
“OF COURSE I DO. I think that’s obvious. For the love of god, change. The. Subject.”
“But this is all I know about America.”
“Why do we have to talk about America? We’re not in America. We can talk about anything. TELL ME ABOUT YOUR NEW JOB.”
“There is cool architecture in Los Angeles. The buildings are made to withstand earthquakes. I like that.”
I went into my kitchen and grabbed the bottle of wine.
“I also like New York,” the Awkward Engineer continued. “If I could go to any city in US, I would go to New York and then Los Angeles.”
“Yes, those are cool cities.”
“But I would not go to Chicago.”
I stopped mid-pour. “Why?” I thought of the Chicago city flag hanging above my bed.
“It is an ugly city. Not nice at all.”
“Have you been to Chicago?”
“No, but I hear things.” He made a face as if he were throwing up. “Chicago is a shithole.”
“Do you remember where I’m from?”
“So why would you say that? I would never say something negative about Porto to you.”
“Yes, but I am speaking in facts. When you compare the three: Chicago is shit.”
I downed half of my wine glass in one swallow and checked the time on my phone: 10:00 pm. Normally, this is when, out of sheer politeness, I’d let a date just keep talking and talking, and I would just nod and half-listen. I’d probably also drink more and eventually kiss the guy just to make him shut up, rather than actually tell him how I was feeling at that moment.
Instead, as Awkward Engineer proceeded to bash on a city I love so much I have a small homage of it in a tattoo, I thought about the Gaslighter. From the beginning, Gaslighter said things that upset me, but I just let them slide because…well I have no idea why. When you’re still coping with the sudden combined losses of a parent and a man who was practically a fiancé, you do stupid things to avoid thinking about all the loss.
Obviously the Awkward Engineer wasn’t saying anything directly mean about me, but the Gaslighter’s comments had also started off light: people who take antidepressants are weak (me); people from developed countries are weak (me); you obviously slept with your male friend when you traveled to Malaysia together, and then you probably hooked up with that Pakistani guy when you got back (again: me).
I pulled a chair up to the couch and sat facing the Awkward Engineer. “Do you realize that in the span of ten minutes you’ve compared me to Trump, insulted Obama–who I happen to really like–and now you’re telling me that a city that I love and consider home is a shithole, even though you have never been there?”
Awkward Engineer spilled his wine on himself and sat up. “But New York and Los Angeles are cool. New York also has those buildings that just collapse. Do you remember 9/11?”
“Tell me you’re joking right now.”
“Those towers were built to fall in on themselves.” He held one hand straight up in the air and used the other as an imaginary plane to crash into it. “Isn’t that cool?”
“That was a tragedy,” I said. “I think it would have been cooler had it not happened.”
Awkward Engineer shrugged. “Yeah, but think about it–”
“I don’t want to think about it.”
“They could have fallen to the side–”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“They would have taken out so many more buildings!”
“I cannot express enough how much I do not want to talk about this.”
“But instead they collapsed in on themselves.”
“Stop talking! Não falas!”
“How great, right?”
I again threw my hands in the air. “WHAT is wrong with you? Are you understanding me?”
“Shhh you are having fun right now.”
“This is not fun!”
“I am only speaking in facts. It’s logical. Think about it: if the buildings had fallen to the side–”
I put my hand on his mouth. “I get your logic,” I said. “If the buildings had fallen to the side, then all of the people in the buildings would have died and the people in the surrounding buildings would have died, too. I get the bloody logic.”
He smiled and nodded, glad to have me agree with his point of view just like the Gaslighter was always happy when I finally conceded to his side of an argument: yes, it’s fine that you stood me up to go get drunk and high with your boss; yes, it’s reasonable for you to accuse me of sleeping with someone else because it just means you are insecure and I have to make concessions for that; yes, it is okay that you have threatened to hack into my email and Facebook account because you are just “too in love” and don’t know how to handle it. In my head, I could hear one of the last fights Gaslighter and I had before I accepted my new job in Portugal. Gaslighter had gone back home to India for a short visit and told me he was on Bumble “seeing what was out there.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say to me,” I’d told him. “I’m your girlfriend. That hurts to know you’re essentially looking for someone else.”
“You always see the negative,” Gaslighter said. “That’s how you are. Can’t be helped.”
That specific fight with the Gaslighter was the one that made me realize he was manipulating my mind. Was I a negative person? Was it normal for someone in a committed relationship to be on Bumble “just to look”? Was I being unreasonable or looking for problems where there weren’t any?
Obviously, the answer was no: I’m not a negative person and it is not normal for someone in a committed relationship to be looking through Bumble to “see what’s out there.” That’s a shit person doing a shit thing.
Logically, I knew Awkward Engineer was not the exact same person at the Gaslighter, but I was also tired of continually taking someone’s feelings into account, especially when there seemed little regard for mine.
I took my hand off Awkward Engineer’s mouth. “Speaking in logic,” I said. “What do you see happening after this conversation?” I drew an imaginary line between us.
For the first time, Awkward Engineer seemed to actually listen to me.
“I think you won’t want to talk to me again?”
“That would be correct.”
“But I am only talking in logic!”
“And, logically, I think we’re too different.”
“How are we different?”
“I care when I am upsetting someone. You don’t. This night is over.”
There was some pushback from the Awkward Engineer, and he managed to make me feel some guilt by saying that he really enjoyed the few times we’ve hungout, and that he does “care,” but the spell was broken. When he left, he accepted the fact that we’d never speak again.
I am not calling the Awkward Engineer an outright gaslighter by any means, but something about his insistence on knowing how I felt and his refusal to listen to me just made me think he was more than simply oblivious. I’d already spent nearly a year with someone else making me constantly question my own thoughts and feelings–I didn’t want to spend even one more evening doing that again.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have been so upfront with the Awkward Engineer. In fact, I probably would have just been slightly annoyed without really knowing why. After a night like the fourth date, I would have continued to answer his texts and I probably would have even seen him again because sometimes I swear I do not have a backbone. Now, however, I do have more of a backbone and I can (somewhat) more easily pinpoint when I think someone isn’t being considerate or caring.
I’m not saying this is a fantastic new trait of mine, nor am I saying I’m very graceful about it, but, out of everything that transpired from dating a Gaslighter, I am at least glad that it taught me to finally start speaking up when I should and recognize even small hints of gaslighting behavior.
I didn’t have a lot of expectations when I drove up the winding road leading to Monsanto. I passed two of the town’s famed giant boulders at a narrow turn and I could see the beginnings of the beige stone walls that I associate with quaint, European towns. My GPS had stopped working an hour ago and the blue triangle that was supposed to be me floated on a road-less expanse.
When I first started telling people I was driving to Monsanto for a long holiday weekend, most of them said: Monsanto? Like the drug company that causes cancer? Portuguese friends said: Where?
I learned about Monsanto from my Lonely Planet guidebook. After a month of living in Portugal, I was antsy to take a trip that didn’t involve another visit to Lisbon for an embassy appointment. I don’t know how I landed upon the two-pages that talk about Monsanto, but within thirty minutes I’d booked a car and one of the few accommodations I could find.
Monsanto is a town built around boulders. Homes and shops are squeezed deftly between massive stones, giving the vibe that the town is trying to camouflage itself. In 1938, the village was voted The Most Portuguese Town in Portugal. They received a silver rooster, the symbol of Portugal, to commemorate the honor.
As I entered the town, I passed a few buildings: some with brand new white stucco and others in the typical beige/gray stonework I’ve seen around most of Portugal. The street narrowed and the incline grew steeper. I finally stopped the car after turning a sharp corner and realizing I was on a street where, if Google Maps was wrong, I could only reverse to get out.
One of the owners of my guesthouse, Nuno, met me outside my car. I followed him up stairs that didn’t look like stairs, but rather rocks in the ground that just happened to form an unsteady upward path. Around one corner was a bolder twice the size of my rental car. A small, rocky stone path led up and around the massive rock, to what I assumed was someone’s home. Nuno and I turned away from the rock, walked a bit further down a small path, and then up four steep steps into the guesthouse.
Honestly, I have been struggling to write this post for months because I don’t know what to say about Monsanto other than go there now.
Why? Here are a few reasons:
Go to Monsanto if you like:
The town looks like something out of a fairy tale book, not because it’s your typical quaint, quite, stone-housed village, but because the boulders make everything look just different enough that it’s like you’re in a magic realm.
The town is also just so charming. There is no other word: charming.
Because Monsanto is the highest spot for miles, the views are spectacular.
Despite the fact that I am a self-proclaimed city girl, I also love hiking in the countryside (I just don’t want to live on a hiking trail). If you like hiking, Monsanto is an ideal location. The town is situated on a cliff and just walking around the town is a bit of a hike because there are so many ups and down.
At the peak of the mountain, about one kilometer straight up from the town, are the ruins of a castle: Castelo de Monsanto. To get to the castle, you have to hike up large slabs of rocks, which make you wonder where did the boulders originate from and am I about to create a landslide? From the castle, you can see the entire surrounding area. You can even see Spain.
The surrounding countryside also provides a lot of hiking opportunities and the Camino de Santiago even runs through this area.
I traveled to Monsanto solo. At the time I was desperately missing Thailand and my community there (still am, honestly). I wanted a weekend away to myself to decompress and collect my thoughts about my recent move across the world. The owners of my guesthouse, Nuno and Carla, however, were having none of my solo-ness. Every night when I arrived back the guesthouse they were waiting for me with a glass of wine by the fireplace. When I said I was allergic to red wine, they opened a bottle of champagne. One night they invited me to have dinner with them and we dined on fire-cooked salmon, vegetables, and potatoes.
In front of the fireplace, Nuno, Carla, and I covered a wide range of topics. I learned they met while working in a bank in Lisbon. They’d only opened the guesthouse recently, which is why it looked so much like an actual home rather than a guesthouse. They’d hosted less than twenty guests. Nuno was from Monsanto and was torn between wanting more people to discover the Most Portuguese Town in Portugal and wanting the town to remain the same. Animal statues on their dining room table were turned away from the door, which Nuno and Carla said symbolized good luck.
In addition to Nuno and Carla, each person I met was incredibly nice and accommodating. On my first night, I went to one of two restaurants in Monsanto that stays open past 7 p.m. The owner sat me at a window table, and then proceeded to tell every other person who entered that they couldn’t be seated without a reservation. Maybe I took someone’s reservation by mistake, or maybe I just looked so lost the woman took pity on me. A cafe owner was also patient as I stumbled through ordering a galão. I know I am particularly biased towards Monsanto hospitality because of Nuno and Carla, but every single local person I met was just extremely nice. I cannot 100% say that of the other places I’ve been in Portugal.
Despite its physical appearance, Monsanto is just unique in general. During our fireside chats, Nuno regaled me with much of Monsanto’s history. He told me that it is not only The Most Portuguese Village in Portugal, but it is one of twelve official Historical Villages of Portugal. Most of these villages played a strategic role in defending the country from invaders throughout the centuries. Because Portugal is such a small country, much of this strategy didn’t come from mass, brutish soldiers, but instead cunning ploys that made use of limited resources.
Monsanto, for example, had been under siege by the Romans for over six years during the BC era. When the citadel eventually got down to its last sack of grain and last calf, all looked lost. Knowing they were on the brink of surrender, the village leader decided to feed the entire bag of grain to the calf. He then threw the calf over the castle walls. When the poor animal exploded in front of the soldiers, they were amazed at how much food the village must have if they were willing to waste so much so spitefully. The Romans couldn’t afford the standoff much longer, so they headed home. Monsanto commemorates this victory at the beginning of May every year, but now they throw flowers over the wall instead of fatted calfs.
Nuno also told me that the population of Monsanto is about 80, and the median age range is about 80 as well.
“They closed down the school three years ago,” he said. “There aren’t any kids to attend. No one is young enough.”
I wanted to ask Nuno if he and Carla would have kids to put in that school, but it took nearly my full stay to riddle whether they were coworkers or a couple (spoiler: they’re a couple). Despite a severely aging population, Monsanto doesn’t have a hospital, and a pharmacist and physician visit the town only twice a week.
“What if someone has an emergency?” I asked.
You will not like Monsanto if you like:
As I said: the town has a population of 80 and a median age of 80. From what I could tell, there were three restaurants (Nuno said only two, but I swear I saw a third), a handful of cafes, and two or three shops. The latest any restaurant stays open is 8 p.m.
Monsanto is ideal for couples who just want to snuggle and be romantic (my weekend boyfriend was my Kindle). For people who want some semblance of a rockin’ nightlife? You should probably just keep driving to Lisbon…
The village of Monsanto is about 2,400 ft above sea level (750 m). I realize that to some people that’s like barely a hill, but if you’re like me and you grew up at 9 ft (3 m) above sea level, then 2,400 is A LOT. Even though I once lived at 7,500 ft (2,290 m) above sea level, my lungs are sea level lungs and they are probably still swirling with Bangkok smog. If you’re someone who is not fantastic with higher altitudes, just be aware and drink water.
All I’m really saying is…
Go to Monsanto.
In the five months that I have been trapped in Portugal due to visa legalities (more on that later), I have visited seven Portuguese towns. Although I know I still have more to see, Monsanto remains my absolute favorite place. In Thailand, I had one treasured place that I made a point to return to before leaving the country. As of now, Monsanto is that same place for me in Portugal.
Last night at 4:30 a.m. I sat in the back of an Uber listening to my date talk about the differences between football and futsal. He held my hand, tracing swirls between my fingers and palm. It was our fifth or sixth date. We’d just spent the evening in downtown Porto grabbing drinks and dancing at a local club.
Exactly two years before that, May 4th, 2017 11:30 p.m. EST, I lay on the floor of my graduate school apartment, unable to catch my breath as my boyfriend of nearly seven years told me, over the phone, that he didn’t want to be with me anymore. He had been the last pillar keeping me upright after the sudden death of my father just ten months before that.
Marking an anniversary can be positive and negative. There are happy anniversaries: weddings, birthdays, the date of a big move; and sad anniversaries: a death, break-up, the day you lost your job. Since my father’s passing, I’ve added a whole slew of anniversaries to keep track of: my parents’ wedding anniversary, so that I remember to always send my mother flowers; my father’s death, which I don’t acknowledge except to be sad and call in sick to work; the day I left the U.S.; and May 4th, the night my ex dumped me.
Last year, I dreaded the one year anniversary of May 4th. Of all the anniversaries, it felt like the most significant. My father’s death had been traumatic and devastating. My ex had been the metaphorical three-legged stool I was still able to stand on. Without him, I didn’t think I would survive the grief. And quite honestly, I didn’t want to.
In the weeks leading to one-year anniversary of May 4th I woke constantly with night terrors. Images from that night rolled through my mind on a loop: falling off my air mattress, which I used as a couch because I’d sold most of my furniture in preparation to move with my ex; calling friends to my apartment because I didn’t know what else to do; smashing a picture frame and throwing up in the bathroom. Most of all, I remembered the feeling that I’d never be happy again. It was like a line had been drawn through my life: my happy life and my life now. I’d lost my father without warning and now my best friend, the person I thought would be my life partner. How do you recover from that?
I moved to Asia and tried to recover. I built a new community, started new jobs, and found that I could make it without a partner by my side. To mark the first year anniversary, I went to a tattoo parlor with a close friend and got a semicolon tattooed behind my right ear. As a punctuation mark, a semicolon represents a sentence that has nearly come to an end, but not enough to warrant a period, and thus continues. As a symbol: a semicolon represents someone’s struggle of wanting to die, but continuing to live. I spent the evening drinking and dancing with friends at a Star Wars themed club.
I felt both proud and sad: proud for all that I had done, but sad that I still didn’t feel totally like myself. Grief changes you and the way you live your life, but the ‘not myself’ feeling still felt like more than that. I figured much like the date of my father’s death would always feel heavy and sad, May 4th would forever feel like a clusterfuck of emotions: anxious, proud, sad, determined, and also a bit angry.
This year, about a week before the end of April, I made note of May 4th. I opened my Google calendar to find a good weekend to go on a day trip. When I saw the weekend of May 4 and 5 I thought, I better make sure I’m busy that day. Just like in Bangkok, I figured I wouldn’t want to be alone. Or would it be better to be alone?
And then I forgot.
May 4th came and went, and I didn’t even notice until the afternoon of the 5th when I scrolled through Cinco de Mayo posts on Facebook. Even on the 4th, while friends posted the usual May the Fourth Be With You statuses, the fact that the day was the anniversary of my life’s turning point didn’t even cross my mind. Instead, I had a truly fantastic day: I’d slept in, made decent progress on a new essay, met two friends for a coffee and a long walk, wrote some more, met some fascinating women at a friend’s going away party, and ended the night dancing for hours with a Portuguese man who is so attractive that I have to resist just staring at him.
Besides noticing the date for a brief second in my Google calendar, I hadn’t thought about May 4th at all. The weeks leading up to the date hadn’t been full of nightmares. Recounting the night of May 4th, 2017 didn’t make me want to curl into a ball beneath my bed.
I hadn’t been in Bangkok for long when I first realized that my ex did me a favor by breaking up with me. All along, one of our biggest differences had been my love of travel and his apathy towards it. I wanted to live in different countries and see as much of the world as possible. He didn’t. With each new experience I had in Thailand, and with each new country I visited, I knew I never would have had any of those things had I stayed with my ex. If we’d stayed together, I wouldn’t be in Portugal right now having achieved the long-held goal of mine of landing a full-time writing job. I wouldn’t have met any of the friends I now have and, let’s face it, my ex and I would have broken up (or divorced) eventually because I never would have been happy with his small town life and he never would have been comfortable with my adventurous one.
May 4th will continue to be a significant anniversary for me, but not for the reasons I once thought. Grief is a process. Whether it’s a death or a break up, it takes time to learn how to live with it in your life. My one year May 4th anniversary felt both happy and sad because I was still trying to find my way while shouldering two loads of grief. Now, on my second May 4th anniversary, it’s easier to see not just all that I’ve accomplished on my own, but how much more I will continue to accomplish.
Before I moved to Porto I looked up the logistics of shipping my goods from Thailand to Portugal. Reviews and blog posts screamed: DON’T DO IT. My packages were held up in customs for months, one man said. I had to pay extra tax, despite already paying tax when I bought the item, another blog stated. It was abundantly clear: carry everything on the plane.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Turkish Airlines made me ship nearly 80% of my belongings from a ThaiPost office Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. Transferring the contents of my luggage wasn’t so much of sorting as it was just throwing whatever wasn’t art or electronics into a box until I hit the maximum weight. When I had to get a second box, my friend opened up my carry-on duffle bag and started tossing even more things. I saw a flash of a colorful top and stopped him. “But that’s my favorite,” I said. Having traveled and moved so much, I know which comforts I need in order to feel at home. “You’ll see it in a few weeks,” he said, balling it up and shoving it in the box.
Two Weeks Later
Two weeks later, I was still without either box in Porto. The boxes had arrived in Lisbon one week after me, but they were held up in customs for inspection.
The contents of what made it to Portugal were slim, but manageable: yoga pants, racer-back tank tops, tennis shoes, a rain coat, one scarf, and an assortment of summery dresses and bathing suits because I’ve been living in one of the hottest cities in the world for the past fifteen months.
The mail service that would deliver my boxes once customs released them emailed to tell me that the process would take time. I asked how much. They replied: We inform that, due to the high number of parcels, the customs clearance process is still running, and we ask you to wait.
So I waited. I got an email saying I needed to fill out declaration forms declaring what was in each box and the value. I did.
Then I waited again.
Three Weeks Later
Near the end of my third week I got an email: you need to re-submit your declaration forms.
Again? Okay. So I submitted the forms again: sender/receiver, personal goods, worth 100€.
You need to re-submit your declaration forms.
…sender/receiver, personal goods, 100€.
You need to re-submit your declaration forms.
I added more detail to the form: clothes, blankets, knickknacks, books, a plush chameleon.
You need to re-submit your declaration forms.
FOR THE LOVE OF–I called CTT Expresso. I spoke with a very curt man. “I’ve sent the forms,” I said. “What am I doing wrong?”
“You need to list the sender and receiver,” he said.
“I did. They’re both me.” I explained the chaos of shipping everything from within the Suvarnabhumi Airport.
“You need to list your Portuguese tax number.”
“I did that, too.”
“You need to list what items are in the box and their values.”
“And I did that. Was I too vague? Do I need to be specific?”
“You need to tell us what is in the box.”
At this point I was frustrated with Portugal in general. Three weeks in and I was living in a nice, but dark and cramped hotel room. I had been wearing the same three outfits to over and over. I was freezing. My visa process was becoming more and more complicated, and my workplace had turned into a dramatic debacle that reminded me of my students, but this time I couldn’t solve things by sending someone out of the room or taking away an iPad. I missed my friends in Bangkok. I missed my routine and the stability. Hell, I even missed my students.
I tried to keep my annoyance from seeping through the phone. “Do you want me to actually list: one pair of black pants, one red dress, one multi-colored dress, and things like that? Or is writing clothing, books, and knickknacks good enough?”
“You need to be specific.”
“But that’s the problem. I don’t know what’s in each box. I have a general idea, but not every single item.” I reiterated the chaos of shipping the boxes.
“You need to tell us what is in the boxes.”
“And if I can’t?”
He didn’t respond. Instead I heard (or imagined) the clicking of a computer mouse. “It says here you valued the boxes at 100€.”
“It’s all used. I have no idea what it’s worth.”
“You need to reevaluate the price.”
I felt like I was back in Asia. “Are you saying the price is too low?”
“You need to reevaluate the price.”
“And the tax I have to pay will be based on that amount, right?”
“So what you’re saying is I need to pay more money?”
“You need to reevaluate–”
“Yeah, I got it. How much do you want me to put?”
“You need to–”
I thanked the man and hung-up. I was dying to take my frustration out on someone, and this guy was curt enough to warrant it, but I also knew that a) he was standing in between me and wardrobe changes and b) I don’t want to live up to the “rude American” stereotype.
Four Weeks Later
I didn’t itemize the declaration forms, but I upped the price on everything. A few days went by and my HR manager got involved. She called CTT Expresso and spoke to a Brazilian woman. My HR manager talked with the woman about what it’s like to try to move to Portugal and how alienating it can be to leave your original country and start all over in a place with new customs, culture, and language. She was right. At this point, I longed to hear the tonal sounds of Thai over Portuguese. I didn’t want croissants or pastel de nata. I wanted pad kra pao and khao soi.
The Brazilian lady filed a complaint. Two days later one of my coworkers gasped and poked her head through the staff canteen. “Georgia,” she said, “your box is here!”
I won’t lie: I practically ran. I know we’re all supposed to be zen and not care about material possessions, but after having lost nearly all the contents of my apartment due to Hurricane Irma a little over a year ago–well screw it I want my freaking clothing back. I paid a 100€ in tax and then finally I had at least 60% of my things.
Having one box arrive, I felt confident I’d see the other one soon. In the mean time, I zipped down to Lisbon to apply for a police background check through the Thai Embassy, and my company hired an immigration lawyer for me because it was becoming increasingly obvious that the visa process was too complicated for me (living in Thailand for over a year has given me an extra set of fiery hoops to jump through).
Five Weeks Later
A week after my first box arrived I got an email from CTT Expresso asking for yet another declaration form. I sent it (again! 6 times now–6!) and received a reply that the box had finally left customs and was on its way to Porto.
Six Weeks Later
The box didn’t show. My HR manager called again. This time she spoke to a man, who I suspect was the original curt guy I’d dealt with. She told him about the email saying the box was on the way. The man told her that that wasn’t possible; the box was still at customs. I hadn’t received any such email. My HR manager insisted that I had and the man basically called her crazy. I don’t know the specifics of the rest of the conversation because it was all in Portuguese, but my HR manager suddenly stood up very straight and got very loud. Very, very loud. One of my coworkers messaged me: “She be ANGRY.”
When she hung-up the phone she turned to me. “I don’t know where the box is,” she said. “I don’t think they know either.”
By now I had moved into an apartment. I’d unpacked everything and finally had an idea of what I was missing: all of my favorite items of clothing. I could still envision my friend at the airport going into my carry-on duffel bag and grabbing top after top. You’ll see it in a few weeks.
A few days after this angry phone call, I traveled back down to Lisbon, this time to start my FBI background check with the US Embassy (don’t even get me started on why I couldn’t visit both embassies on the same day). Neither my HR manager, nor I, nor, it seemed, customs or CTT Expresso knew where my box was. I had resigned myself to just not see any of the items again.
As the train approached Lisbon it occurred to me that the box was somewhere in the capital. I looked up the location of the customs office, which was just a mile and a half from the train stop I was approaching. Without much of a thought, I grabbed my backpack and jumped off the train.
The customs location was more warehouse-like than I had expected. I took a number and then explained to a woman behind the counter that I was there to claim a package. She didn’t speak any English and I can’t speak Portuguese, so we fumbled the exchange until I pulled up the declaration form on my phone. The woman told me to wait. A few minutes later she came back with another declaration form and asked me to fill it out.
“But it’s right here,” I said, pointing at my phone. “You…you see it, right?”
Still, she held a pen out to me.
I waited for another fifteen minutes before my number was called again. When I saw the second box I actually squealed. I wanted to say to the entire room: “Do you know what I had to do to get this? Do you know the only reason I’m here is because I took a 6 a.m. train from Porto and I have two hours to kill? Do you know that apparently NO ONE knew where this box was and yet it was magically found in under twenty minutes? DO YOU KNOW HOW SCREWED UP THIS IS?!”
Instead, I took my 20 lbs box and waddled out of the building. I carried it a few blocks to a Decathlon (like an REI, but cheaper) I’d passed in between the train station and customs. I bought a duffel bag and unpacked everything in the middle of a coffee shop. Since I was the only customer, the two baristas watched me bemused as a cheered every time I pulled something out: omg I missed this! And I missed this! AND I MISSED THIS.
I then had about forty minutes to store the bag somewhere, because you can’t take anything that large to the US Embassy, and make it to the embassy for my appointment. And just to make sure I wasn’t feeling too good about myself, it started to pour right as I walked outside.
And finally that was that. I had all of my stuff. It took a lot of perseverance, and never before have I walked into a government office with the sole purpose of demanding something, but it worked! I can change outfits once again, decorate, and start to make my way-too-expensive apartment feel like home.
And let’s recap: my initial choices were to pay 986€ to carry everything onto Turkish Airlines. I chose to ship, which cost about 550€. I then had to go through emotional hell to get one box back, four weeks and another 100€ later. I then went through mental hell (but only 6€ this time? The pricing makes no sense) and had to travel across the country (granted it’s a small country) to get the second box.
All of this for stuff I actually owned! Some of it for nearly ten years! Also, were any of the boxes even opened? Were they inspected by customs? No. So why the six week delay?
As an added note: when customs receives something of yours, you have sixty days to get it from them or they send it back to where it came from. I asked if the sixty days was included in the time it took them to “inspect” the box and continually email me that they were “processing” it. No one even answered that question so I think the answer is: sixty days is sixty days no matter what.
When it comes to shipping things to Portugal: Don’t. Or, if you must, resign yourself to the fact that you may not see it ever again unless you get downright pushy.
Last week I moved from Bangkok, Thailand to Porto, Portugal. This marks the 19th move of my life, a number which includes moving state-to-state, country-to-country, and just from one neighbourhood to the next (I only did that once; every other time I’ve at least moved out of state). Each move is relatively the same: right before I leave a place I suddenly look at it through rose colored glasses and think, “Oh my god I can’t leave here! I love it here! Will any other place be as good?” I spend the transit time freaking out; I feel sad and anxious my first week in my new home; and eventually I even out within ten days.
Leaving Bangkok was different though. Leading up to my move: I felt nothing. Not sad, not anxious, no rose colored glasses. I felt absolutely nothing.
For the past fifteen months Bangkok acted like a bandage for me. I moved there after the worst, most devastating year and a half of my life. I booked my one-way ticket to Asia shortly after a rock bottom night because I worried that if I didn’t make a drastic change I wouldn’t see 2018. A friend recently said to me that Bangkok isn’t where people go to live; it’s where they go to escape. For me, this was true, and throughout most of my time in Bangkok I felt like I was still in a fog–no longer a suffocating fog of grief, but some sort of “this isn’t real life” fog (or maybe it was just the air pollution).
In the weeks leading up to my Bangkok departure, I figured this is why I felt almost numb to the move: I knew the Bangkok bandaid would come off at some point. You can’t wear a bandaid forever.
Ripping the bandaid, however, was a bit harder than I expected.
In the 24 hours before I left Bangkok I was fortunate enough to see most of my friends. There were dinners, coffees, drinks, and lots of I hope we meet again soon. Personally, I am a fan of the “Irish goodbye”–one moment you’re there and the next you’ve slipped out the door without a word to anyone. I’ve learned that this isn’t the kindest way to leave friends, so now I make a point to see people before I leave. Unfortunately, seeing everyone just reinforces the community you’ve made and what you’re leaving.
The day I left I saw a few more friends, gave back the keys to my apartment, and then waited for my last friend to go to the airport with me. The moment he showed up I started crying. In the weeks, days, and hours leading up to my departure I hadn’t felt that sad at all. Now suddenly I couldn’t stop.
I’m not even sure what I was crying for. I liked Bangkok, but I’d never loved it. Every day felt like a battle to appreciate Bangkok. I had friends who adored Bangkok, but, to me, Bangkok never stood out from any other city I’d traveled to or lived in. Bangkok was just another metropolis: lots to do and see, with the added annoyance of being pushed all the time and the disgust of watching western men treat Asian women like they’re sex robots (or “pretty little pets” as one guy said to me).
Still, as I rolled and dragged all of my possessions to the elevator I couldn’t help but think of what I’d miss about Bangkok: my apartment, my routine, the food, chatting with coworkers in my classroom, grabbing cheap beers with friends. I’d miss the convenience and thrill of moto-taxis. I’d miss traveling around Thailand and traveling around Asia. I’d miss the wats. I’d miss the relaxed Thai beer gardens. My students had frustrated the hell out of me, but they’d also been slightly entertaining. Was I going to miss them, too? Oh god–am I going to miss Thailand?
To rub salt in the wound, Turkish Airlines waited until I was at the counter with all of my stuff to inform me that I couldn’t buy an extra bag. Online, their website said I could pay for an extra bag, but only at the check-in counter. At the actual check-in counter was a different story.
“You have to pay overages fees,” the flight desk guy said.
“How much?” I asked.
He typed some numbers into a calculator and showed it to me: 986 Euros.
I felt the same I had when Enterprise suddenly tripled the price of my Hawaiian car rental: are you fucking kidding me? and I don’t have another option, do I?
Luckily, the desk guy read my horrified expression and suggested shipping a bag through a third party located in the terminal. I ended up using ThaiPost. My friend and I threw open my bags and started chucking every non-fragile item into a large box (i.e. 80% of my wardrobe). By the end, I’d completely emptied one large suitcase and half emptied the other. Every valuable item I owned (i.e. art and electronics) was shoved into an almost unable-to-lift-because-it-was-so-heavy duffel bag. I paid for fast shipping and prayed that everything I’d been warned about ThaiPost’s reliability was wrong.
Back at the Turkish Airline desk, the original guy I’d tried to check-in with was busy so I was passed off to a lady; a lady who I will call Frau Bitch. First off, Frau Bitch informed me that my reservation had been flagged as being over the baggage weight limit, so she made me weigh my checked and carry on bags. “Still too heavy,” she said, snatching the boarding pass from me least I sprint through the airport and run through security and Customs before anyone stops me? Seriously? Get a life, Fraulein.
My friend and I threw my bags open once again and shoved whatever I could of my carry on into the checked bag. When we’d finally appeased Turkish Airlines’s insanely stringent standards (btw, Turkish Airlines, I hate you) we dragged my emptied suitcase and sloppily thrown together duffel away from the check-in counter. I repacked my duffel to make it easier to carry, and while I did I saw Frau Bitch watching me as if she thought I was going to pull a fast one and shove more items into my bag. FROM WHERE? WE PUT IT ALL IN THE CHECKED BAG IN FRONT OF YOU YOU HEARTLESS PIECE OF TOAST. WHY DO YOU INSIST ON MAKING AN ALREADY PAINFUL PROCESS EVEN MORE PAINFUL?
I said goodbye to my friend, stepped on the escalator leading up to security, and bawled. The check-in process had been so stressful and I’d been so unprepared that all the anxieties I’d been numb to suddenly flew to the surface: what was my new job in Portugal going to be like? Could I afford to start a new life in Europe? Half of my funds had just gone to ThaiPost. Would I ever see my clothing again? Was I leaving Asia too soon? Had I even given Asia a chance? Was I making a rash decision? Why can’t I just stay in one place for once?
I left panicked WhatsApp voice messages to friends as I rushed through security. The unpacking, packing, and shipping had eaten up so much time that my flight was due to take off in one hour. At passport control I was taken into the terminal to the Thai police area because I had overstayed my Thai visa by two days. While two women tutted over my passport and made faces like I’d committed a horrendous crime, I watched the time ticket down to my flight’s departure and briefly considered what if I stay?
Staying wasn’t a real option though. I was moving to Portugal for a full-time writing job with an expat organization: aka my career goal and dream job for the past ten years. I love Europe. I’ve lived in Europe before and I’d always talked about moving back. Landing not just a job in Europe, but a job writing for the expat community?? Maybe part of my panic was that the whole thing still felt too good to be true. There had to be a catch, right? Maybe the hassle just to leave Thailand was a sign that I shouldn’t go.
After I paid a 1,000 Baht fine to the police I rushed through the airport. I called my mother and told her everything that had happened. The moment she heard my voice start to crack with my typical pre-move jitters she said, “I thought this was all going a bit too easy.”
At the gate the original nice flight check-in man scanned and ripped my boarding pass. Something in Thai flashed on the screen. He checked the ticket again and then called out to a coworker. My jaw almost dropped when Frau Bitch appeared and motioned to CHECK MY BAGS AGAIN. I threw my hands in the air as if she was a cop with a gun pointed at me. “Are you kidding me right now?” I snapped. “I’m not sneaking anything onto the plane! What is your deal?” Normally I would never snap at someone like this, but at this point I felt like this woman had absolutely no life and for some reason had made it her mission to make my transit hell.
Ten minutes later I was on the plane, buckled in my seat. Nineteen hours later I landed in Porto.
I’ve now been in Portugal for one week and a day. All in all I like it and I think my fondness will only grow, but there have still been a few moments where I’ve had sudden why did I leave Bangkok panic. For starters, finding an apartment is akin to The Hunger Games. In Bangkok you can look at ten apartments and move into one the next day (hell–maybe even the next hour with some places). I never needed a Thai person to vouch for me, but twice now I’ve had to have a Portuguese national sign a document saying they know me. As is to be expected, even though Portugal is fairly cheap compared to other western European countries, things like rent are hiked up and, as a foreigner, I’ve been asked for six months rent in advance. Thailand, and most of Asia, is also just very convenient. There are moto taxis every few feet, there are free public restrooms in all of the malls, and let us never forget the beloved 7/11s. Portugal is like being back in the US–stores close at a reasonable hour, there’s not a plethora of super cheap food stalls around every corner, and you can definitely forget about paying a stranger to let you jump on the back of their motorcycle (but maybe I should try?).
Still, I think I’ll like Porto. I’ve already met a handful of very cool people, and my Bangkok friends have been tremendous at answering all of my calls and texts.
We had our differences, Thailand, but I’ll miss you.
Just a smattering of all the people who helped make Thailand memorable. (My apologies to those who I don’t have photos with! Come to Portugal and we’ll take a selfie.)
Thanks, Bangkok. Next.
Many people told me to watch The Beach before moving to Thailand. The scenery was to die for, they said, and the story was a classic expat-moves-to-Thailand tale. Maybe I would relate? I saved the film in my Netflix cue, but never got around to watching it before my move. During my year and a half living in Thailand I continued to skip it because I had yet to travel to Phi Phi (the idyllic filming location) and thought the story/scenery would make me envious. When I finally did watch the movie I was surprised. I was not filled with the idealistic wanderlust I had been expecting. Instead I couldn’t stop sighing and rolling my eyes. I hated the story, I don’t understand the moral, and I would have been happier had nearly every character died (except maybe the French guy, but, let’s be honest, everyone in that movie was a gigantic tool).
The Beach tells of a group of expats, all white and western except for a single token minority, who have laid claim to a small inlet on one of Thailand’s famous islands. They’ve chosen the spot because, to them, it is the absolute definition of “paradise.” Just like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love inspired thousands to trek to Bali, Indonesia, so did The Beach (book written by Alex Garland) inspire hoards of western backpackers to traipse down to Thailand’s southern islands.
The spot made famous by the movie is Thailand’s Maya Bay, a small crescent shaped alcove on Koh Phi Phi Leh in the Phi Phi archipelago. Even if you’ve never heard of Koh Phi Phi or The Beach you have seen Maya Bay. A generic Google Image search of ‘Thailand’ brings up the bay as one of the first five photos. (It’s also worth noting that thousands of tourists have traveled to Maya Bay because of the movie, and they’ve subsequently trashed it so much that the Thai government barred any further tourism to the site in the hopes that the native marine life will have a chance to thrive once more. So good job The Beach.)
Leo DiCaprio learns of “the beach” after a crazed Scottish man gives him a hand drawn map. This man later dies and it’s left to the viewer to decide whether it was by murder or suicide. When Leo and his two french companions finally make it to the beach they are immediately treated as intruders. The self-professed leader of the expat colony (because, let’s call it like it is, these beachy expats are a not so subtle reference to colonization), Tilda Swinton, is immediately suspicious of Leo and his friends and demands to know how they found the beach and if they’ve told anyone else.
Here is where my annoyance with this story begins. Tilda Swinton’s character tells Leo that their colony has made a deal with some local farmers and that as long as they don’t allow any other expats onto the island then the colony is allowed to stay. However, Tilda still seems to think that they (the expats) “own” the land. That it is inherently theirs to take and give.
There’s a certain type of backpacker who comes to Asia who feels that Asia is their “calling.” They’re into yoga, wear Om necklaces, talk about how “this way is the right way of life,” and refuse to eat anything processed. When they come to Asia they feel like they really get Asia because Asia is chill and meditative and not at all consumer obsessed or fast-paced like the West. These are the type of backpackers who come to Thailand and immediately head south to Phi Phi, Koh Pha Ngan, and countless other islands so that they can live off the bare essentials, smoke up, and live some naturalist lifestyle that they would never admit was only made possible because they have some form of financial security back home.
First off, these people irk me because they believe their view of Asia and Asian life is so open and worldly, but it’s not. When they’re in Bangkok, do they even bother to look at the myriad types of malls and shops every few blocks? What about the night markets? How about the fact that walking in Thailand is like playing Frogger 2.0 because not only do you need to watch for vehicles, but you also need to watch for the adult man who just stopped mid-step heading down a BTS staircase because he’s too engrossed in the game on his phone. How about my students who were given the question: “would you rather live forever without human touch or without ever touching an electronic again?” and THEY ALL CHOSE TO LIVE WITHOUT HUMAN TOUCH. ALL. OF. THEM. Asia isn’t a consumer obsessed society? Ummmm…no. Grow up, look around, and stop treating Asia like it’s made of 4.5 billion sitting-on-top-of-a-mountain monks.
Asia is chill? All of Asia? All of Thailand? Again: it’s not billions of swamis out here.
On the topic of forcing preconceived notions upon an entire populace, the other reason I cannot stand the idyllic The Beach colonizers is because their colony is only considered a tropical paradise until it behaves like a tropical paradise. Naturally when you have a film set near/on an ocean, there’s gotta be some sort of ocean-related catastrophe. In The Beach, three expats get attacked by sharks. One dies immediately. Another is gravely wounded. What happened to the third? I don’t remember, nor do I care. When the wounded one begs to have a doctor come to the island Tilda Swinton forbids it. “No one can know about us,” she says. So no doctor can come.
I’m sorry, but you guys established a colony on a beach, where your primary source of food is coming from the ocean. Sharks aside, what about the lethal box jellyfish known to Thailand? What about slipping down a waterfall a breaking a leg? Sun poisoning? Dehydration? The flu? Maybe I’m too much of a cynic and maybe I was placing too much reality into this movie, but a tropical paradise still comes with bugs, humidity, heat, sharks, and just normal bodily processes that require medical attention here and there. So you planned to have a paradise where no one ages and it’s impossible to get hurt? And you don’t even have room for a Plan B?
When the injured shark fisherman’s moans become too much to bear the colonizers move him to a tent in the woods. Out of sight, out of mind. Now: their version of paradise, in which no one can die or be seriously hurt, is restored. (This is where the French guy proves to be a slightly redeeming character. Leo’s character? Leo’s character can go jump straight into the jaws of one of those sharks.)
The movie eventually ends with more people being killed, Leo briefly going savage, and the colonizers leaving after they realize just how insane and delusional their leader (and their lives?) has become. The last shot is of a photo of all the colonizers on the beach and the general heartfelt message of “we will never forget how lucky we were to find this paradise.”
Is this what the British thought when they left India? What a swell time that was! I will forever be grateful that I experienced it! What a paradise! What an exciting time to live life to the fullest! If I were Leo’s character I would be ashamed. Deeply, deeply ashamed because not only did his colonizing and naivete lead to at least six deaths (the one shark fisherman wasn’t totally Leo’s fault, but he was still an accomplice), but he was entitled enough to think that he could lay claim to land in a country where he didn’t even help contribute to that country. Again, I get that this movie is fiction and I need to jump off my reality high horse, but how many of us know of people who glorify this movie? Or doing things similar to this movie because to live off the grid is more “authentic.”
I want to know about the Thais in the movie. What about the farmers? Were they really cool with a bunch of expats just staking claim to their land without forking over any sort of benefits? Or, in reality, did the farmers probably assume the expat colony wouldn’t actually last that long?
I heavily support immigration and welcoming people from all over (screw Trump’s wall), but when you’re a visitor to another country you need to appreciate and respect that you are–up to a certain point–a guest in that country. You can’t just go around and plant your bloody flag on a beach alcove and be like “this is mine now. I love it, so it’s mine.” It also belongs to that country and to the people of that country.
Would I have such a problem with The Beach if the colonizers weren’t white? Honestly, I don’t know. Would I have found the idea of a beach colony more romantic had I never been to Thailand and been surrounded by idealistic-to-the-point-of-being-naive backpackers? I don’t know that either. Maybe my annoyance is a combination of living as an expat in Thailand, my age (I think the colonizers in the movie are supposed to be about 18-25), and having gone to a very woke college where we practically flip tables the moment a group of white people do something even remotely privileged.
Or maybe my assumption that The Beach was a happy romance about living in Thailand was wrong. Maybe The Beach is just a story about shitty people doing shitty things.
For the past few years I’ve listened to friends choose ‘anchor words,’ which they use to ground themselves for the New Year. They choose words like “courage” to remind them each month to be brave, or “persistent” to encourage them to strive for what they want. Since being surrounded by wordsmiths in graduate school I’ve thought about choosing my own anchor word, but never did because I’m crap at keeping New Years resolutions.
This year, however, I fiddled around on Dictionary.com and see if anything spoke to me. I’m about to embark upon another new job, new country, and new community–why not try a new tradition?
I thought about the areas I lacked in in 2018, and what could I improve. I stopped at my second search: tenacity.
I found tenacity after searching for synonyms of drive. Drive–“an innate, biologically determined urge to attain a goal or satisfy a need”–is something I’ve always had. I’m a driven, goal oriented person. The past year in Bangkok, however, my drive has slipped. Some people said it’s because I’m a first year teacher. While teaching 102 just-reaching-puberty boys does wear you out, my drive has been puttering like a sedan with two wheels and a missing transmission ever since my father passed away.
In my last year of graduate school, just six months after my father unexpectedly dropped dead of a heart attack, my drive was so minuscule that the school psychiatrist put me on anti-depressants. The Wellbutrin did it’s job kicking my energy up enough to teach, complete my thesis, and work towards other goals and opportunities, but I still had the gnawing feeling that I used to put in more effort. I used to write more and submit more. I used to carve out time for projects and friends. I knew what it felt like to care about things, and I didn’t anymore. After graduate school I kept making and reaching goals, but the caring still wasn’t there. Fake it til you make it, I thought, but it’s hard to fake a drive that used to be your life-force.
Thus I figured drive was the word I should hitch my metaphorical boat to for 2019. Being the writer that I am, I wanted my anchor word to be jazzier, so I thought of determination and tenacity. I Googled tenacity first. I expected to browse the list of synonyms for something with more pizzazz, but the Dictionary.com definition of tenacity stopped me. To be more specific: the third definition stopped me.
1. the quality or fact of being able to grip something firmly; grip.
2. the quality or fact of being very determined; determination.
3. the quality or fact of continuing to exist; persistence.
Following my father’s death, I struggled to want to exist. The grief and trauma was so foreign and consuming it was hard to see a way out of it. Then my boyfriend of almost seven years dumped me equally as unexpectedly, and I just simply didn’t want to exist. I was angry. I was distraught. My drive for life had already been teetering on a cliff, and my ex kicked it right off the ledge and attached a lit stick of dynamite to finish the job. I made destructive decisions, completely aware that I was on a solid path to not see the next year. I told my grief counselor, “I’m not going to survive this.”
“If you keep saying that,” she said. “You won’t.”
I shrugged. “Good.”
After a particularly rock bottom night in which I should have killed both myself and my dad’s dog, but miraculously didn’t, I booked a one-way ticket to Asia. I didn’t think it would make me feel better. I just needed something different. I hoped the stark change of scenery would reset me somehow.
Bangkok has reset me, but not in the ways I thought it would. When I meet people who’ve lived in Thailand for multiple years they say things like: I found my peace or I finally learned how to relax and enjoy life. That’s great…for those people. For me? I became more selfish. I broke social engagements. I led some dates on because I didn’t feel like having the confrontation that comes after ‘it’s not working out.’ My focus slipped. I worked, I made friends, I wrote, and I traveled, but I felt detached; as if I was still faking the ambition. I worried that I was turning into a person without drive, goals, or an ounce of caring.
Then, somewhere around the end of December a flip switched in my mind: I wasn’t a different person. I hadn’t lost my drive. I was just sad. And for a year, I let myself be sad.
Death and grief sucks. There’s no other way to put it. It fucking sucks and none of us are taught how to process it, even though it’s something everyone on Earth experiences. We’re mostly led to believe that grief is something you just “get over.” To not get over it seems weird and tragic. Because of this, people who are grieving feel self conscious if they’re “sad for too long.” You stop talking about your grief; you stop talking about the person you’ve lost. To the outside world, your decreased conversation implies you’re moving on and enjoying life again, which maybe you are, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still be a bit sad. Death sucks–be sad.
Leading up to the turn of the New Year I worried that there was a lot I did wrong in 2018, but now I see that there is a lot that I did right. Sure, my normal ambition took a backseat, but I took that energy and put it towards acknowledging that I’m sad. And I let myself be sad. That doesn’t sound like something that should warrant any energy, but for me it did. It meant spending an entire year replacing my normal bending-over-backwards-to-please-people attitude and replacing it with if-I-want-to-stay-home-and-be-sad-and-watch-Netflix,-then-I’m-going-to-stay-home-and-be-sad-and-watch-Netflix. Some people might find that depressing. Others may find it liberating. I found it to be necessary.
If 2018 was all about allowing myself to live the life I have found myself in, then 2019 will be about morphing it back into the life I want. Yet another reason for the word: tenacity. After you’re socked with grief, you not only have to be tenacious about picking up your broken pieces, but you have to be tenacious in putting the pieces back how you want–or don’t. Be tenacious to do whatever you want. After a year of feeling detached and letting myself drift, I’m ready to be tenacious: tenacious about life, about art, about travel, about friends, about relationships, about whatever the hell I want. I’m going to be determined and firm and I’m going to exist. I’m going to be so tenacious that I’m not going to feel self conscious or regretful about ending this blog on such a cheesy damn note :).*
In case anyone is interested:
synonyms of tenacity: persistence, determination, perseverance, doggedness, strength of purpose, tirelessness, indefatigability (this cannot be a real word…), resolution, resoluteness, resolve, firmness, patience, purposefulness, staunchness, steadfastness, staying power, endurance, stamina, stubbornness, intransigence, obstinacy, obduracy, pertinacity
*JK I regret that ending.