Isn't It Pretty To Think So?

Dispatches on life, love and the human condition by a wanderer and hopeful romantic


In love with love, in love with life…a Thanksgiving weekend tale

It’s been a busy few days here in the southwest Algarve. When last I posted, I was about to host a Thanksgiving dinner for some people here at my friend K’s house. Well I did host that dinner, and it was a smashing success, thanks in part to my impulsive idea to invite a surfer from Cornwall, M, who I met in the surf line-up at the Sagres beach Mareta a week ago.

He had offered me some words of encouragement after I had a particularly jarring wipeout in the water that day, and then I ran into him at Arrifana a couple of days in a row. The second day, when I was in good spirits, I told him to come to dinner and bring some of his mates to help a homesick American celebrate Thanksgiving. He did — five of them to be exact, including one half-English, half-Italian beauty that took my breath away when he walked in the door (more on that later).

With them, K, her two friends and me, there were a total of 10 of us at dinner, which was great fun and lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

Before I could host dinner, however, I ran into a bit of a car snafu. On Wednesday night, I went to pick up K to shop for the meal on our way to our Portuguese class in Portimao. She lives a few kilometers off the main road along a rather bumpy, mostly unpaved road in the country south of Aljezur.

It was raining quite hard that night and on our way back to the road, one of her neighbors came down the road in the other direction. It’s too narrow for two cars to cross at the same time, so I had to pull over to the side to let the neighbor — an elderly Portuguese man named Manuel — to pass.

Unfortunately, I ran the car aground on the end of a drop-off I didn’t see (it was dark by then) and couldn’t get it back on the road again because there wasn’t enough traction in the tires and the wet gravel and because of the position the car was in — tipped precariously as if it might topple over down the slight embankment.

K and several of her Portuguese neighbors, bless them — all over 60, mind you — stood out in the road in the pouring rain for the better part of an hour trying to figure out if there was a way to hook a rope to the car so someone’s truck or tractor (it’s an agricultural area) could pull the car up and back onto the road. The problem is, we couldn’t seem to locate the hook that should be under the front of the car to hook it up for a tow.

The car happens to be a Spanish car with the name of “Ibiza,” so there was a lot of joking about how the car was a piece of “merda” because it came from Spain. If you ever want to endear yourself to the Portuguese — especially when standing out in the pouring rain trying to tow your car out of a ditch near their house — blame Spain for whatever it is that ails you.

When it seemed that we couldn’t figure out the problem, we left the car until morning and called a proper tow truck driver — or rather, my rental-car company called a tow truck driver — and he easily steered the car out attached to his truck in about five minutes.

Aside from the time we spent meeting the tow truck driver and getting the car out of the ditch, K and I spent all of Thursday cooking up a feast for our guests. Besides turkey and stuffing, there were two kinds of potatoes (mashed and sweet), green beans, carmelized carrots, black bean soup, bread, cheese, homemade pumpkin pie and many bottles of vinho.

Besides the surfers, our guests included C and M, a couple of K’s friends who live in Silves. C is German while his wife M is Portuguese and German and grew up in both Brazil and Germany, and they are both lovely people.

The surfer crew arrived a bit later than C and M and made quite an entrance when they did. They are all caravaning around Europe looking for the best surf in their uniquely outfitted camper vans. (This is a trend around here and at surf spots around the world.) They all drove separately to K’s house figuring they would camp out there for the night, so the line of vans (and one mini-bus) coming down the nearly always deserted road was quite a funny sight when they arrived.

Five of the guys are British and one is Australian but has been living in the U.K. for many years. He was also the oldest — probably around 40 or so — while the others were younger. M, a tall, strong-looking carpenter with long strawberry-blonde hair, was 31, and the rest were all in their 20s if they were a day.

I rather liked M when I met him and I think he rather liked me, and I believe he thought dinner was a date of sorts. On Tuesday, the day I invited him to dinner, we had lunch together — or, rather, I ate lunch while he sat with me and drank a couple of coffees, since he’d just eaten in his van — and we had a lively chat about a range of topics, including books, bordellos and following your bliss.

He’s very funny and easy to get along with, and although he wasn’t usually the physical type I go for (the big and strong carpenter type, yes; the long reddish hair, no), I found myself thinking I might get something going with him. We even had tried to meet up later that night but the whole incident with my car and the rain sort of torpedoed our plans to meet up and drink some beers together.

When M showed up he had shaved his beard for the occasion and automatically came over to me, told me I looked nice (I wore a skirt and put on makeup for the occasion) and kissed me on both cheeks. He was very sweet and I liked the attention, but once I set eyes on A, who I pretty much half fell in love with the second he walked in K’s door, I knew I wouldn’t be getting together with M.

This is despite the fact that I also knew I had no chance with A, who was probably in his early 20s and so beautiful that in my real life back in New York a boy that gorgeous wouldn’t even talk to me, let alone come to my Thanksgiving dinner.

But it didn’t matter. Throughout the course of the night I found myself absolutely enchanted by this stunning half-Italian young man from Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands in the English Channel off the coast of France.

He’s tall — over 6 feet — with disheveled blonde hair and blue eyes. He is one of those quiet, unassuming men with deliberate, cat-like grace in his movements and watchful eyes. He misses nothing and when he speaks it’s usually thoughtful and observant, even though he doesn’t say as much as the others. He is well-bred and polite, and quick to smile but slow to laugh. As you can tell, I was completely smitten with him.

Though most of the evening I was content to banter with the more boisterous boys — who were all really good company and great fun — I did manage to talk to him alone a few times. I learned he did a photography degree at university in England (my key to knowing how young he is — you don’t talk about “uni” unless you have only just graduated!) but now works at the airport just to fund his surfing holidays.

He’d been on the road about two months and was in his last week here in Portugal; he’s got a ferry to catch in the north of France on Dec. 4 and planned to rush the trip back because it was too cold to surf up north this time of year.

I spoke with a friend recently who characterized some people (including me) as “lovers” who in general are in love with life and can become very passionate in the moment about ideas, people and the like without it meaning anything more than it does right then and there.

I’m going to attribute the feeling I had on Thanksgiving night and in the last couple of days about this young man who came into my life out of nowhere — and who likely has no idea that he had such an effect on a nearly middle-aged woman with the heart of someone much younger and the soul of someone much older — to the lover in me. (I like to think of it this way so I don’t think of myself as some old pervert!)

I stayed up until nearly 4 a.m. with A, my friend K and three of the other surfer boys — two Ps and C, all from Devon and one of whom went to university with A and also did a photography degree. We drank wine, medronha, coffee and tea, and I can’t now remember everything that was said but I do remember laughing a lot, marveling once again at my good fortune and thinking how it was one of the best Thanksgivings in memory.

I felt a little odd about the situation with M at one point, who left the table earlier than the rest of us and gave me a bit of a look as he was going out to his van. I didn’t follow him there, even though C made mention several times of me going out to knock on M’s door — I think the boys all thought he and I had something going, which of course made perfect sense and, had he not brought A to dinner, would probably have been the case.

When time came to go to sleep I stayed in the house and slept in a spare bed in K’s house, even though a part of me desperately wanted to follow A out to his van and stay there until the next morning. It wasn’t even about sex, really — though of course who wouldn’t want to sleep with such a gorgeous young man?

But for me actually getting too close to him might have ruined the enchantment I felt, and I knew it was highly unlikely something like that was possible anyway, so out of my league (not to mention age range) he was.

It was more like now that I knew that a person who stirred such a feeling inside of me — however fleeting — actually existed, I wanted to spend as much time near him as possible, even if it just meant I got to look at him for awhile. I suppose I now know what it means to have a mid-life crisis — to have forgotten what the first blush of infatuation feels like and to be reminded of it in such a way that you’d be willing to drop your entire life for another chance just to feel that way for a little while longer again.

In my conversations with him about photography and constellations (it was a clear night, and we were outside for awhile), I also gleaned that he had the soul of an artist, and I wanted the chance to talk more with him one on one. I didn’t dare take a chance, however — drunk and foolish a woman I was by this point — and went to bed alone. The surfers all slept in their separate vans outside in K’s driveway and across the way in a grassy spot on her mostly unoccupied neighbor’s house.

The next morning, I went out around 10 to buy breakfast fixings while M one of the Ps — the first two of the surfers up — did the washing up. When I got back from the market in Aljezur A also was awake and washing dishes at the sink.

I was a little embarrassed about how strongly he affected me and the thoughts I’d had the night before about going out to his van, so I barely looked at him; I felt like such a lecherous dirty old woman for being so infatuated that his mere presence made my hands shake.

To occupy myself, I began cooking breakfast at K’s tiny little stove, which sits in a corner of the room in a rather small concrete enclosure that anyone taller than 5’5″ will hit one’s head on if one isn’t careful (I speak from experience). I started olive oil heating in a pan for scrambled eggs and began cooking bacon in another, while warming up the night before’s mashed potatoes on a back burner.

Suddenly, A appeared at my side to help, taking over the eggs while I dealt with the bacon and the fried tomatoes (the latter an English breakfast specialty that was new to me). He was so close I could barely breathe, and we stood there side by side in that small space fixing breakfast, speaking a bit but mostly cooking together as if we’d done it a thousand times before.

In fact, he took over his portion of the task so deftly and with such authority I asked him if he had worked as a cook in a restaurant. He said no, but his father had an Italian restaurant on Guernsey and we spoke a bit about that for awhile.

I wish I could accurately explain how lovely it was just to stand there and fry bacon with this person next to me, as if we hadn’t just met in a stranger’s dining room the night before, as if it wasn’t completely bizarre that an American woman in her late 30s would impulsively invite a bunch of young surfers and other strangers — none of them American — to Thanksgiving dinner in a country that was not her own nor one that celebrates the holiday, in a house that is not her own and in fact belongs to a woman she’d met only a week before.

I actually took a moment to stand there and breathe in deeply, inhaling the mix of frying and our own slightly sour, hungover smells, silently thanking the universe for giving me such a simple pleasure, knowing that the feeling I had then would be something I would return to again in my life, especially in a dark time, as a reason to be grateful for living.

And so we cooked breakfast, and then we all ate, and then the surfers returned to their vans and to their camping spot in the parking lot on a cliff above Arrifana. I followed them there a bit later to look at the surf, and watched as one after the other they all went down to surf — all but A, who stood there with me and talked to me about the beach’s various breaks.

He showed me a famous right break with rock hazards where he’d surfed the night before and had a few close calls — and showed me the best place to paddle out to the right beach break that I have so far been afraid to try.

I told him I would never paddle out there alone and he said that if I had my gear (which I didn’t) I could paddle out with him right then. I mentally cursed myself for not having my surfboard and wetsuit with me at all times, but then figured I would probably be too nervous in his presence to paddle out with him anyway, and would probably panic and make a fool of myself.

He also said that he was glad the vicious right break wasn’t working on that particular day, because if it was he would have to go out and surf it again, even though it would scare him to do so. I immediately understood that feeling, and told him how sometimes we’re lucky that nature makes decisions for us that we can’t make for ourselves.

We stood there silently for a moment looking out over the ocean, and again I had that warm feeling I’d had when we stood together cooking breakfast over that tiny stove.

I’m going to end this story here even though it’s not really the end, because the rest of what happened between A and me on Saturday doesn’t matter. (And no, it was nothing romantic or anything like that — just a chance meeting, a quick trip to the Aljezur farmers’ market, some text messages and a possible night out with the boys in Sagres that never quite materialized.)

What matters, at least to me, is this: for a few hours, based on a random meeting in a country that I have no business being in, I fell in unlikely infatuation with a beautiful boy from Guernsey, a place that I had scarcely heard of until a few weeks ago when I met a couple from its neighbor Jersey (the island, not the state) who were also vanning around Portugal looking for waves.

In this life where people sometimes forget or are afraid to love, I am happy for the few hours I remembered what it is like to feel that mix of awe and hope stirred within me again.

What doesn’t matter is that A likely has already forgotten about me (or perhaps is wondering why some shameless American cougar was salivating after him); what doesn’t matter is that we most likely would have never crossed paths or even spoken had it not been for surfing, or for Portugal.

Being alone here is not always easy, and it is especially hard when you don’t speak the language. (I’m learning, yes, but very slowly.)

Still, the unexpected and beautiful encounters that this adventure has provided me — each one that reminds me why I will continue to lead with an open heart over and over again despite the enormous potential for rejection or heartbreak — make it all worthwhile.

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Thanksgiving or bust

I’ve come up with the brilliant idea to cook Thanksgiving dinner at my friend K’s house Thursday night for a few people here. It seemed a shame not to mark the holiday even though it’s not celebrated in Europe, since most everyone in the U.S. spends it with their families and I am very far away from mine.

It occurred to me that I’ve never cooked a full Thanksgiving dinner before — not without help. Of course, I will have K’s help, and she’s a great cook, but it’s up to me to take the lead and come up with the menu and perhaps even bake a pie, and I’m just now, two days out, feeling a bit daunted by the task.

I haven’t even begun to shop yet — I figure I’ll do that tomorrow. And the dinner won’t be until about 6:00 pm Thursday night, so there will be plenty of time to cook and bake all day (I’m going to attempt a pumpkin pie, god help me).

I suppose it will all work out alright, as things usually do. K has a pretty good-sized kitchen (though not a huge stove — for people who love to cook, the Portuguese sure don’t splurge on their stoves here). As far as mine goes, it’s pretty small as well, and I’ve never once lighted it or cooked in it. Though I’ve cooked a lot here, I’ve isolated much of that to the stovetop, as I’m slightly afraid to stick my head in the oven to light it (it’s a little too Sylvia Plath for me, I think).

Anyway, I have nothing but time here, since I’m still not working on anything (and it being the holiday week, I am not even going to try to reach anyone in the U.S. about work). If I spend tomorrow preparing some of the things I can make early for the meal, it should be fine.

That all said, I guess I have a lot to be thankful for, even though today I woke up feeling a bit anxious and worried, again, about what I might do with the rest of my life.

The weekend was really great; Saturday night I went out with D to dinner in Vila de Bispo and then drinks in Sagres, and that was really fun. She’s a lovely woman and so friendly, and I met a few other friendly people who live down that way the next day on a beach called Mareta in Sagres. D invited me to surf with her and her friends, and the surf was good on that particular beach.

It was really nice to be in the back (yes, I’ve finally graduated to surfing in the back and not on whitewater, hurrah) with some really friendly people, and it was such a beautiful day in the water. The waves were slow to break and powerful, though not so big in height.

Sagres is the southwesternmost point in continental Europe, and there is a point there where on one side you have the west Atlantic coast, and on the other you have the south coast. In the winter, the west coast tends to get the brunt of the swell, while the south coast’s waves are much smaller. It was true on Sunday, as we were on the southern beach and the waves on the west coast were forecast to be 15 feet or more that day.

It was pretty amazing, though — you could see the gigantic swell coming around the point in unbreaking waves that eventually turned into the ones we were surfing. It was quite something to be out there in the water and see, once again, the awesome power of the ocean.

Speaking of that, I had a couple of wipeouts that unnerved me and didn’t really get a good ride, but I learned a lot from my mistakes and had to paddle back out several times, which is helping to strengthen my arms. Paddling is bloody hard work, and now I see why surfers use the back (which means behind where the waves are breaking) to float and rest in between trying to catch waves.

After surfing I had coffee with D and her friend E, another lovely woman from Belgium who has lived here for five years. I felt really grateful to sit there at a table of a beach cafe and watch the surf while talking with these two women, who also made choices to settle here away from the place where they were born more or less because of the beauty and the draw of this part of the world. As I’ve gathered the stories of expatriates here, I realize I am certainly far from the only person who’s been lured by the siren call of the Algarve.

Last night I had my Portuguese conversation class, and I am actually starting to get more of a feel for the language. While I still don’t understand everything my teacher says, I am following more and more. My reading skills are also getting really good, and I am not as shy to speak when it’s my turn to do so. I feel pretty confident that I might be able to speak conversationally in this very difficult language before the end of my time here (at least the end of *this* time here — I still would like to come back and settle for a longer time, if that’s possible).

Today I took D’s yoga class and after she invited me and another of the students (a friend of hers and also a surfer — a British guy named Chris) over to her place for dinner on Friday night. She’s doing a personal coaching retreat this week with a woman from Switzerland this and part of it is to help the woman learn ayurvedic, vegetarian cooking. They both thought it was a waste to cook so much food and not have anyone to eat it, so there will be a bit of a dinner party Friday night.

I have class again tomorrow and then, of course, there is Thanksgiving on Thursday night. All in all, it should be a really good rest of the week.

I realize I am really lucky to be here and to be welcomed by so many of these lovely people here in the southwest Algarve. Though I’m still worried about what I will do for work in the coming months (and still not feeling super-motivated to crank out the freelance pitches), I’m hoping I will soon have a clearer idea of what I will do next with this crazy and somehow fortunate life of mine in a month’s time when I return to the U.S. for the Christmas holiday.

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A note on country life

Today I’m puttering around the house after a morning checking out the local farmers’ market in Aljezur and buying some groceries. Emanuel is in the process of cutting down the large eucalyptus tree outside my little house (it’s a beautiful tree but its roots are threatening to overtake and destroy the house’s foundation), and I collected some of the bark from it to add to my stash of wood for the fires I build every night to warm my house.

The farmers’ market was pretty cool; I picked up some organic vegetables and visited K, who was selling her piripiri sauce and some other vegetables and herbs. I also ran into L, the ex-husband of D (who I’m seeing later tonight) to whom I sort of owe my whole Portuguese adventure. It was his surf/yoga camp upon which I stumbled on Google last September when I was looking for ways to spend a holiday after attending the wedding of friends in East Sussex, England. I fell in love with this place during that first week at L’s camp, and the rest, as they say, is history (or the present, I guess, as I’m here now).

The farmers’ market is sort of the town social center, and I felt like a local seeing how even the small number of people I know socially intersect. L had heard of K’s piripiri sauce from a friend who is one of her customers, and after I introduced the two of them at her table, he bought some of it.

Irma also goes to that market every week, and knows all of the local growers. It was upon her suggestion that I started taking my Portuguese class in Portimao instead of another language school in Lagos I was considering, and it was, of course, in class that I met K in the first place.

As I’m getting more deeply ingrained in life here, I am learning how complex it is to lead what seems like a simple life in the country, and how much people living in cities and other more developed regions of the world take for granted.

Just ensuring you have a roof over your head, food on your table, heat to warm your house and water for a shower can take the same amount of time or more than a regular day job would in an urban or suburban area, where there is more access to the things people need for daily life.

For instance, I just collected eucalyptus branches so I can start fires that burn with wood Emanuel and Irma cut and split themselves from trees on their property. Every night this week since it’s gotten cold after the sun goes down, I have to carefully stack wood in my stove and start a fire because it’s the only means I have to stay warm in my house; this process can take a good 15 minutes if the wood is being stubborn and doesn’t want to light, and it’s about another 20 or 30 minutes before the temperature starts to warm up.

Yesterday, I held the torch while K cut lettuce, dill, basil and other herbs and vegetables to sell at the market; today she sold them for about enough money to cover the cost of seeds, but not much else. Before the house she and her boyfriend live in had hot water, they would have to heat it up on stove and pour it into a basin attached to shower head if they wanted a hot shower.

Since people tend to grow a lot of their own food here, and if they’re not selling it there is the matter of cooking it, freezing it or canning it before it goes bad so as not to waste a bit of it. This of course is also true for the many people in rural areas of the U.S. who grow much of their own food; I grew up in the suburbs and have lived in cities for the last 15 years of my life, so it’s a new and very charming concept to me to be a part of this.

Home-cooked meals here also are a much bigger production than they tend to be in cities or even the suburbs of the U.S. as well. There are a lot more of them, for one thing (I have gone out to dinner only once since I’ve been here), and every dinner and not just the occasional weekend gatherings are more like dinner parties where the preparation of the meal and the meal itself are also opportunities for social interaction and can last hours and involve copious amounts of wine (if you’re lucky!).

All in all, I’m feeling quite comfortable with this sort of lifestyle, and it’s giving this city slicker much more respect for how the so-called simple life is not really that simple at all. It actually requires much more ingenuity and wherewithal than many people imagine. Of course, living in an urban environments has a complexity all its own, and I’m not trying to say one is better than the other. I’m just quite proud to be learning skills and to have a chance to witness to a way of life about which I would have remained quite ignorant had I stayed in New York.

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Will pick medronha for food…

Today I spent most of the afternoon picking medronha berries, which are used to make Portuguese moonshine of the same name. This was at my friend K’s house, on land her boyfriend’s family owns where the trees that have the berries grow wild and are indigenous to Portugal (unlike the also plentiful eucalyptus trees, which the Aussies brought to the country).

It was quite hard work and I have a new respect for berry pickers everywhere. We carried bags over our shoulders and these long wooden tools that had a hook on the end for pulling the branches of the trees closer to us so we could pick as many berries as possible. We had to climb up a rather steep hill of rocky, uncleared land through brambles and heather plants to get to the medrohna trees. We spent three hours picking and it went by so fast I was shocked when we got back to the house and I saw the time.

After that we drank wine to reward ourselves (and just because it’s what you do here in the Portuguese country side) and K cooked me a delicious chicken curry dinner, which included a taste of some of the homemade medronha. People here are quite good about the barter system, so you can always get a meal if you help out on a farm or otherwise provide a service to folks (which sometimes, at least in the case of Irma and her generosity with meals, is just being a good and friendly houseguest).

It was a really great day, and the dinner was a nice reward especially considering I was meant to go to dinner with my Portuguese friend tonight but, as usual, he canceled — or rather, postponed. I got a random text about switching out my surfboard for another one (I’d requested a change after a great day in the water yesterday; I wanted to try a different board) and when I sent a text back asking about dinner, he suggested next week instead. (If you remember, he called me earlier in the week to ask me to dinner for tonight.)

It was somewhat annoying and though I’m used to his flakiness by now, it’s still always a bit of a disappointment when he bails on me. But in the end, it all worked out, as K is great company and it was really lovely drinking wine, talking and eating a great dinner in her warm kitchen. She even agreed to cook a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner with me if I want to on Thursday in honor of the holiday; I hadn’t given much thought to it but it might be nice to celebrate here even if it’s not a European holiday.

Other than picking medronha, I went for a swim this morning because the surf was too big. Yesterday, however, was a perfect beginners’ surfing day on Arrifana, and I spent two hours in the water with just a few other people catching wave after wave (not always standing up on them, mind you, as I’m beginning to drop in properly now, but I’m getting better).

Aldo, the helpful and friendly South African surf instructor who gave my friend Amy a lesson when she was here in April was in the water with a few of his students, and it was really great to watch him teach and surf; I learned a lot just being in the water with him (he’s one of those guys that makes surfing look ridiculously easy). He’s a really sweet guy and was bursting with pride to tell me that his wife had just given birth a few weeks ago to a son when I asked about his baby daughter, who’s now 18 months — she was not quite walking when I met her on the beach last time in April, and apparently now she is a very energetic toddler.

Now it’s off to bed with my slightly tipsy self; tomorrow is market day in Aljezur, and I told K I’d stop by to see her (she sells some of her peppers, lettuce and other herbs there). I’ll likely go with Irma, who goes there every week in lieu of buying the pesticide-laced produce at the supermarkets here.

I would have thought the Portuguese would be much more careful with the fruit and vegetables they grow — especially in this area, which is a natural park with laws for the natural habitat that don’t govern other parts of the country. Alas, Irma told me pesticide is used on most of the produce sold in the stores, and even some at the weekend markets; you have to specifically ask sellers not if they spray but when the last time they sprayed their plants was to find out who is selling organic produce.

Tomorrow night is dinner and drinks with another new friend, D, in Sagres, which I’m really looking forward to. I haven’t really been “out” out since I’ve been in Portugal, so it should be a good time to be out and about. Ate amanha…boa noite!

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You can have the most amazing day on 5 euros

I’m sitting here in my home being warmed by the fire I just built and marveling on how lucky my day was. I spent most of the afternoon and evening chatting, drinking wine, eating cheese and homemade organic bruschetta at my new friend K’s house, after doing yoga and having coffee with another woman D and making plans with her to go out on Saturday night. It is so nice to be making female friends here, and so wonderful to meet like-minded women who also made choices to travel and change their lives even when things seemed difficult.

I knew D would be super-cool from what I knew of her before we met (we’d spoken on the phone and through e-mail before and she just seemed like a lovely person). I took her yoga class this morning (the 5 euros of the title) and then she bought me coffee after, and we made plans to hang out Saturday night and go surfing together sometime. Like me, she doesn’t like to surf alone and is still learning, so we figured we should team up sometime. She’s from Switzerland originally but has lived all over the world, including Africa, and runs a yoga, surfing, ayurvedic cooking and detox retreat in Burgau, which is south of here.

K, who I met just last night in my Portuguese class, was more of a surprise, and a lucky one at that. I’m still overwhelmed by how warmhearted and generous she was to me today after having known me for less than 24 hours.

She invited me over to the old Portuguese farmhouse she shares with her boyfriend, who is away working in Spain right now. We drank wine and she showed me her organic crops — more than 20 varieties of hot peppers to make piripiri, a popular hot sauce here; tomatoes; basil; and pomegranate, orange and other fruit trees. When it got too cold to sit outside after the sun disappeared over the hills to the west, we went inside and ate cheese, bread and fresh bruschetta she’d made with tomatoes and basil from her garden, as well as garlic.

The best part about the day was the conversation. Though we probably should have been practicing our Portuguese, we spoke what was for both of us our native tongue and discussed a whole range of things. K had been an English teacher with a good career in England before she left there three years ago for a new way of life in Portugal, so she, like me, loves great books.

At one point we discussed Haruki Murakami, one of K’s favorite writers (I love his short stories), and how the Portuguese love reading him in translation. I told him that his writing makes me ache and she said this is probably the reason the Portuguese love him as well — his penchant for nostalgia is in line with the Portuguese notion of “saudade,” an intense longing and a notion that I, too, love about this culture and these people.

I had actually never thought about Murakami that way, but it makes perfect sense, and it was so great to have such an intellectually stimulating conversation in such a beautiful setting without having to change the way I spoke because the other person didn’t have the same grasp of the language that I do. It also made me realize again how important it is to learn to communicate in other languages, and intensified my desire to learn Portuguese.

(As an aside, the fact that a local newspaper here needs a senior reporter who speaks both English and Portuguese also is an impetus for acquiring language skills pronto; they don’t begin interviewing until mid-January, and I feel like if I can convince them to let me interview based on my experience, I might be able to take intensive courses to have passable written and spoken Portuguese by then.)

K also is incredibly well-traveled and, like several other people who’ve been key figures in my life lately, is a big fan of Arab countries and culture. My trip to Morocco opened my eyes to the vast richness of it as well, so we talked about that and her numerous travels in other Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.

I also told her what a big fan I’ve become of the English-language Aljazeera news station on cable here (one of the few English-language stations I get), and how refreshing it is to get a non-U.S. view of not just the Arab world, but world news in general. At times during our conversation I again felt the strong urge to find a way to stay here on a more permanent basis; there is still the subject of finding work to consider, however, but I am hoping that will sort itself out eventually.

And somehow in the middle of what was already an amazing day, my Portuguese friend also decided to resurface. I hadn’t heard from him in a week; I had sent him a text on Friday inviting him and his girlfriend to dinner and he didn’t reply, so I once again figured I ought to go on my way here without him and let him come around if he felt like it.

Then today, funnily enough, I accidentally sent him a text that was meant for D and didn’t realize it later (I was trying to give her my phone number by texting her and his name is the one before hers in my phone). Then as luck would have it, as I was driving to K’s I saw him pass on the road in one of the vans for his surf school — it’s lime green and hard to miss — so I honked and sent him a quick hello text, to which he also did not reply.

While I was at K’s, he phoned me and actually apologized for not returning my SMS messages, and asked me if I wanted to have dinner Friday night. Had I not been drinking most of the day I might have been shocked, as apologizing for disappearing on me is not typical behavior for him.

Anyway, I’m not sure is dinner is with him or with him and his new lady friend, but either way, it should be fun; that is, of course, if he doesn’t bail, which would be more the type of behavior of his I’m used to! I will try not to hold it against him if he does, nor take it personally. I think he does the best he can when it comes to his friendship with me.

I’m off to take a shower now and chill out before bedtime. Being in full-on European mode, I haven’t even bathed today, and figure it might be a nice idea. Tomorrow should be a great day as well, as the swell is expected to be back to chest high, a perfectly surfable height for me. It’s been really big for nearly a week now, so I’m really looking forward to getting back in the water.

Then I suppose I should try to be more productive in terms of finding paying work; I told K that on Thursday I’d help her pick berries that they use to make medronha, a Portuguese moonshine that the locals fancy, but I’m not sure if that counts as an actual career move! But I guess you never know, especially in a place like this.

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Originally uploaded by sharotter

My friend who traveled with me in Morocco has posted some of her photos from our trip to Flickr. I particularly like this one of me about to go into the water for the first time at Mysteries break in Taghazout — pure joy at the thought of surfing.

Allow me to include a note from our sponsor: The surfboard in the photo is courtesy of Africa Extrem; its proprietor also appears in the corner of the shot. He’s a lovely guy and I told him I’d make sure to put a link to his site on mine. If you ever need a surfboard/tour guide/car rental/accommodation in Taghazout, check the company out.


Hit the ground running

Today was pretty busy, considering I’m currently out of work. But my plan to start structuring my days and make sure I have plenty to keep me occupied seems to be working, because it was a really good day, and I’m looking forward to another busy one tomorrow.

I woke up, sent out my first official freelance query, swam for a blissful hour in a lane all by myself at the near-empty municipal pool, dealt with issues with my bank card (I finally have one that works, hurrah), hung my laundry to dry on the line and attended my first Portuguese class in Portimao, where I made a new friend.

Now I’m here winding down with some mint tea (given to me free of charge by the pharmacist the other day) so I can get a good night’s sleep for tomorrow. I have yoga class at 10 a.m. taught by a woman, D, who I’ve met online and on the phone but not yet in person, so I’m looking forward to that. In fact, she even IMed me on Facebook today to remind me, which I thought was awfully nice of her.

Then I am going to call around to my new friend K’s house. She’s originally from Nottingham, and she lives with her boyfriend not too far from me in a very old farmhouse. They have their own little farm, and I’ve offered to help her out, an offer that she accepted. Her boyfriend, who is Portuguese, is in the north of Spain until the end of the month, where he’s been working for the past eight months.

I’m really looking forward to checking her place and getting to know her and to do some honest labor at her little farm. (As a bonus, they grow strawberries that the Portuguese use to make their equivalent of firewater. Now that’s the kind of farm I like!)

Like me, K gave up a good job in England (she was a teacher) and moved to Portugal for a new way of life. Her parents were already living here, so she stayed with them on the south coast until she found her footing. That was about two years ago, and now she’s farming and living for free in a house owned by her boyfriend’s family.

Driving home from class tonight, smoking cigarettes (a nasty habit I get into when I’m in Europe; I really must stop), I felt really optimistic again. I thought it was a really good omen to meet a like-minded woman my first day of class, and after beating myself up all last week for my decision to give it all up and come here, now I don’t feel so bad about it.

Portuguese class was bloody hard, by the way. I’m in a class way too advanced for me; I’m probably somewhere between its level and the level of absolute beginners. I hung in there and did pretty well during tonight’s conversation class all things considered, and the teacher told me I’m doing great considering what little time I’ve spent overall in Portugal (everyone else in the class has lived here for at least a couple of years or more).

I could switch to a different class, but I think I’ll stick it out. I’ve always been a big fan of making things too hard for myself anyway, so I think the mental challenge — especially during this time when my mind has more idle time than its had in 12 years — will be good for me.