Isn't It Pretty To Think So?

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

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Flight risk?

Tonight I saw “Up in the Air,” a film that has left me a bit emotionally rattled.

The film is about a man who travels for a living, and about the toll it takes on his personal life.

In the film, the main character travels around firing people for a living. A bleak job, to be sure — but he enjoys it because it allows him to not have any personal “baggage,” so to speak.

He doesn’t have to be connected to anyone or any place permanently, and he’s happy to be that way and has even become a motivational speaker of sorts advocating this lone-wolf philosophy.

But then he meets someone that he begins to fall for, which leads him to question the way he’s been living his life.

I won’t say any more about it, but I will say what could have been a typical Hollywood-ending type of film really surprised me in the realistic way it handled its material.

The film, among other things, has really gotten me thinking about what it means to be single — and not just unmarried, but really and truly single, as in living alone without a partner.

The traveling element of the film is also relevant to me right now as I consider my next move — whether to keep traveling or try to settle down in one place, whether that be New York or Portugal, for awhile.

Seeing the film was also a bit weird because someone I know co-wrote and co-performed a couple of songs in the film — and this someone and I were nearly-but-not-quite involved personally for a very short time last spring.

The whole situation at the time was a disappointment to me because I actually really liked him, but to him, in the end, I was a fling.

I still see him around sometimes when I’m in Brooklyn, and we’re on civil terms now. But the rejection I felt is still there sometimes in the background. (For the record, the songs in the film are really beautiful and fit perfectly, and I’m actually happy for his success despite our history.)

So within the context of a film about someone who lives a solitary life in which he travels all the time, I — a single woman of 38 who has spent a good part of 2009 traveling myself — was reminded of one of my very own romantic disappointments.

And as I watched this character grapple with his own decision to live his life alone without personal attachments, I began to wonder about my own relationship status, or lack thereof.

The other day when I had to choose security questions to sign in to an online banking site, several of them had to do with a spouse.

“What is your spouse’s name?” and “Where was your spouse born?” were a couple of options I could have chosen as my security questions to back up my password on the site.

It struck me as a tad presumptuous to assume that everyone wanting to set up an ID and password on the site would have a spouse, and I had a fleeting moment when I felt a little sad about it.

Having lived as a single person for some time, I know I’m certainly not the only person in the world living alone in my late 30s or beyond. And some of the people doing so actually do it as a conscious choice, and say they prefer life that way.

However, I’m not one of those people. I would rather be with someone than single — but not just any someone, the “right” someone, whatever that means. For whatever reason, I haven’t figured out that part of my life yet.

And sometimes I wonder what is wrong with me that I am this age and not just unmarried and unpartnered, but have never been married.

I wonder how — when so many people can make a long-term relationship work, even if it’s not one that ends in matrimony — my last significant relationship officially ended three and a half years ago.

It’s not going to do a whole lot of good to dwell on my single status, and I have a lot of love in my life thanks to my family and good friends. I am not lacking for love or company, and I feel blessed and lucky to have all that I have.

But both the film and the incident of the spousal security questions suggested that I might be missing something unless I have that one person in my life who is committed to me, who is there to watch my back as I watch his, who chooses to go through life by my side.

These days I am mostly happy with my life. And why shouldn’t I be? By anyone’s standards, it’s a charmed one.

But I would be lying if I said that I didn’t often feel that there is something missing.

And tonight, after seeing that film, I am wondering if the decisions I’ve made and continue to make about how I live my life — to keep moving forward, always moving without looking back — has kept me from filling in that blank.

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Another sunrise, another continent

Yesterday I woke up after an uneasy sleep in the early hours to wind and rain on the southwest coast of Portugal and watched the sun rise as I drove through the sleepy green hills of Alentejo. Today I woke early (jetlag) to the snowy suburbs of Philadelphia and watched the sun rise from the window in the bathroom of my dad’s master bedroom.

I am strangely still high, my energy vibrating from some crazy positive frequency, from my beautiful last day in Portugal, and don’t feel nearly as uneasy as I thought I would about being back.

It was great to see my dad, who still pretty much rules above all dads (don’t even try to fight me on this one). I changed the game plan on him and instead of arriving in Philadelphia on an Amtrak train at 7:42, I arrived in Trenton, New Jersey, on a NJ Transit train at 5:00. (Yes, NJ Transit was my first stop after landing at the airport. One day you wake up in one of the prettiest places in the world, the next day — after traveling for 15 hours — you are riding the commuter train from hell.) No matter — he still showed up to pick me up, battling last-day-before-the-Christmas-holidays traffic and a brewing sinus malady.

He barely flinched when I told him I planned to stay in the U.S. for only about a month before heading back to Europe, when I told him I planned to just pick up work here and there and travel for about another year. For a man who spent his whole life in his hometown and still, at 76, goes to work every day, it’s somewhat of an alien concept not to work a full-time job and live in one place your whole life. But my dad has the heart of a traveler (we have traveled together in Rome and Sicily), so I am not entirely surprised he was cool about it, and the fact that he will be my home base/freelance check casher while I’m away.

My first greeting on U.S. soil wasn’t nearly as warm, but more or less solidified my plan to get out of the country again as fast as possible.

When I had my passport stamped at immigration, the officer asked me how long I had been away. I told him two months; he then asked if I lived in the U.S. or in Europe, and if I was on vacation or working while I was away.

Wanting to just get out of there — immigration always makes me nervous, just like seeing cops make me nervous, as if I’ve done something wrong (a throwback from smoking a lot of marijuana when I was a teenager, I think) — I said I was mostly on holiday. (As an aside, I’m glad I got rid of the weed I picked up in Portugal, where having a small amount is legal, before I left the country. There were drug-sniffing beagles in baggage claim.)

Then Mr. Important Immigration Guy asked, “Don’t you work?” which I thought was pretty rude, because what if I was one of the thousands of people who lost jobs in the U.S. — people who, unlike me, have major responsibilities and kids and bills and are in seriously dire straits. I responded, “Sometimes” and then “I’m freelance; where I am, the work is.” He smirked, handed me back my passport and sent me on my way.

His whole attitude reminded me exactly what I don’t like about the “American” way of life, which generally puts more value on making money and working even a dead-end job than life experience, traveling, creativity and a solid spiritual path. We all know which side I root for, and yes, I know I’m lucky that the circumstances of my life and the hard work of my father have, to a certain degree, allowed me this lifestyle.

But honestly, I think that more people could live a different way here if they didn’t buy into the whole American value system in the first place, so I didn’t appreciate having someone question my lifestyle, and certainly not some power-tripping government cog.

It didn’t ruin my day or dampen my spirits, though, nor will it ruin my Christmas. I’m here at my dad’s now, and looking foward to seeing my sister and her kids today. I talked briefly to my 2-year-old niece last night on the phone and that little girl was jabbering away (god knows what she was saying, but it sounded super-cute; she wasn’t talking that much last time I saw here).

Hope you all have a beautiful holiday and take a moment in between sips of wine and food-gobbling to count your blessings this year. I suspect you will find you have many more than you think.

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Portuguese driving directions will get you there eventually

Today I got my bi-annual directions from here to the Lisbon airport from my Portuguese friend, David. On paper, they look like this:

S. Teotonio
C. Branca
Milfontes–Brumheiras (direita) Porto Covo (esquerda)

Spoken, they go something like, “You go Odeceixe, and then you see sign for Sao Teotonio and you go Sao Teotonio, then you see sign for Casa Branca and you go there, and then you see sign for Milfontes and…”

Well…you get the idea.

They’re nearly identical to the directions he gave me the night before I left in May, except his friend Ricardo, who witnessed the directions-scrawling today, corrected him about what happens when I follow signs for Milfontes.

It’s a good thing, too — last time I nearly ended up in the Atlantic Ocean in Milfontes in the wee hours of the morning because I didn’t know I had to take a right at the roundabout in the direction of Brumheiras before actually driving into the town itself. I ended up on some road that, if I hadn’t been paying close attention, would have landed me in the drink.

So now I am nearly ready to go to sleep and wake up once again in the early hours for my three-hour drive to Lisbon, where I will board a jet airliner and fly to Newark, New Jersey, where I will board a train and ride to Philadelphia, where I will get in a car driven by my father and eventually end up in Oaks, Pennsylvania, for Christmas.

I am happy to be going home to see my family and the people that I love in the U.S., carrying with me all the joy and beauty and love that has been shined on me by my lovely friends here, and by this unbelievably beautiful place that has truly changed my life.

The last few days I’ve been thinking about the plans and expectations I had for this trip, even though I tried not to make too many plans or expectations. But I’m human, and a tad neurotic (some people may argue more than a tad), so I did have ideas about what might happen by this time.

Well, I haven’t fallen in love. I haven’t gotten some spectacular new job. I didn’t write a novel. I’m not some fantastic surfer and I still haven’t paddled out via the channel to the Arrifana right beach break. I can’t speak fluent Portuguese, and I still have trouble holding even the most basic conversation in it.

So if you were to ask me if I accomplished everything I wanted while I was here, or if my trip was everything I hoped for, I would probably say no.

Of course, my expectations were probably set a little high. Someone who’s reached her late 30s without writing a novel probably doesn’t write one in two months. I wasn’t really trying that hard to find a really spectacular job, and it takes people years of dedication to become a really good surfer (and I’m not exactly the most athletically inclined person in the first place).

As for Portuguese — it’s a notoriously hard language to learn, and it’s a miracle I can read and write convincing text messages in it in two months, much less speak conversationally. And when I asked a native speaker today (the aforementioned Ricardo) how my language skills are coming along, he said, in truly honest and deadpan Portuguese fashion: “It is good. I can understand you when you speak Portuguese.”

Trust me — when it comes to the language, that’s the highest form of praise you can around here.

But I’m an idealist. I’m a romantic. And I’ll admit it, I kind of live in a fantasy world.

The older I’ve gotten, the more grounded in reality and the here and now I’ve become. But it doesn’t stop me from having flights of fancy every once in awhile and thinking that just because I wish it so, that everything in my life will work out the way I imagine it in my head.

So in two months I haven’t suddenly created this magical new life for myself. I’m still more or less the same person I was when I arrived, with a little less money and a little more free time.

But somewhere in between not exactly meeting all of the expectations I tried not to have, some other really amazing things have happened.

I met some truly wonderful like-minded people who I felt I could be myself with, people who loved and accepted me as I am and saw the beauty in me, as I saw it in them. I saw astonishingly gorgeous places I’ve never seen before. I cooked meals for strangers and they cooked them for me, accepting me into their homes as if I was family after only knowing me for a few days or weeks.

I may not be a pathetically novice surfer, but occasionally I did really and truly ride some waves, and always felt the same thrill I had when I rode my first. And I did this on some of the most stunning beaches in Portugal, if not in the world.

Even outside of Portugal, amazing things happened for me. The most unbelievable of them all is that I will return to the states as an artistic co-collaborator on a sculpture that will be featured in a show alongside works by some notable contemporary American artists, namely Matthew Barney (Bjork’s boyfriend), Kiki Smith and Donald Lipski.

It’s a long story, but my ex-boyfriend contacted me right before I was leaving for Morocco and asked me if I had any love poems to use as inspiration for a romance-themed he was asked to sculpt something for. (He’s a metal sculpture living in Lexington, Kentucky.)

Without thinking about it, I sent him a poem I wrote about us, post-breakup, something that sort of looked back on it all and mapped out our relationship to the places we lived, spent time together and traveled to.

He ended up using it, casting it in bronze (the whole poem! in bronze!). The finished work is beautiful and undoubtedly took a lot of time on his part, and will likely travel with the show not only in the states but also in Europe. It has both of our names on it and I even had to submit an artist bio for the show. (A bonafide artist bio! With my name as the artist!)

I have devoted much of my life — in some way no matter what else was going on or what I did to pay the bills — to creating something beautiful through art. So I am super-excited at the notion of this heartfelt poem that I wrote — and man, was it really a deluge of emotion when I wrote it — being featured in this way. (Stay tuned for photos and more details later.)

Now I know that all of these great things could have happened to me anywhere, and that I of course was instrumental in making it all happen, not the Algarve, not Portugal.

But I really do believe it is the energy I get from this place and the comfort I feel here to act intuitively and trust myself more than I ever have that has led to these modest achievements as a human being. And that is enough for me to want to spend more time here in the future to explore the possibilities.

So even as I look forward to being reunited with the people I love back “home” — and to losing myself in the frenetic energy of New York City for a little while — I will certainly miss this part of the world that has always been so lucky for me, and everything about it that I hold dear.

But hopefully, if all goes according to plan — one I am trying not to regard so rigidly or with too much expectation — I won’t have to miss it for too long.

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“My only advice is not to go away. Or, go away.”

In one week, I will fly back to the U.S. after spending two months abroad, mainly here in southwest Portugal.

When people here have said to me that I’m on holiday — by way of explaining why I should relax and not worry about working so much — I have responded that I don’t really feel like that. I haven’t treated this time here as a holiday per se; rather, I’ve tried to spend my time here as if I were a local resident and planned to make a more permanent home here.

This last week or so the southwest Algarve is really beginning to feel like home, and with my return to the U.S. approaching, I have some decisions to make and ideas to ponder.

One of the week’s most pleasant developments is that R, the stranded hippie surfer, has become a partner in crime of sorts.

Bonded by the fact that we’re two Americans in a place where there are few others — and with common interests like surfing, music, writing and romantic idealism in common — we’ve spent a couple of nights hanging out in his van eating, drinking and talking and have been driving in my car around the countryside listening and singing along to music.

R is sweet and earnest and funny, and it’s fun to have a bonafide guy friend here now — my Portuguese friend D hasn’t been around much, and the other men I’ve met I haven’t clicked with so immediately, or have seemed to want something more from me than I wanted to give them, and so it made being friends somewhat awkward.

The thing about R is he reminds me of people I’ve known in my life before — a combination of a couple of male friends I’ve known, one in Phoenix, Arizona, and one in San Francisco. He looks so much like the former — a musician I had a fling with — that I have to remember to call him by the correct name sometimes when I’m hanging out with him.

I’ve also introduced him to my friend D, for whom I think he’s harboring a bit of a crush. (It’s hard not to have a crush on her, lovely and kind as she is. I think I do, too, a little bit.) We all went out for pizza Saturday night at an amazing authentic Italian pizza joint in a tiny town called Petralva, and the three of us are cooking a vegetarian pre-Christmas friends dinner tomorrow night for 11 people. I also took him to her yoga class yesterday, after which we all had coffee at the usual cafe in Barao de Sao Joao.

R isn’t planning to settle in Portugal the way I am and of course doesn’t live here like D does — he wants to move his van, in which he lives (when he wasn’t living on boats where he worked as a chef) up to Amsterdam when the weather gets warmer. But he plans to spend quite a bit of time around these parts before then, so it’s likely I’ll see him if and when I decide to return in February.

But it’s these friendships and connections that are making this place feel more like a home than New York ever did, even though I love the friends I have there and feel blessed to have them.

So I have to figure this out. Right now I am hoping to spend a month in New York to settle my affairs (apply for my Italian passport, sublet my apartment again for nine months, try to rustle up more freelance work, set my freelance business up officially as a U.S. business etc. etc.) and then return here in February.

There is a lot to consider between now and then, and I’m worried that New York, that unrepentant siren, will lure me back to stay in the month I’m there.

I am pretty self-aware, and I know that I have a tendency to be flighty and can be pulled in whatever direction a particular life current takes me; commitments often aren’t my strong point (even when I make them, I tend to try to sabotage them, even subconsciously). If an opportunity arises in New York that I just can’t say no to, or something happens in my personal life to make me want to stick around, I may not return here.

But as always, the future is unwritten, and I only have now to worry about. After two days of freezing cold, it’s warmer again here, and the sun is shining after an incredibly stormy night. The possibilities of today are endless, and right outside my door. I am going to open it and take a deep breath now, and see which way today’s wind carries me.

And in case you’re wondering: the title of this post comes from one of my favorite poems. It’s by Larry Levis and it’s called “In The City of Light.” Read it. You will be happy that you did.

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Pay it forward

One of the things that’s struck me here is how helpful and kind people have been to me when I’ve been in need (and even sometimes when I’m not), and today I was able to return the favor.

Last night coming off the beach after a surf at Arrifana, I ran into M and P parked at the parking lot at the top where they’ve been camping out in their vans. If you remember, they were guests at my Thanksgiving dinner, and M and I have been in touch here and there since then, mostly about the condition of the surf and the like.

While I was talking to those guys (the beautiful boy from Guernsey was no longer with them, unfortunately — he’s already gone back home), another traveling surfer I hadn’t seen before came around and asked me, in a very American accent, if I knew of an Internet cafe. Born in the U.K., R is more or less American, having grown up in Indiana, where his parents moved when he was two, although he travels on a U.K. passport and is technically British.

I was thrilled to meet another “American” (mais ou menos, as the Portuguese say), and spent some time chatting with him. He’d been living in France for the last four years working here and there as a chef both on land and on boats, but has been traveling in Portugal since mid-October, with plans to move to Amsterdam with a brief trip to England for the holidays in the works.

I invited the three of them over to dinner last night but they didn’t come, which turned out to be just as well because I now have two freelance stories due in the next two days, so needed the time to work.

This morning, I drove to Arrifana to check out the surf, hoping I could get a quick dip in before having to do some work in the afternoon. On the way over on the only road that goes there, I saw M and P pass by in their vans, but didn’t see R with them. The thought flashed in my head that there was a reason he was still back at Arrifana — that there was a reason I was meant to miss the Thanksgiving boys and see him instead.

That reason turned out to be van trouble; when I got to the parking lot overlooking Arrifana, R had the engine compartment of his van (which is in the front seat) open and was working on it. He said the other guys took off without offering help, and he was glad I came along when I did because, based on my offer to cook dinner for them last night, I seemed like a good hearted and generous person.

And so that’s how it came to be that I spent most of the morning and part of the early afternoon helping a fellow American (sort of) figure out what’s wrong with his van. I took him to a mechanic I knew of down the road, where he dropped off his battery to be recharged, and then I sat in the sun enjoying an unseasonably warm day while he tinkered more with his van, waiting to give him a jump start when he said he’d be ready.

As I sat there, talking with him about his life philosphy (similar to mine), his experiences in France and traveling around on boats in the Mediterranean and his plan to move to the Netherlands, enjoying the sun on my face and watching below as a huge swell pummeled Arrifana (it was so big and messy no surfers were in the water), I once again felt pretty blessed.

While most of the people I know were waking to cold weather and getting ready to head to their jobs in offices where they will sit all day under the harsh glow of fluorescent light, I was sitting in the warm December (December!) sun overlooking one of Portugal’s most beautiful beaches, chatting up a cute, shirtless surfer who was going about manly, mechanical tasks that involved lots of sweat and grease. Does it really get any better than that?

I had to leave R to get back to my house to do some work before he resolved his car issue, so I don’t know the end of the story that started with a chance meeting and a good deed.

I’m glad I could help him out, in appreciation for all the lovely people here who have gone out of their way to help a stranger fumble her way toward a possible new life. And I hope he passes the goodness on.

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Turn of events

For shame — the date on my last post is November 30, and here we are now more than a week into December. There are so many things to write about that I don’t even know where to begin, but let me try to fashion a brief update and get down to the granular level later.

Everything’s been quite good here in the Algarve. I had a couple of tough, lonely and uncertain days last week when I wasn’t sure what the hell I was doing here — some serious moments of self-doubt and depression. But as the Dead Hot Workshop song goes, “Everything is so confusing just before your mind’s made up” (along the same lines as “everything is darkest before dawn”) — and just like that, things suddenly turned around. (If you don’t know who Dead Hot Workshop is, they are a ’90s band from Tempe, Arizona, that I love and who should have made it big but didn’t.)

I went to Porto for the weekend with one of my new friends, D, and we had a really lovely time doing girly things like drinking lots of wine, shopping and talking about fun stuff like sex and men. It poured rain and was super-windy the whole time, but we had fun walking around anyway. Porto is a beautiful city, much like Lisbon but somehow seeming older and more mysterious. I’d love to go there in nicer weather; I’m sure it’s a total blast.

While we were away D outlined some of the tasks she thinks I could help her with in exchange for free rent at her beautiful apartment in Burgau, a lovely village on the south coast. I’m just about ready to pull the trigger on it and decide to come back in late January or February once I settle my affairs in the U.S. (Italian passport, get my apartment sorted, buy Aveda products — you know, all the important things) but I need just a little more time to think. It’s an extremely tempting offer, however, and I am definitely leaning toward doing it.

I also made a new friend last week, a young-minded 45-year-old surfer and owner of a go-cart sailing business near Sagres. I met J on Beliche beach in Sagres last Thursday in the middle of a difficult day when I was feeling quite low but didn’t want to waste the gloriously sunny day moping. He was coming out of the water, which had some seriously beautiful and powerful waves I knew I couldn’t ride, and looked harmless enough so I decided to talk to him.

He lives in Vila de Bispo and I met him there later that night for a few beers and to chat. He seems like good people and already is my designated south-coast surf checker, keeping an eye on the beaches down there for some beginner-sized waves for me.

This week I’ve gone back to work a bit, which I admit has cheered me more than I imagined it would. I’ve only got a couple of projects lined up so far, but it’s been nice to use my brain again, especially at my own pace and on work of my own choosing.

There is some other stuff going on but I’m off to yoga so don’t have time to go into it right now. I’ll post something more thoughtful and observational later when I have more time.