Isn't It Pretty To Think So?

A wanderer's dispatches on life, love and the human condition


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My Heart Is on the Mend…Again

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When I’m heartbroken, I take solace in doing the smallest things. Drinking a cup of tea. Putting diesel in the tank. Hanging the laundry on the line. I find that by focusing on the little things that take up a lot of our practical time in life, I am soothed, somehow, in knowing that I am taking care of business. Step by step, day by day, if I don’t let these things fall to neglect—these simple acts of self and household care—it means that I am on my way to healing.

I’m heartbroken again, for nine straight days now. I didn’t choose to be this way, not on any surface level. But I know deep down–and all the psychology website and YouTube videos tell me so–that it’s essentially my fault.

I find myself heartbroken all too often, so much so that it must be my comfortable state–incurable love addict, hopeful romantic and general emotional basket case that I am. Although I wouldn’t call the catatonic way I can stare into space these days for what seems like hours on end; the unexpected and sudden crying when someone asks “How are you?”; and the nights spent in my bed staring numbly at TV-series episodes exactly the most “comfortable” mode of daily existence.

My nearly year-long relationship with a man I thought might finally be a good candidate to be a life partner—the longest relationship I’d had in, I’m not kidding, something like 14 years—ended with two simple WhatsApp messages. Then…silence so loud it’s been deafening.

Without getting too personal about what happened, my last ex is the latest in a long line of failed relationships, mainly because I usually find myself barking up the wrong tree when it comes to getting what I want—a stable partner with whom I can spend my life.

I also am not the type of woman who is very good at playing the “game” all the self-help books tell you that you need to play to keep a man—I tend to show my hand of cards far to quickly, speak my mind too easily, and imagine my ever-after far too soon–things that tend to kill most relationships before they even start.

However, I thought I did everything right this time and took it slowly. I didn’t even really like this man that much at first, but wanted to give him a chance because he was attractive enough and we had nice conversations. I also live as an expat in a rural Portuguese coastal town, so the availability of single men my age (mid 40s) is limited. Any man with decent looks, similar interests, a job and a pulse is potential life-partner material around here. Even some of those without a job or decent looks can be negotiable–teeth, however, are a must.

I ignored early red flags that he might be the noncommittal type, something we women like to do when we want very badly for something to work. Now nearly a year of a roller-coaster ride of push-pull with this guy—me being clear that I wanted a relationship and more time with him, him alternating between resisting (even once, for nearly two weeks, basically ignoring me) and meeting my needs in what seemed like sincere and even rather extreme ways that led me to believe he was in this thing for real.

Now, quite abruptly, I find myself alone again, dumped after a ridiculous argument only a day after he finally hung out with some of my friends and was asking me what I wanted for my upcoming birthday.

I’m stunned and incredibly hurt, of course. But when I look under the hood it’s fairly obvious that I should have seen it coming—that I was on thin ice the whole time, if not already kicking and thrashing in neck-high freezing water. This guy was never going to commit to me because we were playing out our respective roles in a toxic pattern of an avoidant-anxious attachment relationship. (Again, this is what the Internet tells me, so it must be true.)

He repeatedly told me he would never change when I would point out his clear resistance to a real relationship and to evolve as a person, and said that I also should not. I tried as best I could to accept him for who he was and adapt accordingly as best I could, telling myself this is what you do in a relationship.

I also carried on being exactly who I am and being perfectly honest, not playing games or holding back the less attractive parts of my personality—which inevitably led to his WhatsApp break-off of the relationship and respective refusal to speak to me. (Great idea that was!)

I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to move ahead, know I am better off without him and get on with my amazing life—which includes but is not limited to surfing, freelance writing, continuing to work on home improvements to my Mediterranean-style bungalow, yoga, drumming lessons, potentially interesting projects on the horizon, and lovely group of friends. I should be planning my next solo surf vacation. I should be working to learn from my mistakes and heal myself from my anxious attachment patterns and get ready to meet someone secure who is far better-suited to me and can meet me halfway in a relationship.

A bit more than a week after the shock to my already well-scarred heart, I’ve started slowly and gingerly resume doing all of these things. I planned a redesign of my garden BBQ area earlier today, and have plans to meet a friend for surfing later. I continue to diligently do the requirements of my freelance job every day. Tomorrow I’ll go to my mechanic to fit my van with new tires.

Slowly, after a week of being fairly useless, I am returning to the business of living and managing my life alone again, trying to push out of my mind the fact that I won’t have my boyfriend around anymore to support me and to do all the practical things I’m so inept at doing.

I’m also trying to wrap my head around the fact (without bursting into tears) that i have lost his companionship and my partner-in-crime for hiking, dining, swimming, boating, laughing, dancing in my kitchen, late-night grocery shopping, sex, wine-drinking, cuddling, movie-watching and the myriad other fun activities we used to share together. Because, aside from our opposite relationship styles, I can’t say that we didn’t have a shitload of good times together, and that I was hoping for a hell of a lot more.

I am slowly putting one foot in front of the other, it’s true, but all through a huge veil of sadness and heavy feeling that threatens to topple me when I stand up, so much so that I find myself feeling physically dizzy, the earth unsteady beneath me. I’ve certainly been through worse than the thoughtless dumping by a narcissist (the death of my mother the day before my 33rd birthday comes to mind), so it can’t be this singular blow that itself is such a knock-out punch.

What I think, though, is that for some reason, each new heartbreak, instead of getting dimmer with age and familiarity, seems to get more difficult. It as if all the heartbreaks of our whole life gather into a massive ball of emotional twine that gains momentum and rolls down a great hill over you, leaving you flat out on the ground. And when you do get up, it’s slowly, with much staggering and confusion, to a world that has been–without your knowledge or consent–irreversibly altered.

Time tells me wounds heal, sadness passes, people come and go. The spiritual teachings I read and witness tell me that the universe has a plan for me; that some relationships are not meant to be forever; and some people are put in our lives merely to teach us something or point out things we need to change.

I find the same solace in these existential things as I find in feeding the cats and taking out the garbage, knowing that with every day my head will get lighter, the sun will shine a bit brighter and I am one step closer to being back to not just my old self, but an even wiser version of me.


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arrifanabday

Sunset Surf

I sat on top of the sea tonight as
the last light left the sky
and made my wishes to the universe:
A house with an ocean view
and a bathtub big enough for two;
and someone to share it with who is crazy
in the same way as me and, like me,
just wants to surf, love and be loved.
How to describe what it feels like
when you’re falling down the face
of liquid, but landing on something
more sure than the earth. The sea makes
sense to me. I am far clumsier on land,
my body out of sync with terra firma,
too soft and heavy to find surefootedness
on solid ground. But in water, I find
grace, acceptance for all the things
I can’t accept in myself.
The quiet lap of water around my legs;
The distant rocks at cliff’s edge laid out
against orange sky in a most
unbelievable way, one seagull etched
against the horizon as if painted there
by the world’s most obvious landscape
artist. This is my church. This is what
I believe in. This is why I wake up
every day in a mostly empty bed,
and carry my tired body out the door
and down the ocean road, rattling along
from pothole to pothole past fragrant
euchalyptus and spring’s colorwheel
of wildflowers, to the end of dry land
where the ocean claims the sand,
to the one place where I feel safe,
whole, with even the broken parts
of me if only for a short time put
together exactly where they should be.


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Gidget grows up, sans Hollywood ending

It’s been a rainy week here in the Algarve, and yesterday I watched “Gidget,” a classic Hollywood surf film about a tomboy who tries to fit in with the lads–and get the attention of the one she fancies–by learning how to surf.

Once I got past the film’s marvelous chauvinism, I realized I could really get behind a film in which a girl would rather surf than go on dates or preen on the beach in the hopes of getting the attention of the surfer dudes, which is the reason she was attracted to the sport in the first place.

Of course, Gidget eventually does get her man by impressing him with her ability to “shoot the curl” and making him jealous by pretending to hook up with the older and self-proclaimed “surf bum” in the film, who in the end decides it’s the right thing to do to give up his aimless life of surfing to take a job with an airline–as you do.

If you think it must have been a dark or incredibly boring day for me to spend 90 minutes of my life I will never get back on “Gidget,” consider that it is now three years since I left my job, my family and my professional life in the United States to take up surfing at the age of 36, and that the theme of the film–shrouded as it is by Hollywood drivel–did resonate quite a bit with me.

Two and a half weeks ago I had a birthday, and at a dinner BBQ with 15 of my lovely friends–many of them expatriates like me–at my new rented casita in Montinhos da Luz, I took a few minutes to muse about my strange and wonderful life. Watching two gal pals in my kitchen giggle over a collection of mugs from nearby beach Praia da Arrifana’s annual summer sardine festival–one of which features a shape not unlike human male genitalia–I realized that in the book of life status quo, I am a bit of a freak.

I’ve lived here long enough to realize that Europeans, Australians or Kiwis wouldn’t really blink an eye if someone decided to step off the treadmill of a predictable life, even in her late 30s, to move somewhere else and take up an extremely difficult sport that has since become a passionate obsession, but for Americans it is frankly quite weird. Especially if that woman was raised in a very traditional Sicilian-Italian-American household of the Roman Catholic persuasion, and was more of an intellectual nerd than a particularly good athlete to begin with!

When I mentioned this to my friends, one of them–who was a bit drunk but still quite sincere–said to me, “You’re a super-cool chick, and don’t let anyone ever tell you differently.”

This is a nice sentiment, of course, but the fact is lots of people like to tell me different, especially those voices of self-doubt in my head. And let’s face it, I’m not really a chick any longer. Unlike 17-year-old Gidget, who had her whole life ahead of her to grow up, get a job, find a mate, have children and experience love, loss, joy, heartache and all of these beautiful and terrible things we feel as human beings, I am almost halfway through mine.

And while I’ve had jobs and adventures, traveled a bit, and experienced love, loss and heartache more times than I care to mention, there are two things most humans do that I have yet to accomplish–find a life mate and have children, the latter of which i think will probably not happen for me.

To be single at this age is of course not so strange. I know a lot of single people in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond, though I know few who haven’t had a child or two along the way and just didn’t end up staying with the person with whom they started a family. And while I don’t think everyone needs to have children, and I don’t have a burning desire even now at this age when the ticking clock is about to self-destruct, I sometimes feel out of the parenting club many of my friends are in.

This all troubles me sometimes, to be sure, especially days like yesterday that I spent mostly by myself (with the company of two very loving cats) after receiving a phone call asking for help from my latest ex-boyfriend. He called to ask me for help for him and his son due to terrible fighting he’s having with his current lover, the unstable woman he dated just before me and to whom he returned immediately after we split.

In the end, he did not need my help, which is just as well because what I preferred to do–and did–was give him an earful about taking responsibility for his life and growing up now that he is 42 years old, and telling him to call me again only after he’s given this notion some thought.

And while I am always happier to be alone than in bad company, his call resonated with me, and the whole day after I thought about the mistakes we humans continue to make over and over again (me included). Things like keeping jobs or staying in relationships that don’t make us happy, not appreciating and having gratitude for the things and people we have when we have them and then regretting it after they’re gone–and how we might change them somehow the next time a similar situation arises for a more satisfying result.

I thought about the choices I’ve made that have led me to this place in my life, which I can only assume I have reached because it is what I want (although sometimes my lonely and uncertain heart tells me differently). I experienced a range of emotions as the rain drummed steadily outside, my cats slept and purred peacefully beside me and Gidget frolicked merrily and mercurially on my MacBook Pro screen.

On the other side of the equation, I thought about all the things I have dared to do that very few American women brought up in my situation would dare to do–leave New York City and a decent job, a group of friends, my family and the omnipresent stuff with which we clutter our lives–to live a simpler life in a quiet but uncommonly beautiful corner of the world and chase a passion for riding ocean waves that I could never imagine as a child who spent summers at the beach in Ocean City, N.J., afraid to swim out of her depth.

Sometimes I look at myself through a very critical lens and think what a ridiculous joke it is for someone my age, with my body type (curvaceous that could easily be fat if I didn’t exercise, especially now that I’m in middle age) to spend a good chunk of her time surfing–a sport that is one of the most physically demanding of any and to which young and extremely fit people are much better suited.

Then again, that is exactly what I love about surfing–you don’t have to go out in 20-foot waves or rip on a shortboard to love it and gain the physical and psychological benefits of the exercise, as well as the feeling and perspective of being in the ocean, the world’s purest and most plentiful natural element, almost every day of your life.

You can catch one wave a session, ride it unsteadily at best and still feel absolute and complete joy–that rare feeling that all is right with the world and that nothing could ever be wrong again–along with a fierce need to paddle right back out and feel it again.

You can receive encouragement and smiles from men and women younger, fitter and better looking–people who–when I was a fat insecure adolescent surely would not have had time for me–just because you all share a common passion, and they can see it on your face.

For me this feeling of belonging is something this formerly awkward child and teenager has more now than I’ve ever had before, even if my life isn’t as hopeful or promising as their young lives may be, even if I don’t ever accomplish some of the things they may accomplish along the way.

It also makes you realize that they, just like you, are human with the same hopes, desires, dreams, fears and worries just like you, even if on the surface things appear shinier and brighter for them. If surfing has done anything else it has humbled me–in the ocean, as it should be on land, we are all in this together.

Maybe I haven’t gotten the guy (yet), like Gidget–and maybe I am not young and beautiful and daring with a long life still ahead of me. But for the most part–despite the occasional loneliness, worry and regret that is a normal part of the human condition, but on which I try not to dwell–I am happy, even if I don’t have all of the things I “want” or think I should have at this age, even if most of the time I am not “acting my age” or even close to it, even if my life so far has not exactly gone according to script. And isn’t this the most any of us can strive for in this life?


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This is what I see when I look out the back window of my new (old) house

I’ve found a more or less “permanent” place to live in Lagos, Portugal, living a life full of used and borrowed things.

From my terrace of my borrowed house I can see the ocean, the sun, the moon and the stars. I drank coffee there the other morning and mused about how well things have turned out for me.

I have lived here five weeks now and I have friends, a used car, a used surfboard, a little house in a great neighborhood with a roof terrace with a view of the sea, and possibly even a dog.

The person renting the house, a guy called L, lives in Ireland; the owner perhaps too, or perhaps he’s here. L isn’t sure. It’s also L’s dog that may soon be mine, but that is a whole other story for which I don’t have time at the moment.

I’m paying L to be here and sleeping in a room full of his stuff until his Hungarian friend K moves to Lisbon next week. She is a nice girl very similar to me – arty, similar clothes, a Libra, takes photos – but nine years my junior and as pale as I am olive.

K is freshly mourning the loss of a relationship and nervous to move to a city after three and a half years in this little town, a situation I myself was in three and a half years ago before I moved to New York City. So I sympathize with her, and so far we are getting along just fine.

L is a friend of D’s, my friend whose house I stayed in for a month before moving here to Lagos. As I’ve mentioned before, D is the ex-wife of a man whose surf camp visited the first time I ever came to Portugal, which was also when I decided that someday I would live here.

But I didn’t meet L through D, nor vice versa. I met L through a former friend of mine named Aibhinn who lived in New York but was from Dublin and at one point dated L’s best friend, a guy called Brian, who died not long before I met L for the first time last November.

This is how things go here in this small worth of expatriates in the Algarve. The connections between us no longer surprise me. In fact, I am sure they will start to stack up in undesirable ways.

This town, Lagos, confuses me. It is just that — merely, a town — but always I get lost. I navigated my way around New York City for more than three years before I moved here and yet I still have trouble getting somewhere the same way twice.

I have walked alone through dozens of European cities without knowing the language, armed with only a map and my wits. Yet this little Algarve-ian village puzzles me. I’m, quite frankly, ashamed of my pathetic navigational skills.

But no matter; I’m sure I will learn my way around soon enough. And I am happy to be here, with several beautiful beaches to which I have already spent several mornings jogging, very close by.

It is strange to be so out of my element and my previous life in New York, but I try not to give that too much thought. My daily visits to the sea and preoccupation with logistical matters are keeping me busy enough that I try not to worry about when this life will feel like mine.

Until then, this borrowed one will have to do.


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In a Portuguese minute…

Life here has been a flurry of transactions lately, each one of them — this being southern Portugal — as surreal and time-consuming as the next. But now I’ve sorted myself out with a car, car insurance, a surfboard and a rack for it on top of my car, and it’s starting to feel like home here. All I need is an apartment to rent by the end of the month and I’ll be fully set up.

I’m not sure exactly where to begin about what’s happened since I arrived here a week and a half ago, trading New York for the southwest Algarve — two completely polar opposites if there ever were any. Strangely enough, though most wouldn’t think so, life moves almost as fast here — sometimes faster — than it does in New York. I awaken each new day filled with expectation about what the day can bring, and am constantly surprised about how much can happen, even if sometimes it seems to be happening in slow motion.

That said, there were a lot of changes I had to deal with when I arrived, and I didn’t take to some of them so easily. Things have sorted themselves out more or less now, but transitions for me have always been a little rough. (As I have lived a life in a constant state of willful transition, I believe I am a glutton for punishment if there ever was one.) I think I’ve finally eased into it, though, and am starting to accept what is now, and move forward from there.

The last couple of days I’ve been surfing, now that I finally have a board. Although I’m not sure you could call what I did yesterday surfing — I pretty much got drilled by a huge wave that was breaking too close to shore not a half-hour after I went in the water, and that was that.

It happened like this: I misjudged where the wave would break and instead of breaking first and pushing me forward with whitewater, the wave broke pretty much on top of me at such a steep angle that it drove me and the board headfirst into the sea floor. I landed hard on my face, crushing my nose and mouth and wrenching my neck; in retrospect I’m quite lucky I didn’t sustain more damage than the fat lip and scratches on my face I’m sporting now. Good times.

Today was a much better day in the ocean, I’m happy to report. I started off the day with a long hike in the morning sun, quite sore as I was from yesterday’s thrashing. But the break at Burgau, the beach mere steps from the house I’m staying in, was working with small but fun waves, and R and a traveling Aussie surfer M — who has been hanging out with my friend crowd here for the past few weeks — were in the water. Instead of working on some marketing for her business like we were supposed to, D and I decided to join them.

At first I went in the water alone to the far left of where R, M and a few others were surfing — shy, as usual, about going where everyone us for fear my novice self would get in the way. I was also feeling wobbly and sore from my mishap yesterday, but was determined to at least get in for awhile so I didn’t lose my nerve to keep at it.

I paddled around for a bit but then R came over to get me — he told me I’d likely be thrashed into the ground again if I stayed where I was, and graciously paddled out to the back with me, showing me how to maneuver my longboard under waves as we paddled out. (Basically, you turn the board over and go under it, letting the wave break over you, then pop up after it passes and get back on the board to keep paddling.)

I was grateful for the help, and both R and M gave me friendly advice about how to catch waves and where I should sit and wait for them. Thanks to their help, I managed to sit out in the back and watch the better surfers catch wave after wave for awhile. It was a warm day and the sun was out, so it was really quite lovely just to be out there with my friends enjoying the ocean, and to remember again why I love surfing so much (even if I am still just learning).

I caught two waves of my own, but completely wiped out without even standing up on the first, and rode the second mostly on my belly. Still, it built up my confidence, and now I’m feeling better about going out on a small-wave day and sitting in the back with the others, even if I don’t catch anything.

It’s thanks to the third of my recent transactions I am now equipped to surf. Thanks to the first, I became the proud owner of a black 1997 Fiat Punto. The transaction was done nearly entirely in Portuguese, as the owner of the car didn’t speak English. Most of it I handled myself and, wonder of wonders, most of my friends agree I got a really good deal for a used car in Portugal (apparently they can be quite expensive and quite crap at the same time). I paid 900 euros for it and it runs pretty well and was spotless when I bought it (it’s since picked up some dirt and crumbs, the former from my driving around the countryside on back roads and the latter from a sandwich I ate in it the other day).

Getting the car was easy enough, give or take a hiccup. When you buy a car here you and the previous owner have to go to some official Portuguese office (don’t ask me to tell you the name of it or find my way back to the one we went to in Lagos) and fill out paperwork to transfer the title and registration of the car over to the new owner. The first time we tried to do that, there was some discrepancy between the car’s current title and the new paperwork, so we had to go back a second time before that could be completed. All of this as I said was done in Portuguese or miming, so it was quite a little adventure.

I drove the car for a couple of days without having insurance, which is much cheaper here than it is in the states — I’m paying 250 euros for a year instead of the $1200 I’d be paying in the U.S. I asked around trying to figure out how to get it, and was all set to randomly go into an insurance company or bank (some of them do insurance as well) to get it. But then I looked at a studio apartment a woman is renting nearby and happened to ask her if she knew of an insurance agent, and lo and behold, the next day she had hers coming round to her house to sign her sister up for insurance.

So the day after I looked at her apartment (I think I may take it — it’s 300 euros a month with electricity, water, gas and Internet included, and isn’t far from where I am now), I went back over to meet with the insurance agent. Of course, that transaction took more than two hours (just like pretty much anything official you do around here), and the insurance agent (a 50-ish Portuguese man named Antonio) and I got into a few tiffs here and there. But now I’m a legal owner and driver of a car in Portugal, so I’m pretty pleased with how it all worked out.

One of the things I really love about the Portuguese is how easy it is to argue with them and not have them take it too seriously. My passionate Italian nature lines up nicely with this quality. If you get upset about something, it’s quite easy to raise your voice and sound very agitated with a Portuguese person, and have them do the same back, and then end the argument very quickly in a very friendly way without any offense taken by either party. I dig that.

The point Antonio and I argued most over is some Portuguese insurance clause that considers how long a person has had a license to drive to decide how expensive their insurance should be. Now that in and of itself isn’t strange — I’m pretty sure it’s that way in the states as well.

The problem we ran into is this: Because I am driving on an American driver’s license that was issued only last year in the state of Pennsylvania (I had to get it there so I could go to the Italian consulate in Philadelphia to get my Italian passport), in Portuguese terms I have only been driving for one year. That’s totally not true, of course — I’ve been driving for 22 years. But this is not something you could explain to the Portuguese insurance people. They are sticklers for paperwork around here to an absolutely ridiculous degree, and if my license says it was issued in June 2009, well then by god to them, that’s the very first time I ever had a license.

So now I’m supposed to be contacting the DMV in Pennsylvania to get some kind of record proving I’ve had a license since 1987, not 2009. (I got my license in that state when I was 16 years old.) I’m pretty sure the Portuguese don’t quite understand what a royal pain in the arse doing that is going to be for me. But for all their love of paperwork, the Portuguese themselves aren’t really in a hurry to get things done generally, so I’m certainly not going to rush acquiring proof of my driving experience.

All in all, I’m quite delighted and mostly amused by how things work around here, and am generally pretty happy with my new life. There are some things I hope get sorted out, both personally and logistically, but I’m trying to be patient and be happy and proud that I’ve gotten myself this far.


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Portugal nights




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Originally uploaded by michael…campbell

One of the traveling surf crew my friends in Portugal have been hanging around snapped this photo a little more than a week ago in Sagres. Sagres is the southwestern-most point of continental Europe and is a fun little town in which we all hang out quite a bit.

I’m not sure what time in the morning it was but at some point we all went outside the bar, Pau de Pita, and were drinking on the benches like we were in high school or something.

This is me and my American/English dual citizen friend R mugging for the camera, with D on the other side of him and French surfer and traveler S on the left. (S, himself a chilled-out, gentle soul, is a bit shy about having his photo taken.) It was quite a fun night, and I’m sure there will be many more to come…


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My new home…finally!

It took me more than a year to make this happen but I’m finally living in southwest Portugal full time — at least for the foreseeable future. I’m currently staying with my friend D, living in a mini-apartment above her house in Burgau, on the south coast, for the month of February in exchange for doing some work for her.

This is a view of my balcony on a sunny day — which there haven’t been that many of since I’ve been here (damned La Nina year; February is not usually this wet!).

I’ve been here more than a week now and have been busy trying to get my life going. I’ve also been working a lot, both for D and also an every-day freelance gig for Informationweek writing stories about government and technology.

But so far I’m off to a good start — I bought a used Fiat Punto yesterday, and I looked at an apartment for rent nearby today and am looking at two more tomorrow. I have a lead on a job for the upcoming holiday season here, and I already have some friends who make life here fun. I’m trying to be patient and know everything will eventually fall into place.

I’ll be posting more as things progress. Until then, enjoy my new view of the world…I certainly do.