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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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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Alive and kicking (it) in Lagos

I can’t believe it’s been more than five months since I’ve posted — more or less the same amount of time I’ve lived in Lagos, Portugal. The town, it seems, has consumed me, for many reasons too numerous to name.

I will eventually get around to describing the turn of events that have kept me insanely busy since I moved here, although some of them are not fit for publication (at least, not in this venue, stay tuned for the tell-all memoir!). But until I can get my head around it all — and believe me, it may take a lifetime to absorb it all — I wanted to provide at least a quick update on my expatriate life as it is today.

I’m still living in a beautiful little house on the edge of Old Town in a primarily Portuguese neighborhood. I have finally become not just acquainted with but friends with my landlord and sorted out a year lease for the house, and its interior has been freshly painted and cleaned and is looking pretty snazzy.

How this all happened is a long story in and of itself, and at one point seemed like it might never happen. But it did, and I’m happy to have finally — after months of uncertainty about my living situation — settled into a home.

Since I last posted I’ve also opened a boutique/art gallery just around the corner from my house. It’s called Pogo Gallery, and it sells mainly handmade items — clothes, jewelry, bags, textiles, photographs, paintings, organic food and soap — sourced from the local area.

As you might imagine, it was a load of work to put it all together, and it’s been slow going in terms of business (let’s not even talk about profitability), but I have learned immensely from my experience, and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.

The photo is of the interior of Pogo as it is during my first summer holiday season here in Lagos. I designed much of it myself, though I had friends help me with painting and building the displays and furniture for the shop, nearly all of which was custom-made for it.

Being a local business owner has also helped me become a real part of this community of people that call Lagos home year-round. Last week I went to an annual music festival near Zambujeira do Mar and camped with a bunch of them, another one of memorable experiences I’ve stacked up in the short time I’ve lived here.

Lagos is primarily a holiday town, with a lot of transient 20-somethings working bar and restaurant jobs for the summer to earn money on their way to their next destination — many go to ski resorts in the Alps to do the fall/winter holiday season there.

August is the busiest month in Lagos, when tourists from around Portugal and Europe invade the town, crowding restaurants, bars and beaches. It’s a bit insufferable (not to mention wicked HOT), but having survived nearly two years living in NoLIta, in the heart of downtown NYC — where it’s rammed with tourists for months on end, not just a few weeks of summer — Lagos doesn’t seem all that bad.

There are, however, a group of people in Lagos and its immediate surroundings that have made a conscious decision to call this quirky little town home. For better or worse (and believe me, I could argue both sides), I have become one of those people. I’m not sure how long I will live here, but I am committing myself to the place for at least the next couple of years, even if I take some time off in the winter — like many do — to go traveling for awhile.

Because this picturesque little town isn’t such a bad place to use as home base, and now that I’ve finally made the move to Europe, I honestly don’t have any desire to return to the U.S. — at least not on any permanent basis — anytime soon. And while I may not stay in Lagos forever, it’s certainly been — with its staple of English-speaking expatriates, all of us bound by a desire to escape whatever life we left behind — a soft place for me to land on a new continent.


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Because sometimes it rains in paradise

I haven’t really felt like writing lately, and I’m not sure why. I think it’s because I’ve been busy living and processing and trying to feel at home here in my new town, and I really haven’t had much to say.

I’ve spent the last few days surfing as much as I can when I’m not working. I’m really addicted to it again, and as I’ve seen noticeable improvement in my skills in the last week or so, there’s little else I feel like doing right now.

I’m beginning to understand that surfing is a disease, an addiction. Except for caffeine, I’ve never really had an addictive personality for the things people usually become addicted to, like cigarettes, alcohol or drugs. I’ve considered myself pretty immune to being an addict.

But surfing is different for me, and I understand now how it inspires people to pack up their lives in a minivan and go off traveling for months just to catch waves. Surfing not just a sport; it’s a mindset, a way of life, a personal philosophy. It sounds pretty stereotypical and stoner-y to say such a thing, but as someone who has been surfing on and off for almost a year now, and quite regularly for the past four months, I can tell you it’s totally, 100-percent true.

It’s a chemical thing, too — I think you become addicted to the adrenalin rush of being in the ocean and standing up on a wave. I find myself needing to get wet, needing to be in the ocean, feeling depressed if there are no waves to ride or if I don’t have the time to go surfing because of work or other responsibilities.

I suppose there are worse things to be addicted to. And at least surfing is somewhat good for me.

To be perfectly honest, I feel like it’s pretty much the best thing I have right now, living alone as I am in a foreign country where I still feel somewhat out of place and am still fumbling my way through new friendships, a new language and a whole new life. Getting in the ocean and standing up on a surfboard is mostly what I have to look forward to these days, so it’s no wonder I need it like a junkie needs heroin.

Other than surfing, I’ve spent my first couple of weeks in my new town of Lagos getting acclimated to my new surroundings.

I’ve realized that in the different places I’ve lived I fall into familiar patterns when I have just arrived. I explore by taking long walks or jogs or hikes in the area immediately surrounding my new domicile, taking photos in my mind of places of interest so I will know to return to them.

I note the closest restaurants, bars, stores and services of interest. I find new paths and routes that are relatively traffic-free and jogger- and walker-friendly. I quietly observe my neighbors to see what they’re like and if there’s anyone I think I should try to get to know.

Because it’s southern Portugal and it’s all about the stunning natural scenery, I’ve already explored the four closest beaches to me — Meia Praia, a long beach to the northeast that stretches toward Portimao; Praia Dona Ana, slightly to the southwest and probably the closest beach to me; Praia do Carilo, a little further to the west of Dona Ana; and Praia Porto de Mos, which is somewhere in the middle and is the only one I’d ever been to before.

One night last week also took me to cliffs hugging the coast and eventually to Ponta de Piedade, a point with a lighthouse perched on one of those cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean. It was a beautiful night — for once it wasn’t raining, and the air held that heavy early-spring wetness that held promise and mystery instead of dread and misery.

With all the rain Portugal (much of Europe, actually) has had this winter, I’ve been quite sick of everything being moist since I’ve returned, and my short time in Lagos has been no different. This week the sun has finally broken through two days in a row, but mostly it’s been wet and generally horrible, and everyone here in the Algarve has been trudging along in a collective foul mood.

As I take predictable routes to try to make myself comfortable here, still I struggle with the same emotional and existential questions I’ve had my entire life. Luckily for me, there have been some unexpected surprises since my move that have once again reminded me that I am here for a reason.

Those surprises came in the form of people. One is C, the Dutch girlfriend of the first friend I made in this area, D. (You may remember him from previous blog posts.)

The other are R and my temporary flatmate K, who two days ago moved to Lisboa but became, to my surprise, a friend and confidante in the week that we lived together.

R is a 50-something Venezuelan man who was K’s boss at a tapas restaurant just down the street from our house, and K is a 29-year-old Hungarian woman who reminds me of a younger version of myself in style, temperament and life philosophy.

All three of them have helped give me perspective on my life — in particular on the fact that I came here to live on my own, something that continues to both terrify and thrill me — in just the short time I’ve known them.

I am learning to take what life gives me and listen to my intuition, but it’s still a struggle to trust that there is a bigger plan at work, and to trust that my own instincts and intuition are leading me in the right direction.

There already are things here I long for, situations that haven’t worked out as I expected, desires that my Buddhist-trained mind is trying to detach from. I see the truth about people I’ve met — or what I believe is “the truth” — and don’t necessarily like what I see.

I get angry with myself for wanting something I don’t have and not being happy for the happiness of other people, because judging other people and misdirected desire are wastes of energy and time and do no one any good.

And still I question my own lifestyle and the choices I’ve made. I question my intensity. I wonder why it is I can never take the path that is easy for me, and why I still feel like it’s such an uphill battle sometime to make authentic connections with people.

I know I am not alone in any of my thoughts, feelings and ponderings. I am not unique in my feelings of discontentment, even when I know in my heart I have a beautiful life.

I will get through this transitional time and find a place of more comfort, and I will someday read these words again and see how far I’ve come from feeling this way.

For now as I sit uneasily and uncomfortably with some emotional challenges, I take comfort in small things. Sitting on my surfboard in an ocean that I have all to myself just after sunset, waiting for another wave to roll in.

The sound of seagulls crying outside my window in the morning, a wake-up reminder of how close I live to the sea.

Buying a gas bottle that will provide me with hot water and stove power for the next month from an elderly Portuguese man at the tiny bar down the street, an activity that very distinctly reminds me I indeed am now living in Portugal.

The strange apparition of a man playing a kazoo and pushing an old rusty bicycle down that same street this morning, a man my new friend C told me is probably the local knife sharpener who comes through town periodically. (If what she says is true it could quite possibly be the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.)

These may be uneasy days but they are also beautiful and pure and full of life. It is my life and for each breath I am grateful, and while there are things I want but don’t have, there is nothing I really need. In fact, you could argue I have far more than anyone can ever need, that I am luckier than most people deserve to be in a lifetime.

Maybe I haven’t been able to write because I’m afraid of what I might say. I’m afraid I might sound ungrateful for not being 100 percent happy all the time in the middle of such an abundant life.

But the truth is, paradise has teeth. It bites. Hard.

Sometimes it rains even in paradise. And not just showers, but Biblical shit that makes you forget not only what it feels like to have the sun on your face, but that there was ever a sun at all.

Today I went north to Odeceixe — the town in which I first fell in love with this place — and had tea with C and we discussed how compelled we felt to move here and how, once we did, we mostly wondered what the hell we were thinking. There are a lot of people like us here who are pulled as if by a magnet or that tractor beam from the Death Star in Star Wars and, once here, think at least once nearly every day that they’ve made some horrible mistake.

Because while it is beautiful here, it can also be lonely. And in Portugal if you are foreign, you are *really* foreign. Portuguese to non-native speakers is an especially incomprehensible language that takes years to learn, and the Portuguese, bless them, are not the friendliest nor the most open-minded population in the world.

I really loved Red Hook, Brooklyn, the neighborhood I lived in for a year before I came here. I really felt like I could have settled there and happily become a part of the community, and I fiercely miss some of the people I met there and the feeling of camaraderie that neighborhood more than any other I lived in in NYC has.

The problem is, I moved there when the Algarve tractor beam already had a lock on me and, as much as I could just as easily have built a cozy life in Red Hook and found my own little niche among its infinitely creative and beautiful band of weirdos, I really didn’t have a choice in the matter.

I am luckier than many, and I know that. I have friends here, some of whom could very well be true keepers. I have a place to live, a car to drive, a surfboard to ride. I have a seemingly endless ocean that in the past few days has graciously served up small and manageable waves for me to ride. I have a roof terrace with a view of that ocean. Every day my eyes see something new and uniquely beautiful that I have never seen before.

So while I am not unhappy to be here, nor am I completely satisfied. And that’s OK. That’s pretty damned human, in fact.

And paradise, while quite a nice concept, doesn’t really exist — at least, not in the way one might think it’s supposed to be. It is a hell of a lot more complicated than that.


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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.