There is something so simple, yet so astonishing about travel. You get on a plane and wake up on the other side of the world.
Filha and I have been in Portugal for a week now, reunited with Marido and Vila. After seven days, you’d think I’d be getting used to the idea of being here. But at least once a day, I pinch myself to make sure this is really real.
We dreamed and what-iffed and planned for so long, it’s proving harder than expected to believe my own eyes.
I am here. These cobblestones are my sidewalk now. The smell of jacaranda blossoms, my air. The ebb and hum of café chatter outside the window, the calls of diving swifts in the gloaming, the crumbled beauty of abandoned buildings in the Baixa district—this is my neighborhood now.
I am no longer “moving to Portugal someday/next year/soon.” I have moved. I live here. The miracle of it all! (And yes, the work of it, the months and months of work and worry—but right now? Right now it feels simple and miraculous.)
I thought I would write right away, after landing. I thought I would be overflowing with words to describe it to you. But it appears I need a moment. I am overcome.
Love at first sight
Before the move, I spent some quality time fidgeting with anxiety about whether I would even actually like Portugal, having never been here before. Having moved our entire lives here without ever visiting the country, just to make sure. It always felt crazy to say that out loud, to watch other people’s eyes widen in shock, hear their disbelieving laugh. “Wow!” they’d say. “That’s brave.”
They didn’t say the thought in parentheses. (That’s risky. Possibly stupid.) But we all knew it was lurking. I could feel it lurking real hard ‘round about 3 am.
Now that I am here, I can say without reservation that those hours of anxiety were ill-spent. I love it—Portugal, Setúbal, all of it.
I am head over heels. I walk the streets gawking like a noob. Entranced, enamoured, ensorcelled, enchanted: all the dramatic, romantic e-words apply here.
And sure, this first week has also contained more prosaic things like jet lag and grocery shopping, school tours with Filha and furniture consultations with Marido. Our shipping container is perched aboard a cargo ship that has only just squeezed its way through the Panama Canal, and though we brought a ridiculous number of suitcases/duffels with us (nine with Marido, six with myself and Filha), we couldn’t cram all our creature comforts into the cargo bay.
So our house in Portugal (our house! also a really real thing that actually exists!!) is mostly empty, except for the beds we ordered to be delivered before we arrived, along with a desk and chair. (More about that desk and chair in a minute.) But somehow it’s feeling homey, even without all the soft stuff that cozies up a place.
As you know if you’ve been reading along from the beginning (or catching up along the way), we purchased our house in Setúbal sight unseen, way back in February. (If you’re reading for the first time, welcome! You can read all about who we are here.)
We knew the risks, but we had a great realtor (and friend, now) who helped us figure things out every step along the way, and we lucked out. We love our house. It’s old and the layout is weird, but we appreciate old and weird. It’s roomy enough for the three of us, plus dog (and eventually, bird). It has great light and good vibes and cute corners, and I am so looking forward to getting it all set up.
Filha brought about 30 “extremely necessary” books in her suitcases, along with several “very important” stuffed animals, which were squished down to lumpy pancakes in vacuum bags. Turns out piles of books and squishmallows cozy a place up, as well, so her room is looking lived-in already. Marido and I have a lot further to go with the rest of the house, but summer is for nesting. And exploring. And taking Portuguese lessons.
Right out our front door we have a charming little square with a café and restaurants just across the way—which makes for a bustling weekend evening. We are learning the ebb and flow of people and have already made friends with Jemina, who owns the café.
Bit by bit, we’ve been exploring the rest of Setúbal. We meant to hike up to Forte de São Filipe this morning, but we got distracted by a really good looking trail through the woods and ended up at the beach, instead.
Every day we discover something new. Yesterday, I strolled through Jardim do Bonfim on my way to a manicure with an absolutely lovely woman named Letitia. (Elda, our realtor/friend, had said, “Don’t be shy if you have questions about anything!” So I said, “Pretty soon I’m going to need a recommendation for a good place to get a manicure.” Next thing I know, Elda had booked me an appointment at her favorite salon.)
As I was walking, admiring the greenery and the rotund Pasmadinhos by artist Mario Pó, I noticed a woman walking toward me with her small, handsome dog.
“I know that woman,” I thought to myself, even though that was crazy because it was only my 6th day in Setúbal and my first time ever setting foot in Bonfim Park. Also, we were both wearing masks so I couldn’t really see her face. But as she drew closer and I studied her hairdo, my conviction grew. I knew this woman.
“Bom dia,” I said tentatively. “Are you Shanna?”
Lucky me, she was Shanna—another writer from California (with a substack newsletter) who lives in Setúbal and has 2+ years in Portugal under her belt. We had met online a couple of months ago, exchanging hellos and small confidences in that cautiously friendly way you do with internet acquaintances. But how random—how delightful—to run into someone here, on this side of the Atlantic, who actually knew who I was when I said my name.
It made me feel as though that kind of thing might be the norm in the not-so-distant future. Setúbal isn’t a huge city; soon it will be a regular occurrence to meet people and run into them around town, later. Because, oh right! I live here now.
One of the big (colossal, immense) things I have been looking forward to about this move is a dedicated time and a place to write. For myself—not for a client or corporation. I’ve been looking forward to having the time and place to finish my book. To start a second (!) book, even.
Long ago, when we looked at photos of this house of ours online, I staked out my writing territory in one of the 1st floor bedrooms. (I should note here that in Portugal, “1st floor” is what we call “2nd floor” in the States. Here, the ground floor is zero.) The room is small, with one window that opens out on the the square, but it has a door that will close me off from the rest of the house. Lock me in with my words.
I took screenshots of every photo available of the room (all 3 of them), and envisioned exactly where I’d place my writing desk: near the window, so the breeze and the voices of people at the café below would float across my keyboard. I could picture a fat armchair in the corner with Vila draped across it, and a bookshelf nearby, close enough that I could roll my desk chair over the tiled floor, reach for a book and flip to just the right page for inspiration.
The bookshelf and armchair (and books) aren’t here yet, but the desk is. That’s where I’m sitting, writing, right now.
This little room, this desk and chair, fill me with hope and a deep well of contentment. I am going to do so much in this room. I’m going to tell so many stories here. I’m going to find all the best words.
But right now? Right now I need to go for a walk. Take Vila to the park across the street. Plan tomorrow’s excursion with Marido. Stroll around the corner for a gelado with Filha. She and I (and Vila) have walked to the same (dog-friendly) shop, where she’s ordered a small cone, duas bolas (two scoops)—limão e framboesa (lemon and raspberry), five days in a row now.
For months—for years, really, it felt as if we were dismantling our lives in San Francisco. Taking everything apart; deciding what to keep and what to toss; packing the most precious pieces in cushioned boxes.
But now that we are here, we can begin to assemble those pieces. We can start building this new version of our life. There is so much to learn, so much to discover.
I can already feel myself expanding.