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The Honeymoon Effect
Portugal is for lovers
Right now at the cafe just outside my window, a man is sipping his Sagres and serenading the neighborhood with a love song. The only word I can make out is “Madalena,” but the tune is melancholy and romantic and I have decided he is singing about a love long lost.
This morning, Filha and I walked around the corner to the Mercearia Américo, our neighborhood grocery. It’s been in operation more than 50 years, offering “tudo o que os clientes merecem com simpatia e qualidade todos os dias, cerca de 15 horas” (everything that customers deserve, with friendliness and quality every day, about 15 hours).
We were in search of Filha’s new favorite, peach (pêssego) iced tea. And we needed some bread. When it was our turn, I pointed to the bins of bread behind the elderly proprietor (Senhor Américo) and said simply, “Pão, por favor?”
“Qual deles?” he responded, which I could only guess meant “Which one?” or “What kind?” I didn’t know the names of any specific types of bread so I panicked and pointed at a large loaf behind his balding head. Turns out it was a very good choice—one of the most delicious slices of bread I’ve ever had in my life.
Every day, I go out walking—exploring, really. Sometimes solo, but usually with Vila, Filha, Marido or some combination of the three. I can barely walk a block without stopping to take a photo of a red door framed by curving boughs of bougainvillea, of a rusted door knocker in the shape of a hand, of tile and tile and tile and tile.
I can’t get enough of the azulejos, the painted ceramic tiles that line the interiors and exteriors of houses, churches, office buildings, street signage. In two weeks, I’ve harvested images of 74 different azulejos, according to the new album on my phone that’s entirely devoted to them.
Sidebar on the etymology of the word azulejo: It has its origins in the Arabic word الزليج (al-zillīj) or zellige, which means “polished stone.” According to Wikipedia, originally the azulejo was meant to imitate Byzantine and Roman mosaics. Many tiles still show the distinctly Arab influences of interlocking curvilinear, geometric, or floral motifs.
It’s a good thing I’m madly in love with Portugal, because we couldn’t go back to our old life if we wanted to—this week, our sweet little seahorse beach house in San Francisco went under contract for more money than we could ever afford to pay for it.
But that’s ok. We’re settling in here; getting comfy. We’ve ordered armchairs. Our shipping container is (supposedly) 17 days from the docks—and with it comes all our art, our books, our rugs, our homey bits and bobs.
Speaking of shipping containers, we had to take some customs paperwork to our moving company in Sintra. So we made a day of it, wandering the town, taking a tuk-tuk drive-by of the five (!) castles/palaces/fairytale estates: Palácio da Pena (Pena Palace); Quinta da Regaleira (aka “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire”); Palácio de Monserrate (Monserrate Palace); Palácio Nacional de Sintra (The National Palace or Town Palace); and my favorite—at least from afar—Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors).
It was our first foray out of Setúbal as tourists (we’ve been to Lisbon a couple of times, but only to buy furniture and a Piaggio scooter). We didn’t tour the interiors of Sintra’s palaces because we have the luxury of getting to know one another slowly.
For today, it was enough just to meet Sintra for the first time, to enjoy a cheeseboard at a folding table in a hidden alley, to browse a store devoted to nothing but tinned fish, to buy blue and yellow house numbers at a tile shop for our friends R&A back in California, to discover a charming view from the tall windows of an artist’s studio—and bring home one of his paintings of glowing orange poppies.
Steady as She Goes
Even when we’re not visiting forested fairytale villages, when we’re just puttering around our house/neighborhood, I’m shocked at how quickly the days disappear. Without work. Without school. Without furniture. It’s not 100% real life yet, but it’s getting there.
These hazy early days feel like a strange combination of vacation + everyday. We’re wandering picturesque cobblestone streets in the morning and picking out new toilets at the hardware store in the afternoon.
Setúbal/Portugal/This New Life isn’t perfect, of course it’s not. But I haven’t gotten mad at it yet for leaving dirty socks on the floor or failing to compliment me when I show up in fancy earrings.
I don’t understand enough Portuguese yet for the cafe chatter outside my window to be anything other than charming. And so far I’ve only had one minor hankering for food that I can’t find here (Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage, of all the weird cravings).
Is there dog poop on the cobblestones? Occasionally. Is my Portuguese accent an abomination? Absolutely. Does the water in the shower run bracingly cold, then fiercely hot, then switch back to arctic? It does indeed.
It’s not perfect. But is it as good as we had hoped and dreamed? Yes. It is. It’s even better.
Over time, who’s to say how this love story will unfold? I hope Portugal comes to love me back. I hope I learn to speak her language. I hope the pop and fizz of honeymoon feelings (amoriscar) deepens to something truly solid. Something like my love for San Francisco, but different.
An older, wiser love. A love with wrinkles and stretch marks.
Outside my window now, the church bells at Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Anunciada are bonging out the late hour.
The cafe customers have downed their Sagres and helped Germinia carry the tables inside for the night.
The cats are coming out of their napping holes, tails all swish and satisfaction.
It’s time for dinner. (We eat late here.)
I don’t know the lifespan of this particular honeymoon. One year? Two? It doesn’t really matter. Happiness comes and goes, but happiness is not the end goal. Contentment is. Peace. That sense of rightness, of knowing your brain is in a good place. Bonus points if your body is, too. So long as this place is good for us (and we are good for it), we’ll be here.
And I’ll enjoy these heart eyes and belly butterflies for however long they last.
This week in photos…
A Postscript for New Readers…
There are a lot of new eyeballs here these last couple of weeks, so I want to welcome all of you who’ve subscribed recently!
As you’ve likely already discovered, my name is LaDonna. I’m an American writer who recently (like, 16 days ago recently) moved from San Francisco, California to Setúbal, Portugal with my husband (code name: Marido), my 10-year-old daughter (code name: Filha), our 9-year-old Boxer/Boston Terrier mix dog (real name: Vila). Our parrot, a wee Green Cheek Conure named FeeBea, will be joining us as soon as her long-awaited export permit comes through. (Filha is counting the hours.)
I wrote a post introducing all of us last year when I started this newsletter. You can check it out here. We all look pretty much the same as we did then, except Filha is even taller and I don’t know what’s happening with my bangs (to grow them out or not, that is the everlasting question).
Generally, I write a post about once every two weeks. That might happen with more frequency now that we’ve landed in Portugal. I named this thing “Word Salad,” because there are a lot of different topics I want to write about. Of course, getting to Portugal has been the main focus for months and months. Living here—adjusting, exploring, learning—will also take up a lot of space.
But I’m also writing a book and speaking at conferences and doing a whole lot of other stuff that I’d like to write about here, if it feels appropriate. So that’s what you’re in for. Here’s a photo (taken today!) of me and my half-grown-out bangs, so you know who’s on the other side of the keyboard:
Thanks so much for reading along.
Copyright © 2021 LaDonna Witmer