The Thing About Visitors
When you live in a global tourist zone
You drive to the airport at midnight, fizzy with anticipation.
You made a sign. You made the bed.
You turned on all the lights to welcome the ones you left behind.
You’ve missed them like a heartbeat. Counted down the months-days-minutes.
You’ve made lists of delights they can sample.
But the truth is:
You just want to fold them into your life like laundry.
Come with me to the grocery, the hair salon. We can pick up the post and belly rub the dog. Let’s fill our teas with ice and loiter on the terrace, gossiping about everyone we’ve ever known. The light in Portugal, it’s so baked-bread-looking. We’ll watch it dissolve into the Atlantic while we reminisce about the Pacific.
Let’s stay up late and get up later. Let’s just be. Here. Together.
The airplane touches down wheels. Progress comes in texts.
”We have landed.”
”The passport control line is short.”
”Waiting for bags.”
You scrutinize every body that exits. Is this them? Is that? Finally the long awaited faces. Squeals and embraces. Arrival gate smiles from all around.
They’re here. They’re here. They’re here.
The next day is jet lag. The day after, reality.
Because this is not their life. This is their vacation.
They love you. They love your dog.
But they raided their savings account to travel 5,687 miles. Of course they have an agenda. Tram 28 and Pena Palace and Ponta da Piedade and the dolphin boat.
They have missed you, but also.
They are here to Pack! It! In!
Make! Some! Memories! go and Go and GO.
You’ve been them, too, with 21 vacation days out of 365.
You once had that life that requires you to maximize.
You can’t expect it to work the way it used to when you shared a street and a carpool lane.
So you seize every liminal moment. Squeeze the juice from every ticket line and ten-minute drive. You obsess over the details of their person, their outfits, their inflections.
How much have they changed?
How much have you?
Too soon the week is up.
You sit on the suitcase so they can zip it.
One last conversation on the way to the airport.
You park and walk with them as far as the rules will let you.
You hug and the promises fall like tears: “We’ll call. We’ll write. We’ll see you soon.”
And then their backs, even these are beloved. A wave as they turn the corner.
The silence all the way home is desolate, but welcome.
Notes on a theme…
I’ve been thinking about this topic for a very long time, about how to navigate the tension of entertaining friends who come to visit us, but also to visit Portugal.
It’s something I didn’t think about at all before we moved here. Back then, I just assumed we’d be lucky and delighted to host anybody who wanted to come all this way to see us. And we are. Lucky. Delighted. Always.
But the experience can also be tricky, especially when the visitors are close friends who used to live an arm’s length away. We are accustomed—we were accustomed—to them being readily available for lunch, play dates, walks to the beach, pancakes in our pajamas. We used to pull weeds with them or make dinner together or pick up their kids from school. We’d get together for a few hours and then return to our own everyday business.
And since we all lived in the tourist zone of San Francisco, none of us needed to go see the sights. Our only objective was to hang out with each other.
It’s different now. Of course it is. But also, holy wow is it different! You’re all up in each other’s space in a way that you never have been before. It’s great to wake up to each other, but it’s also weird. And exhausting. And then you have to manage feeling guilty/bad/weird about that exhaustion.
You sort of share an agenda: to be together. But not really. Because you live in this place and you have seen plenty of sights and you just want to hang out. Pull weeds. Walk the dogs. You have imagined doing these things together, again, here in your new life.
But it doesn’t work like that anymore. It’s not fair to ask it to work like that.
There’s nothing wrong with loved ones coming to visit and wanting to cram in all the sightseeing they can muster. There’s also nothing wrong with us not wanting to see Sintra for the umpteenth time. How we handle that, how we create space to be together and apart, to see and be seen, has been an unexpectedly steep learning curve.
In the 19 months we’ve lived in Portugal, we’ve had five sets of dear friends/family come and stay with us. We’ve been overjoyed to host them and sad to see them go.
(I cry when they arrive and weep when they leave.)
With each successive visit, we’re getting better and better at navigating this particular tension. My sister, our most recent visitor, spent a week with us and it was 100% amazing, so we’re definitely getting somewhere good.
Honestly? I cannot wait for the next batch of visitors. I have so much to show them!
Copyright © 2023 LaDonna Witmer