Last week we went to London to get some decent boba.
That’s not the only reason we went to London, but it’s not the smallest reason, either. (Boba was delicious and plentiful in the outer avenues of San Francisco. In Lisbon, a solid milk tea with squishy tapioca balls is hard to come by. Even more so in Setúbal.)
The real reason we went to London is Sarah.
For the last 20-some years, Sarah has been nestled in one of the tightest concentric circles of friendship. Calling her a “best” friend never feels quite right. Kind of like calling a country #1. It’s not a competition. There are no podiums, no gold medals.
But that circle of nearest/dearest friends is quite small, and Sarah’s place in it has been quite secure nearly since the day we met.
Eight years ago she married a Brit and left California for England. We stayed connected through texts and video chats and never went long without talking. She came back to San Francisco every once in awhile, and twice I went to London to see her. I had a third trip planned for April of 2020, but we all know what happened there.
Now I can’t remember the last time we saw each other. Was it 2017 or 18? Everything before COVID seems so far away. Whatever the actuality, it had been too long between visits. She was hoping to come to Portugal to visit shortly after we arrived, but unexpected life stuff got in the way.
So finally I went to her. And I took Filha along.
I’ve been to London multiple times, but a lot has changed since my first visit 18 years ago. I’m sure the city itself has changed in that time, but I feel like the changes I noticed were more within myself. (For one thing: I know how to drive in roundabouts now!)
My first few visits to London were quick stopovers on my way somewhere else: headed home from Italy or passing through before my real vacation in Scotland. I would stay in London for a day or three—hit the Tate, see a show on the West End, browse bookstores on Charing Cross Road.
It was fun but familiar. Like New York with a different accent and a queen on the penny. I was always more eager for something further afield. Something unfamiliar.
But now I live further afield.
Everywhere I go is unfamiliar. Even the grocery store.
So visiting the UK this time around, I was eager for the familiar. Just for a few days, I wanted a break from existing in a constant state of bafflement.
I wanted to read all the signs and billboards without thinking. To understand the entire context of the conversation at the café table next to me based on only a few overheard sentences. To feel maybe not like I belonged, exactly, but that I blended better.
I love Portugal. I have zero regrets about moving here. And nearly two years in, I am decidedly less baffled in general.
But it’s still a lot of effort, every single day.
Today, for example, I stopped by our favorite bakery in Quinta do Anjo to pick up some pastries and Valentine cookies for Filha. I was bustling right along through my order in fairly decent Portuguese and then completely forgot the word for cookies. My brain just filled with white noise. My eyes glazed over. The woman behind the counter looked alarmed.
“Isso,” I finally managed, pointing shamefacedly to the frosted, heart-shaped cookies. “Se faz favor.”
I got the cookies (bolachas—the word is bolachas), but I also got a headache.
So it was nice, for a few days, to not have to work so hard for even the smallest transaction. I found myself chatting up cashiers and waitresses far more than I usually do, just because I could.
Also, showing Filha around a new-to-her place never gets old. We took the train from Essex, where Sarah lives, to Liverpool Station, and then transferred to the tube. We stopped by the Natural History Museum and then went to the Thames to goggle at Tower Bridge. Sarah pointed out the Shard and the Gherkin. We bought wool hats (me) and a felted dog (Filha) in Spitalfields.
Since we were primarily there to visit Sarah, though, I didn’t have a big agenda to do the whole, “Look kids: Big Ben! Parliament!” sightseeing tour. Mostly we were on the lookout for bookstores. And Thai food. And boba.
After all the disconnection and uncertainty of the last few years, we also just wanted to be together.
Some of our best hours were spent walking through frosted morning meadows with Sarah and her dog Buster. Or sitting around cooling cups of tea, talking about everything and nothing and soaking up the absolute luxury of being in the same place at the same time, breathing the same air.
Sarah read some of the memoir I’m writing and paid me the best compliment by sighing and laughing in all the right places. Filha regaled Sarah for hours (literal hours) with a detailed accounting of how to be a wolf in her favorite online game. JC, Sarah’s husband, kept us all well-fed and pampered. And for three magical days in a row, the British sun put in a rare February appearance.
Sarah and JC were dazzled. “It’s been oppressively gray for months!” they said.
Maybe we brought some sunshine with us from the southern realms. Or maybe England just wanted to ensure that we’ll come back.
London’s only a two-hour flight from Lisbon, after all. And we share a time zone, so there’s zero jet lag.
Plus, there’s boba.
It won’t be long: we’ll be back.
The day before yesterday I went to the market to buy a specific kind of cheese, and was doing so well in the transaction until the vendor asked me if I wanted a bag. I know the word "bolsa" (I'm in Spain), we were at the point of the interaction where I'd be asked if I wanted a bag, and yet suddenly my brain turned his words into that mumbly sound that all the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons make. Luckily the vendor is a very sweet man, he repeated his question with the international hand gesture of putting something in a bag, and we both laughed.
(PS, I know EXACTLY where you and Sarah are standing in that picture!)
Oh yeah, I had one of these "white noise" brain freezes just the other day. I was at my usual bar, ordering my usual caffè machiato, and all of a sudden I couldn't remember how to say "please" in Italian. I mean...I'm sure the look on my face said it all. Sometimes even the simplest thing is just too much for my poor frazzled mind.