Hello all. What a week politically. Here’s some distraction.
Curious what sort of story caught Reese Witherspoon’s imagination — she snapped up the movie rights — I picked up Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Social misfit, physically-damaged Eleanor (“There was, it seemed, no Eleanor-shaped social hole for me to slot into”) first shares her brand new Hollywood bikini wax (I had no idea) but moves on to things like this: “I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist . . . is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.” Eleanor is delightfully capable of change. Honeyman’s quick, light prose has just enough fun and just enough suspense. You might see the movie, but read the book first!
Emily Fridlund is a friend of my own friend and priceless mentor, Gordon Mennenga. Her History of Wolves, long listed for the Booker Prize, is an excellent choice for a snowy winter night. The brilliantly observant 14-year old Linda copes with family love and family loss deep in the north woods of Minnesota. Linda’s mom implores her to ” ‘ . . . feel clean for a second, okay? Just feel good. . . . We’re starting over, you and me. I’m trying to get God on our side, do things different. So you can be a happy little kid again, got it? Can you just be a little kid for one second?’ I wasn’t sure what else I could be.” As I wrote on Goodreads, “Completely absorbing. Beautifully and honestly told.”
My own Connected Underneath is also story about family, and love, and the choices we make. Small stones create far-reaching ripples in the lives of wheelchair-bound Celeste, Theo, a single ex-biker dad, and his adopted daughter, Persephone. “[Theo] came to realize – we all come to realize – our search isn’t for family, exactly, but for connection, connections that will keep us, so we won’t drown, won’t fly off, something that will connect us underneath.”
And I’m going to throw this out there: Ron Chernow’s Hamilton — I know. A bit lengthy for this busy time of year, but, I’ve read nearly all the other Chernow biographies — astonishingly, they read like novels — and don’t know why I put this one off for so long. It provides fascinating insight into those Founding Fathers our politicians constantly evoke. Chernow gets to the truth about those early years of our republic, fraught with discontent and disagreement. We nearly didn’t make it, and yet here we are. Or, so far, here we are. Take a look — even if you’ve seen the musical!
These titles are readily available in all the usual places, but please support your local independent bookstores.
Nice to see you! Thanks for checking in.
Yesterday, The New Yorker Radio Hour featured Bruce Springsteen. Asked what he would have done if no record contract had ever come through, he said, ‘What I’d always done. Play music. I had no other skill.’ The fact that most writers can’t make a living with their work is no secret. But still, we write. We write because we have to. We don’t know anything else — even as most of us have developed other skills to support ourselves so that we can afford to write.
During these difficult times, stories, essays, articles, poetry — the words we use to share our experiences and our angst — are keeping us connected, granting us a sense of unity, and enabling us to move forward.
In this holiday season, I ask you all to support our work. Buy a book. Buy two books. In any format. Give them as gifts. To your family and friends, and to yourself. Discover a new writer. Re-discover an old one. Yes, of course, I am hoping that you will buy mine, but over the next weeks, I’m going to suggest titles from my latest stack.
Feel free to add yours in the comments!
The transition from a whirlwind trip – a few days in NYC to tie up loose ends and a few in Connecticut and Massachusetts to see family and friends – to this different apartment in a different part of Coimbra has been bumpy with jet lag, second-guessing, and questions.
What am I doing here?
When first arriving back in August, I knew the studio stay was temporary. I knew that in two months I’d be back in the states. This time, I have a lease and no planned trips ‘home.’ How will things work out? In this country? In this city? In this apartment?
Years ago, before moving into a Boston Back Bay apartment with two tiny, street-level windows, I had unsettling dreams about large dark windows sprouting wildly in weirdly alive walls. Later, in New York, the gargoyles hovering outside my 10th floor window caused nightmares so terrifying I had to move out.
Thankfully, this apartment, which I found just two days before flying to New York, has prompted no bad dreams, but, still, I worried, and worry still: Will I be productive here? What about my new neighborhood? My new neighbors? In-town apartments are surprisingly difficult to come by, so my new place hasn’t the European charm I’d imagined, but the apartment itself is cozy, and the people renting it to me extraordinarily kind. I’m in the gray monolith, way up high on the left:
The view is panoramic — I can see the sun both rise and set — but seems less immediate, less personal, than my views from the studio. But I can’t complain, not with the New Cathedral, the University bell tower, the Mondega River and surrounding hills. Here’s an early morning idea:
My new street name is a tongue-twister — Rua Doutour Antonio Jose de Almeida. I no longer need to climb up and down a relentlessly steep hill just to buy milk. My favorite parts of town are farther away. The coffee in the nearest cafes is just as good. And the wine. And the vegetables and cheeses and breads.
The people are just as kind – like the man on the train who noticed my heavy luggage and helped me get it to the platform even though his stop wasn’t Coimbra; the woman who walked me all the way to this street when I lost my way coming back from a shop my first morning here; and, of course, the warmth and generosity of my young landlord and his family.
Friends ask what typical days look like now. Very much like they did in Connecticut, and very much like other writers’ days. I write, read, paint, take walks, meet friends . . . it will take awhile to feel comfortable in these new rooms. I’m patient.
A shout out to ex-pats Linda and Vince, and a special thanks to Linda: she read both my books, Connected Underneath and Vanishing Point, while I was gone!
And we went shopping for furniture today — the apartment came with only a little — we lugged a writing table home in a taxi!
Unlike Connecticut, there’s no car to drive. No dogs to walk. No classes to teach. Few easy conversations in English. The water heater is attached to a wall in the kitchen. I light the stove burners with a match. The clothesline is at a freaky height – looking down at it causes me to hyperventilate. There are no screens on the windows. I’m likely to lose things.
There’s good news: I thought of this as home today. I wrote a new chapter. I’m optimistic. But this for real. I live here now.
P.S. Connected Underneath and Vanishing Point are available from Lethe Press, Amazon, and your indie bookstore. Vanishing Point is also available as a yummy audio book.
Not everything has gone smoothly! Here are a few of my new-to-Portugal blunders. I can laugh about everything but the police.
When I came back to my apartment the very first time the very first day, I couldn’t get my key to work. Trying every which way, knocking on doors up and down the floors . . . no response, no solution. My contact person’s phone number was inside on the table. What choice did I have but to Google the nearest police station? What would I say? Estupido! I rehearsed my speech the entire way there. A group of policemen were gathered at the station entrance. After explaining my dilemma to this unexpectedly large audience, two men separated themselves out and escorted me to their car where they put me in the back seat. Then, in addition to apologizing for bothering them with something so silly I had to admit to a fourth-floor walk-up. “Da nada.” No problem. The fellow who followed me up the stairs put my key in the door, adjusted the knob half an inch and, yup, open. “Don’t worry,” he insisted. “This happens at least once a day.” I wasn’t consoled.
The woman in charge of the apartment explained the touch button cook top by pressing here and there while explaining in Portuguese, Lights came on and numbers glowed. It looked easy. But later, when I tried, no matter how hard I pressed or how soft, nothing. I YouTubed instructions. Ah. Got it. Put the pan on the burner first. Be sure to press with your finger pad not the tip. Okay. I see. Still, nothing. I Googled how to do omelets, pasta, everything, in the microwave for two weeks before I saw the woman again. I Google Translated my question. She couldn’t resist smiling. It really is simple. This button first, not that one.
At the true-to-its name Jumbo market, I waited in line with my little baggies of produce and box of milk. Things are done differently from store to store, Jumbo is overwhelming, and the line long, so I was a little nervous. Back in March during my first grocery trip, not realizing people bring their own bags, I put my bread and cheese in my purse as others looked on. This time, when my turn came, I was informed through gestures and Portuguese that customers weigh their own things on digital scales right in the produce section. I would have gone myself but the cashier insisted on calling someone. (Just as well. I hadn’t been very successful with that stove.) The whole long Saturday line waited while a helper took my one red pepper, two tomatoes, and small bunch of broccoli back for pricing. Everybody was patient, no one said a word, but I felt unusually large and so very American.
There’s a confusing array of symbols and words on two separate panels on my apartment building’s washing machine. I push and pull buttons and knobs until I hear water running. Funny thing: I mentioned this to an expat yesterday, and she’s been doing the same thing for a year!
Clothes dryers are rare, but I have my very own clothes line and clothes pins. The line is all of three feet long. I’m four floors up. Anything that falls has a long way to go. I have to lean across eighteen inches to hang things. Did I mention I’m uncomfortable with heights? The first time, the clothes stayed put, but the clothes pins vanished. The next time — I’m sure I had two pillowcases. At least it wasn’t my underwear.
Nevertheless, this is home sweet home.
One day last week, I set off with three women I’d only recently met via expat Facebook groups, to explore Portugal east of Coimbra. There was Fran, our ringleader, with specific destinations – a house for sale and a famed Cerdeira village – Laura, her niece, their friend Jayne, and myself, although I shouldn’t leave out Lydia, our bff GPS.
Jayne, intrepid, drove our tiny stick shift around and around the many roundabouts, and negotiated hairpin-curve mountain roads even as they threatened to turn us upside down. Laura and Lydia were fearless navigators; Fran and I excellent back seat drivers.
Lydia dutifully sent us off towards Cerdeira Just outside Coimbra, there is clear, sad evidence of the recent forest fires, but the landscape is resilient and grand, with great sweeping vistas.
It was Laura who realized our road was about to turn to dust. My guess is that the village woman watching us knew how lost we were long before we got to her door. She was happy to help – in Portuguese – but then suddenly and excitedly waved down a Jeep: the people knew English! While the driver and his wife gently explained our error – there are three Cerdeiras, not one! — other women ventured from their houses. Jayne needed multiple maneuvers to U-turn in that narrow cobble-stone lane. Everyone helped, in English, in Portuguese, with universal gestures. The couple led us back to the main road in their Jeep, even taking time to warn us about a scary intersection. It took that village to set us straight. Off in the right direction we went, maybe a little embarrassed, but jolly.
The people in the Jeep were surprised we were willing to backtrack and drive so much longer to reach the right Cerdeira. (No a/c, by the way.) “It’s an hour,” they kept saying, “more,” as if we didn’t understand. But Fran and Laura greet every direction as the right one, because in every direction there’s adventure, and Jayne agrees. I can’t vouch for Lydia, but I had no argument. The Portuguese landscape is beautiful, textured, alluring, its people kind.
Mysterious Schist Villages dot a wide region. Painstakingly made of the local stone, no one knows exactly when they were built, or when they were abandoned. All that’s known is that they are hundreds of years old, and without running water or electricity or year-round inhabitants.
Until recently. Now, artist colonies are being organized; in time, a main one will be in Cerdeira. As we explored the deep clefts of rock and home, Fran dreamed of being a part of it all.
Right now, only seven people live in Cerdeira year round — here is where they wash their clothes.
So we expected lunch to be challenging. We’d each experienced scant offerings in out-of-the way places. A bit of cheese on a roll. An ice cream bar. Instead, the patio restaurant offered big ceramic bowls of wood-oven roasted pork ribs – enormous – and potatoes and broccoli. An omelet for me, vegetarian that I am, and a fresh, fresh salad. Here’s Jayne, Fran, and Laura with their feast:
Down the mountain’s twists and turns – frighteningly close to cliff edges – we wound our way through orchards, towns, and villages, following directions that went something like this: “just beyond the small café, turn right after the curve, the small curve, not the big one, and take the second left after the first right near the sleeping dog.” Naturally, we each had opinions as to what constituted a big curve and which sleeping dog to consider, but after a stop at that small café, that very small, very male café with the very large big-screen tv showing soccer, we arrived at Quartz Cottage, the property for sale.
A young man working with a local art initiative took us through the beautifully refurbished, traditional house. At its birth, animals lived below, and the family above, a common old European practice, but now the house is full of fresh, intelligent design, which seems to be the new Portuguese tradition. Beside the house, its stone barn full of rough beams and potential. Fran – all of us – left with ideas for studios, community, art.
We reached Coimbra – briefly by way of the wrong side of the river – still laughing, still joking, still telling stories, still finding ourselves hilarious, with energy leftover. So, leaving Lydia behind, we headed up the university hill for the lofty Loggia restaurant with its potent view of the city, and a well-earned pitcher of Sangria.
Friends and strangers alike often used the word brave to describe my decision to move to Portugal after having spent only two weeks here, and without knowing anyone except ex-pats on Facebook. The word seemed all wrong, but I was too busy with travel and moving prep to sort it out. Now, only five days in, the problem with the word becomes clear.
The assumption seems to have been that life in Fairfield County, in Newtown, Connecticut, was easy, and that life here will be one of loneliness and homesickness.
But think of this: Living on income derived from the precarious life of an adjunct isn’t easy. Teaching 5 or 6 courses a semester, facing as many as 125 new students every six months, and navigating gossip-plagued and intrigue-rich academic departments, isn’t easy. Waiting weeks and weeks for brief winter and summer breaks – during which I often also taught – for time to work on manuscripts or canvases isn’t easy.
Caring for an 80-year-old house while asking it to endure new winter snows and ice, and new summer storms sometimes bringing hurricane-force winds, isn’t easy. Outlasting two power outages totaling 22 days with body and mind intact isn’t easy.
Witnessing the Sandy Hook School massacre, the aftermath, complete with daily reminders . . .
Until recently, moving away wasn’t an option. I was fortunate to find a job at the start of the Great Recession, at an age others were planning for retirement. And the house served as a necessary base of operation for sons working summers during college, preparing for grad school, holding local internships.
While putting one foot in front of the other day after day, year after year, I didn’t think to define it. In hindsight, though, the word brave better describes the years behind me, not the ones ahead during which I will explore Europe after a hiatus of twenty-eight years, while easily living within my means. Instead of waiting for semesters to end, I will now be free to sink into whatever art form strikes my fancy on any given day.