9 degrees west by water: pt.1

9 degrees west is a series I’ll be posting regularly reflecting on my time in lisbon.

I’ve been in Lisbon for just under a month. I’ve had time to figure out which local groceries are good, and which ones are filled only with rotten persimmons, conflict chocolate and drain cleaner. I live a pretty solitary life. I write for a bit in the morning before going to the gym, and then come home to spend the rest of the day working. Although limited, I do have minimal interaction with the public. If I knew a little more Portuguese, it would be enough to be dangerous. I know less than that amount. In almost every interaction, I embarrass myself. Some people tell me that my Portuguese speaking ability is good. I know they’re just being nice. Perhaps they’re just surprised by my effort. Two days ago, while registering for an ID card to use the local swimming pool, I mistook the question the woman was asking me. It was basic demographic information: birthday, address, etc. “I’m single,” I blurted out. She looked at me quizzically before asking me, this time in English “what floor do you live on?” We both tried to laugh about it. Still I wondered if her English was so good, why were we struggling through this in Portuguese? A question I find myself asking regularly.

Yesterday, I had what was perhaps my most nerve-wracking conversation yet. I’d made an appointment for a haircut at a barber shop a few blocks up the street from my apartment. In my quest to avoid risk, I found a place whose website was entirely in English (no Portuguese option whatsoever) and had an online booking platform. This kept me from having to talk to another person, or even be bothered by having to use Google Translate before sending an email. I arrive right on time, expecting to see the well-dressed, tattooed shop owner that I’d seen in the pictures. Instead, the man that greets me is someone else. Young, alarmingly handsome and with a long but perfectly coiffed beard. His hair is something resembling a pompadour. I look around the slightly cramped shop. I can hear voices coming from nearby, but no one else is there. Two barber chairs are positioned in front of the wide mirror that runs along the wall. Banks of overhead fluorescent lights blast the room. The young man who lets me in and I exchange a customary “tudo bem” as we introduce ourselves. I can hear the faint drone of a tattoo gun coming from somewhere close by, possibly downstairs. I fumble through trying to explain what I want him to do. He asks if I want a beard trim. Just a haircut, I tell him. Finally, I sit down. Again, in my broken Portuguese, I try to explain to him that I want my head to look like less of a mushroom than it does right now. He doesn’t understand.

He turns on some music before putting an apron on and gets out his clippers. I find myself desperately trying to understand his questions above the volume of the music and the din of the sheers positioned just above my ear. Until a few years ago, I used to regularly make this joke: “I have my mother’s hearing and my father’s listening,” I used to say. But then my dad got a hearing aid and ruined my punchline. I’d like to blame my poor hearing on heredity, but really, I think I have years of listening to loud music in my teens to blame.

Through our broken conversation, I learn that he’s Brazilian, and that he’s been in Lisbon only a few months. I tell him that I spent time in Brazil many years ago. He’s now excited. He’s speaking too quickly for me to understand and even though he’s turned the volume on the music down, I still can’t hear very well. He tells me he’s from Minas Gerais, a state in the central part of the country bordering Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In the months that I spent in Brazil, I never made it there. He lists a series of cities he’s lived in, other than Rio, I’ve never heard of any of them. Or if I have, I don’t remember. He then starts a barrage of questions that compare Brazilians to Portuguese. He must think I’m an ideal arbiter of truth. “It’s easier to understand Brazilians than Portuguese, isn’t it?” He asks somewhat leadingly. That’s something people here say, that European Portuguese is harder to understand because people here talk with their mouths closed. Honestly, my Portuguese is so bad, I’m not sure it matters. For the past 3 weeks, I’ve been training my ear to hear the differences between the Portuguese I fumbled through 25 years ago and still barely remember, to the Portuguese I hear every day now.

The majority of our conversation goes something like this: He asks me a question, I struggle to understand. I get hung on some very common word that I know I should know but can’t make myself remember. Slowly, I put the pieces together. In the mirror, I see his reflection, he’s looking at me expectantly, waiting for an answer. In my head, it’s a little more complicated. Once I finally think I understand the question, I formulate an answer. I start to respond but then realize I don’t know the word I was thinking of. Trying to change directions quickly, I’m trying to think of a way to say what I was about to say, but using words I actually know. To be clear, there are Border Collies that have better vocabularies than I do. As I’m churning through my options, I see him standing there, still looking at me. And then I laugh at the absurdity of this all before I realize too much time has passed. He’s moved on, and I still don’t know how to answer.

And so my days go. Some places I do better than others. Mercados and Fruitarias I tend to do OK in. Mostly because it’s vegetables, and it’s me. But beyond avocados, cauliflower and spinach my lexicon is very limited. Last year I passed through Portugal for what felt like only a minute. Everywhere I went, I was astonished by people’s ability to speak English. And not just English that resembles my Portuguese, but actually speaking ability. Upon hearing I was from Seattle, Uber drivers would routinely say things like “I love the Seattle Sounders!” Or the somewhat more frightening exclamation “Seahawks!” Leaving me to wonder not only how their English could be so good, but why they even knew what American football was.

I’m left with the stark recognition that my ability to see this all as a cosmic joke is a function of privilege. How lucky am I to be able to live here as a matter of choice and not because I’m a refugee of an untenable economic or political situation? That I didn’t have to come here so that my children could have better educational opportunities than I did, or so they wouldn’t be forced to join gangs and be killed in the street just for being outside. Or even that I have the luxury of contemplating paying the approximately €10,000 fee to apply for a Golden Visa. I am keenly aware that 2020 in the Trump era can feel like Europe probably did in 1938. However, I similarly have to recognize that to allow my fear to motivate me to try to obtain another country’s passport is also a privilege.

I still have this feeling sometimes like I’ve gotten away with something. Like I’m looking over my shoulder, waiting for someone to figure out what I’ve done and to reel me back in. There were numerous factors that led me to finally make this move. The long list of reasons why I came here ultimately comes down to the simple fact that I could. That I could recognize the constraints in my life that were keeping me from doing it were not as great as those encouraging me. Although, the inability to question doing something simply for the sake of doing it represents the exact antithesis of the self-awareness I’m trying to cultivate. Will the personal growth and change I hope to experience be worth it? Or did I pull the rug out from under my life just to see what’s left standing when the dust settles? I don’t have an answer. Perhaps I never will. But it’s important to keep asking the question. So many things go wrong when we don’t question them, either out of fear or lack of will. American capitalism exists and is further galvanized primarily out of our failure to question its validity. I don’t want to oversimplify the relationships we’re all entangled in—with partners, with jobs, with the paradoxical systems that both sustain and diminish us. To question those sometimes represents huge risk. But to not take the risk might be too disappointing. So the question remains, if you burn it all down, what are you left with? It might be the fertilizer that fuels the next great stage of life, or it might just release that much more carbon into the atmosphere. How can you know?

~ by namderf on February 14, 2020.