December: Lisbon, Istanbul, Athens, Santorini, and New Year’s

My first ten weeks in Madrid were spent worrying about finding an apartment, worrying about finding another apartment, making friends, starting work, filling out the necessary resident paperwork, and flopping around in Spanish. Because one of the main reasons I chose to come to Spain this year was to travel to places in Europe I didn’t get to see the first time around, the pressure began to build as soon as I felt settled.

Over the first long weekend I had from work, I went to Lisbon with the brand-new boyfriend. We took Bla Bla Car there and back. It was my first time using it, and I was initially nervous–not because I was afraid the drivers were serial killers or rapists, but because the idea of driving in a car with a stranger for six hours sounded like a true nightmare. I made myself small in the backseat and talked as little as possible. I probably looked like the killer.

Lisbon isn’t what I thought it would be. I imagined this ideal city, a romantic one in which the people speak not only a language I speak, but one I love, and who are more melancholy than the average Brazilian. A place I’d want to live forever, if only I had the opportunity. In reality, I hardly got to speak Portuguese because everybody there assumes no tourist knows it, and also because they’re all rock stars at English. I tried to force it anyway, which more often than not just made the exchange awkward and probably a great study in code-switching. I found the melancholy stereotype pretty accurate, which was refreshing after so many years in close-talking, loud-speaking, hand-flinging countries. Lisbon looks a lot more like Brazil than I thought it would. I assumed the run-down colonial buildings in Rio were a product of a lack of money or care to maintain them, which does lend a feeling of derelict romanticism, but the buildings in Lisbon look much the same. I felt like I was back in Brazil, which was not a feeling I was expecting to have. What stands out to me about Lisbon is that although it’s certainly a whimsical place full of grand things, the city feels abandoned once dark falls. It’s eerie how hard it is to find a substantial cluster of people after 8pm. The streets feel dark and lonely and almost dangerous in their emptiness.

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Two weeks later my Christmas break started, and a few days later I headed to Istanbul with my roommate and her sister.

Istanbul is a magical place set in the past. I stayed in Sultanahmet, which is where the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque reside. Men sold ornate lamps and silk scarves in the Grand Bazaar, beginning each potential sell with “Yes, please.” “Yes, please, come inside.” “Yes, please, give me your money.” Never before have I been to a country where I didn’t speak the language at least a little bit, and considering something as simple as “thank you” in Turkish is the six-syllabled “teşekur ederim,” I didn’t learn much before going. It was daunting, but not as difficult as I had imagined. Not many people spoke English well, but most spoke at least a few words. I’m always impressed that so many people around the world speak English. It’s amazing how global a language it has become, regardless of how that makes people feel.

Istanbul is the closest I’ve ever been to Asia–technically just inside it, upon arrival at the airport. It was a treat to experience something different, to wake up and drink Turkish coffee and eat lentil soup with pita bread, to smoke hookah more in three days than I ever have while watching a dervish whirl. To go to a reggae bar and pet all the workers’ pets they bring with them (it’s been too long since I’ve pet a kitten). To be awoken at dawn by the call to prayer, which sounded ominous the first day, but by the last day it just lulled me back to sleep, barely a punctuation mark in my dreams.

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We had only a brief stint in Athens, two extended layovers on our way in and out of Santorini, a Greek island. Our first was on Christmas day, when we ate a lackluster meal and were plied with free wine. A quick night’s sleep in a drafty hostel and we were off again, bleary-eyed and hungover.

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We spent four days on Santorini. The entire island was a ghost town of apocalyptic proportions. It rained three out of the four days we were there, me umbrella-less in suede shoes. Many of the businesses close during the winter because there are so many fewer tourists, so we had trouble finding an open restaurant that served more than coffee and drinks. We spent one rainy day at the salon, where the hairdresser told us December isn’t even the slowest month. I imagined that by going in a down-month I’d have a paradise all to myself, but as we sat in a barely-open restaurant on a non-existent beach in what I can only describe as a gale, rain soaking my inappropriate shoes, I saw how wrong I’d been.

There was one sunny day, a burst of hope. We rented a car and drove to Oía, the first settlement on the island, high up on the cliffs. I got to drive for the first time in months, up and up around a winding mountain road til we could go no farther. We got out and walked among the steep, white houses like you see when you google “Greek islands”. We stayed for the sunset, a pink thing bursting behind a volcano. Present-day Santorini is shaped like a crescent moon with a volcano in the middle, but it used to be a circular island, before the volcano erupted and formed a caldera around it. The water is dark, deep-blue, and lethal-looking.

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One afternoon I had an unusual solitary moment, walking back from a few hours of coffee and reading. I rounded the bend to our place and from that hill I could see the sea. I was on an island in the Aegean and it was mostly gray and my shoes were kind of wet but it wasn’t raining and I was on an island in the Aegean. For me, for now, it’s worth the sacrifice of a well-paying job and a car and roots and less debt to spend one more year living this.

We made it back to Madrid on New Year’s Eve in time to watch everyone eating their grapes at midnight. I heard someone dies every year from choking on the grapes, unnoticed among all the flailing and revelry. I smoked a stranger’s rolled cigarette against a guardrail at the stroke of midnight, happy amid all the spilled champagne.

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Portuñoling in Madrid

I’ve once again transported myself to a country of close-talkers, trash-throwers, and bad walkers.

On the other hand, I like to watch the way Madrileños, the kind you pass on the street and sit next to on the metro and buy horchata from, laugh raucously and gesticulate wildly. I’ve mistaken several people for deaf since coming here after watching them talk from afar. I’m especially endeared to the older men who work at restaurants, the kinds of places where you can sit on the street under umbrellas. I like their simple sweetness, usual rotundity, and their sincere attempt to understand what I’m saying.

My Spanish consists of my Portuguese interwoven with memories of the Portuguese for Spanish Speakers class I took four years ago because it was the only Portuguese class offered at my university that semester. Add to that Dora the Explorer flashbacks and the few phrases I’ve picked up since coming here, and there you have it.
I’ve had several interactions in Spanish that have gone like this:

Stranger: Where are you from?
Me: The U.S.
S: Do you speak Spanish?
Me: What language are we speaking in now?
S: Well, there are a lot of people here who don’t speak Spanish. You should learn it.

What the fuck. These interactions keep happening, and they confuse me every time. I was spoiled by living in a country where if you uttered a shitty ‘tudo bem’ you’d have people falling over themselves to tell you how great your Portuguese was. Being constantly told I need to learn Spanish as I make the effort to speak it with strangers makes me want to try less. Or stop talking to strangers.

Here I’m re-learning some lessons I’ve already learned and forgotten. First, there is nothing more humiliating than learning a language. As someone who refuses to try anything more than once that I’m not naturally amazing at, trying again and again to communicate only to be giggled about or misunderstood is the worst. Telling someone something serious, asking why they’re laughing and getting the answer, ‘Oh, the way you said that was just cute’ makes me want to slap my interlocutor. It’s a rush to the finish line, the finish line being communicative competency. I’m trying to cram as much into my head as possible until I reach that level, at which point existing in a foreign country becomes markedly easier.

The second lesson I’m re-learning is what it is to be poor. I’ve never had money, but here I exist on euro-pennies, which are the tiniest, cutest little things you’ve ever seen. I take packets of sugar from restaurants to use at home in my tea. I carry around a plastic water bottle I bought my first week here that’s probably giving me cancer. I scour the bottom of my purse for change to buy a 90-cent bocadillo for lunch at work. A sign on the street offering coffee for one euro has my attention. If someone cancels a tutoring session with me, it’s a minor disaster. After a difficult first month here money-wise due to a rental fiasco, I’m already down to the end of my last paycheck. The whole point of coming here was to scrape those pennies together to travel to some places in Europe I wanted to visit the first time I lived here but was too poor to, and so far that plan is slow to start. I have a one-way ticket to Istanbul for December 22nd. If I’m too poor to buy any other flights by then, you know where to find me. It all feels like a giant step back in what my mind thinks it is to be an adult.

Speaking of adulthood, I’m already thinking about what’s next. For the past three years, there’s always been abroad. As an Italian passport holder, I could stay in Europe easily enough, though I think I’d head north. But finding a job might be harder than finding one in the US, and I’d also miss the ease of living in my own country: knowing and being comfortable with the cultural norms, the language, and how to go about finding a job and a place to live. My student loans are screaming at me to go back and pay them off as quickly as possible. I had a dream last night that I inherited $6,000 from an unknown relative who I watched crash his plane on purpose to help me financially. It was like winning the lottery.

But, in general, life in Madrid is easy. It’s safe to walk around at night, there’s good shopping, and there are three Starbucks within walking distance from my house. I live in a hobbit house and sleep in an attic bedroom that looks like a place of punishment from a fairy tale. I can easily find peanut butter. Olive oil is delicious and cheap. Lots of people speak English. My job, while not that enjoyable, certainly isn’t challenging in any real way. And the best part of all, I can buy good enough wine for one euro.

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Finally, I’ve accumulated a strange little group of acquaintances here that I’m quite grateful for. I borrowed a wig from the art teacher at my school who just happens to have 15 (an exact number) wigs in her closet because she loves dressing up. She offers me beautifully arranged coffee while I tutor her son, and we tell each other stories while overseeing our students paint color wheels. I’ve met a misanthropic self-professed non-misanthrope who I feel compelled to befriend. I think it’s working. I’ve met a Canadian who thinks I’m the most interesting mystery he’s ever met, which I will let him continue thinking. I work with a guy who doesn’t know the meaning of coquettish or the plot of Lolita and dresses like Ellen DeGeneres. I met a Fulbrighter who I bond with over our weekly coffee date in the cafeteria at work. She let’s me flex my vocabulary and regales me with all kinds of stories. My favorite ones are about her parents, whose relationship she finds repulsive. My closest fast-friend here shares my name and height, the first being much easier to come by than the second. We got drunk together one night on free sangria and she stopped to muse, with a look of wonder, ‘Just what are the odds of someone as cynical as me being placed at the very same school?’