Finding a country

Today, after a bad night, I decided to take a day just for myself, be alone, and do things that are good for me. I started with sleeping, and then having some tea. Not gulping down coffee, but enjoying every sip of a hand-brewed, hot, aromatic tea. Then I ate some fruit and watched the film “Eat Pray Love”. I saw it once before, in Berlin, and didn’t like it. Watching it felt like someone took my own experiences and covered them with sticky American syrup. The lighting is too perfect, the images of the Italian experience too cliché, and the entire film reeks of a director who has never actually done what he narrates: leaving one’s life, leaving everything that is familiar and reassuring to go to another country and just start from scratch. As I re-watched it now these things were still true but I managed to ignore them, because the narration still touched me. Might be because it is mine, minus the divorce and the giant prepayment of a publishing house that paid for the author’s self-finding journey. Might be because in the meantime I have done some more research on the author, read and watched some interviews and gained the feeling that she, at least, knows what she is talking about. That she knows what I know. That she “got it”.

Right now the most dominant details of my life are the following: I cannot feel my face and legs/feet (I think I am having an episode, and while I am typing this I wonder for how much longer I will manage to type), and I started reading the original novel, “Eat Pray Love” in Portuguese.

After I saw the film I decided to leave my beautiful house to go to a place called Casa do Alentejo to have a perfectly simple dinner. This place, Casa do Alentejo, is one of my all time favourites. It is located in a street full of tourist restaurants, where the waiters do all but tackle you onto the beautiful Portuguese pavement to force you to eat in their establishment. And even though the house advertises its existence with a bright blue neon sign, it remains a quiet island in the middle of tourism hell. I was told the place was used by the rich aristocracy of Portugal as what we would nowadays call a “club”. I can see their carriages arrive, and the well-clad ladies and gentlemen enter the house on the steep stairs, entering the breathtaking lobby and then, after having climbed another set of stairs, finally gathering in two ballrooms, which are still used today as a restaurant. You cannot imagine the beauty of these rooms. The ceiling, not renovated, is partly coming down, but the murals and paintings, the adornments and stucco are still visible. The hardwood floor has not only be treated upon by generations of gentry but still is, by working folks and students, enjoying the soup of the day in the bar or the beer for 50 cents. Parties are held here, old people gather to dance on week nights.

This place, in Germany, would probably be a museum with red cords keeping you from entering. Here, people claim the space, and use it to… live! I love it. Since I left here in January, Casa do Alentejo has changed. The “common people” bar serving wine for 50 cents (yes!!!) has been moved out of the beautiful ballroom and to the ground floor. OK, there it has a nice outside terrace but nevertheless, I don’t like this. But still, you can go there, as I did today, order some wine, fresh bread, butter, salad, cheese and olives and not pay more than 7 €. Simple dinner, as I wrote before, but lovely. And I sat there reading a book about exactly what I am doing, in the language of the country that I chose, in the midst of Portuguese people. What more can you ask?

I got sidetracked. What did I want to say? Oh, yes, right. Everyday, when I wake up, in this beautiful city, and especially here in my new picturesque apartment in Bairro Alto, I feel the pressure of having to take it in, enjoy it, savour every second, be grateful. I mean, I still remember the first nights here, years ago, on hostel pub crawls with my friend Anna from Sweden. I would roam these streets, sangria in hand, thinking: There are actually people living here. How amazing is this! How great must their lives be! Then I went to back to Berlin. Now I am these people. But of course it is not possible to always see this big picture, because my problems have managed to find me, and even in Lisboa everyday life is just that – everyday life. So I sometimes I find myself walking among these unbelievably pretty buildings with a frown. Cursing my heavy shopping bags. Cursing the heat. Talking to myself under my breath about how pissed off I am at my Brazilian roommate and his “I don’t care” attitude that makes me take care of everything while still being the stuck up German somehow. Today was different. After having finished my tea, fruit, and film, I went outside to the viewpoint, and from there down a steep road to downtown Lisboa, and I took in everything. I took the step back (my secret for fighting fear, depression and doubt) and actually visualised what was happening: you-are-in-Lisbon. You-live-in-Portugal. This-was-not-the-plan. You-are-not-supposed-to-be-here. But-you-are. It-is-like-a-miracle. It-is-a-gift. You-stumbled-across-a-country. You-FOUND-a-country.

There is no reason for me being here. No economic reasons, for sure. No career reasons. I have no friends who have been here. There is nothing in my family to have pointed me in this direction. Of course I always wanted to live abroad. But I thought: London, or New York. Because English seems to be my language. Which, now that I come to think about it, happened in the same way as the Portugal thing happened. Without any logic or indicators.

The film says: “Ruin is a gift. It is the road to transformation.” Am I crazy embracing this while I sit here worrying about taking the steps to go to the bathroom? Probably. But what is the alternative? Like I told my friend when she came here to check on how I was coping with my diagnosis last year: “Es hilft ja nix.”/“It cannot be helped – so why fight it?” Not that I do not have my moments of screaming, hitting the mattress with my fists and crying like there is no tomorrow. I do. But what am I supposed to do? The only thing left to do is trying to make the best of it. I bought the book “You can heal your life”, and I think it is actually helping me. The main message is that we should a) do what we want, b) do not apologise for it, and c) do not treat ourselves worse than we would the person we love the most. Which we all do, every second of every day. So, now I try to follow the instructions. Never criticise yourself. Love and approve of yourself. Do not scold yourself. I think I have told myself I am weak, pathetic, ugly and stupid 100 times per day so far. Let’s see what happens if I stop…

I try to appreciate the little things. Or the big things, as they feel sometimes. Today I was sitting on my bed, early, and suddenly loud music filled my little street. “Somewhere over the Rainbow”. It was like in a movie. I stepped onto my balcony, looked at the street and took in the beautiful song. My neighbour across the street also came to the window, holding his cat. We greeted each other. I started singing along. An old lady strolled down the street. I greeted her. My other neighbour entered his balcony and fed his canary bird. He, too, stopped what he was doing, closed his eyes and listened.

I smiled deeply into myself and went back to my movie. Knowing that whatever will happen, I have had this moment. A film moment. A goosebumps moment. And I did nothing to construct it, it just came to me exactly at the right moment. A bit later, maybe 20 minutes, I again felt the urge to enter the balcony, having just meditated and decided not to let my life be governed by my disease and my fear of the future. As I looked to the left a procession of people in automatic wheelchairs went down the road. I did not appreciate this and hope it was not a sign for my future… But I also did not allow it to bring me down. But went back to finish my mental sit-ups for training my positive thinking muscles and mumbling my “You can heal your life” mantras: “I approve of myself. I am safe. All is well in my world.”

In the book/film “Eat Pray Love” the protagonist learns Italian and then ultimately moves to Italy for no good reason. Just like me. She had a gut feeling, and she followed it. I can share her amazement, as described in the book I am currently half-understanding, when she walks the streets of Roma, encounters people, eats the food, and starts speaking in the language. It comes down to the game of “If someone had told me that…”. I go first. If someone had told me that I would once give instructions in Portuguese to tourists in Lisbon — if someone had told me that I would have an argument in Portuguese with a Brazilian roommate who I love, share my deepest feelings and fears with, but who drives me insane, if someone had told me that I would one day live in Bairro Alto… you can guess the answer. I would have laughed, with a snort, and waved it aside. Don’t think so.

Coming to an end, my immediate emotionally loaded response to the film, the book, and my day, was that it is a very special thing to leave your country. To just go to another place and build a life. From supermarket routines to taking on new coffee habits to learning the language. I am tempted to arrogantly declare that this is something everyone should be forced to do in their life. But then I know so many people for whom I know this would not be true. They would not take what I take from it. So what I have arrived at is that probably people can be divided into two groups: The Searchers, and the Non-Searchers. I am a searcher. So is the woman of this trashy book. Many others are not. I have a friend who left our hometown to study, and instead of embracing this stage of her life just accepted it as a necessity. Peer pressure (I had a part in that) made her go to France for Erasmus. She left after maybe two weeks. Now she has moved back to our hometown. What for me would be a nightmare, the ultimate defeat, for her is her own little Lisboa. It is the place she loves, where she finds the experiences and people she loves. Who am I to judge that?

Maybe it is better to be searcher, maybe it is worse. Whatever, no one will ever know because you cannot be both. If you are a searcher, you do not know why. You do not know what you are missing, and if you will ever actually FIND the answer and be done with it. Is it a stage, a process, or an eternal state of mind? I don’t know. I am terrified sometimes. Will I ever be able to settle down and be happy? Will I ever manage to maintain a relationship? Will I be eternally wandering, looking for something I cannot find? Will I ever have a child? I cannot know the answer, obviously, but I when I get terrified I think about moments like the one from today: the moment I jumped off a bridge, little moments like smoking a cigarette after a kitchen night shift, covered in grease, having a conversation in Portuguese, or, today’s gem: standing on my balcony in Bairro Alto, watching the most cliché picturesque street you can imagine, and hearing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”

(and by the way, this is where I sat 20 min. ago writing this).

About juliamaja

With 28 I did the first non-linear thing in my life. After school, university and work without any interruptions, I quit my advertising job and moved to Lisbon to find out what I want. The result: I write for a living, whether in Berlin or Lisbon. I am happy. Let's see how it goes.
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1 Response to Finding a country

  1. Ricardo says:

    Again, your posts are always so beautiful that I never know if I should smile or cry. You are very precious to me, Bekky. At least you know that you’ve touched someone’s heart in this old city called Lisbon.
    I miss you, always and every day.

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