Since 2005, I haven’t gone longer than about fourteen months without hopping on a plane to be anywhere else but here (‘here’ being Pennsylvania), and to do anything else but this (‘this’ being wasting my life on the internet). I suppose my addiction to travel started innocently enough (everything is innocent in the seven-month-old face in my first passport), but now I wonder about myself and my almost inability to stay rooted in a place without flying off (literally) every few months.
And here I am doing it again, off to spend a month in Portugal by myself. It’s different, though, traveling to Portugal. Unlike the service/mission trips I’ve been on (Mexico, Peru, Dominican Republic, Indonesia) or when I studied abroad (Argentina), Portugal’s heritage is also my heritage. By the time I was nine, I had been there eight times.
At the same time, I have never been to Portugal without my entire family there with me. This will be a completely new experience, to be in Portugal without my mom and dad.
I read a lot of travel blogs when I get bored at school and wishing I were somewhere else, and I distinctly remember reading a post about returning to places. The traveler’s conclusion was don’t. He said that the first time he’d been to this island, he met another group of travelers and they spent a lot of time together. The place became special. When he went back, he felt like he was chasing ghosts because none of the people that had impacted him were there. His second trip to the island left him dissatisfied and lonely instead of happy and fulfilled (perhaps he hadn’t learned the key to saudade yet).
I’ve thought a lot about that, about returning to all of the places I’ve visited and what it would be like. When I was fifteen and in Peru, I could’ve sworn to you that I would go back there in a heartbeat for a year or two or three. Now that I’m older, I realize that if I ever do make it back to the country of Peru, I will most likely not go to the same places. If I do, it will feel awkward and uncomfortable because what made the place was the people.
One of the numerous reasons for why I have yet to return to Argentina is a lack of deep enough connection. If I were to fly to Buenos Aires right now and take the bus to 9 de Julio, I would have maybe three people to see there. I would end up sitting on a bench in the plaza lost in a ‘back-in-the-day’ world because the majority of my friends have moved on and moved out. I did live there for a year, yes, and I loved it there. I’m planning on going back before I finish my undergrad, hopefully. But in the end, I’m not tied to Argentina, not enough to make it count.
Portugal is different.
So what if my spoken Portuguese is horribly accented and worse than my fading Spanish? So what if most lusitanian women are half as tall as me? So what if the word to describe me is not portuguesa but lusoamericana? So what if I’m a mudblood? Portugal is different from every other place I’ve traveled to because, though I mostly grew up in the United States, Portugal is home.
Portugal is a level of home that I can’t describe to most people, but it’s like the ‘third culture kid’ whose parents are missionaries or volunteers in a ‘foreign’ country. If I had to guess, I’d say that ‘third culture refers to the first culture of the parents’ original countries and the second culture of the host country fusing to become a new, third culture that these children grow up in. Their relatives and history lie in one place, but they and their parents live in another. They have a meshed culture at home that is part local and part native land. Maybe they speak multiple languages at home, maybe not. Through various twists and turns, both countries become home; both countries are home. I know a girl who was born and raised in Indonesia, but would call herself American. Portugal isn’t the same as that for me, but it’s close.
Growing up with parents from two different countries is like being a third culture kid without being a third culture kid. I suppose you could call it bicultural, and I’m also prone to call myself biracial (being half ‘white’ and half latin/iberian), and I wish that my father had worked harder to preserve Portuguese in our house so that we would’ve also grown up bilingual, too. One of my deepest desires since middle school has been to recapture or attain a level of proficiency in Portuguese that I felt should have been mine. Objectively, since we grew up in rural PA about 300 miles away from the nearest Portuguese communities and since my mother is not Portuguese nor does she speak the language, it was actually pretty near impossible for my dad to teach us the language as children. Regardless, acquiring Portuguese has become my personal Holy Grail.
So although I am nervous about being in Portugal without my immediate family and without my dad to emergency translate (I think I did pretty well over New Year’s without his help and with only two semesters of introductory level Portuguese courses during my freshman year), it’s not like I’m going to an empty country. I have relatives there — tias, tios, cousins, and lots of them. We have a couple of family friends that I might run into. The whole reason that I’ve been so passionate about making this trip to this writing conference work out is that it also gives me a reason to be in Portugal visiting my family. I’m sure that many of the other participants are feeling the same way. I’m also sure that I’m not the only one who’s going to be sleeping in her tia’s extra bedroom and taking the commuter train into Lisbon every day from one of the surrounding towns to save a couple bucks on food and lodging.
Funny story. I called my aunt to see if she could get me the phone number of a cousin who lives in Lisbon so that I could call my cousin and ask to stay with her for two weeks. Before I can fully explain what I’m going to be there for in my fractured Portuguese, my aunt stops me and emphatically tells me that I will stay with her. I won’t have to worry about food, I can stay in the extra bedroom, I can take the train. She’ll even come with me the first few days so that I can memorize the route with somebody there to make sure I don’t get lost. She would later suggest to my dad that I write down what I want to say next time I call so that I don’t get flustered with the language. I can understand it fine; I just have trouble speaking, especially over the phone.
Sad story. My father’s oldest sister, my tia Maria, is in her seventies and suffering from severe diabetes. While we were visiting them in January, her blood sugar levels were dangerously close to 500 (average is more like 100 to 150, I think), and she won’t change her eating habits enough to lower the number. She’s old-world, always will be. In many ways, I admire that about her. The last time that we saw her in January, she started to weep. As my father embraced her, he whispered to her that we would see her again. She said that no, we wouldn’t see her again. We wouldn’t make it back in time. I don’t blame her for thinking this; it had been five years since our last trip to Portugal. At the same time, I want to prove her wrong. I want to spend at least one more day with her. I finally have a chance to learn from her, my aunt who had her own children before my father was even born, my aunt who is more like a grandmother than an aunt, my aunt who doesn’t partake in the mild family feud that I just recently learned about. She said we wouldn’t see her again, but I’m determined to do just that. She has stories to tell, and I don’t want them to be lost.
So though that travel blogger’s concerns are constantly whispering in my ear about bitter returns, I’m not worried about Portugal being one of them.
And so, my friends, kiss me and smile for me. Tell me that you’ll wait for me. Hold me like you’ll never let me go. Cause I’m leaving (this Thursday) on a [Boeing 767]. [Until July 12th] I won’t be back again. I’m so ready to go.