I underestimated the usually forgiving European sun and a week after returning to Sydney’s Winter my skin continues to peel in tiny white flakes off my legs and arms. My face has been painted in two broad brown strokes, straight down my nose and with a wide brush across my forehead. My rusted colour I owe to five different beaches in that first week of summer lust. The first full and tuna-can packed, the second a quiet relief from the first, the third a fresh water lake, the fourth a beach to rival Sydney’s, the fifth of icy water and perfect heat.
We had never travelled together before, my best friend and I, her boyfriend and mine. In the car that cut its way through the dry hills of Andalucia and up past the Algarve we filled the airy landscape with getting to know each other again, filling the gaps in the months since we’d seen each other last. We had, finally, the luxury of time. Although technology has softened the harshness of distance in relationships, it has yet to find a way around the ache of it. So we talked and we made puns and we dug a little more into each other’s day to day. We ate together, and decadently so. We drank and sweated and found our way to Lisbon where we all fell in love with living there and began to play pretend.
Lisbon was our home for all of five nights. The night we arrived the sun had gone to sleep leaving the moon and the city in the dark. As we drove up the hills of Alfama that night our glee burned up through our bellies. The haze of beaches can be erased so suddenly by the pulse of a city like Lisbon. The buildings were old and plastered with azulejos, patterned tiles that I would point out the way a child points at animals in a zoo. Look at this one! Look at that one! The tiles made the houses beautiful, the laundry and the chipped concrete made it raw. We dreamily began planning our move there.
European Summers cure many things. The days we spent in Lisbon unraveled a rope of coloured memories that had been rolled up and put away years ago. It all came undone and with it the feeling of awe that had held my heart for a year, half a decade ago.
When you’re a child you believe everything you experience is everybody else’s experience too. I eat rice for breakfast, everybody eats rice for breakfast. I have four siblings, everybody has four siblings. I go to church on Sundays, everybody goes to church on Sundays. etc. You cannot imagine that there are any other worlds where the sun sets and the moon rises that look not much at all like the one you know.
I was a child being confronted with this truth, the secret to the humbling feeling of being in awe. It was the truth of scale and otherness. The world is big and full of difference. Larger than I can fathom and more diverse than I believe.
The Portuguese language was a part of that truth. Since learning Spanish I traveled South America with the smugness of a foreigner who has learned to speak to locals. It made things less strange, less different even if the reality was a gorge and a chasm apart. The Portuguese language, especially that of Portugal, was strange to me. The scchhh in the words confused me, wanting to be Spanish but finding a Russian accent along the way. I could not master it and I had to resign myself to a gap between myself and the Portuguese people that broke open the moment I opened my mouth.
I did not have an ‘in’. Traveling the Philippines, the connection was made instantly by my aggressively filipino features, my relatives introducing me to the town by way of my relation to my mother – the beloved town doctor. In Chicago we visited The American’s family, in New York we visited mine. All over Bolivia and Peru and Colombia and Argentina I made my way in with language.
In Portugal I was a tourist, albeit a happy one.
The first time I traveled by myself it was as a reluctant solo traveler. I met other lone backpackers and for hours at a time we would forget our loneliness and explore together. Mostly I would wander and eat and find ways to pass the time. It was so much better this time round with the perfect people to share the endless Thieves Market, the raspy Fado, the clumsy attempts at Portuguese. It was glorious.
I put off thinking about when we would have to say goodbye. After we did I had forgotten how much they hurt. I had come back from Bolivia a lot more closed to new people than when I had left. The repetition of farewell parties and the familiar cobbling together of gifts and letters, hugs and promises to visit made me weary. This was part of the reason I came back to Sydney for a long stretch, to recuperate and make roots. Seeing my best friend and having to say goodbye to her reminded me of how hard it is to let a good thing go. As rare and precious as good friendships are, they are sturdy, they endure.
The second week of my European Summer was a mix of revisiting two times of my life; my Spanish life and my Bolivian life. The years I turned Twenty-one and Twenty-four.
We had dinner at the port in Donostia with one of the women who semi-adopted me and mothered me when I first arrived in Spain, young of heart and green of mind. I was twenty-years old when she met me, fumbling through the first weeks of a new time in my life. It was in her apartment, on the slope of a hill and the ninth floor of the building, that I would listen to her tell stories of moving to London and Amsterdam, of bad choices and lucky endings. She took me in, stray that I was, and told me how life could be.
We drank a bottle each of cider over dinner as we exchanged catch up stories. She was proud of and happy for me. She liked The American and he caught a glimpse of a time in my life he was not privy to. The people you meet at certain times in your life hold imprints of yourself at that moment. When you remember with them and retell stories you can run your fingers along the grooves and edges of the past. It’s wonderful.
That’s what we did the rest of our time there, feeling our way back through people we had said goodbye to years ago in other places. We relived the past and built blocks of conversation all the way to the present. Over beers we sketched out our vague futures in new places and when we said goodbye again the promises to visit and see each other felt real because we had made our way back once already. We had reached deep into the past and dusted it off and found that it could be part of the present too.