Who knew that coming home to England after nearly seven years in Portugal would be so unsettling?
Back in 2010, when I had been there about 9 months I wrote about adjusting to life in Portugal, and about culture shock as discussed in some guidebooks to relocation. They made the point that culture shock is not just the extreme situation of being submerged in a wholly alien culture “…but also the low level discomfort of constantly encountering and dealing with all the relentless tiny differences in a culture that isn’t – or you think shouldn’t be – that alien.”
Coming back here makes me appreciate the extent to which I really had acclimated to life there, despite some remaining disconnects.
On the up side, there is the relief of easy communication – no more struggling with my always rather slow aural comprehension skills in Portuguese.
On the other hand, a day in London left me feeling bruised and battered like never before. The sheer mass of people, for one thing, but most of all the rudeness and indifference were a shock. In Portugal you wouldn’t dream of entering a shop without saying hello, the staff would approach with a smile, a greeting and an offer of help, and when you left you all said thank you and goodbye. Not here. Even when I asked for help the (non-) response and sheer attitude left me stunned.
Prices… gone are the days of getting a nice home cooked lunch – steak or fish with a salad and a half bottle of wine – for €5.00 or less. And the smiles and friendly chatter didn’t cost a thing.
At present I am staying with friends till I am on my feet again, and I am trying to estimate a likely cost of living here. I am horrified to tot up the numbers and find it comes to something like three or four times what I was living on in Portugal. But then, wages are higher here – and I have made the mistake already of estimating a project for a northern European client at my old Portuguese rate instead of a British rate. Of course the client snapped at it, which was good, but when I needed to estimate for a second project I did have to explain my error and the need to adjust my rate going forward. I have a feeling I am still underselling myself in this market, despite my research on wages here, and further adjustment will be needed to get it right.
Then there is the saudades. This is the word and concept, unique to Portugal, that all the guidebooks struggle to explain. It is a blend of nostalgia and longing – not only for the things that were and are now past, but also for the might-have-been-but-never-was. I am suffering, badly.
I miss the the Atlantic surf which was was the background music to all my days and nights the past few years. I miss the smells – of couve galega and orange blossom from the gardens, of sardininhas on the grill, of esteva and hot sun on schist in the Douro. In fact it’s the loss of the Douro that is really crushing me – it’s harvest right now and I am not there, I am longing for the blinding sun and nailing heat, the whiff of CO2 as you enter the adega in the morning, the sumptuous aromas from the fermenting lagares… But most of all I miss the smiles, the helpfulness, the beijinhos (kiss-kiss on each cheek) hello, even from strangers to whom I was being introduced for the first time.
I am also now seized by the might-have-been… if only I could have stayed. But I couldn’t. As a friend pointed out, you can’t fight an entire economy and win. Since late last year there has been talk of more EU sanctions, more austerity. I long ago lost count of the estimates made for new projects which were all politely declined and put on hold.
One day recently I was wandering in Peterborough – and lo and behold, there was a Nata café – one of a small chain of cafés based out of Lisboa which feature natas, the typically Portuguese egg custard pastries. Those things are so rich that I probably only ate one a year in Portugal, usually with tawny port, but – por causa de saudades – I entered the shop, and said Olá, bom dia… the girl did a double take, but I persevered and asked for a nata in Portuguese – at which point she believed her ears and welcomed me and started chattering. It was so nice to hear that friendliness again.
When I was finished and paid, I asked – still in Portuguese – if she knew of any kind of Portuguese community centre, somewhere I could go to continue speaking and studying Portuguese, I didn’t want to lose my language skills now I was back in England. She said she didn’t know of anything, but turned to address the clientele at large – another four or five people in the café – to ask them. They all got up and converged and started talking with me, all in Portuguese. Alas, no one knew of any kind of community centre, but they all asked where I had lived, told me where they were from, asked if I might have known any of their assorted relatives back there …
For a moment, I felt like I was home again.
Later that night I thought, but wait, this – here, England – is home. Isn’t it?
Actually, home, for me, has always been the combination of myself and wherever I lay my head tonight, I have been teased for referring to a hotel as “home.” In my earlier article I mentioned a favourite mug and tea from Postcard Teas which together constituted “home” when I was backpacking around Europe in 2009. That mug and the tea came with me on the plane from Portugal, and are with me here again, near where they started, as one small tangible manifestation of my sense of home and continuity, regardless of today’s surroundings.
So, I guess I am home. Still.