Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Party of One or a Multiple Choice Memory Game

I started blogging to give myself a reason to write. Right. It turns out having an online presence, such as it is, is more a hindrance than a motivator. To date, I think my friend Linda in Texas is my only follower. Not that I'd know what to do with actual Followers. There is most definitely a creep factor built into that. But still...
Now that I have a blog (that still sounds so pretentious), I find I have nothing to say. But since I have a fan base now, I owe it to them, uh her, at least to make an effort. And lucky for me I have a communications degree so I can apply the number one rule of effective communication: Know your audience.
So Linda, since you're out there, here is a little trip down memory lane. This particular lane is most certainly cobblestone and covered in the spit of old fishermen.
Oh, and one disclaimer: There are great gaping holes in my memory due to age, four years of college at Chico State, and losing a third of my brain cells with the placenta during two childbirths. So, this may become sort of a game of multiple choice. Also coming into play here is the fact that I was absorbing the following experience while living in a country whose language I did not speak. Let's see how well my memory holds up and if you recollect these events the way I do...
It is September 1980. We are 18 years old. We are simultaneously giddy and courageous, but somewhat unaware of this. We are both exchange students in Portugal with a reputable organization that promotes world peace by sending naive American kids to other parts of the globe so they'll personally know someone from a foreign land, thus preventing all wars. (I am selected as an alternate from my high school. At the last minute, I get a placement in Lisbon, Portugal, much to my 43-year-old mother's horror.)
We meet at "language orientation," which will essentially be four days of repeating simple Portuguese phrases, such as Onde esta o quarto do bano? To get there, we must first drag a year's worth of our belongings for muitos kilometers from the train station, uphill, through a lush, scenic road to our destination. Orientation is held in a gorgeous, dilapidated old building in Sintra that:
(a) was once a vacation home for visiting royalty, or
(b) was a former sanatorium for lepers.
During this orientation we participate in a talent show in which I attempt to sing a comical rendition of Indian Love Song -- though what was supposed to be funny escapes me -- and you:
(a) do a skit with Belinda from Australia and Ralph from St. Louis, or
(b) yodel.
On our first night there, amidst the ancient tiles and creeping vines covering the castle/sanatorium, the sensitive program director informs me: "you were obviously unloved as a child." This she discerns from the way I wrap my arms around the flimsy pillow they have assigned me. I am lying in a cot preparing for my first night's sleep in a room full of strangers in a country where I know no one else and this is my warm welcome. Her name is Bela, which means beautiful. She is not. Therefore she is a bitch.
Late that night, unable to sleep, you and I sneak into the kitchen and scarf down the leftover bread from dinner. We mix up some powdered cocoa mix with water to dip the crusty bread rolls in. Portuguese bread is divine, no matter what region you are in. It is also a staple delivered warm daily to your back door by the baker and has addictive properties that will lead to the 10-lb weight gain we each experience during our year abroad. Come to think of it, I could write an entire blog just on Portuguese bread, so we're getting somewhere.
Anyway, alone in the cabbage-scented kitchen we dissolve in a fit of giggles and:
(a) get busted and sent back to bed, marked as the trouble makers of the group, or
(b) get away with it but still somehow get a bad reputation.

Either way, the bond of friendship is sealed. Very little language is learned at orientation.
Subsequently, you are sent halfway back across the Atlantic, to the Acores Islands, and I move into a small three-bedroom apartment in the capitol city down the street from the bullfight ring. I am living with a family of seven, including four young children, a cranky grandma and a yappy dog called Lulu. You and I correspond through an ancient form of communication known as letter writing. Your letters and the presence of Ralph in Lis-bo-a become my lifeline. Ralph is all-American handsome, sarcastic, smart and argumentative. A perfect companion for me.
There are about 16 foreign exchange students in Portugal that year -- a handful from the United States. We all meet up several times during the year when we are gathered for:
(a) educational travel opportunities to various regions throughout the country, or
(b) three-day drinking binges.

(There is no drinking age in Portugal. We are 18 years old. Bela is our on-site support person -- that's an easy one).

During one of these get-togethers, in a remote town in central Portugal, Ralph and I show up dressed as tourists in Hawaiian shirts, black socks and sandals. We have subway maps and cameras sticking out of our travel bags to show how much we have assimilated. Bela is not amused. We celebrate with many bottles of Tres Marias.
Sometime during the year, you are moved back to the mainland because:
(a) your host parents are having marital problems, or
(b) there is nothing to do on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere so you get into trouble.
By the end of the year, you are settled with a nice family in the Algarve (I'm still envious!), have a gorgeous, affectionate boyfriend who you wear like a shawl and:
(a) your rich new host family throws you a birthday party, or
(b) you take advantage of your host family and throw yourself a birthday party.

By now we have abandoned the organization that is sponsoring us and are having our own foreign affairs. Ciao, Bela!
We all congregate for your 19th birthday. Ralph, Belinda, Aaron from Kansas (still wearing those striped Osh Kosh overalls, bless his heart!), the Norwegian girl, the English girl, and all your new Portuguese friends. You and I wear matching red jumpsuits because nothing says "I'm fitting in here" like two pale American teenagers in matching red jumpsuits amidst a sea of smoldering olive faces. Besides, they were a moda in 1981 Europe, really they were.
We have the time of our lives. We dance in the decorated garage to the disco beats provided by:
(a) the hired DJ, or
(b) your host brother/cousin/neighbor who owns a turntable and some Donna Summer records.

We eat homemade bolos and smoke Gauloises and drink Sagres cerveja (and porto and sangria and vinho verde...) We are good at it by now. We have come to speak fluent Portuguese and are convinced that our accents are more precise when we're drunk. We lay out on the rooftop of your seaside house and bake in the Mediterranean sunshine. We look at the world from a different perspective -- upside down, mostly.
Soon after that, our year is up and we all return to our home states. Adult life begins shortly thereafter. (There are about a thousand other disjointed memories of that year, but I'll leave them for another time.) Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes it requires a little assistance.
So, thank you, Linda. I squeaked out a blog and it felt good. And, Linda, no matter who we have become, somewhere deep down we are still those giddy and courageous girls.
That's worth:
(a) remembering, or
(b) celebrating, or
(c) Both.


  1. Wow! I wish I was the Linda you had this adventure with. Your writing is delightful.

  2. Thank you LCL! As far as I know, you are my first reader outside the 6 people I sent a link to. I got a little thrill when I saw I had comments, so thanks for that! Does this constitute a "readership?" I believe it does.

  3. Well, being THE Linda...let me see if I can help...the answers, as I recall, are as follows...
    1 - A...no,B! Surely visiting royalty would have had at least tepid water...that was the coldest shower ever, must have been a treatment for leprosy.
    And my favorite phrase of language camp...
    O meo nome e ________.
    2 - A...I can't yodel.
    And yes, Bela was a Bitch. I think it was the mustache that made her grumpy.
    3 - All I can remember is the bread! Oh the bread...I gained 20 pounds.
    4 - B, definitely B...and don't forget the Rooster Calls, something akin to The Anchorman's "News team assemble!", alerting us to extracurricular activities in the near future.
    5 - B, with a capital T. My mother from Sao Miguel came for a visit in the early 1990's and actually told me she came to she "how I had turned out".
    6 - Both A and B...they offered.
    7 - B...and there was lots of AC/DC played too.
    8- C.
    Wow! What a year we had. I'm fairly sure I haven't worn a red jumpsuit since, but I still love my Birthday Parties!
    I can't believe Aaron is gone...he was my Ralph that year, and I miss him terribly. I smile everytime I think of him in those overalls.
    Thanks so much for the trip down memory cobblestone. I agree with the other Linda, your writing is delightful. Thanks for sharing.
    Much love to you, my friend.

  4. Thank you, Linda (which also means beautiful and fits my readership!) Had forgotten about the Rooster call.

    I'm sure it was a sanatorium - Ralph would know for sure. Toasting with vinho verde to Aaron of the overalls.