There are many defining characteristics of Portuguese culture, but as far as I can make out, one that underpins its foundations is the notion of “saudade”. A number of students have attempted to explain the significance of this word to me over the years, based on the assumption that as an Englishwoman I couldn’t possibly understand what it means to miss someone or something or to yearn for a bygone time. They were wrong. I get it – it’s just that the English language doesn’t have one word to neatly encapsulate all of these emotions single-handedly.
Odd as it may seem, my decision to settle permanently in Lisbon was never planned. As an ex-colleague observed, my round-the-world teaching tour faltered at the first step and three years in, I was living with my partner and newly pregnant. Despite being delighted by my new domestic set-up, my unstable hormonal state in the early stages of pregnancy only served to heighten what I’d felt on and off since I’d failed to move on or move back: I was dreadfully homesick.
It goes without saying that I missed family and friends; when catching up in person involves a day’s travel, it puts a spanner in the works, to say the least. Even now, if anyone mentions even the vaguest plan to visit, I figuratively bite their hand off, probably seeming over-keen at best, slightly desperate at worst. The combined thrill of showing them around my neck of the woods, along with the prospect of several hours or days of uninterrupted chatter with them is something that I value greatly to this day.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will also admit that I am a self-declared sun worshipper. It was one of the more shallow reasons I originally decided to head south. This said, in past summers, after months of scorching heat, I have found myself pining for more moderate climes. Or even rain. You can take the girl out of England…..
Of course, being a greedy-guts at heart, much of my longing was directed towards comestibles. Many of these were clichéd: fish and chips, Marks and Spencer sandwiches, sausages (obviously) and anything cooked by my Mum. The only exception to this rule was the distinct lack of anything in Lisbon akin to Boots. I had nowhere to purchase a range of cucumber-based skin products in a 3-for-2 deal and felt bereft.
One of the possible deal-breakers in the early days was tea. It’s easier these days (PG Tips has landed), but when I first arrived, a tea bag that would yield a decent brew was nigh on impossible to get hold of. The principal culprit in this tea fail is Lipton’s Yellow Label, an aptly-named insipid infusion that simply does not hit the spot. I understand why: here, tea is customarily drunk weak and without milk. One long-standing English friend and fellow Lisbon resident circumnavigates this problem by routinely using two tea bags per cuppa. As for me, the habit of stashing months’ supplies of Sainsbury’s Red Label in my luggage was established on my first return journey to Lisbon after the school holidays that Christmas.
Of course, I have changed too, living here has changed my tastes and preferences. These days I can regularly be found downing a short Portuguese coffee without wincing at its intensity. I enjoy eating bacalhau (salt cod) in spite of my initial suspicion of it and continued cluelessness about where to start in transforming it into something edible. I love tasting new flavours and will try everything – although perhaps cabidela (chicken with rice cooked in the blood of the bird) was a step too far for me – in fairness I was in the nauseous early stages of pregnancy at the time, but I’ve never revisited it. I now have the best of both worlds; the tiny pasta pieces required for canja (Portuguese chicken soup) nestle comfortably next to cans of Heinz Baked Beans in my store cupboard and life is all the tastier for it.
After 14 years, Lisbon is home. I’ve more or less come to terms with the fact that visiting Blighty will mean I won’t step back into a scene from a Richard Curtis film. Equally, the joy of being with the people I’ve loved the longest, communicating freely and fluently and just feeling “at home” cannot be underestimated. The ultimate irony is how much I miss Lisbon when I’m away. I’ll forever be a foreigner here, but this in itself is something I cherish. It offers me a freedom not to conform, my legitimate and default excuse being that I’m not from these parts. “There’s no place like home” – but for now, and the foreseeable future, this means having a foot in both camps. And I’m happy with that.