finding Lisbon

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Latterly known as the new Barcelona, she stepped from arrivals into Lisbon’s midday heat with eager anticipation, and as her taxi wound its way down into its sprawling suburbs, she wondered if it could possibly live up to that kind of reputation.

Choosing Airbnb was a deliberate attempt to be less of a tourist and more of a local, so home was a tiny apartment in a residential area just east of the Lisbon’s oldest district of Alfama, right on top of a hill.

The hills!  She had been warned about the hills, but these were some serious upward climbs!

Though hills, of course, mean stunning vistas. See from above, Lisbon’s faded beauty is picture postcard, terracotta roofs on careworn tile-clad buildings tumbling towards the sparkling Tagus, famous for sending intrepid explorers out into the big blue. The waterfront, to the east, already redeveloped and achingly cool. Centre stage, the long dining tables in Mercado da Ribeira, the converted food market now revitalised by Time Out, the place to lunch. A noisy, buzzing, anything-you-fancy eating experience, sitting in the middle of the historic food stalls, where market traders have sold local produce since the late 1800s.

Nevertheless, thank goodness for the trams. The famous number 28, clattering through the maze of the narrow cobbled streets of Alfama, inching past parked cars and oblivious tourists, was not for the faint-hearted, but far kinder on the feet and the lungs!  On the other side of town, the “hill” problem is overcome via the Gloria funicular or the slightly bizarre neo-gothic styled Elevador de Santa Justa, rising from the Baixa district to the top of Barrio Alto in seconds, so the views are the only thing to take the breath away!

Lisbon’s hills leave a lasting impression, that’s for sure.

As does the food. In any country, there are certain things that never taste as good as when they are eaten there … in Portugal, it’s sardines. Silver slithers of deliciousness sizzling on market stalls, best enjoyed simply with a fist of crusty bread to soak up all the oil. And of course the famous “nata”, a delicious custard tart, buttery flaky pastry, custard just slightly wobbly, and a dusting of cinnamon.  She could have developed a seriously unhealthy addiction – may be climbing the hills was a good idea after all!

She found herself addicted too to the heart-breakingly beautiful fado music that flowed through the open windows of tiny airless bars in Alfama, as the sun sunk low on those early Summer days.  Fado, from the Latin fatum, and the source of the English word for fate …. so profoundly melancholic, it haunted her still.

They say you have to love yourself before you can be loved. It felt as if Lisbon was just waking up to its potential, quietly hiding away its faded beauty like a secret treasure, still wondering if it could hold its place in the hearts of the tourist droves starting to wander there. She left Lisbon, unsure where this fascinating city sat in her heart, but may be that was because she too was still learning to love herself. She wondered if she had given it enough of a chance to show her all it had to offer …. or perhaps it just wasn’t ready to yet.

 

 

finding Positive Solitude

 

 

“Claim your space. Draw a circle of light around it. Push back against the dark. Don’t just survive. Celebrate.”

(Charles Frazier)

 

She had never heard the expression “positive solitude” until a few days before, but it described perfectly the place she was on her journey.  

When she left her marriage, she knew loneliness would be her achilles heel, so had, of necessity, taught herself to embrace solitude.  The thought of a day on her own still had the capacity to leave a dull thud in her stomach and an uneasiness which she couldn’t quite put her finger on.  But, for the most part, she could get through a day alone, in fact, more than get through….

She found that keeping busy, or at the very least, having a plan, was the key.  Yes, of course, those plans very often displayed all the symptoms of running away, to escape the day-to-day, to break the routine where the silence of no early morning message from him would break her heart again and again. And sometimes, those plans were the end result of anger and defiance standing firm together in a “sod it, I don’t need anyone” kind of way.  Of course, in an ideal world, she would have given anything to be with someone who loved her, simple as that. But there is a difference between wanting and needing.  It took all her strength, but it was that anger, disappointment and hurt that gave her the momentum finally to step out into the world and say “bring it on”.

Holidaying alone, of course, was something else altogether, though she found that fear, when you are brave enough to look it in the eye, has nowhere to go.  

Florence was her first solo trip.  Alone, she spoke less, noticed more … and those moments when it would have been so wonderful, later, to say “Do you remember when …?”, sat in her memory bank alone.  More than anything, she came home with a sense of achievement that made her spirits sour, and still the memory of speeding through the Tuscan hills on a Vespa, that life-affirming rush, that freedom of spirit, left her grinning from ear to ear.

And so to Lisbon. A last minute, need to get on with my life, kind of booking … without any preconceived notions of what to expect.  A deliberate attempt not to be too touristy, to step out of her comfort zone a little further than before. 

And so, she sat typing this story, in a sun dappled courtyard just east of Alfama, the hilly artisan quarter of the town.  A local resident, Jose, popped his head out of his window and offered to put on his favourite fado music to keep her company.  Hauntingly beautiful voices, mending all those lost dreams in a soothing wave of melodies floating through the lemon trees, the delicate blues of heady agapanthus and lavender, across the white washed terrace outside her tiny apartment. For all Lisbon had to offer, she would remember most the magic of that moment. It was perfect.

She realised how far she had come.  So terrified before of even being alone, here she was, in a foreign land without a single soul to turn to. For her, this was being brave beyond her wildest imagination, and she knew she would be fine.  That’s quite a journey!

 

finding Her Path

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“He who is outside his door, already has the hardest part of his journey behind him” (Dutch proverb)

She found herself again on that same bench. It was one of those mornings when Summer isn’t quite ready to let itself fade into Autumn.  

It was one of those days when she woke up, and, despite a good night’s sleep, it felt like being brave was just too hard.  It was sometimes.  With the best will in the world, and despite doing all the right things, some days it really all felt just too hard.  But she did know that one of the right things to do … was to get outside.  

Five minutes from where she lived was the most glorious park that had been within walking distance for the best part of her adult life.  It was the must-go place for firework displays every November, which she’d gone to with her boyfriend, then to be her husband, then the father of her children, who themselves had been thrilled at the ever noisier pyrotechnics.  For the boating lake, always a draw for silly teenage antics, and home to a variety of tail-wiggling ducks and haughty swans, so frighteningly humanised and bloated by the constant availability of crusts from over-zealous toddlers.  For the stunning landscaping, with a clear nod to Capability Brown, it’s perfectly placed trees and gentle hills … hills for screaming down riding out-of-control toboggans speeding to the water’s edge, hills for chasing dogs careering towards the resident geese, hills for pram-pushing a overwrought baby in need of an afternoon nap.  So many memories.

And so, it was almost without thinking, that, on the day she left her marriage, she should find herself there in that park, on that bench.  Back then, so absorbed in the enormity of what had happened, she hardly noticed anything around her.  Passers-by, though curious to see a middle-aged woman sobbing her heart out in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, would have scurried past, best not to interfere.  She could only remember the overwhelming sadness but also sense of relief, like her lungs weren’t big enough, and the total shock and fear, as it dawned on her that she had taken that first irreversible step on her journey.  

The bench was set high up in a dappled grove, tucked away from the activity around the lake.  Today, she could see from her vantage spot, a straggling crocodile of year 8’s, their red and black uniforms appearing then disappearing between the trees as they reluctantly jogged their way around the lake’s perimeter. One athletic boy determined to lap his classmates and show off to the girls, who of course giggled and feigned disinterest.  Life seems to simple when you’re young.  And a lone walker, with a frisky spaniel darting its way between the bushes, determined to catch the waterfowl unawares.  

Back sitting on the bench again, over four years later, she contemplated her journey since that afternoon, and realised how far she had come, and that she had been brave …. and that it was OK sometimes, to feel like she hadn’t the energy to be brave any more.  She sat, closed her eyes, and tried to make sense of it all.  It was at once overwhelming and terrifying all over again, her lungs still did not feel big enough, but for all that, not for a minute, had she looked back and ever thought leaving was the wrong thing to do.

She looked up, and realised for the first time, that the grove was planted with oak trees, growing stronger by the day and standing firm, there at the top of the hill. Oak trees rustling in the crisp morning breeze, heavy with acorns, some already fallen,  starting to spread out new roots, creating new beginnings.  Just like her.  

 

finding Another Day

“Morning, lovely day!”

She scurried past,
envying the time to sit and stare,
her pace quickening,
clock ticking.

The park,
winter’s fading rays piercing the oaks,
shedding their green,
extraordinary in their autumn coat.

Littered empties, discarded butts
surrounding the bench,
night’s cold and weary secrets,
unpalatable, unseen.

Lone dog yapping
for another stick thrown,
his mornings, a well trodden path,
same walk, different day.

Other workers,
like her, mind full, head down,
unseeing, blind to the day’s
patient calling to be admired.

Breath misting,
tears trapped,
like a silent reminder
of the pain.

Her thoughts elsewhere.

Life’s pulse happening anyway
but everything had changed.

He had gone.

 

finding Change

“My feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping but I shall go on living.”
( Pablo Neruda)

There was a shift.  So subtle, had it not been her very mindset at that very moment, she wouldn’t have noticed it at all .. but there was a shift nevertheless.  

Records would show it was the hottest September day for a century.  The pair of black awnings outside the pavement cafe she had of late favoured for a lunchtime snack, did little to protect her, the midday heat piercing through the gap between with such intensity that her bare legs reddened in minutes.  Moving the table and chair closer to the frontage helped a little, and she envied the clientele outside the Italian opposite, who had had the sense to sit on the shady side of the street.

The couple on the next table taking a moment to rest from trying to shop with the tiniest of newborns snuggled to the mother, barely an adult herself.  They looked so young to be a family, to have the responsibility of such a precious new life. She marvelled how relaxed they were, with each other, with the baby and remembered those early days with hers, and she was heartened to see them pause, to see them savour this precious time.

On the other side of the street, a ridiculous attempt at parking a silver run-around in a lorry- sized gap.  A woman driver of course, who even asked a man waiting in the next space if he could move back to allow her to manoeuvre, while everyone sitting outside the cafe could see it wasn’t needed.  She watched fascinated as the driver to-ed and fro-ed, knowing of course that, if it had been her, she would have just driven past, rather than face the embarrassment of an audience!  Funny how it’s never a man struggling to fit a parking space.  Are they genetically engineered to be able to park a car?  Just as they seem to be genetically engineered to be unable to stay faithful to one woman.  She wondered if the biker casually sitting by the side of the road in his leathers, was waiting for the driver, a clandestine lunchtime meeting, since she had appeared to wave at him.  Rather too public to be clandestine!  On hindsight, the wave was probably just to warn biker man of her appalling parking skills and the vulnerability of his Harley.  They seemed an unlikely match anyway, and so it was, for as she turned to sip her coffee, he was gone.  

This treating herself to lunch was all part of the looking after herself, of being strong, of moving on. It was still a conscious thing, living life out of curiosity, without fear.  Perusing the menu as leisurely as an hour’s lunch break would allow, she had chosen the “special”, just because she always ordered their ploughman’s sandwich and wasn’t about to become predictable, even in a coffee shop.  How ironic therefore that the owner, a lovely man whose passion for the blend and commitment to his customers’ individual coffee foibles fascinated her, being basically a non-coffee drinker herself …. how ironic that the owner should mishear her and order her the “usual” anyway.  

The heat. The world felt slower, languid, indifferent to the lunchtime rush. Trees lining this old part of the town, perfectly still, dappling the pavement and holding on to their green as if they knew this summer’s day was still to come, when everyone else thought autumn must surely be here.   

She felt calm.  She felt the world around her and was thankful.  For all the hurt and the sadness, just a dull ache now and which she knew from experience only time could heal, she felt glad to be alive and the shift came imperceptibly.  It was the clarity of light, the intensity of the heat, and the sudden realisation that right there, right then, she was exactly where she needed to be.

 

finding Crete

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What better for a broken heart than the kind of love that would never let her down … the love of her oldest and dearest friend. Where better for a broken heart than the kind of place that would breathe life and warmth back into her fragile, battered soul.

And so, a month after he’d left, she and said oldest and dearest friend, stepped off a morning flight into the blistering heat that is Crete in late Summer.

It felt as though the tiny family-run hotel just east of Rethymno, had been sent to take her in and mend her.  Somehow, on a Greek island saturated with tourists at peak season, they had managed to find a oasis of calm. Right next to the beach, she could, within minutes of leaving her room, feel the fine warm sand between her toes and breathe in the salty air.  It was perfect.

They fell into the island’s welcoming embrace, whiling away their days under the bluest skies, discovered that Greek salad tastes three times as wonderful when you are actually there, that sometimes it’s fine to seek out foreign lands and in the end do nothing at all, and that red wine and lazy sun-kissed days can soothe a restless mind to sleep. She talked and cried out her hurt while her friend listened, then listened some more, like good friends do.

In the end,  she could talk and cry no more. She would rise early every day to sit at water’s edge.  The tears she’d determined she would not cry for him, fell in rivers onto the sand as she searched for him where the sea met the sky … he was not there, and finally, as Crete’s magic worked its Aegean charm,  she felt her heart starting to let him go.

finding Heartbreak, Again

“Perhaps this is what the stories meant when they called somebody heartsick. Your heart and your stomach and your whole insides felt empty and hollow and aching.”
(Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

He was gone.

She always knew, of course, that he would leave to follow his dream – he’d told her that right from the start.  He never said he’d stay because of her … and even if he had, she would have told him to go anyway.  This was something he had to do, and though they’d talked of her following him one day, for now he had to do this alone, to find himself, to find his path.  It was a difficult time, an emotional time, when he needed space to prepare for the journey ahead. She found herself caught in the no-mans-land between the life he had and the life he was going to, and as her vulnerability grew, so did the distance between them.

She knew how it would end … yet she loved him anyway. The waiting game moved to a new chapter, one where she did not know if she would ever see him again. His leaving broke her heart.

The difference this time, she reasoned,  was that she knew she would be fine, she had survived this before. She knew how it would play out, the journey from loss to hope.  She was stronger now. She would not let it pull her down to the depths of despair, fear, longing and sadness she had felt before. She would not give it the head space.  She would be kind to her soul, her very essence of being, and laugh again.  She would accept that he had gone, and live her life to the full, without him.  That was her plan.

But her heart did not hear. There is no short cut from loss to hope.  Days of despair and fear cannot be shortened to just one day, sadness and longing do not give in to hope without a fight.  He had taken a piece of her with him, and so, like before, heartbreak wrapped its icy fingers round her soul, and she lived her life as best she knew how, while she waited for the thaw.

 

 

 

finding Love, Again

“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

(D H Lawrence, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”)

A year since he had broken her heart, almost to the day.

A year of finding her way through an emotional whirlpool of desperation, anger, devastating sadness, fear, loneliness, self-doubt … let no-one say that letting go is easy.  It is not.

Nonetheless, she’d made it through.  Where once the thought of just getting through a day seemed more than she could bare, at last she found herself looking forward instead of wondering what could have been. She no longer needed to wear the mask that told the world she was fine … because she was.   She had chiselled away at the mountain of hurt with a courage and determination that she would no longer let it stand in her way.

They say you have to love yourself, before you can love someone else. She understood that now, and perhaps that had been the problem all along. While she struggled to find out who she really was, she’d looked to him to fill in all the gaps, to show her the way, to prop her up as she dipped those first tentative toes into her new life. May be it had all been too much to ask.

The past cannot be changed, so the only way forward is to accept it, learn from it, and find out a way to mend. She was still finding out, but she’d come a long way  in a year… and it showed.

She could feel the life she’d imagined pulling her forward and she ran to it , arms outstretched, with the hope and belief that it was hers to live, right there, just in front of her grasp.  She had come through, trusted in her journey, and her heart was open. She felt a force coming towards her, so strong that it would change her life.

So when, a few days later,  she saw him for the first time, she knew …

 

Also published in Mantra Mood (September 2017)