Wow has it been almost two years already? Still feels like summer 2013 for me. I had a few posts I wanted to start last summer but never quite got around to– which is ironic considering I was in the country for a quarter of the year (a little over three months).
My name is Marielena Dias, for all new subscribers. I began this blog in summer 2012 as a “University of Florida Global Gator Blogger” when I studied abroad with the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth in Lisbon. That summer, I traveled all over Lisbon and south / central Portugal. I visited Evora and Monsaraz to learn about Portuguese southern agriculture, attended lectures in hot classrooms at ISEG– a gorgeous university that used to be a convent located directly across from Parliament–, witnessed protests on the economic crisis, got lost walking EVERYWHERE, and even had the pleasure of listening to aspiring fado artists in tiny, crowded cafes along the Bairro Alto (the Upper District, essentially a well known neighborhood in Lisbon home to all kinds of cultures– doesn’t that name sound so edgy though?)
Last summer was monumental for me. I visited quite a few new places and learned their stories, see some pictures below: From top left clockwise: I am sitting on a gôndola in Aveiro, considered the “Venice” of Portugal. I discovered a new, charming city– Mafra– home to the Palácio Nacional de Mafra, once considered one of the seven wonders of Portugal (a secondary hunting residence built during the reign of Dom João V [King John V] the Magnificent that holds the Rococo Library and consequentially one of the largest collections of Western knowledge [36000+ volumes] from the 14th to 19th centuries). I finally visited the Algarve for a few days, Praia Olhos de Água (Beach of “Water Eyes” because there are little oval shaped pockets of fresh water strewn among the sand in this famous fishing town in the region of Albufeira). And I finally had some more time to fully appreciate the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos or Jeronimos Monastery which, if you don’t get to read some of my other posts, is right by the birthplace of the pastel de nata (egg custard stuffed in a puff pastry shell with caramelized sugar on top)– a pastry shop called Pasteis de Belém. Fun fact: As legend tells it, this pastry was invented partly to help cope with the region’s excess of egg yolks since Franciscan monks used to use the egg whites to starch their clothes!
All in all, it was a successful summer (2014). I traveled a bit, like I said, but mostly I really connected to my roots via my family and I took a lot of time to figure myself out. I was anticipating beginning my doctoral degree in 2015 (although I later accepted a job at the Consulate of Portugal in Florida and will eventually go into my degree program) so I wanted to know who I was and what I really wanted beforehand. I am soon beginning a new blog on my musings of self and life and the meaning of it all, thesemidnightmusings.wordpress.com, and I post a lot of my thoughts on my instagram: https://instagram.com/marielenadias/. I biked through countless towns and neighborhoods last summer in an attempt to get fit, and coming back home this summer (2015) and going on my first bike ride made me come to a lot of conclusions about life.
Photo credit: Google images
Ask any Portuguese person for directions and they will usually somehow include the phrase “sempre em frente” (which roughly means “keep moving forward”) in the instructions. Either you have to “keep going ahead” after the roundabout or when you turn left at the fork ahead… whatever way its said, its something that I have found so endearing about “Portuguese driving directions.”
In a way, I find it reflective of the Portuguese in general. They may be facing the hardest of times but somehow they keep moving, they keep on the path ahead. Of course life can be difficult and I often hear about these difficulties from family and friends, but the people I have met have never stopped appreciating the beauty of a sunny day, a treasured trip to the beach with family, or a lovingly prepared meal at the end of a hard day.
Two days ago, on my first bike ride, I became extremely lost. Normally I love getting lost in the small towns surrounding the city my father grew up in. But for some reason, I got scared. I was in the middle of the woods, the sun had gone down, and I had traveled down a huge hill which I feared having to walk back up if the road I was on didn’t end up in the place I needed to be. Furthermore, at one point it felt like I was walking in circles in the woods after I tried several directions and the woods never seemed to come to an end at the start of a regular road. I returned yesterday to photograph what I had experienced:
Essentially, I went from visiting my grandparents’ graves in a region called Currelos to Casal Mendo, rode around that town for 30 min, and then turned onto a street that happened to go down a hill, lead to various paths in the woods, and bring me to a section of woods I had visited before on my way to a town in Vila Meã (which according to a friend who had two Norwegian neighbors that were formerly meteorologists, is home to some of the purest air in all of Europe– how delightful!)
What I came to learn from this ride, and in retrospect from the Portuguese and their favorite directional phrase:
– There is no other way to live life other than by moving forward… sempre em frente. We can’t feel bad about our stories because they have made us who we are. You have lived through every bad day (think about that!)… through every day when you felt like your heart had taken too much and you simply could not go on, and regardless of the current conditions of our life, time WILL go on and the conditions will eventually change. Even when I couldn’t find my way, by peddling it kept me moving in some kind of direction. You don’t have to always be proactive in every situation, sometimes it’s ok to just sit quietly and breathe mindfully. But if you find yourself extremely unsatisfied with your story, write a new chapter! You have it within you to be the hero of your own life, instead of making yourself a victim of your circumstances. We can only fully understand a situation when it ends and that chapter closes, there is no way around the fact that we will never have the full facts, knowledge, or awareness of what is currently going on. That’s part of the fun! Instead of challenges around the corner we should be anticipating potential adventures and new perspectives!
– If we live in regret, remorse, or painful nostalgia (as in, when it causes negativity and sadness versus a feeling of happiness at a memory that has come to pass) then we are living too much in the future. If we are constantly worrying about the future, we live too much in a state of anxiety. A quiet mind lives in the present… a quiet mind is able to understand and hear our desires, wants, needs, and most importantly able to distinguish intuition over fear. Our task is to focus on our human journey, the paths we started… to focus on being present, being mindful, and simply loving. Love is the ultimate task we are called to do. If you think about it, it motivates our every step… from what we choose as a career to who we surround ourselves with. When we love, we leave the physical realm that our bodies are limited to and we dive into the infinite… and through loving we ultimately encounter gratitude as well. At one point I became extremely agitated at how I had let myself get so lost when I had been given such simple directions by a local resident… but then I realized how lucky I was to have this problem. I realized I was blessed enough to be in Portugal, on an adventure, with the ability to get around on some form of transportation– even if I was lost on some Godforsaken gravel path in the middle of nowhere. When I started looking at the journey with gratitude, I started to notice how bright it actually was outside thanks to a sky full of stars, or the fragrance of some nearby jasmine in their full summer blooms. When we look at life like a blessing, it becomes one.
– FEAR, as I read once, can be defined in two ways: Forget Everything And Run or Face Everything And Rise. At one point towards the end of my ride, I became so disoriented that I couldn’t bring myself to take another step because I was certain that I would only be faced with more endless dark clumps of unrecognizable trees. Instead, thank goodness that I did because in about 20 paces I was met by a clearing and the main road which I had been longing to stumble upon.
– Finally, I learned the importance of perspective. Here and there, the path I was on would lead to a run down building or crumbling wall. (I stumble upon those a lot more often than you think when out and about, see picture below.) Naturally, at first these run ins heightened my anxiety in the dark. It made me think about how we seem to crash into or are forced to face our own ruins, our emotional pasts, insecurities, and anxieties… seemingly during some of the darkest times of our lives when we are already in a rough patch. But these ruins are not meant to provoke fear or even a reaction. They are a emblem of our past that we must lovingly embrace as our own, not an indication of where we are destined to go or even where we are meant to stay in the present moment. We must embrace these ruins, acknowledge them, and continue on our way… sempre em frente.
I apologize for the length of all my thoughts, but being here really challenges everything I think I know about life. New scenery has the power to do so. But aside from a change of scenery, Portugal is my “perfect fit” for reflection. One of the most important things I have learned so far is that the right place, people, and setting can change your life. Your fit is wherever you most easily are able to love, and can love at your best capacity.
There is a quiet, understated, and powerful spirit of optimism and determination in this country. On the outside, I think it’s easy and valid to say that the Portuguese have truly been affected by everything that has come their way economically, socially, etc… but while their determination to carry on may not be as boldly present in every aspect of what they do, it has nevertheless allowed the culture, the tradition, and the people to prevail and stay present in the face of this chaotic world.
While this blog began as a journal of my cultural discoveries as a student and later researcher here, I can’t help but include my reflections now because these years in Portugal and last summers in particular have been the foundation of discovering who I am. Here, my capacity to love, cherish, give thanks, be mindful, and find peace is amplified. This is my perfect fit. This is what home is meant to be.
And when you’re in the right place, even if you get lost in the woods… you might just end up finding yourself.
With that, boa noite (goodnight). More to come soon. Starting this summer’s posts on a sentimental note. Beijos e abraços, meus amigos. (Hugs and kisses, my friends.)