ChAlli in Lisbon

"Out for American"

December 10, 2023 He Said/She Said

out for american

Thanksgiving Day is just Thursday in Portugal, but it doesn't have to be.

He Said:

For Americans living abroad during Thanksgiving, it can be a time for missing family, friends, and all the traditions that come with the holiday. It prompts people to search for the familiar. So, when we walked into the Hard Rock Café in Lisbon, the first time I had entered any such venue in any city in approximately 25 years, the familiarity that followed my skepticism was washed away with a wave of curiosity.

What is this place with Madonna's dress on the wall? How did they get Tom Petty's guitar, and can we sit in that booth? Is this really what an American sports bar smells like, or are we simply no longer used to it? Is that the Lions and Packers game behind the bar? I wonder if Dallas will be on next. And are those actually smoked Old Fashions? Holy shit, Sebastian, they have chicken wings and nachos. Am I more homesick than I thought?

No. The simple answer is I wasn't. That's not what this rush of energy was about. In fact, the day went by without much fanfare because, after all, we did have school. But this whole capsule of Americana -- and that's exactly what the Hard Rock Café is -- well, it was fascinating in ways I never imagined. Rather than looking at it as a kitschy and cheesy American chain, I chose to see it as sociology, an experiment in cultures.

How did we get there? Well, Alli and Seb were certainly feeling a lot more sentimental in the buildup to Thanksgiving week than I was. As much as I love the holiday, as much as I consider it my favorite and a time to eat and drink really good food and beverages with friends and family, I decided to forgo the emotional journey of missing it, knowing that we would get together with expats from Sebastian's school on Sunday to celebrate properly. Thanksgiving, but with new people. After all, Thanksgiving day itself was just another Thursday in Portugal, like I said, and this could be different and provide an entirely new perspective.

Alli still wanted to honor the day in some way and found the Hard Rock Café was doing a special prix fix turkey dinner. They managed to squeeze us in around the time people were arriving at others' homes back in the States. The Lions were still on, right? Yes, there were other expats there eating turkey (which Sebastian ordered, but because we were eating turkey on Sunday, Alli opted for the Caesar salad, and I had wings and nachos), but the most fascinating part of the whole thing was the number of Portuguese people there for dinner. Super stacked hamburgers, bowls of onion rings, ribs -- my god, the ribs.

All I could do was watch and wonder -- how the hell is this happening -- and then it dawned on me that these were just Portuguese people "out for American." I think of so many nights in my life when I went out for dinner -- at a really authentic sake bar that, with just a little imagination, could double as Japan; at a beer hall reminding me of past trips to Germany; at classic French bistros where you could pretend you're in Paris. The reality is we can use food and restaurants to go places, to transport us to other countries, and that's exactly what these Lisboetas were doing, too. They were spending the night in the States, most of them probably oblivious to the fact that it was Thanksgiving. And for better or worse, this is what comes to mind when many people think of the United States -- bar food, merchandise, and music videos.

We got home, and Alli had a bit of a headache. I don't think it was the music, but we all called it a night after some phone calls to the States. Then, over the weekend, Sebastian started feeling sick again, too. All these two do is bounce it back and forth, back and forth, with me somehow steering clear every time. But when Seb got ill enough over the weekend to the point where he wasn't sure if he should go to expat Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday, I started to wonder if I missed my opportunity for turkey.

I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority on this, but I love the bird as much as I love the sides, if not more. Turkey done well is a ::chef's kiss:: and something I never want to miss. Ultimately, though, other families attending this dinner had sick kids as well. Everyone had someone who was battling a cold. So, we all decided what-the-heck and got together for an amazing night with new friends. Everyone there had some sort of connection to the States, whether they were from the U.S. or had lived there. Even among all that Americanness, there were still French, Russians, and Norwegians, to name a few. The food was great. The cocktails and wine were great. I freakin' nailed the gluten-free green bean casserole. And we all left happy and full.

But our Thanksgiving story does not end there. Just as disease played a role in the original Thanksgiving, so, too, does it in our first foreign one. Perhaps I got it from my own family. Maybe I got in the way of the never-ending game of virus pong between Alli and Sebastian. Or it could have been from someone at the expat Thanksgiving dinner or even at the Hard Rock Café. Either way, two days later, I started to feel a sting in my sinuses, which is never a good sign for me and is where things usually start. By Wednesday morning, it felt like someone had raked sandpaper across my sinuses, and then by Wednesday afternoon, the fever set in -- to the point where I knew I was officially out for the count. I caught it.

What Alli failed to tell me around the night of the Hard Rock Thanksgiving dinner, though, was that she had lost her sense of taste for a bit. Perhaps that's why the Caesar salad wasn't so bad after all. She couldn't taste it. And as we all know, with a loss of taste often comes the rest of the diagnosis. Perhaps the Native Americans of the past were laughing. Maybe it was karma that our 21st-century disease had spread during celebrations of the Thanksgiving holiday. Regardless, I came down with COVID.

The following week, then, was like hitting the reset button. I didn't leave the house for five days. I mean, I didn't even go out on the back porch, much less take a stroll on the Calçada sidewalks. I spent my time in Hawkins, Indiana, trying to get some work done and then binge-watching the latest season of Stranger Things before reemerging into the city and rejoining my fellow Lisboetas. It felt like starting all over again when I finally went back outside, rejoining this entire experience we're having as if it hadn't happened for the better part of a week. It was exciting and joyful. I was relieved that we are still here and that next weekend we get to hop on a train and head to some new Portuguese city for a long weekend of exploration.

Those sensations, that sense of relief, it also happens to be the exact same way I felt when walking out the doors of the Hard Rock Café on Thanksgiving night. I pushed the heavy glass door, and we were transplanted back into Praça dos Restauradores. Thanks, Hard Rock, for a fun and interesting evening, but thank you even more, Lisbon, for letting us back in. There are many more adventures to be had, and now we all have our COVID antibodies.

She Said:

Olá meus amigos! Portuguese language classes have begun. For my first round, I am enrolled in an online 4-week class that meets three times per week for an hour and a half. I’m a few weeks in, and I can confidently say I am now the second worst in the class instead of the first, yay! It’s painful how hard it is to forget I know any Spanish and speak Portuguese. The two languages are incredibly similar in so many ways, which makes it a little easier to understand, but different in so many ways to make it really hard to speak properly. The teacher pretty much told me I speak Portanol but is also good about praising me for trying. And as predicted, Sebastian (with a clean slate for second language learning and a much younger brain) is learning way quicker than me and is eager/happy to jump in and correct me, which is only annoying half the time, the other half, I love it).

So, this is one of those palm-to-forehead expat stories Sebastian asks me about when I pick him up from school. One of my dearest friends lovingly sent me a birthday package weeks before my actual birthday, which was really exciting because it would serve as our first experience with receiving packages. Fast forward to a week after my birthday, and I finally got a notice in the mailbox that there was, in fact, a package for me. However, it was being held for ransom in customs until a VAT tax was paid. Ok, should be no problem to just pay for its release, right? Wrong.

First, I needed to get on the website and find out how much needed to be paid. With the help of translate, I set up the mandatory account and downloaded the app on my phone. I followed all the steps to clear the package through customs; however, something got lost in the translation, and instead of choosing credit card, I ended up choosing bank card for payment. Ok, still no problem. I’ll just use my bank card and pay online, right? Wrong. This led me to the realization that I needed to activate my new ATM card (oops). But, in order to do that, I also needed a PIN that I did not have (we were told they were coming in the mail, but they never came -- and for the record, Chad’s card is still not active). So, this would now require a trip back to the bank (I’m seriously friends with at least three of the employees there because I’ve been there so much, and they are SO nice and helpful!). But, instead of just doing that, I decided to go to the place I thought was holding the package to try and pay there with cash or credit, only to find out I could not pay or pick up there. So, to the bank I went to get the card activated. This is when I realized the ATMs at our bank are only in Portuguese, and I was not tall enough to use my phone for Google translate, so I could not complete the transaction at the bank (go ahead and laugh, but it’s for real high up!). So, I went back home, got on the bank portal through my computer, and for my final piece of humble pie on this particular day, I figured out that it all could have been done online (except the activation of the card), quite easily, in about 10 minutes. The good news, I finally got the package, and it was worth the wait!

I received a flyer from one of the local synagogues for an upcoming menorah-making workshop. I thought this would be really fun for Seb and I to do together, and we needed a menorah for Hanukkah this year anyway. We enjoyed a weeknight date night of Lebanese food for dinner, and then we each made our own menorah. I am pretty sure I was created without a proper right hemisphere, as my art/creative side is essentially non-existent. Sebastian had a vision for his menorah and began sculpting immediately. All the adults were very impressed with his, which meant no one was looking at me. For mine, well, let’s just say it had all of the obligatory candle holders it needed, and if I’m lucky, it will have a good personality once it’s fired in the kiln.

Side note: When we arrived at the synagogue, there was an armed guard at the entrance. This didn’t strike me as abnormal even before the war. However, upon leaving, there was a swat team of police out front. This scared us both, and we hopped in an Uber as quickly as we could. I came to find out that this was a “normal” nighttime occurrence at the synagogue, where they must now do a safety sweep at the end of each day. All I could think was how sad it was that a super fun, bonding night of heritage for my son and me could turn so quickly into a fear-based barrage of questions surrounding the “why.” And the worst part is, I could not and might never be able to fully answer his question.

Being almost four months into living here, I’m starting to have a more familiar feeling and neighborhood comfort when I leave the apartment. Leaving so early for school, I witness the neighborhood waking up on our walk to the metro. As the sun is just starting to come up, the light between the buildings reflects on the cobblestones in such a pretty way. The smell of coffee and pastries and even garlic comes from the restaurants preparing to serve patrons for the day. I love the fresh energy of the kids on their way to school. People smoking cigarettes and some even having their first glass of wine for the day still surprises me, but it’s all part of the landscape. We often see the same lady walking her dog as we walk up the hill. She is always happy to see Sebastian in his dapper uniform and always tells him to have a good day (we think). And, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the man who is vision impaired (we think) who gets on the metro near us with his cup outstretched for donations, saying the same mantra every single day (Sebastian knows it by heart, still not sure what it translates to). When I take Cody to the park, I pass a shoe store with the same lady working every day, and we always say good morning or good afternoon or good evening (one day I’m going to buy some shoes from her!). I love having local midday lunches with Chad, who can actually take a lunch where I never did back home. I think I can safely say we’ve never “dined” midday, especially with a glass of wine, and I love the time we get to spend together trying new foods.

Many of these things, and more, exist in CO and the city things in NYC, but I’m realizing that I didn’t stop to notice them nearly enough. Always being in a rush to and from school or work or errands, etc., it’s really hard to just stop. I’m sure plenty of people do it, and kudos to those that do. I definitely did not, or at least not often enough. But now, being gifted with this time in a wonderful new place, I’m quickly realizing that these things are currently what makes me smile each day (except when it’s pouring and I’m freezing and it’s super slippery, then I really miss having a car!). This time and these things, I believe, are the things I’ll remember most about our time living here.

Speaking of slippery, I found something that makes the cobblestone even more slippery than rain, leaves! Let me also say that the leaves here, while they do seem to be falling off the trees, are nowhere near as pretty as fall in the Northeast or in CO. I have not seen much of a color change, which is my favorite part of the season, but the leaves are definitely falling. I’ve almost bit the dust more times than I care to admit on a pile of them, especially when it’s damp out. But, I’m telling you, there are leaf fairies here that I’d like to find and hug. The cleanup of leaves is amazingly quick, and each day, more fall, and they just as quickly disappear again! It’s impressive. Kudos to Lisbon for being so efficient!

I have been going to Sam for all things hair since 2007 (thanks to Juli P. for making the love connection). Chad goes to Sam, my mom goes to Sam, and many of you also go to Sam (against my better judgment I shared the best-kept secret). For those that don’t know Sam, he is the best stylist, greatest storyteller, big-hearted, all-around great guy. He’s simply the best. So, you can imagine my trepidation when the time came to find someone else to cut my hair here in Portugal. Sam told me years ago, find someone who looks to have a great haircut on the street and ask them where they go. Well, I tried that, and the first person told me France. The second person told me the guy was no longer in Portugal. Third person I asked gave me a salon recommendation, not a name, but a salon. Since it was all I had and it was near my place, I went with it. I was going to book a cut and highlights (i.e. cover the grey), but while the haircut was fairly priced, the highlights were triple the cost I pay back home. Pass.

I arrived for my appointment and was given coffee and water while I waited, good start. All of the employees were Brazilian and speaking Brazilian Portuguese (not that I would have understood if they were speaking European Portuguese, but still). When my stylist arrived, he spoke enough English for me to ask for a few inches off (praying I wouldn’t have to convert to the metric system) and to follow Sam’s line for layers. Not totally sure the communication was clear, but I decided to just go with whatever he did and not panic. It’s only hair, after all. It will grow back! While he cut, all the stylists were talking amongst themselves, and I couldn’t help but feel like Elaine in the Seinfeld episode when she wants a manicure, and the ladies are speaking about her in Korean (except I don’t think these folks were talking shit about me like they were her!). Either way, I was definitely the outsider, and it was a weird feeling. When he was done cutting, he took off the cape and said “feita” (done). My hair was still dripping wet, so I asked about blow drying, and he said it would cost extra. Well, extra with a brush. So, I opted to blow dry but without a brush, so I didn’t have to walk home with a wet head. Moral of the story, it was fine. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t horrible. It was definitely no Sam though!

Soooo, Thanksgiving. There is no question on whether or not this is a thing here. It most definitely is not. Seb had school all week, and come Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, we had a plan to divert attention from being homesick. What says Americana better than The Hard Rock Café? And, they were featuring a special turkey dinner menu, score! From the moment we arrived, Sebastian was grinning ear to ear. He felt so “at home” with a menu in English, servers speaking English, and “American” food on the menu. Yep, in addition to his turkey dinner, we got nachos and wings and were jamming out to MTVs American music on the TVs. Don’t get me wrong, the food was totally overpriced and not great, but it served the purpose for which we went and will definitely be a memory none of us forget. With the time change, we were able to come home and still catch some of the bootlegged Macy’s Day parade before connecting with family and going to bed.

In addition to Hard Rock, we were invited to a “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner with some other expats we met from Sebastian’s school a few days later. So the following Sunday, Chad made green bean casserole, I made sweet potato mash, and Sebastian made GF brownies. We even found a store that carried Ocean Spray cranberry sauce (because nothing says American Thanksgiving better than cranberry sauce in a jar 😉). Either way, we made it through a holiday where being away from family felt really sad and turned it into something memorable.

Side note on restaurants and a new discovery -- stain remover. Twice now, we’ve been in a restaurant, and the server noticed one of us spilled or dropped something on our clothing. Both times, they reacted quickly and grabbed this amazing stain remover (which I’m determined to find and buy in bulk) and brought it to the table. You simply spray it on the stain, let it sit for 10 minutes, and then use the built-in brush to wipe it away. Viola, the stain is gone! I mean, sauce and wine kind of stains, gone! Amazing.

A few more highlights of the past month worth mentioning. One is Sebastian’s school Winter Fayre, in which he sang holiday songs with the choir and portrayed Edmund in a scene acted out with his class from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. This was our first school event at this new school, and I might be guilty of signing Chad and me up to work one too many booths. But it was fun and turned out to be a good way to meet a few other parents. The second big highlight this past month was seeing Ronaldo play with the Portuguese National Team. It was so much fun to watch and cheer them on, and it was nice to see so much solidarity and pride amongst the locals. I definitely had to keep reminding myself to call it football instead of soccer!

Finally, the guests of the month, the Lammers! While this awesome family from right down the street in Lafayette, CO, was already planning to visit Portugal and not necessarily coming to see us, we had a blast spending some time with them during their vacation. We met up with them at the beginning of their trip and showed them a little bit of the Lisbon we’ve gotten to know and again on their last night. They are our heroes for having gone into the ocean multiple times on their trip (it’s soooo cold!), especially this time of year, and not only taught us about the different cans of sardines, but we also witnessed one of the girls behead and debone her own fish (which I cannot/will not do)! We enjoyed two excellent meals together, the newly opened Rossio Christmas Market, a few bottles of good wine, and great conversation. Great to see you Lammers!

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