Portuguese sidewalk in the rain isn’t the ideal surface for an impromptu dance routine.
Not unless you want a Bambi on ice moment.
But I’m bouncing down the road to the corner store with Lisbon electro-pop between my ears and a giant grin on my face. “Things are going to get confusing” sings Amor Electro, providing the perfect soundtrack for what I’m experiencing. And I’m still listening as I stand in line waiting to pay for my groceries. If I trusted my intonation a little more, chances are I’d even sing along but I’m not there yet. Of course I take the earbuds out the minute the cashier rings up my items.
Some seven years ago, I had to leave my Portuguese life behind on a remote island in the middle of the Atlantic. Little did I know at the time that the hole in my heart would keep growing until it became so big it threatened to swallow me.
When I immigrated to America, I then went from juggling several languages and cultures to just the one. My life shrank and my brain grew slack through lack of intellectual stimulation as depression felled me. Because I lacked the financial wherewithal to access therapy, I proceeded to silence the part of me I missed the most, reasoning that it might lessen some of the pain of being alive.
In short, I denied Portuguese even existed. Never mind that it had forever altered the course of my life and career after I fell into it by accident. With nary a whimper, I gave up what I had fought so hard to learn, nurture, and grow.
But this kind of abiding emotional attachment isn’t something you can undo any more than you can ignore it although I gave it my best shot for years. It was easy in America; I lived a very self-contained and isolated life.
Passion was a language.
And I had turned my back on it.
Fast forward to early 2019 and I’ve temporarily shelved my American life.
I’m back in Europe to lend my father some moral and practical support as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for Stage IV cancer. My father’s home is a powder keg as stress makes tempers flare. We’re only human and we’re all terrified. Little do we know then all protocols but the first would come to fail. At the time of writing, we’re waiting for my stepmom to start a fourth one.
Ever since before getting to Paris and several weeks beforehand, I had been plugging myself back into Portuguese to trick my brain into focusing on something other than impending disaster. Despite the clumsiness inherent to many years of silence, the language that used to breathe life into me had remained more or less intact.
Another language can be a safe haven, an alternate dimension where what holds you back elsewhere doesn’t have as strong a grip on your psyche.
Perhaps this is because Portuguese predates illness that I feel so unfettered and alive when I speak it. So I start using it as a shield and a safe space to develop new ideas and reconnect with the person I was before depression, a person who forged ahead regardless of perceived difficulty and made things happen.
The process is nothing short of revelatory.
Although I’m never not dangerously close to total collapse because my financial situation is so dire I can’t afford to rest, I can feel a long lost part of me coming back to life and gathering strength. And by the time I land in Lisbon for the first time in years, it’s as if I’ve never left Portugal.
Stepping outside arrivals into the sun feels like a hug and I stand there for a long time, leaning against the railing and savoring the moment. Exhausted and wobbly after months of trying to write my way out of illness and hardship, I’m finally doing my heart’s bidding.
Portugal reminds me that I need to take responsibility for cultivating tender loving care for myself otherwise I cannot possibly do this for anyone else, much as I love my family.
Little by little and over the course of five years, depression eroded my humanness.
I became a shell of a person, invisible but to my cats, nameless to all but the mail carrier.
And speechless for the longest time as the illness stole my writing voice and my livelihood with it. When Anthony Bourdain takes his own life I get shell-shocked into reviving my vocation. His death has shown me my future and I don’t want it. I decide to try and relearn my job and give writing all I have, and I do, but for months I have the impression I’m running in place.
Progress is happening but it is so painstakingly slow I’m the only one who notices it.
In the midst of it all, connectedness upends my reality with many unexpected gifts, not least friendship and a mental escape pod in the form of Portuguese. Provided I put in the work, I can teleport at will as often as I want to. So I rush to the only Portuguese bookshop in Paris to replace the conjugations book I lost in transit all those years ago. It’s conveniently located only a few yards away from the Institut Curie and the day oncology ward that now feels like a second home to my parents and I.
Ideas start happening again at the intersection of curiosity, kindness, and the desire to reclaim my freedom one word at a time. From “no way” to “what if” and “why not” with a smile and the kind of enthusiasm I thought forever gone, everything seems possible again; nothing seems out of reach anymore.
And yet, my illness is still chronic, I’m still in a precarious financial situation made infinitely worse by geography, and there’s still a five-year crater on my CV.
So I stop attaching any importance to the things I can’t change and start focusing on the ones I can.
Passion is as addictive as it is contagious, and the joy it brings you tends to multiply the more you share it.
“Ah, adventure,” a friend told me back in the winter as I let out a happy sigh because this is the only description of life I’ve ever understood. Little by little, joy becomes more plentiful as I become once again proficient in the language my heart speaks, to the point that my internal monologue defaults to it several times a day now. Among other things, it’s a form of self-soothing when in the throes of anxiety.
Little did I know that the song between my ears during that Lisbon stay would eventually follow me to Amsterdam where, unexpectedly, you can also find the best Portuguese soup outside of Portugal.
If depression is wont to make us forget that daily life is studded with innumerable nuggets of joy, a change of scenery can remind us; some people and places seem to make us more human, somehow.
And even without changing our geographical coordinates, we can always tune in to the moment, play some new music, and conjure up delight.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.