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Finding my sanctuary

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And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the pain it took to blossom.
Anaïs Nin

Something wonderful is happening. For the first time in a long while, I’m feeling lighter, more at ease, even joyful. I’ve caught myself humming and dancing around the kitchen while preparing dinner. I feel like I can give the people around me my undivided attention again and really listen to what they’re saying. The dark cloud that has been weighing me down for the last year and a half, intermittently at first and then relentlessly, is finally lifting. Until recently, whenever people asked me how I like living here (which, as an estrangeira with a still-audible accent, is a question that comes daily), I always found myself fidgeting inwardly and, out of a sense of duty to social etiquette, giving the answer I longed to feel in reality. But a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I met some new friends on the beach, fellow expats who had arrived just recently, and when they asked us our plans, and why we had chosen Brasil over England, I answered that at this point in our lives, this is the place we want to call home. And for the first time, I really felt it. There’s still a part of me that wants to remain cautious, aware that I’ve had highs before that didn’t last, but this time it feels stronger, more resilient. I’m certainly not expecting to feel like this every day, and I know that even the most well-adjusted expat has bad days, but for the first time since my initial few months here (which fall into the honeymoon period of the traditional cultural adaptation model) the good days are starting to outnumber the bad. The other night, in a tranquil moment, I said to my husband: ”You know what? I think I’m really starting to like it here.” ”Que bom,” he replied with a smile.

So what changed? While I’m certain that my efforts to meet more people since I got back in March are having an increasingly positive impact on my day-to-day life and mood, the shift over the last month was more immediate. And I know the catalyst: changing my living environment. About six weeks ago, we moved from a house into an apartment. This decision was the culmination of months of soul-searching; of getting to know myself better, and more importantly accepting what I found. I am a sociable person for the most part, but when it comes to re-charging my batteries I’m definitely an introvert and a home-body. I enjoy my own company and some of my favourite activities are best suited to a peaceful environment, as is my work. Consequently, I spend a fair bit of time at home, and need to feel in tune with my immediate surroundings. If you’re an expat in a new country, then it’s even more important to find a space to live in that is very you, and from there you can develop the energy and resilience to branch out and explore the rest; the new language, new culture, new people and so on. For me, I realised that, for now at least, this means living in an apartment rather than a house; an apartment feels more European somehow, more familiar, and as a result I’m not constantly reminded of my foreign-ness. It may sound small, but it has already made such an immense difference to my mood and outlook in the time since we moved, and I’ve spoken to numerous expats with similar stories. While many of them, predominantly those from Europe and the U.S, feel the same on the apartment vs. house issue, it certainly isn’t a rule. A space that feels right will be different depending on the person; it could be a little house in the mountains, a beach house by the sea, or an apartment in the city, but what matters is that it fits you. For several years now, starting back in early 2013 when I gave up my London apartment and started house-sitting, I had been trying to convince myself to subscribe to the ”wherever I lay my hat” approach. From the books I’ve read over the last couple of years on meditation and mindfulness, I focused on the ideal of being content within, of not feeling attached to anything around me, of not needing continuity or  particular conditions in order to be happy. But in telling myself I should be able to feel like that in all aspects of my life, I was making myself unhappy. I can’t describe the relief I feel in standing up and saying: ”Hey, this is me. I’m adventurous enough to move from England to an island in Brasil, but I need my creature comforts. Living in a space that feels modern and European (and which, crucially, has the luxury of gas-heated water!) gives me more strength to devote to other areas of adaptation. This is me, and I’m cool with that.” It might seem obvious now, but it took time and determination to figure out what I needed. One of the things that helped me was a quote I noted down in my diary back in January, from The Emotionally Resilient Expat by Linda Janssen, a book I highly recommend:

”Working towards a understanding of what it will take for you to feel your best in your environment is extremely worthwhile.”

These words are golden. When we talk about cultural adaptation, the implication or assumption is that we, the incoming foreigner, need to adapt to the host culture. And for the most part that’s true, because if we reject it then contentment will be hard to find, but I now believe it needs to go both ways. Sure, we can’t expect the host culture to change for us, but we can find out what it takes for us to feel our best, and then figure out where we can take action, what we can change. When it comes to figuring out which aspects these are, I always think of the words on a bookmark my late grandmother gave me: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference. There are a whole host of things I am yet to learn about Brasil, and I know there are still challenges ahead, but changing my living environment has given me the stronger foundation I needed. Every day now, I look out at the view and am struck by how beautiful this island is. And every day I feel grateful, for this life, for my husband and his loving support as I figure things out, and for my own determination in doing so.

 

 

Photo © Lindsay Müller

Starting over, again.

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Photo © Lindsay Müller

”There are no foreign lands, it is the traveller only who is foreign.”
Robert Louis Stevenson

Two years and three months ago, I made the decision to move to Brasil. It was a decision which was quickly made, recklessly even, for I gave very little thought to the true magnitude of the immense transition which lay before me. As is often the case when life-changing decisions are made so swiftly, mine was motivated by love. I fell hard and fast, in a way I hadn’t known before, and for once (being a cautious, studious type who usually researches everything to infinity before acting) I decided to trust my gut. I remember my now-husband asking me back then whether I felt I could live long-term in a country which wasn’t my native one. At that time, I had been ‘on the road’ with my translation work for the majority of the preceding year, in London, Berlin, then Buenos Aires. I had been flirting with the location independent lifestyle, which certainly has many benefits, but after a year of moving from one housesit to the next almost every couple of weeks, I was already longing to feel a little more settled. Having always loved the idea of living abroad, and feeling a swift connection to Brasil, I assured him that it would be (and I quote): ”No problem at all.” I knew I would miss people; my family, my friends. But I felt sure I wouldn’t feel homesick for England.

Oh, how naive I was. I think back on that earlier version of me with wry disbelief, as if she were a different person.  Somehow, because I had felt pretty comfortable ‘living’ in different cities and countries for six months or so at a time, I thought I would adapt and settle quickly. What I didn’t realise was how utterly different it was to stay somewhere with the plan to ‘go home’ at some point, than to actually move my life somewhere, administratively and emotionally, with the intention that it will be permanent. I didn’t realise how, over time, the seemingly subtle cultural differences in daily life accumulate, layer upon layer. And that if you don’t fully understand the process you are going through, and suppress your emotional reactions to it, that these layers can start to overwhelm you and pull you down. I didn’t realise that my entire being would sometimes ache to be in an atmosphere of familiarity, that even my cells would notice and protest the difference in climate and air.

The stages of culture shock are said to be similar to the stages of grief; you need to grieve for everything you have lost before you can begin to welcome and fully appreciate the new. I got stuck in one of the early stages. Apparently a person’s existing behavioural traits become more acute in times of crisis, and I have always been 1) a bit of a worrier and 2) a workaholic. This last one is made easier by the fact that I love my work. And so I threw myself into my translations, not even realising at the time that I was in denial of the fact that the country, language, climate, culture and people around me had changed. I was picking up Portuguese well, so it wasn’t like I was rejecting the host culture entirely, but by working all the time I neglected what is agreed to be one of, or even the most essential component for human happiness, at home or abroad: community, in other words, friendships, and a sense of belonging. I made one very good friend, but didn’t see her as often as I could have, and delayed a whole host of things which would have helped me integrate in favour of getting my deadlines met. In the end though, the isolation took its toll, and the emotions I was suppressing came out in physical form. I ended up sick and in chronic pain, and for around 6 months I was unable to work. It was the hardest year I have ever had. I told very few people what was happening; only my family, husband and a couple of friends knew. Just recently I have begun to tell a few more, and now I have decided to open up here, too. This is why: aside from the patient support of my loved ones, the thing which has helped me most in my recovery is reading: books, memoirs and blogs on culture shock-induced depression. By reading about others’ experiences, and studying the academic research on the subject, I was able to make sense of what I was feeling and why. Most importantly, I realised that it was normal. Everyone responds differently, of course, but there is a common pattern. So if by opening up I can potentially help just one other person to be able to make sense of what is happening to them, then it’s worthwhile.

Despite its crushing lows, this past year has also been incredibly enlightening, humbling, and hopefully life-changing. I feel as though, through moving to a new culture and losing so many of the things which constructed my sense of self, my identity crumbled into pieces. While it was happening, I felt as though I was lost in a dense fog, as if everything had broken and would never be whole again. I still have moments like that, but try to remind myself that they will pass. I take comfort in the hope that I will one day see this period, what felt like the complete annihilation of my sense of self, as the unavoidable first step towards a renovation, a more joyful, more creative and more fulfilling life. When I started this blog shortly after arriving here in March 2014, I wrote that it would be about learning to live in Brasil. But now I believe that before doing that, I needed first to learn more about myself.

Little by little, I am building something new in the place of what once was, feeling my way towards constructing an identity which incorporates both my English heritage and my adopted Brasilian home. I arrived back in Brasil two months ago today, having spent 6 months in England recovering from my illness. While I was there, I read numerous books on cultural relocation, some of which I’ll mention here soon, and certainly consider myself more prepared than I was back when I flippantly announced I could handle it. Nonetheless, theory and practice are two very different animals, and I’m fully aware that this will be a continuing journey of adjustment. I have lost my blissful naivety, but I have faith that I can build a happy, worthwhile life here nonetheless.

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the magic island

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I woke up today with a longing to discover a new place. The chosen destination was Santo Antônio de Lisboa, just fifteen minutes away by car, but it felt like a different world. In two days’ time, winter will be over, but it already felt like mid-summer. By European standards, anyway. (Seriously, I’m already getting a tad nervous about the heat which is to come). The neighbourhood was beautiful, with narrow cobbled streets and passageways leading down to the sea. There was a street fair, and we ate our fill of fresh fish and vegetables and fruit. There are so many corners of this island I’ve yet to discover that I haven’t even cracked the surface yet, but already it feels like the different neighbourhoods are so different in character. Today it felt like we were on holiday somewhere far away. I will always be grateful for the beauty of this place. Happy Saturday, everyone!
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Nostalgia, a whale, and the greenest grass is where you are

2014-08-24 16.45.36Even if the place you’ve chosen to make your home is a veritable paradise, and Floripa is often described as such, every ex-pat is bound to feel homesick now and then. I imagine that, as time passes, I’m most likely to feel it in the lead up to Christmas; a longing for crisp, chilly mornings and winter walks concluding with a pub lunch by a roaring fire. Maybe the best antidote, though, is to think not about what you’ve lost, but what you’ve gained. (That, and keeping an emergency supply of comforts like a big jar of Marmite, Twinings tea, and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ on DVD). Sometimes I think to myself: ”Oh, it would be nice if I could go stomp through the leaves on Hampstead Heath/go to my friend’s lovely cafe off Brick Lane to chat, drink mate and eat dulce de leche cake/spend the afternoon in East End vintage stores thinking up stories about the person who used to wear those shoes back in the 60s.” When I do, I remember how very far away I am from those things. But a few moments later, I remember that even when I was very close to them, I didn’t do those things every day, or even every week for that matter. London is wonderful, period, but you also have to work very hard there to make it. Hence long hours and not enough free time in which to stomp across the Heath. And then I remind myself that I can still do those things when I visit, and that they’ll feel all the more special for it. And that I’m now living in a place where I can step outside and see the mountains, and where a beautiful lake and idyllic beaches are just a short bus ride away. (Ah, yes, the bus. That’ll be next week’s new thing). So when it comes down to it, the most important thing is to make the most of what you have around you. I’m sure many Londoners wish they could jump on a bike and head off to the beach for the afternoon, so it’s foolish of me to sit here thinking about walking down the Southbank, as wonderful as that may be, when I can be out exploring this beautiful island with its 40+ beaches and breathtaking wildlife. Last Sunday, for example, we headed off to the beach in the late afternoon for a walk, and as soon as we stepped onto the sand we saw a whale just off the coast. A whale! People pay good money to go out on special boat-trips to see whales, and we just rocked up on the right beach at the right time and were blessed with the sight of this magnificent creature rollicking around in the waves. I felt awe-struck for a long time afterwards, and it inspired me to write this now — as a reminder to keep my eyes open to the beauty around me and to be eternally grateful for it. Fate brought me to a place that I didn’t even know existed until 9 months ago (I’m talking about Floripa, not Brazil, before you exclaim in protest), but I sure am happy it did.

 

Pilates, but not as I knew it.

So it turns out that Brazilian pilates is a very different animal to British pilates. Either that, or I never discovered a bona fide pilates studio in London (or Berlin, for that matter, as I did it regularly there too). Here, pilates is predominantly taught in studios dedicated to the discipline, and in Florianópolis at least there seem to be around 5 studios on every avenue. But let’s talk about the apparatus they have in there. At first glance, it’s like a medieval torture chamber. But it’s clearly popular for a reason, and if the healthy, strong physiques of the women I’ve met so far in class are anything to go by, I’m signing up for life. 130Unlike the class model in UK gyms that I knew previously, here there are a maximum of 3 students per hour, arriving at 30 minute intervals, which means you get personal attention as you progress through the different postures and exercises. And without a doubt it’s the most intense workout I’ve ever had in a pilates class.

A pilates class was last week’s ”New Thing”. I’ve decided that, every week, I want to do something I haven’t yet done here in Brazil. It could be a class, or something that scares me (this means you, last Friday night’s mission of ordering a pizza by phone, cheered on (and I mean literally) by my husband. A seemingly easy task that I’ve done without a second thought since I was about 15, but it’s a damn sight more nerve-wracking when you’re still flailing around in a new language), or a new Brazilian recipe, or exploring a new corner of the island. So far, this is proving to be a great way to turn my wobbly oh-crikey-I-really-have-to-rebuild-my-entire-social-life-now moments into a positive mission to really integrate. After all, I want to learn everything I can about my new home, its quirks and its language, because the thought of being a bubble-expat forever fills me with horror. Pilates is revealing itself to be a great move — not only is it helping me to get back to an exercise routine, but it also improves my Portuguese as I chat away with the other women there. Plus, what isn’t to love about working out in a sun-filled room with a view of the Floripa hills?

I’m drawing up a list of ”New Things” for the weeks to come. Any suggestions are most welcome!

How ten days in Boiçucanga changed the course of my life

IMG_20140114_125429 (2)I live on the island of Florianópolis, in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. I remind myself of this, mantra-like, more than you would imagine, because it’s a development which is both unexpected and new. I was born and raised in southern England, and in my early 20s became an initially reluctant but swiftly charmed Londoner. After seven years there, I hadn’t tired of it, as Samuel Johnson would be pleased to hear. But I left anyway. Why? Well, at the time I didn’t actually realise I was leaving. The plan was to explore a location independent lifestyle, taking my freelance translation work with me on the road — I spent the summer in Berlin, the autumn back in London, then flew out to Buenos Aires to flee the harshest months of the British winter. I had many hopes and expectations of how I would spend my 3 months in Argentina — watching tangueros in candle-lit milongas, drinking café con leche and porteño-watching in cafes, sitting in the jasmine-filled garden of my flatshare while reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera in Spanish for the first time, finding the perfect mate gourd, seeing paintings by Frida Kahlo at MALBA, cocktails at Million… So clichéd, but so good. I did all of these things and more. But what I definitely did not expect was to form a connection with a Brazilian I met in my Spanish class, nor that, several weeks later, I would accept his invitation to fly to São Paulo. The idea was that after that trip we would go back to our homes on opposite sides of the world and…I guess, that we would always have Buenos Aires. But over the course of those ten enchanting days — most of which we spent in the beach neighbourhood of Boiçucanga — I fell for him in a way I’d never known. My return ticket from BA to London a month later became a one-way ticket to Brazil. Today, six months on from the day I arrived back in São Paulo, we’re newlyweds, and now it’s time for me to figure out ‘my’ Brazil, my home. Writing has always been my way of figuring things out, so for now at least, this will be my medium for exploring and getting to know my new sourroundings; the country, the language, the people and customs.