Saturday, July 29, 2017

One Week In (at least for me): Reflections

A year or two ago, Tyler and I decided we needed to do something big to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our round the world trip.  An extended time off.  More exotic locales.  Something that would help us reflect on and revisit our past experience of being on the road. 

First we picked Thailand.  But Thailand in July/August?  Too wet and hot.  We looked further west:  Laos, Nepal. Still too wet and too hot.  After hearing about a friend’s trip to Portugal, we thought we might have hit on something.  Still Europe, but smaller, more manageable, and, hey, why not tack on a trip to Morocco while we’re in the neighborhood.  But the desert in July/August?  Likely unbearable for our temperate Northwest selves (not to mention children).  So we finally agreed on Portugal and the Azores, figured out how to line up our work obligations and time off and wound up with a week in New York, two weeks in Portugal, and one week in the Azores.

So, here we are, two weeks in (though for me, it’s really one week of vacation—the week in New York was quite work-filled for me).  Tyler’s doing an awesome job of keeping up with our different adventures and activities.  I thought I’d share a few thoughts from the road.

Changing Pace

Over our seven-month trip, we typically moved from one location to the next every two to three days.  Even since then, most of our vacations have been of the 7-9 day variety.   We decided to give a longer stay in one place a go.  It was partly practical—because of adding on the Sao Miguel in the Azores, it would mean a lot of chopped up days to arrive in Lisbon, head somewhere else, only to need to fly out of Lisbon again.  It also meant we could probably get a slightly nicer place by saving on cleaning and booking fees.  And we thought more stability would be easier on the kids.

So we have nearly two weeks in a small two-bedroom apartment in the oldest portion of the city.  It has felt like a luxury to be in one place.  We could have a day or so of fighting jetlag and still feel like we had lots of time to check out things of interest.  We’ve made friends with our neighborhood market guy and tend to buy our produce from the same little place around the corner and are becoming regulars at the gelato place around the way.  We’re figuring out how to find our way around and get better at figuring out what’s a reasonable walking distance.  And I do think the kids appreciate having one “home” to get accustomed to.

View from out the building front door--I love the colors

Walking right from our apartment, for evening gelato--you can see the narrow street and tram lines

At the same time, there are tradeoffs.  Staying in Lisbon has meant we’ve been in a city for most of our time, and cities are often where we have the hardest time finding things that make all of us happy.  If Tyler and I were here on our own, we’d likely wander different neighborhoods, try more restaurants, check out more museums—things that aren’t so exciting to Stella and Otto.  Staying in the Alfama neighborhood—picturesque, quaint, historic—also means any excursions involves climbing up and down hills, and we’re surrounded by buildings and stone walkways and roads.  It wasn’t until our daytrip to Sintra that I realized how much I was missing seeing more green and nature on a daily basis.

Map of Alfama--note the curvy streets.  We're near Igreja de Sao Vicente de Fore

We fondly call navigating around Portugal "echo-locating"--one advantage of being on a hill is we at least know whether we should be heading up or down....

Beautiful!  But not much green....

Sintra--Moorish castle on the hill, lots of green!

Over the past eight years, I’ve also come to appreciate the slowing pace that having the kids have brought to our lives.  We typically try and tackle one big “thing” a day.  The aquarium.  The castle.  A longer out-of-town excursion day followed by a day closer to home.   While we normally have more of a go-go-go pace of life, I have come to enjoy (and somewhat rely on) a pace that means after finishing the tile museum, we hang out at the garden while the kids play with rocks and look at fish and turtles.  (Doesn’t hurt that you can get a good and cheap half bottle of wine almost anywhere…)  It also means we can live out Tyler’s dream of waking up without alarm clocks most mornings, have leisurely starts to our days, and not wear ourselves out trying to squeeze in every single site or experience the city might have to offer, but which we might otherwise under-appreciate in the effort to see so much.

This isn't apropos of anything, but there's amazing graffiti around town.  These are two of my favorites

Traveling with Kids

I’d seen in one of our guidebooks that the Portuguese see children as a gift and enjoy their presence.  I’m happy to say that is true!  Our kids get good natured rubs on the head and are treated with kindness and good humor everywhere we got (by the Portuguese at least;  I can’t say the same for other European visitors necessarily).  And, while Tyler shared some of the challenges of being in transit with jetlagged kiddos, I have to say that the kids are actually doing awesome.  We walk.  A lot.  It’s hot.  We drag them to things that probably wouldn’t be their first choice.  And I think they by and large enjoy themselves, keep up good spirits, and are good sports about figuring out trains, subways, buses and the rest.  I also enjoy seeing how Otto and Stella are being good playmates for each other.  They are good at keeping themselves entertained with books and drawings, even in less than ideal circumstances.  And they really have only had each other to rely on.  We haven’t come across many other kids.

Waiting for a bus

On an extremely crowded train to the beach

Not sure why Stella started carrying Otto on her back, but this happens regularly

And they do have their moments.  One dinner we went to eat at a place that was Stella’s least favorite place, and at some point near the end of dinner she sat unhappily with tears streaming down her face.  Otto regularly drags his feet at heading out when he’s not 100% sold on the idea (though manages to forget his bad feelings by the time we get out the front door 9 times out of 10).  And there are times when Tyler and I are less than sanguine about making compromises in their best interests (like calling it a day and having dinner in when we really would have loved to head back downtown for a wine tasting, but it would require another 30 minute hot walk to a place the kids really don’t want to go after an already full day).  But, by and large, this has definitely felt easier and more fun than our prior overseas trips when they were younger.

One of the less stellar moments--post-dinner after a long, hot, tiring day before our 20 minute walk home.  Otto wasn't having so much of it.


I’d feel remiss to have an entry that didn’t at least talk a little bit about food.  Every cheese I’ve had here is amazing.  You can get entire bottles of tasty wine for 9-12 euros.  Amazing seafood.  (Of course, Stella is largely living on grilled cheese, and Otto on ham and cheese sandwiches, but, you know, they won’t get scurvy in two weeks.)

Homemade lunch--we typically have lunch at home but are increasingly having a second meal at home just for ease.  Also a little glimpse at our cute and cozy temporary home.

We have found that we do a little better if we go a bit afield of our neighborhood.  For our first few days, we’d wander through the alleys to find something that looked good, but we kept having the feeling that all the menus were basically focused on the kind of Portuguese food that tourists are looking for and expect—sardines, bacalau, octopus, cabbage soup.  That’s one thing that’s stayed true over 10 years—it doesn’t take much to find better and cheaper food, but it usually isn’t in the heart of the tourist section of town.

A small neighborhood restaurant in the Graca neighborhood.  That little dog is balancing on the tiny window pane unassisted.

My least favorite thing here is that if you have water, they always give you a plastic bottle.  It seems no one serves tap water!  And there is some recycling in the city, but not enough for all the bottles that are out everywhere.  We brought a Nalgene bottle with to have water on the go, but I’ve rarely found anywhere to refill it.  And we have taken to bringing bottles back and freezing them so we have colder water to drink for part of the trip, but it’s kind of crazy making to see so much waste.

Even artists agree!  A whale art piece made from empty plastic water bottles

A Few Final Thoughts

One thing that’s quite different than 10 years ago is how connected we are—how we are so used to being online, keeping up with political developments, seeing what others are up to.  Facebook was just starting to be a broader thing while we were away (we joined after we got home at a friend’s urging), and I didn’t have a smart phone until a few years after our return.  With all the developments around healthcare reform and other goings-on in the States, it’s been hard to want to get away from current events.  So we really haven’t disconnected, and I haven’t decided if that is a good or bad thing yet.  Ten years ago, we sparingly used internet cafes every few days to check emails and blog.  I think twice during the trip we found call centers to call home.  By and large, we were off the grid.  I’m toying with the idea of a break from devices and being online….we’ll see.

With all that staying connected we also ran into a new problem—one outlet converter is tough going when we have two phones, two tables, one laptop, and a few other sundry electronics!  It’s a regular game to figure out who gets to charge what and when.  On our big trip we had one camera, which we shared.  One converter was just fine.

I’ve also been a long user of hard copy travel guides.  I like to have it to carry, read through, look at maps, consider possibilities.  I’m now used to the internet at my fingertips, and having sparse descriptions so a small book can cover an entire country has not been enough.  Online research gives us so much more—more options, more info, more clarity on how to navigate the public transport options….  I don’t know that I’ll completely abandon the Lonely Planet books, but I’ll likely never solely rely on them again.


It’s funny how your sense of time changes—we have four more days in Portugal, and suddenly the time feels short.  I’m very excited about going to the Azores—I’m looking forward to the smaller populace, the sense of being on a small speck in the middle of the ocean, and still having two weeks of time to be with my family, take time to recharge and reflect, and soak in the rest of this precious time away from the daily grind.

Wisely taking the bus home rather than walking the full 25 minutes uphill.  Photo courtesy of Stella.

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