Friday, November 30, 2007

Learning by Shopping

I never imagined a trip to the store could be so difficult, or that I could learn so much, or that it could somehow determine whether or not I had a good day, or a bad day. But here, in a new place, with new food, and a new language, all of those things can be determined at the grocery store.

In the begining I had trips to the store where I entered, list in hand, and then left, what seems like many hours later (actually it was close to 2 hours), with very little that was on my list. That was the start of a bad day. A day where I realized how frustrating it can be not to be able to communicate, where I actually missed the ease and familiarity with which I used to be able to accomplish this mundane task.

Another evening I proudly exclaimed to Dan when he arrived home "Guess what? I found cottage cheese today!" Though he did not find it quite as exciting as I did. Not that I am overly crazy about cottage cheese, but the first time I made an attempt, I ended up with sour cream. A learning experience, and this time I got it right.

I have stared at the long fish section for many minutes, observing which of the 4 take-a-number-options people chose, and what they did with each. Now I can both select the correct option for my order (fresh fish, that clean it in front of you, is my favorite), and generally place my order in Portuguese (though I still point as well, in case my pronunciation is totally off, which it probably is).

I have wandered each of the aisles of the large grocery stores and the small market stalls, studying the foods, both to identify the familiar and to begin to familiarize myself with all that is new. I never thought that I would be able to gauge my progress in immersing myself here at a grocery store, but today I crossed everything off my list and was out of the store in 40 minutes. Today was quite a good day.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Futebol-The Real Thing

After living here for a couple of months it was time for us to go to a major football…umm, soccer…game. We had been to a couple of games here in Aveiro, but the team plays in the second league this year and no one cares. So the 30,000-seat stadium usually has about 1,500 people in it on a Sunday afternoon. For the uninitiated, there are 32 teams in Portugal who are divided into two 16-team leagues. Each year, the bottom three of the first league move down into the second league, and the top three of the second league move up to the first league. There are three major teams in Portugal – Benfica, FC Porto, and Sporting – and they always play in the first league. In addition to all of this, there is the European-wide Champions League which annually has the top 1 or 2 teams from each country playing each other in a round-robin tournament. So on any given Sunday FC Porto (about 45 minutes away from us) might play Manchester United or AC Milan or some other major European team. It all boils down to there’s a whole lot of soccer every weekend, and it’s essentially the only sport the locals follow (and a little bit of Formula One or cycling).

But on November 22nd the Portuguese national team was playing Finland in Porto to qualify for the 2008 Euro Cup. The Euro Cup takes place every four years (2004, which was in Portugal, 2008 which will be in Austria/Switzerland, etc.), and is similar to the World Cup except only for the European teams. In other words, it’s a huge deal. The first event was getting there and parking. We had a planned meet-up time with some friends at 6:30. We showed up at 6:29 and our German friend was waiting. Our Portuguese friends, however, showed up at 6:50, which is normal. Then came the parking. Porto, like all European cities, is densely populated with winding little streets. They don’t exactly have big parking lots nearby. So people park on the sidewalks, on the grassy medians, on the sides of highways, and so on. We were lucky to squeeze our car between a tree and another car on a grassy median about a kilometer away from the stadium.

In the game, Portugal only needed a tie with Finland to qualify, and Finland needed a victory. The crowd was electric, the stadium in Porto where the game was played was rocking, and the flags were waving. We went with a couple of friends, two of whom were Portuguese and were rather nervous for their team to qualify. As we expected, Portugal played for the tie, meaning they were very conservative and focused mostly on defense. And it worked, as they tied 0-0 and the crowd went home happy. Well, sort of happy. A 0-0 tie at home against Finland is not enough to give the locals confidence they will do well at the Cup next year. But Portugal is traditionally one of the better teams, although a notch below France, Italy and Holland. The big surprise was that England didn’t make it, losing at home to Croatia when they only needed a tie. They fired their coach the next day.

We considered trying to get tickets to the Euro Cup, but apparently a few million people had that idea 8 months ago and the tickets are all sold out. Yes, they were sold out long before anyone knew which countries would qualify. Apparently that’s how tickets work here, including for the World Cup. You enter a lottery and buy tickets if you’re one of the lucky ones. You buy a package of games and then hope that the tickets you get are in a city near you and with a country that you care about. We’re told that trading tickets is very common, sort of like the Olympics. Anyway, for us getting to the game was great fun. It’s a nice social thing to do (although mainly with male friends…there weren’t many women at the stadium) [side note from Katrin…it was one of the few times the line for the men’s room was significantly longer than that for the women] and the talent on the field was truly amazing. We will try to get to more FC Porto games as they are vastly superior to the games played here by Beira Mar, the local team.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Catching up

Sorry I haven't been very good about filling you in lately, we we're in Aruba for a week for Al and Gita's wedding, which was a beautiful beach ceremony and a very special place for the reception, and for us it was great to get away and have nothing to do but relax for a few days. Once we returned we were very busy unpacking our container, installing light fixtures, making endless to-do lists and shopping for the "finishing" touches on our home. This past weekend we purchased a bedroom set for the guest room (since we didn't actually have a guest room before, rather an office/exercise room/guest room with a pull out futon couch), which was the final room to put together, so hopefully I will have more time to update you from now on. We still have to hang pictures on the wall...and then we will post pictures of the interior.

As Dan mentioned, the big house warming bash is this weekend, so having not been to a Portuguese party yet, we are just going to do what we would at home, and hope it flies here. Our landlord told us a story of the German who rented the house before us inviting them all over for 5 o'clock tea when he first arrived, and since no one here does that, they did not know what he was talking about, and no one showed up. We are hoping for a slightly better result, especially with the grocery list I am developing.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Another update from Dan...

Hi again. I guess I haven’t been quite as diligent as Katrin in maintaining this blog. But I’ll make an appearance now and again. Here we are in mid-November and I’m getting pretty close to feeling like this is home. The arrival of our container was a major event for us. No matter how much effort and mental preparation you put into it, you just don’t feel at home while you’re sleeping on the floor and eating with plastic ware. So having our stuff has allowed us to convert this stone structure into a home. And what a difference that makes in making this place feel like we belong.

The downside of this is that we have been spending our weekends working on the home. We’ve never owned a home before, but I’m starting to realize what it’s like. Every weekend is some project or another…cleaning, landscaping, fixing up a bedroom, redoing furniture, etc. Sounds like my childhood…but that was my parents’ home. But we’re quite close to having this place in order and being ready to explore. That’s basically been our plan – get life situated and then get out and about. For weekend excursions we’d like to get to Lisbon, some of the cathedrals and castles around Portugal, and up to Galicia in Spain. And when the weather warms up we’ll do some larger adventures to various parts of Europe. Nothing confirmed yet, but we’re talking about Greece, Sweden/Norway, Eastern Europe and Ireland/Scotland. After all, we don’t want to leave here in three years and say “We should have gone…”

One comment we’ve heard from several folks back home has been along the lines of “I don’t know if I could ever do that.” Honestly, it’s not easy, but if you’ve got the make-up for it then it’s a ton of fun. The hardest part, of course, is the beginning. It’s hard for me to compare since it’s still the beginning for us, but it hasn’t been easy settling in. Social life is slow at first because you don’t know many people; the little details of life are complicated; not being able to communicate (easily) can be frustrating; and so on, and so on. Thankfully, Katrin and I are similarly addicted to travel, which means we get energized by seeing new places and meeting new people, which is why we wanted to do this. It’s not that it’s fun to do something simple such as trying to buy a bottle of water from a place where you don’t know how the line forms, how to ask for it, what you’ll actually get, how to pay for it, etc. But the fact that the simple things are a challenge is kind of fun, and then the second time is easier, and that’s invigorating. So the main thing you need to get by is a positive attitude and the determination to make a go of it. And the other thing you need is a strong relationship. Doing this on my own would be frustrating and less enjoyable. Over the last couple of months Katrin and I have been very dependent on one another to help each other out and to share experiences. I’ve heard of extraordinary divorce rates among expats, and I can easily see how the challenges and frustrations can lead to strain in a relationship. Thankfully, Katrin and I haven’t had those problems and are working well together to have a successful adventure over here. Working as a team is important to both get things done and to learn…and, of course, the necessity of leaning on one another for support. It’s great to do this together.

The next event for us will be a party we’ll be hosting on the 24th. That will be a good learning experience to see if hosting a party is terribly different here, as well as a great opportunity to socialize. We’ll keep you posted on how that goes. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and please stay in touch.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Dan's Birthday Recap

As promised (thanks for the reminder Tone), here is a picture of Dan's birthday present, a new mesa de bilhares, or pool table to you folks across the pond. He was definitely surprised, and we have already found that a quick game after work is a great way to relax and talk about our days. It also seems that we will be having much more frequent visits from our landlord's son, Bruno, which is good, as he is very friendly and helpful (he took care of the pups when we went to Al's wedding).

For the birthday dinner we went out and tried Feijoadas de Búzios, a specialty at one of the restaurants in Costa Nova. It apparently is a stew of beans (Feijão) with little shellfish called whelks (Búzios), served over rice, pretty tasty. The next evening I attempted stuffed squid, which actually came out pretty yummy. The stuffing was a mix of garlic, onions, celery, tomatoes, shrimp, squid tentacles, white wine, and bread crumbs. I stuffed half of it inside the squid bodies, put the rest on top and baked it all. So much easier and tastier than the octopus adventure.
Anyway, come on by for a game when you get a chance!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

It's here! It's here!

65 days, for those of you who were counting (uh, I guess that would be Dan and I). That is how long it took for our container to get from Burlington, Vermont to Aveiro, Portugal. Significantly longer than the 4-6 weeks maximum that we were initially told, but at least it is here. Now we feel like we are making a home for ourselves, rather than just camping out in a big, empty, echoey house. So, for those of you planning trips, I guess that means the B&B is open!