An Expat and an Avó

The funny thing about life is that you can never anticipate what will happen next. You can try and prepare yourself for every kind of scenario, but when life’s wrecking ball suddenly swings by and knocks you off of a path you were happily cantering along, you have to adapt in order to survive.

For me, my wrecking ball knocked me out of the apartment I have called home for the last six months, allowing me only three days notice to find a new shelter. In a foreign country miles from your family, where the only words you can speak in their language are greetings and niceties, this kind of situation is rather terrifying. Luckily for me, I know a large, loving family (distant relatives but very close friends) that live in the suburbs of Lisbon. The grandmother and head of the family kindly opened her door to me with that well-known Portuguese hospitality and gave me refuge, where I would otherwise have been left homeless.

I love elderly people like this old lady. They’re often frail, they’re often slow, they’re often grumpy. But the mystery of their history hangs like an aura around them, and the wrinkles of their skin are the etchings of their life stories. The wonderful thing is that the more time you spend with them, the more they open up to you, sharing tales and knowledge of things you never knew before.

It is a different lifestyle living here with this lady. She lives a calm life, and is very particular, taking time and care with every chore she carries out. She always keeps herself very busy: one day I come home and she is making pickles, the next day I come home and she is re-potting her plants. Everything has its correct place and a specific function: for example, she has three frying pans— one for eggs, one for fish and one for meat. She tells me off if I use the wrong utensil or wrong piece of crockery. She tells me I must turn down my bed for a few hours in the morning because “this is how we do it in Portugal.”

Her apartment is typically Portuguese: tiled floors, wooden furniture, and a Catholic figurine or image in every room. We sit in the kitchen having lunch together one day, and the lady tells me about various dishes she likes to make, like Portugal’s traditional bacalhau (cod). I tell her that I really want to learn how to cook it, and she replies by saying there are 1001 ways to cook bacalhau. She reminisces about how she used to love cooking for her family but says that it doesn’t make sense to make certain dishes like bacalhau for one person. I feel sorry for her as she tells me that her family criticises her for having so much crockery, but she can’t help it: with four sons, everything is in sets of six, and she kept it all even after they moved out.

Sometimes I’m able to make her laugh. One of her grandsons comes over to visit one day and we are cooking dinner and chatting away while she sits absent-mindedly in the corner of the room, supposedly daydreaming. We are talking about the progress of my learning Portuguese and so I say one of the only sentences I can string together: eu quero um copo de vinho tinto por favor. As she is staring into space, I do not even realize the lady is listening to us, but an amused smile creeps onto her face as she hears me trying to speak her native language. I can tell that she still has a sense of humor, and I like to make jokes and tease her a bit to make her laugh.

At night, everything is silent, apart from the sounds of the clocks ticking in each room and the occasional coughing fit from the lady. She is a light sleeper and I can hear her shuffling along to the bathroom at times during the night. From my balcony, I watch the reflection of the moonlight shimmering on the river Tagus as the last ferry crosses over to Lisbon, and I feel grateful for the view, for the roof over my head and for the company and hospitality of my adopted Avó.

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