So far, I can’t really speak to many downsides of traveling. It has been over a month since we moved out of our Richmond apartment, and I am still not eager to settle in any one place, or to return to the U.S. I miss my family and friends, but the distance feels so much smaller now that technology affords us the luxury of frequent inexpensive communication.
The problem is that there is no adequate substitute for geographic proximity when major events occur. In the weeks since we have been in Portugal, I have missed one sister’s birthday, my mother’s surgery, and a proper goodbye to my great-aunt who passed away.
When we plan to have adventures, we often assume that the “real life” at home will be suspended during our absence. Of course, it is not, and there is a bit of guilt that seeps in to the sadness when we are not physically present to share difficult times and grief with those we love.
The heavy side of life surrounds us all the time, no matter where we are. We usually fail to notice it – by conscious or unconscious choice. Shane and I witnessed a teenaged boy verbally abuse and physically assault his young, tiny girlfriend in the middle of the street in broad daylight last week. When she ran from him after he smacked her face, he jerked her back by the hair and started punching her while she screamed. We had no choice but to run at him, yelling until he stopped and another bystander scolded him in Portuguese. The girl was able to get away from him, but he followed after her, crying, once the older man stopped talking to him.
We were emotionally exhausted after the brief incident. My experience as a domestic violence prosecutor and criminal defense attorney told me that his beatings of her in private are much worse, and likely to escalate to serious injury or even death. Witnessing that level of violence in person shocked me to the point that I was shaking for a while afterwards. I have thought of her often, and what will become of her.
A few days later, we explored the park that surrounds the Crystal Palace. It was a gray day, but it set us up to see some amazing views with fog that added a mystical quality to all of the greenery that surrounded us.
As we headed back toward the apartment, we noticed a crowd of people in front of a restaurant outside of the park fence. We were elevated above the street level, alongside an iron gate where other people were gathering to watch an unknown scene unfold.
I suggested that we go see what it was, hoping that it was some kind of performance. As we approached the gate, it became painfully obvious that there was no such thing – a man was prone on the ground, with at least 20 people pacing, crying, and staring in a crowd around him as paramedics tried to summon life back into his still body. We watched, silent, from the de facto balcony level along with about 10 others – an audience to the real life human tragedy unfolding before us.
The people on the street near him could not have all been related or close friends, but all of them watched, transfixed, as though they were. Many were weeping. We could sense the hope for revival, followed by deep disappointment and sorrow when it became obvious that it would not happen. This was a person in their community; his life was important, even if its details were not known to the onlookers. After he was hoisted into the back of the ambulance, a heavyset middle-aged woman pounded on the doors as they closed, crying out “Por que, santa, por que?”
We stood a few moments longer, tears streaming down our faces, and then walked toward the exit gate. When the silence finally broke, we talked about the fact that every person watching seemed so completely invested in what was unfolding before them. We wondered, if a similar thing happened in the U.S., would so many strangers care as much as those we had just witnessed? I thought about the publicized videos that show people coldly passing by as others are sick, injured, or victimized by crime – and I hope that those are the anomalies, that maybe there are communities who would gather around in prayer and hope for the survival of a stranger in distress in the U.S., too. I hope that we, as a country, haven’t really become as detached and inhumane as the individuals in those videos.
We have learned from our time here that the Portuguese people are proud of their sense of connection on many levels. They have a fierce national pride, they have regional loyalties, and they care very much about their communities down to the neighborhood. They cherish their own culture. By staying in one place for this long, we feel like we have been able to get a deeper understanding of the city, not just see its architecture and landscape, but to experience the real life that happens every day and all of its intensity.
We have made friends here, whose company we enjoy and with whom we connect in a very real way. They are passionate, generous, and authentic. We have been the recipients of unnecessary generosity that has been shared out of pure kindness and hospitality - nothing more. We will miss this city of Porto, and especially its people, when we head south to Lisbon tomorrow.