Reflections on international living and travel



Alfama district, Lisbon. 1985.
Alfama district, Lisbon 1986. All other photos from 2023.



Portuguese Memories

Lisbon, Portugal 1985-1986; recalled March 2023

Portugal and I have a history - and it is a good history. It is the first country I moved to on my own (as a teenager, I moved to London with my parents). It was the location of my first real job after university and it was a delightful place to live. Although I have revisited Portugal for business and pleasure a number of times over the past 15 years, I was keen to revisit and share the city with Ira, who has never been.

Surprisingly, this trip with Ira led to a flood of ancient memories, which was an unusual experience. Surprising because my memory is awful and I am lucky to experience a trickle of memories.

Never Expected to Move to Lisbon

I moved to Lisbon in 1985 to teach English as a foreign language, which is a great profession if you are a native English speaker, reasonably competent in your language, fancy working in other countries and don't mind a mediocre income. The desire to live internationally is why, after graduating from university with a degree in the arts, I promptly took a course in teaching English as a foreign language. I did well in the course and so was invited for an interview with a company that represented English language schools around the world.

"What do you think about going to Tokyo," the interviewer asked me as I sat down.

"I'd love to!" I said.

"Great. We just need to take care of a bit of paperwork. It shouldn't take more than a couple of weeks - then we'll fly you there," he said. I was delighted. Tokyo would be super-cool! I notified my landlord that I was moving out and began organising myself to leave London.

Well, it wasn't quite as easy as that. There was one delay after another. Finally, the interviewer called me to say that it would take at least a couple of months before I could go to Japan; but if I wanted to go to Lisbon, there was a teaching job starting next week. As much as I loved the idea of moving to Japan, I was growing doubtful that it ever would work out. Moreover, I was homeless and relying on the kindness of friends for accommodation. So, I decided to go to Portugal, in spite of knowing very little about the country.

A few days later, I was on a plane to my new home.

I remember that first evening in Lisbon, walking the then strange streets and thinking, "wow, this is my new home!" I've done that in every international move I've made since then.


An Unusual Birthday Party

One day, Wanda, a ten year old (if memory serves) student, invited me to her birthday party at an ice cream parlour in a local shopping centre. I accepted. I had anticipated a party with her parents and a group of ten year olds. I was wrong.

In fact, it was just Wanda waiting for me at the ice cream parlour. The two of us were the "party". Well, one of the joys of international living is unexpected scenarios like these. I gave Wanda her gift and then we got busy with the menus. Once we agreed on ice creams, Wanda ordered them and refused to let me pay. She clearly liked taking charge, even from this young age. I expect she's the CEO of a successful Portuguese company these days.

Afterwards, we went for a little walk in the mall before I bade her "adeus."

It was a strange, unexpected and delightful experience; I enjoyed chatting with Wanda, although I felt a bit awkward. Afterwards, I joked with my gang of friends (mostly other English language teachers) about my unusual date. They laughed, but I could tell they were a bit jealous. I had made a special connection to the country in which we lived.

But, as I reflect back, I think what an astounding thing. What kind of parent would feel comfortable allowing their 10 year old daughter go out unchaperoned  for ice cream with her male teacher? Today, such a thing would be considered unacceptable and the parents would be labeled neglectful at best. But, in those days, teachers were highly regarded in Portugal and perhaps her parents felt it was safe for their daughter to go out for an ice cream with a teacher.

Or maybe, indeed, they were neglectful.


Jeffrey and student in bumper car
One of my classes took me out to a fun fair - to celebrate the end of the academic year.
Here, I show off my impressive driving skills.


Like Looking for Hay in a Haystack

One Saturday a Portuguese woman friend was planning to go to the beach near where I lived at the time and invited me to join her. I had some things to do and we agreed I'd look for her on the beach later.

Later, I looked. And looked. And looked again.

The thing is, she was a young woman with long-ish dark brown hair and an attractive figure. This pretty much how nine tenths of young Portuguese women looked (and probably still do). And on that Saturday, I would estimate that 88% of Portugal's young female population decided to head for that particular beach on that particular day. And, in bikinis, they all looked remarkably similar.

Moreover, a guy can only walk up and down a beach, staring at bikini clad young woman for so long before his behaviour becomes at best creepy and, at worst, reason for a jealous boyfriend to get violent. I was in the mood for neither scenario. So, I gave up.

But, I learned something. It is harder to recognise someone unclothed - or nearly unclothed (ie, bikini-clad) than it is someone fully clothed. The woman in question had her own slightly arty dress style that would have made her easy to spot in a crowd of normally dressed people. But, in a bikini she blended in with the crowd of physically similar bikini-wearers.

I never did find her that day. But, apparently, she met up with friends on the beach and so did not feel neglected.


To Funicular or Not to Funicular

I worked at a language school on the Avenida da Liberdade. Sometimes after work, a group of us would go up to the Bairro Alto for drinks and dinner. The easiest way to get there was to take the funicular, a sort of angled tram that goes up and down the steep incline, to the Bairro Alto. The thing is, I have a fear of crowds and in the evening, the funicular tended to be crowded. So, I'd walk up and meet friends, who would take the funicular, at the top of the hill. Since they had to wait before the funicular went up hill, I'd usually get there before them. Eventually, friends decided it was just as easy to walk up the hill with me. And, in time this became a habit in my circle of friends.

I later learned that after I moved away from Lisbon, my friends continued this habit until one day one of them made an observation: "Why are we walking up this hill? Jeffrey isn't even here any more!" When I heard that story, I was delighted to know that I had left an impact.

Sadly, they started taking the funicular after that. So, it was a short lived impact.


Funicular, Lisbon.
Funcular in Lisbon, 2010.


Lost My Mind

In my younger days, I was a bit of a partier. Perhaps more than a bit, I am embarrassed to say. One night, a group of us went out drinking. Heavily. At some point, I was feeling overwhelmed in the crowded bar and so stepped outside with a woman friend (British with punky hair - she would have been easy to find on the beach) for some fresh air and space.

According to her (and bear in mind here that I had had way too much to drink on this evening) I became convinced that I had lost my mind and insisted on looking for it in the streets and in nearby dumpsters. Not sure what to do, my friend (who was also drunk) went along with my obsession and looked around with me. Eventually, the fresh air cleared my head a bit and I realised that my mind had been in my head all along.

This was probably the culmination of excessive partying behaviour over a number of years on my part. I was going through a period where I was going out almost every night, I was drinking far too heavily and I wasn't enjoying myself. Indeed, I was growing increasingly frustrated and unhappy. I felt I was doing nothing productive with my days and the artist in me wanted to be productive. On reflection, this may well have been the source of my feeling of having lost my mind.

I cannot say that I stopped drinking. But, I cut back tremendously. I stopped going out so much, made more home cooked dinners using fresh ingredients and even started doing a bit of art - mostly drawing.

That said, there was an empty field next to my apartment and it was littered with bits of building material and other junk. One day, I decided to turn some of the junk into a few sculptures which I did and left in the field to slowly disintegrate.

I felt much better for the change and have pretty much left the partying thing in the past. I'm glad I did. It would have been easy to descend into alcoholism, excessive drug use and being the charming drunkard. At least to other drunkards. Instead, I moved on with my life, figuratively and literally. I eventually moved to Bangkok where I became an entrepreneur, author, husband and father. Later, I moved to Brussels where I became an innovation expert.

And, I've never lost my mind again.  


A sculture-ish thing I made. Lisbon, 1986.
A sculture-ish thing I made. Lisbon, 1986.


Grateful Matilda

In 1988, I returned to Portugal (after spending some time living in Berlin) to teach summer classes in English and decide what to do with my life. I did not feel I wanted to spend the rest of it teaching English. It's a great way to see the world, but there's not much of a career ladder for the profession.

One of the summer classes was a group of kids around eight and nine years old. One girl, Matilda, was younger and just a little slower than the others. One day, she complained to her mother that she didn't have time to think about and answer questions that I asked the class. Other kids spoke up before her and she felt frustrated. Her mother told an administrator at the school about this and the administrator told me. I thanked her for telling me and made a mental note to be better about this.

The next class, I was careful to keep the fast kids quiet and specifically called on Matilda a couple of times. She was delighted. After class, she thanked me and air-kissed me on the cheek as the Portuguese females do when greeting or saying goodbye to friends. The next class, Matilda and a couple other girls air-kissed me goodbye. At the class after that, all the girls air-kissed me and all the boys shook my hand upon leaving. And this became a routine after every class I had with this delightful little group.

I was charmed and still recall the children lined up to formally say goodbye.




Alfama district, Lisbon - 2023
Alfama district, Lisbon - 2023; the buildings are the same,
but the economy and quality of life for many has progessed.



In some respects, Lisbon seems unchanged. The architecture of the centre seems very much as it did thirty odd years ago when I lived there. But, much else has changed. The city is cleaner, there are fewer signs of poverty and lots of signs of growing wealth. The Portuguese had a reputation for being fatalists and I believe they still are. Nevertheless, that fatalism is slowly being polluted by optimism. The economy has benefited from EU membership (Portugal became a member when I was living there). Today, a growing number of start ups are starting up in the country.

Also, the standard of English had improved immeasurably - at least in the centre. Nearly everywhere that Ira and I went, staff spoke impeccable English.

I'd like to think that's because I did such an awesome job teaching the language back in the 1980s! 


Note on the Photos

Most of these pictures are scans of slides that I photographed in 1985-6 and 1988. Sadly, I do not have many slides from that time and most that I do have are of people I hung out with but mostly lost contact with.



Castelo dos Mouros and friend - 1988.
Castelo dos Mouros and friend - 1988.



The coast near Cascais - 1985.
The coast near Cascais - 1985.





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