THIS IS HOW WE DO IT

A couple of weeks ago I turned forty, and the word on the street is that I made it look good. I made it look painless, easy, and maybe even enjoyable. At the very least I guess I made it look fine and not some terrible thing to be feared or lied about.

Friends tell me they want me to join them on their trips when they turn forty. They say they’re going to call me for advice and that maybe I should write a guidebook about how to turn forty.

But friends, I have a confession: I don’t know what I’m doing.

True story. I don’t. I make a few plans and then I leap. I like to have a skeleton of an outline but not so much of a plan that there’s no room for spontaneity. Sometimes I mess up and have to reconsider; sometimes I mess up and keep going. It’s a mater of perspective; is it an ordeal or an adventure?

Sometimes I even nail it, and that’s where the grit of this is…even when I mess up I believe I’ve nailed it in some way, and will convince myself that what I got was exactly what I needed. Taking the long way, getting lost, eating something iffy, overpaying for something….these are the lessons we need. These are the stories that we tell forever.

I definitely kicked off on the right foot, which was not by chance or coincidence. I spent a few days alone in Barcelona completely in awe of it and taking deep breaths after a long year, then I met up with a terrific group for a week of yoga at Benirras Beach on the island of Ibiza. It coudn’t have been more perfect. Hot days and cool nights. Yoga and beach by day,and pizza, rose and laughing by night.

I witnessed extraordinary beauty and kindness, but more than that I closed the door on a decade. I stood on my head without a wall for backup; I stood on my hands with a friend standing by for backup. That was just for starters; I had a couple days left.

I flew to Portugal and met up with a true friend of the heart so we could celebrate our fortieth birthdays together, just four days apart. It wasn’t my birthday or her birthday; it was our birthday-week. It was the first time we did it like this, but we’re smelling a hot tradition. Every year is special. Every day. Not just 40.

Emily and I celebrated my birthday in Lisbon, then after a glorious bus ride (yes, a glorious BUS ride) south to the Algarve where we celebrated her birthday. Ahem, our birthday…

From the crooked, cragged streets of Lisbon to the wind-blasted Atlantic coast we talked, walked and laughed nearly nonstop. We drank coffee in bed, giggling as if we had nowhere to be and, well, we didn’t. Sure we could be taking in these new cities and beaches, but why rush? Where’s the fun in rushing?

In the Algarve we huddled on the beach and watched twelve foot waves. We laughed when all of our stuff got soaked (two? three? times), and finally moved our camp above the seaweed line.

We watched a lone surfer attempt getting on top of one of those beats, and we held our breath when a tourist built like a beach-ball bobbed around and got a proper beating. It’s different on the Europe side of the Atlantic where the waves crash rough like they do on the opposite side of my home.

I asked Emily for a poetry lesson, and she gave me one right on the beach. I took notes in my little notebook, then she went for a walk and I wrote a poem. I scanned the waterline for her, but she wasn’t in sight so I wrote another. And then half of another. I’m letting them sit for a minute, but then lookout: I’m going to start posting poems, yo. I might even start a new tab on this blog for my “experimental poetry.”

Eating is also fun, and Emily and I ate incredible morsels. I had great meals on my own, and although I enjoy traveling alone (and generally don’t mind being alone), meals are significantly better when shared. Em and I exchanged wide open eyes and “wows” and “wait until you taste this” and “I want to cry this is so delicious” over and over and over again.

One olive was better than the last. Each octopus salad more tear-inducing than the next. Sardines, mussels, and bacalhau…oh my. These meals were both foreign and familiar, but probably the most impressive thing was the freshness.

The whole time we were together, Emily and I had two mediocre meals: one on the beach (though the setting was top-notch), and the other saying goodbye (because our options were limited near the bus station). Our last meal wasn’t actually bad, it was just that the quiche was cold and to call the lemonade tart is a pretty dramatic understatement. I’m surprised either of us has any enamel on our teeth, and I’m pretty sure we drank warm lemon juice with a splash of water and no evidence of sweetener. Luckily the drink portions are small in Portugal.

Emily and I didn’t plan the end of our time together, but because she had a plane ticket home we knew eventually we’d board buses in different directions. I didn’t think I was at risk for crying when we said goodbye, but as my bus pulled away I steamed the window with both my face and palms. I even considered being the person who asks the bus driver to stop, please, I have to do something. (I’m still trying to figure out how forty-year olds are supposed to act…)

Life is fucking fragile. We all know this, but the older we get the more apparent it becomes. Things happen on buses and planes. Things happen in cars, on subways, at work, at home. Things happen. You never know. It’s nothing to be afraid of, just good to know, that at any moment this could be it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that because the future is uncertain it’s probably best to be prudent and choose happiness. Right. Choose. See holes or see hearts? Choose.

Emily and I said goodbye to a lot of things in Portugal, but to each other we really just said what my grandfather always said because he hated goodbyes: we said, “See you later.”

I had ten unplanned days to myself, and I knew I wanted more time in Barcelona, but beyond that I didn’t know what I wanted. Uh, oh. Had forty (and fear) snuck up on me? Sort of yes, but I also sort of invited it. I’d planned the end of one decade, but not the beginning of the next. There was a clutch moment when I thought I might stall, but as a friend in California said of New Yorkers, “Out here people slow down when they don’t know where they’re going, but where you’re from that’s when folks floor it.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Sevilla felt disorienting, and after Lisbon that’s saying a lot because walking Lisbon is challenging. Not because of the seven hills or the holes in the sidewalk (some of which go to god knows where) but because many of the neighborhoods (including the one we stayed in) don’t even have marked maps.

It could have something to do with the fact that Emily and I talked so much we didn’t pay close attention. It’s hard to say, but I do know this…other than to/from the airport or bus we didn’t take a single metro, trolley, or famous outdoor escalator. We walked everywhere, and yes I’m bragging a little bit, but the truth is: we love walking.

To be fair, I don’t actually think it was Sevilla; I think it was me. I decided to set a simple goal for my time there: walk around and see the city without an agenda beyond finding a book (that I actually wanted to read) in English. As it turns out this is actually an enormous agenda. The most popular book in English that I found on the share shelves around Spain and Portugal was…Fifty Shades of Motherfucking Grey. No thank you; I’ll pass. I can hardly stand that this book is all over the place and to simplify things I’m blaming the British. {wink} I finally found a book called Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

I was ready to leave Sevilla after two nights. It felt unfriendly. Maybe even a little hostile. I wasready to go when the time came, and I flew to Barcelona not to stay there but to head to I was ready to leave Sevilla after one full day. It felt unfriendly. Maybe even a little hostile. I enjoyed a few things (definitely the flamenco show), but overall I was ready to go when the time came. I was even early for my flight to Barcelona, not to stay there but to head to Cadaqués, a place I knew little about.

I knew that Salvador Dali had lived and painted there for fifty years. I knew that other artists (Matisse, Picasso, Magritte) had also worked in town and that Mick Jagger occasionally hid out in the hills. I heard that the light was something special.

I knew Cadaqués had a rugged coastline and that it was hard, but not impossible to get to, which keeps out a lot of the riffraff. I was all in, but I really had no idea what for. I trusted a hunch.

It was an achingly long day, almost ten hours in total, between Sevilla and Cadaques and included a plane, an aerobus, two metros, a train, and a bus. I almost wanted to hire a boat to round it out.

Cadaqués had me by the jugular upon arrival, and reminded me of the last place I fell hard for, Stonington, Maine. It didn’t occur to me until just now as I was writing this to check the coordinates:

Cadaqués: 42.2833° N
Stonington: 41.3650° N

Maybe there’s something to that. I seriously don’t know, but I do know that the coastline feels similar and so does the air. I know that it’s damn special when a place can be simultaneously stormy and bright.

What I know for sure is that upon arrival in Cadaques I felt like I was taking the biggest, deepest breath of my life but at the same time on the verge of suffocating. It felt a lot like falling in love, which I seem to do with places more often than people these days. And the parting. Oh, the parting. Heartbreak.

If my love affair with Cadaqués had been a relationship with an actual person we wouldn’t even have had to break up and could’ve just let the fling fizzle out. If we’d left anything behind (a hat, a pair of earrings, spare change) we’d just sacrifice it to the hook-up gods and call it good.

But instead I find myself wanting to sing it a Rolling Stones song.

Emily told me over email probably the best thing I’ve heard in a long time: we all need a place we’re so in love with that we’d be willing to go there to sell candles. Or yarn. Or bracelets. Anything, really, because being there and doing something silly would be better than not being there at all

I found myself sick in my blood and holding my camera flat against the bus window to take photos from the mountains that protect Cadaqués from the back. It’s a safe place. The whole town feels like sitting at the table in the back of the restaurant with a view of the door and everything inside. The town is like having a solid oak tree at your back. Or a dear friend. Or a bottomless cup of a future.

The road is precarious, and the curves so round that the bus takes up both lanes on certain corners. I thought of my mother, and bringing her there, and I wasn’t sure she could handle either being on the bus or having me behind the wheel of a car. The bus driver seemed less capable than the one who brought me in….. Or he stopped so I could capture the place that had captured me.

But that assumes so much. Of course he didn’t slow the bus so the girl with her camera flat against the glass like the town was giving her life could get her pictures; he slowed the bus because it was the only way to get around the corners.

I kept thinking I’d seen Cadaqués for the last time, but then the driver pulled us around another corner and I’d get a higher, more distant vantage point. Both more and less at the same time, and finally there was nothing besides an empty place in my gut and a fast beating heart.

My thoughts went wild on that bus. It was complicated. I’d left Cadaques as planned, after five nights, but it wasn’t an easy decision. Did I need four nights in Barcelona? I’d made new friends who offered me not only a place to stay but a ride back to Barcelona. But not when I’d planned, so I’d have to change my plans.

Honestly, if Lucky wasn’t waiting on the other side of my trans-Atlantic flight I’d have been looking for summer work in Cadaqués. Like, theres’s no question I’d be doing that. It’s not big-city like Barcelona, but it’s also not teeny-tiny like Stonington. You could say it’s just right, and I bet a person gets used to the road in and out. But for now that’s neither here nor there, which is not a coordinate I tend to enjoy.

But like I said, I don’t know what I’m doing, but this is how we do it.

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