When you emigrate to a new country, you’re navigating blind. There are so many more unknowns than knowns. And the second hardest lesson you have to learn is you have no idea what you don’t know. That’s partly because of the sheer volume of unknowns from tiny details to BIG IMPORTANT THINGS! and because they are EVERYWHERE. It’s unknown overwhelm. Almost two years into living here, I am still bumping into unknowns on a daily basis.
The hardest lesson, of course, is learning to be okay with not knowing. It’s an ego crusher. Your confidence will be shaken and pieces will chip away, sometimes over the smallest things. I bought what I thought was cocoa powder (not my usual brand) to make a batch of brownies. Except this time they didn’t come out. Was it the cocoa powder? Was the flour out of date? (No.) Maybe I measured the butter wrong. (I miss those little markings on the sticks of butter in the US. Hell, I miss sticks of butter! Butter comes in 250g blocks here. I think that is 1.5 dog years.) I had used butter to “grease” the pan, but I’ve done that before. (I really need to figure out and find the Crisco equivalent here.)
The brownie fail could have been any one of these things. The point is I don’t know. I’ll make another batch using my regular cocoa powder that I have been successful with and figure it out from there.
That’s a small thing but every time I leave the apartment I face a few unknowns. Is the bus late or did I read the schedule wrong? Maybe it’s a Portuguese holiday that I am unaware of. (They have more saints than you can shake a stick at.) If my phone isn’t connecting when I’m out, am I out of minutes or do I just need to restart my phone or is the service out?
It’s like going to a restaurant for the first time. Where do you park? Does someone seat you or do you seat yourself? Where are the restrooms? Do you pay the server or is there a cashier? All small things that create just a ripple of anxiety for you.
Very seldom is the unknown something massive… Until something massive drops on your head. And that’s the thing. You don’t know what you don’t know. You could think things are going swimmingly, not knowing the sword of Damocles is about to fall.
The expat communities on social media and in-person meetups are a lot of help. The problem is the world—including Portugal of course—is dynamic. Rules change. The immigration and drivers’ license processes are being overhauled. Probably other important departments are, too. I don’t know.
As an adult, and particularly as an entitled, middle-class person living in the States, I know things. All the daily things and most of the big things. I know how mortgages and banks work. How to buy a car, get it insured and registered. I could find things at the grocery store or Target or the big box home improvement store. I know how things work and where to get them and how to go about daily life. My feet were firmly planted. Even hurricanes had reached a level of normality—you knew how to prepare or when to evacuate. (A day before everyone else.)
But not here.
Here I am a child feeling my way through. It’s definitely an ego check. I am not good at asking for help. We Americans like to think we’re an independent lot—the self-reliant individual. As adults (and probably as children) we don’t like to look stupid or foolish or helpless. All of those things are detrimental to our survival, especially in the US. Easy pickings.
I am pushed back to the level of a toddler, unable to articulate my needs. My level of awareness is slightly better. I know that I don’t know things and that knowing creates a baseline level of anxiety that I have become accustomed to.
I learn to navigate new things almost every day. Sometimes I even get very brave and ask for help. I am rather proud when I encounter something I have learned to navigate, whether it is the Take-A-Ticket at the doctor’s office or using my bus pass. I am (very) slowly learning Portuguese. While I still can’t carry on a conversation (or even follow one), my vocabulary is increasing. I am recognizing more words and phrases and can even spout a few at the appropriate moments.
It took decades to gain confidence in my native country. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel completely at home here. But each day my corner of Portugal becomes a little more familiar to me—the people, the shops, the public transportation, the hidden alley short cuts, the way things are done.
I am still navigating blind, but now I am seeing cracks of light.