When the Shoe is on the Other Foot

It is hard to really understand the lives of other people, unless you can walk in their shoes. For years, the lives of immigrants to America have not really interested me, mainly because I assumed that moving to an unfamiliar place is no big deal, with basically every place the same. I never thought about how difficult life could be without a sufficient knowledge of the language and customs of the new country. It never dawned on me that many of the people I saw in stores and in workplaces may feel disoriented and somewhat homesick, wishing for home and a life that they could understand and that they loved.

I have not been in Portugal a whole week, and I am feeling overwhelmed, especially as I don’t speak the language. I used to think that even as people spoke another language from their mouths, that they were thinking English in their minds. That, of course, is decidedly wrong. I thought that I would be able to speak a little Portuguese, as I practiced over a course of six weeks in Duolingo, and the program told me that I was 50 percent fluent in the language. Well, we are here in beautiful Portimao and I can only say thank you: Obrigado or Obrigada, depending on male or female.

Douglas and I went to the grocery store and bought some food, but we can’t tell how much protein or sugar is in anything, and we are not sure what meats we have bought. Forget understanding how many calories! We bought what we thought were potato chips but they did not taste like any potato chips from home. I cannot tell if anything is decaffeinated, as I do not know the word. The problem is, and you will laugh at this, Duolingo has been teaching us Brazilian portuguese, and it is different in some ways from the portuguese used in Portugal. I really don’t know what is included in our haul in the refrigerator, but we are hoping the beef is from cows!

In turns of spices, we have to open them up and sprinkle in our hands to prevent putting paprika on my apple slices, instead of cinnamon. We think that garlic on the label means that we have garlic salt, but only time will tell. I am not even trying to determine if the milk is lactose-free, I will simply not drink milk here.

I brought my own Sweet and Low, as well as decaffeinated tea and herbal tea, thankfully, because the one box of tea bags Douglas bought does not, I think, tell me it has no caffeine. Caffeine makes me jittery and my insides shake, and it gives me a major headache. We have discovered that the huge bottle of what I thought was iced tea without caffeine actually placed me flat on my back with nearly a migraine, so Douglas has to drink it.

Douglas went shopping alone yesterday, and I told him to get som Pam for me to cook eggs for my breakfast, but he came back with the spray used to coat cake pans, with flour and oil, so, no eggs eaten yet. He bought butter, or we think it is butter, but I cannot be sure, because the butter and cheese are the same color, a white I am not comfortable eating.

We have both lost about 3 or more pounds in just 6 days, and the new jeans I bought for here are already feel too big for me, so we need to go shopping for pants that might not fall off me. The problem is that we are trying to eat at American times, but the Portuguese have different schedules. The restaurants close from 12-3 or from 3-6, it all depends on which one we go to on a particular day. Just when we figured that we could not eat from 12-3, and showed up at 3:00 at the only restaurant near the ruins we went to see, we were told that they would reopen at 6:00. We are so confused. So, we both find that our clothes are getting alarmingly loose.

Here, I think, breakfast starts at about 9:00 and goes until 12:30, lunch starts about 3:00, and dinner is about 8-10 in the evening. The restaurants we have ate at have included us and maybe two other people, I think Americans, also. These seem to be establishments that understand that Americans eat at weird hours. So, to try to be more authentic, we have tried to eat on their schedules, but, really, I am in bed when they are having dinner. Yet, that explains why breakfast is so late. Forget eating at 7:00 am, so we are learning to eat breakfast at home.

I decided to do the wash, for we did not bring a lot of clothes, but I cannot tell what kind of detergent I am using, or if it has bleach in it or not. In cleaning the bathroom, I think that I used dishwashing liquid instead of bathroom cleaner. One bottle seemed to say it’s multipurpose, so I cleaned the shower with it. I absolutely do not know what all of the bottles of cleaning products are, but I plan to spend tomorrow googling the names, in hopes that I don’t end up cleaning the windows with bath wash!

Lastly yesterday,  we went to a museum on the history of Portimao, and we assumed that having taken the language course, we would be able to read the information on them, but we came away totally ignorant of the history, only able to read maybe one words out of every 100 words. And the art along the walkway, we could not decipher it, especially the picture above. I think it is an overweight woman taking a dive off a cliff, but Douglas thinks what I believe is a swimming cap is a helmet, and neither us could read the plaque with the name of the piece on it. What do you think it is?

As I sat on the couch looking out at the rain today, I felt such as pangs of homesickness, the desire to be where I can speak the language and where things are familiar and comfortable. I have thought about ending this experiment at the end of the month and going home, because everything is so different and I feel so stupid, something that lowers my feelings of self-esteem. I feel like an alien trying to make sense of life on another planet, and I realize now that immigrants to America must feel this same sense of disconnect.

I am embarrassed to say that I never considered asking someone looking confused how I could help them feel more at home, such as deciphering the language on packages in stores. But, I mean to change that attitude when I get home, meaning America. For 3 John1:5 states, “Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers,” and Exodus 23:9 reminds us, “You shall not oppress a stranger since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I surely do know now that the shoe is on the other foot.  It is true that walking a mile in another’s shoes opens our eyes and our hearts, for it allows us to see where compassion is needed.

It is only the first week of a possible eight weeks, so things will surely improve. I have stopped Duolingo because I see it does not help, but Douglas is steadfast and immovable in his determination to learn the language. If we come here to live, we have to take language courses and learn the customs, for right now, people look at us with such pity or amusement when we try to speak the language or ask questions. Maybe if we can decipher more of the language and customs, I won’t feel so depressed and ready to give up. I am just not sure that we should be trying at ages 68 and 66. This is a young person’s game, I think, but then you can be young at heart.



10 thoughts on “When the Shoe is on the Other Foot

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  1. A while back I was trying to prove to my husband that I was supporting his idea to retire abroad. I enrolled both of us in a Portuguese for Travelers class at my local adult school. When we got there the teacher was a very pleasant woman, but she was Brazilian, just like you said your initial instruction was Brazilian Portuguese. I asked if she could sometimes provide both Brazilian and Portugal versions of words, and she tried, but it was clear that the class would be very confusing for me. She said “People in Portugal will mostly understand Brazilian Portuguese.” but I still felt a bit nervous. I got so nervous that I could no longer attend the class. Because I wouldn’t, my husband didn’t either.

    I would rather move to my husband’s Czech Republic. I know that Czech Republic has some negatives compared to Portugal, but after 20+ years I at least understand a little bit about Czechs and the customs, having visited there many many times to visit his family and friends.

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  2. Culture shock is real. It is immersion in a foreign everything that is fascinating, then frustrating, then infuriating, then breaking through the cultural self to the mortal coil within. It lays bare the realness on spiritual truth. It reinstate it while also strengthens ans hones itsexpression as you can then ‘feel’ each language/perspective. Culture shock lays us out, does us in, to à place on dependence and childlike openness. There would be fe things as rejuvenating and spiritually powerful for

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is correct. I feel like a little kid sometimes who needs guidance. We have yet to meet anyone, and we only have each other. That is frightening at our ages, but I know that God is the same everywhere and He will provide. Thank you for the comment. It helped put things in a new light for me.

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      1. Boy, such a learning curve with WordPress today. I just saw this reply. God is so gracious! My good friends are on their honeymoon in Portugal as I write… If you can give me a city name where you are, I could put you in touch. They are church family and would love love love meeting you. If you have time and are any where nearby this could be wonderful for you all. Just send word!


  3. I will be prepared as we go to Germany, that I won’t understand anything! (and I am German by heritage)! My sweet husband has also booked us to England–it was my only wish to go there I think because they speak basically the same language. We both have Google translate on our phones, and hopefully we can say or type the word we want and it can be translated into German and vise versa! My dad was an immigrant and came to the US at a child knowing only two words: pencil and gum — I suppose two useful words for a 10 year old! Hope it is going a bit more smoothly now!


    1. Have a great trip! Things are better. We will go home in 9 days, cutting the trip by a month. I realize that I need to travel in small doses. I am amazed at immigrants who came here and learned the language and made a living for themselves and their families. I wish we did not see immigrants as enemies today.


  4. Boy, did I enjoy reading your post today, although not happy you’re suffering at all! You write so well, you share so nicely. My hat is off to both of you—this will be a great adventure. But you did pick a really “foreign” country with a very challenging language, so I hope you’ll be easy on yourself and know that there’s little pleasure when you’re going through sick an adjustment. OTOH, your senses are no doubt fully engaged and your mind as well, so you’ll probably learn more quickly than you normally do.

    After I’d unexpectedly inherited a small windfall at the tender age of 71, I upped and went to live in a little village in Italy. I’d taken a crash course in Italian and had been told not to worry too much, and I did have a wonderful time, but at at the beginning there were tears, especially when it came to electronics of any kind. And oh. yes, the ants! But it was so very beautiful and peaceful! It helped me tremendously to meet an ex-pat couple from Holland who spoke English. I’d taken one of those courses and clearly the Italians appreciated that I knew how to pronounce grazie (grazee-ay) and spoke a few important words. Actually I have to laugh – I knew some Italian from Madame Butterfly, the Puccini opera I’d listened to thousands of times. There was an expression I remember — e un po dura, la scalata (more or less), which translates to “the climb was difficult.”
    This little town was on a hill and I actually used the phrase one day!!! Is there a university near you where you can sign up for an art class where language isn’t as important??

    Anyway, keep us posted! Sorry for this long “comment.”


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