Traveling as an American Expat

My New Backyard (Europe and Africa)

 

 

Happy New Year! It’s nice to be back after a couple of weeks of celebrating and traveling.

If you prefer a travel blogger who provides the easiest way to get there and all the places to go, stay and eat; that’s not me. I’ll give you a glimpse of what I experienced and then some thoughts on culture, value, ease, etc. I may occasionally plug an exceptional restaurant and/or hotel. I want this to be fun and it won’t be if I have to chronicle my trips from start to finish.

I titled this piece “Traveling as an American Expat” because I noticed that each time I have left Portugal it has been very easy to exit and even easier to re-enter. I’m not stating that every American has the same experience that I have, but I have admittedly been pleasantly surprised. I have left Portugal a dozen times and I have only had to show my resident visa once and that was in Edinburgh and it took all of three seconds. I look around at border patrol/customs and I notice others do not have it as easy; this is especially true for middle easterners and that makes me sad. I won’t go into political implications and biases, but suffice it to say that I am ashamed of how many in this world are treated because of their residence or religion.

Allow me to come clean about a few things before I begin:

  1. I am extremely fussy. I like things a certain way and I’m rarely if ever completely satisfied; ask my friends.
  2. I often learn as I go. Because I sometimes make impulsive or rash decisions, I usually make a mistake and then try not to repeat it.
  3. I don’t take pictures of everything and I don’t go on social media every time I have an experience. I’m trying to be more present and that means less time on my cell phone.
  4. I don’t rely on TripAdvisor or sites where people share their opinions. I find that the average person’s standards are not up to snuff. I’m feeling somewhat hypocritical because I have been known to share my dining critiques on social media. Some people will write nice things because they can never say anything bad. Some people will always be nasty because they have no idea how else to be. Some people will write about food:  quality, taste, value, and so on and they know nothing about food.
  5. I truly love traveling off-season. The deals are hard to beat and there are so few tourists, you get a true sense of what it’s like for the locals. You may discover that some places are closed off-season or hours might be curtailed; a minor inconvenience I am willing to put up with. Be sure to research the weather if that is a factor for you. I prefer to travel to places where temperatures are mild in winter.

 

Asilah, Morocco

 

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I took this photograph from the living room  our Airbnb in Asilah

 

I took a day trip to Tangier over 15 years ago. I have always felt that since I had a guide and I only spent eight hours there, that it wasn’t fair to say much about Morocco. The last time I took a ferry from Tarifa, Spain and to be honest, it was more about stepping foot on the African continent. I wanted to travel to Morocco the same way this time; however, the ferry schedule off-season is sporadic and getting to and from Tarifa would have been no easy task. Instead, I took a comfortable and very affordable (34 Euros roundtrip) bus to Seville, Spain and then a flight on RyanAir (120 Euro round trip with checked bag). RyanAir is a no frills airline. Check-in is sometimes chaotic; however, the staff is efficient and travel is a bargain. I had a new airplane on my return flight which was very comfortable. Honestly, the flight is 30 minutes and the best part of that is that if you have to pee, you can hold it in. When you arrive in Tangier, you breeze through passport control because there are no other people at the airport. I don’t believe there are more than 10 flights going in and out of that airport in a 24 hour period; it’s almost eerie it’s so void of people.

My friend Patrick rented a car to get to Asilah and there were no other people at Avis so we got our car in five minutes. Again, we left the airport without seeing very many other people. Take note that if you decide to drive on Moroccan highways (toll roads) you need Dirham because they don’t accept anything else except Moroccan money at the toll booths. The roads are new and easy to drive on; except for the very strong winds that Patrick was forced to navigate.

When we arrived in Asilah we followed our GPS to the house, but it took us to a huge public outdoor bazaar. There were hundreds (maybe thousands) of Moroccans participating in an outdoor festival. When were a little lost looking for our Airbnb. The crowds were walking in the streets and the people did not really seem to notice our car, nor did they care to move for us. It was a strange experience. We had to crawl through the crowds of people. We eventually got hold of our host who told us that we could not park outside of the house which was located inside a walled city — the Medina (not the famous one). The Medina was filled with shops and homes and very narrow streets. We had to park in a paid lot in the middle of the festival and walk to our house. It was only meters away from the parking lot, but prior to setting out to find our place, we had no idea how far we’d have to lug our bags.

 

We found our house, which was not quite like the photos, but isn’t that usually the case. Still, it was a beautiful house with ocean and Medina views. We would all have been happier if it wasn’t so cold in the house. It took us 24 hours to figure out how to make it warm and we only had 48 hours. The best thing about the house was Fatima. Fatima and her husband are caretakers for the house and they truly did take good care of us. We had a terrific breakfast and they made us a fire. Fatima quietly disappeared and made-up my bed during breakfast. I’m nearly 60 years old and I’m not sure anyone has made-up my bed since I was five years old — that was a real treat.

The house was in the Medina (not the one in Saudi Arabia), a walled city in Asilah, (click for more from Lonely Planet).

We had a full day to explore the Medina and the surrounding area. Fortunately, we are all walkers and so we walked. The Medina had narrow streets and pathways and lots of artisan shops (see my big purchase below).

We decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve at a restaurant in Asilah and we stumbled upon:

Port IV (click) Restaurant

This is probably Asilah’s best place to eat right now and we enjoyed it immensely. The service was good and almost all of us were happy with our choices (no photos, sorry). Having a full bar was a bonus and the owner made me a very authentic gin martini. I was one happy fella. Although I was unable to stay up till midnight, I did enjoy being with friends and being in Morocco; it’s a night I won’t soon forget.

 

Tangiers (Tanger for the locals)

 

 

As I mentioned earlier, I visited Tangier years ago. I had only seen a small part of the city and from what I have heard, it has changed quite a bit. I stayed at the Movenpick Hotel and Casino for two reasons:  First I got a great off-season rate for this four star property and second, I was in the mood for some blackjack. Both paid off. My room was spacious and beautifully appointed (some really nice bathroom products as well) and the casino was pleasant and on the second day, I celebrated a small winning streak. I had a nice meal at Miami Restaurant which was nearby. Their French pastries were especially lovely. Most Moroccans speak French and there were French pastries at every turn (you see smatterings of French culture). There was a great deal to enjoy and celebrate. I went home a winner in every sense of the word.

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The two official languages are Modern Standard Arabic and Amazigh (Berber). Moroccan Arabic (known as Darija) is the spoken native vernacular. The languages of prestige in Morocco are Arabic in its Classical and Modern Standard Forms and French, the latter of which serves as a second language for many Moroccans.

Languages of Morocco – Wikipedia

 

 

Note:  I walked into the center of the city and if I’m going to be honest, although the city was clean and no one warned me to be careful, I did not feel safe. Beggars follow you and they do not take no for an answer; it can be off-putting and disturbing.

 

Seville, Spain

 

 

I am in love. Seville is a beautiful, culturally rich, culinary mecca, just three hours door-to-door from my place in Faro. I only just returned home, but I have already booked a hotel for the end of February. I now know that Seville will be my home away from home. I am delighted to have rediscovered this breathtaking city.

You will enjoy these two pieces written by my food writer friend Joanna Pruess. She wrote about Seville for Specialty Food Magazine. Joanna primed me for my Seville adventure with her delicious point of view and fabulous recipes:

Tasty Bites of Seville (click for article)

Savoring Seville (click title)

The Seville bus station, train station, and airport are all linked by a four Euro bus that has many stops throughout the city and runs every 20 minutes or so. The bus and train stations are centrally located and easy enough to get to. These days Uber rides are very inexpensive and although I love to walk, you can’t beat a five Euro Uber ride across town. The drivers usually speak English and they are (for the most part) good drivers.

I stayed at very nice Airbnb for 65 Euros a night. It was a two bedroom apartment in a great area — 20 minutes by foot to just about everywhere.

Note:  I have mixed feelings about Airbnb (see one of my earlier blogs). Some hosts are gracious and generous and truly want you to have a great stay. Others, seem to only care about making a buck. Be sure to read reviews and check for amenities. After awhile, you become better at discerning the true intentions of the hosts. They also have a review policy I totally disagree with:  both parties have to complete a review in order for the review to be posted. If you write a warranted poor review and the host does not review you as a guest, the review will not be posted by Airbnb — it seems like a way to ensure only good reviews get posted. I’m not sure how Airbnb gets away with this.

The weather in Seville was great for walking around the city and spending time outdoors. I don’t believe it snows in Seville and when the sky is blue, it is an intense blue.

Shopping

I had one objective as I explored Seville. Paella is one of my favorite dishes to cook and I was determined to bring two ingredients back to Portugal:  Bomba (click) rice and saffron. I’ve tried many different kinds of cooking rice and Bomba is by far the best for paella (https://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/rice-recipes/chicken-chorizo-paella/ Jamie Oliver’s recipe.

Also  . . . Spanish saffron which is less pricey in Spain. I paid 14 Euros for about an ounce of saffron — it’s fresh and beautiful and I can’t wait to cook with it. I use it when cooking rice with meat dishes as well. I also purchased hand sliced jamon (Spanish cured ham) and some homemade nougat. Purchasing food in other countries is one of the best things about travel and there are many items that you should only purchase in the country where it originated or was made. Note:  if its fresh food and you’re flying, be sure to have it vacuum sealed.

There are many shopping areas throughout the city; small boutique shops are my favorite. I was also impressed with the number of small art galleries. The artwork I looked at was quite beautiful and not outrageously expensive. A plug for El Cortes Inglese, a big chain store where I can spend hours just milling about. It’s like the Harrod’s of Spain. I’m praying one comes to Faro or the Algarve soon; hey we have an IKEA and Zara, so . . . what are you Spaniards waiting for

 

Don’t miss out on Contenedor if you visit Seville. It’s fresh, delicious, quaint, and well priced. Make a reservation (click for website).

I have already booked a hotel for a few days at the end of February and beginning of March. I did not book an Airbnb because I do not plan on cooking and I’d prefer amenities like a gym and indoor pool when I’m doing a quick culinary exploration trip. Yes, I’m spoiled, but after 40 years of busting my ass, I deserve it. I will write more about Seville after that trip.

My big purchase in Morocco:

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I purchased this hand-woven Moroccan runner in Assilah. The merchant said, “I don’t haggle,” but I got the rug for about 80 Euro less than ask. He didn’t know what he was in for when I walked into his shop. I have all the information about where the rug was made and how it was made.

 

Observation

Last post of the year. Reiterating an important message:

One of the many advantages of being present is the ability to take in what is all around us. Observation is a privilege very few people take advantage of. It’s way too easy to get so caught up in your own small world that you fail to see the many wonders around you. I have been keenly aware of my surroundings the last few months and the following are just a few of my observations:

  • I have never seen as many elderly people out and about as I see here in Portugal. It probably has a lot to do with the weather in the Algarve, but I also believe it is the culture. What I am seeing is that seniors are respected and not ignored, I have been observing their daily routines and I am loving what I see. The patience they show with their pets is admirable. I see healthy people in their 80’s and 90’s; although some are using canes and walkers and moving slowly, they are outdoors and they are enjoying themselves. I am observing lots of smiles and warm greetings. I am also constantly seeing people ask the elderly if they need assistance. On the bus, in the streets, on the sidewalks; everywhere. A couple of reasons I’m liking what I see:  for one, I’m approaching 60; therefore, I’m closer to be a senior than I ever was before, and two, I have always enjoyed being around the elderly and this makes me feel really good. Note:  I live on a street with an uphill climb. People that are up there in years are climbing this hill daily and many are doing it without assistance. It just seems like a good thing.

Side note:  I have a friend here who is in her 70’s. Yesterday, she looked me right in the eyes and said, “You just need to slow down a little.” I was struck by her honesty and directness; the truth is she’s right.

  • Young people are engaging in conversation (not always on their cell phones). I live next door to a high school and I see young people outside of the school almost daily. It is refreshing to see that many of these young people are talking to and laughing with one another. I was honestly under the impression that this practice of communicating in person, was a dying art. It seems to me that it is as much a part of life for our youth as it’s ever been.
  • The streets of Faro are filled with cafés. Due to the mild weather here, these cafés are overflowing with people enjoying one another’s company and drinking espresso. If you listen closely to the chatter it has a wonderful rhythm. The best part is that an espresso is still under a Euro here. A café com leite (coffee with steamed milk; a latte) is often one Euro.
  • Bicycle riding is often quiet and graceful. I love watching people dart around on them or peddle slowly through neighborhoods; taking in the local scenery. I try to do it myself at least once a week — it’s a nice break from the day-to-day.
  • Foliage:  the shedding of leaves, the receding of plant life, the changing fauna and flora; are all amazing to observe. If you pay attention to the foliage on a daily basis, you will notice the subtle changes. The changing seasons are another gift our planet gives us. Life is a precious thing to behold.
  • The sounds of  the city:  dogs, children, people chatting, traffic; are delightful — a city symphony if you will.
  • Sit on a bench and just watch humankind. You’ll see snippets of stories, anguish, real life playing out, right under your nose and you’ll know you’re not alone.

 

The Noise in Your Head

I have a noisy brain. Constant static and colliding thoughts. Switching from listening to that brain chatter, to taking in the world around you, can be calming and hypnotic. In fact, it can be a whole lot more pleasant than what might be going on in your head.

How to Stop Your Noisy Brain (click for article)

 

Meditation

There are many different ways to meditate; however, I have found that just being present — living in the moment — is a great way to meditate. Being acutely aware of what is around you is an eye opener. It sort of shocks your body and in turn, your entire being wakes up. If I had read this just a few years ago, I would have been a doubter; what a bunch of mumbo jumbo. However, practicing meditation — in its many forms — over and over again, will demonstrate the power of mindfulness.

Remember, this is all part of my journey. There have been some bumps in the road, people who are toxic, rules meant to be broken, checks that didn’t come, and so forth, but so far, I’m on the right track. Thank you for listening.

 

Happy holidays folks; until next year!

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There will be no blog post for the period between December 30 to January 6 (two weeks). The next blog post will be January 13 — Morocco. The Canary Islands

Feelings

 

 

 

Your State of Mind

One of the many things that happen when you grow older is coming to terms with your feelings (if you’re lucky). Coping with your feelings, identifying your feelings, sorting out your feelings, embracing your feelings, allowing yourself to feel, projecting feelings; you can see where I’m going with this.

Why Your Biology Runs on Feelings (click for more)

Feelings are complicated and so is being human; it comes with the territory. Some people are so wrapped up in themselves, they neglect to consider the feelings of others. Is it social media, the pressures of life, family, coping skills, socialization? What is it about the world around us that has made us less empathetic? Some would argue that humans have always been this way. I’m not sure about that. I recall a time when people had more time for one another and seemed to care more; I could be wrong.

I’m sure the news media has something to do with it. Around the clock news covering the world. It’s easy to become numb. The “this doesn’t affect me” attitude is also pervasive. I certainly do not have the answers; I only know how I feel.

Anger
I hate it when I get angry. Mostly because I feel that it could have been avoided. Harnessing my anger has been a long-term goal. When I’m well rested and relatively happy, any anger I feel is short-lived and can be sorted out. On the other hand, when I’m tired and things are falling apart around me, anger becomes a ball and chain around my ankle; impossible to get rid of. I can usually take a step back to process my anger and that seems to help; however, let’s be honest, sometimes the stepping back part just doesn’t happen. When I react based on emotion, it’s usually an outcome I regret.
Not long ago I was having lunch with a friend and she started spewing what I thought was bigoted hate speech. You’d recognize it in a minute; when the words come from privilege and a lack of empathy. No matter how hard I sit on my hands and push the anger down, I find myself gritting my teeth and becoming righteous. I don’t like it one bit. The person sitting across from you does not hear the words you are speaking, they only experience the anger. What it does do is justify their feelings. What they hear in their head is:  it doesn’t matter what we’re talking about, he always has to start an argument or why does he think he’s smarter or better than I am? None of this is productive; in fact, it is counter-productive. Now we’re both angry and not speaking to one another and we both feel justified in our feelings. I shouldn’t speak for this person, let me say, I feel justified.
We seek out like-minded individuals in order to avoid this kind of anger, but you have to ask yourself if avoidance is the right way to go. I’m not providing answers, I’m merely asking questions; processing for myself and hoping it helps others.
Tears
I am often moved to tears. I cry while watching movies, I weep while reading novels, I’ve been known to shed tears in the middle of a conversation with a friend, I cry in my dreams and at poetry readings, and I have cried myself to sleep a time or two. My father was a big man and he cried; he taught me that crying was okay and I am forever grateful to him for this. I feel sorry for people who cannot cry. I highly recommend it.
Loss of Control 
I have come to terms with being a control freak. I like to be in control. If something bad happens and it is beyond my control, I get angry. I have a difficult time processing:  how did this happen, why did it happen, who made it happen? I guess I believe that if I were in control, bad things wouldn’t happen. This is of course, untrue. Many bd things have happened while I was in control. The helpless feeling that I have when something is out of my control is unpleasant and frustrating. I am learning how to “let go” of situations, events, and reactions that are out of my control.
Pain
The hardest thing about pain, emotional, physical or psychological, is coping — not denying it, but feeling it. Let’s face it, pain in any manifestation sucks, but it’s unavoidable and must be felt. Make yourself as comfortable as possible and wait for it to pass. Unless we’re talking about a terminal illness, it will pass, and you will more than likely be stronger for having dealt with it.
Happiness
I hear about and read about happiness a lot lately. I was watching an old episode of the Good Wife last night and Stockard Channing (love her — did yoga with her in NYC once) was the guest star. Her character said this, “When you get older, the only thing that matters is your happiness.” I guess it struck me because I was in the middle of writing this blog. I don’t think it’s true. Life is so much more than my personal happiness. Yes, lots of things make me happy and I do often pursue my own happiness, but I also spend time thinking about the world, friends, family, cleaning my apartment, paying bills and none of that is necessarily about happiness. A good deal of the day is spent just doing what needs to get done. What makes me happy is just that, getting stuff done — it’s that sense of purpose I’ve discussed in earlier blogs.
Joy
I have to give myself permission to feel joy. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is what it is. After a while, if you’re watching, you get to know yourself and your limitations; your proclivities. I can hear this little voice in my head reminding me to smile and enjoy the moment. I have stopped questioning why this is so. As with any habit, good or bad, you do something often enough and it becomes part of your everyday life. It’s a good habit I am striving to teach myself . . . live a life filled with joy.
“Today I choose life. Every morning when I wake up I can choose joy, happiness, negativity, pain… To feel the freedom that comes from being able to continue to make mistakes and choices – today I choose to feel life, not to deny my humanity but embrace it.”
Kevyn Aucoin
Gratitude
Feeling grateful is powerful. Replacing feelings of pity, blame, resentment, anger, heartbreak, and regret, with gratitude can be more powerful than just about anything else. Sweeping feelings under the rug doesn’t work. Taking pills or drinking alcohol is temporary relief at best. Sitting quietly and thinking about or even writing about, what you are grateful for, helps you to feel more joyful.
Tools
Tools are helpful when feelings become difficult or painful. Some tools/coping skills have been discussed in this blog or past blogs. What I have learned is that tools are at our disposal and can and should be used as often as possible — not as a way of hiding or denying, but as a way to guide us, comfort us, and teach us.
What’s Next for me?
This is the six million dollar question I often ask myself. The answer is:  I have no idea. For the first time in my life, I am not thinking past the next few months and I have to say, I like it.
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