by Matteo Croce
This is the first time I write something about myself or any experience somehow related to me. And yet, as they say, there’s always a first time. So here I am, thanks to Susanna, to her inspiring blog and to the power of the experience I am about to tell you in within a few sentences.
And especially to her, would like to dedicate these paragraphs: obrigado, amiga, for showing me the fighter you are and how nice it is to share one’s joy when the worst is behind us. For those moments of joy worth sharing.
In this very moment when I am typing this history, I am in a container vessel, somewhere off the Portuguese coast and heading to Morocco. Funny enough, one of the reasons why I am here right now is related to the amazing experience I had in Portugal during my 6 month Erasmus in 2011.
I do not believe it to be a coincidence, though. I have been thinking of writing about it since weeks, I also made a promise to my friend Susanna a few weeks ago that I would have added something to her blog. And I finally made the decision to start typing, while I am lying on my bed, in the cabin that was allotted to me for this trip.
It’s night outside, as it was at night that I arrived in Lisbon 6 years ago, without knowing anyone, with a luggage, a backpack and the address of the hostel that would have been my “base” for a few days while searching for an apartment.
I did not speak a single word of Portuguese back then. But I had two choices: start panicking or riding the wave of enthusiasm for this new adventure that was about to begin. I did not even consider by far the first option, as my willingness to enjoy those 6 months was so strong that the adrenaline was coming all the way through my body.
A hostel is the perfect place to start if you are by yourself: after a few hours, I already had two people with whom to hang out: one was a Spanish guy working there for the summer, the other person was a Brazilian whose continuous laughter and smile I still carry in my memory up to now.
With them I started exploring the city from the very beginning and I soon realized I was falling in love already: the crowded streets of Bairro Alto soon became like home to me, and they actually did, as I eventually found an apartment for my stay right in the middle of that area, at number 45 of Travessa dos Inglesinhos, third and last floor of an old building. I remember my small “bedroom” (I was actually right under the roof), with a tiny window facing a conservatoire and a monastery: I could hear all the noises from the pub below, but a pair earplugs would help me sleep easily.
Of this area I enjoyed every single moment of the day, each of them with its peculiarities. The morning on my way to the metro of Baixa Chiado, heading to the university: I remember the mix of smells that was filling the narrow streets of the Bairro, the typical “cheiro” that is also mentioned in many Portuguese songs; the sound of broken glasses as I would step on them, reminders of the parties that took place there on the previous night; the taste of “pastel de nata” I would usually buy at the café “A brasileira”; then the evening, with its sunsets striking the multi-colored houses, giving that mix of melancholy and joy that only Lisbon can give; and the night, with his mix of people, music from every pub and the feeling of being in a place that would present you with a new adventure every single time.
I met some wonderful people there: my Erasmus experience has been just perfect and most of it is because of them. And I am not talking only about other students coming from all over Europe, but also local Portuguese and Brazilians that will always have a strong presence in my life. If they all have in common the incredible memories I will always carry with me, the “locals” gave me also something that I will be always thankful to them: their language.
As a language passionate, I must admit that I enjoy studying and using anyone of them, as they all have something special. But Portuguese…well, this is really something even more special. I remember how tough studying it in depth has been: just imagine that Portuguese is the only Latin language having the “future subjunctive” in its grammar! Still, I bless every single moment spent on the books for it, even if the most of my learnings came from those Portuguese and Brazilian friends I made in Lisbon.
I still remember how exciting this has been, as I felt this language slowing flowing into my veins, until it became firmly part of myself. How many questions I have asked, and how patient these friends have been with me! And a special mention shall also go to my Portuguese professors, Sandro, one of the best I have ever had: a Benfica fan (like Susana) who eventually transmitted to me the enthusiasm for his team, to the point that I actually went to a couple of games in Estadio da Luz.
As days went by, and as I became more confident with my language skills, I was eventually able to face the daily challenges that would come. From trying to pass the exams in the local language to renewing the monthly ticket for the metro. But most of all, speaking Portuguese has allowed me to really get to know those friends and better give shape to those moments shared together. This would turn out to be helpful also in the tough moments that would come (and, believe me, I had some of them). For no matters how skilled person in a foreign language is, a word of support or joy shared in her or his mother tongue would reach directly their soul.
Speaking of tough moments, I remember how nostalgic I would get in the evening, as I would think of my family and friends back in Italy. Still, it was part of the growth process and one would eventually get used to it, as I would acknowledge this feeling and eventually focus on how lucky I was to be living such an experience.
But being home-sick was honestly the smallest part of the challenging times. Lisbon turned me into an adult: I had to cater for myself in a different country and I came to know myself in depth, as I observe back how I dealt with difficult situations. This is definitely the biggest gift an Erasmus experience could give.
Furthermore, living in Lisbon made it much, much easier. The crazy nightlife, the monuments, the food, the weather and the surfing classes in Costa de Caparica. Taking the bus on Saturday mornings (sometime after only 3 hours sleep and a crazy night before) with 4 other friends we would take the bus once a week to enjoy the Atlantic Ocean and its waves (or at least trying to…).
Lisbon offers also some breath-taking views: from “Castelo de Sao Jorge” one could actually dominate the city, as well as from the different “miradouro” spots available.
Walking down to Praça do Comercio and then along the Tejo river, seeing the “25 de Abril” bridge in the distance, with the typical noise of a yellow tram passing nearby, is something I have embedded among my sweetest memories.
In addition to this, Belem, with its “pasteis” and the “mosteiro” and Cabo da Roca (the most Western point of Europe) offered some very pleasant distractions to get by any problems I could encounter during my stay.
I also had the most insightful moments of my life in there, and Lisbon is absolutely a place that creates the right atmosphere for it. Moments that, away from everyone, just there in “my” Lisbon, helped me make decisions that changed my life for the better.
And this relates exactly to what I was mentioning at the beginning of this story: it’s about riding that waive and daring to take the step we have never taken before. These few thoughts I shared here, a mix of memories, “hidden” travel suggestions and moments of personal growth may not be the best examples of travel articles or self-reflection stories you have ever read, and neither they claim to be.
But I want to pass the following message:
All of the above has made me become a better person, has made me learn to listen to myself more, to find the job I was aiming for and most of all to live the life I want. This experience has opened my mind in such a way that could not be described fully with just one article on a blog.
Go travel and learn a new language, whichever language it may be. And most of all, dare.
For I believe that whenever we dare and take a leap of faith into a new experience, no matter how scared we are at the beginning or how uncertain the path may seem. When we feel it’s right and decide to take that leap, we’ve already won.