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Our first visit back to the U.S.
It had been 15 months. I was a bit apprehensive…
During my December break, Paul and I left the coziness of life in Portugal and traveled to the United States for a two-week family visit in Florida. It had been fifteen months since we had left the States to live in Portugal, and this was the first trip back. I was a bit apprehensive.
Even though we lived in Arizona for nearly twenty years, my immediate family – including my 95-year-old father and my three siblings - live in Florida, so that’s where we traveled. Paul’s parents are deceased, so Paul’s sister who lives in New Hampshire volunteered to leave the cold New England weather and meet us in Florida for a few days, so it was sort of a family reunion. One of my sisters invited us all to stay with her and her husband at their Sarasota home.
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Florida is pleasant.
Florida has always been a pleasant place to visit and we’re almost as familiar with the Sarasota County area as we are with Phoenix, Arizona. The gulf coast is beautiful, the sand on Siesta Key beach doesn’t burn your feet, the weather is sunny much of the time, the living is casual, and the tiki bars are a fun place to hang out with a beer and listen to live music. Living in the hot desert of Arizona, Paul and I always looked forward to relaxing on the beach, enjoying subtropical weather for a while. In the past, we would stay at my dad’s house when we visited. We have good memories of those times.
It's different now.
Over the years, Florida has become different for me and doesn’t have the same vibe it once did. Part of the reason is the inevitable progression of time. My stepmom passed away five years ago, and Dad’s health has been in decline, so things are different now when we visit Florida. Dad now lives in an assisted living community and is very well cared for. My brother and my two sisters are constantly visiting Dad to ensure he is comfortable and has everything he needs. Sometimes, if Dad feels up to it, they’ll take him out to his favorite restaurant for dinner or bring take-out to him for a private family supper. He gets lots of visitors and calls from both family and friends. As the oldest child and the only family member not living in Florida (or in the U.S. for that matter), I’m grateful to all the people who care about him.
All over-the-place emotions.
Truthfully, I didn’t know how I would feel once we landed on U.S. soil after all this time away. I wondered if I might feel like I missed living in the States and would want to reconsider my choice to live abroad; or if I would feel guilty for not living close my elderly father like the rest of my family; or if I would want to turn around, get on a plane, and head right back to Portugal. I thought I had resolved most of these feelings a long time ago, but somehow, as we were preparing for this trip, they crept back into my thoughts. I can’t accurately describe how I was feeling, but it was somewhere between nervous anticipation, anxiety, and potential disappointment. My emotions were all over the place.
So, after a 9+ hour flight from Lisbon to Miami, we landed safely and spent the night in an overpriced Miami hotel, and then rented a car to travel the 4+ hours to Sarasota.
So, how was our first visit back?
Here are some of the observations, impressions, emotions, and experiences I had during our visit to the U.S. (in no special order):
I forgot how big things are.
After living in Portugal for over a year, where buildings and communities are close, and roads are narrow, I forgot how big things are in the States! Homes are big, bathrooms are big, bedrooms are big, kitchens are big, closets are big, stores are big. And from the 6-lane roadways to the shopping centers, to cars and trucks, and to communities, everything seems bigger in the U.S. Of course, if you live in a city, things, buildings, roads, and people are all squished together, but in suburbia, everything is spread out. And big.
People in the U.S. have a lot of ‘stuff.’
We were guilty of this when we lived in the States. We had ‘stuff’ and lots of it. I forgot that ‘stuff’ sometimes can be a symbol of success in the U.S. Perhaps it’s the availability of all that excess and the sizes of homes and offices that makes people collect stuff. After living in Portugal, we realize that we don’t need a lot of ‘stuff’ to be happy (or successful).
Within 24 hours of arriving in the U.S., we noticed that people drive fast, they run a lot of red lights, and they eat fast, too. We quickly discovered that practically no one sits at a table in a restaurant, leisurely chatting with friends or family, sipping wine or beer, and enjoying their food. It was something I had forgotten about since our habit in Portugal is to relax, taste and enjoy our food and drink, and have meaningful conversations with friends – sometimes for a few hours. Practically everyone we encountered on our visit seemed to be distracted or in a hurry to be somewhere other than where they were.
Traffic. And more traffic.
Over the years, we have visited Florida during high season, low season, and shoulder season. The low and shoulder seasons brought less people and traffic to Florida back in the day. But now, no matter when you visit this state (and I’m sure, other states as well), it’s crowded and there is traffic on the roadways all the time. It’s not unusual to sit in traffic at an intersection, waiting for what seems like an eternity for the red light to change to green! I guess that’s due to Florida being the fastest growing state in the country. Arizona isn’t far behind in population growth – and one reason we chose to leave Arizona as it was becoming overcrowded, expensive, and unsustainable as far as water resources go.
In the U.S., it’s normal to have at least two cars per family, and often, many more. In Portugal, public transportation is good, and people use it. And people walk a lot. And many folks in Portugal don’t even own one car. Even though we do own a car in Portugal, we still use public transportation, and we still walk a lot. The only public transportation we saw in Florida (not including taxis and ride shares) was an occasional bus and a little trolley that took people around Siesta Key.
In Portugal, there’s traffic, of course. But not all the time and not everywhere you go. I haven’t seen (yet) 6-lane highways in Portugal with 4-way traffic signals at busy intersections. Maybe there are some, but if they are in Portugal, I think it’s the exception and not the norm.
Prescription drug commercials.
I forgot that in the U.S. there are many (many!) television commercials for prescription drugs. Apparently, it’s legal only in the United States and New Zealand for direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising. This is something I don’t miss at all.
Tips are expected.
I forgot that tips are expected in the U.S. for everything – even ordering a coffee or a pizza at a counter. Before we moved to Portugal, we tipped upwards of twenty percent for decent service in the States. In Portugal, we tip, but not at the same rate and not for every little service. We like that in Portugal (at least in most places), a tip is appreciated but not expected.
Inflation: prices are high for just about everything.
Fifteen months ago, in the States, we were accustomed to high prices for just about everything. But during this trip, we noticed that prices were even higher than when we left for Portugal in 2021. During our Florida visit, we heard a lot of complaints about inflation and how expensive groceries, beverages, snacks, gas, restaurants, and other consumer goods were. On this visit, we noticed an increase in prices at the grocery stores and at restaurants. A package of six English muffins was over $5.00. A small package of Portuguese linguiça was nearly $8.00. A pound of bacon was $8.99.
We also noticed price increases in meals and wine at some of the Florida restaurants we had frequented in previous years. The price of red wine per glass at an average restaurant was as much as $18.00. We saw entrée increases of up to $10.00 more than they were just fifteen months ago.
I realize there’s also inflation in Portugal and it’s hard for many Portuguese families to make ends meet. Paul and I have seen price increases in Portugal on food, beverages, and utilities, but compared to the U.S., Portugal is still affordable for us.
I thought I missed sitting at the bar at a Seasons 52.
It’s true. Paul and I were ‘bar people.’ We always enjoyed sitting at a bar (in nicer restaurants or pubs, of course), sipping wine and enjoying a light dinner. One of our favorite ‘bar’ places in Phoenix was at the upscale restaurant chain, Seasons 52. We’d order a bottle of wine and have a salad and maybe a couple of flatbread pizzas. We liked the vibe and the atmosphere. Occasionally, we would make casual small talk with people sitting next to us. So, I was excited to find a Seasons 52 close to where we were staying in Sarasota! I had missed being a ‘bar person’ (or so I thought).
It was a busy Wednesday night, but we found two seats at the bar and ordered some wine while we perused the menu. I started looking around. There were a lot of nicely dressed well-groomed people. Lots of loud laughter, flowing hair, designer handbags, stylish clothes, and long painted fingernails. Maybe it was just my imagination, but it seemed as if everyone was watching everyone else – like almost sizing them up. I have excellent hearing, so it wasn’t difficult for me to hear some of the loudish conversations with people sitting near us. Most of the conversations were what I would call ‘fluff’ – nothing substantial – all about the gym they belong to, the area they live in, the stores they like, the stuff they have, people they know. Also, arguments over relationships. I started to wonder if maybe Paul and I had once been like some of these people with fluffy talk and sizing others up. I wondered if maybe living in Portugal had somehow changed us. For whatever reason, I realized I didn’t really miss sitting at a bar anymore.
Oh, and by the way, a couple of dinner salads and a cheap ($32.00) bottle of wine at the bar at Seasons 52 cost us nearly $100.00 (20 percent tip included).
I forgot how expensive a bottle of wine is in stores.
While we were in Florida, we purchased a few bottles of wine and not the good stuff. We had a tough time coming to terms with paying $10.99 for a bottle of mass-produced Matua Sauvignon Blanc at the Publix grocery store. We are truly spoiled in Portugal. The average buy-in-the-grocery-store Portuguese wines far surpass the average grocery store wines in the States – not only in price, but in quality and variety.
Speaking of inflation and restaurants…
If people are scrimping and having trouble making ends meet with inflation in the U.S., you couldn’t tell by the crowded restaurants full of people paying good money for average food (just saying…).
Shopping centers. And then more shopping centers.
I forgot that the streets are lined with shopping centers in the States. If you can’t find the store or restaurant you want in a shopping center, just drive a quarter mile down the road and chances are you’ll find what you’re looking for. I used to frequent shopping centers. Now I’m wondering why (although I did buy just a few things on this trip)…
I missed CVS and Walgreen’s.
I do miss CVS and Walgreen’s. I liked the one-stop-shopping for toiletries, greeting cards, some cosmetics, and over-the-counter meds. I took advantage of these stores on my trip to Florida.
I appreciated the flat roads and walkways.
It was nice to spend a couple of weeks in Florida not having to navigate hills and missing tiles on sidewalks (and the dog poop).
Not a lot of charm or character.
Of course, there are spots in Florida and across the country where there is charm and character but not like in Portugal. You can turn just about any corner in Portugal and find something charming, historic, or interesting. In the U.S., it seems more about the commercialism and the newest, shiniest shopping center (which I guess some folks get excited about).
It’s expensive to get old in the U.S.
There is no question that my father lives in an upscale assisted living community. He has his own one-bedroom apartment, has help when he needs it, is always well groomed, and he takes most of his meals in a lovely dining room complete with a bar (right up my alley!). Dad has worked hard all his life and provided well for his family. He’s been generous to me, and the rest of my siblings, more than I can ever say.
But it’s expensive to live in a nice place. Retirement and assisted living communities and nursing homes in the U.S. continue to increase the cost to live there – often making increases more than once a year. My father’s community is no exception. It makes me sad to think that everything my father worked so hard for is now being spent on supporting his care. It also makes me sad to think that many people cannot afford good quality health and nursing care as they age.
I don’t know what the cost of aging is in Portugal yet, but I have a difficult time thinking it could be more than in the States. I know that it would be impossible for Paul and me to afford the price of aging comfortably in the U.S.
I enjoyed spending time with my father, but not the ‘good-bye.’
I enjoyed the moments of time I spent with my father during my visit. Sometimes the visits were brief as he gets tired quickly or he was busy with physical or occupational therapy, but whatever moments we had, I was grateful for them. We even had a conversation about the time he made Ginja as a young boy (the details of that conversation will be in a forthcoming article).
We had dinner together a few times, and Paul and I attended an early Christmas piano concert with him in the assisted living community entertainment room. Perhaps the toughest part of my visit to Florida was saying good-bye to him. As Paul and I were leaving his apartment at the end of our stay, I turned around and could see that he was starting to cry. That was hard and I pretty much lost it as I walked out of the building. My Dad has lived a full, rewarding, and long life. As I walked away, I had the overwhelming sense that Dad - even though it was sad saying good-bye - is happy for me and loves me enough to let me go and take my turn living my life to the fullest.
Not a lot of sibling interest in my life in Portugal.
Paul’s sister is always interested in our lives in Portugal, and she and Paul had lots of conversations during our visit, but my siblings (I only saw 2 out of the 3 during my stay), didn’t seem all that interested other than to ask how long Paul and I planned to live in Portugal and if we could really find any adequate English-speaking doctors. Even though they have all visited Portugal in years past, they didn’t ask much about my life there - the friends Paul and I have made, the places we’ve visited or the experiences we’ve had. Maybe they aren’t pleased that I’m so far away and not with the family. Or maybe they have other priorities and my lifestyle is not all that interesting to them. Or perhaps it’s hard for them to understand why someone (especially, I suspect, the oldest sibling), might choose to take a different path or take a risk outside of the comfort of family and familiarity. They never say, so I’m just guessing. Although I was prepared and expected this, a little interest would have been nice.
Politics, the future of the country, and Ukraine.
By most accounts, Florida is considered a conservative-leaning state. There’s no doubt that the present governor of Florida is well liked, and people believe he’s doing an excellent job. There are also some strong objections regarding the effectiveness of the current leadership in the country as well as the national debt. Without getting into the subject too deeply, Paul and I tend to think a little more liberally. That’s not to say one way of thinking is better than another. We respect reasonable differences.
Political issues and the future of the country (and the world), were topics that we heard about while visiting the U.S. Some of it was uncomfortable to listen to or see. My philosophy about discussing sensitive political topics is not to discuss them, especially if you want to keep the peace with family or friends – this is something I learned from my father as that has always been his philosophy. So, that’s exactly what we did – we simply listened.
The war in Ukraine is not top of mind with the people we spoke to in the U.S., other than to hear the complaints of how much aid the U.S. is sending to the Ukrainians to support “their war.”
Was I home? Or just a visitor?
Throughout the two weeks, I kept asking myself this question. Paul said that he loves living in Portugal, but being the understanding and wise husband that he is and knowing me so well, he gave me the space I needed to process my own feelings without judgement.
Quite by accident, I found my answer. A couple of days before we were scheduled to head back to Portugal, we were with Dad and some family members enjoying dinner at his favorite restaurant, when a long-time waiter who knows my father and my family fairly well (and someone who I know happens to be highly opinionated when it comes to political views), stopped by the table to say hello. He came over to me and asked me why Paul and I had decided to live in Portugal (of all places).
I was going to tell him about the beauty of the country, the kindness of the people, the charm and character, the history around every corner, the festivals and traditions, the meaningful conversations, the slower pace, the feeling of acceptance no matter who you are or what you have, the opportunity to meet a diverse group of people that we now call friends. But I sensed that he would have had difficulty comprehending any of that. So instead, I simply replied that Paul and I had always wanted to retire in Europe (I’d hoped he’d accept that as an answer and move on– but no). He then said, “Well, sure. I’ve traveled throughout Europe as well and it was fun, but you know, you will come back.”
I paused for a moment, then looked directly at him and quietly said, “You know, I’m of the belief that once you leave a place, you can never truly come back.” He appeared somewhat surprised by my response, and then he gave me an odd look. “Oh no,” he said with a smirk. “You’ll come back.”
I just smiled, and in that moment, I had my answer.
PS: Muito obrigada (many thanks) to Antonio for supporting Our Portugal Journey through Buy Me a Coffee. Your generosity and interest help to keep this publication free to subscribers.
Until next time…