Letter from Lisbon

Two years ago today, I sat on a plane in San Francisco, teary-eyed and exhausted, and braced myself for a one-way journey to Lisbon.

When we set out on this adventure, we did it with the intention of staying at least two years. The first year would be just enough time to settle into a rhythm, seed a social and professional network, and learn about the city. The first year was full of exploring the narrow, hilly streets of this ancient city, and navigating the frustrating labyrinth of Kafka-level Portuguese government bureaucracy. We got mobile phone numbers, monthly public transportation passes, tax ID numbers, and tried to understand how health care works here.

Disrupt This

The second year, I started a Portuguese-based consulting, training and coaching business. Just as I started to feel I was turning a settled corner, gaining a bit of traction with a few new projects and clients, the world went sideways. The second half of the second year has been disrupted, deeply and dramatically, by COVID-19. Like everyone else in the world, we find ourselves in a more or less locked down community, closed off from our social lives, cultural events, the ability to travel, and all the activities that made living here such an amazing experience.

It’s one thing to be in an exciting, vibrant and dynamic city having its “IT” moment. What happens when it all comes to a screeching, cold, hard stop? As the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox reminded us, “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone.” What is it like to be in a city when it weeps?


Even before COVID-19, the fun and exciting time here has occasionally been punctuated by saudade, a uniquely nostalgic Portuguese word. It expresses a profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for or loves. It is bittersweet, mixing joyful memories with the dread that the object of longing might never be had again.

I have missed my friends — the ones with whom I share varying degrees of history. Under lockdown, I have sometimes felt the deep, hollow echo of homesickness and loneliness. At the same time, I know that what we left does not continue to exist the way we left it. Life moved on without us, so that even a return would be to a different place.

A View from the Loge

In many ways, the last two years prepared us for the current state of the world, one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (or VUCA, the acronym preferred by four out five consultants). Prior to COVID-19, our adjustment here was a practicum in patience, flexibility and grit, in holding your goals with a light touch and being willing to pivot based on the situation at hand.

It has been surreal to watch the current global pandemic from this vantage point across the Atlantic. Many of our U.S. friends have said, “I bet you’re glad to be there!” The answer is, “Yes, we are.” For the last two years, it’s been both a great time to be in Portugal, and an opportune time to be away from the U.S. To watch this global experience from here has been surreal, terrifying, frustrating and deflating.

It has not been easy for Portugal and its residents, either. The economic impact of losing so much tourism — the major economic fuel here — is significant. Everyone expects it to get worse. The joyous, celebratory optimism is gone.

We turn a collective wary eye toward the future.

From Oeste to West

The world has changed dramatically — in some cases permanently. In many ways, I have also changed and learned a lot about myself. My evolution was rumbling before COVID-19, though.

I had mostly eliminated the use of absolute words like “forever” and “never” and “always.”

My continued interest in health care had turned toward global health. “Health care” became inclusive of all the complex issues that impact public health — from food security to social justice to climate change. My professional focus on the mechanics of presentation skills or navigating media interviews had shifted toward leadership storytelling and personal-professional narratives.

Being locked down in a small apartment with no outdoor space has awakened my deep desire — NEED — for quiet, for space, for greenery, for the outdoors. During COVID-19, an eerie silence fell on our chaotic street. Tourists have started to trickle back, with their clack-clack-clack of wheeling luggage on the stones. The drug dealers gather, sometimes up the seven of them, horsing around and being loud just below our window. I feel rattled and invaded by a daily, relentless cacophony.

My primary objective now is to find and curate a space where I can feel refueled, regenerated, and relaxed.

Charting the Course

A real estate agent asked me recently, “What does having a home mean to you?” It was a profound question, one that I’ve rolled around in my mind ever since. It’s a related but different question than “what does home mean to you?”

This fundamental life question has insinuated itself into my heart and mind ever since my feet touched the ground here. What is home? Mythologist Martin Shaw challenges us to “Think of the difference between being from a place, and being of a place. “

The romance of jumping off your fancy hamster wheel to decamp to a new country is punctuated with the grief over what you left behind, and the recognition that you can move only forward. I have lived for two years in a liminal space, landing in the most liminal of spaces when the entire world joined me in the Great Unknowing.

The Big Question

People have stopped asking The Big Question — when are we returning? are we ever returning? (See above reference to the word “never.”) Perhaps they realize that we genuinely have not had an answer. Or now they have their own Big Question to answer about their own future, about where or what they call home.

We have had no plan or strategy for how long we might stay here, other than committing to these two years. It’s been an incredibly uncomfortable position for me.

The thing about liminal spaces is that you come out of them, changed and ready to take your place in the new world. We were not any closer to an answer when the pandemic and all the social and economic turmoil began. So we continue our residence in liminality.

I suppose the answer to The Big Question is best answered by the poet Antonio Machado: “Pathmaker, there is no path, you make the path by walking.”


6 thoughts on “Letter from Lisbon”

  1. Reading this entry brought chills. Was about to send you a WhatsApp when I thought to first see what you’ve been up to. Amazed to land on your two year Portugal anniversary. Chills, I say. Almost choked tears, my pathmaker friend.

  2. Greetings from Moraga!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings, Em—you are a wonderful writer.

    I was just thinking of you and Greg yesterday because as I flipped through an old photo album, I came across pictures from your wedding! A lifetime ago. Then your email arrived in my inbox. Weird how the universe works.

    Steve, Danielle and I remain hunkered down and working from home. I have never worked harder or longer hours in my life. This is THE moment in healthcare and we are doing what we can to survive this slow-moving cataclysm with health and humor intact.

    I’m relieved to hear you are safe though your Lisbon adventure has turned into something different than you’d planned or hoped.

    Take care my friend and please tell Greg we said hello!


  3. Lovely, Em. Thanks for continuing to draw us into the circle of your lives. Looking forward to seeing you in a year or two when ideally there will be some mix of a vaccine (though you might need a booster every three months) and treatments, so you don’t feel like you’re taking your life in your hands every time you go to the store. XOXO to you and Greg…

  4. Hello, my dear, dear friend—sister. . .

    I know that I’ve told you before that I’ve always been delighted that you’ve been a wonderful and welcomed part of my life, but I need to let you know that you continue to shock and amaze me. First of all, all of those years ago when you practically leaped at the opportunity to fly off to Russia—Russia!!—in pursuit of a healthcare story for the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, and then, again, when you told me that you and G. were moving off world to Portugal! The stardust that it took to put you together truly was the stuff of ancient gods and times. You are a marvel.

    Quite honestly, I think that, right now, a good many of us are feeling untethered. After watching the events in Oregon from the last few days, I’m, at times, scared witless. Those jackboots I was so concerned about are now reality, and I feel somewhat helpless as to what to do about it other than to get the vote out.

    You know that you and Greg are going to be better than ever. And I know that we’ll be communicating soon. With much love and friendship, we’ll raise a glass!

  5. Em,
    Years and years and years ago, back when we were small and our minds were smaller. How far we have come. Thank you for your beautiful, evocative writing. It has been lovely for as long as I can remember.
    All is well here — lots of challenges — none of them entirely unique to anyone.
    Lots for which to be grateful.

  6. I have read this so many times this week and each time begin to unravel another layer to your soul. You have truly painted the picture so many of us see now. We, too, are facing an anniversary of our 7-year plan. We have loved our time in Chicago and have grown both individually and as a couple but it is time go. I long for a little more space, a little more green and a breath of fresh air. We have our place on the market and everyone asks “where will you go next?” Quite honestly, we don’t know. Return to our southern roots? Those roots are very different now. Seek out warmer winter climates? Those places are experiencing the impact of climate change with intense storms and unbearable temperature. Become more nomadic? Travel has been put on pause until this pandemic is under control. Uncertainly is our new normal. We, like you, are different now. Home is much bigger than current space and we both want to continue to grow, learn and advocate for a better world. So we will keep you posted on our journey and you do the same.
    “We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” – Joseph Campbell

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