Reality Exceeds Expectation

In the month leading up to my semester abroad, I held several expectations and assumptions about Lisbon, its culture, and its people. Most of these assumptions came from my personal experience of having Azorean grandparents and my three visits to the islands of the Azores.  I now realize that this was traditional Portuguese culture, a hard-working and quiet society, proud of their land and the language they speak, content with remaining in their own corner of the world. It did not take me long to realize that the culture I considered Portuguese was actually not the culture of modern Portugal, especially Lisbon. The culture of Lisbon could not be further from that of the Azores. Upon arrival I soon realized that Lisbon was a city that never sleeps, full of young and happy people, glad to assist you in anyway. Although I can speak Portuguese I was nervous that it was not good enough, that when walking the streets people would recognize my foreign accent, and treat me differently, but the astounding diversity of the city proved me wrong. Not only is everything from metro maps to restaurant menus provided in several languages, the people of Lisbon generally speak multiple languages and love to learn more, they are happy to hold a conversation in whatever is easier to you. I actually find myself speaking to waiters in English despite my ability to speak in their native tongue, simply because the Portuguese always seize the opportunity to practice another language. Also, most American students in my program knew little to no Portuguese upon arrival, but never struggle or are never forced to feel uncomfortable about that fact.

In addition to English, I hear Italian, German, Spanish, even Chinese and some African dialects spoken all over the city, this is because of both the diversity of citizens and the amount of tourists and immigrants who come to this metropolis. I expected Lisbon to be somewhat of a peripheral city of Europe, however every day I see and hear more and more stories of people coming from all over to either study, live, or visit the city. Lisbon is not a Portuguese city, it is a city of the world. This brings me to expectations of my living situation, I presumed that my stay in Portugal wouldn’t be grand, that I would most likely share a small room or apartment, have a communal bathroom, and may not access to amenities I am used to back home, again, I assumed wrong. The housing I was giving is in a modern dorm where I stay in a single room with plenty of storage, I share a bathroom with only one other student, and the building has everything from a computer lab to a ping pong table and plenty of communal areas. The dorm also has an amazing terrace where we can relax with a book and coffee and enjoy the amazing Lisbon weather. Also, I assumed I would have to either integrate into a Portuguese community or live solely with Americans however Americans make up only about 30% of the students in my dorm. I have made friends with students from all over Europe and Asia, all coming to Lisbon for the same reason as myself. Similarly, I assumed that every European would berate me with questions about President Trump and the United States but on the contrary any political conversation is one of mutual respect and ideas. They ask to be educated about the current political climate in America, not condemn and ask why it happened, in turn I of course ask about the current politics of Europe which is also at a crucial turning point in history. It has very much reinforced the truth that America is not the center of the planet and that all nations have problems, the trick is to work together to solve these problems as a global community.

Something else I did not was how fast I assimilated to the casual culture and lifestyle of Lisbon. I drink espresso coffee all day long, I choose to walk instead of using public transportation,   I eat every meal about 3 hours after I normally would at home (yes, dinner time in Portugal is about 9 PM and yes, I drink a coffee with dessert), and you can never say no to a pastel de nata (a classic Portuguese pastry everyone needs to try once in their life). Next, I expected to stay within Lisbon and travel all around Europe on my weekends yet even after two months I have not left the country, I instead have spent my weekends exploring the city or renting a car and seeing what the rest of the country has to offer, and I have not been disappointed. Finally, I expected to spend my time relaxing with friends, not having to worry about classes but on the contrary I have found that I enjoy my classes. Every professor I have has an amazing story and is excited to hear all of ours, their passion has inspired me and my classmates to go above and beyond, attending museums outside the classroom, and actually reading the books we were assigned. I expected to come to a hustling and bustling city full of Portuguese people where my American friends and I would mind our own business and spend our time at loud bars. Instead my experience has consisted of friendly interactions with everyone I meet, learning about cultures and history outside and inside the classroom, friends I will never forget. The perfect portrait I can describe the culture of Lisbon is what you can find on any given night:  hundreds of people from all over the world sitting atop a hill, casually drinking wine, laughing and watching the sunset over the beautiful hills of Lisbon.