It feels like a lot longer than two and a half weeks since we first set off on the road for our working vacation in Portugal. We’ve established a new routine already. They know us in the laundry, the small Italian restaurant just a few minutes from our house, and even in the adventure park at Alto da Serafina in Lisbon.
I’ve become a frequent face at the Blue Ocean surf shop in Ribeira d’Ilhas. The children are integral to the Happy Kids daycare center in Ericeira and Cata’s learned most of the words to the “Good Morning” song when the neighborhood cat comes over to listen.
They actually want to go and have adventures without me now during the week–although the shrieks of “mommy!” as they gallop toward me grinning from ear to ear when I arrive is the best part of my day.
Life is good and it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. So, reflecting on our two-week-and-one-day anniversary in Ericeira, here are my top 10 takeaways so far.
1. Doing it much easier than thinking about it
Like anything in life, doing it is much easier than thinking about doing it. Let’s be honest, sometimes even leaving the house with kids generates an ad finitum list of roadblocks. Dressing one child only to find the other covered head to toe in chocolate milk… bathing, changing… only to find the dressed one completely undressed.
If you thought too hard about traveling alone with two small infants you’d certainly arrive at the conclusion that it was a very bad idea indeed. Especially when you’re working full time. I’m not too foolish to see that I’m either extremely bold or extremely stupid; perhaps a little of both.
I’ve received a lot of comments from well-wishers saying they hope I’m enjoying my “well-deserved vacation.” That’s nice but also annoying. I have to remember that people who have no notion of logistics or children or work (or balancing the lot) tend to skip over the details. After all, I don’t post screenshots of my to-do list on Facebook.
There’s a lot more emphasis on work than vacation, especially when you’re carrying two tired tots up the stairs of an ancient building with no elevator and a 5-liter bottle of water and two shopping bags on your back. Or scooping one of them off the floor after another tantrum in the middle of a plaza as the other runs into the road–with your cellphone incessantly bleeping with requests from clients.
Setting up a temporary home in a foreign place and making it your own is anything but easy. But, it is not as hard as I thought it would be. I, we, are stronger than I thought.
2. My kids are more amazing than I ever realized
It’s not just me who has surprised myself with the extra bag loads of patience, energy, motivation, and determination. My kids have opened my eyes as well. No, I still don’t see them from Monday to Friday 9 to 5. But we do at least one new thing every day after school, whether that’s riding on a carousel, jumping on a trampoline, running around a park, or heading to the beach.
We squeeze the most out of every day and the weekends are jam-packed with fun–and a little bit of freaking out. Getting lost in the streets of Lisbon when the GPS goes haywire and the kids are screaming in the back of the car is no picnic.
I think the worst phrase of my life right now is the robotic “turn around as soon as possible”. But despite all that, my kids are more amazing than I ever even hoped. And I somehow have more time or willingness to observe and appreciate them.
Watching Cataleya picking up Portuguese, making new friends, and coming out with new expressions daily is a real treat.
“I have an idea,” is one of her new favorites and it’s usually followed by “why don’t you buy me…” The request can range from a cupcake to a car to a helicopter.
She’s learned to live with bugs and even like them, to appreciate the smell of flowers, and to garner some wicked negotiation skills. I admire her unshrinking ability to get me to agree on the number of minutes I will come into Happy Kids that morning–always longer than I can really spare.
Valentino is so thoughtful and so happy. Despite getting slapped and kicked and pushed and hit, he still chases after his big sister. He follows me around the house handing me objects he thinks I will need from shoes to a hairbrush and underwear.
He runs around outside provoking smiles on elderly people’s faces as he rushes up to them and gives them a high five. And he loves to dance. His eyes light up and he throws his whole spirit into the beat.
I used to find people who said “I am blessed with children” sort of nauseating. Well, now I’m going to say it, just once. That’s sort of how I (grudgingly) feel.
3. They’re also more annoying
Make no mistake. The Kodak moments are compensated with scenes from horror movies you would only see in your worst nightmares. From somewhere Cataleya’s started to spit. When she doesn’t get her own way, she screams until she either does, or I completely lose my sh** and scream even louder. And that is not a pretty sight.
I hate losing my calm with them.
Valentino needs to be held at least every two or three minutes. The snuggles are amazing of course. But it’s frankly quite inconvenient when you’re trying to leave the house, have a shower, or just get anything done at all. If I don’t hold him, he shrieks with all the fury of a scorned mistress until I do.
When they get an attack of jealousy or tiredness, they both need me simultaneously. Those moments would probably be hilarious on camera a long time after the event. When they happen in the middle of a store or at the bottom of a very high hill, it’s not so funny.
That’s when I turn into a firefighter with one child under each arm and a look of steely determination on my face. It’s weird how at 50 kilos (more or less but who’s counting?) I can manage to carry so much.
Then there’s the constant, never-ending cleaning up. Sometimes I feel like I make them dinner only to punish myself. It’s a laborious process of washing, cutting, and preparing food… only to have it thrown all over the floor, smeared on the wall, spat out, frowned upon, and then cleaned up again.
I’m learning fast though. Like a bloodhound, kids can sniff out when you’re feeling your most tired, anxious, or rushed. They will automatically do the opposite of what you want when this happens.
This is where reverse psychology comes in. You have to make it look as if them playing with your iPhone is no big deal, otherwise, they will drop it on the floor.
4. Paper plates are your friend
Sorry, tree huggers, but paper plates are working pretty well for me right now. And, I figure, the trees get replanted, right? It’s better than using plastic. OK, so it’s not every day that I serve dinner on paper plates. But, when you have no dishwasher and a sh** load of work to do, being able to strike one more thing off your list is quite freeing.
They’re also covered in unicorns, which makes the kids think they’re eating something more interesting than they really are.
It isn’t just paper plates that have become a new part of my life. It’s allowing my standards to drop a little across the board and cut myself some slack.
The world won’t stop turning because Valentino goes to school in a chocolate-stained T-shirt or Cataleya hasn’t had a bath. They won’t die of scurvy if they eat pizza one (or two) nights per week, and if I don’t have time to put on makeup before I leave the house, probably the only person who will care is myself.
5. Kids are sponges and you have to be careful what you say
I’ve had to really discipline my use of words. But while cutting out on expletives is (reasonably) easy apart from when only expletives will do, it’s not only words they pick up on.
I have to project calmness instead of irritation and perspective instead of lamenting my exhaustion and the million and one things I have to do in a day.
Here are two examples of not my finest work at work. “These fu**king shoes don’t fit!” screamed Cataleya in a shoe store as my face turned red. Also, now every time she has a pain she attributes it to the fact that she’s “getting older.”
It must have been one of the many crusades up the stairs to the apartment laden like a pack mule when I expressed my discomfort and attributed an aching back to the fact that I wasn’t as young as I used to be.
But it’s actually quite funny to hear a four-year-old bemoan her ailings to the fact that she’s aging.
I started to say, “no you’re not” and then I realized that what she’s saying is not untrue. I turned my daughter into a silver-haired grandma at a bus stop.
Lesson? Watch your words. They pick it all up.
6. The kindness of strangers still moves me to tears
To say that no one has ever done anything for me would be completely untrue. Of course, they have. It’s just that when you’re fiercely independent, move from place to place, and life goes on, your support lines become more fragile.
You get used to doing everything by yourself. I’m alien to the concept of surprises or spontaneous help, or honestly just someone asking me how I am.
I almost burst into tears on my birthday last week when I walked in to pick up the kids and the teachers and children sang Happy Birthday to me, gifted me with a balloon, a card, and a birthday cake.
We’d only known them just over a week and one of the teachers overheard me talking to Cata about my birthday that very morning.
Surrounded by children from all over the world and such incredible warmth moved me to tears. I didn’t see it coming.
The kindness of strangers will always be overwhelming to me. Yet, the world is open and waiting to help. You just have to take the step.
7. Portugal is completely compatible with my stage in life
The first time I came to Portugal I was 22. I’d spent six weeks studying (getting drunk) in Sevilla, Spain. The nights were long and the sleep was scarce. I remember being asked by an incredulous taxi driver why I was going home so early at 4 am.
Portugal seemed so quiet, so early. We missed dinner the first night because the restaurant closed (instead of opened) at 9.
And then I got Typhoid fever, but I’m saving that one for my novel.
Many years later, my priorities have changed.
Spain is inconvenient with kids, frankly. England is just too cold and expensive. Portugal, on the other hand, seems to strike the perfect balance.
You don’t have to keep whiny children awake until 9 pm to serve them dinner. The restaurants open at 7 pm. They have lunch earlier. The shops don’t shut for siesta and the supermarkets are open on Sundays.
Most people here speak English or express a willingness to do so. That’s never been (and still isn’t) a requirement for me. I can defend myself in Portuguese (as horribly stilted as it sounds). But the point is, that the people here are open-minded.
They watch their TV series with subtitles. They strike the right balance between overbearing and disdainful. They aren’t pushy. They don’t try to make your life harder on purpose, and they love kids. Even my howling, loud rabble go down well in shops, restaurants, and beaches.
I really like Portugal.
8. It’s exhausting AF, but also worth it
Most people traveling with kids will probably have a partner, husband, wife, babysitter, whatever; an extra pair of hands when you want to go to the toilet. Being alone forces you to get creative. Poor Valentino is more than used to the Ladies’ room by now.
Sometimes I have to make a judgment call. Which kid is safer? The one wandering toward the edge of the swimming pool or the one about to leap into the road? Which household object would I rather they use as a toy while I’m desperately trying to finish my shower? The matches or the scissors?
It’s almost a 24-hour job. I mean, I do sleep a little, but not much, and I get woken up most nights having to look for my daughter’s favorite blanket which is always impossibly wedged somewhere at 3 am.
I work without stopping during the day. Sometimes my meetings carry on into the car with the kids yelling in the back. At that point, I have to clarify that “drink your milk darling and behave” wasn’t directed at my client.
It’s exhausting AF but absolutely worth it.
9. You can’t give up on your old life when you have kids
This is absolutely another lesson I could have learned without racking up thousands of kilometers. It’s just one that I haven’t applied. Jesus, even a trip to the supermarket on my own feels like a day out at this juncture.
I can actually wander the aisles and walk around slowly without having to intervene with the bizarre things being thrown into my cart or requests for curious objects.
But let’s be honest. If your best outing is going to the store alone your life is definitely lacking. Doing this working vacation in Portugal has kick-started my motors.
I’m wide awake to what I’ve been doing wrong and, even with the utter lack of help and time, somehow I have made just a little bit of room for myself.
I’ve been to the supermarket alone. I’ve been surfing. I’ve finally realized that longing for my old life and my old self, and basically, the ocean, isn’t healthy for anyone.
You can’t stop who you are when you have kids, it’s a recipe for unhappiness all around.
The surfing that I did on my birthday catching waves left and right, getting the adrenaline surge from the drop… That is life. That is living.
For far too long, I’ve been on survival mode… Now I’ve flipped the switch.
10. You have to care less about what people think
I used to hate nursing in public. That’s just me. I’m totally comfortable with women who do and applaud them for it. But my babies would never just feed normally.
There would always be some flailing around like an octopus, some screaming, and some other such abnormality that doing it discreetly was way out the window. My entire boob would be naked and in view. And it made me die inside.
The first time I took Catelaya on a 14-hour flight from Buenos Aires to London at three months old my main concern was bothering the people around me.
Well, you know what? You have to care a little less about what people think. There will always be those who try to heap the mom guilt on you with passive-aggressive statements like “wow, you’re brave sending your kids to a nursery in another country all by themselves” or words to that effect. They cut through the heart like a knife. And then keep on twisting.
There will always be people who would have preferred to have dined in peace and quiet without the ruckus of children in a restaurant. But if you spend your time worrying about what people think you’re walking on eggshells.
Flying with babies is not fun. But at least they don’t get drunk or snore loudly or are rude to the flight attendants. And as for the unasked for opinions on what I’m doing with my kids… let people have them.
Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. But you have to let it carry less weight than before, otherwise, the burden becomes too heavy.