Auld Lang Syne

Historians call it “the song that nobody knows.” And yet we’ve all tried to sing it. There are scores of Christmas songs, but New Year’s  just has the one: Auld Lang Syne.

“Auld lang syne” is the title and key phrase of a 1788 Scottish poem by Robert (Rabbie) Burns. The phrase literally translates to “old long since” and basically means “days gone by.” Or, as Merriam-Webster puts it, “the good old times.” The original five-verse version of the poem essentially gets people singing, “let’s drink to days gone by,” an appropriate toast for the New Year. 

As Scots immigrated around the world, they took the song with them. Eventually, North American English speakers translated Burns’ dialect into the common lyrics we know today, made famous in part by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians band, who performed the song on New Year’s Eve from 1929 until about 1977. It’s his version that plays after the ball drops in Times Square every year. 

Auld Lang Syne, along with making New Year’s “resolutions,” is a tradition recognized – if not practiced – all around the world.

I’ve given up on making New Year’s resolutions, which I don’t really keep (for long, anyway). Instead, I use this time of the year for reflection and meditation: the good and the bad, things I’ve done and haven’t, where—and who—I am now at this time, in this place.

It’s been four years since we left the USA and moved to Portugal, dividing our time between two cozy homes … one in Castelo Branco, the other in Elvas. We also have an even smaller vacation bolt — which we purchased 15 years ago — in one of the “pueblos blancos” of Andalucía (southern Spain), where we head twice each year for three weeks at a time … plus quick getaways whenever.

Any regrets? No, not really. Except for the major stuff, like exploding empires and an imploding world. I can’t honestly say we’re “glad” that we left the USA, although I can unequivocally state we’re glad to be here, not there. Watching the republic, this lauded experiment in democracy, knowingly unravel before our eyes is among life’s saddest spectacles … along with reactive (not proactive) efforts to confront the immeasurable havoc wreaked by record-breaking hurricanes, flooding, draughts, heat waves and chills, tornadoes and earthquakes, and unquenchable fires.

Nor the mind-boggling numbers affected by the Corona virus.

Looking back isn’t easy; but looking ahead is even harder. While we video chat every Sunday with my son, his amazing wife, and our (almost) two-year-old granddaughter, who knows if, when, or where we’ll ever get to hug them in person. They live just outside of Dallas, Texas, surrounded by tightly knit in-laws and we are resolute about not returning to the USA … especially to a state that’s become a litmus in limiting voting rights, where a woman’s right to decide what happens to her own body is relentlessly restricted by handmaiden tattletales, and wiping the slate clean of books parents (especially) dislike has become a cause célèbre for librarians everywhere.

No, no, we won’t go.

Unfortunately, neither will our children and grandchild come to visit us in Portugal. It’s not an issue of money (we’d be delighted to pay their expenses) but more a matter of disruption and complications for them—especially in terms of work, family, and business.

We understand; they do, too. Not that we like it — nor do they — but there are more than principles and challenges involved.

Selfish we can be, but hypocrites not. Honestly, how could we go and turn a blind eye, ignoring life-altering evils for the sake of our personal satisfaction and contrivance?

Unlike a number of immigrants, we choose to live more of a typical Portuguese life than do others who emigrate. For some, that means living in “expat” communities surrounded by others like themselves—with all the bells and whistles, notions and novelties, they enjoy … all without learning the language or hobnobbing with the natives. They love that they get more for their money here.

Others, whom I refer to as “quintassentials,” are here for a simpler and healthier life, living on and off the land … with renewable energy and wholesome produce that sustains them without upsetting Mother Nature. They love that the cost of living is much lower here.

They’re not the same, you know, in terms of the bottom line: getting more for your money v. spending less on life’s essentials.

For us, however, we’re betwixt and between, neither there nor here. While we live in typical row houses in typical towns and villages populated by Portuguese speakers, we’re still — in many ways — different from the natives …

Take language, for instance. No matter how much vocabulary we master or practice we pursue, we’ll never speak like they do.

Blame it on our pronunciation. Or the fact that most Portuguese have a better handle on English than we do on their language. In school, they’re required to study English not as a “foreign” language, but as part of their core curriculum. With certain people, I’ve learned that it’s best to engage with them as they prefer – in English – rather than to insist on practicing our Portuguese.

Still, we can communicate. Ask lots of questions and reply to them. Complain. Deal with contractors and repairs. Joke and poke fun at our lopsided Portuguese.

Other matters – usually financial – also separate us, both from other immigrants and our neighborhood Portuguese. It’s our background. And our money.

We keep ourselves warm in the winters and cool in the summers with inverter aircon units, several of them in each house. Our neighbors might have one. Maybe. We’ve equipped our homes with furnishings and appliances that few Portuguese find reasons to need. Although using these gadgets and gizmos costs more in electric bills than our elderly neighbors receive in their monthly state pensions, we condone and rationalize it: after paying between $300 and $500 (or more) per month in the USA for electricity, we’re spending far less – €125-€150 during the five or six months of peak usage — in Portugal. Yeah, we tried using our kitchen fireplace and installed a pellet stove on the bedroom level … but the cost of the firewood and pellets added at least €60 per month to our budget.

Yet we feel a bit awkward and uneasy around our neighbors, who hear the almost constant hum of our plugged-in existence.

The past couple of years have been times of change and upheaval—both personally and globally. Climate crises hit as the world suffered through draught, fires, flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, earthquakes, and abuse by humankind. Social upheavals, like most malignancies, took no prisoners. From nations united, we became societies divided. Covid, the first “pandemic” most of us experienced, took the lives of too many … even as it was added to the arsenal of politics and propaganda.

Like lots of our friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, we learned that our “dream house” in Lousa, Castelo Branco, Portugal wasn’t (really), when the doctor told us that we couldn’t continue living there: Going up and down the 37 steps dozens of times daily between our street-level kitchen and upper-level bedroom was crippling my 72-year-old bones. And those charming cobble stone streets meandering throughout our quaint village became slippery and dangerous for someone without balance or sure-footedness (me) when walking the three dogs several times every day.

“It would be best for you to live in a single-level residence,” the doctor insisted … ideally one with a backyard (quintal) for the dogs.

Easier said than done.

We looked everywhere in Lousa, asking our Portuguese friends and neighbors for help in finding a proper residence. No luck. Everything needed too much work or was overpriced and still needed work.

After living there for three years, we had learned what we could deal with in a property … and what we couldn’t. As mentioned, it needed to be a single story. With a (small) attached backyard. In a nice neighborhood. We didn’t want to be on the main street anymore—too much noise, especially with all the church processions and festas. Preferably, the bedroom would be in the middle of the house, not facing the street. The rooms and divisions had to be of adequate size. And, of course, it had to be within our budget.

We found what we were looking for in Alcains, the next municipality over, and moved up the municipal hierarchy from village to town.

Meanwhile, much to our distress, we had been grappling with a case of liver failure in our littlest family member, Manny, our nine-year-old Miniature Schnauzer with a heart that melted ours. Despite all the tests, medications, veterinary consults, and hospitalizations, he passed across the rainbow bridge comfortably, in my lap.

We spent three months mourning and grieving our loss. But the heart is a lonely being, and we ached to fill the void Manny had left in our hearts. Nobody could ever replace him … but our newest furry family member, Toto, is an endearing ball of fluff whose unique personality has enchanted and endeared us to him.

Loss can also mean giving up, in the sense of losing something.

Learning that as EU residents, we didn’t need a separate bank account in Spain for our bills and taxes there, we closed our CaixaBank account – which, as “nonresidents,” cost us €35 every three months, compared to the €3.50 we paid in Portugal – and transferred all direct debits from Spain to our Portuguese account. One of the benefits of no trade barriers among the EU nations!

In the process of exercising creativity by birthing and balancing Portugal Living Magazine – a broad spectrum, English language magazine that covers all of Portugal, not just the Algarve – I was forced to learn how to tweet and post on Instagram. If only I could give up Facebook! But, what’s the alternative?

Life goes on, ooblah-di, ooblah-da …

With all its pathos and saudade, we continue to be in awe of Portugal, our small democratic nation, thinking of it as that “little engine that could.” Portugal administered at least 19,137,482 doses of COVID vaccines so far, enough to have vaccinated about 93.2% of the country’s population with two doses. Most of us already have had our third (booster) shots.

Where else can you find such determination in anti-Covid regulations that prevent crowds from congregating than a country that declares there shall be no retail “sales” between 26 December and 9 January? How many shop windows does one pass devoid of any “SALE!” signs? Or stores that haven’t removed marked-down merchandise from their full-price inventory?

The words of the song ring true:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For days of auld lang syne.

Now, por favor, let’s drink!

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