Creative writer Philip Graham sets off on a year’s sojourn to Lisbon, Portugal, with his anthropologist-wife and his tween-daughter. This is not the first time he and his wife spend time living in a different country: when their now-college aged son was just a little boy, they lived in a small African village.
In a series of essays, Graham writes of his struggle with the Portuguese language (despite several years’ preparation), his daughter’s quick grasp of the language but her slow integration into a new culture, and the struggle for each family member in his or her own way to “become Portuguese”.
Infatuated with the myriad of Lisbon writers, Graham explores the depths of Portuguese culture, often comparing it to American culture. American politics raises its head too, which, to be honest, seemed out of place for such a travelogue.
The sights and sounds of Lisbon, the feeling of suadade (which is a huge theme in these short stories) and the poignancy of fitting in neither-here-nor-there are conveyed tangibly and lovingly.
However, it is written in such a way that a person who has never been to Portugal (such as myself), has real difficulty grasping it all. I think photos would have been a lovely asset, but then again, photos do have the propensity to take away from the intangible experiences of travel.
Fatherhood also feature greatly in this travelogue – in fact, one might say that travelling is merely a backdrop to the real issues at hand. Throughout the writings, Graham briefly touches on the changes he sees in his young daughter, but only at the end does the crisis unfold. It’s a shock to the reader, as I’m sure it was a shock to him.
As I said before, the stories are beautifully told, but they did often lack relatability. Having traveled to countries with foreign languages I should have been able to relate to his experiences, but something seemed to be missing. I think for a person who has been in Lisbon will probably adore this work, but I am pretty ambivalent about it.