Seven years ago, my face was planted on the kitchen floor of a new apartment I had just purchased in San Francisco. Unable to pick myself back up, I laid there and watched tears glide over polished hardwood, leaving trails of indescribable hopelessness.
For the first time in my adulthood, I had brazenly given my heart to someone who loved me just as much. But he was broken to begin with, which resulted in my shattered soul powerless to reach for glimpses of light. Everyday, I laid there, if it wasn’t the kitchen floor, it was in front of the bathroom mirror. Unrecognizable. Lost. Pained.
Someone at work had told me about Portugal. Seven years ago, the square country on the edge of the European continent was in a state of economic catastrophe. The Great Recession from 2010 – 2014 stemmed from the nation’s inability to solve its €79.0 billion debt crisis, which led to bail-out programs aided by the International Monetary Fund, the European Financial Stabilization Mechanism and the European Financial Stability Facility.
This meant Portugal was so cheap that I couldn’t resist the idea of a desperate escape. It was a sovereign state so dire that I could somehow relate to its disastrous entanglement, ripped brutally empty while struggling to unearth sources simply to survive by breaths. I randomly picked Lisbon, Sintra and Lagos, then promptly booked my tickets.
Lugging a heavy heart, I first arrived in Sintra, a charming tiny town situated 30 minutes westward from Lisbon by car. Back then, there wasn’t Airbnb, so I booked a bed & breakfast hosted by a generous Portuguese family. Tina, the matriarch of Quinta Verde Sintra, opened the door of a beautiful country home with the kindest charisma. She didn’t have a large personality, but her soft-spoken voice comforted a girl who had just traveled 17 hours on her own. There were several rooms in the cozy rural house, Tina showed me the spacious double room where I would spend two restful nights.
The next morning, I woke up to a table full of breakfast treats prepared just for little lonesome me. Either everyone had already gotten up, or I was the only guest at the time, but I unabashedly gobbled down ham, croissants, jam on toasts, fruits, and even more cold cuts, as I studied intricate azulejo (Portuguese painted tin-glazed ceramic tile-work) hanging on the dining room walls. Tina and I chatted about her family as I watched her bustling around the kitchen while she tenderly sliced more bread for me. She had no idea that I wasn’t necessarily starving for food, yet I was gratefully satiated by an older woman’s generous nurture. Somehow, it weighed ten times more than usual coming from a foreigner to a traveler in a foreign land.
After breakfast, Tina took me in her car and dropped me off at the entrance of Palácio Nacional de Sintra, known as the best-preserved medieval royal residence since the early 15th century. Much of the details of this magnificent site will be saved for my book later, but as I strolled through each intricately woven room that began during the Moorish Al-Andalus era, I sighed at the immense history whispered through its tiled walls. Something about walking through a house museum calmed my previously anxious self.
Outside of the palace, I wandered off to a deserted corner with a striking view of the city and asked a stranger to take a photo of me. The sight of red roofs and a soaring Bell Tower transferred my mind from mourning the past to living in the present. I stood there, in that vacant spot for longer than I expected, to inhale where the world had taken me. Despite that, it was I who had traveled across the world.
Sintra’s town center literally comprised of one main square and an uphill alley adorned by lines of souvenir shops. I strolled along slowly, peeking into boutiques that sold textiles, ceramics, and even more textiles. Each store owner greeted my hola with hospitality, so I decided to buy a blue and white ceramic spoon rest for my new kitchen, and an embroidered white linen tissue paper holder for my guest bathroom back home. I had an inkling Sintra would forever be significant in my life journey, so I wanted something physical as an eternal reminder.
After souvenir shopping, I found an outside terrace of a cafe to sip on red wine then write in my journal. “Dear Sintra…” was how I began this new entry. Before the sun fully set, I caught a taxi to bring me back to Tina’s warm greeting. The rest of my time in Sintra was like taking a massive mental sedative. The fog might have been thick, but I braved through the gloom in unexpected serenity.
In seven years, life happened. I left San Francisco, I reunited with Paris. I left an unfulfilling job, I created a company. I never fell in love again, but I love myself evermore so. Life changed, I elevated. I self protect, yet my heart remains wide open. I am fulfilled. I did it. I’m doing it.
Seven years after I first stepped foot in Sintra, I returned to this privy town just last week. With my parents by my side this time, we meandered through Palácio Nacional de Sintra with a guide. I finally knew what I was looking at almost a decade ago! Details of Queen Philippa’s magpie room (with a legend of her husband, King John I, caught by court women kissing a lady which led them to chatter like magpies,) and the splendor of King Manuel I’s Coats of Arms Room (exhibits extravagant walls covered by 16th century azulejos representing hunting scenes) were finally properly explained. My world had gained clarity.
Stepping outside of the palace, I immediately spotted the same isolated corner where I reclusively stood all those years ago. I asked my Dad to take a photo in the exact same position, overlooking the same red roofs illuminating Sintra surrounding the same steep Bell Tower. Oh, how different do I look and feel now. I may have arrived in Sintra the first time with a broken heart, but it has mended. And it is me, I did it on my own.