WORDS Meredith Price Levitt

One of the hardest things to re-establish as a rookie ex-pat is a new routine. If you don’t speak the local language, that can be even more challenging. But add to that an earth-shattering, out of the blue, never-ending global pandemic and you’ve got a serious issue establishing a routine of any kind. Much less plans that stretch beyond tomorrow. The last two years have been one long bout of learning how to accept the unexpected. 

All the normal ways we humans have of creating order out of chaos – school, work, exercise, events, parties, concerts et al. – flew straight out the window. Forget about a slow transition. Or time to adjust. Not a moment was given to reshape your ideas about what the future holds. Almost overnight, life as everyone, everywhere knew it came to a road runner halt. 

The first time I remember putting on a mask was in February of 2020 at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. It was to be my last trip to Israel for far, far longer than I expected. My last trip to anywhere actually. The word about COVID-19 had just begun to spread. The airport already felt eerily empty. When we arrived in Lisbon, it was even stranger. Literally, no one was around. The airport was a ghost town as if we’d walked into a bad western after the shootout in the town square. 

We vacillated between joking about it and feeling depressed, trying to fight off this intuition that this was no fleeting swine flu. This was something different. Something bigger. We had no idea at the time that it would change our lives so radically. We had, after all, big plans for creating a retreat centre in the Algarve. Our dream was to build a boutique enclave that would offer aerial workshops and artistic sabbaticals, where people could come for something unique and experience the surrounding beauty.

Instead, the whole thing fell through and we found ourselves in a new country without a plan, adrift and masked. Literally and figuratively. To be fair, maybe in some ways it was easier to hide as an ex-pat and blend in with everyone else. But in other ways, it has made accomplishing anything impossible and understanding actual words a difficult grind.

After two endless years of wearing a mask and wondering what would happen next, on 21 April 2022, (four days before the national celebration of Independence from the dictatorship), the masks officially came off here in Portugal. For everyone. Ex-pat or not. 

It was a Friday. A tentative vibe filled the air. People were still a bit uncertain if it was actually ok to take off their masks. Some didn’t out of fear or respect or self-protection. Others immediately jumped into full party mode, swinging their masks from telephone poles and making plans for massive celebrations. 

The end of gargantuan uncertainty is a convincing reason to throw a party. After all, when this started, most of us had no idea how long it would actually last (some are still unconvinced that the mask mandate is really gone for good.) 

“Let’s see,” “Hard to say really,” and “Who knows” is the new norm in communication. It’s always been true – we never know what’s actually coming tomorrow. But the last two years have upped the ante on uncertainty stakes in a game-changing way.  

COVID opinions aside, without the mask on I realise how little I know about what this place is normally like. For over two years I’ve been hearing, “well, not normally,” “It’s not usually this way” and “there’s generally a lot more going on.”

I don’t actually know what normal means here. Finally, demasking is upon us and it’s time for me to figure out where I actually live. To start moving forward and learning how to swim, properly speaking Portuguese, discovering the country and its people who live beyond the mask. Hopefully, the naysayers who believe it’s not over are wrong. In the meantime, I’m taking every possible opportunity to read the facial expressions of strangers, to hug people randomly for long periods of time, to properly introduce myself to people I’ve seen for almost two years only behind a mask. I’m ready to explore freely, at long last, what life is usually like here in the Algarve and – best of all – to start working on a stable routine. 

Meredith Price Levitt is a freelance writer, an American ex-pat who identifies as a hybrid. After 20 years in Tel Aviv, she moved to the Algarve in December of 2019. Just in time for a global pandemic.

You can contact her at meredithmprice@gmail.com