There’s No Such Thing as Paradise

A Reflection on Imperfection

Rua Vasco de Gama in Setúbal, Portugal

From a distance, the picture is perfection. The afternoon sun glinting just so off the candy-colored buildings. The charm of the laundry swinging from a double-decker line. The curve of the bell tower, the stretch of the shadows, they all promise magic just around the bend.

It’s pretty as a postcard. You could buy it, bottle it, post it to the internet with a #wishyouwerehere. For every Europhile and wanderer and soul-weary American, the picture looks just like paradise.

I know, because they’ve all hit the heart button and lavished praise when I posted this very shot with a caption and hashtag: Tuesday, 5pm #walkinghome. “Gorgeous!” the comments read. “Beautiful!” “Dream land.” “What a sight.”

And it is. I see it, too.
That’s why I stopped and clicked the shutter.

But unfreeze the frame and the flaws come into focus. The rip and whine of a motorbike shooting past (way too fast). The sticky clump of dog shit narrowly avoided. The cigarette butts crushed in the cobbled crevices. The person behind the camera, frazzled and anxious.

No matter how winsome the street, the scene, the moment is never truly perfect. Because perfection requires every little thing to be flawless. But aren’t those very foibles and faults what actually make things real?

Pousada Convento de Belmonte

Here, the unmade bed doesn’t detract from the enchantment of this room at a 13th century former convent in the Serra da Estrela, a mountain range in continental Portugal. The rumpled blankets make the room look more attainable, like it’s saying: “You could totally nap here.” Like it’s a place that actually exists, not for multimillionaires and celebristars, but for you.

There are so many examples of the beauty of imperfection, like the Japanese art of Kintsugi, or the timeworn spines of old books, or the allure of abandoned places, or the celebration of so many things society in general has deemed defective: aging and wrinkles and weirdos and oddities and a thousand other “imperfections”.

At some level, we all know that perfection is neither real nor required. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s trash is another’s treasure. Don’t yuck someone else’s yum. Etcetera, et al.

But still, we as a culture place such high value on perfection, on the look and the feel of the ever-new, the always-improved.

True perfection is unsurpassable excellence — which is unattainable for the average, non-photoshopped person. And the word “paradise,” well, that just assigns perfection a latitude and longitude.

Paradise is freshly-manicured toes on a sandy white beach with powder-puff waves breaking just beyond the blur.

Paradise says, “This particular geographical location is perfect. If you were here, you would be stunningly happy. All would be well.”

Paradise is a postcard.

Praia da Comporta, Portugal

But you can’t live in a postcard. Not really.

Because “wherever you go, there you are.”

Wherever you go, you’re still you when you get there. You and your brain full of preconceptions and baggage, habits and premonitions. If you’re miserable over here, chances are you’ll be miserable over there, too.

It’s like when you’re dating and you keep getting dumped by dicks, until finally you hit the wall of realization that, “Oh! Maybe the problem is me?”

I remember a moment a few months before we moved when my husband asked me if I thought I’d be happier in Portugal. We were still in the thick of pandemic lockdowns and political unrest and my depression and anxiety hit levels that I hadn’t seen since my mid-twenties. 2020 wasn’t my best year. (Was it anyone’s?) So it was a reasonable question.

Yes, I was hoping to be happier in Portugal. Not because I was deluded by Grass-Is-Greener syndrome. I’ve fallen for that before; I know how it fails.

Our move to Portugal was not a simple swap, changing the background of our own personal postcard from the Golden Gate Bridge to Ponte 25 de Abril.

We moved to Portugal to change (pretty much) everything. To discard comfort zones and comfort food. Shake up stagnant routines, shed identities that no longer fit. Quit ticking the expected boxes — all those societal should dos — and making decisions that consider our own deep-seated wants and hopeful what-ifs, instead.

And if making those choices, those changes made me intrinsically happier?
Cake icing.

Alfama, Lisboa, Portugal

So here we are, walking picturesque cobbled streets and picking up the dog shit (our dog’s and yes, sometimes the leavings of a dog stranger, too).

Life is still unsettled in so many ways, and sometimes we’re kind of a mess. Just this past Tuesday I shed tears on the way home from Lisbon because I got a parking ticket. It wasn’t the ticket or the 60€ fine that bothered me so much as our interaction with the agente da polícia who was hovering over our car as we walked up. (I parked in a motorcycle parking zone by mistake.) It wasn’t that he was scary or mean, it was just that same realization that keeps hitting me in waves — at the bank, at the grocery store, at my daughter’s school — I don’t know how anything works. I don’t understand the systems, I’m fumbling all the balls. Some days that’s tudo bem. Some days it’s too much.

The learning curve is steep. But we’re fine. We’re good. Inch by inch (centimeter by centimeter) we’re figuring it out.

On my birthday last week, I explored an ancient castle. And yesterday, I ordered my lunch entirely in Portuguese. (It was two sentences, but still. Progress! I couldn’t do that two months ago.)

Thursday, at lunch recess, my daughter exchanged words with two of her classmates. Like, a literal word exchange — they pointed to things and asked her the English word, and then they told her the Portuguese word.

“I think I said casaco (jacket) like 15 times,” she reported proudly when she got home. These small wins are such big deals.

Last weekend, we took our first roadtrip since we moved here five months ago, traveling up north to Belmonte, exploring Caldas da Rainha on the way there and Castelo Branco on the way home.

Life is messy, sure, but when isn’t that true? It’s also exhilarating and rewarding. And in some moments, from some angles, it’s pretty as a postcard.

Park bench with azulejos in Évora, Portugal

Originally published in Word Salad Newsletter

Reader. Writer. Hangnail biter. @wordsbyladonna