Old World Charm
When I first started working in the cruise industry, I had to write about Europe all the time and the go-to descriptor for what you’d experience on every European cruise was always “Old World Charm”. Having never been to Europe myself, I’d throw that into a subject line or on the back of a flyer without even thinking about or knowing what it really meant. Now I get it.
Our first stop in Europe coming from New York was Portugal. Stepping off the bus in the seaside village of Ericeira, I was in complete awe of how beautiful everything was without even trying to be. The whitewashed buildings trimmed with splashes of azure blue, the labyrinth of limestone streets hiding some unexpected gem around every corner, the village square lined with cafes serving espresso and pastel de nata (a delicious egg tart pastry) al fresco at any time of day. This was the Europe I hadn’t really seen or at least appreciated on our last whirlwind Euro-trip back in 2010. This was Old World Charm.
Portugal blew me away in so many ways. The main draw for me was surfing and the rugged, cliff-like coastline I’d seen in so many photos. While the surfing was a bit of a bust (see more on that below), the coastline, especially in Algarve, was like something out of a dream with the most beautiful beaches we saw on our entire trip. The photos truly don’t do it justice! Portuguese wine, which we knew absolutely nothing about before arriving, was surprisingly incredible, affordable and complex with over 250 native grape varietals grown across the country! Sipping white port and tonics (a Portuguese specialty arguably even more delicious than a G&T) on a hot afternoon over a plate of cured meats and semi-stinky cheeses became one of our favourite ways to pass the time in Portugal.
Although we spent far less time in other European countries we visited (Spain, Croatia and Slovenia), they were no less charming. While we were in Mexico, our friend Fil was explaining why he’d loved Madrid so much and described it as a city where “Life happens outside”. I thought about that a lot while we were in Europe as I contemplated why the energy in places like Lisbon and Granada felt different than back home. Even when the weather was dreary, people were gathered outside in plazas designed for the specific purpose of bringing people together. With relaxed (or non-existent?) regulations around alcohol consumption, bar patrons spilled out onto the sidewalks with their pints of Alhambra while street performers infused the square with music, and vendors chatted away to one another while trying to hawk their neatly stacked pairs of sneakers. This whole scene repeated itself over and over in nearly every European city we visited made each place feel delightfully alive.
Getting Gritty in the Portuguese Surf
A while ago Mike and I read Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit, a brilliantly researched piece of non-fiction about what it means to be gritty and how you can become more so if you’re not already. I found myself thinking a lot about that book while we were in Portugal; in particular how it relates to surfing.
Full disclosure: I am not a gritty person (yet). I hate it when things are hard and I have this very unreasonable expectation that I should be amazing at everything, even when I’ve only done said thing once or twice before. As Mike can attest to, I’m pretty much the worst person to play tennis with because if every forehand I hit doesn’t resemble that of Roger Federer, I’m likely to walk off the court. And don’t even get me started on golf.
I’ve never really taken the time to get better at tennis or golf; to get beyond the really painful ball launching, club whiffing stages to a point where deliberate practice might eventually lead to true mastery. To do that would require grit and what Duckworth calls a “Growth Mentality” where you believe that practice can actually make you better at anything and that you are not simply a person who is bad at some things and good at others.
How does this relate to surfing in Portugal? Surfing is by far the most difficult sport I have ever tried to learn. There are so many reasons to quit before you even start:
#1: The ocean wants to kill you
#2: Paddling is bloody exhausting
#3: Other surfers can be total A-holes
#4: Waves are totally unpredictable (at least when you’re first starting out)
#5: Standing up on a slanted, moving board requires an absurd amount of balance and finesse
On top of all that, just when you think you’re getting the hang of surfing, you switch to a new board, a new beach, or advance to a bigger set of waves and it feels like you’re starting all over again.
I’ve surfed in Bali, New Zealand, Mexico and Portugal so far on this trip, and the ocean has tried to kill me on more than one occasion. It’s been an excellent opportunity to practice grit and adopt a growth mentality. After my first day in Bali, my ribs were so bruised and my arms were so sore I thought they may never move again, but they did. In New Zealand, my board smashed into my fingers – bending them back to the point where my whole hand swelled up like a blown-up rubber glove, but I duct taped my fingers up and got back out there. In Mexico, the break was so strong that getting caught in what surfers call ‘the washing machine’ was legitimately scary. After one particularly vigorous cycle in the wash, I had salt water dripping from my sinuses for an entire day! But I went out again the next day.
Portugal presented the biggest grit test yet. Our plan was to settle down for three weeks in Ericeira, a lovely little seaside town about an hour from Lisbon that is famous for having the best surf in the country. Mike would practice Korean while I’d hit the waves at least once a day and figure this sport out once and for all. After doing a ton of research, I found a well-reviewed surf school that offered intermediate lessons so I wouldn’t have to start at the beginning again. Surely after taking lessons in 3 different countries, I was no longer a beginner, right?
10 minutes into my first lesson in Ericeira, however, it was pretty clear that I was not yet an intermediate surfer, at least by Portuguese standards. The waves were so big and the current was so much stronger than I was used to, I was paddling like crazy and not moving an inch let alone catching any waves. In an attempt to showcase my grit (and not look like a total wimp in front of my former pro-surfer instructor), I kept paddling through my exhaustion. By the time I got out of the water, my left abdomen muscle was so swollen it looked like I had a third breast! I was in so much pain the following day that I couldn’t get out of bed let alone surf. For weeks afterward, sneezing caused me so much agony that I dreaded that awful moment of ab-flexing release. After a week and a half of popping muscle relaxants, anti-inflammitories and following the doctor’s orders (actually) of creating more padding for my abs by consuming all of Portugal’s amazing bread, cheese and wine, I still hadn’t healed. I tried to get my money back for the 4 remaining lessons I’d already paid for, but luckily, they wouldn’t give me a refund. I wasn’t allowed to quit!
I reluctantly got into the freezing cold water again to try and complete my remaining lessons. I ate a slice of humble pie and went back to the baby waves and the big beginner board (yet again) to try and improve my foundations enough to prepare me for the bigger waves. I was surprised to find that once the adrenaline kicked in, I was too obsessed with catching waves to think about the pain. A couple days later, I was attempting the big waves again where I’d failed miserably my first day out in Ericeira. Although I’m sill not where I’d like to be skill-wise (resembling Kate Bosworth in Blue Crush, obviously), I can’t wait for my next opportunity to get on a board and let the ocean have at me again!
Sure, surfing can be deflating, discouraging, and sometimes downright depressing. But when everything finally comes together and you feel yourself sliding down the face of that one perfect wave, it’s totally addictive. It’s the best feeling in the world.