Photo: Aygul Sarvarova/Shutterstock

What It Really Means to Be Alone Abroad

by Emma Sokoloff-Rubin May 9, 2014

I fell for Porto Alegre because I learned there that I can be alone.

This isn’t the story you expect: Girl moves to foreign country, rents a fourth-floor apartment with a sagging terrace and leaky sink. Wanders the streets, Moleskine in hand, and hopes to meet a guy at the pizza place downstairs — the one that’s open till 2am because it’s southern Brazil and time is different here. This story is less eventful: Girl stays with family friends in a city she lived in as a 12-year-old. Back then she fought her parents’ plan to spend a year in Brazil; now she returns on her own terms at 23, a sort-of grownup. She speaks the language, knows some street names, could do anything. But she has a book to finish and settles into a routine, more often on her own than ever before, and she sticks with it once the book is done, because.

I don’t know the because. I liked the quietness of the months I spent in Porto Alegre. The just-under-Philadelphia-sized city doesn’t have the cultural life of Rio or Salvador, but it has a rich history of social activism and varied neighborhoods to explore. I could have visited the handful of museums that line the coast and watched shows at the local theater festival, or observed political meetings in neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. But I liked my long days of writing and my afternoon walks to the pool, the long swims and meandering routes home. The trips to the corner store for mangoes. The not looking in the newspaper for local events. The evenings writing on my own and Skype dates with friends from college, who didn’t expect to hear from me because I usually drop off the map when I’m abroad.

It worried me a little how content I could be without the things I thought I loved most: my friends and family, conversations, work that engages directly with people, new cities or just new cafés on familiar streets. But I don’t think what I loved was changing; I think I was seeing an unfamiliar side of myself.

I had just graduated from college, and the world seemed wide open, the opportunities simultaneously endless and elusive. Nothing was going to happen for me if I didn’t make it happen. I was wildly motivated and wildly unsure. So for a little while, I let my days fall into place uninterrupted; I knew what was coming and didn’t have to decide.

I had only one project — the final edits for a book about a Brazilian women’s movement I had been writing with my father for years. The women who founded the movement had watched their parents work side-by-side on small farms, knowing that only men had the right to retirement benefits down the line. They wanted a future in which women didn’t do all the housework and men didn’t make all the decisions. It takes guts to try to change your family, especially when it’s 1986 and your country was ruled by a dictatorship until last year, when your father thinks a women’s movement is useless, and you’re 17.

The founders of the Movement of Rural Women Workers refused to mirror their mothers’ silence. They wanted women to stand on equal footing in public and at home. Two decades later, in one of those crazy moves that only makes sense in hindsight once it works, my dad and I decided to research the movement as a team.

Porto Alegre became an in-between place for me. During high school and college, it was the city where the plane landed when Dad and I took research trips to Ibiraiaras, where the movement began. It was the place where we rented and returned cars — the place before the places that seemed important, before the small towns and farms and kitchen tables where I learned that interviews and conversations aren’t so different after all.

But the feeling I’ve had only rarely, that I might wake up one day and find I feel at home, comes as much from the way I treat the city as from what I find there.

Six months after I graduated from Yale, we returned to Ibiraiaras to fact-check our almost-finished book, and then I stayed in Porto Alegre on my own. For the first time, I lingered in-between. I spent days revising sentences I’d written in high school, rewritten in college, and still hadn’t nailed. I realized I’d forgotten to describe how Gessi Bonés looks, though she is the movement leader I know best, the one who stared down policemen when she was my age and now runs the health department in her town. I tried to find words for her comfort with people and the fall of her hair. I reread the transcript of an interview in which we asked Gessi about her decision to move from full-time activist to government employee in 2001. The opportunity reflected a moment of political opening across Brazil, and the offer to run the health department caught her off guard. Fifteen years spent protesting outside city hall hadn’t prepared her to be invited inside.

I saw that Gessi, too, had felt unsure. She didn’t know where her energy was most needed. She didn’t know where she most wanted to be. Even after she had opened a 24-hour emergency room, trained a team of community health workers, and organized buses to bring doctors to the most rural parts of town, Gessi wondered if her younger self would have been disappointed, or if the passion she brought to her new job and its possibilities would have made the 17-year-old who started a women’s movement proud.

From the distance of my Porto Alegre days, I lingered on a question: How had my conversations with Gessi changed me? Until then I had answered by saying, it doesn’t matter; this book is about other people.

I stayed with two close family friends whose days seemed packed to me, though they spent no less time at home than I would in my life in the States. I wondered if my constant presence bothered them, or if they wondered why I didn’t go out and make friends. I have friends, I wanted to say. I’m not like this all the time. Instead, over tea two weeks before I planned to move to Argentina, I told my host that this quietness surprised me, and I liked it and wasn’t sure I wanted to leave.

“You’re seeing that you can make your world a little smaller when you want to,” Olga said. “That it doesn’t always have to be so big.” Then she suggested I stay another month, and I agreed.

People talk about cities that feel like home, or cities in which they’ll never feel comfortable, as if it’s the city that makes that feeling possible. I get it. I remember João Pessoa, the city where, at 18, I first lived on my own. The routes I traveled with my sister. Santiago, where I dreamed in another language. A whirlwind reporting trip to New Delhi with friends. The street in Valparaiso that cradles my favorite café in the world. But the feeling I’ve had only rarely, that I might wake up one day and find I feel at home, comes as much from the way I treat the city as from what I find there.

The harder I try to get to know a place, the more I feel as if my place there is temporary. My self-enforced rules of travel were familiar by the time I landed in Porto Alegre: No staying in weekend evenings. Say yes to any invitation, so long as it doesn’t involve sketchy guys and cars. Find your way off touristy roads. Ask questions. See every conversation as an opportunity to learn. Time not out and about is wasted.

So my affair with predictability caught me off guard. I loved not making plans or packing my bag for the day, starting work before I was fully awake and knowing tomorrow had space for whatever I didn’t finish today. Losing myself in a paragraph and staying lost, even when it got dark. Deciding to go swimming at night. The pool was open until 10. I knew that, though I didn’t know the hours of any restaurant in town.

The cities I fall in love with are not necessarily the most exciting — in fact, they rarely are — or the ones I leave with the best stories. They’re sometimes the ones where I am the most boring, where I make the smallest mark, and where there are a few streets I know well, a mango stand on the corner, a living room where the curtains cast the same shadows each day at sunset. As the end of my second month in Porto Alegre neared, I didn’t approach Olga for an invitation to stay. I moved to Buenos Aires, where I was ready to be a foreigner again for a while. This article originally appeared on Guernica and was republished here with permission.

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