Intimate Migrations: My Story

Almost a year has passed since I had the idea of sharing our stories with one another here. I feel fortunate to have received responses that resonated with me, and touched by these tellings held open like hands. But I also got the notion that it might be more complicated to tell (y)our stories – sometimes they emerge easier in face-to-face conversations; or require some preparation, coaxing and reflection, before they can be told. And I’ve been wondering about that: about what it means to tell one’s stories – to whom, for whom and how does one tell the story of a migration, which itself shifts and moves and gets stuck between borders. And so, in an attempt to answer these questions, I’ve decided to answer my questions too, to finally show and tell myself.

Could you describe where you are at this very moment?

I am in a coffeeshop, in downtown Porto, not the average cafe around here – one with brown tables and chairs and a touch of vintage, one with stories in its walls…one that could be described as ‘writerly’. Outside there’s the darkening threat of rain and grey city noise; inside transporting music and, after the lunch-time crowd, strangely, only one person per table, also writing or reading, so that each time I look up from the screen, there’s the chance of a mirrored glance. I am sitting by the window. There are conditions for writing, in short. But my words also tend to look away self-consciously: mirrors are awkward; and windows a way out.

Tell us about your journey (this particular ‘intimate migration’)?

Where do I begin? A chance encounter in Berlin, the urge to run, and then falling – in love; suddenly the other side of the world capsizing mine; always elsewhere, my heart walking two places at once, all the time, hemisphered – no-one wants to be half-hearted, and so a leap of faith to the other side of the world. My heart beats in two places at once; sometimes I’m not sure which is the true pulse, and which the echo. At first my heart beats in Afrikaans (doef-doef is the sound it makes), but gradually this sound becomes hushed, and my heart starts to murmur (shh-shh is the sound it makes in Portuguese). I arrive and arrive and arrive. I prepare to leave. I stay in-between. My heart follows me.

What would you say were/are the challenges you face(d)?

I did not expect to feel so lost, that elsewhere would actually be such an other place. I suppose this has a lot to do with the difficulty of learning Portuguese. But also, there was the (in retrospect, perhaps misguided) effort to somehow immediately replicate the life I had in South Africa – to people my life with friends who would recognize me; to do what I did professionally… It took a while to acknowledge the loss, to accept that ‘I’ would have to start over. I think for the first year or so I spent most of my days walking and listening. I was becoming a shadow of my former self, trying to shadow who I was to become.

One of the greatest challenges is still being far away from my family – missing births and birthdays and sad days and just days and days… It took forever to acquire a residence permit – in the meantime (and time can be mean) I could not travel beyond the borders of Portugal without risking not being able to return. It’s challenging, not to dread the point of no return, living (for) until.

And then there is the seemingly endless battle of changing my “work status” from precarious to financially secure: a luta continua!

How have things changed for you (if at all) during this process?

There are no clear ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures (not while it is ‘not yet’ and ‘still’). I have cut my hair shorter and shorter while dreaming of that girl who had long hair once-upon-a-time. I am now letting my hair grow long again. We have moved twice (within the city) since I’ve moved here, and each time I’ve tried to make it home (I always try to make it home) {long pause at the realization of a Freudian slip – my thoughts are getting restless}

and I’ve made a home and friends and I live here now. For now I live here.


What surprised you (about this move; about where you are now)?

I was and am surprised at myself. These days, what I can and can not do could be anybody’s guess, including my own (can I say that?). It is mind-boggling at times – I can and I can’t speak Portuguese, for example. And sometimes I can’t believe that I have been living in another country for almost seven years. And just yesterday, I discovered to my surprise, that traditional Alentejo singing sounds remarkably similar to the folksongs performed by Cape-Malay Minstrels. And that I can still be genuinely and ridiculously wide-eyed.

What do you miss about you life from where you lived before?

I miss the aliveness of colours and the size of the sky; I miss long summers; I miss hundreds and thousands of good old beautiful words in Afrikaans; I miss looking into my nieces’ eyes, and my nephews’ smiles; I miss my mother’s cooking (it’s a cliche and inevitable); I miss standing shoulder-to-shoulder with my two sisters; I miss chips and wine and cups of tea and (bottomless!) coffee-in-a-plunger with my closest friends; (I never thought I would say it, yeah yeah, but) I miss having an office (in more ways than one); I miss the way women laugh in South Africa; I miss recognizing accents; I miss witty banter (with me, wittily bantering, because I can [speak the language]); I miss a certain sense of security (in/of myself); and other nameless blue things.


And what can you be/do where you live now that you couldn’t before?

I can dance, or it is assumed that I can dance.

I can be African, without (too much) question.

I can safely take public transport.

I can travel to Spain in less than two hours!

I have kind of become a kind of performance artist/activist.

I have finely honed my non-verbal skills.

I can almost identify regional accents (well, I can at least distinguish them).

I can have olives, olive oil, shellfish, coffee, wine and chocolate, even when practically broke.

I can have a conversation in Portuguese, even if a bit broken, and I can read Portuguese subtitles and… the local newspaper (even if a bit broken).

I can live in the same country as my husband (for the next ten years…more, if I get a Portuguese passport).

I could get a Portuguese (European!) passport.

I have so many stories to tell.

A question you would like to ask other ‘intimate migrants’?

What would help you to tell your story?

with love,