We meet Heather Courtney for a People of Lisbon video and photo shoot high up in a part of Graca we are not quite so familiar with. The sun is beating down hard on this particular day, and by the time we climb the hills lugging our cameras we are sweltering and just a little dishevelled.
Unlike us, Heather looks the part when we meet – in her designer shades and with her braids. “All black girls get their hair braided when they are about to go on holiday,” Heather tells us, excited to be going on holiday the very next day. “London and then Croatia,” she says. Very nice.
Heather is from the US. “I’m from a place called Trenton, New Jersey. It’s a dangerous place. It’s the hood.” We ask Heather to explain what ‘the hood’ is. We have ideas, but we can’t be sure. “Oh my goodness. The hood is a place where crime rates are up and education is low.” Ok, that’s what we thought it might be. “Trenton makes , the world takes,” says Heather of her hometown.
For some reason we suspected that Heather is married, and so we ask her where her husband is. “No No No. I am very much single. I’m advertising it to the world. I’m single and ready to mingle.”
Heather came to Lisbon because her teenage daughter had a wish to be educated in Europe. But before they arrived in Lisbon, Heather lived all over. “I lived in Japan, I lived in Mexico and now I’m living in Portugal.”
Heather seems young to have been so well travelled.
“I was in the US Navy and was deployed a lot. I did 8 years and 1 day in the military to be precise.” We are surprised to learn this information. What did she do in the military? “A lot of people may not agree with what I did in the Navy, but I used to build bombs. I did missile testing, built quick strike mines, built rockets…” Heather goes on to list the types of bombs she built. You need to pick our jaws off the floor.
How do you build a bomb? we ask cheekily. “It’s classified,” she responds astutely. “No, no. They come in pieces. You just put them together.” Like a giant Kinder Egg we suggest. “Exactly.”
Heather is clearly a tough cookie – and it seems life in the military did not phase her. If anything it made her stronger. “You had to stand your ground against men but I developed other life skills too like dealing with different personalities, patience and being able to sleep anywhere.”
In Lisbon Heather stays very busy. She co runs a group called Black in Portugal. “It’s run by all women, and we bridge the gap between black expats and the local Portuguese community.” She also co curates events under the name Kosmic Experience (Kosmic Vision), “we put on music events with local DJ’s with a lot of Afro Beats, Amapiano and Afro tech sounds,” and as if that’s not enough “oh and I’m a full time mom, so I have three jobs.”
But this doesn’t tell the full story. We learn that Heather is actually fully retired and has been since the age of 29. “In the military I had a vaccine injury. In the military you have to get lots of vaccines. One affected me very badly. Because of my injuries I can’t maintain a full time job. Because of this the military retired me and support me to live.”
We ask Heather how she felt about the Covid vaccine considering her previous harrowing experience with vaccines. “I was against it for the longest time. I was afraid that it would make me more sick. I’m not anti-vax, but I am very cautious.” That seems fair.
We should say that Heather was in flying form when we met her, and we doubt anyone would pick up on her ‘injuries – in-fact she seemed to become more and more fun as our time went on together. As we walk through Graca she points to a building “on the side of that building it says ‘sex toy days.” That gives her a laugh. “Everyone has sex toys right?”
We say nothing, wandering on, now dizzy in the Lisbon heat. It’s then, like a magic trick that Heather produces a fan to stay cool. We are jealous.
Despite all she’s been through, all she’s done and all she does, Heathers teenage daughter McKenzie is clearly the most important part of her life. McKenzie is mentioned often in our chat. “ She’s the reason I joined the military. It was a paycheck to support me and my daughter.” And as we said before, her daughter is the reason Heather came to Lisbon. “She loves Lisbon. She has fit in so well. She has learned more Portuguese than me.”
Heather admits her relationship with her daughter has evolved. “Some mothers and daughters are rivals. We are too. But I have learned to let her express herself freely. When I was raised it wasn’t like that. It was very much that children should be seen and not heard. So by giving her the opportunity to voice her opinions and how she feels has definitely helped our relationship.”
For Heather life is journey. For us, we are simply ready to journey home.