They are Ponta Delgada to Me

All my trips to São Miguel include several days in Ponta Delgada. It’s not only the city where I was born and lived in for the first nine years of my life; it’s been a place to reconnect or get acquainted with family and friends on my mother’s side.

I still remember the long list of names she gave me the first time I went back for a visit. That was in 1984. Although she was not the one going back, the thought of me visiting her friends and family brought her happiness by proxy: her son, seeing all the people she missed and had not seen since she immigrated to Canada in 1968.

I was still a shy, young man at twenty-six, that first year back, but I made the effort to connect with everyone on her list. They all remembered me and my parents and I would sit in someone’s kitchen or living room for a while and listen to their stories or their reminiscence of those good old days when my family was living on the island and their lives intersected. “When will your parents come back to see us?” they would ask, and later, after my father had died, “When will your mother come visit?”

I didn’t visit the Azores again until the year 2000, and the people I had met before were now much older or, in some cases, already dead. During the last twenty years I have returned often, each time with a smaller list of names, but I always look forward to planning my Ponta Delgada days around these social visits. Without them, I would be simply a tourist walking around the old streets taking photographs of buildings and houses, including the house I grew up in which my parents sold. I never had the courage to knock on the door and ask the new owners if they’d let me have a look inside, for old times’ sake. Perhaps it’s been best this way, to let my memories of the house remain intact.

But it’s been a gift to be able to step inside the houses of these old relatives and friends and for a while feel like I am one of them again and not the outsider that I really am, coming all the way from Canada.

The list of people include mostly women. Beautiful women who are excited to see me, who wait in expectation of my punctual visit, for my mother got into the habit of calling them ahead and booking my timed visits. When I am in Ponta Delgada, I just show up at the agreed upon time. This schedule of visitations means that I have less time to explore the city on my own, but a stay in the city without these human connections would only be a cold and impersonal touristic experience.

The women smile for my camera as I always take a photograph of each one, “Uma lembrança para a minha mãe,” a souvenir for my mother, I tell them, but in reality, I take their picture for me, for my own remembrance of them.  It’s now close to four years since my last trip to the Azores and I hope that I will have another chance to see the same women before they’re eventually gone. But, if I am not given this chance, I will be content with my memory of people who always greeted me with a warmth and love I have rarely experienced elsewhere.

They are Ponta Delgada to me. The city’s cobblestone streets, the architecture, the churches, the market, the gardens, everything, will be nothing more than a geographical space of interest to me and no longer a living memory without the delight of hearing “Olá, querido Emanuel!” as a door opens and I am greeted with a smiling face and extended arms.

These are photos taken during my 1984 visit of people who, with the exception of two, are now gone but who I still remember fondly.

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Achada on My Mind

It’s been four years since the last time I stood with the Atlantic on one side of me and Azorean earth on the other but the smile of contentment still lingers. 

I have stayed in Achada several times over the last two decades. Lately, my memory takes me back to this village in the district of Nordeste on the island of São Miguel at a time when travel has become complicated.

My father and his family were born and made their lives there until they moved to the city of Ponta Delgada for a while before later leaving for Canada. But there are still primas and primos who live in the village, some who had immigrated to Canada and then returned, and others who have never left the island.

My first few visits to Achada elicited an overwhelming emotional longing for a connection with my family’s past as I walked the streets and meandered down from the cliffs above to the beach coves below. I have explored the village and its surrounding countryside until its geography has become so familiar that I can anticipate what there is to see around the bend of a winding road.  Eventually, by the last couple of visits, it has felt like a coming home.

Strange that I would feel this way about a place that I had limited contact with as a child.  I was born in Ponta Delgada, a city that was more than a two-hour car ride in the days before the new highway opened around ten years ago. It’s now a thirty-to-forty minute drive into the city, which means that it’s possible to go down to see a movie or go shopping, attend a festa, and return to Achada without having to go in and out of the villages along the way.

My childhood visits to Achada stopped when my father came to Canada. But I know that I was coroado, crowned during the Festas do Espirito Santo when I was five years old.  I have a photograph to prove it. Here I am, standing on my grandparents’ front door, my grandmother behind me and a small cousin next to me as I held the crown on my head, looking so worried, perhaps afraid that I might drop it.

I can honestly say that I remember little about those early years of childhood when my father, who already had a car, would drive us for weekend visits. Whatever knowledge I have is mostly informed by stories my mother tells me about the picnics we had in the shelter of a quinta full of fruit trees and grapevines, of the murmúrio do mar – the hush lullaby sound of the ocean waves, as I slept next to my parents while they sat on a blanket under a breeze-whispering tree.

The Achada I have come to love is more than a place of remote family history; it’s a place of continued living experience where I stay in my grandparents’ house and sit by a loft window to watch the waves in the distance between house and ocean, the green undulating landscape, the few cows in pastures before me, and the sound of people on the street as they go about their lives.

A direct flight from Toronto to São Miguel takes me back to be with people who I’ve come to know over time. They are generous with me. They feed me. They take me on trips throughout the island. With them I can speak Portuguese without the cumbersome intervention of translation, which would feel like a pull back to my English-speaking life. So, when I am there, I can immerse myself in whatever ‘Portuguesness’ I still have left in me after a lifetime of living in Canada.

My other cherished moments are when I am on my own for hours on end, walking the trails and the village streets, sitting by the ocean, and generally taking in the feel and life there. But it’s the people, above all, who give me a sense of home in Achada.

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Tia Catarina on Gávea-Brown

I wrote a non-fiction essay which, to my delight, has been included for publication in the latest online issue of Gávea-Brown: A Bilingual Journal of Portuguese-American Letters and Studies.

“I waited alone in the small room that promised the comfort one might expect from someone’s living room. There were a few bookshelves crammed with paperbacks frayed at the edges, perhaps left behind to be read over and over by strangers who maybe just found it helpful to flip through the pages while their minds worried over the reasons that had brought them there to wait. I sat on a sagging yet strangely comfortable sofa, looked out the window onto a barren winter garden, and for a moment tricked myself into believing I was still at home on that dull Sunday morning.”

I hope you enjoy reading the text in full: Tia Catarina

Many thanks and gratitude to the editorial committee of Gávea-Brown for giving my short memoir story a home in their 44th issue.

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Hendrie Valley: An Autumn’s Day Walk

The day I went to Hendrie Valley was the first time in eighteen months that I had taken public transit! I had hesitated to use buses and the subway during the pandemic and, although the virus is still with us, I am slowly returning to my former ways of living in the world beyond the inclausura of home.

Hendrie Valley, situated across from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, is a place I had never been to before but it was well worth the long trip from Toronto by GO train followed by a bus that took my friend and me near the entrance of the nature trail. There we walked along boardwalks and lookouts with beautiful views of marshes and deciduous forest.

It was a day well spent in the good company of both a friend and nature.

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The Last Days of October at Rosetta McClain Gardens

A Golden falling at Rosetta Gardens

The month of October at Rosetta McClain is a time to put everything to rest for the winter months ahead.  The garden’s staff empty flower beds, pots and other containers of summer plants while nature does its part by changing the colours of leaves on trees to an assorted shade of reds and yellows. Some trees shed their leaves fast, covering the ground with a carpet of golden yellow while others hang on a bit longer until the cold days arrive. It’s still pleasant to walk through the garden and see all these changes and be grateful for the lingering memory of the summer and autumn of 2021.

Until next spring…

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Rouge National Urban Park

Although not as showy as the vibrant colours of our usual autumns, I do like the soft, demurred shades of reds and yellows splashed throughout the forest of the Vista Rouge Trail, one of the eight trails that make up the Rouge National Urban Park.

It always amazes me to see how much nature co-exists within the city of Toronto in a seamless geography of concrete and green.

Here are some photos of a pleasant day’s walk.

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Doris McCarthy Trail in October

It’s mid-October and the colours of autumn in Toronto are taking their time in reaching a full show of yellows and reds, although some have already made their presence on trees. A visit to the Doris McCarthy Trail starts with a descent along a path through a beautiful forest with a brook below, the sound of running water a soothing soundtrack to accompany your walk until you arrive at the bottom of the trail. There you are greeted by the expanse of Lake Ontario. You can then walk for a long time and enjoy the sight of the lake on one side and the beauty of trees and sumac already turned red on the other. These are photos from a recent visit.


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Tommy Thompson Park

Tommy Thompson Park is a great place for walks and cycling along 10 kilometers of nature paths with wonderful views of Toronto’s cityscape. It’s also the home of remnants of demolition materials turned haphazardly into art along the shore of Lake Ontario.

Thousands of people visit the park on weekends during the summer months but it’s also a wonderful place to visit during the fall when it’s less crowded. Regardless of the time you go, you have the pleasure of being away from the city but also the comfort of knowing that it’s still nearby.

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The Promise of a Sunrise

Sunrise over Lake Ontario from another August in Toronto

Every sunrise assures us of a new day coming and that the world is alright despite our human folly.

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Rosetta McClain Gardens: Summer Flowers

August in Rosetta McClain is a time to appreciate the array of colours found in its many flowers and plant life. People visit the garden for various reasons but mostly to photograph it, to read in a quiet spot, to sit in contemplation and even paint. Since the pandemic, there have been intimate family picnics which are, technically, not allowed, but they happen anyway, because there’s no better place than a garden for people to gather and be with one another. It’s good to hear the laughter of children and the relaxed look on people’s faces as they explore the garden, leaving behind the worries of the world.

Flowers have always been an important part of my emotional landscape. I grew up with them, not only in the house, where we kept flower pots of geraniums and coleus but also out in the garden. In public spaces on the Azores, flowers abounded, too. Flowers could be found in churches decorating the altars of the saints or on the procession routes throughout the city on the many feast days that brought the holy statues out of their churches and onto the streets of Ponta Delgada.

The religious use of flowers was not restricted to public display but was intimately a part of family life. In my parents’ and grandparents’ bedrooms, on top of their dressers would be a religious statue surrounded by fresh flowers.  Their scent is still with me, and when I survey the beauty of the garden I have the privilege of walking in every day, I am reminded of the place of flowers in my memory of home.

A display of flowers in honour of Senhor Santo Cristo in the 1940s or early 1950s, from my family’s photo collection. Ponta Delgada, Azores.

We would gather to pray the rosary in front of Our Lady of Fatima. Photo from May, 1969, Toronto, Canada.

And now, back to photos of Rosetta Gardens, the place that conjures up memories of my past.

Photographing the garden

Reading in the garden

Blending in with the garden. Can you spot the person amongst the flowers?

Painting the garden

May the path take you on your own discovery of the garden

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