In an age of globalization and ever-expanded connectivity with our world, I search for a way back to a singular place, a single point in time where I might connect with my deepest experience of change and loss: the moment of leaving my island home of São Miguel in the Azores.
This happened a lifetime ago, after my father, who had already immigrated to Canada two years prior, came back to get my mother and me. My parents’ failure to prepare me for the act of leaving for a foreign country scarred me forever. The move shattered my magical world, lived in a pre-modern mid-Atlantic insular island in the late 1960’s. This act of uprooting drove a wedge between me and my father. It was only many years later that I made my peace with him; something I’m relieved I did, because when he passed away, I had no remorso, as the Portuguese say; no remorse over how I had treated him in those long-ago years of adolescence.
The experience of coming to a new country where the English language dominated, and where I have lived most of my life, has shaped how I see the world. I still feel the blue-grey ocean with its saltiness on my lips as much as the taste of snow on my tongue, which I found magical when I arrived in Canada. And it’s been the snow of Toronto winters, and not the wildness of the Atlantic waves that has been a constant in my life, not just in memory. As much as snow, beautiful, tranquil, silent, has been a comforting presence in my life, the deep mystery of the eternal ocean still keeps running through my veins, aligning my heartbeat to the rhythm of the tide coming in and going out. My longing has always been to find a way to mix the snow of Canada with the great ocean surrounding the Azores.
Sometimes I stare at the computer as I look for something that I ultimately can’t find through a Google search. It’s not there. And then I feel disappointed because the internet is not as wide as it claims to be. What is it that I want it to show me? I long to find what I hope will be there – a link to my past. My intuition knows that this is unrealistic, yet I stubbornly type in a few words that don’t, in the end, reveal anything.
And so, from time to time, I travel to places that, although so different, somehow evoke for me the geography or feeling of my island home. One year I found it in the Algarve (from the Arabic Al-Gharb, meaning The West), the most south western part of Portugal. As my partner drove west from Faro airport towards our hotel, I was quite taken by the closeness of the ocean to the little towns along the way, all with white painted houses with blue trim and decorative Arab-influenced chimneys. There were also beautiful orange groves everywhere as well as almond trees.
We stayed in Praia da Rocha, near Portimão. Luckily, in March, it wasn’t so full of tourists. Waiters and shopkeepers warned us never to go there in July and August when the hordes descend on the beautiful sandy beaches. The Portuguese only go to the Algarve in the summer; but the Germans and the British go all year round. There is little of historical interest in Praia da Rocha, not even one old church to visit, only a closed little chapel in the old fort at Miradouro de Santa Catarina, with a magnificent view of the ocean. It’s a seaside town full of hotels and restaurants and gift shops. More like Niagara Falls or Quebec City. Yet the ocean views, the long and wide sandy beaches, the massive rock formations along the shores delighted my soul and somehow connected me to my memories of the Azores. From our hotel balcony I could see the immensity of the ocean in front of me, and from my bed at night I could hear the enormous sound of the waves coming in through the open window and overpowering all other sound. I took walks along the beach where I breathed in the sea air, took in the colour of the sky at sunset, and felt comfort in being so close to the edge of the immense Atlantic Ocean.
Sunset at Praia da Rocha
We explored many other towns, both along the coast and inland: Cabo de São Vincente and Sagres, at the most western tip, famous for its association with Portugal’s golden age of navigation; Lagos, a quaint old town with a large square carpeted with intricate black and white cobblestoned designs and people sitting in outdoor cafes having lively conversations; Silves, a bit to the north with an interesting old cathedral and fort high up on a hill; the Monchique Mountains, one of the highest mountain ranges in Portugal, arrived at by a narrow old winding highway to breathtaking views; Almancil, where you can visit one of the most precious architectural gems of Portugal, the church of São Lourenço, with its interior completely covered with blue and white azulejos, survived from the 1755 earthquake.
Cabo de São Vincente
Fortaleza de Sagres
Almancil, Church of São Lourenço
We visited Faro, the capital of the Algarve, on a quiet Sunday morning. It was half-abandoned, half-lived-in, and I saw the ghost of Miss Havisham there: lingering and holding on to the past with little life left, a ruin trying to fit in with modernity.
There were so many old houses locked up and in various stages of decay, abandoned by their owners, who probably would never return. And so, with time, the roofs cave in, the colour on the walls fade with the rain and the wind, erasing all trace of their former life. There was one particularly beautiful, large abandoned house where I peeked in through a tiny slit in the old keyhole and saw what was once an elegant home; now achingly empty.
Out of nowhere, the sounds of an old Shirley Bassey tune played out of a hidden speaker attached to the top of one of these houses, her voice haunting and melancholic, strange to hear, so out of place, but in an attempt to, perhaps, deceive the casual passerby into believing that this old and empty street was very much of the here and now.
I went inside Faro cathedral. The squat tower, all that was left from the time of the destructive Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that reached all the way down the Algarvian coast.
As I stood in front of a gold-gilded altar covered with intricate splendour, I looked up to the face of a small statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, dressed in a purple gown with gold trim, a thick black wig covering her head. Below her, a bloody-crucifix that did not fear to show the baroque pain of her Son. I gazed into the pained face of the Virgin, and the little-boy spirit within me awakened and cried out with a longing for a way back to my childhood: the altars, the statues, the flower carpets that adorned the cobblestoned streets before a Sunday procession, the smell of incense mingled with that of the island’s salty air.
I know this is the language of “saudade” gone wrong. But it’s been my struggle; never quite feeling a sense of belonging anywhere and yet finding landscapes of connectivity, hoping to somehow integrate my Portuguese soul with my Canadian mind.
Travel for me is a way to explore and understand another piece of the puzzle of who I am. Each journey is unique, bringing me a bit closer to who I am. This is, I think, part of the immigrant’s struggle: to search for that illusive home that’s no longer what you experience in your mind but a moving and ever changing reality that you need to reconcile with. If you are an immigrant, and most of us in this wonderful city of Toronto are, you might sympathize with my meandering thoughts; if you aren’t, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. But the reality is that the immigrant is always in the act of immigrating – just at a different stage of arriving.
Written on April 21, 2006, on the one year anniversary of my father’s death, and revised for the 12th anniversary of his passing. If not for him, for his own journey of immigration to Canada, the richness that is my life today would have been severely diminished.
Originally published as “Searching for Identity in the Algarve” in “TWAS Review (Toronto Word Arts Scene), Volume 3, issue One, July 2006
I have been to the Algarve two times since, but will save my impressions of those visits to another time