The Anglo-Saxon-Canadians gave me the Algarve

Growing up Azorean-Canadian, mainland Portugal was foreign to me until my first visit several decades ago.

I did not go to the Algarve then. It was only when I met my partner that the Algarve became a place of destination one March Break. His aunt, who had been spending the winter months there with her husband, spoke so enthusiastically about its charms and beauty when she returned to Canada that we finally went to see it for ourselves.

And we liked the visit so much that we have been back twice already. On both return trips, his aunt, already there again before our arrival, played a major role in helping us discover new places to see and restaurants to eat in. She took delight in introducing us to her favourite haunts and beaches and, as always, she was surprised that I had no idea about the places she showed us.

“But your family is Portuguese,” she’d say to me in disbelief. It took time for her to accept that my Portuguese roots were Azorean and, as such, I had no special knowledge about the Algarve.

“In fact, you know more about the Algarve than I do,” I’d said to her. Yet, her eyes showed me that she didn’t quite believe me, but simply humoured me in my impression that I was more of a tourist in this land than she was.

One night she took us to a poetry reading. One of the poets read, “Nesta Hora, Agora, Nesta Hora,” a rhyming poem about time in the here and now. I had to translate the words for her, but that did not matter. She had taken pure delight in the sounds and cadence of the poem, and she luxuriated in the words without knowing their meaning but was thrilled, nonetheless, that I was there to share in the discovery.

The last time we went to the Algarve we visited Aunt Cathy and her husband Ron, and my partner’s mother with her husband. The four of them had rented a house in a very tiny seaside place called Burgau. It was through their eyes that I saw the Algarvian coast and towns. I walked everywhere with these fair-haired, fair-skinned people who had accepted me as one of their family members, and who took so much pleasure in assuring me how much they loved my culture.

I take delight in this humble truth: that it wasn’t “my people” but my partner’s family, who showed me and gave me a love for this part of Portugal that I had ignored on my own.

That last visit in the Algarve would later become more significant than I could have ever imagined, for it was the last time we were all there together.

A few years later, we lost my partner’s stepfather and his aunt to the wretched cancers that have taken so many others from our lives, including my father. That the three of them all went in different Aprils lends painful credence to T.S. Eliot’s classic line that “April is the cruellest month.”

And I must remember how warm and welcoming and loving these four Anglo-Canadians had all been towards my father. “Antonio, how are you, Antonio?” they would utter with genuine warmth in their anglicized pronunciations.

All this to say that there is no such thing as a monoculture in my private world. Regardless of my Portuguese connections, with family in both the mainland and the Azores, it was the Anglo-Saxon Canadians who gave me the Algarve.

In memory of

               Catherine Moore                                 Edward Wells

                                                            and

                                       Ron Moore, April 2017

                                                                       Almancil

                                                                        Alvor

                                                            Church near Estoi

                                                                  House near Estoi

                                                                          Estoi Palace

                                                                           Luz Church

                                                       Abandoned house near Luz

House near Monchique

Market in Vila Real de Santo Antonio

Vila Real de Santo Antonio

Vila Real de Santo Antonio

Burgau

Monte Clerico

Alvor

Praia do Mós

Praia do Mós

 

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Searching for home in the Algarve

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

Sagres

Lagos

Almancil, Church of São Lourenço

Silves

Faro

Faro

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.

Faro Cathedral

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

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The First Communion

The taxi had finally arrived. The driver watched Eulália Dias as she descended from her front porch one heavy step at a time. He got out of the cab to open the back door for her, smiled an apology for being late, and asked where she was headed.

“I go to St. Helen’s Church on Dundas, you know where it is? But I need to sit in the front seat because of my legs. Please, you have to hurry. I’m going to be late for my granddaughter’s First Communion.”

Read the full short story at Cleaver.

Read review by Susan Riggs

 

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Thread of Tenderness

drawing-by-jamey-mcdonaldDrawing by Jamey McDonald

Today marks my 49th anniversary of emigrating from the Azores to Canada. This past week I have spent time in Montreal, the first place I set foot on North American soil on a cold February day in 1968. The memory of this date came to me in the middle of doing an interview for a radio community program, Palavras Partilhadas, at Radio Centre-Ville 102.3 FM., on yet another February cold Montreal day.

I took delight in the significance of the coincidence of time and place, as I was in Montreal to attend the reception at the Centre d’histoire de Montréal for the new exhibit, Fil de tendresse/Fio de ternura/Thread of tenderness.

Joaquina Pires, the curator of the exhibit, explains how hearing a reading of my short story, Avó lives alone, inspired her to discover her community’s experience of grandparents-grandchildren. The result is a well thought-out, important document that, although rooted in Luso-Montreal families and their stories, speaks truthfully of the experiences of other communities. The themes of loneliness and isolation, inclusion and participation in family life, transcend specific cultural groups.

Regardless of the name given to our parents’ parents, avó, avô, abuela, abuelo, nonna, nonno, grand-mère, grand-père, grandma, grandpa, all cultures share one essential thing: no matter how small or tentative the connection and depending on health, ability, temperament, physical distance, among other factors that are usually beyond their control, most grandparents want to have a relationship with their grandchildren.

The exhibit invites us to pause and consider the value and place of grandparents in the lives of their grandchildren and to find ways to integrate them into the fabric of the family. Often, for shut-ins, living alone, a simple telephone call is enough to sustain them for days. These are threadbare relationships that are completely at the mercy of time-running-out, either because grandchildren grow up too fast or because grandparents almost always die first and, indeed, for most human-beings it is the loss of a grandparent which introduces them to grief.

The families who participated in the project through photographs, interviews, videos and texts, reveal a vast array of experiences, many of them positive and giving us reason to celebrate the fact that so many grandchildren value their grandparents and make them an integral part of their lives. The memory of a special relationship between grandparent and grandchild can live on forever. I have come across many young adults who tell me, often with a “thread of tenderness”, about the place their grandparents have in their lives; and how, when the grandparent is gone, they cling to the memory of a story told, or a simple embrace, a smile, or a kiss given, as threads that bind their memories forever. Indeed, a “thread of tenderness” as the title of this exhibit shows, is often all we have to cling to.

Photos of exhibit

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Crashing into waves of existence

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It seems to me that in our lives we only experience a few moments of clarity, lucid glimpses of events, emotions, and feelings that impregnate our consciousness and surface in-between moments of distraction or absentmindedness; when we are lost in a sunset, observing bright light dappling through foliage, walking in deep woods, or watching ocean waves galloping madly to shore. It is in these rare moments that we become fully alive and then, tired of the exhilaration of awareness, we collapse back into our dormant dreamlike state of existence.

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Christmas Mourning

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I came across this discarded tree with wreath on my walk the day after Christmas.

This year, we did not get a Christmas tree. In fact, last year we didn’t get one, either. But I do love a Christmas tree, a real tree. In years past, we normally get the tree on the first week of Advent and decorate it with ornaments collected over the years, so full of memories and meaning, each bringing back a moment of joy, and then we wait until the Feast of Kings before undressing the tree. I always feel saddened as we carry it out our front door into the cold, after so many weeks of receiving pleasure from the scent and presence of the Spruce next to the warmth and glow of the fireplace in our living room.

The day after Christmas, early in the morning, I went for a walk and was shocked to see our neighbour’s still healthy green tree already tossed out into the sidewalk. There was something sad and forlorn about it: Christmas cast away, ended, disposed of, no longer wanted or needed, after the stroke of midnight; the celebration over with one of its ubiquitous symbol thrown out in a hurry. But why the rush to get rid of it? On that same walk, I came across other trees that, equally loved until Christmas Night, were now lying naked, cut, abandoned, and already waiting for Pick-Up day. No doubt they will be shredded to provide good mulch for the soil, but the thought of these trees, grown explicitly for one night of glory, unsettles my conscious.

Perhaps I am too sensitive to the plight of Christmas trees, but maybe my unease comes from seeing something much deeper and disturbing about human behaviour: our ease and ability to proclaim undying love one day, to praise with a sense of wonder, and then to quickly cast off, or even destroy, the very person or thing we no longer need or want the next day because we are fickle and tire easily of sameness.

My mother tells me the story of an old neighbour, a Senhora Conceição, who in those old days, would knock at the door and remind my grandmother to save the Christmas tree trunk for her. “A vizinha há-de me dar o tronco.” She asked for the trunk so that she could make little vases out of the wood, which she would then paint and give to friends as decorations. It was a kind of artesanato, my mother reminds me – folk art. And I felt glad to know that my family’s Christmas tree had been, so long ago, transformed into something new, something of whimsical beauty to last beyond Christmas day. I admired Senhora Conceição, even though I don’t know who she was. If she was my neighbour, I would surely save my tree for her transformational magic.

I am thinking that maybe, despite my ecological leanings, I might just feel enough nostalgia next year to get another tree, but I know that I will never be able to toss it out unceremoniously, not without a feeling of regret that I am discarding something beautiful. Perhaps this is the lesson the Christmas tree exhorts me with: to hold on to the good things of life and the beauty therein, until the end, the very end.

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Visiting the Azores now

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I went to the Azores in late September for seventeen glorious days. As with all my previous visits, I go to the island of São Miguel. It’s not that I don’t want to see the other eight islands that make up this mid-Atlantic archipelago, it’s just that I still haven’t had enough of São Miguel to explore Pico, Corvo, São Jorge, Faial, Flores, Santa Maria, Graciosa, Terceira. One day I will, but for now I keep returning to my island, and especially to my city, Ponta Delgada.

I always start my visit with the city. It’s a duty and a sign of respect for the place where I was born. How could I arrive at the airport and just bypass it? Not with my history of leaving it as a child. The city would feel jilted, once again, and so I start there and stay for a respectable four or five days before moving on to the countryside.

Every time I go back, there is always the familiar waiting for me, but each time I also discover something new: a place, a different perspective, a revealed detail. These become part of my soul, my consciousness, and memory. Retracing my steps is my way of making up for those long years of absence. After immigrating to Canada, there were no further visits back. Leaving had been a permanent and final decision, one that had not been mine to make. Going back feels like a rekindling of that old strained relationship, a mending of a misunderstanding, a healing of a wound, and an awkward sense of wondering if the city and I can reconcile.

I’ve gone back several times over the last sixteen years, and each new visit brings me a little closer to a feeling of familiarity and belonging to the city of my childhood.  I’ve developed certain routines when I am there: where I stay, what I do, and who I visit. I am fortunate to have a long list of people to see, and they treat me with kindness and welcome me with open arms; the years of absence never an obstacle to a kiss on the cheek as if they see me always.

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There is only one place I will stay in Ponta Delgada, despite the sincere offer of relatives who would welcome me into their homes. At A Comercial, I am greeted by the staff like an old friend. My room is familiar and welcoming. O Torreão, the Tower Room, is on top of this charming two-story house, impeccably kept and infused with silence. My room has three windows, each providing distinct views. It has the best view of the church of São Sebastião and old terracotta roof tops, stretching out unto the doca and finally the ocean beyond it. I could not ask for better, nor is there better, in my opinion. It’s my home away from home and the owner and I have chats over a galão in the restaurant next door, where the best traditional meals are served cafeteria-style by a cheerful and hardworking group of beautiful women who indulge me by remembering my favourite dishes.

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I love this city, Ponta Delgada. When I leave my room each morning to go walking its streets, my past becomes alive. I still marvel at the beautiful churches, so many for such a small place, each worth a visit, each a part of my childhood. I admire the beautiful old houses with traditional trim in grey and windows with shutters and ironwork motifs.

But as much as I am taken by the charm of the city, with each new visit, I have started to see it less from the heart. All of a sudden, I am aware of the chinks on the walls. It’s like a love relationship that’s lasted beyond the romance stage. I now see a city that, in some ways, feels abandoned, let go to deterioration, desprezada.  The number of houses and buildings  still standing in various degrees of decay, often right next to very well kept houses, is painful to see. And each time I go back, even years later, the same houses are still there, just more neglected, more abandoned. There is a beauty, too, to these abandoned walls and broken windows, but a romantic take on decay can only go so far, and it would be wonderful to see these houses and buildings restored and lived in once more.

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“Houses are people, too. And they need people to live in them.”

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I see a city that is trying to adapt and change, to be modern. There are new hotels, slick and sophisticated, rising above the decrepitude and neglect around them. There is also some restoration work being done to old historical landmarks. For example, the Carlos Machado Museum. It had been closed for over ten years and I was lucky enough to be there for the much anticipated reopening this past September. It’s a beautiful treasure of a place, which includes the old convent church of Santo André, a church we used to go to for mass in the old days, now preserved as a museum space. I also visited the oldest Portuguese Jewish synagogue in the Azores, the Sahar Hassamain (Gates of Heaven), also newly restored and beautiful to see.The old Jesuit church of Todos os Santos was restored several years ago and houses precious art and artifacts worthy of the best churches in Europe.

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There is much to celebrate about Ponta Delgada. Its cultural heritage is quite impressive and unique for a remote city on an isolated island in the mid-Atlantic ocean. But I find walking its narrow cobblestone streets more annoying than pleasurable. I am always jostling to get by parked cars where many sidewalks are so narrow that only one person can walk, single file. These streets were built before the automobile and could have never anticipated the ugliness of today’s oversized cars. The wheels rumble noisily on the street where I stay, the sound is like thunder hitting the pavement.  The sound disappears at night when I sit by my window and listen to the church bells chime the hours. The church tower becomes lit up and I remember with joy that this is the church where I was baptised, had my first communion, and attended all the feasts.

It’s a gift to return often to my city of birth, and to watch it from the window of my room, after a day of wondering the streets and visiting those wonderful people who are still there, connecting me powerfully to my past.

On my last day in the city, I stop at the market, O Mercado da Graça, and drink a glass of freshly squeezed pineapple juice from an entrepreneurial young man who has found a delicious way to entice tourists. He transformed the old market concept into something new, at par with what I might find at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto.

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After drinking the locally grown sweet pineapple, there is nothing left for me to do but head back to my room to pack and head out to the next part of my the journey, to the sossego do campo, the quiet of the countryside and the ocean, where I walk along black sandy beaches or sit on rocks, and gaze out into the infinite distance, comforted to know that my life in Toronto, a five hour flight away, is there on the other side of the ocean waiting for me.

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For more images of S. Miguel, scroll down past Toronto pictures on my Photos page.

Also on Comunidades Blog.

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