Rosetta McClain Gardens Remembers…

On one of my meandering walks through Rosetta McClain Gardens I came upon a bench where someone had left a pair of shoes neatly placed on the ground in front of it. The composition was too good to miss and so I photographed it.  The idea of an invisible person sitting on that bench where only her shoes were visible made me wonder who she was. Perhaps she was some carefree soul who decided to go walking barefoot or even someone who was taken away by the rapture.

It made me think of all the other souls who linger in the confines of this garden filled with old trees and flower beds. I know that they do. There are reminders of people everywhere etched throughout the garden by markers and plaques at the foot of trees and on benches.  Some have faded over time but many of them are recent. They are symbols put there by people who continue to honour a loved one who had some connection with the garden. People who probably loved coming to it as much as I do.

The garden is many things for those who come to spend time there. Depending on the time of day I see solitary people doing Tai Chi in the morning, while others stroll through flower beds, or jog along the winding paths; others photograph flowers or bird watch; a few come to paint or read; many just stare out into the lake; and some sit and do nothing but just be.  One day, I saw a woman drumming in front of an oak tree and it felt reverential and sacred.  On another occasion, I witnessed a congregation gathered around the stone water fall to celebrate a marriage between two men.  On summer evenings, the garden is crowed with families and groups of friends who come for a stroll. Children’s laughter breaks the silence when they spot a raccoon family on parade. There are smiles and relaxed faces mingling with the trees and the flowers. The gift of Rosetta to those who choose to enter this space is joyfulness and peace and tranquility and a connection to life.

So it’s indeed fitting that many people put up plaques of remembrance of a loved one or to mark a special occasion but I had not really paid much attention to them until I saw those black shoes with their missing owner. I walked around and was amazed by the beautiful words of remembrance scattered throughout the gardens.  Some have simple sayings:

Others reveal more fully something about the person remembered:

I was glad to see that Proud Canadians come from all ethnicities:

I remember this wonderful gentle man who I’d see every weekend surrounded by other bird watchers. He always said hello:

Sometimes the living are also remembered to commemorate a special moment:

A few are surrounded by extra beauty:

And some aim for poetry:

A few speak directly to the loved one in tender words understood only between them:

And then, amongst this array of ethnicity, a name that I am sure belonged to someone of Portuguese descent: Ferreira. My maternal grandmother’s surname was also Ferreira, and as delighted I was in knowing that someone with that same name already had a place in this garden, I could not help but feel sad when I saw how young this person had died.

One day, when I am no longer here to walk these gardens, I wish that someone who loves me will also add a plaque to my memory. I hope it will be placed closer to the edge of the garden where it meets the Bluffs and the view of the vast Lake Ontario where I always stop along my walks to gaze out into its almost oceanic size. It is while I stand there that I see what lies beyond: my other love, the Atlantic Ocean, and the view almost takes me back to the shores where I began.

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Trampled by faith

Very early in the morning of the fifth Sunday after every Easter, people come together to create the long, beautiful flower carpets that are spread throughout the city streets of Ponta Delgada in anticipation of the afternoon procession of O Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres, the Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles.

Trucks and vans drop off burlap sacks full of flowers, leaves, and sawdust, as well as wooden forms with intricate, geometrical designs that will be laid down in the middle of the cobblestone streets, then filled with the fresh flower petals and variously coloured paper-thin wood chips and sawdust dyed in pink and yellow and blue. Incenso [sweet pittosporum] and criptoméria [Japanese cedar] evergreen leaves are used to trim the long thin borders of these flower carpets. By mid-morning the city streets are fully decorated and no one would dare trod on the flower carpets out of respect for the Christ who will pass by later on, enthroned and transported in his majestic and colourful andor.

The procession leaves the Convento da Esperança church across from Campo de São Francisco square around three-thirty in the afternoon and takes just over three hours to view from start to finish. However, the procession doesn’t completely end until ten-thirty at night, when the last of the filarmónica marching bands reach the church again after the long circular walk from one end of the city to the other and back.

Thousands of people line the streets to watch thousands more people who walk in this procession of faith. And along the route are those beautifully decorated flower carpets in the middle of the streets guiding the path of the procession from start to finish.

Wherever you wait to see the solemn procession pass, you know it’s coming when, still in the distance, you spot the guião, the large red banner carried by the head of the procession; and then you enter a sacred time and you will stay still until it’s over. Behind the banner follow so many hundreds of men of all ages and backgrounds that they have to be organized in doubles for each row; otherwise, the procession would take even longer. They all wear a red “opa”, and many carry a rosary, but none of them will dare step on the flower carpets.


After more than an hour of men filing by, interspersed by brass bands representing every town and village on the island, a host of angels appears: young girls with white feathered wings who are allowed to walk on the flowers with their light angel feet without disturbing the shape of the flower designs.


It’s an orderly procession of faith, meticulously organized and consciously orchestrated, with everyone walking in solemn quiet dignity, and all aware of the flower carpets they must avoid disturbing. Sometimes marchers will touch the edge distractedly, only to catch themselves doing so and quickly remove the offending foot back into the designated cobblestone.

Then the moment the viewer has been eagerly waiting for finally arrives: the Christ approaching. The clergy surround the statue of the Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles, carried by men whose honour it is to bear its weight enthroned inside a canopy decorated with an extraordinary colourful array of fresh flowers. People watching the procession don’t talk when the statue goes by. They will bless themselves with the sign of the cross, their lips quivering in prayer as they gaze at the face of the merciful Christ — and they will often, especially if an immigrant has returned home for the feast, shed a few tears. All the while, from the balconies above draped with colchas (bedspreads), people extend their arms gently down to throw rose petals with the hope that before fluttering to the ground they will touch their beloved Senhor Santo Cristo like a blown kiss.

Once the statue has passed by, in case you thought the climax of the procession was over, you are amazed to see a sudden outpouring of thousands of people who fill the street from side to side with no room for anyone to squeeze by. They follow behind the Christ to fulfill a “promessa,” and all that deliberate order and avoidance of disturbing the flower carpets is forgotten. It’s even unseen, hidden by this predominantly female ocean, although in recent times a few men walk with them either as a sign of solidarity or because the division of the sexes is not as strict as in the old days when only women would comprise this part of the procession.

The devout followers fill the streets with their faith and utter silence, and as they walk by you can hear only the shuffling of their feet. Most still dress in traditional black but without their heads and faces covered by the black lace mantilhas worn decades ago; sunglasses seem to be the new sign of modesty and respeito. They are young and middle aged and old; they represent all the women and men who carry with them the burden of pain, psychological or physical: an incurable illness, a spouse who abuses, a child who is a drug addict, an alcoholic parent, an estranged family member — everything you can imagine that ails the human soul is carried in the hearts of this multitude who gather either to thank their Christ for miracles that occurred or to beg for one. Some carry large heavy círios (candles) in gratitude for cures or thankfulness for some burden lifted from their hearts by the miraculous Christ. They all made a “promessa,” a promise that they would march behind the Christ in exchange for his gift of grace and courage to help them carry on with the burdens of their lives.

I was moved to my core and felt something akin to an electrical current going through my body as thousands upon thousands of people walked past me in their solidarity, and yet at the same time in quiet solitude. No one spoke of their ills, no one cried out their pain. They simply walked by in silence with such beautiful strength and determination in their faces, raw and real. They are strong, they survive, they persist, and they attribute their ability to face life to the intervention and guidance of the “Ecce Homo,” the Christ in his moment of suffering and pain. They can look him in the eye and he can look back at them, for he too once had prayed, “If possible, Father, take this cup away from me.” He and his devotees understand each other. This Christ, although enshrined in gold, precious jewels and flowers, does not deceive. Under all that pomp and regalia, his gaze is piercing and naked, and the scars of his crucifixion ordeal are there if you care to see them. And so his people come, they follow him, they meet him beyond the distraction of frills and sugar coated religion. They show this understanding by their demeanour as they walk on unwaveringly for those long hours, proud to stand together, embracing the messiness and chaos of life with the hope that they will have the strength to endure anything as long as the Miraculous Christ is with them.

It took more than fifteen minutes for this multitude to walk past, and I forgot about the existence of the flower carpets until after the last row of the faithful went by — and then, as the final part of the procession continued with more filarmónica brass bands and dignitaries, I could see that the flower carpets had been completely dispersed, crushed and pulverized into a chaotic impressionist painting of colour, worthy of a Monet. I understood this wondrous transformation, trampled by faith, as a deep symbol of their lives as they created a new kind of flower carpet with their feet, one that shows humanity in its brokenness and confusion — and yet, and yet… There was such beauty and movement in this disorder of scattered, shredded petals and leaves mixed together with the sawdust, redesigned by a living faith.

It was not the sight of the Christ’s image that moved me this time, but rather the sight of these pilgrims with their strong silent embodied testimonials of faith. Whether you are a believer or not is irrelevant. What matters is the miracle that human beings can find meaning and hope and courage and faith in something inexplicably bigger than themselves. The Senhor Santo Cristo of the Miracles graces the Azorean identity, especially of those from the island of São Miguel, where since 1700 it has been the soul of the islanders; and this tradition has been brought to the North American communities where Azoreans immigrated. You can find Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres in Toronto and Montreal, and in Fall River, Massachusetts, among many other places in the diaspora. It’s a symbol of deep religious faith irrevocably intertwined with cultural identity that has remained strong in the homeland and equally strong in the communities of immigrants.

As much as the face of the Christ has moved me since childhood, it will always be the image of the faces of faith I witnessed that will stay with me forever, long after the flowers are gone.

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Let it be…protecting Toronto’s eastern shoreline

Toronto is a vast city built along the north shore of Lake Ontario where an ever growing number of high- rise buildings are filling in the skyline in the downtown core and spreading out like an unchecked virus across the 45 kilometers of shoreline that stretch east and west of the downtown core, creating a sort of sky fortress against nature. Despite this invasion, Toronto remains a place with a vast system of parkland, ravines and nature trails that meander discreetly throughout the city like a complex nervous system. Often, in surprising and unexpected moments of urban life, you come across a portal to another world: For example, if you take the subway to Old Mill Station, you will see a river that eventually heads down to the lake with a path where you can walk and explore underneath the hidden canopy of trees.

There are many similar delightful entry points throughout the city that will take you into a world of trees and flowers and water: from Queen’s Park surrounded by a constant flow of cars; to High Park where you can see cherry blossoms in the spring; to Tommy Thompson Park where you can look back to the cityscape with wonder in your eyes; to paths along the Lower Don River which you can observe from above as you ride the subway, bike, walk, or drive across the Prince Edward Viaduct bridge.

Although there are many wonderful places to connect with nature throughout the city, there is a special place, starting about 10 kilometers to the east of the city, just beyond the Eastern Beaches’ long boardwalk, south of the ever-busy, Kingston-Road corridor where you can still enter an unspoiled and magical place along the shoreline of Lake Ontario, a delicate testament to the wonderful geological heritage that defined the former City of Scarborough and enriches the abundant variety of natural spaces throughout the city. There is a collection of diverse parks and ravines running along to the Scarborough Bluffs that will make you think that you have somehow arrived in cottage country but without having to leave the city boundaries.

I have the privilege of calling these Scarborough Bluffs my home – this stretch of land that I invite you to visit. Let me show you the hidden beauty that’s here waiting for you to see, to experience, to feel, to make your soul smile; but come gently, come in a whisper, come quietly and you will be amazed by the sight of ancient land and lake, go east as far as the Guild Inn and further on to the Rouge Valley. Let your feet walk upon the sands of the one remaining natural shoreline of Grey Abbey  and East Point beach. Feel the grains tickling between your toes, run your hand through the lapping waves rushing to shore, hear the wind in the breeze rustling the leaves on the trees, look out into the distance and perhaps, if it’s a clear day, you might even see Niagara Falls on the far shore of Lake Ontario!  Wait in stillness for deer shyly passing by, if you come early enough; or stay for the sunset.

Come and be rejuvenated by nature’s beauty, rest awhile, take it all in, but when it’s time for you to return back to your urban dwelling, don’t take the sand away, leave it all as you found it so that the birds and the wildlife and lake will remain as they are, forever beautiful.

Leave as quietly as you came, look back with Portuguese saudade, already missing that which you have not left.

Come visit again when your urban soul feels the need for a little more of that sand and wind and cliffs and primordial nature. Bring your friends; show them how easy it is to escape the bustle of the vibrant city, leaving it behind for a while to connect with something so rare and beautiful, yet so close by that you don’t need to fly away or travel for hours to get there; right here, co-existing on the edge of your busy world, so much of it no further than a TTC bus stop away! But always come back with the anticipation of taking your shoes off as you let the sand pumice your feet and your spirit refreshed by the sight of the lake and sounds of the waves.

The Scarborough Bluffs is a treasure within the City of Toronto. Unwrap it gently, enjoy it, but don’t exchange it for something less worthy. And if it’s not to your liking, politely decline the gift, but leave it untouched for others who, I know, will gladly accept and, more importantly, love it for what it is and not for what it could be. In the future if those who have the power to create change have their way, and are allowed to pave the paths into roads, that will forever change the feel and look of a beautiful shoreline that does not need improvement.

I feel hope in knowing that there’s a Friends of the Bluffs group  and other dedicated citizens working tirelessly to defend and protect this little bit of paradise for all to enjoy.  I worry that their voices and protests will not be heard loud enough by those in authority who believe that more paved roads along the shore will make it better and more accessible to everyone. It may do so, in theory, but at the cost of changing and destroying the very same place that brought you here in the first place.

Let it be. It’s just a few kilometres of shoreline left to be kept in perpetuity as a gift for generations to come. There is room in the city for everyone and everything, and we must preserve a natural world for those who, when tired of the concrete and noise of the city core, want to take time to come and experience a beautiful part of the city that deserves our respect and good stewardship.

Which path will you choose?

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Birch Cliff is my Home

Artwork created by the students of Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts


I moved to Birch Cliff Village fifteen years ago. At the time it felt like I was going very far away from Toronto. I still remember when I was younger and took the bus out to Victoria Park and Kingston Road to visit my cousin, who lived just a few blocks outside the city. When I watched the bus turn back, I really felt what it meant to be leaving the city as I walked across the street to the Scarborough side. I never dreamed that one day I would be living farther east of Victoria Park, beyond the Hunt Club, slightly east of Warden. I might as well have gone to a remote Ontario town, as far as I was concerned.

I had lived most of my younger life in the centre of Toronto. Later, when I graduated from university, I moved slightly east to my first apartment. A few years after, I moved farther east, this time to East York. That move was the first time I felt as though I had left the security of the city I loved, and I experienced an inner panic at going to live so far away. My next move took me even farther east. Over the span of a decade I acclimatized myself to living away from the core of the city, but I promised myself that this was the farthest I would ever move.

But as with any promises we make to ourselves, a few years later I broke it when I moved yet farther east, to a small unknown (to me, that is) pocket called Birch Cliff Village.  I had to redefine and broaden my definition of the city border once again.  Luckily, amalgamation had made us all one big city, so it was a relief to know that no matter how far I had moved, I was still legitimately living in Toronto.

But it was love at first sight: the spaciousness of houses, one from the other; the sprawling lawns and cottage-like homes on tree-lined streets; the nearness to the Bluffs, so mysterious and wonderful; the lake view within a few steps of my street.

The people then were primarily very white, whiter than I had been accustomed to seeing in the inner city. Still, we were made to feel right at home from the start (perhaps it helped that my partner is Anglo-Saxon) and people were kind and welcoming, as they still are, with their hellos and willingness to stop you on the street and chit-chat; we’ve developed those casual neighbourly friendships so important when you live side by side. Meanwhile, over the years, as people move out and others move in, I am beginning to see diversity in the neighbourhood.

Recently, I have noticed a rapid change in our neighbourhood. We now have condominiums going up and signs for others soon on the way. With each house that gets sold, I already know that it’s going to come down. It’s a boring and sad prediction, but the truth is that these houses get torn down every time: Beautiful, quaint, charming, tasteful, aesthetically pleasing cottages and bungalows that turn into brick rubble with one swoop of a bulldozer and get replaced with dull, bland, mass-produced houses. These are not to my taste.

In fairness, there are exceptions. I can think of a modern, architecturally pleasing-to-the-eye house that, although different from the older houses around it, fits in splendidly and harkens to what can be considered good progress rather than dull, thoughtless, utilitarian, unimaginative construction.   I’m not against the new, just the bad taste. And now that I think about it, I recall a couple of other new houses that I welcome into the mix.  So there is some hope after all.

Change is inevitable and I am not against it, but I would like it to be good. What is happening in our area is a ripple-effect spreading east from the big city, where so many of our older buildings are torn down or have only their façades remain in a feeble attempt to appease the preservationist in our midst while gigantic buildings fill the sky.

It’s not just the houses that are changing but the face of the Kingston Road corridor, the main artery out of the south-east end of the city. On the north side, new businesses have come. But the TD bank at the corner has closed and I wonder what will become of the round-shaped building. The Dollarama store next door is practical. Rustico  is a fabulous Italian restaurant-café run by a beautiful and charming young couple, Joe and Julia. When it opened, we were overjoyed to have another option in the neighbourhood.

There are two other restaurants on the block: Wimpy’s Diner for hearty old-fashioned breakfasts and Jatujak  which has the  best Thai street food in Toronto. Interspersed between these restaurants are old-time antique shops like the Salvage Shop (and a chat with Roy makes  Saturday afternoons a delight) along with a newcomer, The Nice Nook  that replaced the old A Nothing New Shop that had been there since 1965, but it’s already closed in less than a year, perhaps in anticipation of the new plans to replace the block with more condo development. And now, the Salvage shop will soon be closed too, forever erasing more of the neighbourhood’s charm.

Is there a future for the Salvage Shop?

A few blocks east, there’s a new coffee shop, The Birchcliff, as trendy and cool as any found in other popular areas of the city.  The House and Garden shop is in a beautiful brick building where once a CIBC branch made my banking life easier.

To the west of Warden, on the south side of Kingston Road, there’s The Kingston Social  showcasing local artists and serving pop-up dinners; a new deli, M&J’s  run by a wonderful young couple, Michele and James, offers delicious breakfast sandwiches, homemade burgers, and the best bagels anywhere.

On our weekend walk around the neighbourhood we buy something at each place, and by the time we get home our cloth bags are full of all that our neighbourhood has to feed us. What all these places have in common is wonderful staff/owners who provide a great sense of community.

Despite living in a neighbourhood where not all services are provided, there’s enough here for me. I’d rather have to trek out of the neighbourhood for some necessities rather than have them all at my doorstep.  Think Bloor West Village or the Beach: crowded, congested. I don’t want that here. But I am resigned to know that it’s coming. And sooner than I’m ready.

But the culminating treasure of living in the Bluff area is the Bluffs itself, the paradise that is Rosetta McClain Gardens, offering views of the lake below us, where there is accessible terrain, unspoiled, un-“parked” wild nature still there, deer and rabbits and hawks and other wildlife that pass through our ravines on their way along the eco-system.

I love my neighbourhood, where a walk or a bicycle ride still allows me to be out in nature, while knowing that I still have quick access to the wider city. It’s having the best of both worlds. But I am protective of where I live — and, for a long time, I would not sing its praises to those I knew, for fear of drawing attention to this best-kept secret. But nowadays, with everyone Googling everything in sight, I have no control over the thousands who are discovering this great place to live, so I might as well write about where I live.

I just hope that we don’t lose the feel and spirit of this special place as change imposes itself on us. I am ashamed and embarrassed to admit that I don’t take kindly to seeing new people move in, regardless of who they are. It’s not that I won’t welcome them, it’s the suspicion that I fear they will want to have their big imprint on the neighbourhood by, sadly, reshaping it and redefining it with monster homes or even worse, bland, ubiquitous retro designs. It’s fair to say that the neighbours I like the most are all those who have come and who have not torn down their houses to build so-called better homes, but have instead maintained the integrity and beauty of the old houses. Perhaps what I like the most is living in a community of like-minded souls. What you do to your house, to your environment, to the space around you, how you treat your community tells me more about who you are than anything else.

We, in Birch Cliff, are one of the many great, eclectic and unique neighbourhoods that make up this vast city we call Toronto. I am proud to live in mine.

An eager family waiting for their condo to go up!

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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


                                       Ron Moore, April 2017



                                                            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


Monte Clerico


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



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.

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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