When is a Lake an Ocean?

Lake Ontario, view from Warden Beach

I am drawn to water, which most people find normal given that I grew up a few kilometers in-land from the Atlantic Ocean. But the truth is that I did not even learn how to swim until I came to live in Toronto.

When I was a little boy, going to the beach was not an option. I remember one stifling hot and humid summer’s day when a neighbour asked my mother if I could join her children on a day’s trip to the praia. My mother, of course, said no. And I had to resign myself to watching them walk down the street on their way to this place which I could not even imagine in my mind, having never set foot on a beach! All I knew was that it was a very hot, infernal-like place, or so my mother led me to believe!

It was considered a very low-brow thing to do back in the 1960’s when social status dictated much of what you could or could not do in the big city of Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel. It was vergonha (shameful, disrespectful) to go to the beach or even to have a suntan. My maternal grandmother prided herself in having milky white smooth skin and a lack of wrinkles to the end of her life – proof that she had stayed away from the sun.

I must have been 12 years old when my cousins and I joined a beginner’s swim class at the indoor pool of the “Parque dos Italianos,” the name the Portuguese had for Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwood’s Park in the 1970s, a place where families gathered on Sunday afternoons. None of us had known how to swim because we had all been born in the Azores, and even though my cousins came from the countryside, surrounded by ocean, it was too wild and rocky for swimming. Only fisherman dared go out into the big waves to make a living. Other than them, most people had a fear and reverence for the power of water that could drown you during an unexpected storm or crashing wave and so they stayed away from the powerful ocean below the villages.

So we learned how to swim in chlorinated water and it was delightfully adventuresome for us to do something so daring without our parents’ knowledge. I don’t think they knew what we were up to that summer because if they did, I am sure our mothers would have come screaming to save us from killing ourselves in the pool water! In those days we had so much freedom that we were like little adults living our lives in the streets of Toronto – all because we spoke English and our parents did not. This was our advantage and privilege although at times the adults in our lives must have felt inadequate parenting in this new land.

Despite those swim lessons, I have never been a strong swimmer and I always wear a life jacket when swimming at a cottage-by-the- lake during the quintessential Ontario summer holiday season. I was only introduced to cottage life (or “camp” as they say in Northern Ontario) in adulthood, thanks to Anglo friends, and I am to this day grateful for any opportunity to plunge myself in the deep waters of placid, smooth and murky lakes, with the sound of loons in the distance.

Closer to home, I am always full of awe when I gaze out at the voluminous ocean-like Lake Ontario that sometimes swells with waves trying to fool me into believing that it’s an ocean. I also feel the same awe when I visit the Azores and sit by the ocean, overwhelmed by the powerful high waves that recede and crash into the rocky shore.

The feeling or nostalgia for water is so fluid in my mind that I can’t distinguish between the experience of being mesmerized when I look out into Lake Ontario or the Atlantic Ocean: both have their own unique way of making waves and moving water based on the rhythms of the wind or interaction with the lake bed or ocean floor.

But the love and fascination I feel for water is not saudade for a childhood memory, since I never sat by the ocean in those days; instead I think it stems from a desire and longing to be near water as I intuit what it might have been like had I been allowed to join my friends at the beach that summer’s day of long ago.

All photos of Lake Ontario taken at Warden Beach

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Adelaide Freitas: From the Azores to North America

Many years ago, when I was trying to understand my Azorean identity, I came upon Adelaide Freitas. I had walked into Livraria Gil, an old bookstore in Ponta Delgada, like a detective following a lead, searching for books that could help me understand the meaning of my hyphenated Canadian-Azorean self, when a book title caught my eye from the shelf: Nas Duas Margens: da Literatura Norte-Americana e Açoriana (2008). The book was a collection of essays, some even written in English, that talked about those themes of belonging and identity that had plagued my mind for years.

When I returned to Toronto, I found much to digest and learn from Saudade: Language as Survival; Islands: Dream and Reality – Historiographic Metafiction in Azorean Literature; Os Açorianos em Moby Dick, each illuminating a shard of truth in a prism made up of essays that linked North American diaspora writers to writers in the Azores. The collection of essays was like a mosaic of azulejos piecing together themes and ideas that made me identify with the book’s title which I would translate as From the Two Shores: of North American and Azorean Literature. I have gone back from time to time to read parts of the book, always finding a new perspective and meaning to my questions of identity.

A few years ago, serendipity brought me to meet the American translator Katharine Baker, who was working on a translation of a novel by Adelaide Freitas. After she learned that I had been born in the Azores, that my father’s family hailed from Achada, a town next to Adelaide’s birthplace, Achadinha, Katharine invited me to participate in the final drafts of her translation.

And so it is that I started my reading of Sorriso por Dentro da Noite (2004), written in an exquisitely beautiful lyrical prose that challenges the translator to the point of despair. How to capture Adelaide’s style and give justice to her words; this has been the great challenge. It is my hope that one day the novel will be available in English so that readers will be able to know this tender and sorrowful story of immigration. The protagonist, Xana, will break anyone’s heart, but especially those of us who, as children experienced loss of family through immigration.

Adelaide Freitas had gone silent years ago through the devastation of illness. Her husband, Vamberto Freitas, himself a man of letters and important literary critic in the Portuguese diaspora, with enduring love and faithfulness kept her by his side, even writing about her, but above all loving her with steadfastness. In one of his blog posts he wrote how in the middle of a sleepless night, with her resting in the next room, he would take her books from the shelf and read her words to himself when he could no longer her the voice of his beloved wife. Such is the tenderness and power of language and words that transcend physicality and allowed him to bring Adelaide to the present.

The Azorean community learned of her recent death, on June 6, 2018, and there are many who now mourn the loss of this intelligent mind who wrote so eloquently about us, those of us on the margins of culture, place and sense of belonging, using literature as a vehicle to create understanding and give meaning to our collective experience.

I, too, mourn for someone I have known only through words, but they are just as alive and meaningful for me today as they were the day I first read Adelaide Freitas.

Also posted on Comunidades


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Adelaide Freitas: Dos Açores à América do Norte

Há muitos anos, quando procurava a minha identidade açoriana, descobri Adelaide Freitas. Tinha entrado no Gil, aquela livraria antiga de Ponta Delgada, como se fosse um detective a perseguir uma pista, à procura de livros que me pudessem ajudar a compreender a minha identidade de açor-canadiano, quando avistei um livro na prateleira que, imediatamente, captou o meu interesse. Nas Duas Margens: Da Literatura Norte-Americana e Açoriana (2008). Era uma colectânea de textos, alguns escritos em inglês, que exploravam temas de identidade e pertença, ideias que me tinham preocupado por longos anos.

Quando regressei a Toronto, li e descobri uma riquíssima obra que incluiu estes ensaios: Saudade: Language as Survival; Islands: Dream and Reality – Historiographic Metafiction in Azorean Literature; Os Açorianos em Moby Dick. Cada ensaio ia-me iluminando sobre escritores açorianos e os da diáspora americana. Foi esta colectânea que, precisamente, me ajudou a compreender a minha identidade. De vez em quando volto a ler os textos, e descubro novas perpectivas e respostas às dúvidas que tenho tido ao longo dos anos sobre quem sou eu.

Recentemente, vim a conhecer a tradutora americana, Katharine Baker, que estava a traduzir o romance da Adelaide Freitas, Sorriso por Dentro da Noite (2004). Quando esta soube que tenho raízes açorianas,  que a família do meu pai era oriunda da Achada, a aldeia vizinha da Achadinha, onde Adelaide tinha vivido, a Katharine convidou-me a participar na tradução do livro para inglês.

Foi assim que começou a minha leitura do texto da Adelaide. A sua escrita, uma prosa poética e quase mística, é difícil de traduzir para outra língua. Mas espero que um dia este romance ímpar esteja disponível para o leitor anglófono. Quero que possa ler esta estória que descreve, com profundidade e beleza, a condição e as consequências dolorosas da nossa imigração. A protagonista, a pequena Xana, parte-nos o coração, especialmente para aqueles que, como eu, tiveram a experiência de perder a família alargada pela inevitável imigração que foi a praga dos Açores.

Adelaide Freitas ficou muda devido a uma doença que, ironicamente, lhe roubou a fala e a possibilidade de escrever. Seu marido, Vamberto Freitas, um homem também de letras, crítico literário e importantíssimo detentor do conhecimento da literatura açor-americana, corajoso no amor que lhe dedicou, ficou de sentinela ao lado da sua amada Adelaide.

Num dos posts no seu blogue, em janeiro deste ano, escreveu sobre ela, partilhando com os seus leitores como lia as palavras escritas pela Adelaide, então repousando em silêncio no quarto, enquanto ele procurava conforto na leitura delas. Aqui está o poder e a ternura da palavra, que ultrapassa o mundo físico, para nos unir e nos tornar vivos perante a língua. Através da palavra escrita, os dois mantinham-se em comunhão.

A comunidade açoriana recebeu a triste notícia da sua morte, a 6 de junho, e enlutou-se pela perca desta voz inteligentíssima, que escreveu, tão eloquentemente, sobre nós, os que vivemos à margem da cultura açoriana, do nosso lugar na sociedade canadiana, através da literatura como veículo para nos entendermos  a nossa experiência colectiva.

Eu também lamento a perca desta voz, que apesar de nunca ter conhecido pessoalmente, conheci pelos seus textos. Eles continuam a ter a mesma relevância para mim como naquele dia em que li Adelaide Freitas pela primeira vez.

Also posted on Comunidades


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A Time to Retire


“To everything there is a season,

 A time for every purpose under heaven:”

Ecclesiastes 3: 1 NKJV

And so, the time has come to let go of a significant part of my life – one that has given me purpose, identity, fulfillment, and a sense of belonging.

The most pleasurable part of my twenty-eight years working in the Registrar’s Office of Victoria College (affectionately known as Vic) has been advising students and being a witness to their frustrations, dreams, hopes, confusions, disappointments, and their triumphs. Some came to see me to have a good cry or simply to be heard, listened to, or to be acknowledged; but others came for the pleasure of conversation, laughter and the desire to feel connected to the larger institution that is the University of Toronto.

I will miss the students’ ‘hellos’ and their smiles when I walk around campus; the interruptions to my reading at lunch time when I try to get away, sitting in Queen’s Park, and where students still find me as they cross back-and-forth on the way to lectures. Above all, I will miss the warm greetings of welcome at the student-run Caffiends, where I go mostly for the opportunity of getting a burst of energy from the affectionate reception I am given; learning about new music, books, and the meaning of current terms like ‘lit’ while I wait for my Lavender Tea Latte or a simple cup of coffee.

There have also been memorable encounters with students met by chance while on holidays as far away as London, England one New Year’s Eve, and another time in Oxford one autumn’s day; the delight of meeting each other by such serendipity making our vacations that much more memorable.

There has been laughter during my presentations of dry seminars on course and programs selection, delivered with a light touch in the hope that my jokes would put students at ease before they had even started their university studies. It has been this personal contact with students that has rejuvenated me with each passing year: being present to their lives bursting with possibility, discovery and potential; seeing in their innocent-yet-pretending-to-be-all-knowing selves, their vulnerability, fear of the unknown future, and the need for assurance and guidance.

I have also enjoyed the company of the teaching staff; professors who have shown me such kindness and humanity, engaging me in conversations and showing a side of themselves that students rarely see. Furthermore, I have had the privilege of working with many wonderful colleagues since my arrival at Vic in August of 1990. I have seen many changes in staff over the years as people moved on to positions elsewhere or retired or passed away. I remember them all and the mark they left on the college and on me. I will also miss those with whom I work presently.

Although it is the students, the professors, and the staff who bring life to Victoria College, I will also miss the physical space we inhabit: the idyllic grounds with trees and flowers for each season; and the buildings that shelter us from the distractions of the city beyond the campus. I’ve been surrounded and wrapped up in this academic institution that I have grown to love and that will always be a part of who I am.

What will life after Vic be like for me? I feel like each year’s graduating class, who leave us with both joy at their accomplishments but also with trepidation about where they are going next in the world. At the end of June, it will be my turn to go forward and explore unknown territory, curious to discover what lies ahead, even as I look back a little and feel the longing for what was.

Northrop Frye Hall, where I have spent most of my working life. I leave it now and walk towards unknown adventure…

“The Cat That Walked by Himself”

Just So stories for Little Children, Illustrated by the author Rudyard Kipling

Image from British Library postcard


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Spring Comes to Rosetta McClain Gardens…Without Words

Sem palavras…

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Toronto’s Reluctant Spring

The first month of spring was not spring at all; winter stubbornly refused to leave and became the unwelcomed guest who stays too long at the party. We have endured the weather politely and patiently, as Torontonians are prone to do. Finally, there are signs of trees coming to life. But as these photos will show, we are still a long way from the fullness of a green spring that should have been here by now.

Cumberland Street with still bare trees on May the 8th!

The Planetarium, behind  trees like a fallen moon, shares the skyline with new buildings


Bare Tree Reflection: Faculty of Law Library, University of Toronto

The tallest building is at Yonge and Bloor

Charles Street East near Sherbourne Street

Charles Street East

In a few weeks’ time this tree will hide the red sculpture from view!

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I No Longer Like Chocolates: Or, the Bittersweetness of When Immigrant’s Dreams become Reality

       Provincetown, USA

The Azorean writer Álamo Oliveira, from the island of Terceira, wrote the seminal novel, “Já não gosto de Chocolates,” published in 1999, out of print for a while, but now back to the reading public with a second edition in 2017. Although I read the book in the original Portuguese, I was equally delighted to read it in the 2006 English translation, “I No Longer Like Chocolates.

It’s the ubiquitous story of every Azorean family’s journey from the Old World to the new promised-land, America. With heartbreaking honesty, the life of protagonist Joe Sylvia is retold through memory as he sits in his wheelchair tended by a private nurse in an expensive nursing home where his children visit him dutifully, yet less and less over time, while he reminisces and tries to make sense of a life that started with the dream of the anticipation of tasting American chocolates, and ended up with him no longer liking them. Despite having worked hard to become a prosperous dairy farmer in Tulare, California, Joe Sylvia and his wife could not buy the happiness they dreamed of. And thus, the symbolism of chocolate is not lost on the reader: the dream is sweet; the reality, bitter.

There is much richness in the universal depiction found in each of the characters in the novel. Who can read this story and not recognize their own immigrant mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandparents families with their ambitions and struggles coming to terms with their new country while memories of the old clash with the new, and the challenges of life in another language and a different way of being in the world is sometimes more of a loss rather than a gain?

But what particularly stood out and resonated for me in a very personal way in “Já não gosto de Chocolates” was reading for the first time in a Portuguese novel about a son who, like me, was an outsider because he was gay. The strength of Oliveira’s novel is that he fleshes out the gay character as being as integral to the story as his other family members, and not relegated to the usual silences, absences, hiddenness, or worse, demeaning easy stereotypes found in other works of Portuguese literature.

Oliveira’s daringly truthful portrayal of John, the younger son, who dies an agonizing death not only because of the AIDS that destroyed his life, but because his family rejected him confirmed my intuition honed since youth that in order to survive being who I was, I had to find my own private island to live on, on the periphery of family life. John’s sister Maggie’s pronouncement on the family, that “We are a family of merdas,” of shits, painfully reminded me of how devastating it has been for many gay sons and daughters of Azoreans to be their real selves and experience belonging within their families. And yet, as she acknowledged, “He, the queer, was the one who never left [his mother’s] deathbed.”

If nothing else, Álamo Oliveira’s beautiful chapter on John and his partner Danny forces readers to face with raw honesty that one family member who everyone knows about but would rather keep in the closet or, at least, have living far away in San Francisco, Toronto, or any other urban centre that will welcome, shelter, and protect the deviant child from the vergonha, the shame brought upon his family. Perhaps this attitude and prejudice, still so prevalent in Azorean society at the time of the novel, is no longer as true for most Azorean families, just as it is no longer the case with so many Portuguese and other ethnic groups around the world. So I’d like to believe it, but yet I intuit that it’s not totally true, either. We still hear of stories… but whether in the old country or the overseas communities that have sprung up in the new world, there is a sense of tolerance and acceptance that certainly wasn’t there during my youth.

With a mixture of sorrow, truth, and humour, Oliveira’s “I No Longer Like Chocolates,” whether read in the original language or the beautiful English translation, will offer the reader a profound insight into the world of the dream and the after-dream of immigrant lives with unflinching candour, and the rejection of the “and they lived happily ever after” American illusion. As Joe’s nurse companion Rosemary, announcing his death to his children, said, “It’s no great tragedy. He no longer liked American chocolates.”



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