Sunday, June 25, 2017

Day 8 - Porto

Porto.  A city of romance, of wine, of impossible dreams.

 We wandered around all day, taking little alleys and exploring old Porto.  Ambling up old stone staircases, drinking spring water from springs, looking out at the replica old fishing boats carrying port wine.  Dreams of centuries ago.
Even the graffiti here is romantic, prose and make-shift poetry transcribed in thick white ink on the edges of the towering bridge that goes overtop the Douro River.  We are entranced, engulfed by this lively, passionate city.  It's also the eve of one of the city's biggest holidays, the festival of St. John.  The streets are lined with vendors, music blares from all corners, streamers line all the streets, and the feeling of joy is in the air.

We wandered into an old bookstore - over a hundred years old.  The wooden twisting staircase is in the centre of the shop, and the bookshelves are deep and high.  I meander slowly, ignoring the English books and heading towards my native tongue - my true native tongue.  Until I was five, I knew nothing else.  Portuguese was the only thing that existed, for I didn't even watch television until I was in kindergarten.  My school report cards from the first few years say I was a struggling ESL student - a shock to me once I discovered them.

I don't really remember not knowing English.  Nevertheless I have always been proud of my Portuguese.  Especially now, I can understand and communicate fluently and with ease.  J is fascinated by my seeming secret power, as I translate conversations of passers-by.
I picked up a Portuguese book with short stories about saudade - that longing that is uniquely Portuguese, a kind of ache of missing someone or some thing that is unlike any other feeling.  It's a word that is un-translateable.  In English we say "I miss you" - "miss" is a verb.  In French you say "Tu me manques" - literally, "you are missing from me".  In Portuguese, you say "Tenho saudades," - "I have saudades."

The feeling, the sentiment, becomes a noun - something present, heavy, almost tangible, yet achingly untouchable despite its noun-status.

I felt that way in the bookstore, today.  I had saudades of something I've never had, never possessed.  I had saudades of my own culture.
All bookstores should look like this.

It started innocently enough.  I asked one of the women who worked in the store if she had any books from a particular author.  She checked, but she didn't. She then noticed the book in my hand, and excitedly told me about her favourite authors who had contributed to the anthology.  She then took me around the bookstore, passionately telling me about this or that book that I might enjoy, showing me different collections and recommending them for one reason or another.  I told her I was from Canada, that my parents were from here, and that all the Portuguese books I had access to were my mother's old school books.

I felt in her what Anne of Green Gables would call a kindred spirit, someone so passionate about the same things I was.  She could barely contain her passion about literature and the world as she showed me books of poetry and told me all about the Portuguese psyche, how they are one of the world's largest consumers of antidepressants and no one knows why, about how even she herself hasn't taken them yet but feels the tiredness, the vague aches and pains, that seem to be almost a rite of passage to being Portuguese, at this point.  In her young voice telling me these things I saw and heard my own mother, the ache and the saudade, the longing for something indescribable and never possessed (so how could it be missed or longed for?).  I heard and saw myself, too.

She then told me that my Portuguese was very good for being a foreigner, even though she could tell that I was from abroad because my Portuguese has an accent.

Someone had said that to me last night too, at a restaurant.  An accent.

A dead giveaway that you are from elsewhere.  That you don't belong.

To my ears, my Portuguese sounds the same as my parents and all the Portuguese people I know back home.  It's a little startling to be told your own pattern of speech betrays you as a foreigner.
Perhaps it shouldn't have affected me as it did, but as I exited the bookstore with the two recommendations the kindred spirit had given me, I felt such a sense of loss and buried my head in J's shoulder.  You cannot explain saudade in words.  It is something you carry with you, that makes you who you are and colours everything about what you do and how you feel life.

I was born abroad.  This is not my country.  As much as I hold it dear and feel a connection to so much of it, I grieve a loss of something I never had - a culture that in some other life, some other parallel universe, would have been intimately mine had my parents not boarded a plane and started their life in a new country, so far from everything they knew.  In some ways my saudade is theirs, too.  The Portugal I know and love is not the Portugal that exists today.  It is the country of my parents' stories, the slower, different times from long ago.

I remember as a child, my parents took us on a hike to the big natural spring that everyone used to get water from.  The way was covered in brush and difficult to access (unlike the easy access from long ago when people tended the paths because retrieving water here was a necessity), but we finally got there.  As we drank water from the spring, I remember my father saying to my mother, quietly, in such a still, aching voice that even I felt the sadness of it:  "This isn't the Portugal that we left."
"No, it isn't," my mother said equally as quietly.

Nothing else was said, but it made a deep impression on me.  What they left behind can never be regained - not by them and not by me.  Culture does not stand still.  It moves and grows and changes.  If you are in it, you don't really notice.  If you leave it and then return... a different world awaits you.
This is saudade, too.  The culture of a Portuguese-Canadian is one of perpetual saudade, a longing for a home that is not only far away geographically, but also in time.  A longing for a place that can no longer be accessed, no matter how many times you get on that plane and go looking for it. 
As children of first generation immigrants, this is our birthright, too.  This saudade is almost inherited.  As young people we vary in how much we embrace our culture and try and hold on to our roots.  Those of us that try harder can make ourselves believe, in the heart of Portuguese Toronto, amidst bakeries and sports bars and church festivals, that we are part of where our parents came from, immersed and indistinguisheable.  Yet that sense of loss, of saudade, is always there, an underlying current.

Perhaps it's saudades, and only saudades, that we share across geographical and generational boundaries.


After leaving Old Porto, we walk back across the bridge, enjoying the stunning views of the river and surrounding towns from high up.  We make our way to Calem, an old Port Wine cave where they've been making Port Wine for over a hundred years.  We take a tour through the caves and learn about how they make the different types of Port, and get to see the large casks that hold impossible amounts of fermenting wine.  When the tour is over, we get to sit and taste three of the ports - a dry white, a Late Bottled Vintage red, and a ten year old tawny.  The tawny was my favourite - very sweet, but with an incredibly complex aftertaste of hazelnuts from being in an oak cask for ten years.

After the wine tasting, we headed outside to the streets, where most of the roads were already closed off and people were starting to fill the spaces.  Everywhere we walked, we could see the smoke from dozens of barbecues set up on the side of the road and smell the delicious scent of barbecued sardines.

We had been forewarned by my uncle about the tradition of being hit on the head with (plastic) hammers, so we weren't surprised to see almost every other person carrying around a plastic hammer and bonking random strangers on the head as they walked along.  After receiving a few dozen bonks ourselves, we decided to purchase our own hammer from one of the street vendors and are now armed and ready for the party.  J takes to the practice with surprising ease, and soon she is happily walking along and bonking men, women, children, the elderly - and they're bonking her right back.  After a while of this, I shyly try my hand at it. It takes a little while to get over the utter ridiculousness of it, and pretty soon I am furtively tapping people's heads and leaping away giggling.  The best part is the small children, though - desperate to bonk adults on the head, they wave you over and you can bend your head down for them to tap with their hammers.
View from our window. 
And this is the non-crowded
side of the river!

Apparently this tradition initially started with long, five or six foot tall wild garlic flowers and their bulbs, but being whacked on the head with a garlic bulb hurts a lot more than a plastic hammer, so I can see why they switched over.  (We did see some older women still carrying around the traditional garlic flowers and sticking them in your face to smell, instead of whacking you).

We walked through the crowded streets of Porto, music filling all the street corners, and Portuguese street food enticing us from all sides.  We had barbecued sardines, traditional beef sandwhiches, chourico in bread, and of course pasteis de nata.  There were parts of the street we could barely push through the crowds, and the plastic hammers raining down on our heads were relentless.  Everyone was smiling, shouting to each other, and having a great time.

They say that Coimbra studies, Porto works, Braga prays, and Lisbon plays... but tonight, Porto was alive with the party spirit and no one held back.  Portuguese religious festivals are really not religious at all, but rather a curious mix of secularism with the sacred as fringe.  Some traditions, like the hitting on the head with garlic bulbs, are even said to reach back to ancient pagan rituals, their origin long forgotten.

Eventually, we pull ourselves away from the festivities around 11pm and head back up to our little apartment to get ready to watch the fireworks.  Most people have secured a spot near the river, but we are fortunate to have a very strategically placed accommodation.  We head up the stairs and open the windows that look directly over the Douro river.  The sound of the crowd's excitement, as well as the music, can be heard easily from up here, and we still feel like we're part of all the joyous celebration.  Around midnight, you can hear an announcer on the loudspeaker say that the fireworks will be starting soon.  The crowd cheers, and the street lamps are turned off.  We wait excitedly from our bird's-eye viewpoint.  Finally - the first sparks of light are thrust into the sky.

We sit, mesmerized, as spectacular fireworks like I've never seen are shot into the sky from three barges strategically placed in the river.  The fireworks are timed with a musical soundtrack of different popular songs, and the next half hour is a true culmination of all the joy and excitement we felt in the city all day and evening long.

Porto... thank you for giving me a deeper understanding of myself.  I'll be back.

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