Saturday, June 17, 2017

On the way to Portugal: Introduction

I've been to Portugal a half-dozen or so times in my life.  I've never lived here, but there is always a unique sense of feeling like I belong here, like this is somehow, however vaguely, my home, too.
Culture can be a fascinating thing.  I grew up in a very Portuguese environment, with first-generation immigrant parents who lived, for all intents and purposes, as if they were still in the Portugal that they had left behind in their early 30's and 20's.  I went to "Portuguese school" three times a week, after "regular" school, to learn how to read and write... but also to learn geography and history.  Food was traditional Portuguese fare - barbecued sardines, liver and potatoes, barbecued chicken, kale-potato soup, codfish "cakes", a myriad of stews, the ever-present olive oil that was the basic condiment for all meals, and of course the pasteis de nata... these were basic staples in my home (to the envy of all my non-Portuguese friends!). 

I grew up hearing only Portuguese at home.  The radio was always turned to the Portuguese station every Sunday morning, as was the television.  Every weekend in the summer there seemed to be some festival or another at a church, where Portuguese music would play through the night.
The Portuguese community in Toronto is very large, with the 2006 Census reporting 188,110 individuals who indicated Portuguese as at least one of their ethnic backgrounds (57,245 people reported that Portuguese was their only ethnic background).  Signs of this community are everywhere - from the proud green and red flags, to the bakeries on every corner, to the sounds of Portuguese being spoken as you walk down the street or ride public transit.

It is this culture that I grew up in.  The culture of a people displaced, who flew across an ocean in the hopes of a better life, of a people who carried with them the fierce pride of a country that is tiny but ever so proud of itself.  I coloured in maps of all the provinces in my after-school classes, painstakingly writing in each of the names and capital cities, until I could recite them all by heart.  I listened with fascination to my Portuguese teacher as she told us stories of kings and battles and all the various cultures (Carthaginians, Moors, Romans) that passed through our little far-flung, much-prized corner of land here at the western most point of Europe.

I dreamt of what those places might look like - the warm sandy beaches of the Algarve, the dry flat fields of the Alentejo, and the spectacular views of the mountains of Serra da Estrela.  When I went to Portugal with my family, we mostly stayed close to the village my parents lived their childhoods in, exploring nearby castles, caves, beaches, and markets.  I wove all of these impressions together with my parents' stories of their youth into a fabric of what it meant to be Portuguese.

I do not necessarily belong here, the way those who have lived here their whole lives do, but I come from here.  Every time I come, it is partly like a homecoming, and partly like a journey of discovery.  I think it's the same for a lot of second-generation immigrants.  How much can we really lay claim to a culture that is only ours by birthright, not by ingrained experience? 

This is the first time I'm going to be visiting the rest of the country, outside of the 1-2 hour radius of my parents' village.  There is excitement, of course, but also a touch of apprehensiveness - will what I discover be like what I imagined, all those years ago, as I coloured maps and read textbooks while my Portuguese teacher told tales of kings and lands from long ago?  How much of my Portugal is simply my own personal mythology, and how much is generational memory, waiting for me to re-discover?


  1. I just realized, reading your post, that I was supposed to be in Portugal right about now. We had somewhat of a falling out. I'm still confused about it, but... *sigh*. Anyway, now I can live vicariously through you. :) You always write so eloquently and bring your stories to life with beautiful photos. I'll be looking forward to tales of your adventures there.

    1. Aw, thanks! :-) Sorry to hear about the other thing though... I'll do my best to capture what you missed out on... <3