When Home Becomes a Foreign Country

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.  ~ Beryl Markham, West with the Night

In little more than a week, we leave for the Azores. I should be notifying the utility companies, researching a new camera and making a list of the items we still need to purchase but I’m distracted by the manuscript I have yet to finish editing and the small tower of new books on my desk.  Distracted, too, by the aquarium my husband has moved into my office. Another goldfish has died. His companion nudges the body over and over again but I can’t bring myself to remove the dead fish from its home. And I’m tired, having woken numerous times throughout the night by the sound of heavy rain and fleeting dark memories of my last visit to Flores. It didn’t rain last night, my husband tells me, you were dreaming.

I first visited the Azores thirty-three years ago and fell truly, madly, deeply, in love with Flores.  My inexplicable passion for the place was like one of those crazy infatuations that end up with somebody dead. I’ve visited several times since then—each time more disturbing than the time before—with the most recent visit taking place in 2007.  The weather had been unseasonably gloomy and jellyfish warnings had kept us away from the beach. Ignored by my cousins and still grieving the death of my father, my daughter and I spent most of our time playing cards, visiting elderly relatives and hanging out in the internet café in a nearby town.

One afternoon, hypnotized by the stunning view of the beach below the winding road from Lajes to Fazenda and walking far too quickly, I slammed into a metal lamppost, chipping a tooth and splitting my temple. The doctor in Santa Cruz (“an inch to the left and you would have bled out in an hour and died!”) shaved off half my eyebrow and carefully put in eight stitches. If you’re lucky, your eyebrow will grow back over the scar, he said. I spent the next few days with a large gauze bandage over part of my blackened eye pretending not to be bothered by the teasing of the locals. I’m reconnecting with my pirate roots, I quipped to my daughter, but in all honesty, my time on Flores that summer was tinged with sadness, and a realization that perhaps I did not belong there after all.  The island was too small and my father’s ghost followed me everywhere.  The romance was over. We left Flores two weeks early and spent the remainder of our vacation on Terceira.

And yet, I can’t stop myself from returning to Flores again, to give it one more chance. One more chance at what? I have to ask myself.

In July 1979 my parents returned to the island of their birth twenty years after they had immigrated to Canada. I was a teenager and excited to travel outside the country for the first time. For my parents, it was an opportunity to share their roots with their four children and to reconnect with family and friends they hadn’t seen in over twenty years. It was a magical summer filled with outdoor barbeques, soccer games, trips to the lagoons, golden afternoons, swimming on rocky beaches, cliff-side drives on hairpin roads, church festivals, teenage romance and dancing to Abba. I felt more alive than I had ever felt before. It was truly the best summer of my life.

But I remember my father expressing disappointment at some of the changes that had taken place in Flores while he had been away. My parents had regaled us with stories of their youth, of walking miles to milk the cows and hours spent washing laundry at the creek. We only wore shoes to church, said my father, who at the age of 12 had completed his schooling and was working 18 hours a day tending the family farm. But now, people did not appear to work as hard as they had twenty years earlier and the village teenagers seemed to enjoy a disturbing amount of freedom along with a highly-honed sense of fashion.  Their jeans were far cooler than my own. My mother’s childhood friends did not make their own bread any more—meu deus, no. Instead, there was a baker who arrived in the village every morning to sell fresh loaves from his horse-drawn cart.  My mother had warned us to expect chamber pots and rustic cooking but our relatives showed off fresh tile-lined bathrooms and new-found skills in American-style cooking.

In Tales from the Tenth Island, a collection of short stories, author Onésimo Almeida takes a humorous and sometimes bittersweet look at the Portuguese-American community of Rhode Island.  In “Brief Trilogy” the narrator Chico Avila returns to Sao Jorge time and time again with the intention of one day retiring ‘back home’ only to realize there is no going back to the life left behind—and that “his Portugal was no longer back there. He was living it all over here”:

“Things have changed a lot there. No one needs anything, even when they’re down on their uppers. No wants to be humbled. Everyone dresses well and no one goes around barefoot. They don’t even let a fellow buy his friends a glass of wine, because folk there have also got money now! An Americano turns up there now, and now one takes a blind bit of notice. Only a few of their nearest neighbours visited them at home and the local priest didn’t’ even invite him to sponsor the sermon on feast day. The gifts he took… But never again! In the old days, folk there would take anything we gave them. Now, second-hand stuff’s no good. It’s got to be new and not any old thing because American clothes are made of good cloth, but their cut and colours are too out-of-date!…To hell with them!

That’s final! He doesn’t need the islands! There are festas here, and in a few years they’ll be better than the ones there. Take the Santo Cristo festivities in Fall River!… The Espírito Santo, the Senhor da Pedra, the Senhora dos Anjos. There’s one every Sunday, just like in the islands. And massa sovada isn’t just eaten once a year on the day of the parish festival. You just go and get it at the baker’s. And malassadas too. As if Carnival was whenever we felt like it… My Portugal is here, for I’ll tell you this too, that place isn’t the same now as when I was growing up!…”

I think my own parents had assumed that their island would remain frozen in time, exactly as they had left it as young newlyweds awaiting a new life in Canada. They had gone back home with the idea of recapturing that life left behind, but the island had gone on without them. And I know now that my father’s melancholy–along with his brief bursts of temper–that summer may have had something to do with a realization that he had changed and that his home was on another island, an island on the west coast of Canada, where he had built a successful farm but still worked 18 hours a day.

In ‘Existential Migration’ (2006), psychotherapist and counselling psychologist Greg Madison states that “returning home can be a complex geo-psychological process of healing as well as relocation, while also an opportunity to assess the transformations that have occurred in one’s self while away.” The following passage illustrates the conflicted feelings of an immigrant relunctant to return home but aching for a sense of connection with his homeland:

“I think about returning home almost every day. Sometimes I am clear that I would never return, sometimes I fantasize about it, yet other times I feel a dull homesickness, a kind of pull to the only place that could have been home but never really was. I think this signifies a desire for a kind of spiritual and psychological reconnection, a healing of the self in some way, a reconciliation where originally there was mutual rejection. Return would be a complex process necessitating a melancholic recognition of time: home did not freeze the day I went through the departure gate. Home has changed, though deeply familiar it is also different, and I would return as a stranger in a strangely familiar land. But again, how could I stay and not succumb to the suffocation that led me to leave in the first place? How could I protect my fluid self, elaborated by all my experiences in the world, and withstand the sustained demand to cement into sameness? How can I balance my desire for home with my need for self-direction? Any feeling of being at-home is now forever tinged with feeling not-at-home; the two come inextricably intertwined. Homesickness is a given, not a demand to return home, where the feeling paradoxically continues unabated.”

I suppose the question for me remains whether it is valuable or even possible to re-create the summer of 1979 where for a few brief weeks I found my sense of home–only to lose it over and over again with each subsequent visit.  Beryl Markham points out, “never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead.” Perhaps it’s time to put one more ghost to rest.

6 thoughts on “When Home Becomes a Foreign Country

  1. Fernanda, may you find something new on your upcoming trip to the Azores: a new perspective, a new experience; let go of what you know from before, forget the familiar, don’t anticipate the expected. See your island with new eyes, see it as if you had never seen it before; be a tourist in a familiar place and who knows what you will discover.
    We fear letting go of our memories of places and special moments in time, that certain summer, that particular scent of hydrangea along the narrow roads of the islands, the taste of ocean salt in the breezes everywhere, everything preserved in a memory time capsule. Break the memory box, release the old static memories and scatter them to the wind. Perhaps by doing so, you will arrive unencumbered by memory and embrace a Flores that you haven’t experienced before. A new geography will imprint itself on your mind and haunt you with longing when you leave it. And the cycle of desire and memory will go on.

  2. Good advice, Emanuel. I’m returning under a different set of circumstances so perhaps that will break the old memory box. Despite my apprehension, I am looking forward to returning. I didn’t realize how bleak this blog post sounded until I re-read it today. I think I was in one of my “Florentine” moods when I wrote it. Today, I am feeling much more Terceirense

  3. Love, Home, Identity and Saudade

    Hello Fernanda.

    Just loved your post and the references you used. When does home become a strange place? Although that´s not my case, I see it happen often within the Portuguese community in Montreal.
    It´s a ghost; frozen in time and space, locked inside the illusions of a romantic and often enhanced ideas of what it was, or worst, what it could have been. Furthermore as is the case with all illusions, this delusion enlarges itself through the desires of a Promised Land, a happy place somewhere over the rainbow.

    But once there, everything changes. We immediately remember why we left to start with. Then is the slipping from all the expectations we had accumulated from the past years and the long distance. And there it is! The place we projected disappointed us. By the simple fact to dare not to be real! And worst, the people who live there didn´t share the same urge in receiving us as we had in arriving. And the spiral starts. As we get off the plane, the bubble breaks and the spell disappear.

    I loved your analogy, to the migrant´s imaginary to an obsessive love affair. It starts with the passion, the enchantment and the feeling of belonging, followed by disillusion and frustrated expectations. We try, but we just can´t leave.
    Because it is there, stuck, idealized in your memory, for an amount of time that seems an eternity. We crave to regain that sense of belonging once had. We try, but we never will live it again.
    Because, after all, it doesn´t exists anymore. It´s dead, lost in your past.

    Then the Saudade arrives. The way you accidentally describe these feeling, called my attention. You do it innocently and that is what makes it so sharply described. It´s your father´s nostalgia; the search for belonging in the same way you still looking for the summer of 1979; and the melancholy of knowing that you lose something you loved.

    Welcome to the Portuguese deepest sea. Welcome to ours tears and ours souls. To what make us Portuguese, and (despite your fear of disconnection), what makes you belong.
    Our Fado is your destiny. The insatiability of the Portuguese soul.

    As your travel, I´m sure you will enjoy it. The Saudade can´t be deleted but can be softened, as soon as you discover that after all you like it exactly like it is. The challenging desire, just like a love affair.

    And by the way, I don´t believe that the romance is over. I think it is just beginning.

    Good Luck.

  4. Ola Raquel,
    Thank you for your post. It sounds as if you’ve had a similar experience returning “home” and I appreciate your words. Is the romance over? No, not ever. It’s said that when life won’t oblige us, we can draw inspiration from those who refuse our attention and crush our longings. I, in my madness, believe this is as true of islands as it is of people.

  5. Manuel Carvalho, Kitchener, Ontario June 5, 2013 — 3:43 pm

    This story captures the feelings I had when I went back to St. Jorge for the first time in 21 years. So much to think about here.

  6. Cristina, East Bay, CA June 7, 2013 — 9:01 am

    My mother said she felt the same way when she returned to Pico after 30 years. I’ve never been to the Azores but would love to visit one day. The islands seem full of mystery the way you describe them!

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