Going on Vacation to Find My Way Home
We finally arrived.
We tucked our brochures for the Provincetown, Massachusetts Portuguese Festival into our pockets after studying the map inside and getting our bearings. We knew we would get lost, both my fiancé Bob and I, because neither one of us has a sense of direction. Ironic for me because the Portuguese were world-renowned navigators and map makers, and led the Age of Exploration. Magellan and Prince Henry the Navigator would be appalled, as would Christopher Columbus, who was married to a Portuguese woman, Felipa Perestrello.
We set off down the hill after finding a good parking spot on Bradford St. Luckily for us; Bradford runs parallel to Commercial Street where most of the shops are and where the parade would be. Immediately, I started trying to spot my fellow “Portagees,” as we headed (we hoped) toward Portuguese Square. Portuguese Square! There isn’t even a Portuguese alleyway where I live. It was a cloudy, drizzly day, but I felt happy and warm inside anticipating the festivities. I had even packed my “got linguica?” t-shirt to wear to the parade the next day. I wouldn’t need to explain to anyone here that linguica is a delicious Portuguese sausage, and important ingredient in kale soup.
All my life I’d heard about the festas, (sounds like feshtuz) but had never attended one. My grandparents lived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a town--like Provincetown--with a large Portuguese population. Most immigrants were from the Azores islands, especially Sao Miguel, where all my grandparents were from. They were lured by the promise of a better life.
We visited my grandparents often, but spent most of our time at their house with family. Every summer they would talk about the Festa, but we never went. Just as I never went to the New Bedford Whaling Museum until I was in my forties. I was intrigued. As my parents were encouraged to assimilate into American culture, encouraged to shed their “Portugueseness” like an old snake skin, I was left with a longing to know more about my Portuguese heritage. That gulf seems to have widened over the years until all I am left with is a few Portuguese words and phrases, a few recipes I’ve gotten from Portuguese cookbooks, the little Portuguese I hear spoken, usually by people from Brazil, and memories of family gatherings and my childhood visits. I have tried to bridge the gap by learning about the history of Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula and listening to all kinds of Portuguese music. Nelly Furtado's "Island of Wonders" especially speaks to me.
I had recently read on “Rob Brezsny’s Free Will Astrology,” words that encouraged me: “From an astrological perspective, now would be a good time to go on a meditation retreat for a few days or make a pilgrimage to your ancestral homeland. You would generate just the right shifts in your brain chemistry by doing something like that.”
I couldn’t afford to travel to the Azores, but it gave me the idea to access Google Street View and “drive” through Sao Miguel, especially the towns my grandparents were from. It was amazing. They were beautiful--sunny, with pink flowers and lush vegetation along the road, homes that were white with brightly colored trim, mountains within sight and beautiful blue sky and ocean within reach. On another part of the island there are hot springs, remnants of the islands’ volcanic past. In the smaller village where my father’s parents lived, a beautiful church, and pink and yellow buildings welcome you. From the Google satellite view I could see a cemetery, and I wondered if any of my relatives were buried there. In the larger town, where my mother’s parents came from, there is a small harbor where lights twinkle along the water’s edge at night. I was enchanted.
Then I realized the trip to the festa would also be a sort of pilgrimage to my ancestral homeland. I was starving for a sense of belonging, for a feeling of home. Aside from feeling very alien in this world of wars, power struggles and violence, I was raised Catholic in a predominantly Protestant town and country, was a female in a man’s world, a writer and artist in a world that worships sports and competition, and am soft and round in a world that loves hard and thin.
But aside from my family history, my genetics, my dark hair, unibrow and olive-toned skin, I was afraid I wouldn’t feel at home here, either. I can’t speak Portuguese but for a few words and phrases, I only know a couple of childhood songs in Portuguese, I have lived in New York state for all but the very beginning of my life, though Massachusetts seems like my second home. And my family was from New Bedford, not Provincetown. My excitement about this weekend was frayed around the edges as I worried I’d be found out for the fraud, the faux-Portuguese or Portagee-wannabee I was.
Then we heard them. We heard them before we saw them, the music wafting above the crowd within a stone’s-throw of the Pilgrim Monument. I felt like a pilgrim myself in the land of my own people, away too long and become a foreigner. But the vibration of the instruments—Portuguese guitars, classical guitars, maracas, accordions and Portuguese voices--soon seeped in. I didn’t just hear it, but felt it and was moved by it. I was entranced as I listened to the traditional songs, mostly new to me, and watched the brightly costumed dancers as they swirled around, hands waving and clapping above their heads. Bob and I were struck by how similar the folk dancing and costumes were to those from other cultures. Many of the groups that performed were from Rhode Island, and one of the women who was emceeing and singing welcomed everyone in the crowd that had gathered. As if she had heard my thoughts, she reassured us, “We are all Portuguese whether we or our ancestors were from the mainland, the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands or other Portuguese colonies; or we are second-or third-generation Portuguese trying to reconnect with our beautiful heritage and history.” I smiled even wider and felt a deeper warmth in the center of my chest. Bob and I took some pictures, and I talked to several people there. “Where are you from? What’s your name? Where are your people from? Have you ever been to the Azores? Have you been to any of the other festas?”
We had just purchased t-shirts for my daughter and I at a booth on the corner when I heard, “Would you like to go to the Azores?” It was a woman behind a table with brochures on it. “Yes! I would!” I said emphatically. Any shyness I’d felt was quickly disappearing. She and her husband, who was from Sao Miguel, were planning to host another trip to the islands--they had gone the year before--and were looking for people to join them. I took the information and talked with her husband for a few minutes, enjoying his accent and asking him to help me pronounce Portuguese words. Visiting the Azores is definitely on my bucket list, but seeing this couple and having the information and an idea of the cost, made it more real. This is something we could do, I realized. Bob and I had toyed with the idea of even living in the Azores for a while, but to me it was just an idea, now I knew with some planning we could do this if we wanted to. I want to.
There wasn’t a lot of festival activity the first day, so we saw what we could—the traditional singing and dancing, Portuguese food for dinner, including some very good kale soup, and noted the tent set up where there was a Portuguese soup-tasting scheduled later. We found the Portuguese bakery and made a note to get some loaves of massa sovada, Portuguese sweetbread and malassadas, a sweet fried dough, before we left the next day.
We were looking forward to the parade scheduled for the second day of the festa. By then we were more familiar with the streets. I was sorry to have missed a poetry reading because the venue was too far away, but toyed with the idea of attending a fado performance in the evening, thought it would mean getting home very late that night. Fado is a traditional Portuguese music, infused with feelings of love, loss and longing--feelings I was all too familiar with.
As we made our way down Commercial Street, I was excited. I felt like a kid again anticipating the parade, all my senses sharp, feeling fully alive. I was wearing my “got linguica?” shirt, which was green with white lettering, and had been a Christmas gift from my daughter. At first I felt a little self-conscious wearing it, but that feeling was replaced with a sense of playfulness and community as I started getting smiles and thumbs-up from people I passed by. Bob and I found a spot in front of a shop next to the library to view the parade. Some older women sat next to me, and proceeded to talk to each other in Portuguese. I was able to catch a word here and there, but mostly enjoyed hearing the cadence and rhythm of the words. Portuguese is a beautiful language, poetic, musical, and I sorely miss hearing it as I used to when my older relatives—my aunts, uncles and grandparents--were alive. As these women spoke, I sat inside their conversation, the words weaving comfortingly around me.
Before the parade got underway, I walked to the library to use the ladies room. A woman stopped me to ask where I got the t-shirt. I explained my daughter had found it online, and she said she was going to look for one for her nephew. I introduced myself; she introduced herself and her friend. We kept running into them throughout the day. It was wonderful to feel the connection and camaraderie of something shared, accepted, understood without explanation.
I have never enjoyed a parade so much. The folk singers and dancers we had seen earlier in the day sang and swirled their way down the street. One of the dancers, a young woman, spotted my t-shirt, smiled and waved, and I waved back. Floats rolled by--for a Portuguese club, for the Pilgrim Monument. There were even guys on Harley Davidsons, Portuguese flags flying, Portuguese music coming from radios on their bikes. They were stopped for a while as the dancers up ahead performed. While they were waiting, a young girl and her mother went over, and got pictures taken with them, and an older woman stood next to one of the riders, his arm around her for a photo. At one point a fire truck rolled by with two young men on the back, “I’ll give you $50 for that shirt right now!” he yelled over, smiling. I laughed and gave him the thumbs-up.
That parade, that day, was the best of what I remember of my family and the Portuguese people I knew growing up—funny, kind, friendly. I felt happy, content, filled up; satisfied in a way I haven’t in a long time. I felt complete, understood, appreciated, a part of.
After the parade, Bob and I walked around, enjoying the shops and getting a bite to eat. We ran into the two women again. I mentioned we were thinking of going to the fado concert, but were afraid it was too late. “You have to go,” my new friend said, “you don’t want to miss that. It’s amazing.”
So we did. It was a magical ending to a wonderful day. While waiting for the performance to begin, I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me as if I had known her my whole life. I saw my two new friends in the row across from us. The music was incredible, the men and women sang beautifully. I felt bad that the whole weekend was about me and my Portuguese roots, but here Bob and I were in the same boat—not understanding a word of what they were singing.
At one point the hostess asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they knew Portuguese. Then she asked us to raise our hands if we didn’t understand Portuguese. She said they could try to provide a translation, but it wouldn’t really matter. You don’t need to understand the words; through the music you understand the feelings. And she was right.
I was sorry we would miss the “Blessing of the Fleet,” the next day, a Catholic mass and traditional blessing for the sailors and their vessels--fishing is a dangerous profession. But Bob had to work on Sunday, so we headed back. We literally had miles to go before we slept. But it didn’t matter what time we returned to the Capital Region, I had already found my way home.
--from the memoir-in-progress, “Kale Soup: Life by the Spoonful,” by Deborah Correia