It cannot countervail the exchange of joy
I still have no words of my own.
Sarajevo, Blagaj and Mostar (April, 2017)
It cannot countervail the exchange of joy
I still have no words of my own.
Sarajevo, Blagaj and Mostar (April, 2017)
Two weeks ago I ordered a few used books from AwesomeBooks and inside A History of Fashion by J. Anderson Black & Madge Garland I found four letters from 1992. This was not one of those amazing discoveries that sometimes happens in the wonderful world of second-hand books. They are letters written to Gemma by friends that seem to have met her during a summer course in France while sharing a dorm and, most probably, a few giggling nights in a chatêau. I remember this kind of experience when I was a teenager sharing a room with Monica from Cugat del Valles at Cathy and Howard’s house in Cheltenham. In our minds, our friendship was forever. We also wrote letters to each other planning visits and other adventures. They never happened and we never met each other again. I wonder if Gemma and her friends kept in touch.
The first letter to Gemma was written on December 26. Her friend, whose birthday was December 2, got clothes, chocolate, a “very nice new desk” and soft toys, for her collection, as Christmas gifts. Maybe Gemma got A History of Fashion as a seasonal token of affection. In another letter, another friend writes about her mother who is a teacher and even though she looks like one, she is actually not that boring. But she swears quite a lot at home. In public, she assumes a “pompous” persona. Her dad is a vicar described in short and rather unpleasant words. She really hopes Gemma won’t be “put off” by her family. The other two letters are about boys. There’s Tristan, the knight in shining armour, with whom the girl is so smitten that she even talked to her mother about him. She didn’t tell her mum everything… There’s also Bob, fancied by another one of Gemma’s friends. Bob doesn’t seem very interested in going out with her. Maybe they could have one of those “open relationships, as they say”.
After the first excitement of finding these letters ( I do love all kinds of surprises and most especially if they are of the written kind), it took me a week to decide whether I should read them or not. I suppose the answer to this would always have to be no. These are, after all, personal stories traveling between Lincolnshire and Essex and I still read them. And even decided to share what I’ve read.
I remember C. telling me that he wished he would have the time to get rid of all his notes and letters before he died so no one would get to invade what was only his. We had this conversation again a few weeks ago. He has now given up on that sort of absolute control. Maybe it doesn’t make much sense to fight for privacy anymore. It does, however still bother me that I did not resist the temptation to invade someone’s else’s life.
There’s a full name and address (I didn’t Google them) on the envelopes; maybe you could just return them, J. suggests. What’s the chance that Gemma is still living in the same place? What’s the chance that twenty-five years later she is actually interested in getting some loose pieces of her life back? Would you want your adolescence to come back to you?
In August 1997 I travelled from Brazil, where I was on vacation with my parents, to Maputo where I stayed for a while with an uncle who was working there at the time. These are pages from my travel diary.
After six days in Porto Alegre, a city I was quite familiar with during my teens and early twenties, I flew to São Paulo to get on the flight to Beijing which had its first stop in Johannesburg.
At Guarulhos I waited, trying to read Raygun magazine’s special issue on Cinema and Music.
I think my mistake was that I thought you could live the things that you acted. But I realized that that wasn’t the case. Then I realized that I would be better suited to try to do that but without an audience. To pretend I was in the movies all the time, basically. And to try to create a narrative flow out of actions, and sequences and events.
My mum made me promise I wouldn’t get out of the airport in Johannesburg during the six-hour-long layover. I did. I took a taxi and Philly drove me downtown to Museum Africa and drove past Ponte Tower and took me to Ellis Park and the flea market in Gateway and told me I should walk around Carlton Center and I remembered that my mum used to talk about this place. There were people playing chess on a gigantic board. I was born in Johannesburg. How could I not go out?
I arrived in Maputo at night. My uncle, my aunt and my cousin picked me up and drove me home, a big apartment in Avenida Albert Lutuli, overlooking the Aga Khan foundation from the living room and the car park on the Polaroid from my bedroom.
I went to Mozambique to do research on forced labour migration. Most of my first weeks were spent at the library of the Provincial Culture Centre in Rua do Bagamoyo, former Rua do Araújo in the also former “red light district” of the former Lourenço Marques.
The long balcony of the former brothel was where I spent my smoking breaks. Across the street there was a Pensão (I suppose a hostel by now) and the life of the Dutch couple staying there became also some sort of voyeuristic break. Under the balcony, every day, the same lady selling matchboxes danced to her own rhythmic section when she got bored.
This how research turned mostly into contemplation of life by the Indian Ocean.
Every morning I would pretend to be a morning person and go downtown at 6.30, have coffee at the Scala or the Continental and wait for the library to open while marvelling at the long line of men and women getting their shoes polished. We are proud of our shoes, Professor C. tells me. Most of us only have one pair, most probably handed down, we have to keep them looking new.
Before my aunt and my cousin go back to Portugal we go to Nelspruit to do some supermarket shopping. It felt like the old ritual of crossing the border to go to Tui or Vigo in Galicia for the same purpose before there were “free markets” and you could buy the same sort of things on the Portuguese side at the border. We get to Ressano Garcia and there are long lines of people and cars to cross to Komatipoort. I walk around amazed at the chaos of this mythical place that I knew only from books. It’s dirty and crowded. On the other side, I don’t have to wait, my passport is South African and everyone thinks I am American because of my accent. Nelspruit looks like a giant supermarket where people buy giant tins of butter. I had never seen a tin of butter before. We spend the night at a lodge near the Kruger Park and go visit the next day. There’s no diary entry for this. There are hundreds of photos and boxes of photographic slides (!) I still can’t find the words to tell anyone what it felt like.
My aunt and cousin return to Portugal in time for the start of the school year. I stay on with my uncle and Olga who worked as a cleaner and cook at the flat and was now a single mother of two after her husband left. We had fun together. There was a fabric warehouse just around the corner from our flat and we often went to buy capulanas and play dress up. With my uncle, there were a lot of arguments about how to “behave in Africa” and how to deal with “things you know nothing about”.
Outside, there was still a whole world to be explored and a lot of bureaucracy to deal with when trying to get authorization to see archives. The upstairs neighbour who owned the liquor store in Avenida Josina Machel tells on me because she saw me walking home. It’s not appropriate. Apparently.
I spend two days reading labour legislation at the Ministry. The intern there just got a scholarship to go to Holland to study for a Masters degree. He’s happy is not heading to Portugal to do that. I then move to the National Film Institute. I had an amazing two weeks in this place just watching movies and making friends.
Everywhere, I am surrounded by words and images and words and images that always have some sort of political meaning. And writers, and artists and liberation activists and foreign journalists that have stayed on after the colonial war was over. And Italians that have become African and don’t even speak Italian anymore. And generous souls that have shared pieces of their lives and changed mine.
Re-living these pages I am, sometimes, amazed at what I have written. From quotes of Ruth First and Margot Dias to somewhat futile accounts of every little detail of every walk around the city, every coffee, every encounter.
Re-living these pages, I am really sorry that I haven’t kept the habit of writing travel diaries. Re-reading some of these pages, I realise they are actually a script for the adventure movie of that African winter.
In Retrospective, a cinematographic year without the scent of time. I have accomplished nothing. I kept zapping.
Haruki Murakami, After the Quake
Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time
In December 2009 I finally managed to finish my PhD. In January 2010, as a reward, I took myself to Zambia because I have always been fascinated by Dr. Livingstone.
I am not a particularly brave person, I’m actually quite shy and insecure most of the times.
But I do believe in forcing myself to do everything that terrifies me.
This is my first trip to India. I spent two and half days in Kochi in the state of Kerala, site of the death of Vasco da Gama who had arrived in Calicut (now Kozhikode) 26 years before. In 1510, led by Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese conquered Goa and here they stayed until December 19 1961. I spent two days here, fulfilling what has been a dream ever since I was a kid. To visit Goa.
And while trying to fight whatever is left of my jet lag self, I am trying to both understand where I am beyond the imaginary place of countless life fantasies and the real place. This is, of course, an absolutely delusional ambition. How could I ever understand anything in two overwhelming days.
I always felt History was not easy to explain. Not even to thode who share it with you. There’s always a sense of invaders guilt at the back of my mind and then people tell me ” you should come to Iran and see the Portuguese fort in Hormuz” or ” you really need to come to Sri Lanka and see the Galle Fort” or maybe go to Thailand or Oman or Indonesia. And then I realize there’s nothing to be explained. It’s a common memory .
The minute I got in the car for a tour of Goa, the guide starts talking about Augustinian and Jesuit churches and nuns baking Bebinca, and reliquaries and Saint Francis Xavier and how much knowledge came together in the XV century to make all those churches and forts rise and still stand.
It is impossible, for me at least, not to feel that those stones and paintings and that relic are part of who I am. They are my cultural DNA.
The next day I decide to walk on my own through Fontainhas, the Latin Quarter of Panjim and get lost, as I normally do. Since I have no wifi I ask the girl carrying her dry cleaning carefully wrapped in newspaper where June 18 street is. She walks with me because she is going that way. Where are you from, she asks. I tell her.
Eu também falo português (I also speak Portuguese) she tells me.
This is my unfinished journey. Where my sense of belonging comes from.
One is always at home in one’s past…
On August 17 1993, a lifetime ago, me and the three people that were the closest to me at the time (one of them is still my best friend), drove to Santiago de Compostela to see “The Artist formerly known as Prince”. I think he had played in Lisbon the day before or was going to the day after but Santiago is closer to Porto and the tickets were considerably cheaper in Spain.
Before the European funded highways and the open borders that made life so much simpler for a while, traffic in Porto was chaotic and someone ended up bumping our car from behind at the still today chaotic “Rotunda dos Produtos Estrela”. I remember we all got out of the car shouting at this poor man that we had to go to Spain and he was going to make us late. He didn’t. The car didn’t even have a dent.
We drove first to Viana do Castelo to pick up the fourth element of our little pilgrimage. We actually managed not to get lost driving in Santiago and had to park the car some 2 km away from the venue. And then we hiked up hill and reached Monte do Gozo all sweaty and scratched and waited around for that magic moment when Prince finally showed himself on stage and the concert started.
Monte do Gozo is known for being the place where Christian pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago get their first views of the three spires of their destination, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. At 370 metres (1,210 ft),it is the pilgrims’ last hill and last stop before reaching the cathedral, with about an hour’s walk still to go, and by tradition is where they cry out in rapture at finally seeing the end of their path.
For us, it was also the end of a journey although it felt like the beginning of a new way of living. It was the perfect setting for a perfect experience, we walked down hill back to the car feeling whole in the way that only music you love can make you feel. We drove back singing Purple Rain as loud as we could and in the early hours of the morning waited for the “Pastelaria Fãozense” to open so we could eat some “clarinhas” (traditional squash pastry). The 229th day of 1993 was a perfect day. As far as I can remember, all the days of the summer of 1993, spent between Porto and Viana, lying in the sun and dancing the night away, where perfect.
Today, according to a friend who is counting time post by post on her Facebook timeline, is the 110th day of a year that I feel I don’t want to experience anymore. If the sense of loss of humanity seems to invade our life with every news report of people being washed ashore while others sunbathe, of stranded lifes in filthy refugee camps and of horror stories behind closed doors, today this sense of loss runs deeper. Not because some lifes seem to be more important. Some people’s talent just transform the world into a place where you actually want to be.
In the midst of collective mourning, the loss of someone who composed my “coming of age soundtrack”, after I understood that while I have a somewhat melancholic personality, I am not depressive enough to embrace darker tunes, is also deeply personal. And sometimes you don’t even see it, you’re too busy hurrying so you get somewhere before it’s too late. And you never get anywhere. You have just left the sign of the times mess up with your mind.
In days like today I realize that I locked away a part of what I have lived and that I will not be able to recover it. In days like today I fear that the world is becoming flat again. And square.
Take me to the streets of Portugal
That might be my destiny to see the waterfall
Tears or rain, they’re all the same
The only way to win this game
To let everybody play and share the ball
Sign O’ The Times (1987) and Lavaux (2010)
Photo: Backstage Auditorio do Monte do Gozo, Santiago de Compostela, Spain – August 17th, 1993 via The Prince Army
All is left from the luggage label on my beautiful US Trunk Company of Fall River Massachusetts was enough to find out that it sailed eastbound from New York to Lisbon in May 1921. I bought it at a charity shop and the lady working there was thrilled that she was selling “something as old as the Titanic”. I was overwhelmed by all the imaginary stories going on in my mind. Now it doesn’t go anywhere. I use it as a side table and as storage for vintage dresses.
My grandmother’s wooden chest was the first piece of my small collection. It went to Angola with her in 1951 and came back to Portugal carrying the rests of a life left behind. The small leather suitcase on top was her father’s. My aunt gave it to me because I have a reputation of wanting everything that is old a no one else really wants anymore. The bigger one was bought at a flea market and belonged to someone who used to vacation in Sintra.
My great aunt died when I was traveling in Vietnam. After coming back I helped my mother and her sister with sorting out all her things. This Falstaff beer tin trunk was hers. The label inside says “Onil, Angola suitcases for the world that travels”.
I had never before realized that other people’s luggage is also part of my emotional baggage.
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the beauty and nobility, the august mission and destiny, of human handwriting.
George Bernard Shaw
Like seeing a photograph of yourself as a child, encountering handwriting that you know was once yours but that now seems only dimly familiar can inspire a confrontation with the mystery of time.
She may have looked normal on the outside, but once you’d seen her handwriting you knew she was deliciously complicated inside.
The process of deciphering and expressing a sense of who we are happens in tandem with deciphering and expressing when and where we are .
In the summer of 1988 we went to Cheltenham for an intensive English language course. I stayed with Cathy and Howard and my brother stayed with another family so we wouldn’t disturb the immersive quality of the course. I remember Cheltenham as the England in the movies. I remember that Cathy and Howard’s house was “colour coded”, each room had its own colour. My room was pink and their wonderful living room was red. Red carpets, red sofa, red furniture and red wallpaper.
This was my second time in England. I had been to London with my parents when I was 14 or 15 and could not control my excitement at having a place to go with the language I felt in love with in school and getting the Smiths “The queen is dead” before it went on sale in Portugal.
There is a phrase: ‘the sweet smell of success’. And I can only tell you, I’ve had two experiences of that and it just smells like Brighton and oyster bars and things like that.
In August 1992 I visited Brighton with my parents to get things ready to start studying at Sussex University in the Fall. This is still the city that lives in my heart. My city.
Life was completely different now. A full time student with a library schedule and tutorial classes. Now, I was in charge and it wasn’t as easy as I had imagined. Still, this is the city where, in a way, I grew up and everything was a promise of change.
And then I moved to London. I doubt it if I will ever feel the kind of freedom and happiness and warm loneliness and sense of belonging I felt in this place. London was my moveable feast and wherever I go for the rest of my life, it will stay with me.
In 2002 I came back. So did others. Some of us just couldn’t handle it and decided to head back to London. I have tried to justify my choice of coming back many times, knowing that in reality that choice wasn’t actually mine. I arrived at the same conclusion every time. Choosing to be who you really are takes a lot of courage.
Susan B. Kaiser