Unlikely

 

Me aged 2.  It didn’t seem plausible but I did grow up. And, surprisingly enough, not into a fearless tomboy.

How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life”  ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Revisiting

Não há nada que resista ao tempo. Como uma grande duna que se vai formando grão a grão, o esquecimento cobre tudo.

Ainda há dias pensava nisto a propósito de não sei que afecto.

Nisto de duas pessoas julgarem que se amam tresloucadamente, de não terem mutuamente no corpo e no pensamento senão a imagem do outro, e daí a meia dúzia de anos não se lembrarem sequer de que tal amor existiu, cruzarem-se numa rua sem qualquer estremecimento, como dois desconhecidos.

Essa certeza, hoje então, radicou-se ainda mais em mim.

Fui ver a casa onde passei um dos anos cruciais da minha vida de menino. E nem as portas, nem as janelas, nem o panorama em frente me disseram nada. Tinha cá dentro, é certo, uma nebulosa sentimental de tudo aquilo. Mas o concreto, o real, o número de degraus da escada, a cara da senhoria, a significação terrena de tudo aquilo, desaparecera.

Miguel Torga, “Diário (1940)”

Nothing can stand the test of time. Like a great dune, growing with each grain of sand, oblivion covers everything. I’ve been thinking about this for days, I do not know prompted by what type of feeling or affection.

Take the case of two people loving each other so madly that they did not have in their bodies and thoughts anything but the image of the other, and in a half-dozen years they will not even remember that such a love existed, when they walk past each other without any shudder, like two strangers.

This certainty, today, has become even more rooted in me.

I went to see the house where I spent one of the crucial years of my boyhood life. And neither the doors, nor the windows, nor the landscape in front spoke to me. I had in me, of course, a sentimental nebula of it all. But the concrete, the real, the number of steps on the stairs, the face of the landlady, the earthly meaning of all that had disappeared.

The translation is mine and it doesn’t do the original any justice. I saw part of this text written on a wall in Leiria two weeks ago, yesterday I felt what it meant. I walked through the streets of Viana do Castelo as a tourist. It didn’t feel like the city that was almost my second home at a time when I too seemed to be “madly in love”. No emotion, and the “sentimental nebula” was just the sad realization of that void. I walked to the theater to buy the ticket for the opera recital. The lady in front of me was asking a lot of questions, she was afraid she didn’t know her way around the building anymore. She had danced on that stage when she was young. Her memories felt comforting.

Photo: Teatro Sá de Miranda, Viana do Castelo

Trying to remember Ithaka

M. bought this dress Monday morning (my time zone) and the rest of my day was spent trying to remember what seemed to have been long forgotten.

I can’t remember the last time I wore this dress, but I am sure I wore it during a chilly evening in the summer of 1997 at a concert in Montemor‘s castle. I remember who was with me and the theory that “villages with medieval castles are always cold” but I could not remember who was playing.

Trying to dig up something that you have forgotten to remember from the pre-internet era is not always easy. I tried to google what I did remember. The same artist was also a photographer who, probably in the same year, had an installation called “I could write a book” at Galeria Zé dos Bois in Lisbon.  Inspired by the famous jazz standard, specifically by Dinah Washington’s rendition of it (1955), the installation featured an unmade bed, photos and diary entries and little notes from the time the author lived, in love, in Tokyo because if someone had asked him, he could have written a book.

If they asked me, I could write a book
About the way you walk, and whisper, and look
I could write a preface
On how we met
So the world would never forget

But I did forget and, as the day progressed I felt more and more irritated at not being able to recall the name. Probably C. went with me to Lisbon so I decided to send an email explaining my quasi existential doubt of the day. He thought it was absurd and called me. He had no recollection whatsoever of such installation he most probably did go but couldn’t remember. We also saw this same guy at Labirintho, I said. Remember that? We went with another friend who got drunk and almost in trouble. Remember that? I even remember where we had parked the car and that we drove away and Cake’s Fashion Nugget was playing. He could not remember anything at all. It seems like we have done really interesting stuff together in the 90s, though.

By 8 pm I could recall some Greek connection and my Google search was “Californian musician, Greek ancestry, living in Lisbon in the 90s”. There it was an article about “the greatest Portuguese talents of the 90s”, about the great “unknown”, groundbreaking talent of Portuguese Pop/Rock and the growing popularity of Dance and Hip-Hop scenes. Finally Darin Pappas, aka Ithaka Darin Pappas aka Korvowrong and the album “Stellafly”, the most powerful and consistent national registry edited in 1997. That might help explain why I seemed to have travelled across the country to hear him even if now it doesn’t really make much sense.

But then again, C.P. Cavafy’s IthaKa is the conclusion that it’s never about getting there but always about the search, as long as you understand what the Ithakas mean.

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
 
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
 
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
 
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
 
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

 

I texted the name and sent it to C. “wtf, who remembers that” was the answer. Right.

Now, the material trigger for all this is on its way to another hemisphere and I hope it will continue to inspire random thoughts, impromptu travels, silly theories and becomes someone else’s story.

Mozambique 97

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.

Will Oldham in that Raygun Magazine

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.

I didn’t want to risk missing a thing. I didn’t want to risk losing the memory of the place and of the people.

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.

 

On the shoulders of giants

In December 2001 Salman Rushdie visited Porto for one of the final lectures in a series of conferences about the “Future of the Future”.  In 2001 Porto was, with Rotterdam, European Culture Capital  and the discussion of a post future at the end of a year that forever changed the collective perception of our present seemed appropriate. “The Middle Ages trying to destroy the Third Millennium”, he said.

Three months after 9/11 and 12 years after the fatwa on him, Mr. Rushdie walked alone in Porto. No bodyguards. Carefree.

On the last week before Christmas shops in downtown Porto stay open at night for people like me who can’t plan their shopping in advance. As part of our mini-tradition, me and my best friend went out for some late night shopping that December of 2001. We stopped at a deserted Café Majestic for tea. In 2001 there were no lists of “the most beautiful coffee shops in the world”, there were no lines of tourists at the door, there was no Maître d’ trying to bring some kind of order to the process of sitting down. In 2001  you could actually go in and sit and be almost alone. It was late and the gentleman sitting at the far end table by the piano paid his check and got up to leave. As he made his way to the door, Mr. Rushdie walked past our table and looked at the incredulity on my face and winked and left. I was brought up in a house of books, my father is a Literature professor and  meeting or just seeing one of these “giants”in person, still makes me feel as over the moon as a teenage girl coming face to face with her favourite rock star would.

ground

In June 2010 Sir Salman Rushdie was the keynote speaker at a conference I was attending in Kansas City and spoke about freedom and the media and the power of Literature and novelists  “who are able to probe the truth without being beholden to facts.” After his plenary address, I and few hundred others waited in line to have our books signed. Holding my copy of The Ground Beneath Her Feet, I approached his table and didn’t ask him if he remembered that night in December 2001. That was the fantasy conversation going on in my mind.

These line focus on Salman Rushdie because of a cold night in December 2001. They could easily be about Borges, Coetzee, Murakami, Pessoa, Auster, Cortazar, Sontag or many others. These are my superheroes. The ones with no x-ray vision but that are able to pierce into your soul and help you discover yourself. The ones that can’t fly but still make your imagination soar and plant the seed of invincibility in your heart. The fearless ones that keep fighting for their truth in a world that so many times keeps telling us that intellectualism is frivolous as if, paraphrasing Orwell, the only goal was to keep ourselves alive when the ultimate objective should be to retain our humanity. Or as Flexner, ten years before 1984 was published, questioned whether “there would be sufficient opportunity for a full life if the world were emptied of some of the useless things that give it spiritual significance; in other words, whether our conception of what is useful may not have become too narrow to be adequate to the roaming and capricious possibilities of the human spirit.”

img_0660

And because I am not superhero myself, I will keep borrowing the words

The old idea of the intellectual as the one who speaks truth to power is still worth holding on to. Tyrants fear the truth of books because it’s a truth that’s in hock to nobody. It’s a single artist’s unfettered vision of the world. They fear it even more because it’s incomplete, because the act of reading completes it, so that the book’s truth is slightly different in each reader’s inner world. These are the true revolutions of literature, these invisible, intimate communions of strangers, these tiny revolutions inside each reader’s imagination. And the enemies of the imagination, all the different goon squads of gods and power, want to shut these revolutions down and can’t. Not even the author of a book can know exactly what effect his book will have. But good books do have effects and some of these effects are powerful and all of them, thank goodness, are impossible to predict in advance. Literature is a loose cannon. This is a very good thing.

Salman Rushdie, The Power of the Pen

Such is the power of Literature and the super power of writers. They may not be the kind of hero that braves  against the violence of the natural world but they are of the same kind of the ones that “do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky!

References

George Orwell, 1984

Abraham Flexner, The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

Salman Rushdie, The Power of the Pen

Walter Lippmann, Amelia Earhart – Herald Tribune – 7/8/37

 

Superhero

Tropicália

I’m standing at the entrance of the  room checking Caetano Veloso get on stage for the technical rehearsal of this evening’s show. And this is actually happening. Tropicália, one of the founding songs of the movement, echoes in the empty room and Caetano’s voice seems to hold me in a hug.

I grew up listening to Brazilian music, not specifically to Caetano whose music I only discovered in my 20s,  but to the amazing voices of Elis Regina, to the powerful words of Chico Buarque and the outrageous performances of Ney Matogrosso. That music, those words,  have functioned as my citizenship, like a deeper connection to a language that even though it’s my native language, I have never managed to master in an elegant way but could, none the less, substitute my passport.

I was not born in 1967, my generation didn’t actually have to create a revolution, we were born in the aftermath of insurrection and before red carnations took to the streets.

Brazil, a country I traveled to for the first time when I was 9, meant as a cliché, samba, beach and a carefree existence. Caetano’s songs showed me something else. A country that can hold the entire world in both its glory and its misery. I started paying attention to the music that makes you want to get up and celebrate life through dancing and to the words that make you stand still and think. Last time I was in Brazil was in 2000 while the celebrations for its 500 years of postcolonial history were underway. Walking through the streets of Salvador all the way up to a candomblé house made me feel thankful for paying attention. That’s where the music materialized itself, in the Roma Negra.

From Porto Seguro and Salvador, the journey ended in Rio de Janeiro and I could still hear the words, who hasn’t felt the swing of Henri Salvador. We were staying in Copacabana and took the bus to the Flamengo neighborhood to see the Carmen Miranda Museum on an amazing journey through scandalous platform shoes and outrageous costumes and jewelry. A dream closet. In all her esthetic exaggeration, the adopted icon of tropicalism was a true precursor, taking it all in, who she was, who others thought she was, Europe, America and the tropics in one flamboyant persona.

Oswald’s anthropophagy, the solution to the problem of identity, the antidote to having your mind chained to labels and to grim  values of behavior and morality. Thoroughly thought anarchy and cultural eclecticism, helas, flamboyance as a beautiful form of resistance.

Movements become dated and even our music heroes get old but this evening, the Coliseu sang Tieta to the ones that still shine brighter than a million suns and Gilberto Gil, all dressed in white, danced. And I have no films, photos or recordings and yet it will be registered forever.

References

Photo cover to Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis by Mário de Andrade

Reconvexo

Luz de Tieta

Sign O’ The Times

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.

Prince Setlist Monte do Gozo, Santiago de Compostela, Spain 1993, Act II

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

References

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

Getting to know who you are

What’s in a name

According to the label on it, I’ve had this t-shirt since I was 4. I guess these were quite popular at the time and my brother also had one.


At four, this was just a cute t-shirt with my name on it, now I look at it and see the beginning of my long saga of letting clothes tell me who I am. The fact that it actually has my name on it makes it even more important. I have always identified with the name chosen for me. Both of them. My two given names are Nadine and Stella. One meaning Hope and the other, of course, meaning Star. These meanings have, undoubtedly, shaped my main personality trait, I’m the eternal optimist, the obstinate one “that maintains that everything is best when it is worst.”

Nadine is the name everyone calls me, it’s also the name that has always made sense to call mine. Re-reading my 9 year old diary I realise that it also the name of the character I’ve created for myself. Most of the pages are full of descriptions of this girl called Nadine, an aspirational self, subject to countless experimentations of posture, behaviour, appearance, treated in writing like some amazing heroin in one of the countless books that were my most usual companions at the time.

Growing up in Portugal it was also too different from all the other names at school or the doctor’s office. At a time when you didn’t want to be noticed it was the kind of name that did not allow for any kind of invisibility. I didn’t actually realise how good that was. I do now. It is the kind of name that does not really require a surname. You can just be.

The imaginary or delusional grandeur I came to see in this name made it difficult to live up to it. How not to fall short from the character? I started by dressing it, all it’s moods, quirks, dreams and aspirations as a costume designer of some sorts. That’s how I ended up with a massive closet and no archiving space.

Stella has never been the protagonist. Others have never recognised it as a character and I am only slowly discovering that it might also be a name with it’s own voice.
Say Your Name

References

Voltaire

Ms. Berta’s beaded jersey 

Ms. Berta used to own an antique / vintage store at Galerias Lumière in Porto. Now reborn into a beautifully retro gourmet, design space quoted on most
tourist and “what to do in Porto” guides, these galleries opened in 1978 as one of the first shopping centers in Porto. Most of us growing up in the 80s remember the space as a movie theater with two cinema rooms (A and L). The cinemas closed down in 1997 and are now a parking lot, others businesses, like the store that sold all sorts of collectibles from coins to stamps to postcards and pocket calendars slowly died.

I started going to Ms. Berta’s store when I was in high school, which means I was mostly a window shopper kind of client until I built up the courage to get in and graduate into the browser / snooper kind. I was fascinated by the antique jewelry and lace gloves but the first thing a managed to buy from her was a 1960s handbag that I still own. This coral beaded jersey was bought on the last month or so before Ms. Berta closed her shop for good. I remember the day, I remember fragments of the conversation and that she had a friend and her grandson with her. Sadly I don’t remember the exact date. This was the first time I understood buying vintage clothes as creating bonds. It was her jersey. She had had it made for her and was letting it go. A piece of someone’s story that, unfortunately, faits a little too big on me. I’m also ready to let it go.

Travel souvenirs

When I was a kid I wanted to be an archeologist. Because of this I spent hours improvising excavation sites with sofa cushions in my father’s office and fantasizing about going to Egypt, while my apparent natural vocation was nurtured by history books I was not old enough to understand. I did not become some sort of post modern female Indiana Jones (Lara Croft had not been created) but finally made it to Egypt for work (totally unrelated to my childhood fantasies) in 2008.

I was in Alexandria for a conference for four days feeling as excited as the kid who had fantasies of breakthrough discoveries that would forever alter the understanding of history. I did discover a common history and felt small, humbled, ecstatic and privileged for having the opportunity  to walk to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina every day, to wander inside, to imagine how the Ancient Library of Alexandria might have looked, to stare in awe at full reading rooms and the bookcases still longing to be filled.

Apart form a small bronze Egyptian cat statue, this  was my only souvenir, I don’t even know what happened to the photos I took (I do tend to loose digital photos) but when I found this caftan yesterday, I’ve realized I don’t actually need the photos, I can still feel the incessant wind and the warmth and the blue, I can still remember talking to three small kids who wanted to have friends in different parts of the world. Better than a photo and it sure beats a magnet.