Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Searching for Saudade in the City of Lisbon

Our first day in Lisbon dawned clear and bright. We wandered blinking through sunny Rossio Square, down the grand grid-like avenues (designed by the Marques de Pombal after the devastating 1755 earthquake, our DK Eyewitness Lisbon guide informed us), and out into a brilliant Praça do Comércio, a wide square that opens to the Tagus River, which sparkled and danced before us.

Looks like Lisbon has thrown off its melancholy," my companion noted as I rushed toward the water, eager to see the line "where the earth ends and the sea begins," a phrase Jose Saramago appropriated from Portuguese poet Camões to begin his novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

I reached the line, marked by two glistening white pillars, and bent down to touch the water. Warm waves lapped invitingly at my fingertips. I straightened and looked out to the horizon, expecting to think of distant lands, but was distracted by the immense red suspension bridge to my right, a twin to San Francisco's Golden Gate and created by the same designer. But this wasn't sunny California. When Saramago's character Ricardo Reis reached these shores from Brazil, it was raining. He was lonely, searching, though he was not sure for what. He knew only that the poet Fernando Pessoa had just died.

I had a copy of Pessoa's Book of Disquiet in my pack. But I didn't feel the disquiet that I had expected to descend upon my arrival, and I couldn't sense the strain of sorrow that runs through almost every book I have ever read set in the city of Lisbon, from Saramago and Pessoa to John Berger’s Here is Where We Meet and Dutch author Cees Nooteboom's The Following Story. In all of these books the boundaries between life and death blur like the constant flux of the Tagus on riverbank, and everyone yearns for something they cannot have.

"It's the Portuguese saudade that you’re after," our host at the Lisbon Story Guesthouse, Bruno, explained when I told him I didn't feel the same way in the real Lisbon as I did in the imagined. Saudade. I first heard the word while reading Berger, who defines it as: “the feeling of fury at having to hear the words too late pronounced too calmly.

"Saudade is a word that has no definition," Bruno told us. "The closest I can tell you is that it is a longing for something that can never happen." He described a Brazilian musician who conceived of the idea as a mother continually unmaking and remaking the bed of her dead child.

I looked at Bruno. "I guess if I was after that, I shouldn't have come to Lisbon on my honeymoon. I should have waited for some heartache."

He nodded. "You cannot help but be a tourist now. But when you live here day to day, you begin to see it. The Portuguese are a sad people, for many reasons."

But slowly, Lisbon revealed its story to us...

Read more about our search for saudade on our blog at the globecorner.com.

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