If what you do you makes you who you are, what happens when there’s a lockdown? Social restrictions have meant we cannot fully commit to those activities, hobbies that are part of our identities. I still run, I still exercise. On the other end of the scale, I haven’t danced since early March so I don’t feel like a dancer and for a while, I didn’t want to write either. Of these and other pieces that make up who I am, the one thing I have held close was the exact same notion I have struggled the most: being Portuguese. I say I struggle with this not because I refuse my Portuguese-ness but rather as someone who feels like a faux Portuguese. I wasn’t born there but I am Portuguese by descent.
I left South Africa, my birthplace, aged six, making my last journey in the family’s powder-blue VW Kombi. We nearly didn’t make it to the airport because it broke down on the way there. We just about made it on time for the flight but it came with at a price: we had very little time to spend with my grand-uncle and aunt, who’d purposely came to wish us well on our journey. The bond between us all was very strong. When my dad, 15, moved to South Africa, they helped him out and became his surrogate father and mother. That emotional support continued while my dad set up his business, got married and had a little family of his own. Leaving them at the airport, after very rushed goodbyes, wasn’t easy for my parents. Our uncle and auntie were more than just family, they were a strong tie to my parents’ own identity. We don’t only leave places behind, we leave people too…sometimes not knowing it might be for the last time.
Just like them, there were people who marked me. I still remember my Uncle M who passed away while I was at university. He was my mum’s big brother. Handsome tall figure with a great moustache, who made me laugh uncontrollably as a child. He is still present in the best memories I have of South Africa. I miss him. That six-year old girl particularly misses him, too.
With the scent of freshly roasted chestnuts in the early winter air, I arrived in Lisbon in mid-1980s when Portugal was recovering from decades under Salazar’s dictatorship, in the shadow of a collapsed maritime empire and its devastating aftermath (the Portuguese Colonial War or Guerra do Ultramar), and integration into the EEC (now EU). I was growing up in a Portugal that was learning to find its place in the world again.
I didn’t speak the language at first but understood everything. At the time it was a relief to hear someone speak English, or watch some English-speaking films on TV, as these were a lifeline for a child away from the only world she had ever known. The language barrier was soon overcame over the summer months and by the end, I had adopted a magpie accent (also evident when I speak English by borrowing different regional intonations). Over time, I stopped speaking Afrikaans and the little Zulu I knew, and Portuguese became the focus of my growing up. Over time, I’d detached myself of the identity based on place of birth to embrace the identity based on ancestry.
Once you learn the language, you also learn about culture and history. As much as I enjoyed studying History at school, studying Kings and Queens, Presidents and Prime Ministers, sometimes I felt I knew more about them than my own family. I thought of doing some research into the family history but this could prove to be hazardous. Family roots are deeply settled in Madeira but this island had no indigenous population when it was claimed by Portuguese navigators – it become inhabited by mostly newly-weds from the North of Portugal as early as 1420, and then a greater influx of different nationalities in later centuries. Even family names are lost to me. Some of the surnames passed down the generations have been historically attributed to children of unknown parentage or given to those converted to Christianity. Again, that sense of being orphaned from your own history returns. I often wonder what treasures could be found in the names of past kinship, how threads intercepted along the years for me to be here. Names I cannot be certain are their own; names which will not reveal who they really are. Maybe this is an opportunity to reinvent oneself and create a new identity.
I have been a wanderer my whole life (it feels as though the word migrant has a negative connotation nowadays so I shall use wanderer instead). I come from generations of wanderers, all looking for a better life when life at home was dire, or provided little room for self-improvement. For every generation that got up and settled elsewhere, starting anew, a part of them was left behind and the generations that followed carry that emptiness within them, growing each time a sense of guilt and shame for having abandoned their roots…This is how I feel. This is how other relatives I spoke to also feel. The sense of not belonging or fitting in, despite actively participating in society, learning the history of the place they grew up, being a good citizen, being an exemplary student (wanderer parents like to push) and thriving when compared to the previous generation (again, wanderer parents really like to push). That feeling of missing something that doesn’t quite leave you. In Portuguese we call this saudade. It’s difficult to explain this feeling in one word in English as it envelopes both good and sad sides of nostalgia, grief and longing, a sense of unfulfilled destiny. The closest match in English is now my new favourite word: desiderium.
As wandering is in the blood, it was time for me to find a new home. As a Portuguese South African, Britain was perhaps the obvious choice (possibly the longest standing alliance in the world is that between Portugal and England, Anglo-Portuguese Treaty from 1373, later ratified Windsor Treaty, signed in 1386). Despite my sense of displacement, I never felt more Portuguese than when I first moved to the UK. Suddenly accepting my Portuguese-ness was important in a new land. Having spent my formative years in Portugal, I did a lot of growing up in the UK. I have spent my entire adult life here, more than anywhere else in the world. The people around me made it a place for me to want to stay. Still, when I feel aimless, I often think of a well-known line from a Portuguese poet.
“A minha pátria é a língua portuguesa”
“My homeland is the Portuguese language”
This quote was recited to me at school by my Portuguese teacher. She asked the class what we thought the poet meant when he said “My homeland is the Portuguese language”. Whatever I thought then, no longer applies now. Like Pessoa, a poet born in Portugal, moved to South Africa when his mother remarried to later return to Lisbon aged 17, I understood the significance of writing your thoughts in the language that best describes them. He wrote prolifically in both English and Portuguese but his poems in Portuguese are incredibly beautiful. There is something in the manner of the language that feels both abandoned and found again.
The language that habits your dreams is the language of your soul. I speak and write in English but I dream and think in Portuguese. English was the first language I spoke in but it’s not my mother tongue, not my mother’s tongue. I often wonder which were my mum’s first words to me when I was born. Whatever they were, I am almost sure they were in Portuguese. Whatever they were, I am almost sure they offered a place of comfort, the ground where I could place my bare feet whenever I felt restless.
Everyone needs a home. London is home now. If someone else tells me to go back home, I will have to remind them this is home. The language where my truest self manifests is Portuguese. That’s what I’ve come to understand what Pessoa meant by that quote. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, the words in your heart, in your soul that sound authentic, are your homeland. In the Portuguese language I found solace, no matter where I call home. Whenever I go, saudade is forever with me.
4 thoughts on “Identity – Chapter 1”
Such a beautiful memory of the past. Our younger selves! Thanks for reminding me of my dad, Uncle M! I love your writing!
Thank you for stopping by and reading. Your dad will forever be an integral part of my experience in SA. As a child I always thought of his presence being greater than life, with that mighty moustache of his! He was so funny! Many happy memories indeed…