Wandering the cobblestoned hills near Calçada da Glória, Bairro Alto in Lisbon, a Portuguese friend and I came across this beautiful and moving mural, depicting three torsos decorated with past and present icons of Portuguese culture and history.
On the arm of the right-most torso there is a little verse juxtaposed with the word saudade, one of the themes of the mural:
“É tão certo eu te amar,
Como o corpo carne ser,
E só deixarei de te amar,
Quando o corpo a cor perder.”
“It is so certain that I love you,
As the body is made of flesh,
And I’ll only stop loving you,
When the body loses its color.”
Saudade is one of those words without translation – it describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. It often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return (wikipedia).
Viewing this mural, I suddenly had an acute sense of belonging to Portugal, a feeling that had been with me more softly throughout my two weeks in the country. This was my first time in a country from which I have heritage. I am mixed race: of Chinese, Portuguese, Irish, and German heritage, with the Chinese and Portuguese sides having arrived in the US with the generation preceding my parents. My parents divorced when I was very young, yet lived spatially close to each other. I grew up with a paradoxical sense of belonging to many and to none at the same time. It is an interesting type of “belonging” to be: a paradox that can never be quite resolved, resulting in a subtle sense of saudade flavoring my life’s journey.
Saudade was a thread weaving together many of my images of the Portuguese soul I had during my brief stay: the feelings stirred in me by the sounds of fado; the pride tempered with a subtle sense of loss in the voices of the Portuguese as they recalled the acute end the earthquake of 1755 had brought to their golden age and its beautiful artifacts; the goodbyes of the mothers and partners of departing sailors.
I, like many of this era, am a nomad rich with diverse experiences, yet will never be able to collect all of my place- and people-specific memories together in one place, in one time. Saudade: a song for the modern soul.
Karen Noiva is a MIT PhD candidate in Building Technology.