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.
Saudade mural detail in Lisbon, Portugal
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.