Retracing Our Steps

Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can never go home again.

That’s inherent in the Portuguese sense of saudade.

Some yearn for the “good old days,” while others are nostalgic for the way they were.

We move on, treasuring certain memories while forgetting about the mistaken realities of others.

Our former home, the first footprint in Portugal, had been a distant thought since we sold it to two other Americans a couple of years ago … despite that it remained but a 10-minute drive from where we now live. Somehow, we never had a reason to return or turn left from the main road into the village.

Until yesterday.

We went to the annual “Feria de Sopas” (Soup Festival) in Escalos de Cima, the big brother of the parish (freguesía) to Lousa, where we had lived for our first three years in Portugal. Accompanying us were the two guys who had bought our house there. A great deal: soup bowl, reusable and environmentally friendly stash bag, plus three tokens good for our choice of three soups. All for five euros. And the heaping bowls of soup are plentiful and delicious.

Three little old ladies descended upon us as soon as we entered the pavilion, surrounding us with hugs and chattering in Portuguese. They were neighbors who lived down the street from us in Lousa. Always together gathering at set times in the morning and early evening, they were my (wo)mentors in learning the language. Respecting my “Falem um pouco mais devagar, por favor” plea every time I came across them while walking our dogs, they’d patiently help me encounter new words and pronounce phrases correctly, … at least according to how Portuguese is still spoken in this neck of the woods. Elsewhere, we’d later learn, accents are different–as is the vocabulary.

But I digress.

These former neighbors, excited to see us, stirred up remembrances of things past.

Now I was not only eager to see what had been changed in the house we’d called home, but rather what (if anything) had changed in the village.

While lots had been done since the new owners took possession of the property — walls removed to make large open space, divisions reconfigured, new floors and new colors, different furniture and placements — the same couldn’t be said of the village.

The same ladies sat in their spots by the depot at the village entrance, taking in what remained of the sun. The same men drove their same cars too quickly down the main street. The same church dominated the central landscape. The same public fountain opposite the church was filling pails and buckets with water. The same buildings stood — a bit more weathered — sentry. The same cobble stones covered the streets. The same two cafés and corner mini-mercado serviced the villagers. The same properties were waiting to be sold.

In essence, the same charm that had attracted us initially still permeated the village.

Walking the familiar odd little roads with names like “Largo do …” and “Travessa da …” that passed for thoroughfares within its boundaries, people looking out their street level windows showed hints of recognition in their eyes. Some smiled at us; others came out to embrace us with hugs and asked “Tudo bêm?” inquiring about our lives since leaving Lousa.

It was then — and there — that the saudade firmly gripped us.

Not that we wanted to back down the rabbit hole through the looking glass. It was something more ineffable that touched our souls, bringing bittersweet tears of melancholy to our eyes.

Completing our visit, we passed through rowhouses clustered here and there with falling down ruins next door to livable dwellings as we ambled toward the village periphery where unfashionable doors disguised the beauty of quintas inside. How gratifying it was to see people still working their land–whether gardening, pruning, planting, or harvesting crops.

Here, too, surrounding the village, once magnificent manor homes continued to welcome back guests–especially during the summer, especially from France.

Every so often, we came across signs of renaissance. Dominated by older folks prepared to meet Saint Peter, the diminishing population held the promise of regeneration and resurrection. New people from other places speaking different languages were discovering the inscrutable joys of living in harmony with nature and land.

We had retraced our steps trodden so many times through myriad matrices during our first residence exposure to Portugal–reminiscing and celebrating people and places.

It was time now to look homeward, angels, behind and beyond.

Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of award-winning Portugal Living Magazine, the thoughtful magazine for people everywhere with Portugal on their minds. Read current and past issues — and subscribe FREE! — via this link:

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