Of saudade

Fadists on Comibra streets.
photo by Małgorzata Perdeus-Białek

A student asked me at the University of Coimbra how we translated saudade into Polish and how we feel that sensation. Her question was apparently simple yet not that easy to answer. While offering her Polish equivalents like yearning (tęsknota), sadness (smutek) and maybe the most accurate one, melancholy (rzewność), I was quick to protest jokingly, after all here in Portugal – and I am writing these words in Coimbra – they think that the word just cannot be accurately rendered into any other language.
Yet the feeling so named is of utmost importance for Portuguese culture and for everyone who has come into contact with the Portuguese soul. Consequently, it is also vital for a blog featuring it in its title, incidentally not translated into Polish. And so the matter must be treated descriptively and also highly subjectively as in Portugal itself saudade can be felt in a number of ways.
And so it was experienced differently by explorers centuries ago, or adventurers, as they are called under another narrative, when they embarked on their boats, not knowing whether they would reach their destination and where that might be or whether they would see the shores of Portugal ever again. It is felt differently by ourselves, coming now to Belem, where we buy those famous pastries, take them all the way to the tower and peer at the spot from where travellers would leave for their conquests. A student who engaged in a discussion with me at the University and saw the mankind as a brotherhood of nations – calling the explorers slayers and bandits – definitely feels his saudade in yet another way.
What is a completely unknown artist playing fado in the winding lanes of Alfama thinking? Only about how much he will get from tourists, or is he delving deeply into the melancholy tunes produced by a characteristic small guitar oozing that longing sound, best matching songs of sadness, unhappy love and parting? That artist had quit his corporate job to play for people in the street and back than he must have felt his saudade differently than he does now. He has come to like his present life very much. He earns more now than before as tourists – thirsty for new experiences and searching for their saudade, too – come to Lisbon in record numbers. And so in a small bar they meet a completely unknown musician whose talent shines thanks to them during nocturnal fun under the starlit sky of old Alfama. Its steep and winding lanes echo the thudding sound of the tramway number 28, vinte oito, as is the reply of an elderly Portuguese woman asked about it. Then this owner of a tiny shop selling all possible small local items adds something more in that beautiful rustle of a language and smiles waving goodbye.
Can saudade contain at least a tad of joy? Street musicians playing in Coimbra for passers-by and those who like myself drink coffee in nearby gardens are doubtlessly not sad. Not sad is also their dog, supposed to collect pennies for the music played but looking for food in the hat instead. Basking in the sun just nearby, other dogs and cats seem somewhat distant. Could it be that they too feel that mysterious saudade?
Further on, that joy is gone. It is even very melancholy. The players have an accordion but the songs sung by six students for an awed girl snatched from the attentively listening small crowd make the tourists who are sitting at the tables recall many scenes from their prior trips to that country with an elusive yet so penetrating feeling of saudade.
And so everyone remembers something different. The Germans sitting nearby are dreaming of returning to Lagos, where in a rented boat they would come close to various caves and a few days later watched the infinity of the ocean from a high cliff in Sagres. A Dane would like to dive again into the turbulent water in Nazaré, where he left his good company in order to cherish great stark nature and be alone with it for at least a while. A Chinese wishes to reappear on the roof of a slightly rotten seaside hut in Peniche, bow low to the neighbours and with a glass of magnificent wine of greenish hue endlessly watch the waves almost sweeping the hut out of its foundations. He was not alone there. Nearby, a Portuguese was sitting in the sand with a beer can planted next to him. His eyes were fixed on that kitschy postcard – the local beach with sand white and powdery like flour plus the horizon – yet that was the real sight, as the noisy cries of seagulls testified.
Also a Pole recalled that deep feeling that gripped him in Algarve when he would walk along the ocean towards the Spanish border for hours on end and the sea kept spitting medusas onto the shore, a light breeze was blowing and its sound was accompanied by as if a song of nature: so beautiful here, when they were leaving thinking they may never return, beautiful when he contemplated it walking long kilometres towards Monte Gordo, and still remaining beautiful when others come after him. That song of nature and its reflection in the spacetime of a land called Portugal can sometimes be captured by fado players in Lisbon, Coimbra, Porto and several other places. They can turn it into sounds gripping the souls of Germans, a Dane, a Chinese and a Pole, who just cannot free themselves from those sounds any more, not that they would like to. And so they keep returning to Portugal, to listen to them, approach the caves in boats, peer at kitschy but so true dream sights, sip greenish-tinged wine and walk for hours along beaches covered with white sand soft like flour called areia branca in the rustling language. What grips them again and again when they are in those places once more and feel the same anew, although in so many different ways, is exactly German, Danish, Chinese and Polish saudade. Indeed, it can be German, Danish, Chinese and Polish, yet its origin will forever remain written down by the swooshing seaside wind in a land washed by Atlantic waters.
Irek Białek, Coimbra, Portugal, April 2018