Monday, December 26, 2016

         If I were on your skin I would be a tattoo

Cracow, Poland, 2005

Krakow is like an aged attic with trunks full of dust.
It’s a city made of ashes, tombs, children playing with glass marbles, old crooked ladies selling fruit and stores selling products that should be displayed in museums. It’s a city straight out of a black & white film from the 40's. If you stop and listen carefully, you can hear slow carriages creaking by, soldiers marching along the streets or even the lethargic steps of old men, warm blankets covering their frail shoulders. In this city, you can listen quite well to the silence. It is trapped by a fence of fears and memories of those who left, but somehow still remain.

The first time I saw him was in Prague at a train station. The second time, in the cab we shared together to the hostel. I felt cold and numb from the trip and I remember two colours: yellow and blue. Through the dark window of the cab, a ruined old factory could be seen with wrecked windows like broken teeth. Within a few minutes we were dropped in a dark street. It was 5:30 a.m.

Cracow, Poland, 2005

We walked the entire morning without having slept. We crossed the bridge that goes over the Vístula River until we reached a deserted park. There was silence, squirrels, an apple and us. His humour, that’s what I remember best about him. We talked a great deal and I  found out that he had come on purpose from America to Poland due to intense psychoanalytic work, work that had helped him to discover something important about himself. He said: I found out that, in some other life, I was a child that was killed in a concentration camp during the war. I was just a child. It’s his weeping that doesn’t let me move forward.

I think I must have entered almost all of the synagogues in the city. Once we found one whose walls were wrapped in sepia and black and white old photos of families and children being taken to the camps. In one of them, there was a crying child wearing a thin black coat, and from her lips you could see a scream escape. Although unclear, it was just possible to decipher the barrel of a gun being pointed to his head. Suddenly he called to me to take a look  at the picture, and in his eyes I could see tears.

Whether he thought that he could have been that child in the photo, I never found out.

The next morning we took the bus that would drop us in Auschwitz and later in Birkenau. We exchanged few words that day, but I remember him saying whilst we were watching the introductory Nazi extermination video: Can you believe what they did to my people? He stood up and left me alone.

Only a few hours later, I spotted him on the other side of the barbed wire, from where he shouted my name. He came closer to me and whispered: Imagine how many families, how many lovers would have wanted to hold one another, to touch each others’ hands and throughout the years they were forbidden to do so. That could have been us…

That same night, he left. I walked with him for a while in that city frozen in time. The only visible colour was a dark yellow flickering in a fireplace. I thought to myself, it’s easy for someone to feel lonely here. Before he said goodbye, as if somehow he foresaw something, he made me promise him one thing. He said: Whenever you need me, just say my name. And then pray. 


My mistake was leaving Krakow during the night.
I bought the ticket, and right after the border control near Prague, the train stopped. It was 2 a.m., and I couldn’t hear a thing. I couldn’t see anyone. I was alone in the carriage. I thought, If something happens to me, no one will report it… Suddenly, someone came down the hall and caught a glimpse of me. He walked over and mumbled something in Polish. He called his friend in the next carriage and he also walked up and down the hall for a while. He briefly whispered something in his friend’s ear then both started grinning. With their cunning grins, I knew something bad was about to happen. And that was when one of them entered my carriage and sat next to me, whilst the other maintained his composure and  reserved attitude.

Forcefully, I told him to leave. He didn’t move and took a look at his partner. My blood froze. I knew they were planning something, but there was no one to ask for help. I looked through the window, to the enormous clock hands outside, to a coloured caramel wrapping paper left on the ground, to the railway tracks going in the other direction. The only thing I could hear was the thud of my heart and intuitively I said his name. I repeated it, closed my eyes and began to pray.

All of a sudden, he stood up and left with his friend.

A few minutes later a woman entered my carriage, asking me for a light. Without asking her anything,  amidst the cigarette smoke, she told me  in a hoarse Spanish accent: My boyfriend and I are two carriages ahead. You are not alone. If you need us, just scream. She winked at me and then left.

After that, the train started moving. I was confused and couldn’t understand what happened, but I knew that something had happened that protected me that night. I never saw the other Polish men again.

The following day I wrote down on a piece of paper what I experienced that night, and I have kept it with me until this very moment. Every time I read it, I feel as if I am sitting at the edge of a lake, enjoying the dusk at the end of an autumn day. And I feel that, even though I never saw him again, this person left a mark on me far deeper than a tattoo.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


I grew with albums of ancient smells, black and white photos, love letters clandestinely read behind the sofa, the smell of the sea, dusty, little, yellowish boxes stored in the attic, memories of Africa, stories of voodoo spells and witchcraft, trunks, vinyl’s, sound of tangos and guitars, diaries and secrets of a story that I used to feel in every slowly aging wrinkle of my grandmother’s hands. For years, I never understood it. It was her hands crumpled like a piece of antique paper that unwrapped an unrevealed story of a woman with her soul imprisoned in Africa. 

Maria was born in Espinho, Portugal. Fifth daughter of four brothers has never learned to read or to write and never went to school. Her mother died when she was only one year having been therefore taken care by the siblings and the father. At the age of fifteen she feel head over heels in love with Alberto with whom she dated eleven years and later married. My grandmother’s dream was to become a mother, but after a miscarriage she was sadly told she couldn’t have children of her own, which took it looking for a child to adopt. 
Alberto had a friend who was living with Maria Emília and her small baby.  She was often a victim of physical abuse by her man until one day, in desperation, she throws herself into the sea with her daughter in her arms trying to drown herself. Alberto, strolling along the beach, it sees her, jumps into the water and brings them safe to the sand. With the baby in his arms, reaches later home and tells my grandmother: I brought your daughter. It is in your room. 

Maria has not only devoted her life to my mother since then but also to Maria Emilia, my biological grandmother, who, after what happened, fell ill with tuberculosis and was entrusted to the calm hands of my grandmother until her death. Fatima, my mother, was two months. 

For year’s life unfolded calmly in family until a sudden passion of a woman for Alberto. When she recalls it, maintains the strong words but her eyes barely dried when she says she put a spell on him. The beginning of maltreatment and discussions led her to abandon Portugal and flee with her daughter to Luanda, to the land of spells and beauty, she says.

Angola, a former Portuguese colony, boasted a country rich in faith and hope, a rough diamond lengthening his long salty blue sea arms to the thousands of Portuguese people living together in a docile harmony with Africans. Luanda was described to me as a colorful city, a golden shell, a blue bay bordered by coconut palms and baobabs tanning bodies with colored skirts and dresses copied from fashion magazines of the 60s. 

This island was retained in my childhood memory as a symbol of the will to live, the tranquility of a Sunday day at the beach, the laughter that rocked the sea breeze on the terraces and above all the opportunity to dream without fear. The years lived there with her daughter, she says, where of the purest happiness.

She worked on a guest house during the years lived there until the independence of Luanda, in 1974, shortly after the carnation revolution in Portugal. It was the beginning of a bloody civil war in Angola that abolished the tranquility of their lives. Fear took hold, especially due to the prominent attacks in the pension and the sudden entry of soldiers during the night. Qualms threaten freedom. They decreed the compulsory collection and fear gave way to peace.

Until one summer day in 1975, while dining with my mother, they were told by radio that at 19:30pm they would have to be at Luanda airport to leave the country. In a few hours they had only time to fill old trunks of clothes and some photographs and postcards. Nothing more. Everything else was abandoned.

My grandmother and her daughter were just one of millions of refugees forced to abandon not only one land, one family, the life they build there but also a piece of their identity. The data recorded about two millions dead in Angola. However, the official history does not record the loss, separation, trauma and pain of more than one million Portuguese who had to leave the island. This was the grief I felt for years. The grief of someone who never completely came back; someone who is simply waiting to hear again her name on the radio in order to refill the trunks and return home. Somehow I feel that the life they built later in Portugal was just a substitute life for an island that was left behind, only accessible within the souls that will never heal.
The requests made in Portugal to the luandan authorities to return were constantly denied. Also my mother persisted several years, eventually giving up. But she told me something that she had never confessed before: if I had known I would never had caught that plane.

When they returned my mother found a job in Santarem where they lived long years. And life went slowly adjusting to a small and conventional Portugal to sifting through the remnants of their former life. Twelve years after return, Maria became ill with a cancer in the intestines, which she survived. I do not have memories of those times and I do not remember seeing her suffer. But I do remember seeing her crying when I read her the Portuguese classics during summer holidays. This is what I best remember of her. And the endless stories that she told me of her past. 

She was a women with many losses along her life: she lost her mother, sisters, husband, one son, her stature, today hunchbacked and her nails, deformed due to a mycosis contracted during the years she worked in Africa.  But she mentions very little about the fear or panic of losing her life during the war. Moreover, her memories are only filled with episodes of my mother spreading beauty and charm on the sidewalks in Africa. She was a special woman. Everyone stooped to see her dance, she says. In her eyes you see the depths of the sea and I think this was where her soul stayed. 

For me, Luanda was a fairy-tail island where I wanted to live as too. Actually, I have always thought they would return one day, but this time, I would also be part of another chapter of this story.

 It has been 36 years and Maria, like the great majority of the repatriates, has never returned since. Today, at 94 years, I ask what reminds her  of Africa the most. She answers me: my nails. See, I’ve got tree branches instead of hands. Can we leave it at that?

(One year after finishing this story my grandmother past away. This is a tribute to this beautiful, strong woman who taught me what love is).

* Cacimbo is the name given only in Angola to the "dry season" than runs from May to august. During this period there is often an intense fog, also called Cacimbo, which gives the name to the station.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

     Where the heart is

Srinagar, India, 2012

The more I travel, the more I see that, even in the most inhospitable and anonymous corners of the world, we are all united not by a belief, culture, language or religion, but by a common desire: the search for love.

A trip to Sarajevo marked a change in me. 

A slight smiling man invites me into his synagogue and tells me that he believes that God had sent me to him so he can deliver a message to me. We talked for hours and what moved me in our discussion was his faith and the joy and love radiating from him. Even in the hardest moments of the war, having to survive in bitter cold temperatures with neither firewood nor food, he never doubted that he was being protected by God.

Fátima, Portugal, 2013

Later, in Fátima, Portugal, a major Catholic pilgrimage site, I had the opportunity to see and feel the most loving faith and humility that I have ever experienced. Women, men, children, came from our over the country filled with promise and moving stories to devote their hopes to the Virgin Mary. The energy and the inner light was immense. And so was its power.

On a trip to India I understood the power of surrendering and that we do not need to be saints, healers or someone special or ‘chosen’ to receive this peace or love. 

The more I traveled, the more I revisited the conversation I had in Sarajevo. There was something sublime to that smiling man: the absence of fear. What is missing in people, in the world, is to trust this love. It has nothing to do with religion, dogma, rules, laws, environment, circumstances or the country in which we find ourselves. That was his message. And now it is mine, too.

Istanbul, Turkey, 2013

What I’ve came to conclude is that what we are cannot be found or defined outside ourselves. Our identity can only be uncovered through the trust and the love that the Universe gives us - either if its God, Buddha, Allah, Hare Krishna, yourself, Jesus, Mother Earth or any other deity that makes sense to us individually.

The truth about who you really are can only come through the heart. The answers are where the heart is. That's where true love and our true identity are experienced, deeply. To achieve this experience, we need to learn to listen. We need to learn to trust. Although painful and difficult, is only through the heart that we can find the courage and strength to be proud, to be happy, about who we really are.

Freedom begins here.