“People and their cultures perish in isolation, but they are born or reborn in contact with other men and women, with men and women of another culture, another creed, another race. If we do not recognize our humanity in others, we will not recognize it in ourselves.”—Carlos Fuentes
Saudades—a longing, a yearning for that which is the beloved. Hoping to be back with the beloved, whether it be a person or land. A feeling, said Ana, that is only Portuguese and cannot be explained in any other language. How well we know the problem with translations. Even when we confer with each other and share meanings, something is lost in the explanation because we cannot transfer the feeling behind the translation even if we can explore it through images. She smiled and added, when sailors left the land in search of other lands, they felt saudades. I understood that this feeling was not only in the heart, but in the whole body, in the whole being. Saudades, that is what I have returned with from my 10 days in Portugal this past May.
My first moments in Portugal were warm and welcoming. I walked out of immigration towards the reception area and saw faces that were familiar, not because I’ve known them before, but because they recognized me. They had my photograph. I was greeted with warmth and felt instantly that I belonged.
Manela, Ugo, and Maria were all participants of the FICA-Algarve International Film Festival to which I had been invited as international jury member. They first led me to the cash exchange bureau, then to the hotel. I learned that at 9 a.m. the following day I must be ready to meet with Marta. At 9? I protested. Yes, 9 they said with a smile, maybe 9:15.
Okay, I said.
I awoke at 7 a.m., made some hot tea, did my meditation practice, got ready, and promptly at 9:15 I was buzzed. I came downstairs to find Marta and Dario waiting to take me to Praia da Rocha, the site of the festival, in Southern Portugal. I was here to serve on the international jury of the short film festival, whose director is Carlos Manuel, a fine and generous man whom I’d met in Huy, Belgium in October 2000 where I’d gone for another film festival and where my short film Androgyne won the Original Story Award.
Soon Marta, Dario, and I were on our way through Lisbon to the Algarve. We drove on the Vasco da Gama bridge—at 12 kilometers, it is the longest, and a very beautiful bridge in Europe. It was a tremendous sensation of soaring over the waters as we left the big city for the countryside. Dario kept me involved with questions and stories. I dozed off not long after. We stopped for snacks at a restaurant and then were on our way again. Expanses of green dotted with clumps of bushes and rocky surfaces feasted my eyes for hours as we made our way down to the coast. The sky was blue, and it already felt sweet to be in Portugal.
Keeping in mind our history with Portugal (Portugal had been one of India’s colonizers), I wanted to see old buildings and ancient sites. But most of the buildings were new, and I was partly disappointed—however, what was refreshing to me was that people were very aware of our connection and spoke of India with a sort of love and a longing. Saudades, I don’t know, although some people spoke with affection of the cultural fusion that now exists in Goa. The Portuguese had left India in the early 1960s. I did not feel like an outsider here. I believe that in some unspoken way all peoples share common themes in their lives that bring them close. Even language cannot always separate us, but, in fact, bring us together. I am proud to know Hindi and since it is Sanskrit-based, it brings me close to European languages for we share many cognates. Thus it was not hard to pick up words, sounds, specially since there are sounds similar in Hindi and in Portuguese that are not in English. I knew this would be fun and enjoyable.
We reached Praia da Rocha in the Algarve; I was shown my room at the Hotel Jupiter, and an hour later, we met for lunch at the Restaurant Cletonino right next to the hotel. Filipe would be our server almost each time we came here, a sweet, genial and open person—open to my tastes and needs, that are simple but not shared by most people. He made sure he gave me to eat what I could and enjoyed. My first meal consisted of a mixed green salad and a vegetable soup that was as delicious as it was nurturing. This was on Saturday May 19.
After lunch, I took a walk along the main street, which overlooked the ocean. The scenery was beautiful—a vast azure sky with blue waters and huge rock formations that jutted out, some on the sand and some in the water whose waves came tumbling on the beach with a gentleness that invited bathers at all hours of the day. I didn’t give myself a chance to swim in the ocean at all because I didn’t feel adventurous this time; I felt and wanted a mellow 10 days. I got that and more.
After my walk, I was happily surprised to run into my friends Marcel and Roger Closset from Huy, Belgium, who were also here for the festival. They had awarded me the prize for Original Story for my short film Androgyne in October 2000. I dined with them and the warm group from Huy—Pierre and Julianne, Francis and Guilot, Charles and his wife and others. Marcel ordered her favorite shrimp dish, and I ate a delicious plate of vegetable cutlets and a side of vegetables. Truly, the dish was wonderful and large. I drank a lot of water with lemon, which they found amusing since they really prefer wine. We planned to meet for breakfast the following day, but being still jet lagged, I missed them in the breakfast room of the Hotel Jupiter.
I spent all of Sunday May 20 settling in and relaxing. I still seemed to be in a daze. My week prior to coming to Portugal was spent with our Divine Mother, Sri Karunamayi. So much had happened and so much more was happening, I knew this was a visit already blessed by her. I had no concerns and knew I was in good hands with Carlos Manuel as the host and director of the festival.
Our work began on Monday with a brief jury meeting in the afternoon in preparation for the film screenings set for each night at 9:30. After dinner, we watched a series of shorts from various countries, each night making our work more difficult. However, I found a way to understand the process of judging and applying certain criteria that worked well for me. Although we had specific evaluating criteria laid out, I realized that there is a subjective aesthetic that I had to call upon to make my final choices, even if those did not match that of the jury. Naturally, each person has his or her own aesthetic. We were in agreement for the grand prize and somewhat for the other two prizes: best fiction and best animation, although there was a debate over which film should win the fiction prize. I loved Copy Shop, a film made by an Austrian filmmaker about a man who copies himself and so doing fills the world. I saw in this film the idea of each of us being mirrored in the other, thereby making a humanistic statement of oneness and acceptance. And more than that, it was technically brilliant. Three jury members were not as enthusiastic. But one of the five members was sympathetic with my views. Only after the awards ceremony did the jury member most opposed to this film say to me that he wished he had picked it for special mention as I’d proposed. Oh well. The other film that I loved was O Branco from Brazil. A lovely film about a blind boy and his association with colors and the symbolism of white; I’m glad it was awarded a prize by another jury.
The experience of working on the jury was very enlightening for. It helped me strengthen my sense of film aesthetics and story value. I’d do it again. What made this trip to Portugal absolutely memorable was not only the opportunity to serve on the international jury of the festival but also meeting the people whose grace and warmth came back with me, I am sure for life. Saudades was creeping into me for the blue skies and the history of our connections.
Here I was in Praia da Rocha, in the Algarve in Portugal having a wonderful time meeting people from other parts of Europe and enjoying their company. I know that I returned with new friends whose perceptions I bring back with me—Margarida Fonseca Santos, Jose Miguel Ribeiro, Marta Abrantes, Dario Ignacio, Filipe Goncalves, Ana Albernaz, from Portugal. Goncalo Baradas and Luis who were part of Radio Algarve showered me with warm wishes. I enjoyed the cooking of Manuel Jose Portugal and the hospitality of his wife, Maria de Fatima of the Festa Brava restaurant.
Manuel Jose made a dish especially for me since I was the only vegetarian in the group. It was a sumptuous and simply cooked bowl of mixed vegetables. So delicious. Typically Portuguese, Manuel made a note of telling me, with lots of olive oil and tomatoes, very little spices.
I also had a warm interchange with Costin Comanescu, his partner, Carmen; and Alex Leo Serban and Mihai Chirilov, two journalists who were covering the festival for Cosmopolitan, a publication in Bucharest, Romania. We shared notes about movies (including those of Satyajit Ray), notes about poetry (including those of Rabindranath Tagore), and just a special something of the spirit.
Interestingly, many of these new connections led me back to India—not only from the Portuguese who remember their fairly recent departure from Goa, and Costin who is knowledgeable about Indian writers, but also from Kenia, a full-of-life Spanish woman who spent some time in India not very long ago. She was on a social service mission in Bombay. I also met Gerald Mee, an amateur filmmaker from Surrey, U.K., who had been coming to the Algarve for 11 years.
The FICA has been a place for many people to meet and reunite, as they return year after year for the films and the hospitality of Carlos Manuel. So I spent many good moments with Marcel and Roger Closset, old friends of the festival and now mine. Their daughter Martine and granddaughter Audrey will now carry the torch for the festival in Huy, Belgium.
The final deliberations and celebrations were now over. I walked into the breakfast room of Hotel Jupiter for the last time and saw that the faces had already changed. The familiar faces were replaced with new ones, vacationers from other parts of Europe. It was time for goodbyes as the next two hours proved to be. Hugs and smiles and glances. More hugs, smiles and glances. And gratefulness for sharing this experience with each other.
While returning to Lisbon with Marta, Dario, and Filipe, we stopped in Lagos—the place from where the ships sailed out, including the one that brought Vasco da Gama to India. I had to see it. We walked into the fortress and saw that the new had already fused with the old design in the city inside the old fort. I met an elderly man who sat guarding the entrance to the section reserved for families of the military. He, too, spoke about Goa. I was a reminder of their time in India. I told him that my father had been in the escort forces that saw the Portugese out of the country in 1961. He smiled. He said we could visit this section if we had permission from a member of the armed forces of Portugal. Then we left—it was to be a long drive back to Lisbon.
I had learned that one Portuguese word one afternoon when I lunched with Ana. I remembered her saying that it is a typically Portuguese word and no one else can really understand it. Saudades. She said that when sailors left the coast of Portugal in search of other lands and found that they missed their families and loved ones they felt saudades—a longing, a yearning. I want to tell Ana that we all understand it. We had opened up unexplored worlds in each other.
I saw Margarida before her departure for Lisbon. A brief meeting with promises to keep in touch. When I returned home to Los Angeles, there was already an e-mail message from her. I had to smile. It was a reconnection. I also had a message from Jose Miguel, a fellow jury member, who signed his e-mail letter, Saudades.
For all whom I have met and all who revealed more of me to myself—saudades.
Ambika Talwar is an English professor at a community college in Southern California. Her work can be seen on preciousheart.bizland.com. She is currently working on her second film.