On my surprise layover in Portugal, I stop by my cousin João’s little house in Val Florido, a town about the size of my right foot.
I walk from my cousin Natália’s home along dusty dirt roads that are lightly shaded by olive trees. The sun is strong, noticeably stronger than São Tomé for four in the afternoon, in fact. The air is dry and breezy. I look at myself in an out-of-body experience, seeing myself walk through the streets where my grandparents were born. Living a life that preceded mine by 50 years or more. Flash forward, the granddaughter, studier of Portuguese language, returning to the motherland.
João’s house is bright orange now; I hardly recognize it. But it’s almost impossible to miss his daughter, Andreia, sitting outside in the sunlight, her skin warmed to a summer hue. “Ò Andreia!” I shout as I approach her. She looks up, rubs her eyes. “Bet????” she says in confusion and wonder. “BET?!?!” She runs to me and gives me a big hug, a girl of eleven years but seemingly much older in her size. She runs inside to get her mother, who is equally surprised, laughing and yelling, “What are you doing here??” between breaths.
This reunion is perhaps worth the $300 that I spent buying a new ticket to Boston. Just seeing their faces is priceless.
It’s a short visit to the homeland, but a beautiful one. I sit around the table with my family talking, catching up, telling them my horror travel story, making them laugh. Some of our family from the USA is visiting and they are equally surprised to see me, hardly recognizing me out of context. And then, slowly but surely, walks in the last great aunt that I have left, my tía Adélia.
My heart stops when I see her. She looks just like my grandmother, so strikingly that I nearly start to cry. I see her every few years, only perhaps three or four times in my whole life. My grandparents died long before I learned or had even the most vague interest in learning Portuguese. In fact, I believe my grandmother only knew me back when I would declare that I hated Portugal and wanted nothing to do with it. And as I carry on a conversation with my family here in Val Florido, Tía Adélia’s eyes widen. “But…your Portuguese is excellent,” She says in near disbelief. I am overwhelmed with emotion, being able to sit down and talk with her. So much I learn about my own heritage when I can understand the words that come out of her mouth. When I can see how her face changes as she speaks those words.
Yesterday I was in São Tomé. Today I am in Portugal. Tomorrow I will be in Boston. Life changes quickly and changes slowly. You find yourself in different places every time you look around. But then you come back and sometimes, just sometimes, things are very much the same. Sometimes you show up in a tiny town in Portugal and you feel as if you are walking streets that haven’t been swept in 50 years. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to come home to my history.