One more orange falls off the tree and crashes onto the ground with a thud as I look absent-mindedly out of the window, taking stock.
For the last seven years, I’ve lived with ghosts, haunted by one flight I still recall in vivid details. The memory is so fresh it could have happened yesterday. In my frequent nightmares, I relive that plane journey on a regular basis.
As I watch the island coastline recede in the expanse of blue down below, the sense of loss I experience makes my head spin. If I could stop time and remain suspended in that moment forever, I would.
It’s still impossible to describe the heartache of leaving the Azores after calling the archipelago home for three years. By then, I have become deeply integrated into local society and fluent in Portuguese. Although I work mostly in English, I also publish in Portuguese public media online and in print in Portugal’s oldest newspaper. And other news outlets, as my content routinely gets lifted by lazy editors who don’t even have the courtesy to offer a republication fee.
But the 2008 crisis hits Portugal hard, and the Azores even harder. Our standard of living and wages are already well below those of continental Portugal and it gets worse. Anyone in a precarious situation as is the case with many journalists suffers. Neither education nor being a skilled professional matter anymore. Nurses struggle, too, earning less than 3 euros an hour. Most everyone but the wealthiest bear the brunt of the government’s protracted austerity measures.
My life becomes unworkable, I have to leave but I can’t even afford the flight to London. After much deliberation, a colleague and dear friend puts me on the plane. He and his wife offer help right away but I won’t take it for the longest time. How can I bail out on everything I have built and love?
And yet, I walk away when I understand quitting is the only solution, no matter how anathema it has always been to me.
What happens next still takes my breath away, such is the violence of the self-discipline I subject my heart and mind to.
As soon as I land in the UK, I throw myself into getting back on my feet.
I’m lucky to land some travel work as a tour director very quickly, then more Portuguese remote work as a journalist and editorial translator. The pay is still appalling but it means keeping the connection with my adoptive country alive. It is all that matters as I’m already used to living on very little anyway. Alas, the news outlet is struggling to survive and no longer exists at the time of writing.
When I stop working for them, I sever all ties with Portugal.
I no longer read, listen to, speak, or write Portuguese as I’m hoping that part of my heart will atrophy and fall off if I deprive it of oxygen. I’m wrong.
A hole in my heart starts forming. And growing. And it grows apace for seven years until it threatens to swallow me whole.
Of those seven years, I lose five to the major depressive disorder that steals my writing voice and leaves me unable to work. I recover it last summer after Anthony Bourdain’s death gives me a jolt and shows me my future. Instead of plotting how to die by my own hand — something I still consider often — I decide to adopt an editorial strategy of radical honesty. And try and do something useful with the hell I’ve been through in a bid to chip away at mental health stigma.
In short, I turn the pen on myself and resolve not to hold back.
Progress is slow, tentative, hard-earned but also often painful as I unpack the unspeakable. I’m trying to understand the genesis of what has been diagnosed as a chronic illness so I can devise ways to live with it without it taking over ever again. The only help I have is my own as hardship precludes access to therapy despite my having insurance. In America, insurance is worthless if you can’t afford the co-pays.
The day I almost burst into tears in a store at the sight of a small pack of imported “malaguetas” i.e. tiny but mighty Portuguese chili peppers is a revelation.
Because my bootstrapped recovery strategy is missing something.
Cultural identity is an ever-evolving concept.
Anyone who has ever learned another language and attained fluency and/or immigrated anywhere will attest to this. In the EU, we’re wont to export ourselves because we have 28 (soon to be 27 because of Brexit) member states to choose from. We are free to study, live, and work in any of them. It isn’t unusual for a EU citizen to make themselves at home in a country other than the one where they were born.
As a result, I’ve been a serial immigrant my entire life. In terms of identity, I am a European first, a French citizen second, and a US citizen third. One reason for this is that I am descended from immigrants from other countries who came to France in the 1930s.
Living in the Azores for three years, I grew into Portuguese and became more myself as the language enabled me to tap into new corners of my psyche. For example, I wake up one morning and start writing poetry out of the blue, a form of expression I’ve never be drawn to in any other language. And I also discover a different kind of emotional fluency in Portuguese.
But cutting myself off from Portuguese — which I had made mine through hard work and determination — is like locking a door and throwing away the key.
Only the key remains right there at the bottom of my pocket for seven years under layers of denial, sadness, depression, and repressed longing.
A few weeks ago, I take it out, unsure whether it still works. The only way to find out is to try and put words together so I do. And it is so very painful I run to the one Portuguese bookshop in Paris and buy a conjugations book, the same one I always used to carry with me but lost in transit.
Reactivating a language that lied dormant for so long is a task of epic magnitude. It requires focus so intense that everything else falls to the wayside. The moment I plug into Portuguese, grief, sadness, psychic pain, and anxiety all vanish because I no longer have any brain power to devote to them. Whatever mental bandwidth I can claw back from depression is diverted to the task at hand.
Similarly, Portuguese music has the power to pull me out of the deepest funks imaginable. If writing continues to save my life, Portuguese is the life jacket under my seat which I wouldn’t use even when I kept crashing.
The last crash happened recently, and it can’t happen again. I am in Europe to help my father as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for stage 4 cancer. My father looks like he’s about to collapse at any time so if I go down too, I become useless.
As long as I wasn’t whole, disaster was always looming but now that I’ve let Portuguese back into my life, it’s much less likely. Not that my life has become any easier by any stretch of the imagination but it’s a lot richer, fuller, more joyful, and thus more creative, too.
Two nights ago, I try to explain this to a Lisbon friend. If it sounds like I imbued Portuguese with near-magical powers, it’s because it started out as a spell which hasn’t broken yet. And won’t as this kind of abiding love becomes part of you forever, whether you acknowledge it or not.
“Ah, paixão*,” my friend say. Because they get it and they get the ways my broken brain is constantly fighting to survive, the extremes to which I go and the coping strategies I deploy to make it all work, against all odds.
“You know, you do speak funny though,” they add. I blush. I’ve never been linguistically shy or afraid of making mistakes but my Portuguese is very rusty and I’m aware it sounds hesitant. And probably a little garbled as my intonation is frequently wrong.
So I reply that recovering fluency is very much a work in progress right now.
“It’s not that, your Portuguese is fine but you do have… a slight Azorean accent,” they say.
Little do they know this is the best welcome back gift I could ever have received.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.