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A girl spoke it to me, the word hiding behind her teeth before escaping through her Portuguese lips in a short burst. It was a word I had been trying to describe in English, an emotion that I could feel but couldn’t dance, couldn’t sing, couldn’t write. It would escape in my tears, but I could never explain it. Nostalgia. That is the closest we have to explaining our pain of loss. But it isn’t the perfect translation. The syllables fall flat on the page and dribble off my tongue.  For, nostalgia is only yearning, yet this isn’t the emotion that is bursting within my heart. The English language failed me. I turned to another.

Saudade. She said. It is beyond nostalgia. The Portuguese echoed in my head. It doesn’t sound beautiful. Its phonetics bounce and trip over the tongue, stopping and halting at every letter, pressing the listener to understand. Saudade.

With its loud heritage and cryptic language, Portuguese managed to entrap this complex emotion in seven letters. The word is defined as a nostalgic longing for something that is lost. Yet, that which was lost is gone for eternity. It can never resurface. It’s a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist. Saudade. I feel it every time I remember. I feel it every time I begin a sentence with “I wish I were…” I have seen too many places to understand contentment. I am afraid I never will.

I have stood on the top of the Alps in Switzerland and the bottom of the catacombs of Paris. I’ve surfed the Moroccan coast and walked the barbed wire fences of a concentration camp in Germany. I have strutted through the cobblestone streets of Italy and have seen a rainbow from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. I’ve galloped on horseback through the hills of Ireland and watched the light blue and yellow sunrise from the beaches of Malta. I’ve looked into the blue, green, brown, hazel eyes of Europe, of men with passion, drive, and promise, and have seen my reflection staring back at me, daring me to define myself. I never could. They saw me as American, but an American that could be sculpted to belong in their world. I was different, they’d say. I felt I belonged everywhere, but nowhere at the same time.  

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I stand on the edge of my world, toes touching the navy blue water of an April day. The rocky coast of New England roars as the water somersaults onto the sand. My jeans, rolled up to my knees, are stiff with salt water. I tuck my hands into my sleeves to keep them from the wind. My hair flies back away from my face in salty tangles that will be impossible to untie later. The sun paints the first polka dots on the bridge of my nose – freckles for the eternity of the summer. Last year, my freckles were crafted by the Italian sun. The red and white lighthouse pulses at the entrance to the river – even in the daylight. It stands guard against the ocean, a soldier at his post. Lobster buoys nod their colored wooden heads in the current – green and white, yellow and red, blue and black stripes. Seagulls call out and the direction markers in the channel respond with the metallic clangs of their bells. I feel another searing-cold wave hit my feet. Goosebumps crawl up my legs. I dig my feet into the sand and smell the seaweed for the first time this season. This is home.

Yet I want to fly with the seagulls – to crash recklessly into the Atlantic and swim toward the horizon, paddle until I can see the mossy green cliffs of Moher rising out of the ocean, or the red starfish of the Mediterranean clinging to the coral beneath the iridescent water.  I know that over that horizon, they are staring back at me, wishing I had stayed, wishing things were different, missing me like I miss them. A part of me remained rooted in foreign soil. I stand on the edges of my world and miss my old ones. But it is impossible; it is not real, not obtainable. A part of me chose to remain there. I will never get it back. Saudade.