A Fado generation in the making

I often think my family's history is like a Fado song, filled with stories of melancholia and fateful outcomes.

When I was little growing up in the United States with my Portuguese great grandmother, Maria, we used to play a game together. Every morning at breakfast she would say “let’s pretend we are on the train to Lisbon.” We would then eat our pão e queijo and drink our galão, fantasising we were seated in the dining car of a train, discussing our make believe plans of what we would do for the day in Lisboa.

As I got older and learned of my Avó Maria’s past, I realised how important that morning ritual was to her. You see, my great grandmother loved Lisbon and loved to dance. Growing up in Minho, in northern Portugal, she danced the ranchos as soon as she learned to walk. In the mid 1930’s, at the age of sixteen, my adventurous great grandmother decided to move to Lisbon. During the week, she worked as a maid, trudging up the Rua da Madalena with a basket balanced on her head coming from the market. But on Sundays, she went dancing with her girlfriends in public parks and at picnics along the river Tejo. She lived for those Sundays in Lisbon and recalled those memories fondly for the rest of her life. Sadly, my great grandmother’s happiest days were short lived. She was struck with rheumatoid arthritis at a young age leaving her unable to work, much less dance.

I can also remember as a child my grandfather Arnaldo’s excitement in the days leading up to his annual summer trips to Portugal. It’s as if he had been hibernating all year in the USA only to finally awaken with anticipation when it was time to return to his beloved Lisboa. My vôvô too felt the calling at an early age to leave his tiny northern village of Granja, Portugal in the mid 1950’s to find a better life in the city.

My grandfather had a green thumb and loved planting flowers. Therefore, after arriving in Lisbon, he soon found work as a public gardener, tending to Jardim de Santos and occasionally the Parque Eduardo VII. In the evenings, grandpa Arnaldo loved roaming through the Alfama to listen to Fado singers. He also enjoyed spending time with his friends playing cards in the Bairro Alto or reading at a cafe on Sundays. Once again, like the repeating verse of a Fado song, my grandfather’s time in Lisbon was cut short. The political climate became too oppressive and he had no choice but to leave like so many others at the time. He always dreamt of returning to live in Lisbon one day. Unfortunately, fate had other plans for grandpa and he passed away in the United States from injuries sustained in a car crash soon after he retired.

A leap of faith

I myself, being born in the USA had only visited Portugal a handful of times throughout my life. When the pandemic hit last year and life changed so drastically, I decided to take a huge leap of faith and move to Lisbon. I did not know what to expect. My Portuguese language skills were that of a five year old child from the time I had been sitting on “the train to Lisbon” with Avó Maria. But I had faith that if Lisbon was a city that my ancestors loved and found happiness in, then I would too.

From the moment I arrived in November of last year Lisbon has never for a moment disappointed me. Even during some of the darkest days of full lockdown, the vibrant colours of the architecture, the kindness of the Portuguese people and the rays of the sun, have warmed my heart. But most of all, it is the moments when I sit in Jardim de Santos and feel my grandfather’s soul in the wind that rustles through the trees, or I hear the slight echo of my great grandmother’s footsteps behind me as I walk up Rua da Madalena towards home in the Castelo, that I truly feel a deep sense of love and belonging to Lisbon.

They say Fado songs are full of “saudade”, which is sometimes described as a love that remains, or the love that stays after someone has gone. Lisbon, with the spirits of my loved ones is my Fado now. I am in love too.