Every summer, a group of immigrants travel back to the Azores islands in the Atlantic Ocean from California where they largely work as farmers. They inspired journalist Diana Marcum to make her own pilgrimage. She leaves a life crisis behind for a new adventure. With her dog in tow, she sets off on a journey of self-discovery on these strange and special islands. The Tenth Island: Finding Joy, Beauty, and Unexpected Love in the Azores is a tale to inspire and entertain as readers join Marcum on her journey.
I was told about Alberto before I met him.
“He has seventy-eight years, but he looks the age of fifty. He has a big being,” Frank told me when I was still in California.
José (“zhwa-zay” is the Portuguese pronunciation), Frank’s cousin or nephew – I wasn’t quite clear, but they are somehow related – and his wife, Luisa, picked me up at the airport and later in the week picked me up to go to Alberto and Dona Maria’s for a traditional Portuguese meal cooked O Forno – in a wood-burning oven.
“Alberto, you will love,” said Luisa. She had a distinctly Portuguese beauty, with long-lashed green eyes that dipped down at the corners, a copper suntan, and gleaming black hair. I was pale and envious.
“Alberto has much intelligence. Like encyclopedia,” said José, who had a computer in his basement that he had built from scraps. People came from all around to use José’s Skype, which at the time was cutting-edge technology.
When we arrived, Dona Maria already had orange flames leaping out of the oven. It was in a kitchen separate from the house, back by a large garden. Long wooden paddles, in different shapes to take different kinds of bread out of the oven, hung on the walls. A wooden table that Alberto had made held an enormous bowl of fresh figs.
Before we had left for Alberto and Dona Maria’s, Luisa had picked a basket of red and yellow tomatoes from her garden, arranging them just so in a basket. She placed them next to the figs. In the Azores, I was surrounded by still-life paintings come to life.
Alberto had a wide-open face and big fleshy palms that he waved as he talked. He immediately pressed a cold Sagres beer in my hand and walked me through their wild, bountiful garden. They were growing dill, guava trees, and potatoes, among other things.
“Look how much higher the plants are on this side,” Alberto told me. “It’s because we throw all the trash from the kitchen out in the garden, and we can’t throw that far.” I looked down and saw the eggshells and coffee grounds that made Alberto’s garden grow higher on one side than on the other.
Their house had two stories and a velvet lawn that marked them as returning immigrants. (It would be explained to me later that on an island of green fields and hills, only Americans and Canadians felt the need to mow.) The grass unrolled down to the cottage kitchen; beyond that, the garden, and beyond that, the blue backdrop of the sea.
Alberto said rich Americans were always asking to buy the house. “You don’t have enough money,” he would tell them.
“Try me,” they would say. “You don’t have enough money because it’s not for sale,” he’d answer.
“And you know, they kind of relax after that,” he said. “They are relieved when they find there is something that’s not for sale.”
He bought the land, including the house across the street where Dona Maria was born and where their Canadian-born daughter now lived, for about $6,000 in the 1980s.
We walked down to the sea, picking our way across black volcanic rocks. Alberto picked up a handful of seashells. “Look, these animals, the ones who left their little homes behind, don’t come from the waters anywhere around here. But their shells are on this island,” he said. “The world is a small place, and the currents can carry anyone anywhere.”
Alberto and Dona Maria lived twenty-five years in Canada, raising their children there. He had his guitar with him in Canada, but he said he never played it because he had no free time or friends who had free time to play music with him. I asked Alberto whether there was anything he loved from Canada, anything he’d brought back with him.
“My pension,” he said.
We ate our meal cooked in the old stone oven in the main house, which had a modern kitchen with a microwave and an ice maker. There was a big table groaning with food: cozido à portuguesa – every kind of meat, beef, pork, chicken, and various blood sausages, amazing potatoes from the garden, white potatoes that were as sweet as pastry, chewy yams, and creamy little round batatas as rich as butter. There was bread straight from the fire and pumpkins from the garden sliced in half and sprinkled with brown sugar and transformed into something intense by their stone-and-fire roasting. My favorite Portuguese word is the word for pumpkin – abóbora – it’s just fun to say.
I said I didn’t see how I was going to know when to stop, with so much food to be sampled.
“Follow me. Stop when I do,” Alberto said.
He didn’t stop for a long time. He drank at least a liter of red wine by himself and kept filling up my glass from another bottle. After dinner, which lasted hours, José and Alberto brought out their handmade guitarras. Alberto had made his first Portuguese guitar twenty years before he learned how to play it.
Alberto and José played and sang a few songs. I asked about Terceira’s chamarita – its folk dance. I had seen it danced at festas in California.
“You know the chamarita?” Alberto asked.
“I’ve seen it, but I need to be reminded,” I said.
Alberto danced me around, showing the steps. Then he sat back down to his guitar. “Show me your dancing,” he said.
I had once taught children’s dance classes, a career that ended ignobly. The unfortunate incident had come up earlier in conversation with José and Luisa. It was at Miss Martha Lee’s School of Dance. Martha Lee was an old-school ballerina. She stood as straight as a pole and was just as slender. She wore her eternally jet-black hair pulled back in a bun. She had a toy poodle that she carried under one arm. Martha Lee’s nail polish always matched a bow on the poodle’s head, and sometimes the poodle had matching nail polish as well.
Martha Lee was no fan of jazz dance, but that was what the kids wanted, so she had begrudgingly added me, a mediocre-at-best dancer with minimal ballet training to the roster.
I had one class of ten-year-olds, who were particularly klutzy even for ten-year-olds. On the day in question, we were going through a jazz warm-up, which involved isolating different body parts. The idea was that the whole class would move the same body part at the same time, keeping the beat. This was not happening. I kept trying slower and slower music until I settled on a thudding Prince song that even uncoordinated children could follow. We moved down from our heads to our ribs to isolating our hips, which involved thrusting out one hip to the far corner of the room, then the other hip in the other direction, and then swiveling our pelvises: right-center-left-center-and-arooooooound.
It was at this moment, when I had the children grinding in what some may consider a stripper move, that Martha Lee popped in to observe and I suddenly registered the lyrics of “Darling Nikki,” which has a woman in a hotel lobby practicing, shall we say, self-care behind a magazine.
I was fired on the spot. When I told the story, with another friend translating, José and Luisa had laughed, and they had known the song. It wasn’t just seashells that proved the world’s interconnection. There was Prince.
I danced around the kitchen a bit as ordered.
“Yes, you dance well!” Alberto exclaimed, and I was inordinately pleased, feeling a bit of redemption from being a fired dance teacher.
José got up and danced with Luisa, playing his guitarra as he danced. Alberto and Dona Maria didn’t dance together because they both agreed that they didn’t move well together and that it made them cranky and argumentative to try. They each thought the other was a terrible dancer. They said this to each other’s face with no reproach. We danced until we were flushed and breathless.
Then José and Alberto played more songs, eventually coming to fados – songs of great emotion. On one song, Luisa and Dona Maria sang along, and they all wept.
It was a song by Amalia Rodrigues, the Queen of Fado. I didn’t know the song then, but later I would know it well. They say it’s a tricky thing to translate fado. The words resist a different language. But a rough translation is “A Minha Canção é Saudade” – “My Song Is of Longing”:
I cry my own nostalgia
I weep in pity for myself
I cry, absorbed in my own longing.
We talked late into the evening. Speaking about the Azorean communities in California, I called them the Tenth Island because that’s what they called themselves. I said that at first I had thought it meant only California. But now I understood it was the entire diaspora, including the Boston area and Canada.
Alberto laughed. “You think the Tenth Island is a place or a group of people?” he scoffed. “The Tenth Island is what you carry inside you. It’s what’s left when everything else falls away. Those of us who live between worlds just know the Tenth Island better. No matter where I have lived – I have never left my island.”
Later that night, I was back at the hotel in the ancient port city of Angra do Heroísmo. From the hotel I could see Mount Brasil. Its outline looked like a sphinx with its legs stretching out into the sea, guarding the city. There was a monument up there commemorating Angra’s role in the Age of Discovery, something also marked throughout the city in the designs of the wrought iron balconies, the way corners turned up on the roofs of some of the palaces, the city squares. It all whispered of Havana and Cartagena de Indias, of China and Brazil – places that in turn had adopted Portuguese touches.
The sixteenth-century historian Gaspar Frutuosa dubbed the Azores the “universal port of call,” and Angra was the main harbor.
There are two steady winds that circle the earth. The air blows counterclockwise in the Northern hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern hemisphere: the trade winds. In the seafaring era, routes depended on those winds and the ocean currents. The only way to take a galleon filled with gold and silver from the New World back to Europe passed through the Azores. Angra has always been a crossroads, and there’s a special magic to places where they mix things up.
The lights from boats in the marina made squiggly colored lines on the water. Moonlight gleamed on the black-and-white patterns of cobblestone streets in front of the hotel. There was a devastating earthquake in the 1980s, and I’m told they tried to put every cobblestone in the city back in its original place.
I was too jet-lagged to sleep, and I wanted to be out there. I asked Grace, the clerk at the desk, whether there was anywhere safe for me to walk at two in the morning.
She looked confused. “You can walk anywhere you want to walk,” she said. “Don’t worry. It’s safe – it’s still early by the Portuguese way of thinking!”
Terceira has crime in the form of domestic violence, drug smuggling, and even theft, but random violence is pretty much unknown, at that time and even now.
I strolled over to the main square and ate a pistachio gelato while listening to a man play an Eric Clapton song on the guitar. Then I felt pulled to a long stretch of seawall. The ocean side was piled with the same giant concrete jacks used all over the world to break up the force of waves. A lot of times they are stamped with numbers, as if there were some giant child determined to keep track of his toys, but it’s so engineers can monitor the jacks’ placement from aerial photographs. I strolled to the end of the wall, almost dreamy, climbed out on the boulders on the harbor side, and sat in darkness looking back at the gently glowing city. I felt unconcerned when footsteps passed by on the walk above.
At home I didn’t make much of the fact that I was always a bit on guard: walking to my car, keys out in case I needed to gouge a bad guy. It was just part of the way things were. I once interviewed a young man who came from Stockton, California, and went to Stanford, near the elegant confines of rich Palo Alto. He said the most startling thing he learned at the prestigious school was that hearing gunfire all night wasn’t normal for other people.
Just being here, at ease, alone in the dark, made me realize I had been mindlessly maneuvering just-the-way-things-are, accepting that violence was always a possibility, never realizing there are other places where it doesn’t feel that way. Of course, my dad had a saying for this: “They might have a different way of doing things across the river.” Or in this case, the middle of the ocean.
I liked the idea of my own, personal Tenth Island, made only of things I wanted to keep. I’d start by carrying inside me a place where a desk clerk looked confused when a woman asked where it was safe for her to walk alone.
On the way back, I passed two men. Don’t worry. This is not taking some dire turn where I turn off the inner safety detector and am immediately the missing victim whose driver’s license is shown on the evening’s news.
One of the men, the tall one, said, “Boa noite.”
“Boa noite,” I replied, this falling within my twenty words of the native vocabulary.
He immediately rattled off several sentences I didn’t understand.
“Não falo português” – “I don’t speak Portuguese,” I said.
“Well, then,” he said, switching to English, “we’ll have to teach you.”
He introduced himself as a fire chief. But I misunderstood and thought his first name was Chef, which would become my nickname for him. When he was younger, before he was married and a man of responsibility, he learned English from American TV shows to woo the Portuguese American girls who came over every summer. He was tall now, but he’d been scrawny and short then. He figured it was his only way to compete.
He said the most terrifying moment of his life came at thirteen, when one of the objects of his flirtations showed up where he and his friends were camping. She crawled into his sleeping bag. He wasn’t ready for such a victory. He wiggled out of the bag and ran the whole way to his house, jumping a couple of low rock walls on the way, feeling as though he was in flight. He still remembers the smell of mint that his feet unleashed running across the fields and soaring through the air, exhilarated by his close brush with the unknown.
The mainland relative he was showing around had drunk too much aguardente – água (“water”) + ardente (“fiery”) = fire water – or in American terms, moonshine. He was lying on a bench.
“Help me babysit,” Chef said. “I love my island and I know everyone. I can tell you anything you want to know.” He’d already known there was an American writer on Terceira because, he said, it was a very little island.
He browsed the contacts on his phone. “Oh, this guy is starting an ecology museum – you have to talk to him,” he said, beginning to dial.
“It’s three a.m.,” I said.
“Hmm, I suppose he could be asleep,” Chef said, looking doubtful.
As a lifelong night owl, I appreciated that it was in question.
The relative sat up. He held a finger in the air as if testing wind direction. He cleared his throat. “The wonderful thing about the Azores is that they have people who love the sea more than big houses and nice cars,” he announced.
“Because I have a big house and a nice car,” he said, and lay back down.