Lusophones love to tout the uniqueness of their (our) language, and in even the most roundabout of metalinguistic conversations, all roads eventually lead to saudade. But aside from a vague quasi-mysticism about loss that surrounds the word, the meaning is straightforward—saudades tuas, I miss you. Saudades de Portugal. I miss Portugal. Loss, longing. We have tools in English that serve to get the point across quite easily.
Saudade has endured not because of its uniqueness, but because of its utility. The Lusophone world is awash with the allure of better days, of a romanticized past, and saudade capitalizes on this longing. In Portugal’s case, this manifests as a yearning for a more “authentic” Lisbon free from young foreigners, or for the “good old days” of the mid-20th century dictatorship, or for Portugal’s position as a world power during the end of the Age of Exploration. It is likewise useful as a cultural export: Some of the Lusophone world’s greatest contributions—fado, bossa nova, and the Cabo Verdean morna—are inextricably linked to the idea of saudade. Above all, the term’s endurance comes from the same impulse that compels Portuguese and Brazilians alike to insist upon the Portuguese language’s unique difficulty, even though a case can be made that it is the single easiest language to learn for English and Romance language speakers alike. By imbuing saudade with outsized importance, Lusophones imagine themselves ineffably unique.
But native Portuguese speakers are no longer the primary advocates of saudade—the banner has been enthusiastically taken up by foreigners; omnipresent in the “untranslatable” listicles that dominate popular English-language travel blogs. There’s a video somewhere of former U.S. Ambassador to Portugal Bob Sherman trying—and miserably failing—to speak Portuguese, and of course he closes his statement with saudade. My only affection for the word is when it’s pronounced with a southern Brazilian accent and becomes something close to “saudaddy,” thus imbuing saudade with hitherto unexplored Freudian profundity.
Joking aside, I’m interested in saudade because I think the contemporary focus on the word does a disservice to both Lusophones and Lusophone enthusiasts. At best, it is an annoying soundbite for the Lusophone world, or a sort of precursor to the “sadboy” trope, shorthand for the romanticization of sadness. At worst, it is a massive, misguided simplification of an entire multinational linguistic heritage. People spend a week in Lisbon eating pastéis de nata and reveling in cheap, high-quality wine, and then explain to their friends about saudade, how the word not only defines their relationship to Portugal, but aptly summarizes the affable fatalism of the entire Portuguese people. It transcends itself as a word and instead becomes a condensing symbol, not unlike a flag. I am wary of condensing mechanisms, of bite-sized symbols that lay claim to anything other than themselves. Particularly in countries that have only recently crawled from under the boot of dictatorships, a characteristic que não falta (that’s not lacking) in the Portuguese-speaking world.
My interest in saudade’s relationship to the Lusophone world stems from more than mere academic distaste. I am of Portuguese descent; my grandfather was born just outside of Lisbon, and aside from him and my mom, the only matrilineal family I have still lives in Portugal. In the summer of 2016, less than a year after finishing grad school in the UK, finding myself at a crossroads between a conventional job and more time abroad, I opted for the latter and moved to Portugal. I stumbled into a flexible, well-paying, but monotonous proofreading/transcription gig working remotely for a US-based company, which would allow me to work part-time and still live well in Portugal. More importantly, it would provide me with the time and resources to learn Portuguese, which, along with expediting my bid for Portuguese citizenship, was my rehearsed justification for going.
I had reconnected with my second cousin, Gi, during a brief visit to Portugal the year prior, and I’d kept in the back of my mind her offer to come spend an extended amount of time in her village of Sesimbra, a quiet beach town characterized by rolling hills, located roughly an hour away from Lisbon proper. The offer she made was, in retrospect, likely little more than the kind of offhanded gesture one makes in order to satisfy old-world familial obligations, confident that I would never accept. Nevertheless, I called in late June and asked her if I could come in August. By moving directly to Gi’s house, I not only had a place to stay, but someone with whom I could speak almost exclusively in Portuguese and who would help me wade through Portugal’s infamous legal bureaucracy as I sought more permanent residency in the country. I didn’t know Gi very well at the time—we’d spent maybe 10 or 11 days together total—but I’d been left with the impression that our personalities meshed well. This wager ended up being correct. I love Gi like family, and despite our age difference of nearly 45 years, I also like her as a friend.
I go to the country my grandfather left in the ‘50s not because I feel saudades for my family or for Portugal in general—I don’t know either well enough to miss them—but because there is some essential hole in how I understand my family’s place in the world that makes itself felt precisely because of its absence. Put simply: each family works according to its own internal mechanism—whether functional or flawed—and by my understanding, my own family’s mechanism was not so much dysfunctional as lacking some essential cog. When a friend or acquaintance would ask about my mom’s side of the family, I would mention the myriad adults whom I referred to as aunts and uncles, but if pressed, I would be forced to admit that we weren’t actually related by blood. I would then mention something about my immigrant grandfather, that the rest of my family still lived in a place called Portugal, but the words fell flat, lacking the emotional gravitas that I felt talk of family should invoke.
I go to Portugal with the idea I might be able to fill that hole. I am 23 at the time, besides—approaching idealism’s upper age limit.
* * *
Gi’s house is deep into Sesimbra’s fire-prone brush. Because of a lack of public transport, when I venture out I go to Lisbon more often than I go to the beach, despite the fact that the latter is only two miles away. I struggle not with the pace of rural life, but with its banal details that nevertheless demand my attention. If I find myself unable to cope with the oppressive heat of Portuguese summer, or worse, if a mosquito comes in through the slit of the perpetually-open kitchen window and makes its way to my second-floor room, I seek refuge in the guest bedroom. Bugs seem drawn to my room because of its humidity—it is an add-on to the house, and is consequently a sweaty death trap completely lacking in insulation. It is my own personal thermostatic time machine, miraculously capable of adhering to the day’s high temperature until at least 9:00 or 10:00 at night.
On those half-nights spent in the guest bedroom, I always wake up to the same stack of mid-20th century Portuguese comic books on the nightstand. They belong to a family friend named Caetano who frequently spends the night—though, thankfully, Caetano and the mosquitoes seem to be on different schedules, so we’re able to trade off with the guest room. Caetano is a comic book collector—a likable, rather caustic man in his mid 70s with a wonderfully morbid sense of humor and an equally morbid passion for Cuban cigars. He tells me, months after I arrive in Portugal, “Faltas-te o sentido de humor para ser Portugûes mesmo.”—faltar, used literally, means to lack—“you lack the appropriate sense of humor to be Portuguese.” Never mind that I’d been speaking the language for only three months, never mind that I was more worried about conjugating my verbs correctly than anything like personality. The nuances of personhood, I think, are luxuries that come only after the ability to communicate basic, essential information. Slowly, I would come to develop a personality specific to Portuguese. At first, this personality reflects my limitations in the language. I agree with opinions more often than not, even if there’s some aspect of a person’s statement that I don’t fully agree with. In English, my sense of humor is dry, but in Portuguese, I take whatever opportunity I can to successfully deliver even the most childish of jokes. As I reach a moderate level of fluency, I find that I possess a boldness that I otherwise lack in English. While speaking English, I perpetually mitigate: “I see where you’re coming from, but have you perhaps considered it from this perspective?” But I don’t feel the need to qualify statements in Portuguese, nor to soften combative ideas with language meant to diminish the shock of overt disagreement. I recognize this same gap in Gi and Caetano when they speak English. In Portuguese, Caetano is the man I have described above. In English, he is a cosmopolitan traveling businessman who speaks with a difficult-to-place, vaguely British accent, has lived in Spain, and has visited every country in Europe save Albania.
The verb faltar starts to insert itself into both my life in Portugal and my language acquisition, which, in the small town of Sesimbra, are largely inseparable, or if not inseparable, run along parallel lines. On the cover of the topmost comic of the stack in the aforementioned guest bedroom, a comic-stylized adult speaks to a child via speech bubble: “Às vezes faz falta, rapaz.” I recognize the verb faltar from my interaction with Caetano, and ask my cousin Gi what the phrase means in this context: “Sometimes it’s necessary, kid,” or, “sometimes it’s needed.”
Using this same verb faltar, there is another way of saying that one misses something that I find far more interesting than saudade. While my cousin is vacationing alone in Jordan, she calls me at her home in Sesimbra, where I’m taking care of her three dogs and three cats, and says, “Sinto tua falta, Jeremias.” There is no mysticism surrounding the phrase, nor would anyone ever argue that it would be difficult to express in English—sinto tua falta translates easily as “I miss you.” If we’re to translate sinto tua falta literally, though, we get “I feel your lack.” The logic is easy enough to follow: you came to occupy some part of me, and now you’re gone, so that same part of me is now lacking. I am reminded of a phrase in filmmaker Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line: “If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack,” and I find a similar phrase elsewhere, in the short story First Love by the Australian writer Gerald Murnane: “In all the places where I feel my lack, with calendar after calendar by window and sky, I try to see my own pattern.”
Faltar quickly becomes my favorite word in my still-limited Portuguese vocabulary. At the only gym in town (which charges an exorbitant 40 euros a month, incredibly high given Portuguese salaries), if I’m waiting for a machine, I’ll ask, “Quanto falta?” How many are lacking, or more specifically, how many repetitions are lacking until your set of exercises arrives at its completion? If, while on a weekend trip to Lisbon, I discover that my preferred workout store doesn’t have my favorite brand of protein powder: “Desculpe, mas está em falta agora.” Em falta, “in lack”—a shortage.
There are, too, less commonplace uses of the word that I run into while reading. Por Falta De means roughly “for lack of,” but it is closer to the archaic use of “want” in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s iconic “Four Freedoms” speech—“freedom from want.” Google tells me that, somewhere down my own tongue’s etymological thread, want and lack share a common ancestor. Want descends from the Middle English vant, which English steals from Old Norse vanr: to be lacking.”
* * *
I spend five months in Sesimbra, doing little aside from working, writing, exercising, and learning Portuguese. Most of my Portuguese practice is with Gi; our nightly ritual consists of watching the soap opera Ouro Verde together. I have her to thank for learning the language, though I occasionally find space to practice with the few Lisbon friends I’ve made, with other family members, and while idly chatting with charming old ladies in shops around Sesimbra. After reaching a functionally intermediate level of Portuguese—that I no longer need Gi’s help during hellishly bureaucratic visa appointments is my litmus test—I decide to move to Lisbon, which amounts to little more than bringing my skateboard and a single suitcase. While Gi is helping me move into the room I found, she tells me “tu vais fazer falta, miúdo.” “You’re going to make a lack (in me).”
My apartment is next to the Intendente metro, just two stops away from the Baixa-Chiado city center. Elderly Portuguese people still associate the area with the heroin epidemic and abject poverty of the late ‘90s, and though the zone still attracts junkies, it is by far the safest place I’ve ever lived in a large city. I’m near a basketball court, beautiful miradouros, or lookout points, bars, and both Portuguese and Chinese grocery stores; falta pouco.
Because of the easy monotony of my life in Lisbon, the time folds into itself—I spend nine months total in the city. I work, I justify watching too much mediocre television shows by dubbing them in Portuguese, I write less than I told myself I would, and I go out frequently. Cheap Portuguese beer—Super Bock, never Sagres—and strong, €5 double negronis lubricate social interactions in Portuguese. To those who insist on speaking to me in English, I pretend I’m Ukrainian and stare at them blankly—there are no lack of Ukrainians here in my grandfather’s country, and nobody questions me.
When friends and acquaintances do inquire more substantively about my reasons for being here, I am consistent with the same two reasons I’ve told myself: I am here to learn Portuguese and acquire Portuguese citizenship. The former, in retrospect, is a sort of shorthand. I’ve come not only to learn the language, but to better understand the role it plays, or hasn’t played, in my own life—to be able to refer to Gi and others as “family” in emotional rather than genealogical terms.
When the Brazilians I play basketball with start mistaking me for being Portuguese, I realize that my time in Portugal is coming to a close. I can say that I speak the language. I speak it imperfectly, but the words mas ou menos—more or less—are no longer my default response when a stranger asks if I speak Tuga. I can, too, call my avô, my grandfather, and speak to him comfortably in his own language, feeling, finally, like I have access to a self he sidelined when he was roughly my age. I still lack citizenship, but my pedido is sitting somewhere in paper purgatory and there’s nothing more to be done. I have a few weeks between my flight home and the end of my lease, so I prepare to briefly move back to Gi’s house.
I luck out, though. Idly browsing Facebook, I see that a friend of a friend is subletting her room in Lisbon for two weeks at a cost of €130—for peanuts, as my avô used to say. I wouldn’t bother otherwise, but I’ve met someone, and though she knows I’m leaving, I want to spend as much time as I possibly can with her. I’m 25 now—still not too old for idealism, apparently. The apartment I sublet is on Rua Cidade de Manchester, in the hills behind the northernmost Intendente metro station. It’s a beautiful area, closer still to the miradouros, and full of Nepalese and Bangladeshi restaurants and anti-capitalist assoçiações where you can buy beer for €1 and sit on a grimy, sweat-stained couch until 3:00 a.m. or receive vegetarian food in the daytime in exchange for washing dishes. The only downside of the apartment is getting there—it’s impossible to make the uphill trip and then climb five flights of stairs without sweating profusely.
Whenever I leave the apartment, I’m forced to pass by a permanently closed corner store with an awning that reads Faz Falta. I assume that before closing, it was the kind of shop where you could grab whatever you need, whatever faz falta on the way home from work. On my last day in Lisbon, the store is one of the final images I register before catching the Intendente metro, transferring to the red line, and taking it all the way to the airport. I have been here illegally since moving to Lisbon—roughly a year—but after losing nearly a gallon in nervous sweat, I board the plane without issue.
In trying to communicate the extent to which I miss Portugal, I am wary of falling into the same trap Anglophone tourists do when they wax poetic about saudade. We Americans are uniquely adept at this kind of mawkishness—a college junior will return from a semester spent in Rome, Barcelona, or Paris, and they’ll talk about how their time abroad, mostly spent drinking and skipping class, has profoundly “changed” them. So often, it is not a specific country that we miss, but the sensation of being abroad generally. Or rather we miss being Americans abroad—we miss the cavalier irreverence that being a native English speaker grants us in so many parts of the world.
Like hunger, I feel the hole Portugal has left in me only when it is provoked—when I hear a couple in their mid-90s speaking thick Açoriano Portuguese at a café in my hometown, or when, to my surprise, the first radio channel I turn to while on a trip in Boston happens to be Tuga. As I speak Portuguese less and less, I can feel that part of my personality atrophying. Making small talk with strangers, an essential part of who I am in Portuguese, has never been something native to me in English. When I approach the aforementioned Açoriano couple in the café, I do so in Portuguese because to do so in English would feel utterly foreign to me. While playing basketball in Portugal, trash talking was a fundamental part of the game—no utterance complete without the finishing touch of porra (shit!) or caralho (fuck/fucker). During my first few pickup games back in the US, I find no trace of this profane gaiety in me, regardless of the game’s ambience.
In short, I can feel whatever nebulous part of me that came to be dominated by Portuguese shriveling and fading away. I’ll occasionally spend a Sunday immersed in the language, listening exclusively to Portuguese rap, reaching out to friends and family, muttering to myself in Portuguese. But this is a patchwork fix rather than a comprehensive one, meant to tide me over until I can find a more permanent solution. To employ the meaning of faz falta from the cover of Caetano’s comic: sometimes Portuguese faz falta, sometimes it’s necessary. It was in an attempt to satisfy a lack that I went to Portugal, but the hole caused by my departure is bigger than the one I had upon arrival.
Jeremy Klemin is an essayist and translator from California, and has also lived in Scotland, Portugal, and Brazil, where he was a Fulbright Fellow. You can find other work of his in publications like the New York Times Book Review, Literary Hub, and Joyland Magazine.
Photos courtesy of the author.