“My husband was leaving tomorrow. When would I see him again?”
By Beebe Bahrami
The world around me erupted in a cacophony of clinking glasses and cutlery and high-pitched chatter, all bouncing off thick stone archways and pillars as though this 18th-century dining room had been invaded by a thousand parakeets. Miles and I were together in Lisbon and had found our way to this festive neighborhood café as temporary residents in the Alfama hills, a neighborhood of white stucco and orange terracotta overlooking the harbor and the Tejo River.
Diners filled the café’s two dozen tables shoulder-to-shoulder, enjoying the end of the work week—as my husband and I unwound from our own labors. Men in colorful dress shirts and knit vests flirted with women in silk and cashmere, everyone letting loose with laughter that got louder and more boisterous as wine vanished from glasses and dishes streamed out of the kitchen. A swift waiter strode out bearing a tray laden with paprika-spiked clam and pork stew, sizzling steaks, grilled vegetables, and fish soup wafting herb-scented steam. The fresh green traces of a garlicky winter asparagus soup were whisked away from my place setting and replaced with a crisply sautéed monkfish filet glistening in olive oil. I eagerly eyed the grilled shrimp on top and reached for my wine, a plum-skin red in a crystalline stem glass standing on a crisp white tablecloth.
Abruptly, the lights dimmed. Everyone around me went still, as though wired to the same switch. My hand froze in mid-air. As much as I wanted to finish my reach, I dared not make even the slightest uninvited sound—my stem tapping silverware, my sleeve hitting the knife resting against my temporarily abandoned plate, even the noise of a sip or a swallow.
A dark-eyed, dark-haired, pale-skinned woman appeared two feet from my right shoulder. She had the build of a ballerina and wore an ivory silk gown. I turned gingerly toward her, holding my breath. An upright bass player materialized by her side. Holding his instrument in an intimate embrace, he began plucking deep notes that immediately evoked a sense of movement. Next a guitar player joined in, defining the melody. Now the café’s owner sat down at this woman’s side, cradling a 12-string Portuguese guitar, and riffed on the melody with dragonfly fingers—as though he were fluttering ecstatically across the bass’s deep waters and the guitar’s soft liquid waves. Only then did the woman launch the first line of the song, delicately at first, then with full driving power from the depths of her diaphragm and laid out life’s bittersweet beauty and pain. As the song built in intensity I momentarily looked back at my glass. The wine inside was beginning to vibrate.
She sang of the ocean, the countryside, the mountains, the rivers, and circled back to the ocean—o mar—always the ocean. For it more than any other element was the cause of her longing’s two-sided pull, and perhaps that of every Portuguese, since the ocean is both the defining symbol of this coastal country and the vehicle that removes its people from their home. She sung of waiting at the harbor, peering at the endless watery horizon for signs of her lover’s return from the sea, and worrying about when the sea would claim him for good. She sang then to the spirit of a nation of emigrants, where so many Portuguese spend long decades elsewhere, trying to earn enough money to be able to return home.
I lifted my eyes from the wine glass and met my husband’s gaze. He was leaving tomorrow. When would I see him again?
He had come to visit me in Galicia, in northwestern Spain, where I’d been living in and writing about a fishing village.
The vocalist suddenly switched to a minor key as the bassist increased the already swift tempo. The guitarist raced over his 12 strings to match the shift, no longer a flutter of dragonfly wings but crashing waves in a tempest. The woman’s voice rose above the chaos in crescendo, detailing a list of woes as I followed her and found myself reliving the journey that had brought us here.
The ocean had been with us all the way, crashing against the shore as we’d journeyed south on trains that pulled us through this whole long and narrow country. At sunrise we’d crossed the wide Minho River—the natural northern border with Spain—and seen the infinite layers of purple, blue, and burgundy mountains radiating south under a fan of stars still visible in the brightening sky. On the outskirts of the port city of Oporto, frost sparkled on low grasses growing on softly rolling hills that opened to terraced steep banks of the Douro River.
We slipped along the coast, wild and windswept with overhead waves, reminding us that as beautiful as the ocean is, it is also deadly. It was then that the low-key words of a Portuguese friend echoed in my mind. Miles had told him how much he admired the Portuguese for their adventurous boldness out in the open ocean. Luis shrugged. “We have the Spanish to our east and the Atlantic to our west,” he said. “Where else are we going to go?”
We then passed homesteads bounded by stone fences, where terraced kitchen gardens grew bountifully with fruit trees, grape vines, pole beans, and leafy greens in small and efficient plots.
The bassist slowly brought the pace back down, and the singer shifted back to the major key, still singing of woe but with a subtle melodic uplift that could be read as either resolution or resignation to her fate.
With them, I continued to relive our journey, the mountainous north giving way to foothills before yielding to plains dotted with cork and olive groves, where finally we were delivered to Tejo River and its massive gaping mouth opening into the Atlantic at Lisbon. And now here we sat, in a neighborhood known for many things but above all its music, its fado, a tavern-song tradition that sang of the very landscape through which we’d traveled.
This was my first experience of fado. The wordmeans “fate” and is closely tied to the idea of saudade, a form of longing that exemplifies the Portuguese—an artful pining for something just beyond one’s reach.
I looked across the table and held Miles’ gaze. Then I dropped my eyes back to the wine. It was dancing. Sound waves erupted from its center and swept in radiating rings across the red surface to the glass’ edge. As one pulse died, another followed, all with the singer. Something inside me shifted.
As a writer and anthropologist—two occupations requiring a lot of solitude and solo travel—I am often asked if Miles joins me, or how he feels about my being away. No one ever asks me if I join Miles in his work, which would be the perfect parallel question. We were both already explorers when we met, years ago, at Penn as doctoral students. He was a medievalist who would travel through texts, time, and geography. I was an anthropologist with a passion for sinking deeply into places, learning their deeper stories, and writing them. I once overheard Miles respond to this oft-asked question with an answer that any real traveler would recognize as the truth: “Better stories find her when she travels alone.” I wonder: did Ernest Hemingway, Bill Bryson, or Paul Theroux get asked so often about leaving their partners for long trips alone? I think not. It seems that we don’t let women work and travel the same way as men, be it in the world or in the realm of relationships and emotions. Yet still, each time we part, I miss Miles deeply and feel the dense weight of melancholy in his absence . As time goes on, it gets harder, not easier, to say goodbye.
Just as I found my fado, the fadista finished singing. The guitarist faded his flutters out, the melody surfaced one last time, and the bass left a deep note hanging in the oscillating air. The music stopped. The wine went still. There was a pause as everyone came back from his or her own fado. Then, at last, we applauded. As soon as the singer departed, the lights brightened and the cacophony resumed, everyone picking up from the last thread of conversation, the last bite of food, and the next sip of wine.
There was no need to excavate the emotions: the fado had done that for us. I didn’t need to tell Miles how much I would miss him. We’d already delved deeply into that feeling on another level, freeing us up to enjoy our last night fully in the present.
The next day I saw him off. Before boarding my train to head back north, I visited the harbor and watched the ships come and go with the ocean’s rhythms—the ocean, the ocean, always the ocean—and felt the fadista’s saudade now as my own.
Beebe Bahrami Gr’95 is the author of Café Oc and Café Neandertal. Her trekking guidebook Moon Camino de Santiago is forthcoming this spring from Avalon Travel/Hachette.