The Sounds of Memories

How does a memory sound?

My memories sound like ocean waves breaking against the sand,

Christmas songs sang out of tune,

Hail Marys and Our Fathers whispered at night.

My memories sound like my father saying goodnight

Or the last time we said goodbye.

They sound like my mother’s voice calling us to the table,

Teaching us to be kind.

My grandfather doubting men ever walked on the moon

And my grandma reminiscing about her honeymoon.

The sound of the Chestnut Man yelling

Quentes e boas!” in the cold of the street.

The whistle of the Knife-Sharpening man,

Early in the morning, drawing us in.

An old pop song playing in the background,

The sound of pots and pans in the kitchen,

The national anthem playing on TV at midnight,

What’s up doc?” and “I tawt I taw a putty tat”.

My memories sound like jet planes

Landing and taking off,

Tighten your seat belts” and “Please, don’t smoke.”

My memories squeak like airport dollies

And old airplane rolling stairs.

They are thunder and wind of an African storm,

The roaring of the fast waters of the Congo River,

The incessant bartering of women at the market,

The pleads of the beggars in the streets,

The moaning of the sick and the lonely.

My memories whistle like the wind on Scottish muirs,

And growl like the Puffins at Dunnottar.

The crystalline sound of my baby son’s laughter

And the Scottish accent of my four-year old.

Carolers singing throughout the night,

A medieval tune played out of sight.

Whistle and “Captain Aboard”,

Crowds of Navy families crying goodbyes,

Or celebrating hellos.

The silence of a Pacific Mountain,

The peace of the Puget Sound.

My memories have so many sounds.

They whisper in my ears,

Quietly, soundlessly sometimes.

They yell at me,

Loud and piercing other times.

They are echoes of my past,

Little souvenirs of feelings, thoughts, impressions,

Tiny mosaics that made me strong enough to last.

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The Power of Language

This morning sitting in my usual booth at Panera enjoying a book and coffee, here they come; I call them the German ladies club. I am not sure whether they are family or just friends that share a common language and culture. I listen to them for a while. It’s good practice for me considering I haven’t spoken German in over 20 years.  I understand maybe 30% of the conversation and that’s not bad all things considered.

From amidst all that German there are many words and phrases uttered in English. I hear “tornado watch” and “slight chance” sandwiched between German words. I smile. It’s always interesting to listen (or participate) in conversations between bilingual people. There is something weird about how our “wires” are connected. They often “shorten” and out comes a mash-up of words in different languages. Fascinating how a bilingual person can switch between codes without even thinking about it.

I speak (read and write) a few languages. Some of them have fallen into disuse since I haven’t really had the chance or need to use them in years but there are three in particular I use frequently; Portuguese (my native language), English, and Spanish. I have caught myself often speaking in the “wrong” language; meaning, speaking in Portuguese with English speakers and English with Portuguese speakers for example. In the brain of a true bilingual different languages or dialects become almost one. Because our brains can process all of them in similar, if not the same way, the “wires” get crossed sometimes and the wrong language comes out. One day while talking to the secretary in the school where I work and to a Spanish speaking parent,  I caught myself translating what the parent had told me into Portuguese instead of English. The total look of confusion in the secretary’s face was what made me realize what I was doing. My brain didn’t register the difference. We had a good laugh and she still reminds me of this incident once in a while. When I go home to visit  my mom, and especially when I bring my kids and husband (who do not  speak Portuguese), it’s pretty common for me to start speaking in English to my mom and Portuguese to my kids.

Bilingualism gives you a unique perspective into language. You begin “understanding” languages you know nothing about for instances. When I took a class in linguistics I was amazed on how easy it was for me to make sense of languages I had never learned as long as I knew just a few basic rules. Speaking more than one language is like owning your own Rosetta stone, a code-breaker of sorts that will serve you well throughout a lifetime and foster better understanding of other people and other cultures.

I come from a country where the learning of foreign languages is highly valued and encouraged. Everybody starts learning another language while still in elementary school. It always bewilders me that there are people in the US who are for English-only. Why? Doesn’t that foster cultural isolation? So many cultural strife comes from miscommunication. I always believed that people from different cultures would get along a little better if they could have a basic understanding of each other’s languages. How many times have I heard people be suspicious, sometimes angry, because someone is speaking in a language they don’t understand? The tendency is to immediately assume “they are bad-mouthing” you.  I really hope that one day soon everybody in the US will learn a second language starting in elementary school and become, if not bilingual, at least more knowledgeable of how other languages work. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

True Magic

As writers we often have to do a lot of world building. Some of us go to even bigger lengths and build maps and pictures to go with the world your mind and creative juices created. When I was in Portugal in July I got to experience the work of someone who not only created a fantastic world in his mind but actually built. Early in the 20th century a man with a lot of money and an obviously creative mind was able to hire someone equally creative (Luigi Manini who was among other things a set-designer for La Scala of Milan and many other theaters and opera houses around Europe) to make the musings of his fantasy world come to life. This was a 14 year long endeavor that, thanks to an ambitious restoration done by a local foundation (Cultursintra Foundation) is now open to the public.

Sintra, a little town built on a lonely mountain just a few miles north of Lisbon, has always been one of my favorite places in the world. With its own micro-climate and wealth of historical lore, Sintra is a magical place that shares its geography with lush forests and equally luxuriant architecture. It was once the place of choice as a summer residence of the Portuguese royal families who took refuge here from the hot summers in Lisbon. Poets like Lord Byron also favored this location and I can well understand why. You cannot visit Sintra without feeling inspired to write. For me, Sintra is a portal to live poetry and magic.

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Vila de Sintra

On the very top of the mountain, The Moorish Castle- often shrouded in clouds and mist – gives the visitor the illusion of stepping back in time. As you drive or walk through town you can’t miss the overwhelming feel of history. The architecture, the steep, narrow roads and streets, the palaces and the villas, even the humble homes remind you of another place, another time.

This time I had a mission. I had, since moving to the US too many years ago, found out about this mysterious place called Quinta da Regaleira. Pictures of its wrongly-named Inverted Well are everywhere in the internet. I pride myself of knowing my own country very well. I studied tourism and history and I have visited places no-one even knows about. However, this place had been a private property until after I left for the US and as such it had never been publicized. It was finally opened to the public in 1996 and it has become the fodder for many stories and fantasies. It is said (I couldn’t confirm it) that the Masons and the Rosicrucian still hold their secret meetings and rituals onsite.

This magical place is housed halfway up the Serra (mountain) and other than the turrets of the main house you cannot see it from the road. Like most properties in the area, Quinta da Regaleira is protected by tall stone walls. The main palace is amazing. I was drooling over the intricate wood-sculptured ceilings of the house (there aren’t two with the same design), the neo-manueline style of its architecture, the many towers, even a small lab reminiscent of classic literature. However, you quickly forget the house once you start your walk through the massive forested property.

Qt da Regaleira

I can almost guarantee that this is where all the fauns, fairies and other magical creatures came to live in as progress made them homeless around the country. The whole garden –a totally inadequate word for it – rises upwards. If you don’t like to walk and/or climb do not visit this place. You can’t avoid it. There are very few flat surfaces in the property. It would take me pages to describe the whole place because it is loaded with buildings and features that bespeak of wondrous things. There are lakes galore, caves, wells, towers and turrets, fountains and some statuary. I made friends with a few gods from mythology along the way.

Of course, the queen of the ball is the famous Inverted Well. This is actually a misnomer. There is indeed an inverted well but because of its much humbler characteristics it hasn’t made its way to Internet fame as yet. The so called Inverted Well of cyber-fame is actually called the Initiates’ Well (Poço Iniciático), a subterranean tower that sinks almost 100 feet into the earth.  A spiral staircase winds down and around it and its walls are punctured here and there with empty niches (ritual altars?) to the bottom, a beautiful mosaic floor that opens up into a dark (and I mean dark) maze of tunnels, one of which ends on a small lake. Here you have the rare opportunity of walking on water (not really. It just looks that way). When you stand on the bottom of the well and look up, you know you just left reality and entered some other realm.

Poço dos Iniciados                             On the bottom

I spent the whole day at the Quinta and I still didn’t see all I wanted to explore. I wanted to sit on a rock under the shade of the beautiful forest and write. I thought maybe I could buy a tent and just live on the grounds but I was told I wouldn’t be allowed. Too bad. Everyone should be able to experience the enchantment at least once in a lifetime. For now, I carry the magic with me, like a little pocket muse until such time that I can return.

View from the bottom