Not always the place where you lived the longest is the one that brings the best memories.
When I planned this trip to the Azores in 2016, I was thrilled with how luck had determined the route – one night in Terceira Island, where I could revisit the same places of over 30 years ago and a half-day in São Miguel Island where I could revisit the places of my teenage years (the old dorm, High School, the music school, the cafes where I used to study, the hospital where I was born).
As we entered the taxi outside the Ponta Delgada airport to take us to the city center, I was surprised with my lack of enthusiasm. I should have taken that as a sign. The less than 10-minute trip through trafficless streets, passing by old familiar buildings and street corners, had nothing to show for. When we parked three doors down from my old dorm, I didn’t feel the enthusiasm I had anticipated. Not as I did in Angra and in Flores, where I joyfully asked the locals about life on the islands and tourism.
Ponta Delgada felt like any other city in the rest of the world. The cafe where I used to write short stories more than I studied felt fake, like a weird movie’s flashback montage. For a split second, I thought maybe it was the heat or the humidity, but I knew it wasn’t the weather. There was nothing else there for me to see, 20 years after I left.
I thought a stroll after lunch, with a comforted stomach, would put me back on track and the funny stories would come pouring. “Look! This is the music school where I used to come and meet my roommate before heading home”, but my enthusiasm once again faded as I spotted the plaque for some other institution that was now placed there.
The High School, the Court House where I was registered (and my mom told me this story so many times, how I had to be registered where I was born, not where my parents were from because that was the law in 1978), the avenue by the ocean where I used to take long walks on Sunday afternoons. With all this, my reaction was unemotional.
Overwhelmed by the weight of this city that seemed to me to stand still in time, I felt suffocated. It was as if I had outgrown it. The places looked smaller and the distances felt shorter. Hadn’t the walk from the dorm to the school take me more than 10 minutes? Did I really snail-pace every morning?
I had made plans to visit the old theater where I watched a movie on the big screen for the first time. I was 10, it was “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, and I’ll forever remember how I was mesmerized by how on earth they mixed cartoons and real people in one scene. My second home address, and last in Ponta Delgada, was also on the list. Would my former landlady, who made me chicken soup when I was sick, recognize me? How old was she when I rented that room on the top floor? Then I wanted to revisit the old bars and clubs downtown – rich kids had cars; I hung out with other out-of-towners like me, the broke College students and the occasional backpacker who traveled off-season (before I even knew what backpacking and traveling off-season were).
Sitting at the park next to my old dorm, my first home address in this city, with my back turned to the bench where the local writer and philosopher Antero de Quental shot himself, I’m staring at the two drunken men across the square, who had passed by us a couple of minutes earlier reeking of alcohol and urine, quarreling without making sense of a single sentence, speaking in that particular, slurred, local accent. “Do you remember there used to be a lake around the bandstand?”, my brother asked me. For a nanosecond I had forgotten I was on the phone with him. “What lake?”, I asked. “There used to be a lake around the bandstand”, he repeated. I knew then that Ponta Delgada wasn’t a memory, it was a flashback, something you write or watch just to place the character in the rest of the narrative.
Ponta Delgada is my flashback episode, like a dash in my timeline.