Growing up an islander in Flores Island, Azores
Every time I say “I’m from the Azores,” one of these two reactions is expected: “oh wow, that is awesome, you’re so lucky!” or “oh now I get why you left, it must be awful to live in an island.”
Not to mention the occasional jokes or unbelievable questions:
“When the tide is low, you must be able to cross from one island to the other, hey?”
“Are there any cars?”
“Are there any schools,”
“How come you don’t have the same accent as the others?” (and by the others, they mean people who live on S. Miguel island).
Over time, I’ve learned to take these harmless hits with a smile and patiently explain what it’s like to be from the Island of Flores in the Azores.
Last week I took you to Corvo in a glimpse. Flores will probably not take more than a glimpse too.
It’s not because there isn’t much to say. I assure you there is, about both of them.
But the best way to know these islands is to visit them and experience them.
Legend (or History) has it that the island was named Flores because it was covered in flowers when Diogo de Teive discovered it in 1452.
This 143 square-kilometer piece of land is the most western point of Europe, marked by a tiny islet off the coast west of Fajã Grande called Ilhéu do Monchique. That little tip of rock is where Europe begins.
When you grow up on an island and have the urge to see the world, home always seems like the same old same old, and feels small. I didn’t understand what the fuss was about when foreigners fell in love with my homeland.
Then life goes by, time is shorter, and the trips back home become more scattered.
Lately, I find myself missing the things I never did while living there, like the emerald green and bluish-gray lagoons.
When I meet people who’ve been to the island and listen to their experience, I can’t help to think, “how on Earth did they find this place.”
I never ask.
I want to share it with the world, of course, but I don’t want to give all the goods away in one shot. Yes, it is a territorial thing.
Usually, I will make some absent-minded comments about the seven lagoons’ silent beauty and how sad it is that the weather doesn’t always allow you to see their full potential.
The population of almost 4,000 people now always shifted a lot.
The French set a military base on the island in the 1960s. I remember attending kindergarten with a few French kids; starting first grade, they would go to school at the base.
They always mingled with the islanders: on the grocery stores, in the cafes, celebrating Carnaval. In reality, their separate block of houses was a mere formality.
I remember being little and knowing that the day after my birthday always meant fireworks at the French quarter. When I got older, I realized the fireworks were for the Bastille Day on July 14th (I secretly thought they were throwing me an after-party).
By the early 1990s, they left and shut down the base. Some say the island’s economic balance has been shaken ever since.
But they left us the first airport, a hospital, roads, electricity, and a dam. More than the Portuguese government had done for the island.
Nature is all around you. It’s the Azores trademark, after all. I find myself trying to remember how Spring and Winter feel like in Flores. And I can’t.
I can’t remember the last time I was there when it wasn’t Summer. It doesn’t matter in which season you choose to visit. The weather on an island in the North Atlantic will always be unpredictable.
But I believe that’s part of the experience. Don’t expect a tropical resort where everything is thoroughly planned to satisfy you.
Of course, people will be more than glad to show you around or point you in the right direction when you seem lost. But here, as in Corvo, you have to strip to your rawest self.
It’s a destination that takes some patience (and love) to get to, so I believe who gets there comes for the passion of being an islander.
The hills and valleys call for a hike.
The waterfall of Poça do Bacalhau calls for a quick dip.
The warm sea of Fajã Grande calls for a swim.
The sunset in Fajãzinha calls for a local cuisine dinner at the Restaurant Por Do Sol (“sunset” in Portuguese).
You can’t say this island doesn’t do its best to call for your attention. Every time I see photographs of Ireland, I can’t help to think how alike they look.
The island’s population extends beyond its 16.71 Km length and 12.26 Km width. Most of our families live in the United States, and I’ve always felt closer to the American culture than the European.
Growing up with brands like Crayola, and Fisher-Price and M&M’s, Barbie dolls, and Cabbage Patch Kids was ordinary. Culturally, Massachusetts is a lot closer to us than Lisbon.
People say my English accent is a mix of regional variants with a pinch of Canadian. That I’ve never been able to tweak (and I’m not sure what to work on in the first place).
An abandoned village called Aldeia da Cuada was a ghost town since the 1960s. A couple of locals bought the houses and turned them into a rural tourism village.
Apart from the necessary interior renovations, they kept the facades and essence of these stone houses. Each house has the name of the previous owner.
There is careful attention to local culture details: in the wool quilts, in the old iron beds.
Each of the seven lagoons is an extinct volcano, and it’s their pristine state that makes them so appealing. A kind of quietness and beauty that you can only appreciate from afar.
Life is peaceful, but this kind of isolation comes with a price.
A stronger storm means a cut off on supplies (groceries, mail, communications).
A hospital that isn’t decently equipped means an evacuation for something as common as appendicitis.
Demand higher than the supply makes essential goods cost more than they should.
I can’t tell you all the secrets when you have a whole island to explore. Still, I can assure you it’s worth the flight (and all the layovers in between). It’s worth the jet lag. It’s worth the tight grip of your hand on the plane seat armrest (chill, these pilots have been landing here for years, they can do this!).