Friday, March 29, 2024

Azores 2024 – An Easter Visit to the Green Island

Arriving to the Azores feels like coming home. It has been a shameful six years since we last visited and six of Ana’s aunts, uncles, and cousins are here at the airport to greet us after our mostly sleepless overnight flight from Toronto. They all look exactly the same – even younger, maybe. It’s the clean island living.

Ana’s folks John and Maria have joined us on the trip for their final visit to the Azores (they say) but I don’t believe it. John will be turning 80 next week and Maria hit that marker recently, but they still have plenty of gas left in the tank.


Ana follows some Azores ex-patriate forums on social media,and according to those the whole place has gone to hell. Skyrocketing prices, swarms of tourists, congestion in the streets. But I see none of that during the short drive from the airport to her uncle Manuel’s house in Livramento, where we’ll be staying. Mind you, it is Good Friday, so maybe not the best day to judge; especially as the weather is awful and the wind and rain shakes and pelts the Dacia Duster rental vehicle as we drive.


The Azores is a very special place for us. My first trip here was in 2003 with Ana, a few years after we met and I have been intrigued and in love with the islands ever since then. Back in those days, the only tourists here were ex-patriate Azoreans from Ontario, Massachusetts, and California returning to visit their families, plus the odd German wearing hiking books. After that first trip I fully expected the islands would be quickly discovered and ruined by mass tourism…but they weren’t – even after a massive and modern cruise ship terminal was built in the 2010’s. Only in recent years has the world finally awoken to the charms of Portugal and its islands.


Before I begin, I must explain the family tree. We are staying with Ana’s mom’s oldest brother Manuel. His wife Alda passed away many years ago and three of his children live nearby – Manuela with her husband Antonio and kids Fernando and Raquel; Carmelia with her husband Pedro and their children Bella, Sofia and Sofia’s daughter MatildeNatercia with her husband Paulo Fernando and their daughter Leonore, and Manuel’s son Rue lives in Sweden with his twin boys Hans and Frans (that’s not actually right but Manuel couldn’t quite remember their Swedish names so let’s go with that). Maria’s youngest brother Luis and his wife Genoveva are also part of the wolf pack and they have an armada of kids and grandkids.

We get seated at the kitchen table and Ana’s cousin 
Natercia pulls out the blood pressure monitor and starts checking everybody’s number. How things have changed. Back in the day the first thing offered to us on our visits were shots of moonshine, bottles of cold Sagres beer, and pastries. I think it’s all for show anyway, because after we’re all checked and results recorded and compared and I’m anointed the winner with the lowest pressure score, we tie into a smashing breakfast spread of fresh buns, ham, cheese, fresh Azorean milk from happy cows, homemade grape chutney jam, mini bananas, and coffee, then followed up with samples of various home brewed and some store-bought liquors of varied intensities. Other cousins begin appearing and it is soon a beehive of activity and an enthusiastic discussion breaks out concerning dinner plans for the following weekend. There is finger pointing, yelling, arguing, second-guessing, triple-checking, lobbying, more yelling then finally I ask Ana what Tio Luis had just said and she reported, “shove the meat in the hole”. I thought the discussion had moved onto something more interesting than meal prep, but turns out they were debating making a cozida (Azorean meat and potato stew)with the help of the underground volcanic cooking tubes at the town of Furnas. But this promising plan ended up being scuttled and moved to mid-week to avoid weekend congestion, leaving us with no dinner plans for next weekend. I’m sure it will all work itself out.


The topic turns to another intriguing hole; this one the dreaded bottomless pit that Ana’s mom has been telling us about for years. Legend has it that the villagers of Livramento discovered this fissure in the earth after one of the senior pastors, probably named Joe, disappeared without a trace, and so did his cow. It’s pretty hard to disappear completely on this small island and good luck hiding a cow for any length of time. The hole was discovered and was proven to be an excellent portal for disposal of trash or any other unsightly, unwanted goods or people. Now we’ve never seen this hole, and I’ve always thought that Maria was maybe just making it up. So we ask Tio Luis about and he doesn’t just confirm its existence, he tells us that one time they rigged up a shaky, homemade man-basket and took a few hundred feet of rope, draped it over a big tree limb, then lowered their brother Tony into the hole to see if he could find the bottom. Well, he must have run into something supernatural down there because when they pulled him out he was scared shirtless and had become completely magnetized. It worked out well for him though, because as a carpenter, from that time forward, he was able to just stick tools to his legs and arms instead of wearing one of those uncomfortable leather tool pouches. And he never dropped a screw or nail again.

We beg Luis to take us to see the hole, right then, but he tells us that it had been sealed with concrete after some baby skeletons were 
supposedly discovered inside. Cousin Paulo’s never heard of this hole so Luis gives him directions and he pulls up Google Earth on his phone but can find no sign of fissures or concrete plugs; just a big dirt field. The whole story is real suspect, but what’s life without a bit of mystery I suppose.


Cousin Pedro appears with a huge tub filled with little chicharro fish (Two euro per kilo from the market, caught yesterday), enough to feed a frigate of sailors, and the whole house erupts in lunch preparation activities. Ana is flouring fish, Paulo is shredding cod pieces, Natercia and her sisters Carmelia and Manuela are slicing potatoes and veggies, Antonio is arranging plates and cutlery, Pedro has fired up four frying stations and is cooking fish, I’m washing a never-ending parade of dishes, John’s keeping everybody supplied with fresh beer, and Manuel and Maria are directing traffic and yelling stuff at people – everybody gets a job. Pedro goes to adjust the tablecloth and discovers that Tio Manuel has, in good bachelor fashion, been using curtains for this purpose. He quietly folds up the curtain and slides it into a drawer.


I duck out to the grocery store to pick up two more cases of 250 millilitre mini-Sagres and mini-Super Bock beers just to make sure we don’t run out. Paulo then shoves me into his car and says we’re going lemon shopping. Well, the best lemon shopping in the island turns out to be in his backyard so we go there and he picks a bunch of fresh bright orange coloured lemons off the tree while I play with his cute little dog, who I think is named Pincher and he doesn’t bite me or piss on my leg so I bond with him immediately.


When we return we find out Natercia’s tested everybody’s blood pressure again. The all day drinking has brought everybody’s down by double digits so that proves once and for all that drinking alcohol is good for you. So all you “sober-curious” messiahs can just shut yer traps.


The lunch is beyond incredible. The little fishies are fried crisp and you can eat them head, tail, spine and all. The cod dish made with French fries, eggs, peppers, fried onion, and olives is heavenly. There are boiled and salted new potatoes (which have all been sliced just partway through), fresh vegetables, and many bottles of red wine. Natercia demonstrates the proper technique for eating the new potatoes, which involves dropping a small spoon of pepper sauce into the gash then eating it like a sandwich. The thought of hot pepper in the gash makes me giggle a bit and this turns into a table-wide dirty joke with the help of Paulo. Ana explains to everybody the concept of a “death row dinner” and claims this exact meal as her preferred choice, if she ever finds herself in that unfortunate situation (and I’m assuming me, dead). We sit for a very long time eating, drinking, story-telling, and laughing. This is what we came for. This is why we’re here.

Paulo shows me this nifty trick for opening beer bottles – it’s a genius innovation and does not require one’s teeth nor eyes socket but I’m not going to reveal it here. Instead, have me over sometime and make sure you have bottled beer. Hand me one and I will maintain eye contact with you while I deftly remove the cap and you’ll have no idea how I did it. See, life is better with a bit of mystery.


Instead of music, the Azoreans play Portuguese variety shows to provide background noise in their homes. They are just awful. It’s usually middle-aged women with pancake-batter makeup in unflattering, tight gowns surfing the rolls and their balding male cousins in ill-fitting suits singing overly dramatic ballads with tons of vibrato and hand flailing, with hordes of deranged families gathered round clapping and cheering, probably because it’s a free event and there was nothing else going on that day. Today’s variety show is from Lisbon and it’s still going hours into our own party.


While we drink and goof around in the kitchen, all the younger kids loaf in the living room glued to their phones, exactly the same as what the device-addicted youth do in Canada, making me briefly sad. So I liven things up by going out there and speaking English with them every once in a while which makes them uncomfortable as hell and me laugh a bit.


Time takes on weird dimensions and all of a sudden it’s nighttime and we’re eating Calde Verde soup which has been bubbling on the stove all day and is frighteningly good with its flavourful green strings of kale, liquified potatoes, and chunks of chorizo. Manuela suddenly appears with Pedro and they are carrying this big charcoal grill through the house I think all the booze and food is making me see things, so I follow behind them and watch as they position it at the back of the house in the attached cooking area which has the fryers, stone oven, propane supplies, and a bunch of other stuff. Apparently at some point during the day I had innocently asked somebody about how the oven worked and they interpreted this as disappointment that there was no charcoal barbeque for our cooking needs.


I drink a few more shots with Natercia and Paulo and after they shove off, Ana and I trudge upstairs and collapse in bed after a seemingly ordinary, yet magically wonderful opening day with our beautiful and crazy Azorean family.

1 comment:

  1. Haha Paul showed Glen the bottle opening trick too...he hasn't stopped doing it since!