THE PORTUGUESE MASS
This island of Sao Miguel sprinkled with one charming little town after another is a paradise started by and formed by volcanic eruptions. It is a Catholic island, definitively, and I know this because there are over two hundred churches seemingly on every corner and then some. This island is about thirty-nine miles long and ten miles wide and houses over one hundred and forty thousand people and I have had a connection with the people of the Azores for most of my life. Since my family lived in Fall River, Massachusetts and I now live in Bristol Rhode Island, there is a very large community of this amazing group of spirited souls, Azoreans as I have learned to call this group of people, who love, with the greatest of pride, their homeland.
I guess many families who have had mass immigration have a feeling of longing for the lives they left behind as either they, themselves, or the generations before them took a leap of faith for a better economy leaving customs, cultures and family behind as they tried to look ahead rather than behind. This spectacular and very slow island moves at a pace that I have absolutely reveled in for the last twelve days. I have had the unique scope of deep hikes in the quietest of places, food as fresh as the day’s catch, the freshest of meats, cheeses, butters, wines and the friendliest and kindest of people I have had the privilege of meeting. I know the hearts of the people of the Azores because of my good fortune to know many back home, but experiencing their actual community has been the deepest of the onion layer I have enjoyed like they have been my own family.
Usually in my travels as much as I try to travel to places where I know someone so I have the scope of their own perspectives as much as possible, there is always a barrier that separates us versus them. Maybe it is because this culture is so incredibly familiar to me where I don’t have that wall separating us, maybe it is because it is only a four hour plane ride, perhaps it is because I have grown up surrounded my the language a few streets or neighborhoods away, I have loved this trip more than most and I have loved my trips of the past. It could be because this is the first trip I have taken since I have had my final surgery and traveling alone has given me a deep dive perspective on my love of life and travel solo. Maybe it is the blessings I feel in my own health and confidence in my instincts for travel that adds to this distinct pleasure.
From the simple walks around the town of Ponta Delgada at all hours of the late and light filled evenings finding small intimate places to listed to Fado, to the vigorous hikes on trails up mountainsides and down hills to waterfalls and lakes that have taken my breath away. Then there are the monuments and the layers of volcanic rock paths and walls that were built on the backs of hard working men stone by stone centuries ago that remind any traveler that all places are fragile, especially volcanic ones that are in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I don’t mean to make this sound like this is Fantasy Island, but for me this past twelve days, it kind of has been.
Women and men have lots of body love for one. Going to the beach every day right across the street from my hotel reminds me how screwed up Americans are about their bodies. I have witnessed the heaviest of rolls of women and men lying comfortably among each other in string bikinis without so much as a twinge of discomfort. I wear one of those cute Athleta skirts, Serena Williams like, sporting my strong and solid thighs and I am the only one with one of these on. I am not exaggerating. No one here wears a skirt, a skort, a tankini or a pair of boy shorts. Everything is exposed from the largest of derrière and breasts to the smallest and in fact, the smallest is kind of the oddball out. I have leaned into some serious body love here enjoying my curves at the beach with the rest of these people; I am never going to not have curves and it is super ok here in this neck of the ocean. Like many Europeans though, no one seems to have gotten the memo that smoking is bad and that to go coffee cups are ok, but this is a small price to pay for every other element being spectacularly easy. I have learned how to speak a very small amount of Portuguese but now it is the day before I leave and it is almost too late. I have gone to the most gold gilded churches and sat among the tiny women praying in the middle of their days for miracles and have tried not to chuckle at the irony of the wealth on the alter. I have gone to Mass for the first time in my life with my friend’s aunt and mother who have instructed me on the dos and do not’s of their religion and have been humbled by their passion.
This past Sunday I went to St. Anna’s Mass in Furnas with my friend’s mother and aunt and watched a first communion take place. I had no idea it was going to be a two hour mass with no AC. I at once became aware of my religious difference as I realized that my people, in my lovely reformed Jewish congregation would likely never sit for two hours in the baking heat with no AC and if this wasn’t an immediate come to Jesus moment, there never would be one as I fanned myself with the liturgical handout that seemed on paper much shorter than two hours. The beauty of listening to a two hour service in a language I didn’t understand likely made the whole experience much more spiritual. There were a few moments where Tia translated, like the time that the priest was instructing the children to be good and not to be bad. I had to bite my tongue here with the respect my grandmother would have wanted me to have as I almost suggested perhaps it should be the children instructing the priest with all of that skeletons in the closet and shameful burying of the atrocities of men in power.
I was somewhat and humorously commanded by ‘Tia’ to sit and stand and kneel as I listened to a mass in Portuguese as the entire congregation anxiously awaited the St. Anna feast and the procession that was to follow. She had prepared me for the religious indoctrination before we got there, reminding me that I was in no way shape or form to go up for communion. (Like there was even a remote possibility I would be doing that). In her beautifully broken English, when the time came she barked out, “You will stay here and watch my purse until I come back,” and with that order, off she went to stand in line with about five hundred other people, mouths open or hands depending on your level of OCD with germs, I supposed. I found it hilarious that she didn’t see the irony of asking me to watch her purse in church, but I kept that to myself. When she came back at the speed of light, (I am always amazed at how quickly they are able to move what had to be almost eight hundred people through the communion line), I asked her why some had the priest place the wafer in their mouths and some had them place it in their hands. “Personal choice,” she matter of factly replied. Then she spoke softly letting me know that she always worked for priests and they used to tell her after the service how painful it was to put the wafer in so many mouths because of the terrible breath and would wash their hands vigorously with vinegar after mass. I laughed aloud. I had never thought about this and I had to turn my head away so I didn’t start crying with laughter. I remember my doctor jokingly affirming how great it was to get a pedicure before my delivery of my son when I told him my plans of this. He told me how bad some women’s feet smelled. This reminded me of the same thing. Ahh… the problems of priesthood. Who knew?
There is nothing like traveling to gain new perspective, to look at your own life with a different set of binoculars checking out other people’s viewpoints. I learned so much here and of course add to this stunning recipe my own Jewish heritage. The search for any Jewish history here and a story unfolded today like it does in every other area I have traveled to where Jews have been persecuted simply because they chose to practice a religion that started much before Catholicism and Christianity, you know, Old Testament New Testament? But I’ll save that for a different piece because that little gem deserves its own essay. Until my next travels. MUITO OBRIGADO, my beautiful Azorean Friends and Warriors. Until we meet again.