December 1993

“Portugal?” says my brother. “Isn’t that a totally coastal country?” he says, in that American way some people have of speaking.

Yes, it is totally coastal, I tell him. It’s a total coast, with miles of beach. It’s a fishing country, where fishermen still sail every day, and people cook sardines by leaning out of their windows, and grilling them on the small and winding streets in the older parts of Lisbon. I remember seeing the ocean in Portugal for the first time. It was at night, and the hotel restaurant looked out over the water. I wanted to know, what was the color? Blue or turquoise or green?

Have you never seen the ocean before? my host wanted to know. Of course I had seen the ocean, but never this one. I looked out at the expanse of the sea that night, and then the next morning, looking at the clear gold light of the sun over so much water, I felt the weight of the history. You feel this history in the sea; which, of course, is eternal; and in the buildings. The light and the architecture combine to make beautiful sweeping views, like an old painting – the towers and clocks against the play of clouds and sea have a rich lovely color, so different from the pale watery stark light of Germany or Northern England. These buildings were alive during the centuries following the 8th century Moorish occupation, and are still alive today, although some have very modern graffiti on them. For those who are interested in this history, much of the old architecture is intact because Portugal was untouched in the two World Wars.

But besides all these weighty historical feelings, I also felt all possibilities open for the future, as though I were a kind of female Henry the Navigator surveying the avenues of exploration upon the horizon. I had the feeling if I looked hard enough perhaps I could see my apartment in Manhattan, which looks over the Hudson River. Portugal is not mummified, or kept behind glass, self-consciously historical and prim; it is down to earth, sometimes dirty, and sometimes elegant, but always alive and friendly.

I was invited in 1988 to visit the President Soares at the Palace, which surprise me, as I am not used to invitations from high places. Why? I wondered. Would my visit provoke any protest? Yes, they liked him. No, they would not protest. He seemed to have the rare talent of being able to please both the left and the right wing at the same time – a liberal conservative of sorts. I was impressed. In my country, all you ever heard was complaints against the government, especially in New York, and I have never known a people to be happy with their elected representatives.

Their President was gracious, but neither of us spoke the other one’s language. We smiled at each other a lot. I went with someone from the record company, my boyfriend, and my manager. We sat down in a line and spoke for a few minutes, had our pictures taken, and then we got up and began to mill around the beautiful palace which looks something like a museum. Formal circumstances, even as informal as these, always make me uncomfortable, so I thought that I would initiate a movement to conclude our visit, and marched forward confidently to the huge front doors and tried to throw them open.

“Oh, Miss Vega, wouldn’t you rather leave through the front door rather than the second story window?” said the guard, running over to prevent me from flinging myself off the balcony. It still makes me laugh to think about it, but the President was kind, and I was pleased he took the time to invite me.

We had a press conference that night, in a small club. I told the story there, and it made the front row laugh. I had seen these same young women at the airport the day before. My memories are that I was mobbed when I arrived. The reality was probably that there were more like ten people, but I remember the photographers, and the pictures they snapped of my surprised face as we drove away in the car. They printed them with gusto the next day in the newspapers.

I had lunch with some of the journalists during my visit, which I loved, because the weather was soft and sunny, and we ate outdoors in a restaurant with painted tiles near the entrance. There were leaves overhead, and we ate fish and drank vinho verde. I told them I felt I was a journalist in my songs, and they responded that they felt they were artists.

Why did you write about the Portuguese women in your song Ironbound? they wanted to know. Because I had seen some Portuguese women in the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey, near where I live, and that they looked very beautiful and womanly to me, and that it made me feel that I was in a romantic and warm place far away, like Lisbon. When I sing that line on stage, all eight thousand people in the audience in Lisbon, or Oporto, or Cascais, cheer and scream and sing along happily. They wave their arms and celebrate.

There was one Portuguese woman who sang and played the guitar to warm up the audience for me a few times. Her name was Pilar, and she sang by herself, with no band or other accompaniment. I remember mostly her dark lustrous hair and her beautiful sad songs, and her voice that sounded ripped from her, or torn out of her. One minute her voice was caressing, and the next sad; she would croon, hiccup, cry and accuse. It had an extraordinary effect on the audience, especially the men and boys; they howled in response. It didn’t seem to matter which words she sang. They howled in response to the pure sound of her voice. I did too, within myself.

I believe that the soul of Portugal, besides being the sea, is in the songs. I went to a small club one night, where a woman was singing unamplified in the center of the room, with her head thrown back, like she was wailing or moaning. Everyone pressed in close to her. This was fado singing, a kind of singing that began in the 16th century, and continues today. The songs are about desire, fate, and human passions, and are usually very sad. I understand why.

An imposing man followed her, and I heard whispers that this singer was a judge in his daily life. Again I was impressed, as in the United States you would never see a judge singing in a nightclub. Here it seemed the most natural thing. Who should sing about fate and human destiny if not a judge? As he sang, he turned around so the entire room could see him; he seemed to look in my direction and his mouth opened very wide (at me?); a tremendous sound of singing and wailing poured out of him. I felt flattened against the wall and for a moment was relieved that he was not my father, and that he had no cause to be angry at me, as I would not want to provoke such wrath. Afterwards we talked in a friendly way and he gave me one of his recordings.

The last image I have of Portugal was just before Christmas one year, when I was in our tour bus, riding through the warm streets, looking at the grocery stores with huge pieces of dried codfish hanging outside. Some of these hanging fish are as big as a man. On one street corner in front of all this fish was a man, in fact, waiting for the light to change, and casually smoking a cigarette with his hand on his hip. He was thin, and looked tired, and he needed a shave. Perhaps this would not have made an impression, except that he was dressed as Santa Claus, and his red pants hung low around his dark narrow hips. He made no pretence of being jolly or fat or nice, and I admired him for it. Beside this I remember the faces, which to me look like those of my family, though not my own – the dark skin and the large dark eyes, the round faces and the wide cheekbones of my brothers and sister I grew up with.

Copyright © Suzanne Vega. All rights reserved.

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