By Luciana Leitão
A friend once told me: before going to Pico, in Azores, Portugal, you need to read The Flying Island, by the Italian author Romana Petri. This was seven years ago and I did as I was told, only to find it to be better than any other tourist guide could ever be. Lately, I’ve been rereading it, since my yearly visit to a place that in the meantime I learned to call home is approaching.
The non-Portuguese readers might ask firsthand “what is Azore,” so I will answer. Azores is an archipelago composed by nine islands, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, each very different. Yet, they share at least (I emphasise at least) one common characteristic, other than the volcanic scenery: a breathtaking natural beauty still respected by men. Or still unknown by men, I’m not sure. Pico is the one I know best, and the protagonist of The Flying Island story.
The story starts with the narrator arriving in Pico and meeting João Freitas, her mysterious guide, who is an emigrant, as are so many from Azores, looking for opportunities that are scarce in the islands. In Pico, she finds an almost refreshing solitude, embracing silence and nature, while, at the same time, meeting people and learning about their cultural habits.
The narrator is in Pico during the summer period, when each village holds its regular popular parties, in which people gather around for a group folk dance called chamarrita. And she was amazed by the dance, the playful commands which people obeyed almost mechanically, joking around without hesitation.
I remember when I arrived in Pico, asking around where I could see the chamarrita, so impressed was I by Romana Petri’s vivid description. And the same thing applied to the cagarro, a migratory bird that you hear in the evening, in September, and that emanates the strangest almost laughable sound.
The book is a solitary trip to Pico, discovering another world. It’s almost a poetic travel, inside someone else’s mind. When I arrived in Pico, I immediately understood the literary pulse coming from the book, as it is the same one emanating from the island. You might say it comes from any island, considering the necessary isolation. But Pico, with its impressive mountain, which dominates the whole scenery, does hold a special poetic feeling, echoing deeply inside you.
She mentions different realities, only known for those who go — or live — there, like the import of the North-American culture in so many things, even in the language itself — there are so many Azoreans migrating to the United States, considering the geographic location, looking for better opportunities. So, the author also brings in some type of social analysis, even if a very subtle one.
I don’t know how a Picoense — someone who was born in Pico — might feel, after reading this book. But for me, also a “foreigner” at the time, I felt deeply in love with her vivid descriptions of such a rich nature and culture. And, today, even though I married in the meantime to a Picoense, I still find her view refreshing.
In fact, she is a foreigner if you think of Pico, but she is not in what considers the overall peninsula of Portugal, as she now lives between Rome, Italy, and Lisbon, Portugal. A bit like me, without the Rome part. Not that that matters, as, even though Pico — or Azores — is part of Portugal’s territory, there is a very specific pulse coming from the islands, almost a “foreign” reality.
Whether you read La Donna delle Azzorre, the original Italian version, or A Senhora dos Açores — the translation for Portuguese, which is the version I read — or The Flying Island, in English, do read it. Especially if you’re planning a trip to Azores. To Pico, in particular.