I was living in Washington, DC, at the time. I had moved there because a friend from college had an available room in his apartment. I was working two jobs in order to pay rent and chip away at the credit card debt I’d managed to rack up after buying important housewarming presents for myself – like a dining room table and enough scented candles to decorate a cathedral.
Despite having a great group of friends, I never really felt like I fit in there. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing with their lives, while I still couldn’t figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Or if I even wanted to grow up.
I was perpetually cranky and fifty pounds overweight and prone to spending my Friday nights wallowing in self-pity and pints of Ben & Jerry’s.
In addition to being miserable myself, I was also making my roommate miserable. I would alternate between giving him the silent treatment and yelling at him for leaving the kitchen cabinets open.
After all, misery loves company… even if it is that one-sided crazy kind of love.
One evening, while walking through Union Station on my way home from my second job, I had a panic attack. At the time, I didn’t know what a panic attack was, so I assumed the heart palpitations and my shortness of breath were just signs that I was having a heart attack. At the age of twenty-five. Because that’s normal.I knew I needed to make a change.
But rather than, say, changing jobs or getting therapy or giving up my pint-of-ice-cream-a-day habit, I decided that what I really needed, like, really, really needed, was to leave the country.
Because, you know, it couldn’t possibly be my fault that I was unhappy.
It had to be America’s fault.
It was America’s fault that I couldn’t pay my rent. It was America’s fault that I had no idea what I was doing with my life. It was America’s fault that I was subsisting on a diet of Chubby Hubby and cheese. It was America’s fault that I had a roommate who didn’t understand that YOU SHOULD SHUT THE KITCHEN CABINET DOORS, ALREADY.
So I decided to move to Brazil.
Because, if music videos had taught me anything, moving to a Latin American country was totally going to fix everything.
(I would like to note here that I am much older and wiser now. I now know that picking up and leaving your country of residence does not magically solve your life’s problems. Mind you, that really hasn’t stopped me from trying. Sure, while moving may not fix my problems, it does make me temporarily forget those problems while I focus on new problems – like where the heck to buy cheese.)Prior to moving to DC, I had taken a trip to Portugal, where I fell in love with the crumbly cobble-stoned streets, egg cream tarts and the sad, desperately mournful sound of fado music. In between shoving egg cream tarts into my face, I snapped up fado CDs, which I would later listen to over and over again in my DC apartment while bathed in the flickering glow of pumpkin spice scented candles.
These CDs introduced me to the Portuguese notion of saudade. We don’t have a word quite like saudade in English. A potent mix of yearning and nostalgia, saudade is the soul’s version of a toothache that never goes away. It is a feeling so complex that it is not easily talked about; instead, you can only really sing about it or write about it in poems or paint paintings of sad people feeling it. (Of course, its complexity hasn’t really stopped Wikipedia from trying to sum it up in words. The page on saudade describes it as everything from a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist” to a “wishful longing for completeness or wholeness” to the “love that remains” after someone or something is gone.)
This, I was certain of it, was my problem.
Nope, I was not suffering from some garden variety form of depression.
I was not having a quarter-life crisis. (Mind you, this was a good ten years before I’d even hear the word “quarter-life crisis.” Plus, I was twenty-five years old at the time and having, what I thought were, heart attacks, so, if anything, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t live another twenty-five years, let alone seventy-five years.)
What I had was a bad case of the saudades.
I was experiencing a form of sadness so exotic and complex that there wasn’t even a name for it in the English language.
And what better way to get over the saudades than to move to Brazil?Within six months, I had paid off my credit card bills, gotten every single travel vaccination known to man and found a teaching job in Manaus, the capital city of the Amazonas.
I packed two bags. One was full of loose, flowy clothes – the type of clothes I imagined one would wear while in the tropics, recovering from melancholy, preferably while lounging on a veranda and sipping caipirinhas in the company of half-naked men. The other bag was full of mosquito repellent and haircare products because one cannot tackle one’s saudades while suffering from malaria and frizzy hair.
I was, of course, petrified to move to Brazil. After all, everyone knows Brazil is a dangerous country. It didn’t matter that I had been to Brazil once before to take a two-week Portuguese class in Bahia and had survived the trip unscathed. I was still convinced that I was going to die. If I didn’t end up getting mugged or kidnapped, surely, I’d be swallowed alive by snakes. While I refused to watch the movie Anaconda, I had seen the previews, and I knew what kind of things went down in the Amazon.
After arriving in Manaus in August, I quickly learned that there were worse things than a roommate who chronically left the kitchen cabinet doors open – like, say, a Brazilian host mother who would regularly rifle through my belongings and later inform strangers of the proportions of my underwear. I would learn that I was the only person in that part of the world wearing loose, flowy clothes (everyone else preferred spandex) and that no amount of hair gel can save you from having chronically bad hair in the tropics. I’d also learn, thankfully, that my neighborhood had a higher prevalence of shopping malls than anacondas.And, then, a month later, I would walk into the lobby of the school where I was teaching, to find a group of staff and students huddled around the television set watching CNN. Two planes had just crashed into the World Trade Center. A plume of smoke was hovering over the Pentagon building. Another plane had gone down in Pennsylvania.
I watched in horror and disbelief.
I didn’t start crying until later that afternoon while in the middle of class. I opened up the textbook and came across a drawing of the famous sights of the United States – The Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, The Golden Gate Bridge, The Twin Towers.
That’s when I lost it.
And I didn’t really stop losing it… at least for a while.For weeks afterward, I would sit in the library at school, watching the coverage on CNN and crying into a wad of toilet paper that I brought with me wherever I went. I would pore over emails from my family and friends in the States while sniffling into the same wad of toilet paper. I didn’t know any other Americans in Manaus, so I would lurk in the Internet cafes, trying to find American tourists to talk to – someone who would understand what I felt even though I couldn’t understand what I was feeling.
During one of my stints in the Internet café, I met an American couple from Boston. They had been planning on taking a boat cruise down the Amazon, but they decided to cut their trip short and had booked tickets to return to the States. They told me that their family had urged them not to, had told them to stay in Brazil and finish their trip.
“But I don’t want to be here,” the woman confessed. “I want to go home.”
I knew what she meant.
I had spent months longing to be anywhere but America – yearning for an exotic existence that would snap me out of my self-indulgent misery.
And now here I was in Brazil, and I just wanted to be back in America. I wanted to sit on my parent’s couch and cry. I wanted to be with my family and friends and cry. I wanted to go home. And I wanted to cry.My Brazilian colleagues and students were sympathetic at first. But after weeks of putting up with my mood swings and crying jags, they were mystified. I hadn’t personally known anyone who was hurt or killed in the attacks, so why was I so upset, they’d ask.
I couldn’t explain.
I didn’t have the words to explain it to them.
Or to myself.
I had been homesick before. I had been lonely before. I had certainly been miserable before.
But I had never been this – whatever this was — before.
My host mother was particularly exasperated. She informed me over breakfast one morning, “Everyone knows America is a dangerous country. You should be happy you’re in a safe country like Brazil.”
The irony of this statement, of course, was not lost on me.
It was then that I realized what this feeling was — this was not just homesickness or loneliness or simple garden variety misery.This was saudade.
It was a wishful longing for the place that once made me feel safe.
It was the love that remained for a country that would no longer be the same.
It was the yearning for an America that does not exist any more… and, maybe, admittedly, never did.
Up until that moment, I had never really thought that much about where home was for me. I had spent almost all of my childhood life in Buffalo, NY, but as an adult I hadn’t lived in any one place longer than two years. I hadn’t felt at home in Washington, DC, but I also didn’t feel at home in Brazil. I figured I’d just keep trying out places until one day I’d arrive in a city or a country, and I would just know. I would step outside of a train or plane and think to myself, “Yep, this is where I’m meant to be. This is home.” I figured it would be a joyous moment. There would probably be angels singing and fireworks and lots of people dancing.
I thought it would feel like falling in love.
But there I was sitting in Brazil, suddenly aware of exactly where my home was and where I wanted to be.
It didn’t feel like falling in love at all.
It felt like my heart was breaking.