A meditation on identity

My recent trip to Brazil was the first time I traveled with my Portuguese passport. It was a strange feeling, traveling so far from “home” as a citizen of another country. I was living my other identity as a Portuguese person.

Yet, while I was there, I was fully Portuguese. I spoke Portuguese almost exclusively for four days. Most people assumed I was a Lisboeta, from Lisbon. I felt an impish sense of pride in that mistaken characterization, even though I would always correct them to say I was from the United States. But I would add the caveat, and always say, “I am both American and Portuguese.” By my last night, as I dined on my own at a bustling restaurant, the waiter asked me where I was I was from, and over the loud din of conversation, I simply said, “Sou Portuguêsa.”

This duality is something I have been reflecting on quite a bit since then. For most of my life, I was bifurcated — Portuguese to one side, American to the other. But in Brazil, I was both at the same time.

At one point I was talking with a group about the Azores and the deep sense of connection I feel there that goes well beyond simply enjoying its stunning natural beauty. It is, I admitted, a sacred place for me there. My ancestors go back centuries. I walk the streets and trails they walked. I see the vistas they saw. I smell the air they smelled. As I described how I am spiritually drawn to this place, I was nearly overcome with clarity about my dual identity.

The gentleman, a senior executive with a major international pharmaceutical company and a former oncologist, told me about research into epigenetics — and how your ancestors’ experiences may have a bearing on you, generations later.

I came across this article that describes this research. One particular passage has left me pondering:

Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited. You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn.

I have been realizing that the Azores are more than a vacation destination. There is a sense of home I experience when I am there. I think this may explain my deep desire to return, again and again, even though I know there are many other beautiful places in the world to explore. For me, it is more than simply a beautiful place.

I recently saw this quote from Homer:

On these sands and in the clefts of the rocks, in the depths of the sea, in the creaking of the pines, you’ll spy secret footprints and catch far-off voices from the homecoming celebration. This land still longs for Odysseus.

It’s about the pervasive desire for homecoming. It’s about an ancient and secret longing. The Portuguese called it saudade.

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