White Light, Black Sands, Shifting Ideas

‘My top 6 exercises:  1. jumping to conclusions 2. flying off the handle 3. carrying things to far 4. dodging responsibilities 5. pushing my luck 6. running late.’




There’s something equally beautiful and strange in living in the Azores, right in the middle of the Atlantic. And by ‘living’ I really mean living. For 5 weeks, I am staying in a typical, small, stone&wood house,  in the also small village of João Bom (on the west coast). I am volunteering for the beautiful permaculture garden of Raquel. Am taking the bus to Ponta Delgada, for a city break, or to Ribeira Grande, for either a surfing session or an immersion into contemporary art. I am already not bad in Portuguese,  so I am also starting to understand the differences between mainland and São Miguel accents.



If you come here as a tourist, there are definitely many beautiful places to see. Still, if you come here to live – even if temporarily, as myself, you will find an amazing mix of everything you less expected – from both people and places. On another island I stayed, a while ago – in Corsica, I have a friend that has been living there for about 20 years and she is always saying that ‘living on an island implies a lot of work with yourself, with your true, deep, self’. And I guess that’s the big lesson of the islands. Of any island. But especially of the Azores, as they are (and feel) so, so, so far away…



So, two weeks before going back to mainland, I need to say that, when coming to São Miguel, either as tourist or as resident – and I’ve already met a few people that left everything and came a long way just to live here, like Emil and Ine, from Denmark, who are in negotiations to buy a piece of land, here, and start their self sustainable dream, or Camile, from France, who’s still looking for an apartment to rent on the north coast – so when coming to São Miguel, the most important thing to keep in mind is to drop all expectations.

This might make it easier for you to adapt, here, to the (pretty weird) black sanded beaches (like São Roque and Populo, on the south coast, or those of Ribeira Grande, on the north coast).

This might also help you get through lots and lots and lots of rain – as here it rains at least every two days and, during my staying here, I’ve had one big storm per week…

This might, as well, lead you to come across avant-garde art, architecture and stunning video projections in the less expected neighborhood of Ribeira Grande (Arquipélago Center).

Or it might make it easier for you to understand the funny Flemish-like local accent (and how did the people come to have it*).

Then, if you come at ease with all the things that do not look or feel or sound like the exotic island you might have had in mind, all you have to do is just to lay back, find your own rhythm and have a taste of everything, even though tourism made it all pretty expensive (a brief list: look for the local fish and seafood – boca negra or albacore or lapas; for the local cheese, that you can taste at Rei dos queijos near the Ponta Delgada market; also, for the local, traditional, fresh cheese pepper spicy mix (pimenta do queijo) to go with any cheese; for the local sweets with raw milk and raw eggs – queijada da vila; for the local beer – Especial; and for the local fruit – pineapple, bananas or avocado).

And, above all, decide everything for yourself and not according to any guide. Or blog. Or impression. The island might be just the right spot to practice this.


* Portuguese, Flemish and a Bit of History

The first discovered island of the Azores was Santa Maria, in 1432, then São Miguel and Terceira (meaning the third) followed, shortly. Settlement didn’t take place right away, though, as there was not much interest among the Portuguese people in isolated islands hundreds of miles away from civilization. But, few years followed and brush was cleared and rocks removed for the planting of crops. Grain, grape vines, sugar cane, and other plants that could grow here were planted. Cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs were brought, houses were built and villages established.

The first settlers were a mixed group of people from the Portuguese provinces of Algarve and Minho. Also Moorish prisoners, black slaves, French, Italians, Scots, English, and Flemish. There were petty criminals, Spanish clergy, Jews, soldiers, government officials, European merchants and sugar cane growers. The purpose of the Azores colony was to service the mother country with commodities and tribute. It was to be a station for Portuguese ships to be  resupplied and repaired. The islands too were to produce crops for trade. In its peak trade years, there would be more than one hundred ships anchored at the Bay of Angra.

There were many languages spoken but after a while Portuguese became the standard language of communication. Because of the isolated nature of the islands, and the harshness of the land, and at times, climate, all settlers, regardless of their background, had to work together to survive. This gave the people a sense of equality and togetherness. As a consequence, more settlers were given the right to purchase land. There were some slaves on the islands, and there were lingering concerns about a slave revolt which no settler wanted. Soon the slaves were sent to Brazil and to the Caribbean.

People from Flanders settled in the Azores beginning in 1450. These Flemish settlers played an important role in the creation of the Azores culture. By 1490, there were 2,000 Flemish living in the islands of Terceira, Pico, Faial, São Jorge, and Flores. Because there was such a large Flemish settlement, the Azores became known as the Flemish Islands or the Isles of Flanders, and Henry the Navigator was responsible for this settlement. His sister, Isabel, was married to Duke Philip of Burgundy of which Flanders was a part. There was a revolt against Philip’s rule and disease and hunger became rampant. Isabel appealed to Henry to allow some of the unruly Flemish to settle in the Azores. He granted this and supplied them with the necessary transportation and goods.

First group of Fleminsh was led by Willem van de Hagen, later known by his Portuguese name of Guilherme da Silveira. They settled in Terceira, and the Flemish nobleman, Jacome de Bruges, was placed in charge. The next contingents went to the islands of Faial, Flores, Sao Jorge, and Pico. Faial was in fact called the Flemish Island and the valley behind the city still has the name, the Valley of the Flemings or O Valle dos Flamengo. But the Flemish language disappeared before long, and the Flemish settlers changed their names to Portuguese forms.

Still, Flemish physical traits of light hair, light complexion, and blue eyes can still be seen in the features of many people from the Azores. Flemish oxcarts and windmills are still seen on the islands. The Flemish beghards and beguines (lay-religious group) brought the Festival of the Holy Spirit and their distinctive cloaks and hoods to the islands. There are many pieces of art and furniture, found in Azores churches and museums, that also show Flemish influence.



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