Wednesday, May 28, 2008

High Seas

Yesterday I finally got out in a boat on the Atlantic Ocean, going from Lajes das Flores to Corvo. Flores may be the westernmost of the Azores, but Corvo is the most remote. For example, while Flores is dependent for a lot of its food and beer on a boat that comes in once every two weeks from Portugal, Corvo is dependent on Flores.

To get to Corvo, I was invited onto a sailboat called the Hannah Brown. She is a beautiful aluminum boat with a blue hull, and the owner, George, a very fit retired guy who used to be a cowboy (he is originally from New Mexico, and learned to sail in Chesapeake Bay), has been living on it since 1990. He has stories of Iceland and Norway and the Alentejo, in Portugal. He made us coffee, and had prepared paella, which we had for breakfast, with red wine, chucking the clamshells overboard.

Speaking of chucking things overboard, I was all right as long as we were protected by the island, but when we hit the open sea and George put up the sails and the boat heeled over to starboard, I realized I'd never been on a sailboat in the ocean before. In order not to get seasick, I had heard, you're supposed to focus on the horizon. George said it also helped to sit outside, where it was easier to keep your body centered, so I did that: sat in the chair in the stern, gripping the arms of the chair, breathing deep, and looking at the horizon, especially when a big wave came. I turn out to be a bit of a white-knuckle sailor, but I did not lose my paella.

We were welcomed to Corvo by two men and a St. Bernard. There is only one village, Vila Nova, and about four hundred people. We saw chickens and pigs and windmills and vegetable gardens (onions, carrots, potatoes, green beans, melons, cucumbers). The oldest houses are stone, with ancient tile roofs and wooden doors with faded paint jobs and improvised handles. The ship came in from Flores while we were looking around the village, and we watched it unload. It delivered lots of beer and sacks of cement and one container full of potted plants that had sat on the dock at Lajes all week. It took on some styrofoam crates of fresh fish. George was staying in Corvo, but I took the transit boat back to Flores. I was the only passenger, and it was not easy boarding: both feet on a big tire tied to the dock, right foot in a porthole, left leg up onto the deck, but the damn thing had a raised edge that I had to get over, and I ended up getting hauled on board like a heifer.

At first I sat on a padded bench right in front of the bridge, but the captain told me it was better if I moved, otherwise I'd get wet. So two crew members untied the bench and moved it to the stern, on the port side, and tied it to the rails. I sat there for most of the trip, until we were again in the shadow of Flores, when I got up and looked out over the rail at the volcanic stone covered with velvety vegetation and the waterfalls and the ancient stone marina at the foot of one gully that I'd hiked down to a few days earlier.

They did not charge me for passage. I stayed and watched them unload. The fresh fish were going to the airport and then on to Spain and other parts of Europe. The guy who drove the fish truck opened a case to show me a fish called an imperador. It was a gorgeous red fish with huge eyes (apparently they bulge out when the fish, which lives in deep water, is brought to the surface).

I had a beer in the bar at the port to celebrate my successful return, and a man named Izaias (I think), who lives across across the road from the house where I'm staying and keeps sheep and goats and cows, bought me a beer and gave me some peanuts (amendoim, one of the few Portuguese words I know). I thanked him and he gave me a solid platonic pat on the shoulder. I think I will remain on terra firma for the rest of my stay.

Monday, May 26, 2008


I say AY-zores, you say a-ZORZ.

And guess what: We're both wrong.

Well, maybe not completely wrong. After all, AY-zores is the preferred pronunciation in Webster's. The British put the accent on the second syllable, which is beginning to sound more natural to me. But the other day someone here suggested very gently that if I was going to go around telling people about my time in the Azores, I should start pronouncing it correctly. It has three syllables, as in the Portuguese (Açores): a-ZOR-uz. Of course, in Portuguese it probably sounds more like MUSH.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Cows and Flowers

Flores is loaded with cows. Whenever you go someplace, up a road or a footpath, wondering What's up here? it turns out to be a cow. Well, sometimes it's a goat, but most of the time it's a cow.

There are, however, no dairy barns. I saw a man on a horse with a milk can hanging off each side. And then I came across this portable milking station:

The other thing Flores is famous for is flowers. Its name means flowers. Hydrangeas have naturalized here. They are not at their peak right now (that happens in July), but there are enough to satisfy me. The Portuguese for hydrangea is ortensia.

Of course I've tried to take pictures of the landscape, all combinations of hills and pastures, cows and the sea. This is the only really good one. It came out looking like a painting! Except that the horizon is not level. Tilt your head slightly when you look at it. Better yet, blur your eyes.

I went to church again yesterday (Sunday), because I didn't want the good people of Lajes to think that the big American tourists went to church only when there was a free lunch afterward (proving once again that there is no free lunch). I caught a few more words this time, including palavras (words), Senhor (Lord), oremos (let us pray), mundo (world), sangue (blood), memoria di me (pretty obvious at what point I caught on, isn't it?), and amanhá (tomorrow). Oh, and creio (I believe). I also picked up a two-month-old copy of the church newspaper, from which I learned that Irmã Lúcia (Sister Lucia), one of the three children who saw Our Lady of Fátima, has been put forward for beatification, the first step toward sainthood. Fátima is a huge cult here, and explains all the processions with children carrying crowns for the Virgin. I saw a notice on the church bulletin board saying that next week is First Communion. I think I might take next Sunday off.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Fajã de Lopo Vaz

Yesterday I hiked down the face of a cliff covered with greenery (ferns, ivy) and dripping with springwater, to a black pebble beach on the Atlantic. To the west, the cliff fell off into a ski nose of a promontory. To the east, surf sprayed over a mossy rock. There was a jetty formed by boulders that had tumbled off the top of the cliff hundreds of thousands of years ago. From the beach the cliff face looked like a big X on the shield of a goddess of war. There was a low plateau just above the beach: a slab of pastureland the size of two soccer fields laid end to end, threaded with stone walls and hydrangea hedges. It looked like a rich dessert.

I don't know what fajã means, but there are a lot of them here: flat places at the bottom of sheer rock falls.

I keep thinking black sand is dirty, but it's not. It brushes off just like regular sand, and when it´s wet it gleams like obsidian.

I forgot to take my camera down there, so I´ll either have to go back or write a thousand words.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Perils of Portuguese

Where is the Eclair? To fly to the Azores, I had to leave from Boston, so she is in Massachusetts, where I hope the friend who has her keys will open the windows on sunny days to rid her of mildew.

Here in the Azores, the little bit of Portuguese I learned in Brazil is useless. One book advises that Portuguese pronunciation is extremely difficult, and until you have mastered it there is no point in building a vocabulary. It is typical of the perversity of Portuguese that one of the most difficult words to pronounce is also one of the most common, the word for bread: pão. (A lot of words, by the way, are more recognizable, at least in print, if you stick in an "n" when you see that tilde over a vowel, hence, pan, pane, pain.) The sound of that nasalized diphthong comes from deep inside the head. One book advised holding your nose while you say it. I can´t very well hold my nose when I ask in the grocery store "Onde é o pão?" In Brazil, this problem was complicated by the fact that if you mispronounced pão as pao, without the tilde ("pow" in English), you were asking for something completely different. Pao means a stick of wood and has the same slang meaning as it does in English (woody, or hard-on). In Bahia, the bread came in either rolls or small loaves, and I once compounded my error by mispronouncing pão and using my hands to indicate that instead of rolls I wanted a nice nine-inch loaf.

At least I have trained myself not to give people the O.K. sign by making a circle of thumb and forefinger. In Brazil, that is the equivalent of the raised middle finger. People tend to be surprised at a party when they ask you, say, if you liked the salgadinhos ("salty little things," appetizers), and you give them the finger.

I'm not sure if this holds true in the Azores, but I now give the thumbs up wherever I go, just in case. I find it is more universal. Also, lucky for me in light of my Portuguese speech impediment, the bread in the Azores comes in big round loaves.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Where am I now? In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, on the island of Flores, the westernmost island in the Azores. The sun comes from one direction, the clouds come from the other, and they fight it out all day long. Because it's so remote, the people are dependent on their gardens and their livestock and on whatever food gets shipped over from Portugal. The day after we arrived--I am sharing a house with a poet now based in Kentucky~~we went grocery shopping and were a little alarmed at the slim pickings. I bought milk in a box with a long shelf life, white wine, a pear, peanuts, and cinnamon cookies. My housemate bought the last extant head of lettuce, as far as we could see. It turned out that the ship from Portugal came in the next day, and then there were tomatoes and broccoli and grapes and strawberries and yogurt. Whew! For a while, I felt like one of those animals, a bear, say, that spends all of its time simply trying to get enough to eat.

Flores is famous for cows and hydrangeas. The cows are everywhere, and they are all different kinds: Holsteins, Jerseys, Charlerois, Brown Swiss. Oddly, I haven´t seen any barns, but maybe it´s because nothing here looks like what I expect it to look like. Restaurants look like people´s houses, and grocery stores are all but invisible. The gas station is recognizable. I rented a car from the caretaker of the house I´m staying in, and so far I have driven the eastern length of the island, from Lajes to Ponta Delgada, and gone inland to see these high lakes surrounded by sphagnum moss. The hills are very green and sectioned off into irregular plots with stone walls. It all falls down to the ocean, which keeps surprising me. It seems so high.

In Lajes there is a black sand beach, which I stuck my feet in the other day. There is a lighthouse here, and flower gardens. Sunday was the Feast of Santo Spirito, also known as Pentecost, and we had found out that after Mass on Sunday that the church feeds everyone in the parish hall. There was a procession of little girls in their Communion dresses carrying big crowns on pillows. The church is Our Lady of the Rosary, and I think the girls were supposed to be like beads on the rosary. They were led by men in red tunics beating drums and cymbals and singing. The church is both pleasingly plain, with a wooden ceiling and clear glass windows and black-and-white prints illustrating the stations of the cross, and ornate, with three gilt and blue shrines full of statues of saints and the Virgin. I stood at the back and listened intently, but caught only three words of Portuguese: segundo São Jõao (according to John).

It would have been unbecoming for two big foreign girls to be first in line for lunch, so we hung back, watching the kids in their fancy clothes tumbling around on the lawn, until a nice man who looked like a hippie came over. I thought he was asking if we had a cigarette, and I said we didn´t smoke. But he was asking if we wanted to eat, and he herded us over to the door of the parish hall, where we could see two long tables where people were sitting, being served sopa e carne: big tureens of bread soup garnished with mint, and platters of beef and pork. There were bottles of wine and water and orange-passion-fruit soda on the tables, and rice pudding for dessert. They served half the crowd, and when they had finished they set the tables again and fed the rest of us.

We watched an old man start up a tractor and pull out of the parking lot with his ancient wife, seated in a wagon attached to the tractor. Our sponsor had a motorcycle with a cart attached to haul his wife and little girl up the hill. It's very hilly here, and daunting at first, until you find your way around, and then every day you go farther up another hill and see the pastures falling to the ocean. It's also very windy.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Good News/Errata

There is going to be a Rockaway ferry beginning May 12th. I can't wait to take the boat to work.

I remembered what that extra $50 was that I paid to the DMV: it was for that time I got caught on camera running a red light in Queens. I also forgot to include some $60 for long-term parking at JFK. Still, $215 for a year's worth of parking is a lot better than $300 a month.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Law and Order Strikes Again

The news that yet another episode of “Law and Order” would be filmed on my favorite parking block on Monday morning was not as devastating as it might have been. I saw the sign when I gave up my spot to go out to Rockaway on Saturday, and realized when I got back that rather than let the police tow my car to a legal spot yet again, I would do better to look for a Tuesday-Friday spot, as I am leaving town tomorrow. I found a nice spot at the far end of the first leg of my usual rounds: good till Tuesday at 9:30 A.M.

Before I went to Cinque Terre, I meant to get my taxes done—by which I mean sift through all those receipts and add everything up and get the figures to my accountant—but I failed. So I'm trying again, and while pondering whether membership in AAA is deductible (is it not a professional organization?), I remembered that a while ago I vowed to keep track of all my automotive expenses.

So here goes.

Insurance: $1,276

That’s up $124 from last year, whether because I filled out a questionnaire and overestimated the amount of miles per year I drive—I said ten thousand, but it’s not even half that—or because I used my insurance to have the glass fixed, or for some other reason, I don’t know. Should I shop around?

AAA membership: $48

EZ Pass: $250

I have not gotten regular statements from the folks at EZ Pass, because they send them to Rockaway (I have Rockaway Resident status, so one bridge over Jamaica Bay is free and the other is half price), but they generally charge my American Express account $25 per month. Unfortunately, I’ve misplaced several American Express statements.

Repairs & Maintenance: $833

This includes a major tuneup last spring and new tires and tire rod ends last summer, as well as one sideview-mirror replacement. It does not include oil changes, emissions inspection, or duct tape, and makes me realize that I hardly ever wash the car.

Parking: $150

That’s $75 for the six times I gave up and took the car to the lot by the river, at $15 a day, and $75 for a permit to park at a certain beach all year round.

Parking tickets: $180

$130 of that was reimbursed by producers of “Sex and the City: The Movie.” I can’t remember what the other $50 was for.

Total: $2,607 (plus gas)

That “plus gas,” of course, is incalculable. I heard on the radio this morning that gas had gone up fifty-five cents a gallon, to nearly four dollars a gallon, in the past month, or since the last time I filled the tank—just in time for the summer driving season.

I succeeded in adding up all my receipts, etc., for the accountant, by the way. Now I can leave town with a clean conscience and hope for a big fat refund.