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Family History and a Rural Homestay in Portugal

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Katie Rizzo
Jul 1, 2014


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Family History and a Rural Homestay in Portugal

panoramicsoajo
Lush mountains in Vila de Saojo, Portugal. Photo by Katie Rizzo.

Student Lindsey Greene had always known her father was Portuguese, even though she’d never met the man. This winter, while discussing the itinerary for the Summer 2014 voyage on Semester at Sea with a coworker, Dianna Alves, back home in Massachusetts, both were shocked to find out their families were from the same small rural area of Portugal.

Over the next couple of months, the pair made plans for Lindsey to stay overnight with Dianna’s parents, Carlos and Theresa Alves, in Portugal so that Lindsey could visit the town where her father was raised—and still lives. As Lindsey’s roommate on the MV Explorer, I had the honor of accompanying her on the arduous, and emotional, journey to Arcos de Valdevez in northwest Portugal, a six-hour bus ride from Lisbon, where the Semester at Sea ship was docked.

We were especially taken by the moss-covered stone walls that most of the houses were made of. There were also more recent structures interspersed. Photo by Katie Rizzo
We were especially taken by the moss-covered stone walls that most of the houses were made of. There were also more recently built structures interspersed. Photo by Katie Rizzo.

Even getting to the municipality of Arcos de Valdevez was a bit of an adventure, as we showed up at the wrong bus terminal in Lisbon, twice, and just managed to catch the bus to Arcos (which only departs once daily.) We also didn’t know just how remote and rural our adventure was going to be: within two hours of leaving Lisbon, I lost cell service and didn’t have any phone connection—or WiFi—until we were close to the Portugal capital again the next evening. (Sorry Dad.)

Once we arrived in Arcos, Dianna’s parents met us with the traditional double-cheek kisses (I was not expecting that and went in for a hug.) The welcoming couple drove us to the small village Lindsey’s father is from, Zebra, Gondoriz, about five minutes away. Coming from Lisbon, we were struck by how rural the area was. Both of us were expecting a tiny town, but we had no idea how perfectly tucked into the lush mountains it would be.

Dianna’s father, Carlos Alves, had contacted Lindsey’s grandmother in Zebra a few days before we arrived. Sadly, Lindsey’s father did not want to see her, but that did not faze Lindsey in the slightest. She was more interested in the culture and the village that could have been hers, had circumstances been different between her mom and dad, and she were raised in Portugal.

Carlos was able to show us Lindsey’s grandmother’s one-story house with a modern rock garden and pool in the backyard. Lindsey was most excited about the moon decor on the side of the neat and tidy one-level home: “I have always been obsessed with the moon; I actually have two tattoos of a crescent moon, much like the one I found on my grandmothers house. I’m not sure of the symbolism here, but it made me feel close to her.”

Lindsey’s grandmother's house was the most modern we saw while in Arcos de Valdevez. The plaster walls and rock garden were a great contrast to the stone houses with vegetable gardens. Photo by Lindsey Greene
Lindsey’s grandmother’s house was the most modern we saw while in Arcos de Valdevez. The plaster walls and rock garden were a great contrast to the modest stone houses with vegetable gardens. Photo by Lindsey Greene.

Over the next day and a half, the Alves took us in to their Vila de Soajo home and treated us like family. The first meal we had together, dinner the night we arrived, was vegetables fresh from the garden, served with organically raised chicken and rice. It also happened to be Theresa’s birthday, so her sister and neighbor, Maria Alves, brought a cake and homemade pasteis de nata (a Portuguese egg-custard dessert) and we all celebrated together. We stayed up all into the wee hours watching the Portuguese version of Rising Star (the televised talent show,) and talking about the village, our families back in the United States, and our travels.

The Alves kept asking Lindsey to take photos of their home and the events for her to show their daughter Dianna back home. Photo by Lindsey Greene.
The Alves kept asking Lindsey to take photos of their home and the family events we enjoyed for her to show their daughter Dianna back home. Photo by Lindsey Greene.

The next morning, Theresa took the two of us to a bakery around the corner for breakfast—though in a village as small as Saojo, everything is around the corner. With no street names or signs of any kind in these remote towns, we were glad we hadn’t tried to find Lindsey’s ancestral home ourselves. After breakfast, Theresa, Carlos and Maria took us on a walk around the village. It seemed every other house was someone’s brother or cousin or nephew, and every person we passed on the walk was very friendly. One woman was picking strawberries from her garden and offered some to us. After washing them in a mountain stream, we thoroughly enjoyed the plump, fresh fruit.

The town square in Vila de Soajo was very small and featured  a variety store, café, retirement home and church. Photo by Katie Rizzo
The town square in Vila de Soajo was very small and featured a variety store, café, retirement home and church. Photo by Katie Rizzo.
We decided to stop along our town walk for a group picture. From the left, Lindsey Greene, Theresa Alves, Katie Rizzo and Carlos Alves.
We decided to stop along our town walk for a group picture. From the left, Lindsey Greene, Theresa Alves, Katie Rizzo and Carlos Alves.

Even though Lindsey was unable to meet any blood relatives on our short stay in Vila de Saojo, she says that doesn’t matter because she “has a new found family with the Alves,” who invited her to return for a much longer visit so they can show her everything in the area. Lindsey was also able to get her paternal aunt’s phone number in Arcos de Valdevez, and she found out that she has a cousin who lives not far from her in Massachusetts.

“This visit bridged the gap between my Portuguese and American identities,” said Lindsey. “I feel like my two halves have come closer together.”

lindseybridge
Before journeying to Arcos de Valdevez, the only link Lindsey had to her father was a postcard he sent to her mother 25 years ago. The postcard had a picture of this exact bridge on it. Photo by Katie Rizzo.
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