my shallow eyes of water

Bits of my life
All glazed with water
tiles farewell
My shallow eyes of water

This is a little fragment (courtesy of Google translate, as I was unable to find the lyrics in English) of the fadista Joana Amendoeira’s song, “Fado dos Azulejos”. Fado and azulejos are what I think of when I remember Lisbon. We spent a week there, with several more weeks in other parts of Portugal, the winter before last. We had a little apartment in the Alfama and this was the view from one window:

the view.jpg

We’d come to Lisbon from Evora and in Evora we’d entered churches through dark wooden doors to find rooms of light. The azulejos — the word means “tiles” but the azulejos are more an element of culture, a way of interpreting space, of extending it and notating it — became the way we saw interiors in Portugal. In churches and palaces, azulejos were used the way tapestries and other elaborate textiles decorate such places in other countries. Even the altars are covered with azulejos rather than linen finely embroidered with gold. They have a long history, arriving in Portugal 5 centuries ago as part of the Arab presence on the Iberian peninsula. They seem to have come from Seville, though I suspect there are as many opinions on this as there are styles of azulejos. The word sounds like its root is “blue”, doesn’t it? But it’s not. It’s from the Arabic, “al zulaycha” or “zellige”, meaning little polished stone. A means of making pattern, like mosaics of marble. I read somewhere that they represent a rejection of emptiness and those spaces  with their vaulted ceilings — the churches in Faro and Evora and Lisbon and Sintra — are anything but empty. You could see how the artistic tradition developed as you moved from a 16th c. church to a late 17th c. one, particularly if the work was done by Antonio de Oliveira Bernardes or his son Policarpo; the figures in their azulejos are so shapely and multi-dimensional, the perspective sophisticated and the faces beautifully detailed.

And the blue and white azulejos were sort of late to the game, in any case, becoming popular in the 17th century with the arrival of Delft tiles — and those influenced by Chinese porcelains and Indian chintzs. I loved the practicality of azulejos, the way they moderate temperature, reflecting heat in summer and humidity in winter. Our apartment had a series of clothes lines running horizontally just below the window facing the azulejos; hanging out a load of our well-travelled laundry, I was surprised at how quickly it dried in reflected sunlight.

Yesterday we saw a film in Gibsons as part of the Sunshine Coast Art Crawl, Montrealer Luid de Moura Sobral’s Azulejos: Une Utopie Ceramique. It was fascinating and made me wistful for a place shaped in such a way. Where walking, you pass a window with the light glancing off a tile:

in Sintra.jpg

Or you pause on a stone wall and notice how the lower part of the wall is faced with azulejos:


It was too dark in the Heritage Playhouse in Gibsons to make notes while I watched the film but I did try to scrawl something in my notebook because it surprised me, coming as it did after a series of images of spaces defined by azulejos: the Lisbon underground, benches in Montreal, churches in Evora, a monastery in Brazil. I don’t remember the first part of the sentence but what I scribbled was: “utopia never properly theorized.” I remembered the doors opening and closing on those rooms of light, the stacks of painted and glazed plates on the lane out our hotel window in Evora (dinner plates I regret not buying though I did stash two small ones in my suitcase, wrapped in an unnecessary warm sweater), and the windows of antique stores with tiles from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, regal in their isolation, and I wondered what theory could possible hold such beauty?


“all the night’s pure figures”

I was awake for a long time in the night, thinking about time. Often I find myself so close to understanding its passing, what it means. I was awake in the night, thinking, in the room we built nearly 35 years ago, with the leafy silhouette of the arbutus tree dark against the white curtains. This tree, now as high (or higher) as the second story of our house, was a tiny shattered collection of branches when we first began to build in the summer of 1981. But in a few weeks the warblers will be loud in its blossoms.

The moon was in its first quarter last night and when I got up to pee, I paused by the window above the stairs where I could see the Great Bear, Ursa Major, that beautiful constellation,

                   …that some have called the Wain,

pivoting in the sky before Orion;

of all the night’s pure figures, she alone

would never bathe or dip in the Ocean stream.

(Odyssey, Book Five, 263-6, trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

It was a spring sky, or nearly so. Even though there’s new snow on the mountain behind us, the air has spring’s promise. The colours of green are almost fluorescent, particularly the moss on the trunks of the big-leaf maples which are just beginning to show their flowers. (When we walked the other day, after a big wind, you could see the buds all over the trail.) We think we are tuned to the seasons and maybe we are, to some extent, but I’ve been remembering how last March we spent part of a day with an archaeologist in Portugal, looking at the Almendres Cromlech and other neolithic sites near Evora.


The Almendres Cromlech site was constructed over several thousands of years, each phase reflecting social, ceremonial, and spiritual values, and seems also to be an astronomical observatory — though why would this be a separate consideration? That says more about me than the people who lived there and were associated with the place, were as rooted to it as the stones appear to be rooted in the dry earth.  There is one stone which is associated with spring equinox and a line from the site to a single menhir about 1400 meters away points to sunrise on the Winter equinox. It was a place I felt I could spend a lifetime. There were cork oaks and black pigs foraging for acorns beneath them. Wild flowers, chestnut trees, olives, and the oaks, tiny lizards skittering among the stones, the sun. Time was a different thing there, a densely layered accumulation of stones, wind, even the generations of pigs, dating back (at least) to Homer:

Bring in our best pig for a stranger’s dinner.

A feast will do our hearts good, too; we know

grief and pain, hard scrabbling with our swine…

Odyssey, Book Fourteen, 416-19, trans. Robert Fitzgerald

So the Equinox approaches –March 20, 4:30 a.m. — and we’ll observe it with the usual lack of ceremony. No stone circles to help us predict the sun’s early rising, the long setting over Texada Island. No pig, fattened with the mast of oaks, to roast over a fire of dry chestnut wood. Our stars are storied but who can remember? Years ago when we built our house, we’d sit by the fire outside our tent and John would point out the constellations he knew. Orion, for whom he had special affection (my husband was an archer as a boy and his bow, his quiver of arrows, are in the workshop still, though the bow is unstrung all these years), the vain queen Cassiopeia, and the Great Bear and her son, who never set, “never bathe or dip in the Ocean stream.”

“…the house protects the dreamer…”

It was a row of houses and no one else could see them. I’d returned to the neighbourhood where my family lived when I was in primary school and I recognized many streets, the old houses from the early part of the 20th c., the cemetery where we rode our bikes down leafy lanes between the mausoleums and small gated graves. The high narrow coloured houses in the row I was describing were near Government House, off Rockland, and they were perched on the edge of a high rock face, a cliff. I was wondering how they could have been there all those years without me ever noticing them before, above a street we drove frequently, an arrow pointing to a small road leading upward, towards the houses, and I was longing to know more about them. The yellow one, with its fancy gingerbreading, painted like buttercream; and the blue one, the deep pink one. At a little corner store with ice-cream posters in the window and a case filled with jars of penny candy, a woman thought for a moment and asked me to repeat where I’d said the houses were. She thought again. She called to someone in the back, behind a curtain, and that person was puzzled too. A line of houses, with turrets and high windows, a widows walk on the roof of the yellow one? No one else could see them. When I woke up, I could still trace the route I’d taken in the dream and I thought about the road we’d often driven along; as far as I can recall, there’s no cliff, no houses painted the colours of summer.

This has happened to me before, in dreams. A house never noticed before, an attempt to find out about it, walking through a maze of streets leading further and further inward. Or a place so familiar that I recognize tiny details – the shape of the sky through leaves, the scent of the grass under my feet, how a field stretching from the road rises to a hill where a horse grazes, oblivious. Once I was so sure I’d been to the place I’d awoken from that I tried to track it down, parsing each element to determine the relationship of the parts of the dream-grammar. And discovered it was like a slightly different dialect, one I could understand completely when dreaming but not very well in my waking hours. I’ve read a little about dream theory and it seems that the house represents the self. The size of the house indicates one’s own sense of self, the possibilities of growth, of showing your face to the world (if the front of the house is primary in the dream) or turning inward (if the back of the house is presented). I think of the doors, gracious and brightly painted in the row on the cliff, and the abundance of high windows, shining and clear.

When I travel, I often dream my way into houses seen from train windows. Last March in Portugal I saw a small farm nestled among citrus trees, cork oaks and feathery pines, a few black pigs in its fields, and it seemed that every part of me yearned to live there, to know that space and that weather, the dry air and the weight of oranges from those trees in my hands. It was, I suppose, day-dreaming but it’s also the kind of recognition that often precedes writing for me. A novel about someone like me, or not, living on that farm, and looking out to see the train passing on its way to Evora?

A book important to me as a young writer (and later on, too, when I was thinking about memory as I was writing Mnemonic) was Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space: “If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. ”

I don’t often dream of my own house, though John does; he sometimes dreams we’ve lost it and he wakes up with such relief that it’s still here, that we’re still living in it with all our stuff, all our memories. When I do dream of our house, it’s always years ago and the children are still small and there are dogs. Dogs mean companionship, I think, and loyalty; they are repositories of deep emotion. And waking, I feel sorrow for the ones we’ve lived with and whose lives mirrored our own and who died here – this one in the photograph died on that very deck, after a long life with us. She died of old age and John held her for her last moments of life. She’s buried in our woods, with an earlier dog (and this one’s mentor).


in an ancient landscape

Yesterday we had an extraordinary experience. We went with an archaeologist, Mario Carvalho, to 3 neolithic sites near Evora. Imagine an elliptical arrangement of granite stones, a centre line through the ellipse alligned to sunrise at the equinox. It was one of those sites that reveal so much about human beings and their relationships to place over a long period. To have observed over time the sun’s passage across the sky and to have created a monumental observatory to that, 7000 years ago (before Stonehenge)… John said, in wonder, Sunrise! How fitting, Theirs (and ours).


We also visited the Dolmen of Zambujeiro which dates from the late Neolithic period. As Mario explained, the time relationship between it and the standing stones is like ours to to the Romans. So I thought of the temple to Augustus in Evora and how I felt rounding a corner last Saturday morning and just seeing it there in its beauty and how, standing at the mouth of a passage grave in a quiet grove of cork oaks in the Alentejo countryside, I thought of how everything is now. In the heat of the morning, tiny lizards skittered across the broken capstone and nearby, black pigs fed on acorns as they have done for centuries.

We took the bus to Lisbon in the afternoon and following a complicated route through narrow streets we arrived at our apartment where we’ll spend the next four days.

Ours is the middle balcony
Ours is the middle balcony


Pliny was here

John said I should look for a t-shirt saying, “Pliny was here,” because of my delight in learning that he was in fact in Evora, sometime round 72 or 73 A.D. (“The towns in the enjoyment of the ancient Latin rights are Ebora, which also has the name of Liberalitas Julia…” from the Natural History, book 35, thanks to the Perseus site.) I wonder if the Roman temple had been built when he was here? The information I have says only that it was built sometime in the 1st century A.D. Still, I like to think he stood on the hill and looked out to the verdant plain, as we did this morning, maybe in the shadow of the temple.


I should have remembered he’d been on the Iberian peninsula. As a young woman living in London in the mid-1970s, I first encountered the Natural History. An old tattered copy was on the shelf of my room in the rehabilitation home for ex-psychiatric patients where I worked as a volunteer. I read about geology and botany and knew I’d found a soul-mate. I loved Pliny’s confidence, even when he was (absurdly) wrong. And given my own moody sense of the impossibility of true love (I was 21…), I was heartened to learn that it might be possible to have offspring without the bother of a mate: “…Olisipo, famous for its mares, which conceive from the west wind…” (Olisipo is modern-day Lisbon, where we go tomorrow afternoon.) Pliny was the son of an equestrian so perhaps he knew a few secrets about horses.

Anyway, Evora is wonderful. This morning we walked to look at the aquedect, the Agua de Prata, or silver water, built between 1531 and 1537 to bring water to the town from a source 9 km away.  There are houses and shops nestled between the arches and plants (I’m sure Pliny could have told me what they are) grow in the crevices between the old stones. And maybe I can find that t-shirt.


to arrive in the dark

— and to find your hotel on its cobbled street, the lovely pine floors glowing in lamplight, to walk out again in darkness to the little restaurant with seven tables all set with blue and white plates, to return, step into your bathroom where the tiles are the same colour as the lemons in the groves of the Algarve —


And to walk out after breakfast this morning, up the cobbled street, turning one corner, to see this: