My eyes had been popping out of my head all week. Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, Dois Irmaos, Ipanema Beach - Rio de Janeiro had been throwing postcard vistas at me left, right and centre. But one night while walking on the decidedly less famous Boulevard Olimpico in the city’s freshly gentrified port district, formerly a decaying industrial bayside rustbucket prior to the games, I came face to face with a giant mural of a woman with long black hair blowing to her side caught in a storm of emotion.
Looking on forlorn with a red heart rising from the top of her head, the words “saudade é amor - te sigo esperando” (saudade is love - for you I keep waiting) flowed below her. It stopped me in my tracks. At the time I couldn’t understand the message, but I could understand her face. I snapped a photo for Instagram and then disappeared into the night to soak up more cheap caipirinhas than I can remember.
Days later we’d just finished playing a game of heads, shoulders, knees and toes in one of my first Portuguese classes when a word bursting with poetic beauty came up and suddenly, thankfully, made me feel like an adult again. “Saudade,” my teacher said. These seven letters would tell us a lot about Brazil, and proudly she added, they had no direct translation in English.
“What is it to miss someone, someplace, sometime or something?” she went on.
“In English you ‘miss someone’, but here in Brazil we have something more, something deeper. Saudade.”
My mind went back to my late night street art encounter which was starting to make more sense. What wasn’t making sense to me though was why ‘missing’ something wasn’t enough? But then the class got me wondering, what is the essence of the verb - the noun - that we attach to those parts of our life we miss? Is it sadness, emptiness, love, happiness, distance, nostalgia. For English speakers the concept of ‘missing’ is something we do, not something that hangs over us which we can give a name to.
As my teacher wrote phrases on the whiteboard I punched “estou com saudades de voce” (I am with saudades of you) into a translator and got “I miss you”. But when I typed in “sinto sua falta” (I feel your absence) it brought up the same. The latter is closest to it my professora told me, while saudades is something unique to Portuguese which English, apparently, just wasn’t built to express in a single word. So, instead, it simply defaults to “I miss you”. Longing and yearning are close, but still not a perfect match she said.
Brazilian lexicographer and Rio native Antônio Houaiss described saudade in his Houaiss Dictionary of the Portuguese Language as “a somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. It is related to thinking back on situations of privation due to the absence of someone or something; to move away from a place or thing; or to the absence of a set of particular and desirable experiences and pleasures once lived.” And there's another good definition in this GIF too.
For a culture overflowing in dancing, singing, sun, sensuality, affection, smiles and happiness, saudade rooted in melancholy, yet weaved so generously through Brazilian music, poetry and everyday conversation, seemed like an odd coupling to me. But the longer I spent in Rio coming across saudade in words, songs, walls, and even an official national day (January 30th), the more the pieces started to fall into place.
One night as waiters wielding sword-like skewers of meat unloaded succulent hunks of beef, chicken, lamb and sausage onto our plates at a churrascaria (a Brazilian BBQ restaurant) I asked my friends just what is saudade and how it’s different from ‘sinto sua falta’.
“Saudade is a feeling. Imagine if you love someone, what is the feeling? Love. If you miss someone the feeling is saudade. At least from my view,” one said.
“I feel saudade of anyone that I don’t have anymore in my life like an ex-boyfriend or an ex-friend,” explained another.
“There is a qualitative difference, usually I have saudade of someone who is gone, since you can no longer make up their absence, and ‘sinto sua falta’ is that feeling that can be satisfied by seeing the person again. Usually there is not much difference, people use for both contexts, but this would be a plausible explanation,” the last offered which seemed to cover all bases.
Despite these small differences in interpretation I saw that saudades flew through the Brazilian air at an astonishing rate, in arrows of love from peoples mouths and a whirlwind of WhatsApp messages. The language surrounding it is dramatic and typical of Brazilian passion. “Morrendo de saudade” (I’m dying of saudade) and “quando bate a saudade” (when saudade hits) are declared by someone quagmired in its sticky embrace. Looking through photos, reading old letters, a phone call or best yet being reunited with someone are all ways to “matar a saudade” (to kill the saudade), to gain relief, be it temporary, from it. In its most simple form you can simply tell someone “saudade” or “saudades”.
Saudade would hit my Brazilian girlfriend when we’d not seen each other for just a few days, and of course in the interest of self-preservation I never hesitated to say it back. But coming from the Latin word solitate for solitude, I thought surely she wasn’t feeling for me anything like the loneliness and distance the Portuguese settlers who first came to Brazil felt for their European home and families while stuck sweating their arses off in this faraway land, this period of discovery having given rise to the word’s prominence in Brazil over 500 years ago.
But saudade I realised didn’t necessarily have to be a feeling weighing you down. In the Brazilian vocabulary saudade has also become positive and romantic, morphing to be how a Brazilian tells you they really, really miss you in a manner which says that you mean a lot to them. Said with a surge of enthusiasm, “aww saudades de voce!”, rather than in pathos was her way of telling me this, a preface to “I love you” or a roundabout way of saying it without actually saying it.
Saudade speaks very much to the warmth and affection of close relationships in Brazil. It shows the importance of savouring moments together in a culture fixated on sharing in communal revelry, be it at Carnival, the beach, a churrasco BBQ, a roda do samba or watching a football match, rather than existing cloistered off from one another, just dragged together kicking and screaming at the dinner table like a Simpson's family caricature of western living.
Music was the unifying force for me and my Brazilian housemate, peeling us from our beds to come together on those sweaty Rio nights in our apartment soon after I'd moved in. Over the whirring of the fan going full-bore in my bedroom I’d hear him playing his records from the living room. Passing through to the kitchen to get a drink and a better listen, the lilting voices and airy guitar chords quickly captured me. It was bossa nova music he told me, a mix of samba and jazz.
One of the vinyls he put on the platter, which also happened to be the genre’s first recording from 1958, was Chega de Saudade (Enough of Saudade) by Tom Jobim, who also wrote the one and only bossa nova song I already knew, The Girl from Ipanema. At once uplifting but about something sad, I can only simply describe the song as the embodiment of Brazil - a microcosm of the way the country’s 200 million people smile and savour life despite its problems. I highly recommend you have a listen below, along with Elvis it's gotta be some of the coolest music from the 1950s.
Some of the translated lyrics, which lose some of their poetic oomph in English, go, “Enough of saudade, the reality is that without her there is no peace, there is no beauty, it’s only sadness and melancholy that doesn’t leave me, doesn’t leave me, doesn’t leave. But if she comes back, if she comes back, that beautiful thing, that crazy thing, for there are fewer fish to swim in the sea than the kisses that I'll give to her.”
I've passed that mural of the woman again and again and there's always someone taking a photo of her. Just metres from where cruise ships dock and flocks of tourists pass it’s become one of Rio’s most iconic artworks, something so many can relate to even if like me where they’re from they don’t have a word to describe the saudade written across her face. Saudade I came to realise is quite simply the price we pay for living unforgettable moments together, memories of love which never die, so many of which Brazil and its people have given me. Saudade Brazil, and I haven't even left yet, but I know it's coming!