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The Warsaw Voice » Other » September 3, 2008
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Portugal: The Call of the Atlantic
September 3, 2008   
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By José Carlos Dias, a lecturer in Portuguese literature at Warsaw University and at the Camões Institute, which aims to promote awareness of Portuguese culture and language.

Almada Negreiros, one of the great early 20th-century Portuguese modernists, wrote that he most admired those who knew no boundaries. We can recognize in these words the identity of Portuguese culture, a culture whose core is porous, with seemingly boundless and extraordinarily variegated ways in which it thinks and exists in the world. Portugal has been burning its unique cultural brand onto the Iberian Peninsula ever since it began to emerge as a national identity. The country's undeniably privileged location on the shores of the Atlantic have made it economically, culturally and even mythically dependent on the ocean. Living beside the Atlantic has given rise to new professions, traditions and architectural styles as well as a cuisine rich in fish and seafood, and bountiful in culinary variety.

The ocean has been forging the thoughts and emotions of the inhabitants of the western Iberian Peninsula since time immemorial. The consonance of lyrical inspiration and abstract yearning heard in the wistful love songs of the troubadour bespeaks an illusory loneliness belying the ever-present ocean beside him as he makes his journey inside the depth of his being. This is why you can find people sitting by the Portuguese seashore fixedly gazing into the offing, driven by the same unfathomable instinct that propels Polish trekkers to immerse themselves in the forests and mountains. This living emotional heritage finds expression nowadays in saudade, an untranslatable word straddling "unfulfillment" and "longing." And also in the achingly sad, faraway voices of fado singers Mariza, Mísia and Cristina Branco, which capture this ancient emotion beautifully.

Fernando Pessoa is perhaps the poet who best captures the sea's mythical influence on Portugal and its culture. Pessoa's poem "Mar Portugue^s" (Portuguese Sea) from the 1934 volume Mensagem (Message) reads, "God to the sea peril and abyss has given / But it was in it that He mirrored heaven."

These words bear testimony to the mythical side of the call of the Atlantic.

This quest for beauty and myth is one of the visible faces of Portuguese culture. Whether the poet was right or not is not important as we are all aware that myths are dependent on the willingness to believe.

The fact remains that through nearly 10 centuries of Atlantic history, Portuguese culture has spread to five continents to create a community of eight countries, home to some 178 million Portuguese speakers. This makes Portuguese the sixth most widely spoken language in the world, according to the 2005 Ethnologue.

The distinctive wealth and vitality of today's Portuguese language culture make it a fascinating phenomenon. Every Portuguese-speaking nation has managed to create or recreate its own linguistic and cultural norms thanks to the porosity of the Portuguese heritage. Brazilians have enriched their variant of Portuguese with incredible musicality. The African countries of Angola, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau have blended Portuguese culture and language with African traditions and rhythms.

Fernando Pessoa once wrote that "My homeland is the Portuguese language," words which Mozambican writer Mia Couto subtly changed to "My homeland is my Portuguese language."

It has only been three decades since Portugal and its culture have shifted their gaze around from the Atlantic Ocean to focus on nearby Europe, which had always been there, but maybe too close, insufficiently mythical. This change in worldview has uncovered new influences to harmonize with those from the Portuguese-speaking world. What other culture could possibly have come up with Kuduro Progressivo, an eclectic mix of Angolan dance and electronic music?

Portuguese culture still manages to cherry pick from all the available cultural influences without ever losing sight of its identity, that closeness that comes with speaking Portuguese. Portuguese culture and language are where we can feel good about ourselves, uncover our personalities, learn about ourselves and discover who we really are, or, as Fernando Pessoa once wrote, to know how many we really are.
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