After living in the Azores for around a year and a half, my husband and I bought a house in the small town of Capelas which is on the North-Eastern tip of the island. The town became known as Capelas, legend has it, because of the small caves that the intense Northern swells had shaped into the cliffs around the town and which looked to locals like chapels, capelas. The town used to be a whaling centre and still has whaling watch-posts, a grey, dilapidated whaling factory and a picturesque protected port. Things have changed – it now has two shiny supermarkets, Chinese stores selling everything from dream catchers to superglue to fake leather jackets, hotels, restaurants and bars. What hasn’t changed is the fact that the houses built in Capelas, like many houses around the island, are built practically in the sea, and whilst the humidity from the ocean may be wonderful for plantlife, it plays havoc with paintwork. Mould and fungus spread lividly across walls, inside and out, whilst house emulsion begins to flake and wither almost as soon as it is applied. It’s a full time job to keep homes in Capelas looking as bright and clean as our neighbour’s houses do. The first thing we needed to do when we moved into our new home was to paint it. This sounds simple but it wasn’t. We talked to several people – big companies and one-man-bands – the price was either out of our budget or the job could not be done for months. We were getting nervous. Our local taxi driver thankfully then introduced us to two brothers – Claudio and Carlos – who lived opposite our house and were painters. They swooped in and saved us, working in the evenings and the weekends before our moving date, together with their friends, to transform our home into a place which appeared just as well kept as the other houses on our corner. As we befriended them they introduced us to our other neighbours, which included Claudio’s father-in-law and mother-in-law, who had been born in the house opposite our own and whose family had lived in it for generations. I would meet Mariana at the fruit truck and the fish truck which stopped below the great palm covering the small courtyard which we all shared and she explained to me how to gut the tiny chicharos fish with your finger. She made it look simple but whilst I nodded and smiled I knew it was probably something you had to grow up doing. On warm evenings we sometimes met them at the local swimming hole, where they told us that they couldn’t swim, despite living on an island, because their parents would not let them near the sea. This conversation captured for me how much the Azores had changed in just a generation. Grandparents who couldn’t swim and weren’t allowed near the sea now watched grandchildren with armbands and floaties and rubber rings throw themselves with abandon into the sea pool which had been built in the last years and was now a hugely popular destination for locals and for the increasing number of foreign visitors. It was a chance meeting with our first landlady on a hot, dark, São Miguel night at this same swimming hole which sparked the idea for this writing project. It’s an investigation into both the new things and people arriving on the islands, and also the old traditions which still have such a strong presence here, kept alive, I believe, by the island’s unique isolation, in the middle of the Atlantic. The very first people I thought to interview were my neighbours. They accepted the interview with some bemusement but very kindly, inviting us into their home which was far bigger and older than it first appeared. Their garden and yard, hidden from the road, encapsulated the self-sustainable way of life practised by locals in the Azores for centuries, with fruit trees, a small field for planting vegetables, chickens and even baby cows. The supermarkets in the town may have rendered this small-holding style of food production unnecessary but I found it inspiring. Here were people practising with little heartache or fuss the kind of climate-conscience, zero-waste, local food production which many people now realise is essential if we are to stop decimating the planet. The talk I had with Manual and Mariana was one of my favourite interviews. They have quietly been living extraordinary lives, jumping through, it appeared to me, several generations in one lifetime and still managing to keep their sense of humour and direction whilst the world around them made earth-shaking tectonic moves.
Interviewer: To start, please tell me your names, the date you were born and where you live.
Manuel Ferreira: My name is Manuel António Rego Ferreira. I was born on May 13th 1954. I am 68 years old. I’m an agricultural entrepreneur. I’ve live in this house for many years with my kids and my grandchildren and it is here that I like to stay and live. Here I am!
Interviewer: Great! Thank you!
Maria Ferreira: I’m Maria Luciana Ferreira. I’m 68 years old. I was born here in this house where I grew up and I’ve been here for 68 years.
Interviewer: You look younger than you are! Can you please tell me how you met?
Manuel: Ah! OK. We started dating when we were 18 years old and we have been married for 44 years. We dated for 6 years at the same living room window here where we are sitting now, not at the bedroom window. Her mother wouldn’t let us talk there so we wouldn’t give each other kisses! Here we are by the same window almost fifty years since we met.
Interviewer: After you married did you come directly to live here?
Manuel: My mother-in-law died and after this we married and I came to live with Maria and her father.
Interviewer: I’d like you to tell me about the house and your family. You told me your family had been in this house for generations.
Maria: My father was born in the neighbourhood of Maranhão and my mother was born in this house. She moved from here when she was 14 years old, to a house near to the school which her her grandfather had bought. She lived in this other house with her 8 brothers and she moved again to this house when she 24 years old and she got married. She moved here at 24 and she died at 58 years. She didn’t live many years. There were five of us children. One died at 12 years and now we are 4. I have an older sister and brother in Canada and another brother in USA. My family is my husband and my three children.
Interviewer: You are the only one of your brothers and sisters to stay here in the island.
Maria: There’s not so many people who were born here and stayed here. It was just by chance that I stayed. My husband wanted to go to Canadá but my father didn’t want us to go so I stayed with him and he we stayed and here we built our family.
Interviewer: Tell me what are the advantages to live so many years in the same place, in the same house?
Maria: I like my house. I like to visit my brothers and sister but I am used to lived in my own land and it is here that I will stay.
Manuel: Me too. I have been in Canada, in USA and in the Portuguese main land but it’s here that I like to be and it’s here I want to stay. I want to stay.
Interviewer: Many houses as old as this one on the island are ruins, many are abandoned and it appears difficult for people to maintain and restore them. What are the difficulties in maintaining an old house such as this? Why did people let their houses fall into such disrepair?
Manuel: Those houses that are in ruins, many times are the houses of people who emigrated. If there is no-one living in a house it will deteriorate. That’s normal. However, it was worse in the years before, now there is talk of heritage and the old houses are patrimony. There are many more people restoring old houses to how they were before.
Interviewer: Do you find much meaning in caring for your house, which has so many years of history? It seems to me too have lots of value. ecause I think theses house have a lot of value, do you agreed?
Manuel: Yes they have a lot of value and are passed down from previous generations. They are our patrimony. This house, for example, I have documents for two centuries but I think it has many more.
Interviewer: What do you think about this Maria? And what do you think about this?
Maria: I don´t know, I just know I like to be here!
Interviewer: Is it difficult to maintain a big and old house?
Manuel: Yes, it is, this house is very big. I restored it for years. I modified the whole house from the inside and just left the old façades so as not to stop the house being a heritage house. For example, the roof is the traditional roof, just like your roof. Your house is also considered part of our housing patrimony.
Interviewer: What were the biggest changes you made?
Maria: It is almost the same. The big thing we changed was the chimney. It was a very high chimney with two ovens. My mother said it was a bakery oven and my father built a small one inside the big one. But the chimney was causing a lot of problems, stones were falling and I was worried about the children so we ended up removing it. But the chimney made the house prettier before and it’s never been the same!
Interviewer: When we saw our house for the first time, we were enchanted by the chimney and the old wood-fire oven. But it now causes us problems. A lot of dirt and birds.
Maria: You must cover the chimney. The neighbour next door also has a very tall chimney and she covered it, and she stopped having problems. She complained a lot about the rain, the house is also very old, and they covered it up and it was solved. My chimney also bought rain inside the house. There were buckets to catch the water, and pigeons would fall down the chimney! We have a photo of the house at that time. Go and get it Manuel.
Manuel bought in an aerial photo of the house when it had a chimney, taken from a helicopter which had passed by the house. It wasn’t very long ago that it was taken but it was clear the neighbourhood had developed a great deal since then.
Manuel: Just seeing this photo shows how everything has changed a lot on our island during the last years. This road was made of earth and stones, there wasn’t cars, just horses and carts.
Interviewer: When was the photo taken?
Manuel: I don’t know. 30 years ago?
Maria: I don’t know if Tiago was born at that time. I like this photo because it shoes how the house was before.
Manuel: If you notice the doors and windows were in wood. I changed them to aluminium. The trees are there, and the water fountain.
Maria: I was raised with that fountain because we didn’t have water in the house and my father used to take water from the fountain in the milk containers and in a wooden barrel and put the water inside the large clay plots that are still in the backyard which my mother used to cook with and clean the house.
Interviewer: Things have changed a lot
Manuel: Yes. It has changed a lot. We did not used to eat wheat bread, we did not have money, families were very large, eight or nine or ten kids. In my parents house there were eight children, five women, three men. With my mother, my father and my uncle we were 11 people in the house.
Interviewer: You had never eaten bread made of wheat and now we have two big supermarkets here selling all kinds of bread as well as cakes and croissants and foreign food.
Maria: Everything changed, a lot of things for the better. It is good to have water at home. It was very hard not to have water, my father used to put the barrel in line during the night and bring it to home very early before going to work with the cows – my father always had cows. It was from that barrel of water that we took our bath too. There were no bathrooms, only some rich people and not all of those either, because my grandfather was rich and they did not have bathroom. My mother heated water in the kettle over a wood fire in the kitchen and we washed there. And my father used to bring wood for the fire. There was almost nothing. We did not have electricity. The light we had was a kind of oil lamp which only came later.
Manuel: We used to do homework with a candle and it needed to be fast so as not to spend the whole candle! There was no money to buy candles. At the time I grew up there was a lot of hardship, misery.
Interviewer: When you think about the past do you miss it?
Maria: I miss a lot of things,
Manuel: I miss it. The past was better. People were more united, families too, more friendships. Today everything is very different.
Maria: Especially with cell phones, which is a disgrace.
Manuel: We used to play football on the road. There were almost no cars, the girls used to play rope, but at night we all went home to bed because there was no light and we couldn’t use up the oil in the lamp. I grew up barefoot walking on earth!
Maria: The family used to be more united than today. When I was already dating Manuel there was a group of girls here that used to play on that road outside. We had to run to clean ourselves up because we saw our boyfriends were coming! Now we don’t see anybody on the street.
Interviewer: Yes, it’s difficult for me as mother of small kids to let them out on the road with so many cars around.
Manuel: Yes, now is impossible!
Maria: Yes, it was different then. Roads were made of earth. At the festival of São João we used to make big bonfires in the road and jump around them. We don’t see that anymore. It is mobiles, TVs, computers.
Interviewer: Your sons and your grandchildren live very different lives.
Maria: Last week Manuel said ‘At the table there is no mobile phones’. He said it because on Sundays when they come to us be together as soon as they finish eating they go onto their mobiles right away!
Interviewer: When I talk with you, it feels like you have jumped a generation, because you are the same age as my parents but your early lives sounds like the lives of my grandfather who lived in a remote part of Ireland and who did not have shoes to go to school in. And now your children and grandchildren have lives with mobile phones and television and computers just like children growing up in London, or anywhere else.
Manuel: Everything evolved here very fast.
Maria: I raised three children. The oldest is 43 years. The kind food I gave to her was different to the youngest. Yogurt for example, and the baby cereals, didn’t exist when the first two were babies but the youngest Tiago ate all these things. We used to eat healthier than we do today. When I was a child we ate a lot of milk soup – which is corn bread with hot cow milk, a lot of vegetable soup. No-one wants to eat that kind of thing any more.
Manuel: When I grew up there was no plastic! Something might appear here or there, but not much. Here on the island we were isolated. There were no planes or boats so if our food was coming from outside like it does today we would have died. What we had here were vines, oranges, bananas, pineapples, crops, cows. Now we see so many containers for food turned to garbage just outside our door.
Maria: In the old times I think we were happier!
Interviewer: The way in which you lived was impressive. The world is discovering now that the way your generation lived without so much waste and trash is far more sustainable and kinder to the planet.
Manuel: Our food scraps always went to a pile in the backyard, which after a while became manure and was spread on the earth to fertilise it. There were hardly any chemicals.
Maria: In the past women did not work outside the home. When I grew up I worked a lot on the land with my father, harvesting the corn to make into cornflour. Now everyone goes to the city to their office jobs. We had our work at home!
Interviewer: If there was something you would like to teach the younger generations, what would it be?
Manuel: They don’t care. Sometimes I say to my children, ‘back then I used to do it like this’ and they reply that I was old-fashioned. They have no idea what it was like. When I went to school I wore shorts, barefoot on earth roads, had a rucksack made of sack and wrote on a stone framed in wood.
Maria: We washed the wood so it was always clean. There were no books or notebooks, just the stone on which we wrote and then erased.
Manuel: Sometimes we had a kind of notebook without lines but when it was finished my mother said ‘there’s no money to buy another one’, so we rubbed out everything to use it again. It’s true! Teachers did not like it. And now we have plenty of paper.
Maria: Now my grandchildren have plenty of books, but we were happier.
Manuel: We grew up during the Salazar regime. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it?
Interviewer: My eldest daughter is learning in school about this period.
Manuel: At that time it was forbidden to pronounce the name Salazar. One could not speak of him or president Americo Tomaz, those who governed in Portugal. Just like the regime that is now in Iran, do you see? They had a secret policy that could arrest you anywhere, even coming to your home in the middle if the night if you talked about the government. No-one knew who was in the secret police. I could be talking to a lady here, as with you, and not know where she was from and then find out she was from the secret police. When we entered school in the morning we had to do two things, we said a prayer to the one upstairs and then we sang the national anthem. Every day. Even if we didn’t want to, we had to!
Interviewer: You were a child during the Salazar regime. Could you understand that what was happening was wrong or did it just feel normal to you?
Maria: We had to do what they told us to.
Manuel: The radio and newspaper were just for the rich people who could afford them. However, here we had a café, a taverna, near here. The owner was a good person, and he had a radio we could listen to but we were not allowed go there because we were under 12 years of age. Only adults were allowed in the taverna. But he used to put a speaker to the street and we use to sit on sidewalks to hear the football and Amália Rodrigues songs. I started to like Benfica because of those radio times, and Eusebio the great player who is dead now. Those were wonderful times! Fisherman would come by with baskets on their backs crying they had fresh fish to sell. Ladies came out on the street to buy and later would divide everything. I would never go hungry and there was always the cornbread!
Maria: And they were big breads that my mother made, not these little ones that we buy today.
Interviewer; I would like to hear from you about how you feel today, wit so many people coming to live here, like us, that came here looking for a simpler life, who wanted to move away not from big cities. What do you think about this trend? Is it bad? Is it good?
Manuel: In this matter I think the government needs to get involved. For me people can come but we need to know who is coming, not just open the doors and have both good and bad come! Some days back a German man in Pico killed two people. We don’t want people like this here. Here there are always problems but small problems. However, Capelas is growing a lot these days. If its well off people coming that’s good but people ready for a fight, we don’t want those people, we have enough of them already! Our emigrants from the USA and Canada who work a lot abroad, where they retire they return back and build or restore old houses which are our heritage and that’s good. We have two examples here in our small neighbourhood of you and another man from Canada who is restoring a house.
I understand why people want to come here. Our island is the biggest of all the islands and there is a lot to see. Our nature is wonderful. We go to bed at night and get up in the morning with the light and so when spring and summer starts its really wonderful.
Maria: Nowadays there is less but the smell of incense and orange blossom when Spring arrives is delicious in the morning. Such a wonderful perfume!
Manuel: And, as you know we lived by surrounded by the sea and its richness, with its fish and others good.
Maria: We have also big tempests but luckily the water goes to the sea and doesn’t come into our houses. The water always runs down because the road is sloping.
Interviewer: You are describing so well all the wonderful things about living in Capelas and the Azores. It’s time to finish the interview. Is there anything else you’d like to see about the old or new times in the Azores?
Manuel: The first time I went to Furnas, I was 19 years old, in a rental van, on an excursion down earth roads. It was a difficult place to reach but today it is very easy You’ve certainly already seen all those caldeiras! Anyone who arrives there today is amazed, and then to go to the hot baths and stay there in that warm water. It’s a wonderful thing! Nature is terrible but that hot water is so good, especially for children. But there’s one thing that’s really wrong, I’m not the government but I can have an opinion on this and that is that people who were born and are from here shouldn’t pay to enjoy nature as they sometimes have to do here. Tourists yes but locals no!