After an early-morning flight back from Rio to São Paulo, then traipsing from one end of town to the other by bus and subway and car, with two suitcases, I finally said goodbye to my best buddy, Roberto, as he headed back to Colombia the night of January 3 for work the following Monday. Ro is my dog, my bro, my ace, and I'm glad and even blessed to have rocked the holidays with him in Brazil.
And then there was just me, for another week, settling into a city that has begun to claim me the way Washington did nine years ago, when I was just a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Senate intern first sampling the delectables and delights of Chocolate City. I won't go into the details of who I stayed with or partied with or even interviewed with in São Paulo; but I want to impart, with probably as much futility as fitting the essence of New York into a snow globe of the Empire State Building, my love affair with Sampa.
Saudade (prounounced saoo-dah-jee) is a concept famous for lacking a literal translation in English, or even Spanish (soledad is it’s cousin, but not the same). Longing, desire, yearning, waiting, nostalgia, melancholy, wishful thinking, remembering, missing, solitude—all of these verbs and nouns approximate saudade, but in Portuguese, it’s all delivered in one word. It’s appropriate, given Brazil’s history. The founding populations of Brazil included Africans, torn from their homeland with the permanent desire of having that homeland and all its freedoms returned; Amerindians, who yearned for the time before the white man’s invasion; and the Portuguese, already themselves a complex ethnic mixture, longing for European ways and values in this vast, untamed Southern land. Add to the mix migration from the far corners of the country, and immigrants from Japan, the Mediterranean and Middle East, and Lusophone Africa, all searching for opportunities and better lives, and you have a society built on saudade. Brazilian music is the single most profound example of this sentiment: the driving urgency of samba, the wistful reflection of bossa nova, the raw romanticism of forro.
There is a song I love about Sampa’s sister/nemesis, Rio, called “Samba do Avião” (see me sing part of it, here):
Minha alma canta
Vejo o Rio de Janeiro
Estou morrendo de saudade
Rio, seu mar, praias sem fim
Rio, você que foi feito pra mim
My soul sings
I see Rio de Janeiro
I'm dying of saudade
Rio, your sea, beaches without end
Rio, you who were made for me
Rio was made for many people, Tom Jobim included, but not for me. São Paulo is my city: walking hurriedly with the crushing masses changing trains at the Estação da Luz, sure enough of my destination and bearings to maintain pace with the everyday commuters. Cruising in the shadow of the glass and concrete boxes that hem in Avenida Paulista like fat dominos, each crowned by a television or telephone antenna, helicopters buzzing around them in decreasingly concentric circles. Squeezed up against thousands of Paulistanos bouncing to near-religious rhythms under skyscrapers, stars, and freeway at the outdoor Vai-Vai samba school practices. Attending an art gallery opening, the cast party of Miss Saigon, and a tribal house music session all in the same evening, ringing in the dawn with hot chocolate and tomato-orange soup at Bela Paulista bakery before hitting the sack for some mid-morning shut-eye. I long to live there, yearn to add my own rhythm to the constant motion, noise, sway of South America's largest city. Wishing to be another one in twenty million. And as I wrapped up my last week among the hum buzz din of unbridled urbanism, I was morrendo de saudade. I think it’s wired within me, this saudade. It’s what keeps me traveling—"the untold want" as Whitman put it.
But it's also what makes me think that Sampa's "The One." Because my friends tell me I constantly talk about her. Because I always smile when I think about her. Because she understands my needs and wants and fulfills both. And we'll be together when it's time.