Today is the Day of Saudade in Brazil. I’m not sure why, but I’ll try to unpack the concept a little. Why you would want to celebrate saudade mystifies me. The word “saudade” has no equivalent in English, and its meaning is complicated in Portuguese. It is something like nostalgia, but more nuanced. It is a feeling of emptiness when you miss someone or something that is a mix of sadness and joy.
Saudade was once described as “the love that remains” after someone is gone. Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places, or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It can be described as an emptiness, like someone (e.g., one’s children, parents, sibling, grandparents, friends, pets) or something (e.g., places, things one used to do in childhood, or other activities performed in the past) that should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence. It brings sad and happy feelings together: sadness for missing and happiness for experiencing the past.
In the book In Portugal (1912), A. F. G. Bell writes:
The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.
A stronger form of saudade may be felt towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, such as old ways and sayings; a lost lover who is sadly missed; a faraway place where one was raised; loved ones who have died; feelings and stimuli one used to have; and the faded, yet golden memories of youth. Although it relates to feelings of melancholy and fond memories of things/people/days gone by, it can be a rush of sadness coupled with a paradoxical joy derived from acceptance of fate and the hope of recovering or substituting what is lost by something that will either fill in the void or provide consolation.
Saudade has been an inspiration for art and for many songs and compositions. “Sodade” (saudade in Cape Verdean Creole) is the title of the Cape Verde singer Cesária Évora’s most famous song. Étienne Daho, a French singer, also produced a song of the same name. The Good Son, a 1990 album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, was heavily informed by Cave’s mental state at the time, which he has described as saudade. He told journalist Chris Bohn: “When I explained to someone that what I wanted to write about was the memory of things that I thought were lost for me, I was told that the Portuguese word for this feeling was saudade. It’s not nostalgia but something sadder.”
The usage of saudade as a theme in Portuguese music goes back to the 16th century, the golden age of Portugal. Saudade, as well as love suffering, is a common theme in many villancicos and cantigas composed by Portuguese authors; for example: “Lágrimas de Saudade” (tears of saudade), which is an anonymous work from the Cancioneiro de Paris. Fado is a Portuguese music style, generally sung by a single person (the fadista) along with a Portuguese guitar. The most popular themes of fado are saudade, nostalgia, jealousy, and short stories of the typical city quarters. Fado and saudade are intertwined key ideas in Portuguese culture. The word fado comes from Latin fatum meaning “fate” or “destiny”. Fado is a musical cultural expression and recognition of this unassailable determinism which compels the resigned yearning of saudade, a bitter-sweet, existential yearning and hopefulness towards something over which one has no control.
Spanish singer Julio Iglesias, whose father is a Galician, speaks of saudade in his song “Un Canto a Galicia”. In the song, he passionately uses the phrase to describe a deep and sad longing for his motherland, Galicia. He also performs a song called “Morriñas”, which describes the Galicians as having a deeply strong saudade.
The Paraguayan guitarist Agustin Barrios wrote several pieces invoking the feeling of saudade, including Choro de Saudade and Preludio Saudade. The term is prominent in Brazilian popular music, including the first bossa nova song, “Chega de Saudade” (“No more saudade”, usually translated as “No More Blues”), written by Tom Jobim. Jazz pianist Bill Evans recorded the tune “Saudade de Brasil” numerous times. In 1919, on returning from two years in Brazil, the French composer Darius Milhaud composed a suite, Saudades do Brasil, which exemplified the concept of saudade.
Since saudade is strongly associated with missing one’s homeland, foods can be a part of the feeling. I’ve often had a hankering for a certain food, not just because of the taste, but also because of all the associations that go along with that dish. In the late 1960s I loved the steak and kidney pies that the landlady of my local pub made, and those days are gone along with the pies. In Argentina I used to spend idle nights conjuring up the hot pastrami on rye sandwiches I used to get on the lower East Side of New York with my girlfriend (I also used to miss lox and bagels).
These days I don’t really hanker over anything much – a sign of living a contented life, I guess. This is undoubtedly a good thing given that Cambodia is a wasteland when it comes to European ingredients. I make do. I wouldn’t mind some fresh spinach once in a while, or a nice wedge of aged Stilton, but I don’t yearn for it – no saudade. I do miss honeycomb now and again, but not desperately so. Furthermore, I believe that I have given recipes already for all the dishes I hold nearest and dearest (including Cincinnati chili). Since I don’t get many comments, you could do me a favor and post a comment on the dish or food that brings back old memories for you.