Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 21, 2021

Keeping my “saudades” close to my heart

By GABRIEL LESSER | January 30, 2021

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COURTESY OF GABRIEL LESSER

Lesser, who recently moved into his first-ever college dorm, relates a Portuguese word to his feelings of nostalgia.

I’ve been living on campus for a little over a week, and I already feel excited for the semester ahead. Yet I would be lying to myself if I did not also admit that moving to college has made me feel an indescribable dose of nostalgia. In Portuguese, we refer to this as saudades.

The word saudades in Portuguese is what you say to somebody when you miss them, but it does not mean “I miss you,” nor does it use any pronouns to refer to a particular person or group. Rather, the word saudades is more the feeling of missing someone. It has sustenance, and it can stand alone, yet its surrounding context nourishes and supplements its meaning; for instance, one can say, “Tenho saudades de você,” which would roughly mean “I have missings of you.” 

What is so unique about this phrase is that it only makes sense in Portuguese, and when translated to English, it loses both its meaning and its potency.

Even more distinctly, saudades can be applied to a concept or a past experience; if someone says, “saudades daquela época,” it means that they miss a time in their life. Saudades is thus not only a word that is shared between people; it also plays a role in one’s own reminiscence and introspection.

Growing up, I have had to use the word saudades very frequently. Every summer, after visiting my grandparents, uncle, aunt and cousins in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I make it back to the U.S. with an unsettling feeling of emptiness. Personally, saudades is the desire to have this emptiness filled and to be back with loved ones. Sadly, however, we cannot always be with our family. Because of COVID-19, I have not seen my grandparents in over a year. My saudades for them grows immensely day after day, but internally, I have to trust that I will be able to see them soon. 

By keeping saudades within us, we allow ourselves to feel sad, to feel lonely, to be longing for someone’s presence; in a sense, it provides us with a cathartic experience, permitting us to push through and garner resilience. In broader terms, saudades teaches us that it is alright to not be alright and that it is both normal and acceptable to place ourselves in vulnerable settings.

For me, saying goodbye to my family in Brazil is always one of my most vulnerable moments, and it is so surreal. It is something I have done countless times, yet I have never mastered it, nor have I gotten accustomed to the strange and somber feeling of watching my family members’ faces disappear as I pass the security checkpoint. It is an uncontrollable and unexplainable feeling of sadness and discomfort, one that I have never been able to overcome.

Generally speaking, I have a hard time letting go and adjusting to change. Not only do I struggle to say goodbye to my family at the airport, but I am greatly affected by the minutiae of day-to-day life. I constantly revisit photos and videos that remind me of old memories, I linger in the doorway when bidding farewell to family members on Thanksgiving and other get-togethers, I hesitate when flipping to the last page of a book and I mope around for days after finishing a really good Netflix show. My profound nostalgia, expressed through my saudades, prevents me from ever fully moving on, and I struggle to adapt to new places and environments both physically and emotionally.

As I have just moved into my first-ever college dorm, I sense this subtle feeling of saudades once again. Saudades for my childhood, saudades for my parents, saudades for my friends and saudades for my hometown. Living on campus in Baltimore is like having a new home, one that is still intricately connected to my life in New York and in Rio de Janeiro. Living and meeting people in this new environment is intimidating, yet I now know that if I keep my saudades close to my heart, I can continue to grow and persevere.

Moving to college feels like passing a threshold into adulthood. I feel as if I am letting go of a piece of myself and acquiring a new persona. I no longer have a cushion of support that I can rely on. Instead, I am now independently responsible for carrying my identity and sharing it with the world. It’s a daunting challenge, but it’s one that I am willing to take on.

Saudades has taught me that even in the hardest times, we can overcome our challenges. When we are in need of the people for whom we feel saudades, we need only to remember how enjoyable our experiences are with them and how we will be back together soon. Whether I am in New York, Rio de Janeiro, Baltimore or beyond, I know that saudades will constantly keep me connected to a supportive community, and that even in my most vulnerable moments, my loved ones are merely a phone call away to fill me with warmth and happiness.

Gabriel Lesser is a freshman from Westchester, N.Y. He is studying Neuroscience and Romance Languages. His column explores his memories, along with his current reflections and the lessons that he has learned. 

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