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A Monument to Atlantis - The Archipelago of the Azores

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The archipelago of the Azores consists of nine islands many consider the remnants of the lost continent of Atlantis. They are mountain peaks that jot out from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, strewn in an area of about 2,000km of sea. Each island in its own way, pours forth the mystery and mystique of a time and place before time itself.

Unique as they are, they call to mind the Celtic landscapes of a time and world gone by, especially their green pastures fenced in by lichen and moss covered stonewalls, the verdant heather and sky blue hydrangea hedges, their pine and cedar covered mountains, their bucolic streams flowing down deep gorges, their timeless, dreamlike emerald reverie.

This idyllic somewhat Arthurian scenery encrusted on the surface of an ever restless, tossing ocean, combined with a temperate climate make this a land of eternal spring, forever green and gentle, after the lost continent of Atlantis itself, an extension of a lost and forgotten world.

As they overlook the vast expanse of the North Atlantic Ocean, indeed they seem in their magic quality a transfixed reality from some forgotten land and time, some cryptic monument left in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, there as if to mark some remote titanic catastrophe, some soul deep holocaust that only the ocean and time-- our very dreams know the secret.

These islands were discovered in 1427 by Gonçalo Velho Cabral, a Portuguese. They mark the division between the European and the American continent, as they lie on the peaks of a huge mountain range that form the mid Atlantic Ridge, which has its base at an average depth of 1,500 km or 5,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, and which extends North, passing West of Ireland, on towards Iceland.

The nine islands have a combined area of 600km or 400 miles and are found at 1,500km or 900 miles from continental Portugal or about a two hour flight from Lisbon, and 4,000 km or 2,500 miles from the East Coast of the United States, or a four hour flight from New York. Its highest point is at the island of Pico with a height of 7,750 feet or 2,351 meters above sea level. Besides Pico island, most of the other islands are also mountainous in nature, especially St. Michael, the larger island, which is also known for many beautiful lakes and volcanic sites.

They have a unique temperate climate, where the temperatures never reach extremes both in winter and in the summer, and which conditioned by the waters of the Gulf Stream Current, directly affects the whole of the North European climate—the Azoren Hoch and Azoren Tief, as is known in Germany.

The wind and rain in this area are very strong and frequent, especially in the winter. The wind in that season can often reach gale force from one moment to the next, when violent gusts can suddenly isolate all islands from one another and the rest of the world for days. Airplane pilots and ship captains, better than anyone else, can attest to this fact, as they know the Azorean sky and sea as a dangerously , blustery area of the Atlantic Ocean, where sudden storms abound and can give many an experienced pilot and navigator a hard time.

Volcanic in origin, a seismic quality further lends the islands a capricious beautifully but violent and volatile nature. Volcanic craters are found in many of these islands, again the most visible in the island of St. Michael, where at Furnas and Ribeira Grande, there are mineral rich hot springs, geysers and many volcanic lakes that confirm a very active volcanic origin. Earthquakes are common to all islands and present a constant threat and danger. The most recent ones were felt on the islands of Terceira (1982) and Fayal (1998) and produced considerable damage and loss of human life. The most active volcano was in the late 1950’s on the island of Fayal, which provoked a considerable exodus of people at that time.

This is the home of the “milhafre”, birds who were once mistaken for goshawks or azores. This is an extension of Portugal, the Alentejo, Beira-Alta and Beira-Baixa, Minho, Algarve, Ribatejo, Extremadura, with an imperceptible taste of Bretagne, and Flanders. This is an extension of Galicia itself, a Gaelic world, transposed to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in its green, dreamlike Celtic quality.

This is also where a mass of Jewish and Moorish families, who had been forced to accept Christianity or be killed, as well as groups of Britons and Flemish citizens fleeing persecution and prejudice, found refuge, an haven in which to escape the intolerance from, if not an evil, at least a misguided and unjust society---sought their peace of mind, their independence, the opportunity for a new beginning, the chance to pull away, flee the trauma and the stigma branded upon them by a religiously incensed, but senseless and cold hearted spirit of Europe.

There, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, almost forgotten from the rest of the world, small and unimportant, they were spared, but for a few years of piracy, the turmoil, the ravages of war, all the upheavals, the evil and cruelty known on the continent of Europe. Their banishment in the wide sea, and in lands coveted by no rich Northern country, allowed them to escape the murderous and vicious spirit of Europe, its history of glory, greed and savagery. They developed instead a humble, amenably religious, naïve, detached, poetic and sensitive nature.

Thus, surrounded by the Atlantic, the sea and its isolation have been the islands’ major enemies, but also their major protection from the outside world. It has indeed shaped the character and nature of the people who live there, affected their culture, their way of thinking, their very living.

Life on these islands, in the middle of nowhere, removed from any known shore but the lava boulders of other islands, surrounded by a violent and unpredictable sea, and a land that trembles under your feet and erupts in spurts of fire, made it possible for the Azoreans to, along the ages, develop a distinct character of their own, yet remain the best of Portuguese, as these islands replaced their earlier galleons or caravelas and turned the people in them into the real “heroes of the sea,” mariners forever sailing out in an adventure of discovery, forever willing to change the old for the new, be led by the hope of reaching some distant beach, some long sought shore. These people who emigrate, who seek to better themselves in some other country or continent; people who are willing and ready at all times to break with the past, the ties of land and life itself to make possible the reality of their dreams, but forever carry with them the charisma and aura of the Azores with them.

Portuguese, with varying accents and intonations, is the spoken language. In St. Michael, for example, the language sounds the most different when compared to any other forms of Portuguese spoken anywhere else in the Portuguese World. It sounds somewhat rougher, somewhat foreign, less fluent, less elastic than continental Portuguese, which to the inhabitants referred to as "speaking modern," "falar à moda" . The settlers of a place called Bretanha even replace their "a" as in "mar" for "e" as in the French "mer." Somewhere else on the same island, the same "a" is replaced for a sound close to "ô" as in "môr" and still somewhere else the "e" as in "calhêta" becomes "ô" as in "calhôta". In Feteiras the "t" becomes somewhat "tch" as in "Fetcheira." Everywhere on the island the "u2 is very distinctly French, and the islanders seem to drop or compact sounds as in "que é que tu queres, homem?!" becomes "qu’é que tü qués, home?!"

In spite of the distinction of the language and other customs which became congenial to these islands, each Azorean sees himself or herself as Portuguese, the Azores as part of Portugal, Portugal itself. Continental Portugal is "Lisboa." A distant and outlandish city where people speak "à moda" and like to stand above the rest, use their verbose command of the language to befuddle reason, stand out, impose their will .

At one time, continental Portugal, became with the distance and the abandonment, even somewhat remote from their minds, where Brazil, Bermuda and later America and Canada, were much more closer and real, with whom they kept family ties and dreamt to be able to join one day; where the going and coming movement-the tides of the common people were taking place. "Lisboa" was the dead bark, somewhere outside, that only government officials, university students, and the well to do families had any ties with.

In a world threatened by constant earthquakes, where volcanoes spewed forth their destructive nature, the first islanders learned quickly to bind together to build and protect, to find solace and support in their religion, to obey its precepts as the only reason of reasons.

They, who live on the rim of an aggressive and fathomless ocean, earth’s own abyss of fire and brimstone, better than anyone else know how fickle and unstable our world is. The elements have thus, forced them, like people shipwrecked out in the sea, to anchor themselves in their beliefs and in the proximity of one another, who will at the whim of a cruel nature always be reminded of their convictions, soon or later, when either the sea rises to sallow their homes, or when the wind threatens to smash everything he has, or when the ground shakes and opens up its entrails and shows him the abyss.

This is the home, therefore, of many religious processions and festivals, many devout people who seek in the divine, in the cult of the Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres, and the Holy Spirit the peace of mind, the security and stability they cannot find in the world that surrounds them. This religiosity, indeed, makes these islands of all of Portugal the most conservative and religious in character, as they are forever unwilling to give in to trends that disrupt their sense of order, the way things should be. Anyone who pulls away from these configurations, soon finds that he has become less the Azorean and more the outsider.

The Azorean, therefore is he or she who, like anyone on a journey came from different backgrounds, from north, south east west of Portugal, also from Bretagne and Flanders, Jew and Moor, seeking an outlet from the cruel and self consuming European society.

People on voyage, they have developed a courteous, vivacious character( loud as their sea and the gales, at times) which is marked by their friendliness, their willingness to open up, to share what ‘s in their mind, to get to know the next, commiserate with others their problems, their personal dramas, bind together as a family, and as such, conform to one another, tolerate and put up with each others idiosyncrasies, while at the same time, being intolerant of deviation from the norm or ideas that disrupt their sense of propriety.

Besides a warm and courteous attitude that will reach out and include everyone, their goodwill and good disposition, the islanders as their ancestors in the caravelas, have adapted to their crowded quarters, the isolation and dangers of the caprices of both sea and land. The islands have thus influenced them, as sailors at the risk of a capsizing ship, to bind, to seek one another and the supernatural for support, for a foothold to safety.

We can even say, that the land and sea themselves have doted the Azorean their character. At first contact, they may seem somewhat ceremonious, in the city of Ponta Delgada even aloof, somewhat arrogant, but gradually when they become more relaxed, they open up their hearts and their homes, give of themselves to any stranger, offer their good disposition, bind together as family to offer solace and company to one another, become bound by mutual respect, ready to lend an ear, to go out of their way to accommodate, to include, to prove their good will, their sense of Azorean solidarity.

There are some Portuguese expressions that used by the islanders, especially in the villages, which reveal their warm character: "É servido comer comigo?" "Do you care to sit and eat with me?" "A minha casa está sempre às suas ordens" "Feel free to use my house!" "Desculpe alguma ofensa minha!" "Desculpe alguma falta minha!" "I apologize for any ofense or oversight on my part!" "Esteja à vontade!" "Be at ease!" "Seja pelo Amor de Deus!" "For God’s love, thank you!" "Há-de ser o que Deus quiser!" "Se Deus quiser!" "It will be what God wills!" "Godwilling!" "Seja pelas almas do Purgatório," "Thank you in the name of the departed."

This is a people with no embattlements, castles or very strong forts. The sea is their only moat a the island cliffs their only defense against attack. As a result, they have not learned to build very sophisticated defense mechanisms and are even too naïve, even nonassertive, often, even, over-obliging, willing to go out of their way to incommensurate degrees when in the presence of strangers.

Unfortunately, with the onset of modern technologies, better and more frequent ties with the outside world, the Azoreans are becoming less so, and somewhat more sophisticated, more self conscious---rapidly shunning away from their roots, choosing a more elegant, more Lisbon-like attitude, where certain “Azorean” traditions are deemed too lowly, too servile, the language, especially that of St. Michael too brutish in sound, and therefore in need of a certain artificial varnish. They are gladly bringing in a certain new flair, a certain “falar à moda” or speak after the style of Lisbon, and gradually parting with the past, becoming more self- asserted, more aloof, more cosmopolitan, less the Azorean of thirty, forty, fifty years ago, less the islanders, and more the continental, the Portuguese.

Silvério Gabriel de Melo
Vogelbach, Germany
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