DARON: Ricardo (31) – hotel manager and sustainable framer
DARONNE: Mafalda (31) – hotel manager and creative entrepreneur
FAMILY SITUATION: in a relationship for 5 years. Together they have a son, Joaquim (18 months)
Growing up on an island in the middle of an ocean, or raising children there today. How is that? Is it more enjoyable and better than growing up or raising children in a common European city? Or is that slow life islands are known for more a pain than a blessing?
We went to the Azores with these and many other questions and looked for parents that felt like answering them. Two couples opened their door and heart for two complete strangers and their daughter. Ricardo and Mafalda were the first. Two pure, rebellious souls who, like many other people of their age, wanted to leave behind the severe economic crisis and political shifts of the Portuguese mainland. They exchanged their busy lives in Lisbon to find a slow life with time for each other, for their projects and themselves.
A conversation about taking opportunities, pink and dark grey clouds, road trips that bring solace, beautiful and ugly chickens, integration and slowing down your pace.
My idea of luxury has changed. It now stands for an intense experience with others.
Ricardo: “I was born in Beja – the capital of Alentejo, the southern region of Portugal – and grew up in Setúbal, about 50 km south of Lisbon. A sober, rural and poor environment, but also a beautiful region famous for its fresh fish.” In what kind of family did you grow up yourself? Ricardo: “For bystanders it may seem that I grew up in a very detached nest. My parents almost never call me. Still, I love them. It’s OK that way. We feel a lot of love for each other, but the need to hear each other is just … non existing. That’s certainly the case when I compare myself with Mafalda, who calls her family every single day. It might be difficult for others to understand, but for me it’s the most common thing in the world. No news, good news. Because of that mind-set I also became very independent very early… Until today I’ve never had to call on my parents for their help.”
My parents almost never call me. Still, I love them. It’s OK that way.
What do you want to pass on from your own upbringing to Joaquim? Ricardo: “My mother struggled with health problems, that’s why she always tried to put fresh and healthy food on the table. It’s not that my parents were fanatic, but I remember being really impressed when I first went to McDonalds. Until I realized what kind of junk they actually offer. Junk food can’t really tempt me because of that. That strong preference for fresh and healthy food is definitely something I want to pass on to Joaquim. My parents also made me realise that it’s O.K. to do things differently. That being or choosing something different doesn’t necessarily imply it’s bad. I certainly want to teach him that, as well.”
Mafalda: “I grew up in Almada, a town that overlooks Lisbon from the south bank of the Tagus. Every weekend we went to the family farm at the countryside. We spent our summers on the beach. I had a very beautiful, but also a very protective childhood. My parents have never confronted my brother, sister and me with any kind of problems. Until they decided to divorce when I was twenty. My brother and sister had already sensed bad vibes… while I didn’t have a clue. As a teenager I was busy with other things than family. Because of my parents’ divorce, I no longer believe in ‘forever’. Not at any level. I do believe in ‘as long as we’re happy’. Should anyone ask me if I want to live the rest of my life in one place, I would refuse … I’d rather go with the flow. Maybe because my childhood was so planned and protected … My brother and sister don’t like to travel and explore, I live for it.”
“After school, I studied art and product design in Lisbon. And then I worked in stores to meet my basic needs, because I also started “Conversas” with a girlfriend.” Conversas? Mafalda: “My girlfriend Constança and I both finished an internship in the Netherlands, when we came up with the idea to organise open mic evenings with our friends. We invited a couple of them and asked them to talk about what they were up to, share their ideas, dreams and opinions. They loved the idea and soon after friends of friends started to come, too. The audience grew and the list of speakers became more diverse. But we always stayed true to our original idea: 3 people get 30 minutes each to talk about something they cared about. Not necessarily about their work or career. Our intention was to initiate conversations between ordinary people with a real story and an audience, in an informal context. Just like at a random cafe. The project still exists and has now been internationally picked up. Conversas is currently being organised in 12 other European major cities. Apparently, there’s a great need for good, qualitative conversations without commercial, political or other underlying intentions…” Sounds very interesting. Are you still involved with Conversas today? Mafalda: “Conversas is literally and figuratively far away. Right now I lack the time, space and energy. I feel really exhausted after these last months. Fortunately, my mother comes over to help every two weeks. She takes the last flight from Lisbon on Friday, and Monday morning she flies back with the first plane.” Wow! That doesn’t sound like something any grandmother or father could or would do… Mafalda: “That’s true, and it’s definitely not easy for her to combine that with her job. She has a big heart and it’s really important for her to be here, too. Joaquim is her first grandchild … “
Because of my parents’ divorce, I no longer believe in ‘forever’. Not at any level. I do believe in ‘as long as we’re happy’. Should anyone ask me if I want to live the rest of my life in one place, I would refuse…
What do you want to pass on from your own upbringing to Joaquim? Mafalda: “At the moment, I think I would be more honest about problems within our family and about life and death. For example, I was only confronted with a funeral when I was already twenty years old. I want to be less protective and confront him more with what happens in real life. But I absolutely want him to experience those carefree summers at the sea and weekends in the countryside like I did when I was little. I also want him to explore the world. My dad likes to tell these stories about how well I behaved as a little girl. When he told me not to touch anything, I simply didn’t. Hopefully I will be able to teach Joaquim that, too.” (Laughs)
Where did you get to know each other? (Both spontaneously start laughing) Mafalda: “We ran into each other at the celebration of Santo António, which is a very popular event on June 12th in Lisbon. There are thousands of people coming to eat sardines, but especially to party. People can also get married during a mass ceremony since Santo António is known as the patron of couplers. It brings good luck to get married that day.” So you got married that day? Mafalda: “No, no! We bumped into each other in the Alfama neighbourhood, while we were preparing sardines and bacon. Ricardo told me that he had just decided to buy an old-fashioned van and live in it. As my German roommate just left for 2 weeks at that time, I offered him her room. He spent the first 2 nights in his van, afterwards in the room I offered him, and that ultimately led to our relationship.” (Laughs)
How did you end up here in São Miguel? Mafalda: “We were invited to take part in the annual Walk & Talk festival because of Conversas. The organisers asked us to set-up five talks during the two weeks of the festival and create a booklet about all the sessions and participants. It was a lot of work to get it all done by the end of the festival, but I learned a lot. Ricardo was helping out since Constança had to leave early due to family issues. During the festival, the owner of the hotel where we both work today invited us to lunch. We knew each other from Lisbon. We talked about the crisis and the difficulties in the mainland and about our idea of seeking happiness somewhere else. He then suggested we should stay and work for him at his hotel. We considered his proposal by taking a one week road trip through Morocco.” (Laughs)
I really wanted to have chickens!
Was it difficult to decide? Mafalda: “No, not really.” What made it so easy? Mafalda: “Because, I really wanted to have chickens!” (Giggles) But, also because our life was so hectic in Lisbon. It felt like we could found ourselves back again on the island.” The fact that you were offered a job also made it easy, I suppose. Ricardo: “Off course. First we could live in the hotel, then on a small farm, now here … and hopefully in our own tiny wooden house, soon.” The Azores weren’t hit by the financial crisis like the rest of Portugal? Ricardo: “No, the Azores are more protected from these kind of things in many ways. For example, VAT is only 18% here. Which is much less so than on the mainland.” How is it to live in the Azores as a ‘mainlander’? Ricardo: “The archipelago was known as the “forbidden islands” for a long time, because it was so expensive to get here. The average monthly wage for someone from our generation in Portugal fluctuated between 500 € and 600 € at that time. Flying up here was simply not an option. For a little less then three years now, it’s possible to fly to the Azores via low cost airlines, making it a lot more attractive for younger people. Certainly now that North Africa is less attractive for tourism because of terror threats. In the past, primarily old German tourists who were into walking or hiking, could afford coming here. Now we are seeing more and more diversity in age and background.”
Meanwhile, we noticed some positive changes. Everyone is much more involved. And that feels really nice both for them and for us.
Where you directly embraced by the local community? Ricardo: “Well… the first idea we presented … It was actually kind of difficult. Here life is much slower. We thought that we could set-up things with the same rush, the same level of energy we were used to in Lisbon. We soon found out it would never work out that way and that we would need to adapt to the local pace of life. And it makes sense that those who have been living here for generations wouldn’t change their habits because two mainlanders wanted them to. We got a beautiful lesson in showing respect in those first weeks.” What did you want to change so badly? Ricardo: “We wanted to create more interaction between the hotel staff and their guests. We wanted to make pancakes for example, and gather everyone around a big table to spark a conversation. But that went too far. The locals preferred to stay in their kitchen, separated from the guests.”
“Meanwhile we have been setting up residencies in the hotel. It has been almost three years since the first. The hotel owner’s mother was a visual artist and taught at the art school in Lisbon. In the 80’s, she already established residencies with students and afterwards with artists from all over the world. She was very active in that area. Unfortunately, she died too young. The residency project we are working on today is actually a kind of homage to her.” What kind of people do you invite for a residency? Mafalda: “We suggest people, but it’s the hotel owner who curates in the end. We help find the right people and then follow-up on the production of the residencies.” Ricardo: “In the beginning, they were mainly photographers, meanwhile there are also many sculptors, musicians, dancers, etc. They can stay here to practice their art and in return, the hotel receives a work of art or a performance. Thurston Moore, the frontman of Sonic Youth, once took up a residency in the hotel. Which was and still is very exceptional and innovative for the island. This residency project is truly unique and also particularly important for young Azoreans, who otherwise don’t get the a lot of opportunities to encounter that kind of artists, art or culture… Meanwhile, we noticed some positive changes. Everyone is much more involved. And that feels really nice both for them and for us.”
Was Joaquim a conscious, planned choice or rather a love baby? Ricardo: “In Lisbon we’d never thought about babies! My framing company was my one and only baby, and I was always busy looking for projects to earn some money. I made frameworks for galleries and museums and some private projects. Even at the beginning of the crisis we managed to survive, but it was very hard work and it became increasingly difficult to pay everyone at the end of the month. When we arrived in the Azores we could suddenly enjoy the surrounding nature and ourselves. We both surf, and here it was possible to go to the ocean every day. We could live at a slower pace … It’s only then that we spontaneously started to think about children. It just felt like the logical next step.” Mafalda: “And so it happened. I was pregnant once before Joaquim, but I lost the baby after 7 weeks. I was really devastated.” Ricardo: “She went to the first doctor’s appointment by herself and heard the heart beating, which left a deep impression… After that, we tried to get pregnant for 6 to 7 months, which felt like a very long time.” Mafalda: “Every month you hope for the best and every time you feel heartbroken again. So frustrating, so depressing … We had to get out of here and left on a road trip through the US.” It seems like travel always brings you guidance. Ricardo: “Well, from here it’s relatively cheap to fly to Boston. In Massachusetts, there is a large community of Azoreans. Everyone here has a cousin living in the US or Canada.” Mafalda: “The trip was mainly to relax a bit, but the other plan worked out as well. Joaquim is made in the USA.” (laughs) Where did you go? Ricardo: “We started in Boston to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico then we headed to New Orleans and continued to Memphis and Nashville.” So you were on the road for quite some time? Mafalda: “We did this trip in 18 days.” Ricardo: “We love driving…” (laughs) Mafalda: “It’s always like that with Ricardo! We drive non-stop… We did the whole Morocco trip in just one week!” (laughs)
Every month you hope for the best and every time you feel heartbroken again.
Mafalda: “I really had a beautiful pregnancy, we both had time, little stress, very nice working conditions at just five minutes from the beach. In Lisbon we would have had no time at all.” Ricardo: “The mind-set is also completely different here! We pick up Joachim at the nursery at four o’clock, which would have been unthinkable in Lisbon.” Mafalda: “During my pregnancy, many friends predicted that we were going to love everything about parenting, but other thought the opposite. OMG, what did you do for heaven’s sake?! We both believed it would be piece of cake. We were happy together and we really read a lot about giving birth and watched so many documentaries…” Ricardo: “We chose to have a natural birth and felt both really ready!” And … how did it turn It out so far? Mafalda: “Everything but easy!”
Ricardo: “Mafalda gave birth in the hospital without anaesthesia, which is unusual on the island. In Portugal, the conditions are not as good for natural births, but here it was. The midwife was incredible. She respected our will because she understood that we were really prepared for everything that was going to come.” Mafalda: “Giving birth was great. Just like the first 3 to 4 months. Afterwards it went downhill. Since 8 months Joaquim has been sleeping very badly. He wakes up at least 4 times at night. And then he wants me to stay with him. Since he goes to the nursery he’s constantly ill and he has been crying every day for the last 6 months.”
“I love him to the moon and back but it’s really hard. The last couple of months, I wasn’t positive about parenting and children, I’m exhausted. I have stopped breastfeeding him because I wasn’t able to cope physically anymore.” Ricardo: “It was very hard for her. Breastfeeding was one of the only ways to calm Joaquim down, but now we have switched to bottles. I’m also working on a project in two other hotels, so I have to return to the mainland and Cabo Verde regularly. I’ve spent the last two weeks in Lisbon. She was on her own to cope. I wasn’t the best dad. But there’s no alternative: these jobs are really necessary.” Do you both share in the child care? Together: “Yes we share, we share! Harmoniously.” Ricardo: “I’m also trying to do everything like Mafalda would. But I have to admit that I have recently changed fewer diapers …”
There is so much invisible, externally imposed pressure, which is often not realistic at all. If you don’t meet these standards, you feel like shit.
Mafalda: “You know, it’s easy to find a lot of information about what could happen when giving birth. Once your child is there, you have much less information to hang on to. A few months ago we had an appointment with a sleep therapist, because a friend told us babies had to sleep for at least 10 hours. We were worried, since this was absolutely not the case with Joaquim. We then began to realize that those “so-called” rules do not always apply to everyone, and were causing more unnecessary stress and tension. For example, all nurseries apply very strict rules. The windows are always closed because the children might become ill. They have to eat at a specific time, sleep and play at another. Joaquim has difficulties coping with that, and we do too. There is so much invisible, externally imposed pressure, which is often not realistic at all. If you don’t meet these standards, you sometimes feel like shit.”
Ricardo: “We both don’t like the system. Certainly not when children are involved. It’s like they’re already in an army at the age of 10 months! We understand that it isn’t easy to let each child go as he or she feels, but every child is different.” The system should adapt to the needs of the baby instead of the other way around? Ricardo: “Yes, we believe in alternatives.” Mafalda: “We know there are alternatives. Actually, I wonder how other countries organise child care. It can’t be like this everywhere?” Do you already have an idea what kind of school you want Joaquim to go in the future? Mafalda: “There is currently a lot going on about the un-schooling movement. There are already some well-documented examples of alternative school systems.” Ricardo: “In Portugal, there have been alternative school systems for more than 40 years, but unfortunately many of them failed and restored the classic system. In alternative schools, teachers focus on doing and motivate children to teach each other things. It works better that way. I know that from my own experience. What strikes me is that these alternative schools also use open architecture. Literally. There are no classrooms, there’s a lot of flexibility between the students, but also amongst the teachers and the parents. One of our preferred examples is Escola da Ponte, who has turned the idea of an open plan concept to an effective success. It’s very interesting actually. A group of teachers are thinking of starting this on São Miguel, as people are becoming more interested in alternative types of education.” But you also mention failures. Why do you think so many alternative school systems switched back to the classic system? Ricardo: “Because of the mentality and the vision of some teachers. It was simply not easy to achieve. Change is never easy. There was and still is so much pressure from the classic schooling system … It’s really all about politics.”
Is that doable? To set-up an alternative school system? Ricardo: “Well, the mainly left-wing government here is very supportive, and provides financial support to pilot projects of that kind. The real problem is finding a school and convincing it to choose for change. They’re still very afraid of change. The way many schools function or look today is often identical to what it was 50 years ago. Education has not evolved. Look at medicine, cars, … In times of internet and google, you see schools still using the same chalkboard in a classroom that still looks like we’re in the sixties. Why isn’t modernization applicable on education? Either way, the most important thing for me is that Joaquim likes to go to school, and learns to count, discover, read through shared experiences…”
Would you go back to the mainland just to get access to the right school? Ricardo: “We might, we keep our options open. I don’t know where we will be next year. What we want for Joaquim might also clash with his own ideas. We’ll have to make compromises on these matters.” Do you think you can pass on a lot of your ideology regarding education to Joaquim? Ricardo: “We can and will encourage him to. For example, if he would prefer to play on his own on a Playstation all day, I’d be really disappointed. We don’t have TV what actually excludes such things … at the moment.”
Do you think you can keep an adventurous life now, being young parents ? Ricardo: “We used to spend all the money we earned immediately on travel, and we had to re-start from scratch again afterwards. Now we can’t do this anymore. Well, we still could, but I’m not so selfish! Mafalda is also adventurous, but she is increasingly craving some form of safety. And I do, too. That’s why we made a deal. We recently bought a piece of land, and once our Tiny House will be installed up there, we can leave again on a adventure. Knowing that we have a home here that we can always come back to or sell if it were necessary.”
You mean you’re building a house that you can take along with you? Ricardo: “That’s the idea, but in our case it only had to be mobile, so we connected two Tiny Houses to each other. We bought farmland so we have to be able to move our house once in a while to comply with the law.” Is a wooden house a good idea in such an unstable, humid climate? Ricardo: “In the past, the houses on the island were built mostly from lava stone, which is very porous, but strong. That’s super important in a humid climate like the Azorean one. Concrete houses don’t fit this climate. That’s why more and more people are using wood again. We are looking forward to finally having our own place, even though we had to sell our old school Volkswagen van, we loved so very much. But let’s not talk about that, it’s way too painful.”(Grim on his face)
We used to spend all the money we earned immediately on travel, and we had to re-start from scratch again afterwards. Now we can’t do this anymore. Well, we still could, but I’m not so selfish!
And where will the next adventure lead you? Ricardo: “No idea. In October we will go to Japan for a couple of weeks with the whole family. We are going to take up a residency on woodworking … Mafalda started to design wooden toys lately, and I recently joined the Omey projects team. It’s an art consultancy project that provides avant-garde artworks for small and large projects in the hospitality sector. We have never been to Japan, but everybody says it’s so special and that Japan is far ahead in so many domains…”
“Before Joaquim turns 6, we want to show him the world. South America is one of our dream destinations.” That’s interesting! Most young parents usually choose for security and structure during those first years… Ricardo: “We don’t. We just had a conversation with our employer… We asked whether we could take 2 to 3 months of unpaid leave each year. He was very supportive. We’re really lucky to be able to work for such a person! Normally we work every day, including weekends, all year round, but never on a 9 to 5 flow. We don’t always have to be present physically. There are many things we can do online wherever we are: following up on bookings, responding mails and helping customers… We work a lot but in a way we also have a lot of free time… And then we go surfing, hiking, we make time for friends, enjoy nature…” That all sounds so idyllic! Ricardo: “But it’s not always like that of course. Here we say; The chicken of the neighbours is always more beautiful! See, we really love chickens … and we’ll see where time will bring us.”(Laughs)
This conversation could take place with the support of TUI fly. If you would like to discover the Azores yourself, read why we ended up there and find some of our tips on the TUI Fly blog. Eager for more? Drop us a word via hello (at) daronsdaronnes (dot) com.
Words & pictures © Amélie Rombauts & Koen Van Weverberg – DaronsDaronnes.com