DARON: João, marine biologist – 39
DARONNE: Rita, employee at an airline company – 35
FAMILY SITUATION: in a relationship for 12 years, together they have a son João Maria – 15 months
It’s through her Instagram feed that we spotted Rita. In full preparation of our trip to the Azores, searching for São Miguel’s most beautiful spots through all possible hashtags. She stood there, gazing over a lake with a baby on her arm. It literally clicked at first sight. A few weeks later, we meet in the lobby of a hotel in Ponta Delgada. From there, she takes us around the corner to her apartment, where she lives with her boyfriend João and son João Maria. From the fifth floor you see the ocean afar. The terrace is packed with tropical plants, in the middle them a cat, white as snow with the most luminous azure eyes. The television is playing without sound. The news channel is broadcasting live from Stockholm, where someone just crashed a car into a group of pedestrians. We don’t know yet whether it’s a terrorist attack or not. That’s how we meet IRL, just knowing each other from a couple of DM’s.
A conversation about growing up in the 1980s and rising in the twenty-tens, about proud islanders and fast-paced mainlanders, losing yourself as a parent, pilgrimages, drugs in mechanical whales and terror in Europe.
João: “I grew up in Lisbon and first came to São Miguel in 1998. It was love at first sight; whenever I could, I came back. But it’s only since 6 or 7 years that I have settled in. Meanwhile, I am completing my PHD in Marine Biology. It is not easy as a researcher in Portugal. No contracts are offered to finance research and there’s very little social support from the government. Portugal is really bureaucratic in this domain. The only advantage about not getting funds is that you manage your own time.” In what kind of family did you grow up? João: “My parents divorced when I was two. My father lives in Lisbon where he’s a professor at the university and author of a number of books. My mother emigrated to London, partly because of the financial crisis. My parents were the children of freedom, the children of the revolution. Portugal went through a dictatorial regime until 1974. Their generation made the revolution. They were all spirited, with a very open mind. I kind of grew up on my own!” Do you also use that sense of independence as a father today? João: “Well, not really, I don’t know, it’s so different now. After the revolution, my parents didn’t have to face issues such as violence or fear. When I was young, I used to walk to school on my own from one side of Lisbon to the other. Which is totally unthinkable today. I don’t want to give him the same independence I had as a child. I want to feel connected with him. I want to let him be as much as I can, but I want to be there for him, too. I didn’t get that feeling from my parents. I’m not sure if their divorce implicated that.”
My parents were the children of freedom, the children of the revolution. Portugal went through a dictatorial regime until 1974. Their generation made the revolution. They were all spirited, with a very open mind.
Do you have brothers or sisters? João: “Yes, one true brother. My father remarried a couple of times, which means he had children with different women. My youngest half brother is over 30 years younger … His current wife has about my age.” And are you OK with that? João: “Well … yeah. Sure. It’s his life.” Do you talk a lot with your family? João: “Yes, I do with my mother. She calls almost every day and sometimes it is a bit overwhelming. I talk less frequently with my father. Strangely enough, I have a better relationship with my father than with my mom.” Does she really ring you every day? Is that typically Portuguese? (Koen and I both lost our mother at an early age, hence the strange question …) João: (laughs) “Not really, I think. Maybe it’s something typical of mothers! Or maybe Portuguese mothers.”
The 80’s were really different. For example, when I was little my mother let us play on the beach without any sunblock or cap on, from dusk till dawn. Then, the sun was still perceived as something good! (Laughs) Today, all we do is talking about cancer …
Rita: “I come from a very traditional family. Father, mother, brother, cousins. We all grew up in the village of Água de Pau, with many uncles and aunts living close by, and often spending long days at Caloura.” We happened to be in Caloura yesterday! What an idyllic spot to grow up in! Rita: “Do you know that this is one of the most expensive neighbourhoods of all of Portugal? Although I didn’t live in that part of the village, I used to swim there every day. Also, my grandfather had a farm in Villa Franca, where my aunt lived with my cousins. We had wonderful summers together at that place. Life was just very simple. We didn’t really know anything about the world – we only had one TV channel – and always played outside. The 80’s were really different. For example, when I was little my mother let us play on the beach without any sunblock or cap on, from dusk till dawn. Then, the sun was still perceived as something good! (Laughs) Today, all we do is talk about cancer … and being called crazy if you dare to go outside between 1 and 4 pm. Everything is so complex today. It’s like I don’t get it, or at least it feels like I don’t get it. I have to decide so much for my child, but am I doing well as a parent? Sometimes I doubt if I’m a good mother, you never know … I’m jealous of my parents. I don’t know if it actually was that way, but it seems as everything was much easier back then, certainly regarding raising children. It feels like they just had to work so they could feed and dress us and make sure we could study. And that was that. Now there’s so much to worry about.” How come, you think? Rita: “Because we’ve seen our parents make mistakes? We want to learn from their mistakes and therefore we’re more susceptible for advice coming from all sorts of experts. We want to do it better, to be the best parents. That’s why I think we’re so worried. I want that João Maria can say his parents really did their best, when he’s all grown up.”
How did you meet? Rita: “João is not from here, I do. He is from the mainland. We are both Portuguese, but I am primarily Azorian and I am very proud of that! We met in 2005 at the University party in Ponta Delgada.” João: “I studied there and came back from vacation, and then …” Rita: “…… and then he couldn’t leave me alone anymore.” (smiles) João: “At the beginning of our relationship I was living abroad; first in Lisbon, then in the Netherlands and then again in Portugal, I travelled often …” Rita: “Many of my friends thought that such a relationship would be impossible to sustain. It was certainly not easy, but we managed. I’m outgoing, João is more modest. He’s back office, I’m front office. We complement each other perfectly.” (laughs) What do you do an a date when you live here? Rita: “Dinner and a walk on the beach.” And what about hiking? Rita: “Oh no! I’m not a sporty woman, not at all. (João laughs) I really can’t enjoy a trek. I’m very slow and João is super fast. When we hike, he always walks 3 km ahead and then I get angry because he leaves me behind. He doesn’t understand that something can happen to me. What’s romantic about that?!”
He’s back office, I’m front office.
How traditional are couples over here? João: “We share all household tasks, which makes us very a-typical.” Rita: “My weekly schedule is tricky. For instance, I might work on Sundays and shifts at the airport can start very early. Then, I have to get up at dawn; alternatively, when I get the afternoon shift, I work until midnight. In other words, João’s help is really needed to handle everything. If he wouldn’t be there, our life would turn into a nightmare. But although women often work very hard here and they need their partner’s help, many couples we know live in a completely different hierarchy. You know, we are of the southern type, just like Spaniards and Italians. Women still feel a lot of social pressure to take on that role of being a good housewife and mother. A lot changed since my childhood, but we are not there yet. We really need our men to help us.” João: “I tend to cook most. Preferably cozido like the one you can eat in Furnas or feijoada, a typically Brazilian stew. Or one of my mother’s dishes, like beef with tomatoes and onions. I make these dishes on a regular basis, without a recipe, purely on my childhood memories.”
Are you unanimous about how to raise your João Maria? Rita: “We are in line with each other and we try to make his education as spontaneous as possible. From both of us, I’m definitely the most worried one – but so far – we didn’t have any conflicts about raising him, yet.” What is the hardest part of parenting, according to you? Rita: “The emotional aspect. I used to live for the moment, I didn’t think about the future. Now I’m worrying a lot about what might happen. I find it really hard, because it’s not just about me now. In the past I was less worried, everything was easy. I embraced everything that happened to me and was very happy with my situation. I don’t need much to be happy. When João Maria was born, that carelessness vanished … I don’t know if I will be worrying less in the future, but for now I think this is the hardest part of parenting. We know a lot of people with dramatic stories, and then I start worrying … But I’m aware of that and try to work on it every day.”
Actually, my best characteristics disappeared when he was born…
What do yo mean? João: “João Maria had problems with his back at birth, that’s why Rita feels like that. The doctors didn’t know what the exact problem was. We had to go through a bunch of medical appointments, tests and analyses and they made her very nervous.” Rita: “The meaning of life changes, it turns into something you didn’t know it existed. Nobody really could tell us what was going on with his back. They said, “It’s probably due to his position in the womb, come back after 12 months” and when the year passed “come again when he’s 18 months old“. The wait felt really long. Actually, my best characteristics disappeared when he was born… I was really a relaxed person and very positive, but because of what happened, I also got to know my “darker” side. Very restless, constantly worrying if everything is okay, … Sometimes, when I think something could happen to him … “ (sighs)
For me, the best thing about parenting is the love I feel when my child opens his arms when he wants me to hold him.
What’s best about being a parent? Rita: “Everyone described it as the greatest love you can possibly experience. It’s such a cliché, but for me, João Maria is the world! Every day is a good one thanks to him. Of course there are also bad days, but he makes them better. I can’t imagine my life without him” João: “For me, the best thing about parenting is the love I feel when my child opens his arms and wants me to hold him. The worst? Definitely the fatigue… and the cries, I can’t stand them. From a biological point of view, I understand why he’s crying, it’s his way of speaking, or asking something, but crying drives me nuts.”
How do you keep the fire burning in your relationship? João: “That’s very difficult, I don’t know, … we try to go out sometimes, just the two of us. Her brother or someone else comes over to babysit. An advantage of living on an island is that everyone knows each other. We have never had to trust a stranger to babysit our kid.” Is childcare expensive over here? Rita: “Yes and no. Yes, since we don’t earn much and it takes a big part out of our family budget, but also not really, because childcare prices are based on our wages.” João: “Daycare is not that expensive … the government supports it largely.” When our daughter was born in 2010 we paid something as 35 € per day for daycare. There was no room for her in subsidised nurseries in our surroundings, our only option was a private one! Rita: “OMG, that’s really expensive! Here it’s no more than 10% of one’s pay, which is – in our case – 165 € per month, food included. There are only a few private nurseries. Idem for schools. When I was little, everything was public. Now we see more private alternatives pop up.”
I find too strict schools scary because they are so distressing for student who can’t keep up. Unlike João, I wasn’t the best student myself. I’d rather spare him that pressure.
In what kind of school would you like to register for João Maria? Rita: “I would like a free spirited school. Everything is now extremely focussed on security; children are always kept behind closed doors over here. I would like to find a school where he can play outside and climb into the trees … where it’s not too strict. I really want him to experience some freedom at school instead of getting too much homework.” Are you going to be stricter at home, then? Rita: “No, I really believe we shouldn’t be to hard on children under 10 years. I think you should rather give them the tools to become a good person, teach them values they can use later. I would like João Maria to grow up in a diverse culture. I’m Azorean, my mother and father are Azorean. Having a father who’s born and raised in the mainland is already very exotic here. (Laughs) I find too strict schools scary because they are so distressing for students who can’t keep up. Unlike João, I wasn’t the best student myself. I’d rather spare him that pressure. Showing interest in the world, that’s what matters. In the past, I often met good students who were not able to have a proper conversation. Crazy, don’t you think? One can be so good in his own field of play, but suck at many others.”
I’d like him to absorb as much as he can, wherever he is and that he has an interest in various aspects of life. I hope he does not feel inferior to others because he can do something less well.
Everybody wants to raise happy children, but what’s happy? Doesn’t it sound like an overrated or vague concept? Rita: “Raising a happy child means that it can do what it wants, but it has to work really hard to achieve it. I want to help João Maria, but I don’t have any expectations.” Not one? Rita: “Well, it’s hard, but I’m trying not to. But now I think of it, I actually already have many expectations … Why doesn’t he walk yet? Why isn’t he talking yet? Why…?? I really want him to grow into a curious person with many interests.” What about you, João? João: “I don’t know … I would like him to be free. That’s my idea of being happy.” Rita: “I wish he’s never too scared to really want something, that he has parents he can talk to without feeling patronised. I’d like him to absorb as much as he can, wherever he is and that he has an interest in various aspects of life. I hope he does not feel inferior to others because he can do something less well.”
My mother didn’t ask if we had homework. She knew we were responsible and assumed we would take care of ourselves.
Rita: “I have never experienced any pressure from my parents to achieve something or become someone. My mother didn’t ask if we had homework. She knew we were responsible and assumed we would take care of ourselves.” Didn’t you feel as if she couldn’t care? Rita: “Not really, my generation was just independent. For example, it was different for my younger brother. He was less exuberant than me and clearly needed more parental control. My friends often had so many brothers and sisters, that their parents could never be fully present. It was just the way it was. I definitely want to deal with my children differently, but I don’t want to patronise them either. I want to leave the choices up to them, I think that’s very important. That they feel freedom and responsibility. I also realise that it can turn out really differently than what you expect when you give so much freedom, I know we will have to be careful! Honestly, I would like to be able to talk about everything with him. This was not the case during my childhood …”
“Oh, João Maria is my first child, and I don’t know anything about children. Sometimes I don’t recognise myself as a mother … Whenever he has something, I Google it, and that can be dangerous. With all the information I get, I directly believe he’s going to die … and then I become so upset. I can usually handle the noise around me very well, except when it comes to diseases. One comment is enough to make me believe he’s ill enough to run to the doctor’s. You see, I have some issues…” (Laughs)
The Azores seem very catholic, is that correct? Rita: “Oh, yes! Have you by any chance seen the Romeiros? A group of men who are currently marching around the island. Praying and singing…” Yes, we have saw a group along the road and at a church. Impressive… Rita: “Whether you are a practicing Catholic or not, at São Miguel you can take a week off from work to make a trip with the Romeiros. For a week they walk, think about life and become a better person because they really take time for themselves.” Is it a pilgrimage like the one to Santiago de Compostela? Rita: “Well more or less, it’s more organised, and every village has its own group of Romeiros. During their pelgrimage they often sleep on the ground, but residents also offer them a place to sleep. Romeiros are always men, I don’t really know if women are allowed. You must be baptised to walk along with them.”
When João and I met, I found it strange that he didn’t know how to pray.
Are you religious? Rita: “João isn’t. I’m Catholic but I have a strange relationship with faith. Sometimes it feels strongly present, sometimes I’m full of doubts. When João and I met, I found it strange that he didn’t know how to pray. Here people are spoonfed with faith at home and in school. You just don’t think about it.” We also have a Catholic school system in Belgium, but the churches are running empty. Is this the case too over here? Rita: “In general, you won’t find a lot of young people in church, but traditions are still strongly present in the villages. For example, each village has its own religious festivity. When I was small, that day was one of the most important moments of the year, next to your own birthday and Christmas. For the rest, there was little to do at a cultural level. I grew up with only 1 TV channel, which started broadcasting in the afternoon. Children always played on the street, we really had a pretty simple life. That’s why the village party was so special. We all cleaned our house thoroughly, the family was all dressed in brand new outfits, everything happened for one reason: the party. In Água de Pau, where I grew up, the annual festival is on August 15th. In Ponta Delgada, where we live now, you will find one of the island’s biggest religious events.”
“Most of our friends are Catholic. I also wanted to get married in church before we got a child, but a wedding party is so expensive and we didn’t want to lose precious “time”. I’ll be 36 and he’s almost 40 years old. We’ve skipped the marriage part for now.” Is João Maria baptised? Rita: “No, but I want to baptise him this summer … “(João frowns) Rita: “I might have him baptised and then…” João: “There’s a lot of pressure.” Rita: “True, there is a lot of pressure. My mother wants her grandson to be baptised; he will go to a school where all his friends were baptised. Sometimes they say, ‘It is not good to choose a religion for you kid’, but for me it’s not really choosing, rather providing an option. When he gets older he can do what he wants regarding his faith.”
What do you worry most about when you look at the rest of the world? Rita: “The environment and the current political climate worry me. We have fought so hard in Europe for our freedoms, values and democracy. It seems like we are going back in time. There are bad people, but we shouldn’t listen too them, there are more good people in the world to listen to. The rise of economic protectionism is also becoming a problem in my opinion.” João: “We used to travel everywhere. Now, we’ll first check if our destination is a potential terrorist target… How do you feel about all those attacks near where you live? It seems maddening to live in a place like Belgium!” Amélie: “Really? … I don’t see Belgium as a terrorist target, even though we had to deal with an attack and possible threats. But I understand that you have this image of Belgium as an outsider … Even though I know that chances of being involved in a terrorist attack are really small, I’ve already avoided popular public places. And yes, I also felt very unsafe a couple of time because someone who ‘met the profile’ acted strange according to me. You get caught up in those clichés … I hate myself for that. The association terrorists created with Islam is really fucked up. We should not give in to the fear and polarisation terrorists create. But it’s easier said than done for a lot of people. And to be honest, the European election results, Trump and the current developments in Turkey and Russia are more of a concern to me than terrorism.” João: “To us, all of this seems so far away … All of this makes the Azores even more unique in Europe. Here, all is peace and quiet. But the European political climate strongly affects our way of traveling. And vice versa: Portugal has never been so popular with tourists.” Rita: “The whole summer is already fully booked. Honestly, our rising popularity amongst tourists makes us nervous. We don’t want to be like Madeira or Ibiza. Ibiza will probably never happen, but Madeira…” João: “A few years ago, you could still do nice hikes over here and encounter no one during the whole day. Now the island is getting busy and adapted to the needs of the tourists.” Rita: “Fortunately, we still have secret little beaches that foreigners have no knowledge of, but those hidden gems will also disappear soon, I guess. ”
We used to travel everywhere. Now, we’ll first check if our destination is a potential terrorist target… How do you feel about all those attacks near where you live?
João: “Everyone wants to rent to tourists now, it skyrockets the property prices. Before the economic crisis, more people could afford to buy a home.” How did you experience the crisis? Rita: “With my job everything was OK, and for João too. For both our mothers it was different. Mine lives and works in Bermuda now, where she’s a lot happier.” João: “Did you know that around 2 million Azoreans live outside the archipelago? A lot of people migrated to Canada or the US. Rita: “There was a big migration wave in the 1960s and 1980s, and in the 1990s some returned to the islands. But with the last crisis, a lot have left again.” Are there less young people living here because of that? Rita: “Not really, but they are often less educated. Anyone who wants to study and can afford it, leaves for Europe or the mainland. There are special arrangements with different universities on the Portuguese mainland, where Azorean students take priority over registration, for example. The others are heading to the US to get a job as a cleaning lady, or to work in construction or gardening. These jobs pay very well. After 5 or 10 years, they return with all their savings to continue their life here. But wherever they are, Azoreans are always very proud.” João: “Really proud, I don’t know any prouder people, I think!” Rita: “Maybe it’s because we all come from such tiny bits of land …” (Smiles)
We heard that there are more cows than people living on São Miguel. Rita: “At one point it was very lucrative to breed cows for milk and cheese, because there was a European directive that gave a guaranteed income to farmers. Everybody was into cows back then, we even had to import fruit and vegetables, because nobody wanted to invest in growing them … Now we are experiencing a milk crisis – milk and butter seem to be unhealthy – that’s why we grow more vegetables locally again.” João: “The fishermen don’t have an easy life, either. The fish population around the islands has shrunk sharply because of overfishing.” Don’t you have quotas? João: “Oh yes, we have! Unfortunately, it’s all about attitude and education. If one follows the rules, you can be sure that his neighbour doesn’t and fish even more. On top of that, there are also giant Spanish fleets, which infiltrate our waters with smaller boats who throw out bait. Instead of fishing on the spot, the fish follow the track of bait leading them to those giant ships floating in International waters. They can catch complete schools in one time that way. It’s terrible, but such practices are happening daily. And our fishermen can’t compete against those professional companies.”
Is there a lot of criminality on the island? João: “Mainly family or love crimes, which can be very intense, sometimes. The police doesn’t really have to patrol for thieves. They can’t get very far with their stolen goods, anyway.” Rita: “There is a lot of domestic violence. Lots of alcoholism, too. Alcohol is very cheap here … And drugs? Rita: “Not out in the open, but off course there are drugs on the island.” João: “Once, a large batch of cocaine washed ashore. You could, as it were, fill up your backpack with it on the spot. ” Rita: “Many people died from overdose, back then… It’s not quite clear how the drugs got here, but they did.” With mechanical whales maybe? João: “Haha, yeah… who knows.”
Life seems to be amazing here, are there any disadvantages? João: “I don’t see any disadvantages. But if I have to mention one: probably a shortage on cultural events. Although, if I would live elsewhere, for instance in Lisbon, where cultural events are more diverse and abundant, I probably wouldn’t visit them. Here, I really chose for nature.” And what about you, Rita? Rita: “I’ve always lived here … let me think … One big disadvantage is the lack of medical specialists. They are nowhere to be found on the island. But, if there’s no doctor available for your medical problem, you can fly very cheap to the mainland for treatment. But it’s a lot of hassle.”
Will you stay in the Azores for good? João: “Well, look around you!” Rita: “I would have liked to live somewhere else for 1 or 2 years, I eventually did for 6 months, in Italy, after my studies. But to me, this is a perfect place to getting and raising children.” João: “Maybe we’ll try in a later stage of our lives.” Rita: “Yeah, we might, but we will be back really quickly. I like to go to Lisbon to shop, but when I go there with João – who is from there by the way – he wants to return to the island immediately.” João: “I don’t like big cities anymore. I love the ocean, I need the sea around me.” Rita: “Life is so different on the mainland. My friends in Lisbon need to plan so much ahead. For example, when they want to go to the beach. It takes them at least an hour. We can decide in 5 minutes what we are going to do and arrive at our destination of choice really quickly. Whether we want to go to the forest, the mountains, a park or the beach. There’s barely no traffic. Everything can be so spontaneous … We are really happy here, we feel rich even though we’re on a tight budget.”
Eh, I see João Maria playing with the cat food. João: (Jumps out of his chair) “Really?! No, you can’t do that! It’s not the first time we catch him eating cat food… but it won’t harm him that much, right ?” (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