“Does a rock grow?”, asked Gabriel while kicking a big boulder next to the road. – “Yes, but very very slowly”, I told him. – “Can we wait here until it grows?”, he proposed. – “We would all be long gone before it does!”, I retorted while catching a glimpse of Jules raising her eyebrows. – “Gone? Where to?”, insisted Gabriel. “Hey guys, look at that cute horsey!”, interrupted Jules, worried that I would trip over myself trying to explain the transience of life. After all, I had already fumbled the whole Santa Claus matter.
It was perhaps too soon for Gabriel and too early in the day to discuss the fleetingness of our lives. It was nevertheless the perfect timing to reminiscence over our more recent past. Precisely three years ago, we were spending a foggy but beautiful day at Flores, the westernmost island of Azores. We were now back to Azores, this time in Santa Maria, its easternmost island.
The balance of being at the archipelago’s edges exactly three years apart had happened by pure chance (after all, we had left The Plan back in Italy). Our return to Azores did however have an ulterior motive that went beyond the fact that this is probably our favourite place on Earth. Moved by a collector’s urge, we had returned to visit the three islands that we missed on our first visit: Santa Maria, Graciosa, and São Miguel.
Not ones to pass on a good deal, our stinginess had led us to catch the first flight of the day to Santa Maria. It was not yet 8:00am when we found ourselves in the island’s main town – not much more than a street connecting the airport to the harbour. Desperate for a coffee, we went into the only café that was open, which was packed with cow herders. After an early start, they were all enjoying a mid-morning beer.
As we made our way towards the counter, we could hear the beer bottles being placed back on the tables and sense the many pair of eyes following us. In a place where everybody knows everybody, the only trio that was not holding a beer and covered in manure stood out as a sore thumb. Behind the counter, the patron put his face mask on and hesitantly welcomed us.
The hesitance was only natural. With zero covid cases in the island, outsiders posed the biggest risk of letting the virus creep back in. After a brief chat about the tests, hoops and hurdles we went through to get there, the familiar Azorean hospitality was back. After a few confirmatory “are you sure you don’t want a beer instead of a latte? It’s almost 8:00 am, after all”, we were enjoying a hearty breakfast with plenty of São Jorge cheese. – “That one came from my cows!”, joked one of the herders sitting on a nearby table.
Over the next few days, the virus slowly left our minds. Unlike our Lisbon hometown, there wasn’t much difference between BC and AC in Santa Maria. Indeed, little had changed in Azores since our last visit.
What about us? Jules and I had aged a bit – the former more graciously than the latter – while Gabriel of course had grown by leaps and bounds, from a tentative toddler of one to a spirited boy of four. Long gone was the kid that stumbled his way around before quickly going back to his baby carrier, replaced by one that insists on rolling his own carry-on through airport security. Instead of falling asleep the moment he enters a boat, Gabriel now enthusiastically directs the pilot to explore this cave and follow that bird. He maintains an interest in all critters, but fortunately lost his knack for plucking hair from unsuspecting cats. His monosyllables also evolved into full-blown sentences that he machine-guns one after the other.
But perhaps the most interesting change is how Gabriel’s notion of beauty has expanded to make room for Azores. Three years ago, he ignored sunsets and much preferred clothes pegs. While his admiration for everyday objects has not diminished – and neither has his fascination with construction machinery – Gabriel now also enjoys spending time in a place that has more cows than people.
It would only be fair for Jules and I to meet Gabriel halfway. Back at Lisbon, the three of us spent an entire morning sitting in our balcony, intently following the erection of a construction crane across the street.
You can find high resolution versions of these photographs (and many others that did not fit this text) here, under a Creative Commons license (meaning that you can use them freely but are required to credit the author).