How the Portuguese Term “Saudade” Relates to Travel
Originally published on PassionPassport.com
There’s a Portuguese word I became quite obsessed with a few years ago when I read it while researching Lisbon and the fado music genre that originated there in the early 1800s.
That word is saudade.
Similar to the Danish hygge and the Welsh hiraeth, it doesn’t have a direct word-for-word translation into English. Saudade essentially refers to one of two things: a profound sense of melancholy, or the emotional state of being nostalgic.
I’ve seen it described as the “presence of absence,” a “longing for something that does not and probably cannot exist,” and the “feeling of missing something or someone.” It’s one of those tricky, untranslatable words that has to be described with phrases and hand motions. It makes sense, but there’s no single word in English that means the exact same thing, there’s no quick way to define it for someone else to understand.
There are many, many words like this in languages from around the world. But saudade stuck out to me when I first read it, and it stuck with me as I traveled around Europe during the long summer of 2016.
Saudade initially seems like an innately sad word, referring to a feeling that is more negative than positive. But I don’t think that’s the case at all.
The word is supposedly characteristic of Portuguese culture. While I don’t know nearly enough Portuguese people to judge whether that’s even remotely true, I will go as far as saying that saudade is definitely characteristic of travel itself.
Like saudade, travel is a tricky thing. The word is flung around and used in many ways, to refer to any number of types of trips and journeys. My “travel” may not look anything at all like your “travel,” which won’t look anything like your friend’s “travel” — and so on and so forth. The point is, travel means many different things to many different people.
When I travel, I am Atlas with the world on my shoulders. I worry; I watch; I wonder. I am quiet — usually too quiet — and I miss things more often than I should. I feel the very deep melancholy, the sense of nostalgia, and the “presence of absence” that is saudade.
This is all to say, I don’t travel lightly. For that reason, I sometimes feel like saudade can seem like a burden, something that holds me back from embracing “true travel” (or whatever my brain tells me that is).
Feeling melancholy, being nostalgic, and missing something that’s not there and might never have been — that’s not sad. That’s heavy. The traveler aware of those emotions is in touch with the world around them. They know the weight of what it means to experience another place, to form expectations and measure those against reality, to consider how history shaped today will shape tomorrow.
For me, travel is observation. It’s a chance to see and experience the world and let the entirety of what that means sink in. It’s taking into consideration the number of lives being lived in the place you’re visiting, the centuries upon centuries of history that linger in the air you walk through, and the deep ties to the very makeup of life itself that you find in each new place. Travel is recognizing that the past happened, the present is now, and the future is being shaped in each location — and no two are the same.
If you let it, the heaviness of saudade can lead you around the world. Its weight won’t tie you down, but instead, will anchor you to a ship that is uniquely your own as you experience everything the places of this world have to offer.
Saudade is not a burden; it’s a gift.