Painting Pictures: Saudade

painting picturesToday’s Painting Pictures post comes from Ute Limacher, someone I have been delighted to connect with in multiple places online. She brings a new word to the Third Culture Kid discussion, at least a new word for me. Saudade. As soon as I saw the definition, I knew this series needed a post about it. It rings in my heart, yes, yes, yes, this word makes sense. Not just for TCKs, but for expats too. It gives me a word to describe the happy-sad place in which I live. And not only a new word, but Ute helps me understand part of the Painting Pictures of Egypt song that I never understood: ‘If it comes too quick, I may not recognize it’…I couldn’t quite grasp what that meant but now I can. Read on to see what I mean.

Saudade: the love that remains, the joy of grief

TCK’s and all those who live a nomadic life have to say many good-byes and leave many places they called their own. When leaving and restarting over and over, they go through a so called “entering phase” during which they constantly feel the ambivalence of their nomadic life. They feel how different they are in the new place and may wish to go back where they did fit in or simply felt more comfortable. The feeling of longing or pining for something in the past overcomes us generally at a turning point.

When we think about the past, an experience, a friend or a situation that makes us want to go back for a moment and re-live it, or when we think about what we would like our future to look like in a sort of daydream, we all experience saudade.

What is saudade?

There are many different definitions of saudade, but the Dicionário Houaiss da língua portuguesa fits my purpose best:

“A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. It is related to thinking back on situations of privation due to the absence of someone or something, to move away from a place or thing, or to the absence of a set of particular and desirable experiences and pleasures once lived.”

We feel saudade when someone (e.g. children, parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, pets) or something (e.g. places, things one used to do in childhood) is missing but should be there in a particular moment, and we feel its absence.

It usually mixes sad and happy feelings all together, sadness for missing and happiness for having experienced the feeling. – It is, like Alexandre Silva says “a joy of grief” in A Saudade PortuguesaCarolina Michaëlis de Vasconcellos.

Saudade towards people

Saudade is also “the love that remains” after someone is gone, like when we think of a person we love but who is out of reach.


When we experience the loss of friends or family members, we all feel grief. As TCK’s we often don’t have the chance to say good-bye or don’t make it on time because of the geographical distance to our loved ones. Saudade describes the sad feeling about this lost chance and the certainty that they’re gone forever. But in the meantime we also have happy feelings about the beautiful and memorable moments we spent together; and we feel grateful that we had the unique chance to have met these people.

Every time we have to say good-bye to good friends, we know that for a few of them the good-bye will probably be forever. It makes us happy and sad at the same time and we enter a  grief phase when we recall all the happy moments we spent together.

Sometimes it happens that friends have to leave and we don’t get the time to really catch up during the last weeks, or to say a proper good-bye. Quick farewells can be very painful. We recall all the precious moments spent together and realize that our life together has come to an end. It will never be the same. It’s the end of an era.

If it comes too quick
I may not appreciate it
Is that the reason behind all this time and sand?
(Sara Grove, Painting pictures of Egypt)

There are also all those friends we had to leave behind because of us moving, with whom we share precious memories and with whom we even thought we would spend the rest of our lives.The lost opportunity to pursue our life path together make us feel longing for the life we had.

Saudade toward places

We also long for places we lived, that enchanted us as children or where we have felt most inspired or happy. These can also be places we visited briefly but with which we had a special bond.

ute1 The places I long for the most

The places I long for the most
Are the places where I’ve been
They are calling after me like a long lost friend

It’s all about comfortable
When you move so much
The place I was wasn’t perfect
But I had found a way to live
It wasn’t milk or honey
But then neither is this
(Sara Grove, Painting pictures of Egypt)

When we move frequently, we probably don’t get back often to the place or places where we grew up. Some still call it “home”. because they have family and friends there. But sometimes these places are only pictures in our memories.

Since a few years ago, me and my family spend several weeks each year near the place I grew up in Northern Italy, because my sister and her family live close by and we want our children to spend as much time as possible with their cousins, aunt and uncle. During the past 20 years, for some reason or another, I didn’t manage to go back and visit the place I grew up, but this year we finally did and I had a nice trip down on memory lane.

Some things looked the same, like a little church where I met friends, the house I lived in with my parents (my parents left Italy almost 30 years ago) and the streets where I did “le vasche” (take a stroll) with my friends as a teenager. It’s comforting that some things just don’t change. It’s a bit like meeting a good friend after a long period and feeling like we never were separated. – Unfortunately, my childhood friends had all moved abroad and those places don’t feel exactly the same anymore. But we still have memories.

Showing my children the places I’ve lived in will never give them the same feeling I have when visiting them, but it gives them at least some pictures to relate to when I tell them stories about my past.

I’ve lived in many places but I don’t feel saudade for all of them. Some are more important because they left indelible memories I can only share with people who were there with me.

We can also feel saudade towards the future. The famous saudade of the Portuguese is described as:

“a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably can not exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness”.

The past is so tangible
I know it by heart
Familiar things are never easy to discard
I was dying for some freedom
But now I hesitate to go
I am caught between the promise
And the things I know
(Sara Groves “Painting pictures of Egypt”)

We think about the new places we will live and picture ourselves in a hypothetical life, a promise that we hope will come true.


Sometimes I feel this saudade towards the imagination of my future that I had in the past. As a child I pictured myself in a future very different from how my life is now. Sometimes, realizing this difference makes me want to go back and try out another path. What if I would have stayed in Italy? What if I hadn’t said good-bye to certain friends or left some places? Our life is a concotion of chances, good-byes, movings, and crossroads that require decisions, sometimes quick decisions.

Saudade towards moments

The places and people we recall are always connected to special moments. We remember happy moments shared with friends or family or places we cherished.


Then we try to remind them, “do you remember when…?” and go back down memory lane, hoping the other person shares the same memory. But it is rare that others recall exactly the same aspect about an event and we end up feeling even sadder – as if this memorable moment is important only for us, not for those we shared it with in the first place.

The future seems so hard
And I want to go back
But the places that used to fit me
Cannot hold the things I’ve learned
And those roads closed off to me
While my back was turned
(Sara Groves “Painting pictures of Egypt”)

Often we feel that the past is more comforting, that the places, the people we knew were better than the uncertain – but exciting – future. But the places that used to “fit us can not hold the things we’ve learned”, because we grew out of them. And we keep growing.

Fernando Pessoa:

Saudades, só portugueses
Conseguem senti-las bem.
Porque têm essa palavra
para dizer que as têm.

Related articles about saudade:


Ute is an European expat-since-birth. Born in Switzerland, she grew up in Northern Italy, studied and worked in Switzerland and Italy (Florence) before moving to the Netherlands in 2005 where she lives with her Swiss husband and three children. She is a former researcher in French and Italian Languages and Literature who reinvented herself and became a passionate language teacher, expert in multilingualism, writer, blogger and translator. – In her blog she writes about raising multilingual children in a multicultural environment, TCK’s, multilingualism in general and life as an expat. 

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