Vocation is useless if it doesn’t feed you.
Maria calls what I’m doing “coming to work to keep warm.”
She manages the small staff café in the basement of the public media station where I work, a concrete behemoth at odds with the sub-tropical beauty of its surroundings, narrow cobbled streets, and intricate buildings framed by lush volcanic hills.
Beauty is everywhere in the Azores. It also leaks inside the station on rainy days, causing strategically placed buckets to appear in the lobby, the stairs, the upstairs foyer. Much-needed renovation won’t happen until 2017.
I don’t remember when Maria became my confidante. All I know is she sees what working without pay looks like.
I rarely buy food, and never fail to apologize for being allergic to everything on the menu but coffee and tea, coincidentally the cheapest items on offer.
For months now, I’ve been writing, editing, and producing news in English about the archipelago in blog format. I’m a print and digital journalist, I love my work, and this is my dream gig.
I sense I’m being stared at when breakneck speed Portuguese stops abruptly and the words “Kitty says” tumble out after a short pause.
I’m positive my byline hasn’t uttered a word, but my colleague Gil is on the phone to Lisbon where a web developer is setting up a blog for news in English.
And the blog cannot be born nameless.
Rearing my head meerkat-like, I blurt out a “Please, no!” loud enough for Lisbon to hear before volunteering the only thing I can come up with on the spot: News From the Azores.
Because the opinions of the messenger that I am should never be confused with the message, i.e. actual news.
And this project is strictly news.
A few minutes later, the blog goes live with a small announcement on the national site, and a much bigger one on ours. Gil and I are glowing with happiness, and even Carlos — former station director and veteran journalist now awaiting retirement in the multimedia department — can’t help but smile.
I came to journalism attracted by its public service and advocacy remit, with a Reithian sense of mission.
I owe this to growing up to the sound of the BBC World Service, and working for the world’s largest public media broadcaster in London in the late 90s.
Although my ending up in the Azores is a direct result of taking up tour directing when journalism failed to pay the bills in England, the yearning to do work worthy of Auntie’s standards hasn’t left me.
By the time the blog launches, I’ve been in the archipelago for a year. I’ve taught myself Portuguese by speaking to anyone willing to put up with my comedy accent. I also read the local newspaper, which I’ll eventually end up writing op-eds for.
And although I’m not fond of TV, I watch endless reruns of American shows because they’re not dubbed but rather subtitled in Portuguese. Grey’s Anatomy and Nurse Jackie prove particularly useful.
I fill up countless notebooks with new vocabulary, and I never leave the house without my small blue conjugations book.
As my boyfriend at the time says, I’m “esquisita”, which means weird rather than exquisite, regrettably.
When I leave, the beloved book gets lost.
With News From the Azores, my brief is to pool together existing content from our radio and TV output and repackage it for North America’s Azorean community.
An underserved demographic often overlooked by mainstream media in the U.S. and Canada, its younger members are more likely to use English than Portuguese in daily life.
This is something our station director, Pedro — former Portuguese public media TV Washington correspondent, journalism lecturer, and a Portuguese-American — is well aware of.
By providing news in English, we’re helping connect people across the Atlantic. As a bonus, we’re also hoping to showcase the archipelago abroad.
A champion for change with a vision shaped by studying and working in the United States, Pedro hopes the blog can be the first step toward creating a small, financially self-sufficient digital unit producing news content in English — and eventually in French, too — that could be sold to local businesses affiliated with tourism.
Back then, tourism is still a long way from achieving critical mass, hindered by some of the most expensive airfares in Europe. Low-cost flights will only make their appearance several years after I’ve left.
But none of this matters at the time. Hope sells, as evidenced by the many construction projects under way everywhere. The regional government believes tourism can provide a steady source of revenue so it invests heavily. And to help things along, the government even sponsors charter planes from Scandinavia.
But as the financial crisis cripples Portugal and companies go bankrupt, building sites come to a standstill, leaving behind husks of concrete, unpaid creditors, and unemployed locals.
How to get News From the Azores off the ground is a conundrum only a small starting grant from the Regional Government’s Communities Directorate can solve. At regional level, public media has zero financial autonomy. It is executives in Lisbon — Portugal’s capital city located nearly a 1,000 miles away on a two-hour plane ride — who decide our fate and our budget.
The modest grant from the regional government will pay me a small stipend for a year, the time we need to figure out how to make News From the Azores self-sustaining.
To give you an idea of how scarce resources are, there’s no desk for me, no equipment. My aging MacBook and the multimedia area meeting table that sticks out halfway into the corridor will have to do.
When I’m presented with the yellow umbilical cord that’ll link News From the Azores to the internet, I plug it into the side of my laptop with a grateful grin and get to work.
And since I’m sitting in the middle of a high foot traffic area between the radio newsroom and the production offices, I get to know everyone fast.
Alas, no amount of good intentions or hard work can conjure up this vital grant, which takes over a year to materialize.
To keep working, I torpedo my meagre savings, fall behind on rent, and often go hungry.
Just like the people I write about.
But not for a moment do I lose faith in the potential of the project or in our administrative overlords. Even when I am put “on leave” during the three months it takes to locate the original grant proposal, I keep on trusting and believing.
And then things get ugly.
“I saw your piece in the paper, well done!” becomes a routine greeting from colleagues. After they realize what’s going on, they take to leaving a photocopy on the meeting table every time it happens, on the off chance I might take action.
Or at the very least have a loud whinge in my funny Portuguese and use some of the swearwords they’ve been teaching me. Unfortunately, I have trouble pronouncing them — my intonation is frequently wrong.
When I complain about my work being stolen to my line manager— who is based on another island — he assures me it’s no big deal. Because public media is paid for by taxpayers, many folks treat it as a free for all, never mind copyright.
Instead of feeling frustrated, I should consider myself lucky newspapers always reproduce my byline, and correctly at that, he tells me.
This grates but I keep my mouth shut. It’s yet another example of petty rivalry between islands and I happen to be caught in the middle. He won’t fight my corner, and it’s not a good idea for me to make waves either.
Instead, I keep smiling, and I remain unobtrusive for fear of jeopardizing our project, for fear of letting down those it’s designed to serve.
Shivering on a frequently empty stomach in the humid insular winter, I hide the holes in my clothes with strategically placed scarves.
After a while, I develop a sore that won’t heal on the corner of my mouth as I’ve become malnourished. Brown rice or millet with olive oil and soy sauce are all I can afford. Even after Tony, my kindly Portuguese-American landlord — dear friend and steadfast cheerleader — resigns himself to tolerating my presence despite knowing he won’t ever see rent again, it makes zero difference.
At work, everyone knows. Colleagues ply me with coffee, sometimes a boxed lunch appears by my computer as if by magic, courtesy of Rosa Margarida, a radio presenter.
I’ve become an administrative aberration. I am the extreme embodiment of everything that’s wrong with a system dehumanizing those it cannot see because we’re on a rock in the middle of the ocean.
Officially, I don’t exist, but when the chairman of the board flies in from Lisbon for a visit, I’m introduced to him. I even get the opportunity to explain what News From the Azores is about. He seems interested, acquiescent, appreciative, and generous with praise.
Plaudits for an editorial ghost.
When Portugal looks to the IMF for a rescue bailout, the liquidation of the country’s assets — among which public utilities — begins.
No one knows if public media will remain public, or for how long.
So we sit tight and hope to weather the storm despite knowing we’re all on the same sinking stone raft.
In the Azores, we’re your regional public media, your TV, your radio, and your online news. Many of us don’t have a staff job, we have no contract or if we do, it’s probably still pending, we’re often on per diems with a backlog of unpaid invoices.
And yet, day in, day out, we continue to bring you news and images of what’s going on across nine islands. We run the soundboard on that show you never miss. We present sports specials that have you holding your breath for two hours. We write the stories you send to your friends and family on the big landmass to the right, and on the slightly smaller landmass to the left.
In short, we never pass up an opportunity to show you how proud we are of our archipelago — and of how dedicated we are to our profession. And yet, no rules, minimum wage, or guarantee of work apply to us.
Like many of you in the audience, we’re the precariat, but a precariat hiding in plain sight on your TV or computer screen, in your ears.
In an attempt to survive and keep sane, I become an editorial shape-shifter, setting aside potential conflicts of interest and I run into colleagues — some of whom staffers — doing the same thing on the sly. I write and voice advertising copy in English whenever the occasion arises so I can eat.
I write an anonymous personal blog deriding my insular predicament so I can laugh at myself. I write features and do interviews for a Portuguese-Canadian website so I can continue what I started with News From the Azores.
I write poems in Portuguese about isolation, loneliness, and machismo so I can cope.
Eventually, I even write a column in the country’s oldest daily so I won’t lose my voice, thankful that my bizarro accent is inaudible in print.
For lack of funds, I don’t hold a Portuguese press card yet so I have no access to legal advice from the national union.
Thankfully, I still have my British and international press credentials.
In protest, I stop showing up and publishing stories. To add insult to injury, no one notices my absence for a while.
Then I contact the NUJ’s freelance organizer in Britain; he advises me not to go back until I’ve been paid.
Two strong-worded letters from London, several livid board members and managers in Lisbon and Ponta Delgada and many weeks later, my bank account squeaks with short-lived relief.
I get paid for three months’ worth of work, but the rest is nowhere to be seen.
Two days before Christmas, the balance arrives.
After patiently waiting for news of another government grant that’d enable News From the Azores to continue for another year, I take it upon myself to investigate.
The NUJ has told me to steer clear lest the same situation should repeat itself. I ignore them.
I created this project from scratch and, after all I’ve been through, I’m not ready to bury it yet.
I find out directly from the secretary of state in charge of the relevant department that no application to renew funding has been received. This isn’t something I had the authority to do myself, regrettably, else I would have done it.
News From the Azores is officially no more, but no one thought of telling me.
Over the next few months, already scarce side gigs become non-existent and my island paradise turns into a prison I can’t afford to escape.
It’s Herberto, a fellow journalist — and friend — who puts me on the plane to London. I leave the Azores without saying goodbye to anyone else, unable to process the end of a life I loved so very much despite its harshness and hardships.
As I watch the island that holds my heart disappear into the expanse of blue down below, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude, sadness, and guilt.
I can abandon ship — thanks to bewildering generosity, not having a family to provide for, being from elsewhere — but what of those who can’t?
With no fixed abode, I go back to tour directing for a while, with a brand new capsule wardrobe courtesy of my parents. I had to beg them for help when I realized I could only accept travel assignments if I had something semi-presentable to wear (almost every tour company has a dress code).
When I’m not on the road, I stay on couches and in spare rooms with friends and relatives.
I live out of a suitcase called home.
I pick up more freelance editorial work for a privately owned news outlet based in Lisbon.
A few months later, I ship out to a tiny sub-arctic archipelago in the armpit of North America to do some reporting about Portuguese explorers, the funding for which is in the process of being finalized.
But the news outlet in question fails to secure new backers so there’s no money for my project. Launched to try and monetize the sudden influx of interest in Portugal’s financial demise, that website will bite the dust a few months later.
Having committed to spending six months on the island, I shelve the project, snag a multilingual hospitality job, and bide my time.
Exposure, the Azores taught me, will neither feed me nor pay the rent, but being behind a hotel front desk might.
Making the switch from journalist and editorial translator to receptionist on minimum wage immediately increases my income by 50 percent.
As it’s a seasonal job, I work every shift I can to replenish my depleted coffers.
And when my contract ends, I have to drag my employer to court because he refuses to pay me overtime.
Another lost cause.
By the time I immigrate to America in 2013, I’m lost for words, wondering what to make of it all, floundering.
Although I’ll be locked into denial mode for a long time, I sink into major depression, the kind that paralyzes you, renders you helpless.
I may have led an interesting and varied life to date, but the illness has somehow convinced me I have nothing to show for it.
After bending for years on end, I break.
As a result, my household is forced to struggle on one income that never stretches far enough in Seattle, one of the most expensive cities in America. As our financial burden grows, our marriage strains and groans under the weight of it all.
My writing voice is gone, I stop generating ideas, pitching… my mind is utterly blank, and not just editorially.
I haven’t a clue what to do with myself, how to move on, how to reboot this human who seems to have drifted so very far away from her original purpose.
Even my personal blog — which is directly responsible for my American life — falls to the wayside after almost a decade of writing it under one guise or another.
For five years, I’m a hermit with a library card, a yoga mat I keep by my desk so that it guilts me into using it, and the growing shame of someone with a great many dots far too incapacitated to connect them.
It takes me three years to face the page and tell this story and another two to put it to bed, and to put enough distance between my public media dream, the sporadic newspaper ramblings of a foreign woman at the heart of the Atlantic, beef ham, and me.
During this time, News From the Azores is erased, an institutional embarrassment never to be mentioned again save for a handful of screen captures from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine and a lone academic citation.
And yet, I have no regrets.
My faith in the power of words and in journalism as a public service remains intact.
After a long and painful hiatus that lasts for years, I start writing again, collapse some more, then finally get back on the horse this summer.
I’m relearning everything.
If vocation is a blessing, it can also be a curse.
And I have so far failed to get rid of it.