Portuguese American Journal

Author | Esmeralda Cabral on how to call two countries home | Interview

By Millicent Borges Accardi

Meet author Esmeralda Cabral! Born on São Miguel, in the Azores, Esmeralda Cabral immigrated to Edmonton, Alberta with her family when she was a child, and she jokingly brags that Canada was where she first “learned to speak English, shovel snow, skate on a lake and cross-country ski through trails in the woods!” She presently and for the past thirty years has made her home in Vancouver.

Her dream has always been to be a writer, she took a detour for awhile, working in the fields of agriculture, and environmental studies. After retirement, she returned to school at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where she earned a certificate in Creative Writing, and, in 2019, she completed an MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Since then, her writing has appeared in such publications as Gávea-Brown, The Common Online, Canadian Traveller, Understorey Curiosity Magazine and Wherever I Find Myself: Stories by Canadian Immigrant Women (Caitlin Press Vancouver). She has also been published in ten anthologies including “A Hard Landing,” in Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora of Canada and the United States, edited by Carlo Matos and Luis Gonçalves (Boa Vista Press), and two of her stories aired on CBC national radio.

How to Clean a Fish and Other Adventures in Portugal, published by the University of Alberta Press (May, 2023) is her first book.


For this interview, Esmeralda discusses Costa da Caparica, Lisbon, sardines, traveling with pets, translating for family, longing, home, recipes, cooking, immigration and saudade.


Q: You refer to Portugal as your “other country” Why?

A: Well, I have lived in Canada for most of my life. It feels like my country. But there’s a part of me that is and feels Portuguese. I feel at home in Portugal too. I speak the language, I visit often, and I’m a citizen. So, in many aspects, it really is my other country. I’m lucky to be able to call two countries home.

Q: You were born in the Azores but your book How to Clean a Fish takes place in Costa da Caparica. What attracted you and your family to the area?

A: The opportunity arose because my husband was on sabbatical from his university job here in Vancouver. He wanted to use the time to learn some specific kind of mathematical modeling and it turned out that there was an expert in the field working at NOVA University in Lisbon, at the Costa da Caparica campus. So that is how that came about. And in a turn of serendipity, we found out when we got there that he was actually Canadian.

It is a seaside village with great beaches, many restaurants, and close to Lisbon. Perfect in so many ways. When the opportunity to live there came up, we jumped at the chance. So, the location was chosen for us, really, but none of us complained! We were going to stay for a full year, but it would have complicated things with schooling for our daughter, so we cut our stay to eight months. Then she could write the provincial exams back in Vancouver without us having to make special arrangements (which would have been hard to do).

Q: The title, How to Clean a Fish sounds like a “How To” or a “Cookbook”. When did you come up with the title?

A: Well, it’s neither of those, but of course, there is a story. I’m terrible with titles, you know, I think it’s a completely different skill than writing, and I’ve never been very good at it. For most of the six years that I worked on this book, I had a different working title.

Then, as part of my MFA program, we met with editors and agents in New York, and the one I met with said she did not like my title. She asked me about the story and as I told her, she came up with How to Clean a Fish. It stuck. My publisher liked it a lot, and then added the subtitle.

When I mentioned the new title to people, most seemed to like it. Scott Edward Anderson once told me it sounded like a Canadian woodswoman book, which made me laugh. And, of course, on Instagram, once I posted the cover, I started getting ads for fishing holidays and friend requests from people who looked like they were about to go fishing.

The title actually refers to cleaning fish that you buy from fishers or at the fish market. My mother used to tell me that this was a skill every Portuguese person should have. She used to try and teach me but, when I was young, I guess I wasn’t that interested. Once I became interested, I no longer had my mum.

It’s not really a necessary skill anymore. Now there are fishmongers at markets who clean fish for you, so you don’t have to, but I still wanted to learn. I learned from the women at the market in Costa da Caparica; they humored me and taught me. It’s a skill that links me to my heritage and to my mother in a strong way.

Q: As a travel book, yours is unique in that is a “family” travel book. What made you decide to include everyone?

A: It is the story of our family and how we adapted to life in Portugal. There would be no story without my family – they were the major characters. But it is tricky to write about family, for sure. I checked with my husband and both of my children, and they were okay with it, and supportive. I would not have written it without their agreement.

Q: The book covers “food and cooking adventures, language barriers and bureaucracy.” Can you share one of the stories where you had to deal with bureaucracy? Makes me think of the book A Year in Province and how much trouble it was to fix basic house repairs.

A: Ha! Ha! Exactly! We had several challenges with bureaucracy. My husband had passport issues, but the one challenge we had soon after our arrival was that it was really difficult to open a bank account. Neither my husband nor I had jobs in Portugal so that was part of the problem. I don’t know if things have changed now, but even up to a few years ago, it was still hard for non-residents to open a bank account. But you know, you just persevere, and jump through all the required hoops, and you come out the other end. We got our bank account. It was quite a process, though, so I’m never letting go of it.

Q: How did the experience of living in Portugal as an adult compares to when you lived there as a child (before immigrating to Canada)?  What was similar? What was different?

A: When I was a child, I lived in São Miguel, which is where I was born and where my family lived until we emigrated. So, it was quite different than living in Costa da Caparica.

São Miguel is an island, of course, so the landscape was different, and life was a lot more basic then. Our milk was delivered to the door on a donkey. It was fresh milk, so we had to boil it and cool it before drinking it. Our bread was also delivered daily, and fishers sold their fish by walking down the street and announcing the catch of the day in a sing-song chant. We dealt with our own garbage – we either composted or burned it (most was composted). We raised chickens in the backyard, and we had an orchard. I have great memories of life in my hometown of Lagoa. But I was also a child, and I had no responsibility except to play. I imagine it was different for my parents.

When we were in Costa da Caparica, I was the parent, the grownup. I felt the responsibility of making daily life comfortable for my family, especially because we didn’t really know anyone in town, and they didn’t speak Portuguese. It was a bigger town with cars and traffic and lots of shops, and a huge beach. And, for our grocery staples, we shopped in a nearby town, in the biggest supermarket I had ever seen!

So, a lot of time had passed from when I lived in Portugal as a child, and life had changed substantially, but it was also a different place than where I grew up – same country but a different landscape, same language but a different accent. Our time in Costa da Caparica was different enough from what I knew to still be an adventure, but it was also familiar enough to be comfortable, mostly for me.

Q: In Portugal, what did you have to translate for your family?

A: Pretty much everything. In a group setting, I did the simultaneous translation from Portuguese to English and then from English to Portuguese. It was the only way they could be included in conversations with people who did not speak English. I flexed into translation mode automatically but after a full day of it, I would be exhausted. It’s tiring to operate in two languages when you are not used to it.

Q: What are the differences between visiting Portugal as a tourist and living there?

A: As a tourist, we focus on seeing the sights and we schedule experiences and fill our days with lots of excitement. As a resident, you live life day-to-day, and you have to do all the not-so-exciting tasks like laundry and house cleaning and shopping for groceries. We were also there for a long time, and we didn’t know anyone in town to begin with, so we had some lonely times until we were able to forge new connections.

Q: Your book is about adventures. What was your favorite adventure in Costa da Caparica?

A: So many of our adventures involved food and cooking new foods. But one that didn’t, and still stands out in my memory as an absolute highlight was that my daughter and I ran in the Lisbon mini-marathon in the spring. It was only 8 km, so it was very mini, but neither of us is a runner so we did have to train for it. The route took us over the 25th of April Bridge and then, on the north side, we ran along the river to the finish line in Belem. It was a stunningly beautiful day. I finished without collapsing, so I was happy. I’d never run in an event like that before, and to run it in Lisbon with my daughter was exhilarating.

Q: During your MFA you were introduced to agents. What was the process like?

A: I don’t have an agent, but yes, as part of my MFA program, we met with editors and agents in Toronto and New York and pitched them our ideas for feedback. It was a tremendous learning opportunity.

The MFA in Creative Nonfiction at King’s is a low-residency, two-year program consisting of two in-person residencies in Halifax (two weeks each), dedicated to writing craft, and two in-person residencies (one week each) focusing on publishing, and alternating between Toronto and New York.

Our major project was writing a book proposal and I then submitted mine to small and medium-sized publishers in Canada. I feel very lucky to have landed a contract with the University of Alberta Press. They have a series dedicated to travel writing, called the Wayfarer Series, so it seemed like a great fit!

Q: Have you read Philip Graham’s book The Moon Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon, a travel memoir published in 2009 about the sabbatical year he spent living abroad in Lisbon with his family? I was lucky to interview him for PAJ back in 2011.

A: I have! And I loved it! Originally, I had thought of writing a series of linked essays as he did, but my focus kept changing as I wrote more. In the end, my manuscript became a travel memoir, but one in which food figures prominently. My time in Costa da Caparica was also peppered with memories of life in the Azores, and reflections about home, belonging and identity, and I incorporated those into the narrative.

When I was at Disquiet, I did a workshop with Philip Graham on travel writing, and I enjoyed it very much. He definitely inspired me. He is a wonderful storyteller and a big time Lusophile!

Q: What is the significance of the term saudade in How to Clean a Fish?

A: I think that saudade, as it pertains to me and this story, is linked to the fact that I am an immigrant. I think when you are born in one place and then live most of your life in another, there’s an innate sense of longing. You can’t be in two places at once, so there’s a feeling of wonder or curiosity about the place you’re not currently in. I often tell people that when I am in Canada, I feel Portuguese, and when I am in Portugal, I feel Canadian. My saudade is about longing for the familiar, I think. For me, it’s not about sadness, but it is a yearning.

Q: You brought along your Portuguese Water Dog (what a great breed!)  How many hoops did you have to jump through to make that happen? Does Maggie have a pet passport?

A: It was actually fairly simple. If I recall correctly, Maggie had to have an updated rabies shot, and a check-up from the veterinarian at the airport.  She didn’t have an actual pet passport but did need all the documents to be taped to her crate.

The hardest thing for us was that she had to travel in the cargo hold of the plane, so she was all on her own down there with other animals, and she was in her crate for the duration of the flight from Vancouver to Amsterdam, which was about nine hours plus the check-in time. We stopped in Amsterdam for a few days and then had to go through the process again, but it was a much shorter flight from Amsterdam to Lisbon. I’m sure it was stressful for her, but she was young and healthy at the time, so she bounced back pretty quickly. It was stressful for us too, but it really was the only way to do it; we did not want to leave her behind for such a long period of time. Plus, she has Portuguese heritage too, right?

Q: What culture did you introduce to your children by living in Portugal for close to a year? Were there any lasting effects?

A: I’m thinking they probably became more aware of people speaking passionately and witnessed more public displays of emotion than what you would see in Canada.

Gatherings seem to happen around food and mealtimes, and there is less age stratification — I think – more mixing of young and older people. But that was our experience, I don’t want to generalize that it’s like that all over Portugal.

I hope there are lasting effects. I hope the seed has been planted and that at some point in their lives, whether it’s soon or much later, they will have an interest to live or visit Portugal for a while and feel that they belong there too.

Q: What “foodie” elements are in the book? Can you offer an example?

A: Many of our adventures revolved around food – shopping for it, cooking it, and eating it. We tried different foods than we eat regularly in Canada – grilled sardines, octopus salad, many variations of bacalhau, hake and mackerel and different shellfish. I often had to ask the women in the market how to cook these different foods. Near the end of our stay, I finally tried making pork and clams “Alentejo-style”. I’d stayed away from that because I thought it was too complicated, but it is actually easy and pretty quick. I provide a recipe for it in the book.

On a trip with our landlord to the Serra da Estrela, we stopped in various towns to try the foods of the region. One particularly memorable meal involved slow-cooked goat, in a dish called chânfana.

Q: What part of your Portuguese heritage have you taught your children?

A: I hope I’ve passed along the importance of family and community, and the role that elders play in Portuguese family life (an important one!). I think they now know that there are different expectations in group settings and that there are ways to greet people when saying hello and good-bye that are different than they are used to in Canada. I hope I’ve exposed them to the Portuguese language enough that they now have “an ear” for it and will continue to work on learning and improving their language skills.

Q: Can you share a short passage from the book with our readers?

A: Sure. Happy to. This is from a chapter called “Belonging.”

“In Costa da Caparica, I straddled the two realities of local resident and tourist while not fitting well into either one. When I am in Vancouver, I long for Portugal – to live where I feel understood, where no one asks me where I’m from, or how to spell my name. Adapting to life in Costa gave me that and more. I found that hearing my language everywhere afforded me a sense of comfort and belonging that can be elusive in Canada. In Costa, I knew what was expected of me in different situations, and I eased into the culture. But I had also been frustrated by bureaucracy and my inability to reason my way through the challenges we encountered. How hard did it have to be to open a bank account?

Despite feeling like I had come back home, I found myself missing many aspects of my Canadian life. I missed the order of things – the expectation that there are rules to follow, and if I follow those rules, tasks get done. I missed organized traffic lanes and parking spots and customer service with a smile. I missed my home near the woods; I missed the mountains and the calm ocean in the bay. I missed people patiently waiting for their turn.”

Related Post

Memoir: Philip Graham abroad in Lisbon – Interview


Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer, is the author of four poetry collections, including Through Grainy Landscape, 2021 (inspired by Portuguese writings) and Quarantine Highway (2022). Her awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, Creative Capacity, California Arts Council, Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Covid grant, and Fundação Luso-Americana (Portugal. She also curates the popular Kale Soup for the Soul reading series.

Book Details

Title: How to Clean a Fish: And Other Adventures

Author: Esmeralda Cabral

Publisher: University of Alberta Press

Publication Date: May 16, 2023

Language: English

Paperback: 320 pp ($27.99)

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