March 10, 2010

How I learned Portuguese the hard way, but had a blast doing it

I have been in Brazil for nearly two weeks and it is becoming clear to me that I am not as fluent as I used to be in Portuguese. The last time I was in Brazil for more than a week was in 2000 – ten years ago. And, I almost never have the opportunity to speak Portuguese outside of Brazil. This makes me think back to how I learned to speak Portuguese in the first place. It kind of happened by chance. And, it wasn’t even in Brazil.

In 1998, I was working at a restaurant in DC called Café Atlantico. One day, while chatting with another waitress, Ana, she and I came up with a fabulous idea – that I would drive to Tierra del Fuego, at the end of South America. I got excited about the idea, and began to plan for it. I had $10,000 saved from working as a waitress and living rent-free at my parents’ house. I called my brother, Ian, and asked him if he and Allyson wanted to come along for the ride. At the time, Ian and Allyson were Phish-heads and traveled in a van all over the US. So, they’d be my perfect partners for the trip. Ian and Allyson agreed they wanted to go. All I needed was a car.

I told my dad I planned to buy an old van. He told me I could have his Dodge Ram van. Sweet! It was big and comfy with plush seats that could fold out like a bed in the back. I got my sister, Katrina, to drive across country with me, as Ian and Allyson were in Bellingham, Washington. Katrina and I drove to San Francisco, and then up to Bellingham. When we got there – all the way across the country and up the coast – Ian and Allyson had chickened out. Ian mentioned the violence going on in El Salvador and Panama, and said he didn’t think it was a good idea.

I was not about to go by myself, and had no other suitable travel partners. Ian and Allyson were the only hippies I knew. So, I went back to San Francisco and stayed at my grandfather’s apartment. I found a job at a French restaurant, and decided to take the GRE – the graduate school entrance exams. I enrolled in a class and took the exams. Once all that was over, I decided I wanted to go back to DC. I had some friends in San Francisco, but their idea of fun was to sniff coke all night and sit around talking B.S. I had to get out of that scene.

Back in DC, I easily found another gig as a waitress at Cities in Adams Morgan. I worked there for a bit, and then decided that, if I couldn’t go to Latin America, I at least could go to Portugal. I called up my friend, Alix, who was living in Lisbon, and asked her if she could find a place for me to stay in Lisbon for a month. She readily agreed, and I began to study Portuguese.

I bought a little book called “Teach Yourself Portuguese” and listened to the cassette tapes on my way to work each day. I took the cassettes with me when I went with my friend Uzoamaka to Nigeria for a month, and also with me when Vicky and I went to Cancun for a week just before I left. I still had about $10,000 saved when I got on a plane to Portugal in March 1998, thanks to my steady income as a waitress.

When I got to Lisbon, I fell in love with the town, and decided I wanted to stay a bit longer than a month. I went to the STA office to change my ticket. The agent told me that there were no return tickets available in a month’s time, and that the next opening was in November. I decided to change the date anyway, in the hopes that I could change it back later.

Once I decided that I was going to be in Portugal for a while, I began to look for a job. One afternoon, I was hanging out downtown, and met a street performer who did clown tricks. He and I chatted for a bit. I told him I was looking for work. He told me he had a friend who owned a Brazilian restaurant – Zeno – in As Docas. He agreed to take me there, and we went the next day. I met the owner, Zeno, and, despite my very limited Portuguese skills, he agreed to hire me.

My first night at Zeno, they put me on the patio serving drinks. I didn’t understand what most people said, but was able to repeat. If the customer said “Dois chopps,” I would repeat it to the bartender, and bring back the two beers. And, so it went. I made it through the first night, and then the next two nights on the patio, serving drinks.

Then, they decided that I could work inside, serving food. I have to say – I was humbled by the patience the Portuguese customers had with my inability to communicate. If I didn’t understand, they would repeat the order slowly … u-m-a p-i-c-a-n-h-a, por favor. So it went. A month or so later, I had the menu down pat, despite the occasional mix-up.

One day, a customer asked me to describe a dish – camarao ao abacaxi – which was a pineapple, cut in half, filled with shrimp and creamy sauce. I had quite a bit of difficulty using my rudimentary Portuguese to explain it. In those cases, I would call my colleague Silvia to come and take over, which she always did.

Another evening, a customer asked for “uma batida da pinga” which is an unusual way to refer to a caipirinha. However, I was a bit taken aback by what sounded to me like a request for inappropriate activity below his belt. It turns out that cachaça – the main ingredient for a caipirinha – is called “pinga” in Brazil.

By the end of the second month, I was pretty functional in Portuguese. And, by the end of the third, I could even pick up on what my colleagues were joking about at the other table. I ended up staying in Lisbon until November of 1998 – the date to which my ticket had been changed. I was 24 years old and had a blast in Lisbon. And, I became fluent in Portuguese.

In many ways, I learned Portuguese the hard way. There were many times when I had to express myself the best way I could and risked great embarrassment. Other times, I had to sit in silence and wonder if all the jokes in the room were on me. But, it was worth it, as I learned a new language and made many dear friends.

Now, unfortunately, I am going through a little of that same process again as I struggle to understand the jokes on the other side of the room. But, at least I have quite a bit more than the “Teach Yourself Portuguese” cassette tapes behind me.


  1. great story. a little determination and linguistic abandon goes a long way. GI

  2. That's pretty amazing, nowadays I'm trying to learn English but as I don't have anyone to practice it's a little bit hard to learn even though I've been spending at least 5 hours (since november 2009) per day studying it and I don't have enough money to go to U.S. but even if I had I should wait till I finish my college at UEG, Itaberai.

    this is me again Lucas Teixeira from Itapuranga

  3. (im)perfect_black: linguistic abandon ... yes! I likely need a dose of that these days.

    Lucas: I bet with all of those Itapurangenses who have lived in the US you could find some folks to start an English conversation group. Practice is definitely the best way to learn a language.

  4. Eu não conheço muito como é a linguagem em outros países (embora eu ache que em todo país é assim) mas aqui no Brasil as vezes ate para os brasileiros é um pouco estranho ouvir alguém de outro estado conversando. quando se coloca um Gaucho e um Goiano para conversar parece mais com duas línguas diferentes. tanto é que temos uma piada dizendo que aqui em goiás nos não falamos Português mas sim 'Goianes' ou mesmo 'Caipires' em Minas Gerais é 'Mineireis' hehe.
    Já dizem que o nordestino possui o português mais correto do brasil.

    noi ki fala tudu erradu memu num tem jeitu di intende memu nao um exemplo baum di ve mai ô menu é só procura nu google q tem muita coisa hehe...
    aqui uma lista com alguns exemplos do nosso goianes:
    tinha uma piada que rodava no orkut sobre isso que era muito engraçado mas eu perdi o texto.

  5. Sem duvida, o Goianes e distinto do Portugue ao que estou acustomada!

    Esta lista vai ser outil! Obrigada!

  6. Oh I so want to live in Lisbon some day. I am one quarter Portuguese, which I assume accounts fo my wicked ability to tan. My grandma's maiden name was Peixoto. I think I spelled that correctly... lots of o's and an x...