Monkeys, Portuguese, and Lots of Love

Sophie von Muench - Brazil


September 24, 2017

Hello all! 

I have been told that I am very behind on the blog, so here are Sophie’s updates in one long swoop. 

On my host family: 

They’re the cutest! I have a mom (Lorena), dad (Vicente), a little sister (Dainara), and a younger brother (Manuel). Also a very cuddly and patient cat named Memo. I already love them all, and am so grateful for how incredibly nice they are. My host parents are actually Chilean, but have been living in Brazil for A Long Time. (The exact number of years was told to me before I learned numbers in Portuguese, so for now, let it suffice to say the children are Brazilian and they are definitely at home here, but that we celebrated Independence day in Chile this week). They are very welcoming and sweet, and very understanding about struggling to learn a new language on the fly — they didn’t know any Portuguese when they moved here either. They also like to make fun of English (“so, if an ‘amora’ is a ‘blackberry’, is a ‘banana’ a ‘yellow berry’?”) (“but how are you supposed to pronounce ‘law’? That makes no sense!”) and variations of the new language we are making up of English/Spanish/Portuguese. It is also helpful that they don’t actually have any English (beyond what words they’ve learned using google translate to get important points across to me), so we aren’t tempted to speak to each other in English. I have no choice but to try to understand the Portuguese, and though it is exhausting and feels like extremely slow progress, I am grateful that I don’t have an easier, lazy option to fall back on.

My host siblings are very cute and extremely exuberant. The first word I learned in my host family was  “cóçegas”, which means to tickle. Manuel still tickles me quite a lot, but I have also played tag, climbed trees, danced, played with dolls, watched Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (I may not know how to say much, but I can tell you the Portuguese names of some very important shapes), read bedtime stories (with a lot of help and very little understanding) and served as a climbing gym since that first day. In general they are a very chill family, and relax at home when they’re not working or at school, so I have been spending a lot of time with them. I love getting to know them, although it is quite an adjustment being around all their energy constantly, because I was used to much more time to myself at home. It also presents an unanticipated dilemma as I learn when it’s okay for me to leave and how best to say “I’m leaving to hang out with friends/going to take a Samba class/going to try to find the beach, see you later!” without making it seem like I don’t want to connect with them while still experiencing everything I wanted to when I imagined this year. 

On the language:

Portuguese is hard. And learning a language is slow. And frustrating. But also really fun sometimes. Like most aspects of my life here, I will be extremely excited about it one minute, and near tears because I’m so frustrated the next. But the upside to having your emotions riding a constant roller coaster is that when I’m crabby or frustrated by the language, I can be confident that I will be on top of the world within the next hour…

Today I listened to my host sister Dainara tell me a story (or possibly two or three) which may have been about the last fellow they had falling off a thin branch in a tree, Mexican twins with very similar names and very distinct personalities, something to do with a lot of glitter, or a magic shovel. Or she may have just been telling me not to eat the mango leaves. (I am so wide eyed and clueless here that they explain everything to me, from making sure I know to take my bag, including my keys, with me before locking the house, to telling me urgently not to open a mini chocolate milk carton before I buy it. I can’t really blame them for thinking I need the extra instruction though, I feel like the one time they forget to tell me something obvious I’ll forget to put on shoes or something.) Story Time this afternoon feels like an apt metaphor for my Portuguese — one minute I’ll think I’m getting it, the next I’ll have no idea what’s going on, three minutes after that I’ll hear something that not only makes no sense but also negates whatever I think I heard at first, and by the time the person has finished talking I can only think of “Nosa!” (Wow) or “Etais tres interessante!” (which definitely isn’t Portuguese, and probably isn’t real French either). I also am confused about the best way to go about learning, partly because I’m exhausted and it feels so slow, and partly because I am receiving quite a lot of conflicting advice from people in very good positions to tell me what to do. I am, however, perfecting the art of nodding and smiling. I used to think a device to apparate like Harry Potter needed to be the next breakthrough invention — now I’m pulling for a machine to zap you and immediately give you magical fluency in any language. 

On work:

Tuesday was my first day of work. I’m working at R3, an animal rescue, rehabilitation, and release NGO facilitated through the Brazilian Environmental Police. My first day was surreal. I can hardly believe that I will be there until April, getting to know the animals and the other people working there. I am so grateful to have this amazing apprenticeship where I feel like I can actually help. I am also very excited to get to know other young Brazilians better through work. The other three students from my program that I am working with and I have already gotten invited to the beach and to town by two other volunteers, and everyone who I met there seems just as friendly and welcoming. I am so excited to get to know them all better, especially as my language skills improve and I can communicate better, ask people questions and actually understand their answers fully. Also, I am incredibly grateful that my apprenticeship feels like it has a purpose and that I can be of some help there, no matter how small it may seem. Plus, I get to be around lots of really cool animals, and learn about conservation and environmental issues in Brazil. Again, I’m looking forward to understanding the broader reach of R3 better as the language barrier shrinks.

I spent a couple hours Tuesday afternoon raking leaves. I also spent most of last fall raking leaves (our senior class raked leaves as a fundraiser, so a lot of my free time was spent cleaning up others’ yards). Bending down to pick up the leaves was such a familiar motion that it felt almost like strong deja vu. It was an odd moment for me, because for the most part my life here is so incredibly different from life in America. I keep my room spotless here, in contrast to the beautiful mess of my room at home. I can’t lie on the floor here when I am having a bad day as I would in my own house. There are mango trees outside my house here, instead of the oak trees at home. I am accustomed to much more time to myself than I have here. In the U.S., I try to limit my coffee, while here I have a huge mug for breakfast and another dinner with my host family. At home, afternoons spent raking would be preceded by hours of school and sports practice. Tuesday, by the time I was raking leaves, I had already cleaned enclosures of ocelots, monkeys, and parrots, fed amazingly colorful (and LOUD) birds, and been licked by a baby monkey. It has only been a month since I left home but it feels like so much longer, and having the feeling of being back at home in the U.S. for a split second was incredibly jarring. Somehow, I am finding it hard to make my life here and my life in the U.S. connect — they feel very separate in a way that I didn’t fully anticipate. 

On life in general:

Life in general is great. I take the bus twice a week to language classes with a few other fellows from the program. Class is often frustrating because it seems like such a slow pace after the frantic struggle of everyday language immersion, but I am grateful to have some sort of structure to help us out. The Language Club, where we take the class, also provides coffee in mini cups and has very good chocolate cake to boost our spirits. After class, I often explore the town of Lagoa, get lunch, or sit by the lagoon with other fellows before returning home to hang out with my host family. I have yet to get really lost on the bus, which I feel is an accomplishment. I did explore a little today, and got on a new bus which took me only a little bit of the way I had to go before turning around and going back the way I came — with me still in it. However, I learned how to get to my apprenticeship (my host dad dropped me off the first day), which was worth the weird looks I got. So I still count that as a win. There have been other small moments of culture shock with transportation here, but luckily none that have actually influenced whether I will get where I need to go. but for reference on Brazilian transportation: You pull a string for the bus to stop at the next stop, which I was so distracted by that I missed the more European style buttons I was actually expecting, you have to flag the bus down like a taxi for it to stop to pick you up, there are two people working in each bus (one to drive and one to collect money), and people pouring into buses with absolutely no space like an inverted clown car is completely normal. Also, I am very glad I’m not driving here — the traffic is crazy! 

Our program has also had two reconnects with the “team leaders” and all the fellows in Florianopolis. The first was designed to give us a space to share and reflect about integrating with our host families, and the second to debrief our first experiences at our apprenticeships. It was so nice to see the other fellows and hear about how these past couple weeks have been going for them. We were also given the luxury of beautiful hotels, and even went on a hiking excursion to the beach yesterday! It was gorgeous and reminded me that we are all here in this amazing place together, and that we have each other to lean on if needed. 

I find myself missing things I never thought about when I get homesick. I miss cooking with the whole extended family in my grandparents’ kitchen. I miss the waking up to a room that is bathed in light. I miss the smell of my mom’s coffee cake. I miss laughing about Schläger. I love it here in Brazil, but being away from home has also made me very appreciative of everyone at home who gave me so many wonderful things to feel “saudade” for. 

I am thinking of everyone at home, and hope you are all doing well! 

Sophie von Muench