Two Week Old Portuguese Brain Put to Work

Thomas Linford - Brazil


November 29, 2010

Three weeks ago at night, my host mom came rushing into my room, cell phone in hand, talking the fastest Portuguese she’s ever spoken to me. “Eu tou conversando com um homem quem não fala Português, mas ele fala inglês. Eu não falo inglês. Você pode falar com ele?”

“Uhh…” I had been chatting on Skype with a friend from back home, and it took me a second to reduce what she said to the important bits. She was talking to a guy who only spoke English. Got it. I guess that means I have to start talking to him.

I took the phone from her. “Hello, I’m the host son. What can I do for you?”

“Ahh, you’re from the United States?” I couldn’t quite place the accent.

“Yeah, from San Francisco.” My host mom pulled me over to the balcony, pointed at the supermarket across the street, and spoke fast Portuguese my two week old Portuguese brain couldn’t translate while simultaneously talking to an American.

“Are you at the supermarket right now?” I asked. “I think I’m supposed to meet you there or something.”

“Yes.” My host mom went back to her rapid Portuguese, motioning towards her shirt, saying “Ele tá usando uma camiseta preto.” He’s wearing a black shirt, got it.

“Ok, I’ll be right there.” I was hoping that he was going to stay on the line, just in case something came up, but he ended up hanging up. I gave the usual thumbs up to the doorman to open the gate, and stepped out onto the patterned black and white sidewalk stones. I looked across the brightly lit street towards the supermarket and didn’t see any Americans wearing a black shirt.

I looked up to my apartment balcony two floors up, and saw my host mom at the balcony furiously pointing to her right, in the direction of the language school. I presumed that the American guy had headed down the street.

“Ele está perto da ACBEU?” I asked (Is he close to ACBEU, the language school?).

She said something I couldn’t understand. I hoped it was some version of yes. In Portuguese, when yes or no questions are answered with a yes, the speaker generally says a verb instead. For example, if I were to ask a woman if she was a native to Bahia, I would ask, “A senhora é baiana?” And if she was, she would replay, “Eu sou” (I am).

So I walked down the street, my host mom’s cell phone in pocket, wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and flip flops, typical Brazilian clothing. I got to the language school, and still didn’t see an American in a black shirt. Fortunately though, he called my host mom’s cell phone back, I picked it up, and we again agreed to meet at the supermarket.

I returned and sat down at the deli, waiting for the American. After a few minutes, he came. He was an older guy, with white hair and glasses, slightly chubby, wearing a dark blue shirt. I stood up to greet him.

“Hi, I’m Tom. Nice to meet you. I think my host mom is inviting you over.”
“Sure. What would she like?”
“I was actually hoping you had the answer to that particular question,” I joked.

So we we headed back up to the apartment, chatting along the way. He was asking me quite a few questions, so I explained to him what I was doing in Brazil, taking a bridge year with Global Citizen Year. I tried to take the stairs, as the apartment is only two floors up (good exercise and is faster than the elevator), but he ran out of breath after one floor. We took the elevator for a floor and entered through the residents/servant’s entrance. Apartments in Brazil tend to have two entrances, one primarily for servants and the other for guests. In my apartment, the guest entrance is only served by an elevator, and leads straight into the living/dining room. The servant’s entrance goes straight into the kitchen, and the kitchen has a servant’s quarters right next to it in stuffed away in a corner of the house, a place for a maid to sleep or eat. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of these facts three weeks ago.

Nonetheless, we made our way through the kitchen and into the living/dining room, a room painted bright green with some trinkets scattered about, such as an ashtray from Hollywood and a china vase. My mom led me over to the couch and told me to get my laptop.

Apparently I would be translating. Uh oh. Two weeks of Portuguese put to the test.

The conversation started of easy, with the basic questions of where are you from, what do you do (De onde você é, O que você faz). He was an English teacher and she was an editor for a magazine.

He kept asking the question, “what does she want of me.” I wasn’t too sure how to translate this, as I was fairly certain there was a non-literal translation that had to be memorized, but nonetheless, I said, “O que você quer ele faz?” (I missed the subjunctive, so this probably sounds like “what do you want him do” in English, it should be “O que você quer que ele faça). She responded by saying she wanted to talk with him and get to know him. So I told the American that she just wanted to talk, and said, “I think it’s a fairly Brazilian thing to do”

Yes, Tom. That’s obviously the reason why a middle-aged, single Brazilian mother would invite a slightly older American male over to the house. Yes.

They then go on to talk about how they know each other. To this day, I’m still not completely sure what transpired between the two of them, since they seemed to be saying opposite things. My host mom said that they had never met (I think), while he was saying that they had met in person. She said they knew each other through a mutual friend. He started talking about one of his students who had the same name as the mutual friend. My mom got confused.

I was finding it easier to translate to Portuguese from English than vice-versa. I am able to translate sentences in my head to Portuguese while falling asleep, but rarely hear Portuguese that’s slow enough and has enough context for me to understand. Unfortunately my host mom didn’t agree and found my Portuguese impossibly hard to understand. I once said one sentence, accidentally throwing in some French words (it was a bad habit of mind, as I kept confusing Portuguese and French), and my host mom said I was speaking French. I tried again. She said I was speaking Spanish. Not a good sign. I finally found garbled Portuguese by the third try.

After awhile, my host mom says, “Eu gosto dele” (I like him).

Ohhhhh……

Thomas Linford