In the mornings I sit on my balcony, drinking my coffee, and watching the world go by on the main drag of my village. Mondays are comparatively quiet: the bakery below is closed for the day and no one is sitting, chattering at the tables. The weekend day trippers have all gone back to wherever they are staying. The fishing boats have, for the most part, gone out. Tourist season is all but over and there are complete minutes when not a car goes by.
There is usually a cluster of three or four old men sitting on the benches across the way. We greet each other as I head out for my morning walk. I would like to take a picture of the men, but that would be rude, an invasion of privacy. People are more considerate of that here.
The men come and go throughout the day. It reminds me of the little coffee shop in my home town where the businessmen would go for an informal coffee meeting every day. They would go in alone and within minutes someone they knew would show up and then another. They would come and go, each according to their day’s schedule.
The men on the benches have their daily meetings, sans coffee.
Some things need no translation.
I watch them and see decades of friendship and shared history. Even though I don’t understand the words, I can tell when they are joking and teasing with each other. I can tell when someone has said something that the other dismisses as foolishness. I can translate tonality and inflection easily.
Today, the sheer number of men gathered and the pace of the conversation tells me that something is going on. It could be the upcoming election. It could be they’re discussing whatever was on fire last night. Today, from time to time, the voices rise. I’m betting they’re talking politics, but I don’t know. I get one word out of every ten or fifteen.
Não sei (I don’t know)
Percebo (I understand)
I listen to catch the words, trying to make sense of the language as it is spoken in everyday life, not the slow, patient cadence that I am spoonfed by my language lessons. I am pleased when I can catch a word or two; it’s small but it’s progress.
Down the other end of the main drag, when I was on my walk today, I was trying to tell a gentleman I see regularly that I know some words, but no one will speak them in the exact order I understand. He gets my joke that I have told, half in Portuguese, half in English. We laugh together. He allows me to practice my Portuguese on him which is very kind and his kindness makes me want to do better.
I have about 100 words of Portuguese tucked in my brain so far. I think this puts me on par with a two-year-old. My goal is to know 400 words by the end of the year (including the word for word). That’s about new 100 vocabulary words per month. I’m using every tool at my disposal—Pimsleur, Michel Thomas, the Google translate app. It’s much easier to find apps and courses for Brazilian Portuguese which is not what you want in Portugal. I finally found an app called Practice Portuguese that is European Portuguese. I like it and I hate it because some of the lessons ask you to type in the words. Not only does spelling count, but you have to get all the little accent marks right, and then get them over the right letter, and THEN get them going in the right direction. Grrrr.
So I have a plan. (Of course I have a plan—have you met me?)
Back in school we had vocabulary tests every week. We had to learn the spelling and meaning of 20 or 25 words per week. I’m going to shoot for 25 new words a week on top of whatever I am learning with all my language apps. But (and here’s my clever twist), I’m going keep track of the words I need in my real life interactions and put them on the list immediately. Frankly, asking the butcher for chicken breasts when you only know the word for chicken and have to mime the breast part can get a bit risqué.
Most of the language courses are designed to get you through a tourist visit to a foreign country. You can ask where the hotel is or the Piazza San Marco or the Restaurant Marrakesh. You learn some numbers, greetings, please, thank you and you’re welcome. That’s a good start. But they don’t cover the stuff you need in everyday life, like what are all those settings on the washing machine or is that spice ginger, cardamom, or nutmeg? (I learned cinnamon early on.) Some things don’t translate directly. I love the bolo de arroz from the bakery. That translates as “rice cake.” It is more of a corn muffin, because believe me this girl does NOT eat rice cakes. At least not the ones sold in US supermarkets. I am hoping I am far too hung up on getting the formal you vs. the informal you correct. I am learning that the standard greetings taught in the courses are not the standard greetings in real life. They work, of course, but when you listen to the people who live here, you realize there’s a difference.
This week I have my appointment with immigration to get my residency permit. They will ask for certain paperwork: my NIF number (numero), my apartment lease agreement (contrata de apartamento), my passport (passaporte), my bank statements (extratos bancários). When I make an appointment to see a doctor, I will study up on body parts even though the doctor speaks English. I will master the correct pronunciation of ham and cheese sandwich and figure out which version of potato chips is potato chips and which is French fries. (The large amount of British expats has determined the definition of chips here—I need to adjust.)
I am learning, little by little but I want to speed up the process. I am fortunate to live above the bakery and restaurant. I can listen to people as they have their normal conversations and while I don’t understand what they’re talking about, I am training my ear to pick out words and to follow the ebb and flow. I hope one day I will reach the point where I understand enough of the conversation that my eavesdropping is rude. It’s a goal.