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Jun 17, 2014

A funny thing happened on the way to learning Portuguese....


When I first moved to Portugal, I stayed in one of the better parts of town, a suburb with some rather good fields and hills to walk my dogs and a lot of nice people with whom I have some things in common. I had been greatly worried by the dire warnings of German friends about what a tick-infested, dangerous place the Med countries are for pets, and how there is naught to be done. The first part is true of almost any country these days, but usually the local vets have a good understanding of how to prevent and treat local pet diseases, and just one day after my arrival I was fortunate to meet a vet in the park across from my house who gave me exactly the advice I needed and took me on a whirlwind tour of the local Neolithic archaeology sites. Can't imagine a better start for me in a new place, really.

But the house there was only available for a month, and the back yard was not well suited to containing my Deutsch Drahthaar, a hunting companion who is a sweetheart with people who likes to jump over 2 meter fences, go on tour and bring back cats as souvenirs. So I went on to another place closer to the university in the historic center of Évora. The back yard was as dog-tight as a maximum security kennel could be with walls and fences at least 5 meters high. But a black cat still managed to drop by as an impromptu snack. His bad luck in this case. The cactus which decorated the edges of the yard also meant a few difficult sessions extracting spines from the bodies of two robust dogs who like to knock each other around rather hard in play. And after the Drahthaar went sailing out a second story window to express his love to the serenading tomcat below and landed a bit hard on the cobblestones I figured it was time to move on.

One of the other problems with the first two addresses was that the neighborhoods presented too many opportunities to speak English or, occasionally, German. If the majority of people I encountered every day were not university educated with a reasonable command of one of the languages I mastered there was usually someone nearby who could serve as social methadone for someone with a lazy addiction to using the wrong language in the right place.

So I moved to the part of town where the other form of methadone is more commonly found. A place where for the first two months the only ones I met with much command of English at all were the local drug dealer and a housekeeper I knew from my favorite hotel, who is also the neighborhood's bootlegger. Aguardente caseira was quickly added to my vocabulary and kitchen shelf. German is not an option here; when the local crime lord introduced himself at the neighborhood's revolution party (celebrating the ouster of Salazar in 1974 and the political reforms which remain incomplete) he was so amused by the fact that I claimed to know the language that he called up one of the addicts who buy from him (an orderly at the local hospital if I understood correctly and a German refugee) and asked me to talk to him and confirm that I really could speak the language.

On several occasions I have had the the opportunity to use the phrase não sou alemão!!! to sooth social tensions which persist here despite the best attempts of German banks to drain the country's sometimes too-hot blood. And using the phrase with my private Portuguese tutor's mother last week transformed me in short order from persona non grata and an object of some dark speculation on a street populated by siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles to a likeable eccentric and for all I know possibly a candidate for legal induction into the family. (My Portuguese isn't quite up to the level of understanding this point, and sometimes it's better not to try.)

The recent brainstorm which resulted in The Great American Cookie Project, sharing the theory and practice of snickerdoodles, soft jumbles and every kinky kind of chocolate chip cookie one might imagine, took my crappy command of the local Alentejo dialect from nearly zero - unable to form a sentence most of the time if it involved more than "I'll have a coffee" or "Six eggs, please" - to conversing in pidgin Portuguese for more than 8 hours on many recent days and has done wonders for my physical condition and blood sugar levels. It's also given me a rapidly improving command of the techniques to cook like my local friends do. Cold cut sandwiches with too much cheese, good bye.

Moving to the sort of place my respectable, educated friends warned me to avoid has been a great experience and also shown that the place is far better than its reputation among my peers, knife-wielding tendeiros who want to break bottles over my head for not having cigarettes for them notwithstanding. A quick smile and a question about how much bigger the puny faca was than the fellow's caralho usually suffices to sooth the tensions.

As temperatures rise, tempers can get short as last night's unplanned visit to a local pub to watch the soccer game (Germany versus Portugal at the World Cup in Brazil) proved. It's been ages since I had to practice disarms, and usually that was with sticks or knives. A beer bottle is a new experience for me, as well as the creative variations of puta I learned which were expressed to my patient tutor for keeping company with the German. How many times do I have to that explain to people here that eu não sou alemão? I think there is a rematch of the discussion planned for Thursday, though to be honest I'm not fluent enough to have caught all the details. Maybe I'll be able to explain them on Friday. Let's hope.



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