Thursday, February 28, 2008

A further entry in the open diary of how to (and how not to) get by in the Portuguese language. It's very late and I'm a bit tired and I'm supposed to be cooking pancakes for some pancake races tomorrow at the language school (yes, and I know it's one month after pancake day!) but here's another entry on Portuguese learning.

Without a doubt, one of the biggest factors that affects whether or not I can communicate in Portuguese is the context. When you communicate with someone, it is rarely with a stranger and it is rarely about something completely unrelated to your present situation. I mean, if in England, a person came up to me on the street and asked, "Did you eat kippers for breakfast?" I would be forgiven for saying "Say what now?" even though we speak the same language. Similarly, in Brazil, if I am talking to someone I know about a common problem or topic I am normally able to communicate with a measure of fluency. Likewise, some language in life follows set patterns - at the gas station, in a shop, with the bloke across the road there are a set of questions that are always asked which you learn to recognise.

It's when the random old lady at the supermarket throws me a googly that I'm really thrown. This happens from time to time: somebody speaks to me out of context, asks me a question or makes a comment about goodness knows resulting in my being totally stumped (to use the second cricket analogy in two sentences). Of course, being English, I assume that a random conversation with a stranger is likely to be about the weather, but this is rarely the case here. Natal's weather is one of the least interesting things to talk about. As a student told me today, "Natal has two seasons: hot and hell". So, when a stranger starts a conversation with me about any old thing I am often left slack-jawed and dumbfounded as they twitter away to the point of my, and eventually their, embarrassment.

This issue of context also applies to phone conversations, especially when a client calls me at Cultura. On the phone all non-verbal communication (which is pretty essential for my understanding of Portuguese) is missing. No hand gestures, no pointing at words, no facial expressions - just a monologue of information about something to do with something or somebody connected to learning English or something. With no more clues at my disposal I am often at a loss, although to be fair I do get by better now than I did six months ago.

What I am saying here is that I prefer it when I speak to somebody I know well (like my wife) about something we always talk about (what's for dinner) face to face with plenty of non-verbal communication (she is looking in the fridge pointing at the leftovers) and, if possible, this person throws in the occasional word or three of English ("Honey, o que a gente eat for dinner?"). Then, I'm fine and I think this Portuguese thing ain't so hard after all.

Monday, February 25, 2008

An open diary of how to (and how not to) get by in the Portuguese language. I completely forgot I was going to tell you all about my learning Portuguese. Well, I promised a story two posts ago and here it is. It is true that I am sometimes a bit harsh to my students when I publish their English clangers on here, but they could have a field day with my Portuguese, I'm sure.

A few months ago we were in a restaurant, just before a football match between Nautico (from Recife) and America (from Natal). Nelson was running around (as usual) and a guy from another table started chatting to me. He had travelled up from Recife for the game and was wearing a Nautico shirt. I explained (quite well I thought!) that Rachel's family were from Recife and, in fact, supported Nautico too and that we were going to the game. At this point I wanted to say that Nelsinho had a little Nautico football shirt too and to do so I used the common Portuguese addition to nouns of -inha which generally means "little" (i.e. Ronaldinho means little Ronaldo). So, I thought, the word Portuguese for shirt - "camisa" - would become "camisinha", naturally. But, as with all general rules there are exceptions and I had hit the bullseye of exceptions in this instance. As I said the word "camisinha", Rachel (who was 2 tables away) shot me a quick glance and shook her head. "Don't use that word!", she mouthed. I could actually see the thoughts in her head forming, slow-motion-like, into a long and despairing "Nooooooooo....". I felt like I was in a comedy scene from a dodgy film as the restaurant went silent, everyone turned to eyeball me and a tumbleweed floated by.

Anyway, my blooper came down to this. Camisinha is Portuguese slang for some other object that is both small and worn for protection. I had just told a complete stranger that my son had recieved from his Grandad, in the red and white colours of Nautico, a condom. Oops.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Joy Simpson is in Natal! It's been great to have Joy over from the UK. Her and Rachel and Rachel's brother and girlfriend have popped out for dinner leaving me to keep an eye on the sleeping boy. Joy did a great service by bringing curry packs, a music magazine, a broadsheet newspaper and a Cadbury's chocolate bar over for me... it doesn't get any better than that.

Mum is in Africa! Mum returned to Chad on Friday and should be in Cameroon with Dad right now. After the various necessary meetings I hope they get a proper break - Dad especially needs one.

Eduardo is in hospital! Not a good day to be an Arsenal supporter, drawing a game that should've been won and losing one of our best strikers to a horrific injury that will keep him out for 6 months to a year. The Brazilian press have picked up the story of Eduardo and his decimated ankle with rigour, claiming him to be one of their own, raised on the streets of Rio as a boy, and suffering a terrible blow today that affects us all here in Brazil. It's strange that the press have suddenly had collective amensia - often forgetting to remind their readers that Eduardo moved to Croatia at the age of 16 and is a naturalised Croat.

This blog entry here by a columnist for globo website says that if Eduardo repented of his Croatian nationality he would (and should) be called up to the Brazilian national team in a flash! I've just been reading some of the comments that follow the article by average Jo Brazilian. Some "commentarios" I wouldn't dare translate on account of not having a big enough swearing dictionary handy, but the gist of most messages is that Martin Taylor is a criminal and should be sent to prison and be banned from football and that serious questions need to be asked about the legitamacy of his genetic heritage.

The picture in that article shows Martin Taylor about to connect with the side of Eduardo's shin, just a fraction of a second before the compound break. If you're squeamish I don't recommend flicking around the links on the globo pages - these guys are not coy (like the British TV coverage which refused to show a replay of the incident) and have happily plastered graphic images of Eduardo's severe injury and contorted face across their national news website (for example here).

So for today, Eduardo is a Brazilian and we mourn with him. Get well soon Dudu!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

An afternoon at an orphanage. Rachel and I have wanted to get involved in some social action work but for one reason or another it hasn't worked out until now. We (eventually) managed to track down the contact for an orphanage here in Natal I had been given by one of students, a Christian called Marcus. Rachel spoke to the lady there and we went to visit yesterday. We didn't know what we would find and whether there would be an opportunity for us as a family to be involved. What we did find was heart-wrenching but probably not unusual. Up and down Brazil, the forgotten children of this country end up in places not unlike the one we visited yesterday - a small, bare house of two floors which presently has 35 kids, literally bouncing off the walls, aged 1 to 14 and only two carers worked off their feet.

The lady who started the orphanage took pity on three kids that were left on her doorstep 14 years ago. She took pity on them and the flood gates opened. 14 years on and those first kids are still there. There are needs in every direction at this place so there's lots for us to do. Nelson, who was mobbed on account of his blond hair and on account of being somebody different, was a bit nervous at first but later warmed up to the younger kids in the group. We are praying about how to be involved, how to give and what we can do. Watch this space for more news!

Amusing uses of Portuguese: me attempting public speaking. We came back from a night in Joao Pessoa on Sunday. The occasion for our brief trip was Rachel's Dad's Dad's 80th. He is quite frail and has had a difficult few months but it was nice the family could be together and Nelson could see his cousins.

Back in Natal, our little church group met in the afternoon and the leaders and our good friends Marcelo and Veronica had asked me to say a few words about my parents situation in Africa and also reflect on something in the Bible that I felt was important. I was to speak in Portuguese without a translator. As usual, I was in a rush heading up to the service and I felt it wasn't so well prepared. But, I was really thrown when I arrived to find that our usual group (10 people or less) had trebled in size, was featuring some esteemed guests form Recife and all this was taking place in a completely different room. I found myself muttering an oft-quoted maxim - when in Brazil, expect the unexpected. When the time came for me to do my bit I fumbled about with my piece of paper and explained to everyone that I was a bit nervous but I did have my dictionary and wife around to help me soldier through. I spoke for about 10 minutes on one of my favourite chunks of the book of Acts - chapter 11 and the thoroughly international and outward looking church at Antioch. My efforts at accuracy were shoddy at best but I think I got my point across and that's the main point of communication, I suppose.

After a year in Natal, I finally feel I am getting somewhere with my Portuguese. I can certainly "get by" in most run-of-the-mill activities of the day - at the supermarket, putting petrol in the car, sleeping, walking etc. I understand "quasi-tudo" of what is said to me, especially within Rachel's family where I am used to their voices and manner of speaking. When I was learning to play the guitar aged 14 I think I reached a point after 6 months where the basics were in place, my fingers weren't so sore and I could actually play a couple of tunes. I think I am in the equivelent linguistic position as regards my Portuguese. I hope and pray I can keep plodding on from here and get close-ish to fluency by the time we leave Natal. WIth this in mind, I thought I should write a bit on here about my language learning adventures beginning with an absolute clanger from a few months back...

but, I'll save that for my next entry.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Chad part 4. A quick update - things in Chad have quietened down and Mum is on her way back to Africa next week. She will go via France to see her brother and family and then meet up with Dad and the team in Cameroon. There's still a long way to go before "normality" resumes but these are promising signs. As far as I know, their car has not been recovered.

Amusing uses of English. These are the answers to the mini-quiz which I set on a recent post. The answers to English words with Portuguese spellings that are commonly used in Brazil are:
uau = wow
xampu = shampoo
piquenique = picnic
cauboi = cowboy
uisque = whiskey
maicon = Michael

Amy Winehouse. Congrats to Amy Winehouse for scooping 5 awards at the recent grammys. More so, congrats to her on confronting her demons and sticking it out at rehab. I was pleased to see a good article about Amy written by her brother Alex in this week's Times. Alex is an old school pal of mine. The Winehouse family used to live on the same road as us in London.

Bits of news. We're probably travelling down to Joao Pessoa this weekend to see Rach's family on the occasion of her granddad's birthday. In an unrelated event, we bought Nelson his first potty yesterday in view of future poo and wee training. He was so delighted he has been sitting on it constantly or putting it on his head as a hat. In another unrelated event, guga our turtle is doing fine and has been joined by other critters in our growing managerie. We think there is a nest of lizards as we see lots of little ones everywhere and there is definitely a nest of recently hatched birds who live above our light fixture outside. Rachel found a recently lived in egg shell and I can hear them chirping away right now. And finally, I am getting back into the swing of English teaching - I am delighted that my advanced English speaking group all love football. This gives us something to natter about endlessly...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Royal family, David Beckham, endangered turtles and Natal. We are all abuzz today with news of the battle of the two Davids. Natal continues to find itself at the centre of attention for the world's media ever since David Beckham's revealed his bronzed biceps on our beaches. The previous owner of Cultura Inglesa, the British Consul rep, a personal aquaintance and keen conservationist David Hassett has gone to the English papers to haul David Beckham's project for a Natal-based football academy over the coals because of the potential dangers to the wildlife.

This is typical of Mr Hassett, a man who has invested a great deal in research into and protection of endangered species and habitats in this part of Brazil. He is an important public figure in Natal and his opinions won't be treated lightly - the question is, how much clout can he possibly weild in the face of the Beckham brand machine? My guess is not a lot. I am pleased he is waving the flag for the environmental cost of what is/will happen to Natal's coastline as the rich and famous deposit themselves and their mansions on turtle breeding grounds. But, I imagine David the conservationist might get a bit of flack from some quarters - David the footballer's presence in Natal raises the profile of the city and is supposed to lead to community development initiatives and employment.

Read more about the "scandal" here at

Monday, February 11, 2008

Chad part 3. Things in Chad have calmed down somewhat, thank God. Dad is still there, Mum is still in the UK. As Dad described in an email to me, things in Chad are still quite "fluid" and all sorts of uncertainties still prevail. On the positive side, Dad is living back at their house which was undamaged by looters (He did find a bullet under the door though!). And the banks opened today although Dad's not sure they have any money in them. Thanks to everyone for your prayers and interest on this.

Chinese New Year. Occasionally, I feel like I'm back in my old job as an international student worker especially when I'm teaching English to Natalese university students hoping to study abroad. This week I felt like an ISW all over again for another reason. One of my ex-students attends kung fu classes and her school and teachers organised an event outside the Peking Restaurant. Going to Chinese New Year events was par for the course in York, and now I find myself at one all over again. Unfortunately, we were 45 minutes due to the fact that Natal's town planners had decided to name two roads on the opposite side of town practically the same thing. Being 45 minutes late meant we were more or less on time by the Brazilian clock...

Nelson had a good time watching the dragon dance although he kept telling off the kung fu display chaps for fighting. He didn't like it when they fell over either. But, he did a mean impression of a kung fu master, swishing his hands back and forth rapidly (not unlike E.Honda from Street Fighter 2). Rach and I got a kick out of the sign which read "Gung Hey Fat Chow". I only realised this week that this is the traditional greeting for this time of year and not really that funny anyway. But then there is a chain of restaurants in Natal called "Thin San", and maybe "Fat Chow" should go there for a diet plan... sorry, that's terrible. And to think, I once was a politically-correct, culturally-sensitive international student worker once.

Amusing uses of English: Portuguese spelling. Some words and expressions that we have in English have been cut and pasted into Portuguese with the same sounds but sporting Portuguese spellings. Sometimes I come across these and don't recognise them right away until somebody says the word in question. So, here's a game. What are these words? If you speak English, you'll know what they are but you may not recognise their new spellings... uau, xampu, piquenique, cauboi, uisque, maicon. Answers next post.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Chad part 2. Just spoke to Mum this morning on Skype. She is in Southampton with my Uncle and Aunt. Things have quietened down steadily through the week. Today, Dad was able to call her from their own house which, surprisngly and wonderfully, hadn't been looted. Still lots of unanswered questions, missing people and chaos. And it is possible the rebels may try to re-enter the city at some point. But, all in all, the news coming out of Chad has been better, thank God. Be in touch if you would like more news about this.

Marcelo Alves. My lawyer friend (see last week's post) was accepted for his PhD at King's College. Wahey!

Edson Careca. It was carnaval this weekend which is a good time to get together with the family and hit the beach. The sun was beating down and everywhere was obscenely crowded but we had a good time nonetheless. For the fourth time, I went on the sand dune buggy ride, this time with Rachel's brother and girlfriend. In a moment of insanity we chose to go with the driver Edson Careca (see last week's post) who seemed hell-bent on raising his own ridiculously high bar for driving like a lunatic. Nelson complained about a sore bum the next day and Marcella vowed never to do it again.

Things I miss about England #28: Cycle lanes. Steve and I cycled out to Genipabu beach from north Natal (inspired by Theo who walked there in a morning) on Monday. It was fairly flat and the scenery was beautiful - a recommended excursion for any gringos, as long as you have sundown layered on with a spade, shades and a hat. The only thing was in the short stretch on busy streets it was really a case of us battling the buses, the buggies, the pedestrians, the animals, the motorbikes and the potholes with no protection except your wits. York cycle paths this was not. At one point, I was distracted by the sight of a small town car close to scraping the floor under the burden of the 9 people it was carrying. That's 2 in the front, 4 in the backseat and three kids sitting in the boot, with the hatch open and their legs dangling out over the bumper waving at the cars behind.

Things I love about Brazil #39: Carne de sol and macaxeira fritas. After our cycle ride I was famished and couldn't wait to order my favourite snack. Carne de sol is sun-dried, cured meat which is included in many of the dishes of northern Brazil. It is often cut into strips or shredded and has a very salty taste. It is usally fried very simply - probably in soya oil - and comes with some tomatoes, onions and lettuce if you're lucky. The local deli sells it and today I bought a kilo to make for lunch. Macaxeira (Manioc in English) fritas (fries) are a good accompaniment, very filling and so nice when they are crispy and fresh. Nelson loves to get a long Macaxeira frita, dip it in ketchup or Mayonnaise (or both mixed together) and suck the chip soggy.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Chad. It's been a strange few days around here, waiting for news on Mum and Dad as the city they live in is decimated. Today I spoke to Mum for half an hour by Skype.She is back in the UK at my Uncle and Aunt's house after being evacuated via Libreville and Paris. It has been quite an ordeal for her. Dad is still in Chad trying to contact the AIM team and check everyone is OK before he himself leaves. As I say, it's been a strange few days.

Many people have been very supportive; I think it's important to remember the context for all of this is the Christian faith that we share. Mum and Dad wouldn't be there if they didn't feel God had called them and we trust God's will to be done in their lives and within Chad. Without this basis or sense of "reason" we would be lost.