Maria/Mary Beth

 

In the past two months I’ve created another life, and to some degree, another persona here in Porto.  It is my way of dealing with the separation from my family and home and friends.  I try to not think much about home and I do it by existing in a state of semi-denial.  My watch is on Portuguese time and in the 24 hour format.  I try not to skype or face time because it is too difficult for me—email, whatapp, messaging works best at keeping the wall up. Seeing faces makes me very homesick.  I try to not think about what they could be doing or what time it is in Pittsburgh.  I live here in this place and in this place people only know me as I present now.  Since I can’t speak fluently, people don’t really know me as Mary.  Here they know me as the Portuguese version of Mary, which is Maria.

Maria is browner than Mary and her hair is shorter and she weighs a little less.  She knows how to de-bone a fish and knows the ingredients that go into a dish called “old clothes”.  She eats cabbage and Brussels sprouts and drinks wine when she cooks her dinner.  She cooks.  She knows what a cooked pig’s ear looks like but draws the line at tripe. She waits in line for food.  She can harvest olives.  Her TV obsession is “Australian Master Chef”.   As you can tell, Maria is interested in food.

Maria is always being asked directions or for the time.  She walks everywhere and takes the steps rather than the escalator.  She likes to walk the city and look at doors and the faces of people and at families.  She says good morning/afternoon and night and hello to everyone even though her accent is strange. She goes to the Church of Paranhos daily to sit and think.  She knits.  Maria can go 48 hours without talking to anyone other than her posse of feral cats.

Maria/Mary Beth worlds came together when my long -suffering and patient Portuguese teacher realized that his aunt was working with me at the University.  He asked her– “do you know Mary Beth”? and she replied, “who is that??”  They finally figured out that Mary Beth was Maria but it made me think about this duality.  Here they only know what they see and who is presented to them and the information that Mary Beth can share in her limited way.

It’s an interesting duality.  We will see how Maria develops and what remains when Mary Beth returns.

“Putting on the English”

I’ve been adopted by a group of PhD and post-docs in education at the University of Porto.  They invite me to lunch because they find my habit of working and eating lunch alone vaguely troubling, and help me when I lose my keys or can’t manage doors.  They also tell me about cultural events such as the film festival this weekend on racism and advise me about food and shopping.  They correct my Portuguese and answer my questions about the academy in Portugal.  As a stranger in their country, I’m grateful for their help and guidance in my daily life in the University.  It has greatly eased my adjustment to a new University life.

I’ve been thinking about language this week, and they are what started me on this thinking path—so bear with me. The name of this blog is “portolistening” not “portotalking” because I knew that my “talking” was going to be limited.  This week I did notice that something happened in my aural comprehension in that I was no longer just hearing “nasal incomprehensible  sound, word, word, WORD THAT I RECOGNIZE, nasal vowel that I can’t recognize, word and nasal sound.”  I started to hear and string sentences in my brain, so that while there were still incomprehensible words and sounds I understood sentences rather than individual words.  That is not to imply that I can sit through an entire TV show or movie and understand, but I did notice a difference.   It felt like a breakthrough after more than a month of nodding and staring at people’s mouths.  I do find Brazilian Portuguese easier to comprehend because it is what I am used to hearing, and it is slower and less “closed”.  In the North, there is also a difference in diction that makes it harder—more closed vowels and a slurring of words and fast tempo.  Sometimes I wonder if they ever take breaths when talking!

I’ve experienced a tiny break-through, but speaking is still challenging for me due to my innate reluctance to show my limitations.  I’ve been speaking English fluently all my life—it is the outward manifestation of who I am.  Words are how I make my living, how I show how funny I am, it is how people know me, and here to not to be able to express in words fluently what is in my head has been challenging.  I don’t feel really “known” here.  Which leads to a book that I’m reading….

Trevor Noah’s book “Born a Crime:  Stories from a South African Childhood” is a great book on several levels—I highly recommend it.  Because he is “colored” or what we consider mixed race, he lived in an “in-between space”—not black, not white but colored, which is a category in South Africa but under Apartheid, illegal.  One way he turned this in-between space to his advantage was to learn all the languages that he could including Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, German, English.  He was a linguist chameleon and could move from group to group and no one could figure out what he way really, and he made that work to his advantage.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a natural talent for languages so I remain “English”.

So back to the students who adopted me and how language can be transcended to some degree.  This week one of the students talked about how he took his English committee member to a restaurant and had a great meal in a place where the food is often indifferent.  One of the other students commented that “they were putting on the English” which made me laugh out loud—and got us talking about these phrases which indicate something other than what direct translation would imply.    This URL gives you some idea of them but we discussed our common sayings which are often descriptive of a state of mind or a future activity or a warning.

https://www.behance.net/gallery/24478537/Portuguese-sayings-that-make-absolutely-no-sense

There are lots of commonalities although Portuguese to English translation would probably not make sense.  For example “swallow frogs” in Portuguese is the same as “take your lumps” in English—both mean accepting something unpleasant but direct translations make no sense to a non-English or a non-Portuguese speaker.   But perhaps these visual metaphors help us to get beyond “words” to feelings. We spent a lunch hour laughing about this in English, Portuguese and Romanian.

So, here is hoping that my language continues to improve.  I certainly hope so because for some reason everyone asks me for directions!