Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Getting By In Brazil....Without Much Portuguese.


Just the other day I was thinking about how slack I’ve been in keeping up this blog…so let me sort that out by writing another one. And let me start by telling you about something that happened to me last week.

I got a haircut.

And yea, bear with me, because it gets a bit more interesting from here on in. The place I'd gone to was not too far from my house; it was a cheap, back street barbers shop, in a bit of a dodgy location. Having said that it’s three quid for a hair cut...! I know, BARGAIN! And when you have a receding hairline like mine, you expect a bit of a discount anyway!

"You'd rather do what luv? Go home for your
tea first? Oh, well alright then!"
To give you an idea of how shady the area is, on the way there I was offered a prostitute about 300 yards away from the barbers, and it was only half past three in the afternoon (I'm still not sure which one I find the most shocking, being offered a hooker in the first place, or being offered a hooker at three thirty in the afternoon!!!).

The barber cutting my hair on this day was an old guy I'd not seen there before, and a few minutes into sitting in this chair it became clear that he was adamant he was going to be asking me loads of questions. From the amount of questions he was throwing my way, I'd guessed he hadn't had too many foreigners sat in his chair before. So after repeatedly telling him that, ‘no’, I wasn't a German, him assuming I simply hadn't understood, and then shaping the question differently for me....he eventually moved on and started asking me a whole load of other questions that I didn't understand. Instead of giving up when he realised I didn’t understand him, he continued asking away, hoping to tease an answer out of me. 

Needless to say he wasn’t fully concentrating on what he was doing, and I distinctly remember him looking directly into the mirror and into my eyes whilst asking me one of these questions. Whilst he did this, the unthinkable happened; I felt a sharp pain in my left ear. He'd only gone and sliced into my ear with his scissors!

My natural reaction was to slide down in the chair and put my hand over my ear, and a few seconds later, to my horror, when I pulled my hand away my fingers were tinged with blood.

"Alright mate, can I just have a short
back and sides please!?!"
Had he not already been halfway through cutting my hair, and had I not had a class to go to in just an hour, I’d have been out of there. But after accepting what were clearly his apologies I decided to wait it out, and the next ten minutes were pretty uncomfortable. I sat there, accepting the apologies he offered every two minutes and wincing every time he got close to my ears with his scissors.

The most frustrating part about it was that I couldn’t communicate the word plaster or antiseptic to him…he didn’t understand these in English (although I’ve since been told ‘band aid’ is also a term used in Portuguese, and I definitely said that. So he probably did understand, but played dumb because he didn't have one). Because I wasn't sure what these items were in Portuguese, I had to make do with him occasionally dabbing at the cut with a towel. However I did understand him when he asked for payment...and I know he understood what I thought about that, as I shook my head, looked slightly menacing and then walked out. 'If I could speak a decent level of Portuguese' I remember thinking to myself, 'you could have told him where to stick his payment!' This then prompted me to ask myself why I couldn't yet speak a decent level of Portuguese.

Well when I got back to Brazil earlier this year, I found it quite difficult to study Portuguese on my own, but after sourcing out a teacher, I've finally started my classes and have got into my studies. On reflection it’s a shame we hadn’t covered the  ‘having a go at your barber when he goes all Edward Scissorhands on your ear’ class before this visit to the barber.

People in Brazil often ask me if I have difficulties living here without being able to speak much Portuguese…and I'll be honest, give or take the odd frustrating experience, it isn't actually too difficult. I suppose one reason for this is that I have a pretty good grasp of survival Portuguese now. Also after almost six years of living in countries where English is not the first language spoken, I've long since felt comfortable with not understanding everything being said around me.

I guess another one of the reasons I don't find it so difficult is because I speak English for a living, and my students of course only speak English to me. So I don’t really need to use much Portuguese in my day, as I rarely speak to anyone on my way to work on the subway, or in the supermarket. 

When I get home I prepare for my English classes, write an email or two in English, or watch some shows I’ve downloaded (naturally, in English). I tend to speak English to my Brazilian housemate too, because he gets frustrated with my Portuguese (“I really no understand what you speak. I no have the energy for listen to this!” Yea, I know, he really is a walking confidence booster!) When I go out drinking, with the exception of asking for a beer (So some survival Portuguese! Wheeeeeeeeey! What a tit I've just made myself sound!) I'll often speak English to my friends. 

Quite often, when Brazilians have been drinking and they hear me and my friends speak English, they will come over and strike up a conversation with us to test out their English skills. Getting around is quite straight forward too, because I can read the signs. When I lived in Japan I didn't have this luxury...the Japanese classes I had were geared towards speaking Japanese, as opposed to reading and writing it. So navigating my way through the squiggles/kanji was often pretty daunting!

"I'm not sure what you just said, but I really hope
you just asked me if I'd like that pasty,
third from the top!"
This is not to say I don’t have problems with my limited vocabulary, because I occasionally do. Getting something from a bakery is a bit of a nightmare because I don’t know the names of the items I want. Whenever I’m in there I generally end up pointing a lot, feeling awkward and, well, looking really awkward too...kind of like Mr Bean! And ordering at a Subway sandwich shop is one big game of sharades, a game I always end up losing (Did you really just ask me if I wanted chicken and gherkins, together, really!?!)

However I’ve come to accept my time here is not as fruitful as it could be because I haven't invested enough time in studying. I remember from my time in Japan that learning the language and being able to communicate really opens up a lot of doors, and I fully accept I have been lazy so far. So at the moment, to turn this around I’m devoting at least an hour a day to getting it up to speed. By doing this I'm hoping that soon I am unlikely to have a repeat performance of an incident last June, where I really could have done with some more Portuguese knowledge.

If you don't have cable, MTV is the channel on which you are most likely to hear English either being spoken or sung in Brazil (unless of course you are rich enough to have cable!) because English speaking music is very popular over here (Unfortunately this isn’t always good news…I don’t think I can handle hearing Adele’s Rolling In The Deep many more times without feeling the neeed to hurt somebody! If you thought she was overplayed in the UK, you need to get yourself over here to Brazil!). So last June I was watching the Brazilian Top 10 chart countdown and 
in between a Britney Spears and David Guetta track (they bloody love these two over here too!) was a singer called Thiago Pethit. I instantly liked what I was hearing and after finding and downloading some of his stuff, I also joined his Facebook page (that’s right, I'm SO down with the kids!). 

A few weeks later then I was on Facebook in between classes when I noticed that he’d updated his status. The first 20 people to send their email address to him got two tickets for a small gig he was performing at the MTV studios a few days later. I had enough time to put this through Google Translate (I can’t really imagine my life over here without it!) was still one of the first twenty people to reply.

So a few days later I was sat with my flatmate on the floor of this tiny room, filled with TV cameras, waiting for the gig to start. Before Thiago entered the recording space, a presenter walked into the middle of the room with his mic and started talking to everyone. Whatever he said was really funny (Apparently!), and he seemed to be doing a great job of entertaining this select crowd of people.

Thiago Pethit
I started to worry when I noticed the guy flinging his microphone in random peoples faces, asking them questions about Thiago Pethit for the cameras as he edged ever closer to me! I didn’t want to have my appalling Portuguese exposed on national TV so I kept quiet, and every time something funny was said, not wanting to draw attention to myself by asking my flatmate to help translate, I fake-laughed along with the crowd! Afterwards, despite enjoying the gig, I couldn’t help but think had I known a bit more Portuguese, I would have felt more comfortable. 

"You're bloody hilarious you are!"
It's me (with some glasses on) at the concert!!!
A few weeks later the show was aired, and I was pleased to see that me and my (award worthy!) fake laugh had made the final cut! I'd been worried I would've been shown, on my Brazilian TV debut, looking like a confused, miserable bastard, whilst everyone else was laughing! But luckily, I'd pulled it off convincingly...THIS TIME!

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