Day 1: An overnight flight, and suddenly it’s morning in Brazil, where everyone speaks Portuguese. I don’t speak Portuguese. Elisa and her father, a physics professor and friend of Papa K, pick me up at the airport, and they too speak Portuguese. Evidently, what got me out the door and on the plane was my belief that no Portuguese would be required of me until I started a Portuguese class. Hmm? and many an eyebrow raise. If you could just slow down a bit, and maybe just write down what you’re saying…I speak Spanish, which looks a bit like Portuguese, but doesn’t sound much like it at all. Elisa takes me to the public university in Recife to find Portuguese classes. It’s June, and all classes are ending in 3 weeks. I sleep on a couch in the apartment of Josie, a very nice Brazilian who is the brother of a friend of Elisa.
Day 2: Josie makes me a grilled cheese for breakfast. He takes me back to the same departments at the university to ask about Portuguese classes. Same answers. We walk along a bustling street to find me a chip for the cell phone he’s going to lend me. He asks me why I’m so quiet. I can’t muster the words to respond that it’s less that I don’t want to talk and more that I don’t know how. He talks—everyone talks—and I nod along.
Viola, a lovely (and tall!) German who speaks fluent Portuguese, also lives in the apartment of Josie, and the three of us go out for pizza. I sleep on the couch again—quite a big couch, and with sheets, but it’s in the open-air living room. Mosquitoes. I awake and the left eye-lid is swollen half-shut. Lovely.
Day 3: The big adventure: I go to Boa Viagem, the ‘tourist’ area of Recife, and the closest beach. It’s a grinding, packed, hour-long ride—my first bus in Portuguese—and I almost get off a few times before I’m saved by the helpful attendant who I’ve told where I’m attempting to go. But then, I get there, and—a praia. The beach, the beach in Brazil: I’ve arrived! It’s green water, a reef, waves, sand, beach umbrellas, and skyscrapers. Buildings twenty, forty, sixty stories tall butt right up against the sand, loom over Rua Boa Viagem, and the horizon stretches in a half-moon of blue water and grey-white-silver skyscrapers.
I walk along the beach, and then find Brave Idiomas, a language school that Viola found for me. Most of the language schools are muito caro—really bloody expensive—but this one seems like a steal. Viola comes to meet me, and prevents me from handing over all my money until I go to a test class on Monday. Smart girl.
We grab the omnibus to go back to the university and the apartment. Recife is huge—grindingly so, traffic increasing by the day as more Brazilians can afford to buy cars. When we get off at our stop, Viola asks, Voce esta com fome? and yes, I am hungry. We stop at an acai stand. A giant bowl of frozen acai, banana, granola, nuts and honey is four dollars. All is well; I’ll just live at the acai stand.
Josie takes me out with his friends from university, and I manage to stand in a large and loud group of people and carry on a semi-coherent conversation. Granted, they are speaking Portuguese, and I am speaking mostly Spanish, and we don’t cover a lot of ground, but it’s a conversation.
Day 4: I’m getting by—and amusing myself—with the thumbs up/thumbs down. The thumbs up is, thus far, my favorite thing about Brazil. Two thumbs up with pursed lips—the best way to agree, to endorse, to say, todo bem, all’s good. And, it’s not at all dorky! This is incredibly convenient and useful for me, given that it requires no speaking, yet communicates that, though I may be sitting quietly with a very confused look on my face, I’m actually doing great, thanks! Or, este restaurante é ruim, it’s thumbs down, and I’m given a new cue into the conversation. Brazilians generally talk with their hands, which is wonderful for me, as hand gestures know no dictionary. I’ll be here two months. Two!
Josie helps me clean out a side room in his apartment, and I move off the couch. Amazing. The backpack is unpacked on an ironing board, and I have a queen sized air mattress, as well as a lovely blue Cerveja Antarctica table to put my books and computer. It’s time to learn Portuguese.