why Portuguese?

On my last afternoon in Buenos Aires, when I was 19—five years ago, but wasn’t I just 19?—I was feeling bohemian—the effect of six months abroad and a nose piercing. We wandered into a trendy music store in Palermo, and I asked the hipster working the floor for a music recommendation: anything Brazilian. He shrugged, flipped through a few stacks, and handed me a CD with a pink cover: Marisa Monte’s Universo ao Meu Redor.

I’ve been asked a lot: Why Portuguese? Why Brazil?

Really… no idea.

Maybe it was the people that captivated me. I lived in Mendoza during my study abroad in Argentina, where I met a few Brazilians, of whom I remember only a general flurry of hands and laughter. I don’t remember his name, but I remember his voice—some fellow at some party who held a group of us captive with stories, spoken in perfect Portunhol. A sardonic humor that comes with a shrug-smile that I’ve now seen a thousand times: everything gone to shit? No worries, we’ll find a way, it’ll all work out, and in the meantime, what kind of music do you like?

Yesterday, I relished digging out my last two reais for my last trip home on the onibus. And then… I waited. And waited. And a hundred buses passed, lacking only my dear 040 Caxangá/CDU/Boa Viagem. The sun was bright and beautiful for my last day in Brazil—powerful and grinning, and sweat dripped down my legs and back. The woman melting next to me began to chat in my general direction, and I nodded along, agreeing when necessary. “Oshé, menina,” she said, looking me up and down. “Do you have sunscreen on?” I shook my head. She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips—but such pale skin, she muttered. She dug into her purse, pulled out a bottle of SPH 50, and squirted it up and down my arms. After I had satisfactorily coated myself, she had me stand in the shade behind the bus stop while she watched for my bus.

:::

Or the language itself. For some people, it’s Italian. For some, it’s French—the language, the lifestyle. For me, it’s always been Portuguese—that language spilling out of the mouths and hands and instruments of all these people that live here, in Brazil, people living slightly different lives, inhabiting different worlds, a result of or reason for the different language.

Portuguese doesn’t like to end a word on a constant sound (as half the words in this sentence do, English being a big fan of the hard finish). In Portuguese, words either end in vowels—você vai—or in constants that aren’t pronounced—m (tem) or l—which feels like “u” (Brasiu, not Brazil)—or s, which is just a whisper. It’s why Portuguese feels like marbles in my mouth—all the rounded vowels—and why English feels clenched in the mouths of Latin-language speakers—all the vertical consonants.

When Portuguese imports new words from English, all those English words that don’t end in vowel sounds are changed so that they do end in vowel sounds. Internet becomes In-ter-neh-tee; Land Rover, Land-ee Ho-ver. Sometimes a word gets two extra vowels, one in the middle, just for good measure: Do you have Fay-cie-book-ee? The tragic sinking of the Tee-tan-ee-key.

It gives the language an energy, a cheerfulness that I don’t find in English. While Spanish rolls in seductive rrrs and ooos, Portuguese is bursts of excitement: the tes and des that are pronounced “tche” and “dgee” (ci-dad-dgee) the long o in ótimo (tá oootimo!), the infernal plural “çoes” that my tongue doesn’t dance. Even the evening news sounds musical to me, and perhaps this accounts for the fame of Brazilian music around the world. The language lends itself to poetry, and you can feel this, even if the words aren’t understood.

:::

I listened to Universo ao Meu Redor on Saturday afternoon for the first time since I arrived in Brazil. If I didn’t pay attention, it sounded the same as it has sounded for the past five years: a lovely melody, calm and bright, and Marisa Monte’s lovely voice, singing lovely sounds… relaxing background music, blurring into a mood.

But, if I paid attention, if I did nothing else except just listen, the lovely sounds turned into words—words into phrases, into lyrics, into meaning. It’s the scene from every cliché teen movie: the homely girl, so very nice but lacking shine, gets a makeover. She walks down the stairs and she is stunning: who knew that beauty was there all along? The very pleasant melody is still there, but these words now make sense, and they are all the more beautiful because they were hidden. I feel like I’ve cracked open a new world… and if my two months in Brazil studying Portuguese lead nowhere else, give me no other satisfaction than this revelation, the window into this world and its expression, then they have been worth it.

E eu já não me sinto só
Tão só, tão só
Com o universo ao meu redor

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