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How to survive in Brazil with only one day of Portuguese

Shantanu Starick

I have only had one Portuguese class. Now I am living with a family that only speaks Portuguese.

Rule #1: Verbal Charades

This whole day has been a game of verbal charades. I have my list of words and I'm not allowed to say anything in English, the only language I know. But somehow I'm supposed to be able to get the people around me to understand what I'm saying. Like charades, you've got to make a fool of yourself for the game to work. You need grand hand gestures and ridiculous body motions just to get a simple point across.

Let's run down a quick list of today's antics: I wafted my armpit three distinct times to make up for my lack of olfactory vocabulary, I sang opera to my host mother because I had/have no knowledge of opera let alone Brazilian opera and, to cap it all off, my grammar sounds like a five year old who tried to memorize a dictionary. But there is a secret to make it all work; a smile.

Rule #2: Smile

It may sound ridiculous, but smiling is the key to success in any foreign country. Expressions of happiness are near universal. If you smile and laugh a little, people will usually respond positively, even if they have absolutely no idea whether the sounds that just came out of your mouth belong to any language at all. In Brazil, at least from what I’ve seen with my limited experience, people of all walks of life want to talk to you as long as you show interest in them. The cashiers at the book store started a conversation with me, so did the students at the high school where we are learning Portuguese. Just as it takes them time to muster a few words of English, it takes me even longer to cobble together some semi-coherent Portuguese. So: don't worry about messing up, just smile through it and most of the time people will be happy to nudge you along.

Rule #3: You will freak out

I have spent a little over 36 hours with my host family and I have “freaked out” exactly twice; that's once every 18 hours. A freak out is when, in a matter of seconds, you’re hit with the fact that, "Shit! 7 months is a long ass time." (This is the way my brain vocalizes it. Everyone has their own personal neural interpreter with his/her own level of profanity.) And after the initial internal declaration your brain starts to swim, or drown more like it, as it tries to comprehend what 7 more months of the last few days could be like. Once your mind has fully submerged itself in its freak out, it starts to come up for air.  But your brain does not know everything. In the midst of a “freak out” you are incapable of understanding that things change. That the path we will follow forward is not a mere linear replication of what has come before, but, rather, unfolds in ways we can never predict. This thought process is my morning ritual.

Rule #4: These rules may not be for everyone

In the above set of rules I tend to use "your" and "you" rather than "I." This rule book comes from my limited experience. It will change, it is fluid and it is not for everyone. As the year goes by and the reality of my surroundings sets in I will revisit them. These rules are Rated ME: My Experience, and may not be suitable for people of the same or different race, class, gender, age or size. No matter, I hope they can be of some use to you on your adventures. Good Luck!


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