Fulbright in Portugal

Steve Doig in Lisbon August-December 2010

Lisbon skyline

Lingua limits

My woeful ability with languages in general and Portuguese in particular hasn’t caused me major problems since our arrival in Lisbon, but I do keep bumping into the reminders that I am an estranho numa terra estranha. That’s “stranger in a strange land”, according to Google Translate, which is my lifeline to comprehension when I’m on my computer.

Problem is, I spend a lot of time each day away from Google Translate’s comforting help. For instance, it’s always an adventure figuring out what the store signs are advertising. A ferretería doesn’t sell ferrets, for instance — it’s a hardware store.

I try to be polite when I’m buying groceries in the supermercado or taste treats in a pasteleira, using por favor (please) and obrigado (thank you) and desculpe (excuse me) as necessary. But random fragments of other languages I also can’t speak all too often spill out of my mouth instead. In the same encounter, the confused shopkeeper is likely to hear me say bitte or gracias or scusi. It’s as though I’m speaking in tongues. Even when I accidentally utter actual Portuguese, the result can be laughable — my attempts at “thank you” sometimes come out as obrigada, which in full means “I am a woman who is obliged to you.” The waiters to whom I say this look at me pityingly, and gently correct me.

Today I ran into another small difficulty caused by my status as a language dolt. Ellyn and I went to the Fulbright office this afternoon to pick up our mail, which included my new bank debit card. I had been using a temporary card, which I was told would stop working once I started using the new card. So I put the new card in my wallet and cut up the temporary one; you can never be too careful, right?

The new card came wrapped in a brief letter — in Portuguese, of course. I stuffed that in my pocket without looking at it. Ellyn and I then walked a few blocks to the giant El Corte Ingles shopping mall to see a movie. But when I tried to pay for the tickets with the new card, it was rejected. Yikes! I had enough euros on me to get the tickets, so we went into the movie. (Os Mercenarios, known as “The Expendables” in the U.S. Directed by the noted cinema auteur Sly Stallone, it couldn’t have been less intelligible if it had been dubbed in Portuguese, instead of English with Portuguese subtitles. But the popcorn was good!)

After the movie, we tried to figure out what was wrong with the card. We found a BPI, the bank that issued the card, but it was closed by the time we got there. And BPI’s own ATM spit back the card. So we trudged back to the Fulbright office, where Carla Silva (the explainer for us of all things Lisbon) called the main bank office about the card problem. After talking for a couple of minutes, Carla asked me if I had gotten a letter with the card. “Maybe this?”, I replied sheepishly, digging into my side pocket and handing the crumpled paper to her. Well, the bank and the letter explained that the PIN was being sent in a separate letter that would arrive next week. The PIN was needed to activate the card. Guess I shouldn’t have been so diligent about cutting up that temporary card.

And there are many other parts of daily living where I’m flummoxed by my incomprehension. The ATMs offer me choices that I don’t understand. The menus at neighborhood cafes (the ones away from the touristy areas) can turn getting a meal into food roulette. The first couple nights here I washed dishes with blue liquid that turned out to be the stuff you add to the dishwasher to get glass sparkly. Having bulky household supplies like toilet paper and dish detergent delivered is great; but ordering a few items online required half an hour of wandering the virtual aisles before discovering that paper towels are rolos de cozhina. And so on.

Luckily, the Portuguese people I have met have been unfailingly patient with my fumbling attempts at communication. It’s not true that everyone here speaks English. However, even Lisboans who are as monolingual as I am have been cheerfully willing to puzzle out what I am trying to say, act out or, on occasion, draw; sneering disdain of the unlettered is not for them. I may be a stranger in their strange land, but they make even one as language-challenged as me feel welcome.

One Response to “Lingua limits”

  1. August 30th, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    scott says:

    The iPhone (which I see you own from another post) has an excellent English-Portuguese dictionary and Portuguese verb conjugator called Ultralingua that gives every possible tense. It was the best $20 I ever spent on language materials… and I think it’s even cheaper now.

    I have also found that this is the best book on the mechanics of the language.. it’s not very thick so it’s a quick read, with only the essentials. I review it before every trip to Portugal.

    [DOIG reply: Thanks for the advice! I haven’t been carrying my iPhone around here because of the horrendous data charges when connecting to ATT overseas. But I will download this and use it.]


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