Fulbright in Portugal

Steve Doig in Lisbon August-December 2010

Lisbon skyline

Archive for the ‘Living in Lisbon’ Category

Mais vinho, por favor!

As I count down the days until we actually go to Lisbon, I’ve been spending lots of time trying to familiarize myself with all things Portugal. This includes hours spent wandering the streets of Baixa, the Alfama and Castelo via the wonders of Google Streetview. This is fascinating, but frustrating — the scenes I see make me want to be there right now to hear the streetcar going by and smell the scent of baked goods coming from the pastelaria. It also includes hours trying to get comfortable with at least the social basics of Portuguese, but my ear for languages definitely is made of tin. Rosetta Stone, ever the patient computer tutor, makes me repeat a word or phrase over and over until it finally decides that the noises I make at least vaguely approximate what it wants to hear from me. I find I can understand an increasing percentage of written Portuguese, thanks mostly to reading hundreds of tweets posted over the past several weeks by some of the active bloggers listed in the links on the right. But understanding spoken Portuguese? Not so much yet.

I am succeeding greatly, however, in another area of preparation — appreciation of Portuguese wine. Thanks to a recommendation from a reader of this blog, I have discovered vinho verde. This so-called “green wine” (clear as water, actually) is light, tasty, slightly fizzy, and wonderfully refreshing when deeply chilled. I was delighted last weekend to find that one of our local grocery stories, Sunflower, stocks three different labels of vinho verde: Fâmega, Casal Garcia and Gazela. Even better, they are ridiculously inexpensive — just $6 to $8 a bottle. Naturally, I bought a couple of bottles of each, and I’m working my way through them, a couple of glasses a night. I’m no wine snob; I can’t wax rhapsodic about fruit, nose, finish, and notes of this or that. For all I know, real connoisseurs of vinho verde may dismiss these labels as Portuguese plonk. But they taste great to me. So I’m adding a new phrase to my growing list of must-use Portuguese: “Mais um copo de vinho verde, por favor.”

LeCool guidebook

I’m waiting somewhat anxiously to hear from the Consulate of Portugal about my application for a four-month visa, a packet I sent nearly a month ago. In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying a wonderful guidebook to Lisbon sent to me by Melissa Mapes, an ASU student who spent the past year in Portugal on a Fulbright herself. The book, titled “A Weird and Wonderful Guide to Lisbon”, is published by LeCool Books — and both the book and the publisher are aptly named. It’s lavishly illustrated with quirky graphics and collages of Lisbon scenes. It’s not your parents’ touristy Frommer’s; instead, the chapters clearly reflect the interests of the backpackers in the LeCool target audience: Sleeping, Eating, Drinking, Going Out, Party Calendar, etc. Even though my dance-’til-dawn days are long gone (okay, never were), Ellyn and I are eager to try many of the restaurant, bars, fado clubs and back-alley strolls that the authors recommend. We’ve decided to make a long list of all the places to see and things to do that LeCool (and Frommer’s) recommend, and check them off as we accomplish them. It’s going to be a tough job, but I think we’re up to it!


Like all too many Americans, I am monolingual. Yes, English has become the world-wide lingua franca, which means that there’s little pressure for most Americans to learn other languages. But I am always embarrassed about that when I visit other countries, particularly in Europe, where so many people speak two, three or even more languages.

About three years ago I spent two months in Salamanca studying Spanish; the result of all that is I now can speak it like a bright Spanish 2-year-old. As for my fluency in Portuguese, well, don’t ask. I am told by my soon-to-be colleagues at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa that my linguistic disabilities won’t be a problem — their students are quite competent with English, of course.

Even so, I will be making a great effort before my arrival in Lisbon to learn enough Portuguese to avoid sounding like the Ugly American. To that end, I bought the first set of Rosetta Stone lessons on Portuguese and have been working my way through the exercises, a good mix of reading, listening and speaking. Rosetta Stone apparently only offers the Brazilian flavor of Portuguese. That’s not surprising, I guess, in that Brazil is by far the largest Portuguese-speaking country, with about 90% of all the Lusophones in the world (that’s people who speak Portuguese.)

I don’t know if George Bernard Shaw’s famous observation that America and England are “two countries separated by a common language” also is reflected in differences in words, idioms and pronunciation between people in Portugal and Brazil. But based on my stumbling experience with Rosetta Stone, I am sure no one in Lisbon is going to mistake my accent for Brazilian. The speaking part of the lessons is done into a microphone, and I find I have to repeat words over and over until the computer actually recognizes what I am trying to say.

One thing is clear to me: Spoken Portuguese sounds VERY different from Spanish. Unlike the varying ways letters can be pronounced in English, Spanish pronunciations are pretty straightforward. Not so Portuguese, which uses several diacritical marks to morph the way many letters are pronounced. But my Spanish is so bad that I actually can read simple Portuguese about as well as I can Spanish. The reason, of course, is that many words have common Romance roots, though the Portuguese spellings can be quite different.

Until someone genetically engineers an actual babel fish, the next best thing for the linguistically challenged like me is Google’s translation tools. I have installed the Google toolbar, which recognizes when I look at a web page in Portuguese and automatically translates it into something close to English. I also can copy and paste text into it from the growing number of Portuguese and Brazilian journalists and educators who I’m following on Twitter.

As for having face-to-face conversations in Portuguese, in reality I hope only to reach a level of fluency that allows me to handle the most essential communications, like these:

  • Perdoe-me. Eu só falo Inglês.
  • Quanto é que custou?
  • Mais vinho, por favor.
  • Onde fica o casa de banho?

I’ll let you know how that works out.

Fans of Lisbon

I’m starting to hear from colleagues and students who have been to Lisbon. They tell me how wonderful it is and how lucky I am to be going there. (I know that!) One student, Lauren Peikoff, visited Portugal numerous times during her semester last year studying in nearby southern Spain. She sent me a nice note of congratulations.

“You will thoroughly enjoy your time in Portugal,” Lauren wrote. “The people are so kind and so intelligent. I couldn’t even believe it when a waiter at our restaurant one night was fluent in five languages. It speaks about the character of the Portuguese.”

View from the castleLauren also sent me a gallery of hundreds of photos she took during her visits there. I’ll share just one, a view to the west from Castelo de Sao Jorge, which is above the apartment where we will be living. I get a good sense from this vista that I’m going to be doing a lot of climbing.

Another friend from way back in high school days, Deirdre McCarthy, tells me she has had a long love affair with Portugal.

“I can guarantee you’ll be doing a lot of hill-climbing in Lisbon, but all the better to work up a good appetite for hearty Portuguese fare,” Deirdre wrote. “You will love the markets; I remember shopping at the fascinating fish markets in the south of Portugal (Algarve) where my parents had their house for nearly 40 years. Wonderful memories.” And she adds: “You will love Portugal– the landscape, the warmth of the people, the food and, oh, my, the hardy wines and fabulous Ports….”

Okay, I’m really convinced now.

Food in Portugal

My wife and I love to cook and eat interesting food. One of the joys of living in Spain a few years ago was shopping in the mercados for meats and fish and vegetables that you rarely see here in the U.S. I’m counting on a similar experience in Lisbon. To get prepared, I added a new cookbook to our considerable collection: “The Food of Portugal”, by Jean Anderson. It was published 15 years ago, but I doubt that there’s been much change in the many traditional dishes she describes so glowingly. I read through it today, and already have selected a recipe to try tomorrow: Feijoada Branca à Transmontana (White Beans, Pork and Sausage Tras-Os-Montes Style). It sounds similar to the delicious bean-and-meat stews I had during a visit to Brazil a couple of years ago. The original recipe calls for such delicacies as pig’s ears and smoked trotters — not common items in my local supermarket. I’m following the author’s advice to substitute smoked ham and prosciutto and spicy Italian sausage.

UPDATE: Just finished my second bowl of the Feijoada Branca. Very hearty, with lots of flavor and spice from all the various sausages I threw into the pot. This success bodes well for all the meals I’m looking forward to eating in Portugal!

Lisbon rooftops

This is the view from the veranda of the apartment we will be renting. The apartment is in the Castelo neighborhood, on the side of the highest hill in Lisbon. At the top of the hill behind us is the Castelo de Sao Jorge, one of the main tourist attractions in Lisbon. The earliest fortifications at this site date back to the 2nd Century B.C., built by the Romans. Over the centuries it was expanded by the Moors and then by various kings of Portugal. We found the apartment through Traveling to Lisbon, which manages dozens of short-term rentals in the city and other parts of Portugal.

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