Wednesday, November 22, 2006


….As you may have realised by now, Portuguese is not an easy language, neither to read, write, nor speak - especially if you have never particularly developed your linguistic skills before and worse, if you have no experience of Latin languages.

(But once you have some command of it, the next step into Spanish seems to be much easier. Looking at the two languages, written, side by side, they look like they could be from the same country - it is when they are spoken that all hell lets loose and you are left battered and confused. So, a word of advice, don’t try - not, at least until you believe you are fluent in Portuguese, or vice versa.)

Next bit of advice is to get yourself a proper, comprehensive dictionary, pref one E-P and the other P-E. Don't waste your money on the small pocket dictionaries because they are usually Brazilian based - whereby the word content is quite different, as is the spelling and the pronunciation. (Only useful if you are going to Brazil and not Portugal.)

The best I came across was by Porto Editora. (But you won’t find this in the U.K.)

Once I had made up my mind to move to Portugal I still had some weeks to kill in Brighton and so I looked around to see if there were any Portuguese lessons to be had at the various colleges and language schools.

Blow me down, there was.

And so I enrolled in a small class of eight, with a teacher from Oporto.

She was fun and light-hearted and because of the small size of the class we received very personal attention.

In those few short lessons the most important string of words I learned was ‘Empregado da bomba de gasolina,’ which means gas pump attendant – only because I thought it sounded so hilarious. (I don't think I used it in conversation in the whole thirteen years I was in Portugal.)

And I learned that the lettuce in a hamburger was ‘Alface’ not ‘Alfacina.’ (Lettuce, not lettuce-head - a derogatory term the Oportoense use for the Lisboetas.) The teacher thought this was hilarious and giggled for the rest of the lesson.

The Lisboetas, in return call the Oportoense ‘Tripeiros,’ or tripe-eaters, after their historic survival on tripe dishes.

So, when I arrived in Lisbon, the few words that had stuck seemed to have something of an Oporto influence.

Let me explain here that the rivalry between the two cities is about as extreme as it is between say, London and Manchester, so my attempts at speaking Portuguese with an Oporto accent, in Lisbon, were just about as intelligible as if I spoke some foreign language, like English for example.

One day, at McNaff‘s, the crazy little receptionist named Monica approached me and told me a friend of hers was an English teacher, but she also gave Portuguese lessons. Her name was Margarida and she gave me her telephone number.

Within days we had arranged to meet and she would give me lessons at the agency at the end of the day.

I must add now that Margarida came to be one of my best friends, so anything I say, which you may take as disparaging, is only being made lightly. She was a charming, intelligent, misunderstood and quite lovely person.

But when she arrived at my office I was quite taken aback at the tiny, diminutive girl/ woman, dressed in an old-fashioned frock and wearing her aunt’s hairstyle. She spoke like Mini Mouse and laughed like an out of control, clockwork bantam hen.

Margarida tried to give me lessons, but almost every time she had a lesson booked, my work would get in the way and I would have to cancel. Over the course of a year I had maybe ten lessons.

After a year we tried having the lessons at her parent’s town apartment, where she lived. But that too was always cancelled and eventually we gave up the lessons.

By now I had come to know her and her nutty humour and ability to laugh at anything. She had suffered deep personal tragedy when her boyfriend, with whom she was deeply in love, died at the wheel of the car as they went on holiday together.
This caused Margarida to sink into a terrible depression and for years she wrote long, sad, desperate poetry to help her come to terms with her love and her grief.

After several years’ friendship, she eventually had the confidence in me to show me some of the work and I couldn’t read more than a couple of pieces without crying.

There is much that I know about Margarida, but it is all too personal and I wouldn’t want it exposed on these pages.

But, she did get me going on learning Portuguese.

One evening we met at a restaurant - Margarida wanted to meet some of her friends - yet another lesson in Portuguese-ness.

At one point I needed to go to the bathroom, which was at the opposite end of the dining area and to get to it I had to negotiate my way past a huge aquarium, stocked to the brim with seaweed, rocks and the evening’s live repast.

On my way out I heard an unusual swishing, swishing sound - rather like the far-off sound of waves breaking against a sandy shore, which I attributed to a special sound effect to go with the aquarium.


However as I took one step past the tank I realised the sound was coming from inside the restaurant.

Yes, it was the sound of dozens of Portuguese speaking. (Nearly all words end with a sh-ish sound.)


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