Easing Into Brazilian Culture

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Porto Alegre was our first stop in Brazil, after the crazy border crossing. We arrived late and took a taxi from the rodoviária (bus terminal), and checked into a downtown hostel.

The city in itself had nothing special but we stayed there a few days to ease ourselves into brazilian culture. A total different world.

Safety, for instance. Chile and Argentina are pretty safe places, although they have their share of annoyances, especially in big cities, where pickpockets and dodgy neighborhoods can be expected. But we didn´t care too much  about it and walked everywhere even at night, took taxis without thinking twice and even though we were not careless, we were pretty relaxed.

Brazil is not necessarily a dangerous country but crime does exist, and can be quite violent. There is much more street crime, sad stories and weapons altogether. Porto Alegre can be quite dangerous at night and some district are best avoided — the key is to guess which ones. So we did like we did in Panamá, Perú or Bolivia: go to the ATM and carry the money back in your shoes or your bar, always walk in busy streets, trust your guts and be alert. Common sense.

Another major adaptation is obviously the switch from Spanish to Portuguese — which none of us speak, by the way. Although I am far from being fluent in Spanish, I can read a newspaper, understand people, and be understood in most situation as well. Made life pretty easy: checking in a hotel, asking for directions, ordering food etc. was never a problem. Well, it´s not like that in Brazil.

I had started to learn a few conjugations and useful words, but the accent is quite difficult, especially the nasal sounds. Italian and Spanish are both quite easy to pronounce for me (probably because I speak French) and I was always understood easily, even when trying a new word or expression. But Portuguese…

I really wanted to avoid speaking Spanish to Brazilians. I can imagine it may sound arrogant if I expect to be understood this way: after all, if someone speaks German to me in France, I won´t have a clue of what he is saying. But yet, Spanish is the language the closest to Portuguese that I know.

In Brazil, my mind is perpetually trying to make sense of of things, using languages that I speak. “Nome” is “name” in English, and of course “nom” in French. “Peixe” equals “pescado“, from the latin “pesci”, also “poisson” in French, and “fish” in English. “Cafe da manhã“… okay, “manhã” looks like “mañana” in Spanish, and “cafe” is obvious. So “morning coffee” is… yep, breakfast. “Hoje” is close to “hoy“, although not the pronunciation — but it still means “today”.

Trust me, it gets tiring after a couple of hours.

Some words left us puzzled. What the hell was this famous “frango”  we kept on seeing on restaurants menus? I really did not want to try pig testicles, so we thought about it. The “frango” was apparently either grilled, either in a burger. Pig testicles do not fit in a burger, so it must mean… “chicken“. Nothing to do with the Spanish “pollo“, or the French “poulet“.

We should survive the language thing. We should. But would we survive the crazy hedonistic Carnival celebrations?

Downtown Porto Alegre

Downtown Porto Alegre

Downtown Porto Alegre

Downtown Porto Alegre

Feng At The Mercado Central

Feng At The Mercado Central

Fresh Fruits And Veggies

Fresh Fruits And Veggies


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. Yea, change of language is a real challenge. I’m okay with English and can order a beer in Deutsch – and then you have all the Scandinavian language of course (but they are very close), but then the rest is like Greek to me.

    I assume you can get away quite well with body language too 🙂

    I really enjoy reading all your travel posts and the pics are great too!

  2. hi zhu!!! i know what you mean about languages!
    when i try to speak spanish- at which i’m terrible- i’ll typically find a french or german word whether its correct or not. my spanish sounds like this: “Yo mange un frustuck, por favor.” (I’d like to eat breakfast, please). i get some funny looks from people.

  3. I’ve always loved these language entries of yours. And the way you narrated it, it’s like an adventure!

    Luckily I can understand the Spanish terms in your post, else I’d be even more lost! 😛

    So there’s some contention between the usage of Spanish and Portuguese huh? I heard people do avoid speaking Spanish in Portugal too for the same reasons.

    Brazil is really beautiful. Besides Rio, do travel north to the very colonial Salvador (very beautiful too!) or into the Amazon. 🙂

  4. We hosted a Brazilian boy named Luis when my son David was a senior. Their coordinator sponsored partys for a number of exchange students from various places. Luis and a girl from Spain became friends and would jabber away at each other, she in Spanish and he in Portuguese. I asked him if the languages were very similar and he said no, but some words were, the trick was using the words that were close. English is a bit like that because we have borrowed ao many words from other languages.

    I speak only English but when I was a younger man I could order a beer and ask for the toilet in a number of languages, including Korean.

  5. Salut Zhu,
    Nice to read you !
    Yes, I can understand, change is difficult. You feel comfortable in Spanish ( you probably are both pretty efficient after your 2 months on the road) and now a completely different language.

    Yes, change can be tiring…
    I’m more than sure that you are cautious. I’ve heard more than one horror story about Brasilian travel.

    Love the photos & I’m looking forward to “la suite”.


  6. I totally agree with you on the language issue. I can understand a bit of Italian and Spanish ’cause I learned it at school. I did have some Portuguese friends in CEGEP and I had no clue what they’re saying. I learned one or two words from them, which is sometimes useful at work. My Brazilian/Portuguese friend speaks a different accent compared to Portugal accent…and I can’t even read the menu at a Portuguese restaurant. I’m totally clueless when it comes to Portuguese.

  7. Max Coutinho on

    LOL LOL LOL you may survive the language barrier…
    Girl, why don’t you just speak Spanish…they will understand (I believe it is their second language).

    If you would come to Portugal (what you must, by the way) you could speak Spanish for we would understand you…or French, we understand that as well, or English…but Spanish is guaranteed! 😀

    And mind you that the Portuguese from Portugal is a bit different from the one in Brazil.

    Breakfast, for example…we say “Pequeno Almoço” (pequeno: Petit; Almoço: Déjeuner).

    But if one understands Italian and speaks it, then Portuguese is easy! (my husband learned Portuguese quite quickly, and he is Italian)

    Off to the next article…

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