Except for the fact that, inconveniently for us, the city shut down around New Year, São Paulo was easy. Familiar brands, English menus and occasional English speakers, a good subway system and modern conveniences helped us ease into Brazil.
Bye bye cosmopolitan city. The northeast is a different beast. It’s not as safe or as easy for foreign travelers. We have to learn to do things the Brazilian way.
Like doing the laundry, for instance. When we travel, we usually rely on coin-operated machines (in first-world countries) or wash-and-dry services (wherever such services are cheap). As soon as we arrived in Boa Viagem, I looked for a “lavanderia”. There were many, but they were all the dry-clean kind, charging per piece. Not an affordable or practical option for us, we need a laundry service that charges per kilo, like in most Latino countries. We found one. Kind of. The idiom ” airing your dirty laundry in public” had never made more sense as the employee emptied the plastic bags we had brought, piled up our dirty shorts, t-shirts and underwear one by one on a small scale and announced that it would take a couple of days to wash everything and that a few items would be charged per piece. The whole business seemed unnecessarily complicated.
“It’s weird,” I told Feng. “Food in restaurant is sold per kilo but laundry is per piece? I don’t get it. I wasn’t expecting doing the laundry would be an issue here, there is plenty of water in Brazil.”
We had issue finding food as well. Most restaurants in Brazil are “comida por kilo”, they offer a buffet, you grab whatever you like and weight your plate. It’s cheap, convenient (food is ready, no need to wait) and it’s a good way to try new foods.
But there weren’t many restaurants offering “comida por kilo” in Boa Viagem and the selection wasn’t great. The local way to eat out seems to either sit in a mall food court, either buy food to go from the pandaria/delicatessen that offers sweet and savoury options, a mix between a French “boulangerie” and the “traiteur”. We adapted, but it took a few days because instinctively, we looked for restaurants where you sit down and a menu is brought to you.
And then, of course, there is the small matter of speaking Portuguese.
“Did I speak Portuguese the last time we were in Brazil?” I asked Feng after we got our visas to Brazil.
“In 2009? Yeah, you did.”
“Oh. Okay, must be stored somewhere in my brain then.”
I have a deep emotional connection to each of the language I speak: French is the language of my childhood; English is the lingua franca Feng and I use and it’s my “business language”; Mandarin evokes my academic life (Chinese studies graduate here!) and Spanish is my backpacking life with our many trips to Latin America.
In a way, Portuguese is a perfect synthesis of these several familiar languages. The grammar is like French or Spanish with conjugations, tenses, masculine and feminine nouns. Many vocabulary words are similar to Spanish—por favor, disculple, arroz, bairro, esquerda, etc. Some words feel closer to French: marrom, reserva, decolage, etc. The days of the weeks are numbered, like in Mandarin, and even the word for tea, “cha” is the same as in Chinese. Reading Portuguese is fairly easy, so I don’t feel lost like I would in Korea or Germany.
However, to me, Portuguese pronunciation is completely counter-intuitive. Spanish came in easily for some reason but Portuguese doesn’t. It takes a conscious effort to pronounce words that are so close to Spanish with a Portuguese accent—and no, you can’t just “get away with it”, most Brazilians truly don’t understand what you are trying to say when you speak Portunhol. Damn. It’s easy for me to understand that “queijo” is “queso” (cheese), but harder for my brain to get that you don’t say ” KEH-so” but ” kay’zhoo”.
The other night, the hotel’s elevator was packed and I was the one closest to the control panel, so I press on the buttons for each person. Then I turned around and said in Portuguese: “By the way guys, I don’t really speak Portuguese, so maybe I wasn’t the best person for the job!”
Everybody laughed. Ah. This is me, making jokes in Portuguese.
Strangely enough, people keep on asking me if I’m Brazilian. Physically, yes, I could fit in—not as a Brazilian top model, as your average light-skinned Brazilian. But as soon as you talk to me, it’s pretty obvious that I don’t really speak Portuguese. Yet, a few minutes into a conversation, people still ask. “Where are you from in Brazil?” Dude, I’ve just mangled your language for five minutes, can’t you guess I’m not a native speaker?
It’s in Recife, a few subway stations from Boa Viagem, that we truly experienced the first lively “centro”. As soon as we exited the station, we realized how sheltered we had been in quiet São Paulo: we dove right into a street market and spent a few hours walking around, visiting old churches and crossing the series of bridges over the Capibaribe River.