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That’s So Brazil

The Spanish cure

The fear came without warning. I woke up one morning and there it was, darting around like a squirrel in my head. How will my husband manage while I’m gone? Never mind that: how will *I* manage without him? When I get mugged in Brazil, will my attackers be carrying a knife or a gun? Fantasies that normally gave me an anticipatory thrill, like scoring a B&B on the fly or getting lost in a maze of Gothic streets, filled me with dread. Maybe I just didn’t have the heart for this anymore.

Squirrel

The next day was the same, and the day after that even worse. Deep breathing didn’t help. Meditation didn’t help. (Not that I gave it more than two minutes.) I tried to recapture the mounting excitement that had marked the previous weeks, but the squirrel wouldn’t leave.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Until recently, this Brazil thing had been no more than a pleasant abstraction, a notion to toss around at summer barbecues. But then I started taking steps: getting my yellow fever vaccine, gathering documentation for my visa, settling on the city where I would live. This was no longer a barbecue topic. This was a leap into the unknown, into disruption, into chaos.

A week into the squirrel thing, I had to go to Barcelona for work. Determined to regain some confidence, I tacked on a couple of days of touring at the end of the trip. When I arrived in a nearby town called Girona, I resolved to speak only Spanish to the locals, Spanish words 2even though my Spanish was more than rusty and everything I said came out as Spantuguese. As it turned out, I still knew enough of the language to fend off an old man (you know, someone in his sixties) who insisted on showing me “the great view” from his apartment.

Back in Barcelona, I spent the last night of the trip in a hostel, where I shared a room with four other people. “One of my roommates is snoring like a jack-hammer,” I texted my husband at 4 a.m. “Next time, your own room!” he texted back. At that moment I agreed with him, but I’ve since changed my mind. There’s nothing like staying in a hostel to make you feel young.

I’m happy to report that the squirrel is gone. Maybe it will come back, maybe it won’t. Either way, this trip to Spain has shown me that Brazil isn’t too big for me.

#Brazil #Spain #solotravel

BLOG: THAT’S SO BRAZIL

Post #5: There’s no cure for this. But what’s the alternative?

I’ve been reading a slim Portuguese volume called As Mentiras Que Os Homens Contam—The Lies Men Tell—and it’s charming the pants off me. The chapters are mercifully short, and I read a new one every night before bed. Savor it, like a good Riesling. I chuckle, I guffaw. This is a seriously funny book.

On this particular night, in paragraph two of my latest chapter, I run into a word I haven’t seen before: caixão. I know that caixa means box and that the ão suffix makes things bigger, so caixão must mean big box. A few lines later I get it. Caixão means, ah, ah, what’s that word again? It’s the box you put dead people in before burying them. You know the one, right? It’s called, ah, ah… Damn it, why can’t I think of the word? Memory leak 2

A torrent of related terms floods my mind: hearse, procession, gravestone, undertaker, pushing up daisies… But not that word.

I try to picture myself at a funeral—maybe that will jog my memory. Well. The funeral that jumps to my mind is my own mother’s, twenty-nine years ago. I had to choose the box myself. I remember standing in the funeral parlour, the reality of having no more parents just beginning to sink in, while the funeral director showed me samples of mahogany and cherrywood. It was not a fun time. No wonder I’ve blocked out the word.

But I haven’t blocked it out. I remember it in French—cercueil—and I now know it in Portuguese. Just not in English. I call up its distinctive hexagonal shape and imagine myself opening it, hoping to find its name inside. Nada.

Pink coffinThis wouldn’t have happened to me at thirty. Or forty. Or fifty-nine. There’s no escaping it: it’s the beginning of the big biochemical blowout, the synaptic switch-off, the slide into vacant-eyed oblivion. By the time I get to Brazil I’ll probably have no words left, just chin hairs and missing teeth.

What am I doing, trying to learn another language when I can’t even remember my own? I should just invest in a rocking chair—a model that comes with knitting needles and a lapdog—and call it a day.

But no, I can’t do that. I’m enjoying Portuguese too much. And if I give up on my sputtering synapses, I may as well buy a nice little plot and bury myself in my own… ah, ah… it’s coming, it’s coming… my own coffin!

Blog: That’s So Brazil

Post #4: Portuguese Irregular Verbs

A few weeks ago, while poking around Amazon.com, I came upon a book that promised to resolve all my challenges with Portuguese. It was called Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and I had to have it.

When the book arrived two days later, I ripped open thePortuguese Irregular Verbs packaging and settled in for a good brain sweat. And then I read the first sentence: “Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld often reflected on how fortunate he was to be exactly who he was, and nobody else.” This was not a book about Portuguese irregular verbs, this was a novel. Oops.

The book wasn’t bad, if you go in for understated and veddy proppah British humour. Professor von Igelfeld was a professor of philology who had written a 1,200-page treatise called—you guessed it—Portuguese Irregular Verbs. The book had made him famous in his field. Trouble was, his field only had about 50 adherents worldwide. Though he flogged the book wherever he could, sales had flat-lined at 200 copies.

Absent-minded professorWhen he wasn’t writing treatises, Professor von Igelfeld spent his time flitting from one conference to another, where the four or five people who attended his lectures hung on to his every word. Wherever he went, disaster followed: he ordered the wrong dish, offended a hotel clerk, or missed a chance to marry a woman because his best friend proposed to her a day earlier. Never one to dwell on might-have-beens, Professor von Igelfeld took solace in the thought that his magnum opus would grace scholars’ bookshelves long after his death. By the end of the book, I wanted to give the guy a hug.

But I still hadn’t solved my problem, which was to commit the hundreds (maybe thousands) of Portuguese irregular verbs to memory.

When I first cast my lot with Portuguese, I feared the language would be too easy. It seemed awfully similar to Spanish, which I had studied in high school and could still muddle through in an emergency. I needn’t have worried. The verbs alone have been supplying all the challenge I need. Take the future subjunctive, a tense that the Spaniards wisely jettisoned many moons ago. My Portuguese grammar book instructs me to use the future subjunctive tense (as opposed to the perfectly serviceable present or future tenses) when “referring to future situations that are not certain.” Huh? Isn’t “not certain” the very essence of the future?

I wish I had Professor von Igelfeld by my side so I could pick his expert brain. I’m sure he Professor 2would clear up my confusion. If nothing else, I hope that a philologist just like him will one day write a book just like his, though I’m not sure 1,200 pages would cover the topic.

Blog: That’s So Brazil

Post #3: Testing, one two splat

On the day I turned 60 I took a memory test. I was about to learn a new language and wanted to know if my brain would cooperate.

The last time I had taken a standardized test, I was 21. It was the GMAT, the test required for admission into MBA programs. Cornell University liked my score enough that they offered Brainme a spot, even though I hadn’t applied.

This time I would get tested by the Toronto Memory Program, a clinic that specializes in researching dementia and treating patients with wobbly memories. In other words, people nothing at all like me.

The backwards-sevens test was a cinch. So was the psychomotor test, which had me tracing lines between letters and numbers as fast as my muscles would allow. I was nailing this thing! Next, I had to list all the zoo animals I could Zoo and farm animalsthink of in 60 seconds. I hadn’t been to a zoo since my kids were in diapers, but how hard could this be? The first few animals rolled easily off my tongue: lion, tiger, cheetah, polar bear… then a little imp flipped a switch in my brain and all I could picture were farm animals: chickens, turkeys, sheep. What the hell was going on?

I moved on to the cognigram, a computer-based test of visual memory and reaction time. Each time a playing card appeared on the screen, I was to press “yes” if I remembered seeing the card before and “no” if I didn’t. Every time I got a wrong answer, the computer beeped. I got a lot of beeps.

Drumroll, tally, score: “normal range, about one standard deviation above average for my age.” How could this happen? I’d scored 98th percentile on the GMAT! I’d gone to graduate school at Harvard! (I quit after a semester, but still.) All my life I’d woven a story about myself, a story that flowed from the premise that I had a rather special brain.

Like all people who don’t ace a test, I started in on the excuses. I was nervous. The test didn’t assess higher-level thinking. It was biased toward visual memory. If they had tested my auditory recall, I would have knocked it out of the park. Yeah, whatever.

Looks like I’m no longer a member of the special-brain club, just another schmo trying to learn a language. Whatever I accomplish will be through hard work, not turbo-charged synapses. If nothing else, I’ll get an A for effort.

Blog: That’s So Brazil

Post #2: It was supposed to be Greek

The project I now call That’s So Brazil began life two years ago as Gone Greeking. For two years I looked forward to the day I would turn 60, start learning Greek, and get my Big Fat Greek Adventure off the ground.

At first I kept the idea to myself, but eventually I told a few people. TGreek Island Patiohen a few more. I never doubted that Greek and Greece would work for me. The language seemed suitably challenging, and what’s not to like about feta cheese and ouzo on a cliffside patio in Santorini?

Then came the big day. I opened my husband’s gift—a set of Greek language instruction manuals with nine CDs—and began studying.

By day three, something started to feel wrong, and by day five I just knew.

It’s hard to say why Greek didn’t do it for me. It was difficult, certainly, but then so was Japanese, which I learned at 33. In fact, the U.S. Foreign Service Institute deems Japanese to be the most difficult language for an English speaker to learn, and that didn’t stop me.

All I can say is that Greek was difficult in a different way. Learning Japanese was like landing on Mars. Nothing looked, sounded, or felt the same. But once I accepted the change of planet, I found I could get around after all.

Greek was not Mars, but the rote memorization that lay ahead seemed endless: three genders, four cases, and a bunch of rules no less arbitrary than tax laws. And the writing! Try telling a 60-year-old brain that what looks like a V is actually pronounced N, what looks like an N is an E, and so on. I wanted not only to challenge myself, but to enjoy myself, and I couldn’t see that happening. There was nothing to do but move on to Plan B.

Grazil 2Talk about embarrassed. I had paid for a Gone Greeking blog site! A domain name! From Greek to Portuguese, Greece to Brazil—surely people would find me capricious and random. They would snicker as they waited for me to ditch Portuguese and take up Swahili or Djinang.

Fortunately, my husband was there to remind me that people don’t really care what other people do. They’re too busy having fits about their cell phone bills, deciding which Netflix shows to watch, and wondering what other people think of them. Drew was right, of course. People didn’t snicker, at least not within my earshot.

And I’m happy to report that I won’t be hitting the Swahili or Djinang textbooks anytime soon: Portuguese has stolen my heart. So has Brazil, though I haven’t set foot there yet. Go figure.

Blog: That’s So Brazil

Post #1: So Here’s The Plan

I used to fantasize about how life would change when I turned sixty. I would no longer waste time. I would no longer overeat, under-exercise, snap at my loved ones. I would stride fearlessly into the autumn of my life, approaching friends, strangers and literary agents with equal aplomb. In a nutshell, I would kick ass.

That’s not exactly how it went down. On the big day I had the flu. While the aches and pains subsided quickly enough, my mind stayed unwell. I spent two weeks lying in bed, learning about ceiling cracks I never knew existed. All I could think was: I can now go to The Bay on Tuesdays and get a seniors’ discount. The horror.

Anyone with a half a brain could have predicted this outcome: I had set the bar so high that it was bound to topple over.

Two months later I’m finally hitting my stride, sort of. I’ve been studying Portuguese for the past seven weeks and making preparations for my Brazilian escapade. The short version: This time next year, I hope to touch down somewhere in Brazil and spend about six months there. I’ll be going alone.

brazil-abstract

Why Brazil, and why now? I could tell you that I’d like to inspire other chronologically advanced people to get off their Obusforme lounge chairs and bust through their limitations, and there might be a speck of truth in that. But when it comes right down to it, I’m doing it for the same reason anyone does anything: Because I wanna.

When I was 33, I learned Japanese and spent fourteen months in Tokyo. The experience changed my life in every possible way. For reasons I can’t fully articulate, it seems important that I repeat the exercise at least once more before I eat dust. And Brazil has always had a pull on me, just like Japan.

The obvious difference is that I’m happily married this time, ergo not looking for male attentions. (Even if I were, I doubt many men would drop everything at the chance to gaze into the eyes of a discount shopper with varicose veins.) And no, I do not take my husband’s loving support for granted.

Other than that, I plan to pretend I’m twenty-five and see what happens. I hope you’ll join me in this experiment in ungraceful aging. Your participation, and especially your thoughts, mean the world to me.