Monday, February 15, 2010

João Gilberto

Eu e É O

The title of this post translates as "I and Is The." To this gringo's ear this personal pronoun and verbal phrase sound identical in Portuguese, which causes a number of problems in daily conversation. I will follow along with a speaker's train of thought for the first few words, but then all of a sudden I can swear that I hear them say "Eu," and my brain shifts to interpret what comes next as a new sentence beginning with "I." At this point I'm struggling to remember the words I just heard, make sense of what is being spoken, and framing a response based on what I can only guess is the statement or question that's been formed. Usually I just sigh and say, "Sorry, I don't speak much Portuguese," or "Please speak slowly." It's annoying when my request is answered with a puzzled look and an even faster gush of confusing vowels. I am used to speaking English slowly for non-native speakers, not just from teaching here but also through business dealings in Boston with people from all sorts of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

If, like me, you're new to Portuguese, be mindful of the homophones eu and é o. It'll help with comprehension if you realize this sound has two distinct meanings dependent on context.

I am intrigued that in Portuguese there is no attempt to avoid hiatus in the phrase é o, indeed in any occurrence of hiatus with the exception of constructions like na or no meaning em + a and em + o. Avoiding hiatus is, if memory serves, of paramount concern to French speakers. It seems to me that in English we tend to avoid it, but we're not overly fussy with it. To my ear, Brazilian Portuguese speakers flaunt it. It's a bit like a violin's trill.

I fear I'm a bit over my head without looking through references for all this linguistic mumbo jumbo. I hope that a kind, more knowledgeable reader out there will correct where I may have erred, or further illuminate me on the subject.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Adultery and its Discontents

One day a friend approached me and asked for the English word for a man whose wife has cheated on him. I told my friend that there is a now obsolete word, "cuckold," but that, as far as I knew, contemporary English really doesn't have an equivalent. I said that we have a word for the person who cheats, and that is, of course, "cheater." But we do not have a name for the one cheated.

The word corno in Portuguese is equivalent to "cuckold," but it has not obsolesced in everyday speech. I recently read an article in a Brazilian magazine about the internet's contribution to sexual infidelity, and it was replete with illustrations of men and women growing horns much like those you see in 15th and 16th century British woodcuts depicting "cuckolds."

"Well," my friend said, "what would you call such a person whose spouse sleeps with someone else?"

"A poor bastard," I replied.

Please replace your seats and tray tables to their upright and locked position....

If this blog were a fish-tank, all my betas and little sharks would be belly-up. My apologies for not sprinkling food-flakes of news and views. Here's a summary of what's happened since December.

We had to rush through our classes in order to leave the country on the 16th for a trip to visit family in Louisiana. By the middle of December we were both equally fed up with the frustrations of living where we do in Brazil (noise pollution and air pollution, insane traffic, cluttered sidewalks that necessitate walking into the street where aforementioned traffic is a threat to life, and bureaucratic nightmares Kafka couldn't have dreamed up.) Not that living in the States doesn't have its own frustrations. But every locale requires its own special brand of daily fortitude.

I wish that my trip to the States was more eventful. We became couch potatoes when we weren't driving up and down the interstate visiting friends. The vacation lasted from the middle of December until the end of January, and during one of those weeks we visited Boston.

Boston has become our very real, much remembered Shangri-la. Whenever we need to vent, we'll recall tales of museum outings, long afternoons spent in used bookstores, or the countless good meals to which we treated ourselves at our favorite restaurants. Garanhuns is the privation of all these things, but I am happier here, on a whole, than I was in Boston. This is because I am not working a 40 hour week in Brazil. I haven't tallied up the hours yet, but my schedule this semester is probably less than 20, and I'm working more hours now than before. We're still challenged to make ends meet, to make enough to save, and we're both aware this current situation is not viable in the long or even short term--we need to find more work, and quick--but having all of this time to pursue literary endeavors has been a major blessing, and has contributed more to my happiness than could all the museums, restaurants, libraries, concerts, and used bookstores in the world.

And, of course, Brazil is not without culture. Every time I leave the house I'm confronted with a culture that proves more unique and elusive no matter how familiar I become with it. At present, this is something I cannot quite put my finger on, but I hope in the near future to start dealing with the fine particulars of my new home, to explore the customs and people more thoroughly.

A note on language: my Portuguese is functional, barely. My listening comprehension is not so good--I still have the common beginner's complaint that everyone "talks too fast." I think it's a sign that I haven't done enough daily immersion. Since I spend much of my free time in the apartment, surrounded by books in English, internet sites in English, DVDs in English, and a wife who forgets to speak Portuguese to me even mid-sentence. I have not been a good student and forced myself to dive right in every day. But this week I've made a point to change that. I'm starting to mark the calendar every day I study, so that I can monitor not only my progress but my discipline.

Of course, another reason I have a hard time understanding the language is that I often encounter people who speak very bad Portuguese with very bad accents. My wife confirms this.

That's all for now. More later.