Thursday, April 29, 2010


One of my students has turned me on to rapadura. As the Wikipedia article states, it's basically dried sugar cane juice sold in bricks. Very sweet, potent stuff. It's used as a sugar substitute, and here it is eaten by itself as a candy and energy boost. My wife says it was a favorite food of her father's when he farmed during her childhood--he would eat some rapadura after lunch in order to have some quick-burning energy to take back to the fields.

The taste is pleasant, very surprising given that the odor has a bitter tinge. In Louisiana there are a number of local brands of pure cane syrup from the southern cane fields. I have never liked this syrup. If memory serves, it has a smokey quality that overpowers the sweetness. I was expecting rapadura to possess the same punch, but its caramel flavor was well balanced. The texture is lovely--it melts as it crumbles in the mouth. And a little bit goes a long way--I only ate a couple of shavings just now, with some coffee, and it's got me near jitters.

Sugar production is something in common between this region of Brazil and southern Louisiana. João Cabral de Melo-Neto, a poet from Pernambuco, has a few poems devoted to the cane fields of the region. I can't help thinking of Louisiana poet Jack Bedell, my friend and former teacher, when I read the de Melo-Neto poems. He, too, has a number of poems relating to the fields, and the hard lives of those who work them.

Monday, April 26, 2010


In Portuguese there is an "I" in team: "time," pronounced something like "TEE-mee." I'm sure it found its way into the Luso-lexicon by way of futebol fans who luso-fied the pronunciation and spelled it according to Portuguese orthography.

Of course, "I" doesn't really mean anything in Portuguese (to my limited knowledge anyway) except perhaps as the Roman numeral for one.

The Portuguese "time" is an import from English. There are a lot of English words peppering the language. Buffets are popular here, but they are called "self-services." There is a fast food chain here called Milk Shake (I have eaten there on a number of occasions and have yet to try their name sake beverage).

Que mais? What else?

Today someone mumbled to me in Portuguese and I understood almost verbatim what he said. That's a new one. Deciphering mumbling is quite the test. One of my best American friends is quite the mumbler, though he will deny it up and down. I have a hard time understanding his English.

Some friends asked me the word for someone without clothes. I discussed the nuances between "naked" and "nude," and then asked for the Portuguese equivalents. They made an even trade with "nu/a" and "pelado/a."

Everyone in the room broke into uproarious laughter when the word "pelado" was uttered. I asked them why that word was so funny, but no one could tell me.

I recounted the conversation to my wife, and she hypothesized that the humor in "pelado" is that it is often taught to children, and is therefore cute by association. Also, when kids play impromptu soccer matches without proper equipment, referees, etc., just for fun, it's called "pelado," which calls to mind some vivid images if one considers the subject too literally.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ninguém merece estudar as conjugações!

It's been a while since I have updated this blog. Thankfully the culprit has been busyness and not my usual demon, laziness. I have been hitting the Portuguese books these days, striving in earnest to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the language.

I'm breaking things down into easy-to-swallow portions, focusing on one element at a time. The first: verb conjugations. The most important part of any language. I spent a whole week only on an overview of verbs in the simple present and the many irregulars. Yesterday I did a blitz of all the other tenses, from preterite to conditional.

Until now I had never attempted a systematic study of verb tenses. The textbook I have been using since last year, Português básico para estrangeiros by Rejane de Oliveira Slade (given to me as a gift in 2007 by a good friend who knows me better than I know myself--at the time, I was dating the woman I would marry but had no idea I'd ever find myself in Brazil), anyway, this book is terrific in that it uses an immersion method--the entire book is written in Portuguese, and it introduces vocabulary and grammar as it goes along. But this is also its weakness--I have always benefited from a more analytical approach to learning foreign languages--I'm talking about old fashioned paradigms, laying it all out for memorization. This book features some charts, but they usually come after the usage is introduced integral to a text.

When we were last in the U.S., I picked up The Everything Learning Brazilian Portuguese Book. You've probably seen this "Everything" series...kind of like the Idiot's Guide or Dummies series. It presents the material in English, which is helpful because it helps me to stick my toe into the water before making a splash. I think I am benefiting from utilizing both approaches, though. I plan to return to the immersion book after finishing the Everything.

For the most part, I am learning English haphazardly and, until now, I haven't devoted very much time to my studies. Which makes it all the more surprising when I carry a conversation with someone, or when I understand the gist of an overheard conversation. My wife got a new cell phone, passing the old one down to me, so today I got a few of her calls, people who didn't have her updated information. And I was able to understand their requests and answer them fluently. Is there anything more encouraging than that? When I stop to think about it, though, I get a strange sensation--"How did I just do that?" As much as I hate The Matrix, I can't help but compare it to the famous scene when Keanu Reeves says "I know Kung Fu!" Sometimes it feels as if I am suddenly bilingual (well, suddenly almost bilingual).

My reading knowledge of French is as good as it ever was, which means that I struggle with it, and can read at a very basic level--and I earned that with three years of very hard work in French classes at the university level. So, immersion is the best way to learn a language, even when you spend most of your time in the house, speaking and reading your native tongue. But it's only taking me so far. Even though I haven't formally studied much over the past year, I don't think I would have gotten this far if I hadn't cracked a book. I think the exposure to native speakers has helped reinforce what I have studied, although I have learned quite a few constructions (like the past tense) from very patient friends correcting me over and over.

Well, I am happy to have taken the time to update this blog. I hope to write more, and soon.

The title of this post, by the way, means "No one deserves to study conjugations!" I am told it's a very common expression amongst native students of Portuguese. I developed quite a headache yesterday, keeping the future and conditional straight in my head. I'm still not sure I have it--so, I am off to crack the book yet again.