A new home in the desert, and I’m nesting: a mini cactus garden on the kitchen window ledge, and everything—all my things, shoes and cutting boards and tool boxes—in its place, and as much as I have loved being bounced around the world, exploring, I’m surprised at the relief that it is to wake up to this kind of order, to this predictability. My home [delicious words] has a pale blue door and peach walls and a cactus in the courtyard. It’s 105 degrees at noon and I’m happy to be reading and writing and in the bright shade of the indoors. As bright as it is during the day under the squeezing sun—bleach bright, colors fade into pastels—it is dark at night, as light ordinances protect mountain-top telescopes. Tucson is quiet, and I feel quieter here.
On my last afternoon in Buenos Aires, when I was 19—five years ago, but wasn’t I just 19?—I was feeling bohemian—the effect of six months abroad and a nose piercing. We wandered into a trendy music store in Palermo, and I asked the hipster working the floor for a music recommendation: anything Brazilian. He shrugged, flipped through a few stacks, and handed me a CD with a pink cover: Marisa Monte’s Universo ao Meu Redor.
I’ve been asked a lot: Why Portuguese? Why Brazil?
Really… no idea.
Maybe it was the people that captivated me. I lived in Mendoza during my study abroad in Argentina, where I met a few Brazilians, of whom I remember only a general flurry of hands and laughter. I don’t remember his name, but I remember his voice—some fellow at some party who held a group of us captive with stories, spoken in perfect Portunhol. A sardonic humor that comes with a shrug-smile that I’ve now seen a thousand times: everything gone to shit? No worries, we’ll find a way, it’ll all work out, and in the meantime, what kind of music do you like?
Yesterday, I relished digging out my last two reais for my last trip home on the onibus. And then… I waited. And waited. And a hundred buses passed, lacking only my dear 040 Caxangá/CDU/Boa Viagem. The sun was bright and beautiful for my last day in Brazil—powerful and grinning, and sweat dripped down my legs and back. The woman melting next to me began to chat in my general direction, and I nodded along, agreeing when necessary. “Oshé, menina,” she said, looking me up and down. “Do you have sunscreen on?” I shook my head. She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips—but such pale skin, she muttered. She dug into her purse, pulled out a bottle of SPH 50, and squirted it up and down my arms. After I had satisfactorily coated myself, she had me stand in the shade behind the bus stop while she watched for my bus.
Or the language itself. For some people, it’s Italian. For some, it’s French—the language, the lifestyle. For me, it’s always been Portuguese—that language spilling out of the mouths and hands and instruments of all these people that live here, in Brazil, people living slightly different lives, inhabiting different worlds, a result of or reason for the different language.
Portuguese doesn’t like to end a word on a constant sound (as half the words in this sentence do, English being a big fan of the hard finish). In Portuguese, words either end in vowels—você vai—or in constants that aren’t pronounced—m (tem) or l—which feels like “u” (Brasiu, not Brazil)—or s, which is just a whisper. It’s why Portuguese feels like marbles in my mouth—all the rounded vowels—and why English feels clenched in the mouths of Latin-language speakers—all the vertical consonants.
When Portuguese imports new words from English, all those English words that don’t end in vowel sounds are changed so that they do end in vowel sounds. Internet becomes In-ter-neh-tee; Land Rover, Land-ee Ho-ver. Sometimes a word gets two extra vowels, one in the middle, just for good measure: Do you have Fay-cie-book-ee? The tragic sinking of the Tee-tan-ee-key.
It gives the language an energy, a cheerfulness that I don’t find in English. While Spanish rolls in seductive rrrs and ooos, Portuguese is bursts of excitement: the tes and des that are pronounced “tche” and “dgee” (ci-dad-dgee) the long o in ótimo (tá oootimo!), the infernal plural “çoes” that my tongue doesn’t dance. Even the evening news sounds musical to me, and perhaps this accounts for the fame of Brazilian music around the world. The language lends itself to poetry, and you can feel this, even if the words aren’t understood.
I listened to Universo ao Meu Redor on Saturday afternoon for the first time since I arrived in Brazil. If I didn’t pay attention, it sounded the same as it has sounded for the past five years: a lovely melody, calm and bright, and Marisa Monte’s lovely voice, singing lovely sounds… relaxing background music, blurring into a mood.
But, if I paid attention, if I did nothing else except just listen, the lovely sounds turned into words—words into phrases, into lyrics, into meaning. It’s the scene from every cliché teen movie: the homely girl, so very nice but lacking shine, gets a makeover. She walks down the stairs and she is stunning: who knew that beauty was there all along? The very pleasant melody is still there, but these words now make sense, and they are all the more beautiful because they were hidden. I feel like I’ve cracked open a new world… and if my two months in Brazil studying Portuguese lead nowhere else, give me no other satisfaction than this revelation, the window into this world and its expression, then they have been worth it.
E eu já não me sinto só
Tão só, tão só
Com o universo ao meu redor
eu pegui fogo
fiquei em pé na ponte
–estou chegando, disse o por-do-sol
e estava mesmo
sobre o rio de Capibaribe
minha lengua dando nôr
enquanto queria falar com você
ou era o idioma
ou o espaço entre nós
olhando a mar
as asas da tarde, mofadas depois de tanta chuva,
batam bem devagarzinho
o fogo me pegou
–estou chegando, disse o por-do-sol
e estava mesmo
sobre o rio de Capibaribe
a bola do sol
um bolo de queijo
sobre o água
uma janela ao mundo do céu
cheia com nuvens e
o cheiro da lama e sal
e o barulho das ondas, tirando de mim
em pé na ponte
–para onde você vai? com quem? para fazer o que?–
sentindo saudades do que não foi
And an hour and fifty-six minutes.
From Marco Zero—where Recife was founded, at the end of the 16th century—through Recife Antigo, along the beira do mar, across the five-points bridge—the bridge I grind over every day in the onibus—through Pina, and then stretching kilometers along Avenida Boa Viagem, next to a stormy beach, wet sand flooded by overnight rain.
I’ve run one other half-marathon before, five years ago in freezing rain on a fall morning in Denver. So, I knew I could do it—knew I could finish 13.1 miles. These miles though, felt different—counted in kilometers, in months spent learning Portuguese.
It was so cool. Flying along next to this beach in Brazil, a plan I hatched for myself that I was now living… right now, right now, right now. If I feel tired at the next kilometer, I’ll slow down, I kept telling myself. But, I didn’t feel tired, and if you keep telling yourself you feel great, then there’s no reason not to feel great, and when I finally did feel tired, it was the 19th kilometer, and why slow down then, so I crossed the last bridge and pounded over cobblestones, and arrived, almost 15 minutes sooner than I had five years before.
In Spanish, borracha means drunk. In both Spanish and Portuguese (much more sensibly organized languages than English), stores are named according to their function: livros—books—are sold in a liveria, pao—bread—in a paderia, and you eat—comer—in a comedor. Thus, it would seem that you go to a borracharia to… be drunk.
In Portuguese, unfortunately, borracha means rubber. A borracharia is where you go to buy rubber.
I pass lots of borracharias on Avenida Caxangá, on the ride between a Cidade Universitária and Boa Viagem, and though the ride seems to be getting longer and longer—I swear, traffic is increasing before my very eyes—all the borracharias, full of men and stomachs hanging about under late afternoon light, continue to amuse me.
I also pass lots of soverterias, which is where they sell sorvete—ice cream. One in particular—John’s Soverteria—is tempting enough that I’ve thought about getting off, buying ice cream, and then paying another two reais to get back on the next bus that comes ‘round the route.
And then, Maira—the brilliant, car-owning roommate—read my mind (or the half-bar of chocolate I had just polished off), asked if I had yet had yet tried this very ice cream shop, and arrived home the following evening with a wide Styrofoam bowl filled with a dozen different scoops: macaxeira, coconut, acai (happiness!), guarana, acerola, tamarindo, and…milho—corn. Corn ice cream tastes just like corn, which seems to miss the point entirely.
(Though, to be fair, Brazilian sweets are actually marvelous, which should come as no surprise in a country that has enough extra sugar cane lying around to fuel cars. Favorites include paçoquita, which is essentially peanut butter packaged up in a neat and edible cube—brilliant!—and cocada, which sort of like burnt coconut brittle except that it’s not brittle but lick-your-fingers gooey, a lovely side effect of all the leche condensada it contains.)