“Bem-vindo no Brasil” – In this way I was greeted by the staff at the Tom Jobim International Airport in Rio de Janeiro. The first Portuguese words on Brazilian ground and I could understand them. No surprise. I passed a basic language course in Portuguese and I was learning diligently, just to be able to understand my boyfriend’s mother tongue finally. And it seemed to work. For now.
My friend was already standing in the waiting hall. We hadn’t met each other for about four months. And he came up to me beaming with joy, hugged me and kissed me. It was one of those moments, you only know from movies. But the right background music was missing. “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica would have been an ideal choice. Just we both were important in that moment. And we forgot the world around us.
After our welcome I got to know his brother and his brother’s wife. Both had accompanied him to the airport. And of course, they could just speak Portuguese. No German, no English. I could still understand “oi”, “muito prazer” and “meu nome é”, but when they started to talk with each other in the car, I couldn’t get anything at all. I blamed it on my fatigue at first. An 18 hours flight with a stop at the JFK Airport in the Big Apple wore me out and pushed me to my physical limits. I always asked my boyfriend in English, what they were talking about. But I felt so stupid, so awkward. And the perfectionist inside me also felt offended. Three whole months, I had learned Portuguese intensely, almost every day and every night and now I don’t even understand a single sentence. And then this “ta” all the time!
What should this even mean? My cell phone was stumped for an answer and also the dictionary that I always had have with me. Constantly I stumbled over “ta” and lately I had the courage – despite my broken ego – to ask my boyfriend what it means. The answer was as simple as plausible: It’s an abbreviation. Brazilians love abbreviations for everything, because then you can say more in a minimum of time.
In the next few weeks I came across more colloquial expressions almost daily. And I realized: With my small vocabulary I won’t go places here. Even a shopping trip became a real ordeal for me. Like hungry wolves the shop assistants trod on my heels and they were just waiting that I seem to be clueless once. Then, because then they would seize the moment and ask me if I need help. Even the answer on it, and if it would be just a simple “no,” cost me quite an effort at first. Sometimes I concocted some sentences before entering the supermarket. Sentences which I could say to the shop assistants or at the checkout area. Should I wish “até logo” or is an innocuous “tchau” better for a goodbye? And how do you actually pronounce “cartão credito”? I tried my best, but sometimes the shop assistants just understood me after the second or third time. That was really frustrating. Somehow I couldn’t lose the feeling that some of them didn’t understand me on purpose. Over time I even wrote shopping lists in Portuguese. It needed some preparation time. However, it made shopping enormously easy for me because Brazilian supermarkets are small labyrinths, where you can’t find many products that you consume in Germany on a regular basis. So the minute-long search was part of every good shopping day. Or I asked one of the shop assistants.
Also living with boyfriend’s family was a daily adventure. Five people on less than 50 square meters. Such a small space was unusual for me. Especially in those moments in which all the Portuguese surrounding me was exhausting me and I could have needed a safe haven. But there wasn’t any. And so I was drilled with questions for every breakfast: “Tudo bom?” “Como você dormiu?” Of course, I mostly understood half of it, although his family was already talking extremely slowly to me. Simply too many words were missing and good listening skills, too. And it came so far that I misused my boyfriend as my personal translator again and again. He became my protective shield behind which I could hide myself in a restaurant or in a bar when it was too much for me.
The Portuguese language seemed to be an invincible mountain for me. It deprived my sleep and made me panic when I had to go alone on the street. Because what if I get lost or I have to ask for the right bus? Do you ask “que ônibus” or “qual ônibus”? Questions upon questions. And somehow after a few weeks I was able to manage my daily life better and better. I slowly understood conversations between locals and I had the courage to ask for right direction, the toilet or a new beer. Although I was still in control of my insecurity.
As my boyfriend was saying “bem-vindo” to me after three months at the place where all began, at the Tom Jobim International Airport in Rio de Janeiro, I felt like I was going back to an old world. But I was no longer the one who had travelled to Brazil. I was a bolder, more mature version of myself with a mission: I’ll conquer the Portuguese language!