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Kelly Cheek
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Around the World

Have you ever pressed your tongue into the back of your throat while speaking through your nose? I haven’t either. So learning Portuguese is a little more difficult for me than it might be for someone who has that kind of oral acrobatic skill on their CV.

Most of the towns we’re considering in Portugal have expat communities, and it’s been said that you don’t need to speak Portuguese to get along there. But it’s also considered respectful to try to learn it. The Portuguese people are known to be extremely friendly and helpful, but they especially respect those who make the effort.

Besides, we don’t want to move to another country to settle with other Americans and recreate the country we left. That’s kind of missing the point of traveling and seeing the world. We want to seek out new life and new civilizations, not just bring ours with us.

So we’ve started. And I have to say that Portuguese is a strange and confounding language.

I took a semester of Spanish back in junior high school, and as you might imagine, that short installment nearly half a century ago hasn’t stuck with me much. My memories of it don’t go very far beyond “¿Donde está la biblioteca?” And the teacher, of course, rotund Mr. Watson, or as he was known in his Spanish teacher persona, Señor Gordo. (“Not Gordo!” he insisted, “SEÑOR Gordo!”)

Still, I remember what Spanish sounds like. Over the years, I’ve also attempted a little French. And I’ve seen The Godfather, so I know how Italian accents sound. Well, if you tossed Spanish into a blender, added a little French and Italian and hit Frappe (that’s French), the result might resemble Portuguese.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful language. It’s the language I remember from those Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 songs in the 60s, although technically, there are differences between Brazilian Portuguese and Portuguese Portuguese. But coaxing those sounds out of my American Caucasian, English-speaking mouth is like trying to gargle molasses while standing on my head.

Linda is managing much better. She speaks Spanish, though she admits she’s lost a lot of it over the years. Still, she’s been able to converse with Spanish-speaking repairmen who have come to our house. And she carried on quite a conversation with a Latino family when we were waiting to tour Ben and Jerry’s in Vermont on our honeymoon.

As a singer who particularly loves the French Impressionist composers, she has sung a lot of French songs. She also has a background in acting, and can imitate numerous accents. So she’s really good with her mouth!

Anyway, I’m going to keep at it. Maybe by the time we get there, I’ll be able to ask where the library is. (“Onde é a biblioteca?”) [Don’t be fooled by the “d” in “Onde.” It’s pronounced like a “j.”]

Speaking of seeking out new civilizations, and appreciating the culture of our future home, we’ve tried listening to fado, the main musical style of Portugal. According to Wikipedia, “fado is a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a sentiment of resignation, fate and melancholia. This is loosely captured by the Portuguese word saudade, or longing, symbolizing a feeling of loss (a permanent, irreparable loss and its consequent lifelong damage).”

While we haven’t understood the lyrics, what we’ve heard of it does seem to fit, style-wise, with that definition. In other words, it’s kind of a bummer. Beautiful music, but don’t expect to feel very uplifted.

Needless to say, we haven’t really gotten into it that much. Maybe once we’re over there and immersed in the culture, that will change. And apparently, how one enjoys fado depends on where one is. According to a website about appreciating Portuguese culture, “in Lisbon, it’s customary to clap your hands in applause following the end of a fado song, and to remain silent throughout the performance.” However, to applaud a Coimbra fado, you don’t clap your hands, but cough and clear your throat.”

Maybe the coughing and throat-clearing is what I need to accomplish some of those sounds. Either that, or perfect my molasses-gargling skills.