Words fail me at times; it comes with the territory of being a serial emigrant. I have grown to accept it.
In order to be able to communicate in a different culture and language, you have to be willing to fail and fail again.
Portugal comes to mind first of all.
I didn’t know even know the basics-est of basics but not averse to a challenge, I decided I’d learn the language on the spot.
Courses are boring after all; besides, I hate rules as I always look for ways around them, which makes grammar impossible to tackle. To really learn how to communicate, you have to immerse yourself in the language and dive in the deep end. As long as you embrace the fact that making a fool of oneself is a type of skill too, all normally ends well.
Someone told me that Portuguese to the untrained ear sounded like a drunken Frenchman trying to speak Russian and upon arrival I realized to my dismay he was right.
Still. I was undeterred. Full of enthusiasm of finding myself in this strange country I had never even visited before but had decided to move to, baffled with strange smells and sights, I decided to try out my newly learnt sentences from a pocket travel dictionary on a lady in a petrol station. You have to start somewhere. It didn’t go too bad, telling her where we were from and when I noticed a picture of a horse on the wall. I decided to tell her I loved horses.
She looked at me with great suspicion and asked me to repeat myself, I did, to which she burst out laughing and told me I had it all wrong.
Turned out I had kindly informed her I made love to horses.
The village we lived in had a village idiot; Antonio. Antonio squinted so much that it was impossible to figure out if he was actually directing himself to you, but he mainly talked to himself anyway. Our house bordered on a public through path and when he passed there into the village, which was often, he tried to strike up a conversation with us.
Although I normally pretend I do speak a language to get communication flowing, in some cases it is best pretending you don’t. My husband and I had learnt the sentence I don’t speak Portuguese just to get rid of him, as we found out he waste village drunk as well, but it never worked. It always sent him into a rant, it always used to make him really angry and cause him to spout off abuse at us.
It wasn’t until months later that I understood why.
I learnt to speak and communicate in Portuguese quite quickly thanks to my lovely Portuguese neighbor who proved herself a brilliant teacher although she could barely read and write. Good teachers are rare, most people just nod, smile and give up; she didn’t. We used to stand there for ages outside her house, while she pointed at things making me repeat them. Toothless, but not witless by far. The only problem came at understanding people who did have teeth and didn’t speak with a lisp like she did, we laughed about that fact even more when she finally had false teeth fitted.
Eventually I decided it wouldn’t hurt to actually invest in a grammar book, I wanted to understand verb conjugation a bit better as it is amazing how much communication can improve with just a few more verbs and the right usage of them. It was while studying the book that I came to the horrible realization why Antonio always got angry with us. Due to me having used an ‘a’ rather than an ‘o’ at the end of the verb I had been implying to the poor crazed alcoholic of the village that I didn’t want him to speak Portuguese to me.
The one which tops that however is the bread roll incident.
Freshly arrived in Galicia, Spain, I assumed Portuguese was the same as the dialect they spoke, Gallego. Just like in Portugal, a bread van turned up every morning in the village so I decided to get some bread rolls from the fresh faced 20-something.I used the Portuguese word for bread rolls, bicos and he stared at me bemused. Slightly impatient I repeated my request, a bit annoyed that something simple like that wasn’t even understood. Even pointing out didn’t seem to work, so eventually I reached into the van, took two bread rolls and paid, while he nodded warily, taking off with his van slightly faster than usual afterwards.
I shook it off as a just a curious incident and had forgotten about it until months later.
Bread rolls aren’t as common here as they are in Portugal so I didn’t need to use the word again, until I noticed my regular baker in my current village had bread rolls in his van and asked for two bicos. He looked at me and asked me to repeat myself. I did.
Smirking he asked me if I was sure. “Biccos, really? You mean Bollos woman, Bicos, bicos means kisses!”
He laughed, pouted his lips to demonstrate and blew me a kiss. “You’ve just asked me for two kisses!”
Funny anecdotes aside, all this miscommunication has taught me some valuable lessons in writing. Just because what I am writing makes sense to me, doesn’t mean that what I am trying to convey to the reader is logical and plausible to them.
Over the last five years I’ve written several manuscripts. They all ended under my bed and I’ve decided they will remain there; although they made sense to me, they wouldn’t make sense to others. I just hope that I have learnt enough now to knead my recent idea into something readable. Bread rolls, not kisses.
Follow Barbara on Twitter at @chicaderock