We've just passed the "we've been here 11 months" mark and that's rather astounding, actually. In many ways we've settled in and others, not so much. So this post is going to discuss what's giving us trouble, because living in a foreign country is never like the guidebooks suggest. The big clue: it's all about The Language
Let's face it, the biggest challenge for a foreigner is communication. When I lived in Hong Kong I quickly gave up on the notion of ever learning how to say "hello", let alone anything beyond that. (Cantonese is a tonal language and it totally eludes me). Read signs or the newspaper? Ha!. But I really want to reach some level of proficiency here because Portuguese is a Romance language with heavy Latin influence. In short, many of the words look at lot like English which is a massive step up from Cantonese's undecipherable characters.
Contrary to what some will tell you, Portuguese is NOT easy to learn, at least not for Harold and I. Still, it's a very rich language with many more sounds than English, so there's that. I can read Portuguese rather well and can work my way through ads and newspapers.
But . . .conversation is a bitch.
The basic problem for both of us is that native speakers talk at warp speed and our brains cannot keep up. Of course everyone has their own individual way of pronouncing words and that doesn't always prove helpful. Some folks can chat with us and we get a fair amount of the conversation. Others? No way. It doesn't help that we're equipped with 60+ year old hearing, either. Lots of background noise and we can't even parse English. In Portuguese? Forget it.
Since Harold is further along with his language skills than me, he just finished a month long INTENSIVE Portuguese class at the University of Porto. He took a test for placement and he qualified for A2 (a total beginner is A1). The class met for 4 hours per day, 5 days a week plus a cultural field trip on one afternoon each week. Then there was the 2-3+ hours of homework every evening. Did I mention this was intensive? He spent most of the time feeling majorly overwhelmed, but learned a lot. If his final score is a passing grade he will receive a certificate indicating his prowess at A2 level, which is required for when he applies for Portuguese citizenship down the line.
Me? I'm doing an online course (Portuguese Lab) and listening to podcasts because taking an intensive course like that would have completely overwhelmed me. I like time to assimilate new data and 20 hours a week wouldn't work for me. You have to know what works best for you and acquire the language your own way.
I've learned to start most interactions with the phrase Fala ingles? (Do you speak English?) If it's a no, that's fine since I live in their country and that's the way it should be. Often I'll get the reply that the person speaks a little English, which is cool. I also prepare for any official conversations (like at the doc's office or at the DMV) by typing out certain info they will need to know as well as any questions I need to ask. Because just like us, they might have a problem with our very American accented Portuguese.
If we really get stuck, like we did recently at the DMV, a very helpful young lady acted as an interpreter for us. She wasn't part of the staff, just there with her mom to do some business and stepped into help us. Which is should tell you exactly why we LOVE the Portuguese people.
For me, at least, nothing else really bugs me about this country except Porto's incredibly noisy seagulls. I've learned to chill out (Portuguese society runs at a slower pace than in the US) and things will happen at their own pace. This might require a second trip to the pharmacy for the specially-blended cat medication, but hey, that's life. If I had a regular job it'd be harder to cope with, but being semi-retired means it's not such a big deal.
So 11 months and counting. I can order a meal, know how to count to 100, can do some basic Portuguese phrases and hack through a newspaper. So, not bad. Harold, of course, is much further than this but still working on the day-to-day interactions. I suspect that will always be the case for both of us. On the whole, not too bad.
Down the line, I'll be posting blogs about a couple local towns (Braga and Guimarães) we visited in May and June. Both of those cities are so very scenic and well worth a visit if you're in Northern Portugal.
And now onto the one year mark!
Harold is a former software engineer. Jana is an author. Together they're exploring their new life in Portugal.