We didn’t get off to the greatest of starts, Portuguese and I!
I did my best to avoid studying the language for a really long time. But the longer I stayed in São Paulo, the more I began to appreciate the need to speak Portuguese and integrate with those around me. ‘Getting by’ just wasn’t going to cut it after a few years of being here.
Plus, the Brazilians I would be introduced to for the first time would say things like; “oh, you’ve been here for X years already? Your Portuguese must be amazing!”
I often smiled, wishing this was true, then tell them that my Portuguese wasn’t too bad. (I’d usually say this in English and quickly change the subject!).
So after a few years of being in Brazil, I finally committed to studying. Like, I seriously knuckled down and invested in my studies. Within a few months I was pleasantly surprised to recognise that this was beginning to pay off, that I could understand a lot of what was being said around me.
A few years later, my Portuguese is totally acceptable, all be it with a strong English accent! I’m not fluent, not by any stretch of the imagination – but I’m getting there, slowly. If you’re wondering what my Portuguese skills are like, here is an interview I did back in 2016 for the YouTube channel Encontro Com Proposito
So with my newfound Portuguese skills, I decided to reconnect with one aspect of life in the UK I missed; going to the theatre. That’s right darlings; I am someone who enjoys watching plays! (Insert air kisses here). Let me tell you about my introduction to the world of Brazilian theatre.
The Experimental Play
The first play I went to see was in not in a theatre, but in a building with several corridors that were used as a performance space. It was in a deliciously-artsy setting, where guys in balaclavas would guide the audience (in the dark) to different areas of the building using the light from their torches. When we were all seated, actors would deliver their performances in a shouty and melodramatic way. This made things very easy to follow; as even when I was lost in the dialogue, I could get what was going on from the context.
When the characters were angry, they’d shout. When the characters were sad, they’d cry. When the characters were feeling amorous, they’d rip off all their clothes and simulate sex scenes!
NOTE: I’m not exaggerating about the sex scenes; I saw an unprecedented number of testicles during this play!
I LOVED my first foray into the world of Brazilian theatre, and left with a new found confidence that my Portuguese was actually at a level where I could enjoy even more plays (sweetie darlings!).
As the curtain went up, the lights dimmed and I sat back in my chair; then two actors strode out onto the stage to address the audience. That’s the moment I first knew I was in trouble; these actors were definitely not from São Paulo! I’d become accustomed to the accent from this city, but the one from the north east of Brazil wasn’t an accent I had a whole lot of contact with. To this day, it is still really difficult for me to understand.
The actors announced that they’d found a suitcase full of old love letters, and after going through the contents, wanted to share this beautiful romance with us. The performance was so subtle – definitely not a style of performance I was expecting after my last theatre visit! For the next hour and a half, there was no crying, no shouting, no nudity and no simulated moments of passion…in an accent I struggled to grasp!
I felt completely out of my depth, detached, frustrated and annoyed with myself. I just didn’t understand what was going on.
“Oh, wasn’t that so beautiful?” My friend asked me as we left the theatre.
“Oh yes!” I replied, as if I really felt this way, “really beautiful.”
“Bitch, please!” He laughed, “the accents were difficult even for me to understand. I KNOW that you can’t have understood!”
“OK” I reluctantly conceded, “I have NO idea what happened! Can we just go to the bar already!?!”
The day I can watch a play from the north east and understand it, this is when I will confidently say that I am a fluent Portuguese speaker!
Accents are not the only challenge I face as a non-Portuguese theatre-goer….as I discovered during my next trip!
Before the play began, I was surprised to see a huge white screen roll down over the stage curtain and seconds later, advertisements were projected onto it. The theatre was the last place I’d expected to see a televised KFC commercial, yet my friend told me that it was pretty common for commercial theatres to play advertisements before the play began.
The actors eventually appeared on stage and began interacting with each other, much to the amusement of those around me! In this performance, a lot of the jokes were centred around word play. As you can probably imagine, without an extensive knowledge of words with more than one meaning, this meant that I was often a little lost! The audience would collectively let out a loud belly laugh, slap their thighs and look round at each other – presumably for signs of recognition that they too found this joke funny. When this happened I found myself doing something very unexpected…I forced out a loud laugh and pretended that I also found the jokes hilarious too!
That’s right, whilst all eyes were on the performance on the stage; one of the biggest performances of the night was actually taking place on row F, seat 10! I mean I got a lot of the jokes….but definitely not all of them. Definitely not the smutty ones that relied on puns! So when the audience unexpectedly roared with laughter, I’d be sitting there like a seal, flamboyantly clapping my hands and laughing at jokes I hadn’t understood! I realised early on that I’d be affecting my friend’s enjoyment of the play if I didn’t laugh – because let’s be honest, if you’re sitting next to someone with a poker face when you’re laughing at a joke, it’s likely to sour the mood.
So I faked it!
When it came to understanding vulgar jokes in Portuguese, after this play I realised that still had a lot to learn!
I appreciate that not understanding things is all part of the language learning process – I can’t be expected to understand everything all the time, especially cultural references. But I still find it frustrating! Having said this, the payoff that has come with connecting with the world of Brazilian theatre has been immense.
This has also gave me the confidence to try something else in Portuguese – join sports teams. As you can imagine, this has definitely been an interesting experience, and a real test for my Portuguese skills!