I lie about my Portuguese proficiency depending on my audience. Whenever I visit the United States, I demure. Friends or family or strangers will ask me “how is your Portuguese?” and I will feign incompetence. I sheepishly tell them that my grasp of the language is terrible. I do this because I want to shock them when they visit. I do this because the only thing better than sex is surprising someone else with your ability to speak a foreign language.
A friend of mine from Cloudflare visited last year and stayed with me. One evening we went to dinner and I ordered in Portuguese. Restaurant exchanges are my most frequent interactions with the language. I know the script, but I made sure to put on a real show. The waitress told him, in English, that I spoke very well. He relayed that to other team members back in the US.
Last week, I was in our office in Lisbon with an English colleague visiting from London. The two of us were in an elevator with four people who were speaking Portuguese. On their way out a woman bumped into me and apologized in English, having seen the
everything about me. I responded in Portuguese that it was no big deal. She turned around, surprised, and smiled as she started to put together a response while the doors closed. My coworker seemed impressed. Another victory.
I lie in a different direction to Portuguese strangers. I have almost lived here for four years and with every year that passes I grow a bit more ashamed of my Portuguese comprehension. So I shorten my time in the country or omit the years altogether. This is less of an issue in Lisbon, where most people speak better English than I do, but a bigger challenge in the rest of the country.
When I go to the rest of Portugal, I mostly do so because I am an immigrant and the immigration authorities have shorter wait times outside of major cities. When I applied for permanent residency, I did so in Portalegre. When I renewed my residency, they sent me to Aveiro.
During the Aveiro trip I went to get a coffee while we waited for my summons. This is when I tend to get in trouble - when I am alone. My wife is also an American who has lived here for exactly 3 days fewer than me. Unlike me, she speaks works in a Portuguese office and speaks Portuguese in a professional context for a good chunk of her day. When I am with her, I hide behind her. In Aveiro, I had wondered off.
I ordered in Portuguese and chatted with the shop owner a bit who, impressed, asked me how long I have lived here. The true answer was two years. I said six months. My mental math decided that I spoke enough Portuguese to be impressive after six months but embarrassing after two years.
This is dumb and today I told the truth to a small crowd of strangers in the interior of Portugal for the first time.
My wife and I are spending the Easter long weekend in Alentejo, the Texas of Portugal. Alentejo consists of the country’s rural, agricultural heartland. If your mental image of Portugal consists of rolling hills covered in cork trees, sheep grazing under olive groves, and rustic villages surrounding a church with bells tolling - you are thinking of Alentejo.
We decided to rent a house on one of these farms about one mile outside of a town called Arcos. Arcos has a population of 1,016. I met many of them this morning.
Arcos sits outside of Estremoz, which sits outside of Évora, the largest city in the region. Villages in Portugal differ from small towns in Texas - they are as densely populated as downtown Austin. You drive across rural fields and suddenly a micro urban core appears.
Nearly all of the 1,000 citizens of Arcos live in a space a bit smaller than the University of Texas intramural fields. The village radiates from a central square with a church. About two hundred homes cluster together across four or five mostly square blocks. The town even built their own version of the High Line! They converted an alley between two blocks into a narrow pedestrian park complete with a playground and sitting areas. The residents of Arcos live in one of the smallest towns in Europe and enjoy more walkability than any American outside of New York.
The house where we are staying sits on a hill about a quarter mile from the town, meaning we are solidly outside of city limits even though we can see the houses and hear the church bells from our porch. This morning I went down the hill and crossed the county line with my two dogs and walked into Arcos to find coffee. From what I could ascertain, Arcos is home to two cafes. I stumbled on a Delta Cafe, O Pires, and I tied up the dogs and walked inside.
Traditional Portuguese cafes consist of a standing-only counter where patrons order an espresso and maybe a pastry and finish both without ever sitting down. A few tables are available if you are there with other people and want to stop for a chat. When I walked into O Pires, two leathery Alentejan farmers in their fifties occupied the counter. A woman ran the espresso machine and her husband ran the service.
I was wearing bright blue hiking pants, neon yellow Nikes, a green tee-shirt, and a Patagonia baseball cap. Combined with my height, my paleness, my blue eyes and everything else about me I tend to stand out. The front door consists of hanging beads so anyone walking into the cafe just suddenly appears. When I appeared all of the conversations stopped and the only sound you could hear was the jangling of the beads behind me.
However, I know the script. I ordered in European Portuguese and every person in the joint looked at me like they had just seen a ghost. The shock factor is the same everywhere in the country. No one expects anyone who looks like me to speak any conversational European Portuguese.
The taller of the two Alentejan customers, a man who was over six-feet and probably weighed 140 pounds and would look at home in West Texas, could not stop gawking. After ordering, I went to sit outside.
They followed me. All of them. The owner stood at the door, the shorter Alentejan sat at my table, and the tall fella took a chair at a table across from mine and angled it towards me. They had so many questions. All variations of “how the hell do you speak our language and what brings you here?” Feeling vaguely accosted, I told them the truth. The whole truth.
I did my best to explain that I am not a “Digital Nomad,” which has become something of an insult amongst the Portuguese. Digital Nomads move here from California or Germany and drive up rents and work from their laptops and never become part of the community. They do not learn Portuguese. I told them about our office here. I made it clear that we hired a fantastic team of locals, Portuguese coming home from abroad, and foreigners making the country home. I told them how much I love the country. And I told them how long I have lived here exactly. All true facts and all well received.
They had questions about my dogs. In particular, our rescue Serra da Estrela belongs to a breed that is something of an icon in the country. They chatted amongst themselves about who they knew in the area that has one. They told me that where I ate dinner last night has wine that is great but too expensive and gave me a list of other regional wines to try. They encouraged me to visit the market that is open in Estremoz on Saturdays. (I did.)
The crowd grew as more customers stopped by for their Saturday morning espresso routine. They all seemed to know each other. The initial team sent to investigate me became more of a half-circle audience all delighted to be interrogating this bizarre foreigner who managed to find their cafe in Arcos and who spoke European Portuguese.
An older woman and her daughter, who must have been about my age, walked in to grab coffees and joined us. She opened with “where are you from?” to get caught up and then told me she was Angolan but had left during the war as a child. She arrived in Estoril and then spent a few years in Brazil before returning to Portugal where she raised her daughter. She shared with me that three of her grandparents were African and one of them was from the Netherlands. She loves Portugal but misses the diversity of Brazil. The two of them were headed to Estremoz for the market and walked over to my table to say farewell on their way out.
Eventually the scene whittled down to just me and the owner who had taken the seat next to me at this point. He corrected a few things about my use of the past tense. We parted ways and he shook my hand with a hearty muito prazer before he disappeared back through the beaded door.
I did not tell a lie about my Portuguese proficiency today. I didn’t need to. I never needed to. People in Portugal are so terribly gracious and kind. I have known that to be true for years, but I sure felt it today. People appreciate that you make the effort. In any case, my Portuguese friends who know the real me were proud. Another victory.