This weekend marks nine months since we moved to Lisbon. By the time we leave, it will have been ten. While I have seen and done and learned many things during that time, I am ashamed to admit that speaking Portuguese is not one of them.

My lessons, which were largely ineffective at teaching me anything other than how to blunder my way through a conversation with totally ungrammatical panache, ended three months ago. Whatever limited skills I had after that point have now been washed away in a tide of French, Hebrew, Swedish, and the English words that make up my daily life. At this point, I think I have actually managed to become less proficient at Portuguese than I was when we first moved here.

Case in point: dealing with not one but two utilities guys who came to the flat yesterday. I spend pretty much all day every day working in our flat, and have done so more or less since October. During all that time, I have buzzed quite a few gas and water guys in to read the meters, but they always know where they’re going and don’t bother me once I’ve opened the outside door for them. But yesterday I got two guys, a water and a gas, who didn’t know what they were doing. Both were convinced that the meter they were looking for was in our flat, although how I would’ve missed such a thing in a place that’s the size of our living room back at home, I’m not quite sure.

Both guys insisted on coming in to the flat and looking into the corners, in the kitchen, behind the door. As I followed them around, wondering at the wisdom of letting strange men into my home, I felt like saying, “Dude, I know this place. It’s tiny. There are no meters here.” But of course I couldn’t say that, nor did I know where the meters actually were. (Gabe did, which he told me when he called later in the afternoon. Oh well. Turns out they’re in the stairwell above our flat.)

After each one left, I realized that I had understood not a single word either one said. Not a one. Yet somehow I knew what they were looking for, although it did take the water guy a little more time to explain it, using a circular gesture with his finger to indicate the meter and one English word, said very loudly to convince this stupid lady of its import: “WATER.” Yes, I got that one: agua. Thing is, I have no idea what you want to do with my water. Take a shower? Wash your clothes? What? Oh right. Read the meter. (I thought he wanted to use my computer!)

I do this all the time — I’ll have a conversation using about ten Portuguese words (always the same ones), and understanding maybe one in five of the barrage they throw at me in return. But most of the time, if I’m lucky, that one word is enough to clue me in to the overall context of their response. Usually I can come away with whatever answer I was seeking, even though I could not tell you what exactly, word for word, the person said.

In other words, I’ve become very good at understanding the meaning of a sentence without actually understanding its individual components. This does run the risk of making me look like a complete moron if I answer in the wrong way, but I’ve also gotten good at giving noncommittal answers based on the gist of the conversation. I watch the person’s reaction carefully, and if the first one doesn’t get the right response, I try another, and if that’s still not right, then I finally admit that I don’t speak Portuguese very well. In case they hadn’t guessed already. Maybe they thought I’d been dropped on my head as a child, who knows. I wouldn’t want them to come away thinking that, now would I?

I’m getting so used to communicating in this way that I even did it to Gabe last night. I was lying in bed reading, wearing my earplugs to shut out the sound of the TV in the living room. He came in and said something to me, and I answered the tone of his voice and the context of his question (I don’t even remember what it was now) without having actually heard what he said. For a minute, I wondered if I’d said the right thing, but judging by his lack of reaction, I guessed that I had. Or maybe he just figured I was sleepy and making no sense. Either way, it worked, and I went back to my book.

So that’s what it’s like to live in a country where you don’t speak the language: hearing the world through earplugs. You watch people’s body language and facial expressions, you try to catch key words, just enough to clue you in to what the person is talking about. Then based entirely on this sparse information, you launch a response into the great unknown, wondering all the time if it will make you sound like an idiot. I wonder if that’s also what it’s like to gradually go deaf. If it is, I’m set.

One thing that has improved is that I am no longer quite as worried about people thinking I’m an idiot. When the two guys came through yesterday and I could barely understand what they were looking for, much less help them find it, I didn’t really care. Six months ago, that would’ve sent me into a tizzy of remorse, thinking how I really needed to learn this language so that doesn’t happen again. Now, I just shrugged and figured hey, it’s their job, they’ll find them on their own.

What a very Portuguese attitude. Perhaps I’m learning more than I thought.


We have family and friends arriving this weekend, so I won’t be able to write for a while. But we are very much looking forward to showing our loved ones around our host city! Watch this space for more adventures — and pictures — to come soon.