Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Berlitz Wall

There seems to be some confusion as to exactly what Grace and I are doing in Europe. I often ask myself that, myself. Why are Grace and I in Europe, and of all places, why in Portugal. First of all, PORTUGAL IS NOT SPAIN. Just thought I'd throw that geographic tip in. Secondly, PORTUGUESE IS NOT SPANISH. This is a very important fact that apparently most people don't know. In fact, while talking to the Portuguese, you'll be amazed at how much they seem to be Canadians, only, they are speaking Portuguese.

Grace and I are now FLUENT language speakers. We can recognize sardines and pork chops on cafe menus. I know how to order coffee with milk. Two words will be your best friends: obrigado/a and desculpe. Obrigado/a (masculine/feminine forms) means thank you, and desculpe means excuse me, or sorry. You can open just about any conversation with desculpe, and end it with obrigado or obrigada.

Occasionally, we've run into situations where the other party didn't speak any English. This is not a problem. In fact, if you can open your eyes wide enough, the Bambi in the headlight look will solve most communication problems. A large part of the Berlitz school curriculum that we are taking is to help us to get just the right look on our faces when confronted by this challenge. First, open your mouth a little wider than normal, and clench a bit. Next, make your eyes as round as possible. Finally, arch your eyebrows while wrinkling your forehead. The teachers make us stand in front of a mirror to practice. I think we both have it down pretty well.

Food - again not a problem. The Portuguese, taken together, on average weigh about 40 lbs less than Americans, taken together. This is because they only eat cake or bread and coffee for breakfast, and they smoke a lot. They never eat eggs for breakfast (and here I really am telling the truth); eggs, either fried or scambled are on lunch and dinner menus. Meats are often served with a fried egg on top, but the smoking cuts down all the cholesterol. Some interesting dishes I've eaten so far: chicken with a fried egg, boiled bacalhau (salted cod) with potatoes (cozido), grilled squid, grilled pescado (grilled catch of the day). Bacalhau is Portugal's national treasure. It's a salted, dried codfish which is now eaten on special occasions. I really enjoyed the cozido; I expect I'll be eating more of Mr. Cod. Oh, almost every meal comes with potatoes AND rice. I like that. You can never have too many carbohydrates. Olives, lots of olives. Sardine pâté is also a big hit around here.

I'm enjoying the food immensely, because it's very different than what I normally eat. More than that, it's made with many of the same ingredients with which I cook, but they are put together in ways that I never thought about before. So I'm having a lot of fun. Here in the hotel, we have a salad bar, too, that Ron would enjoy. It has a wide selection of very different salads, that, again, use many different ingredients that we just don't see in a salad bar.

So today, Grace and I came right back to the hotel after class because we were dead tired. We have been really pushing ourselves, and needed a day off to regroup, and to catch up. The Berlitz class is going well. When Ana took us out to lunch today, she let us order for ourselves. Manuel gave us a history lesson. He had prepared a lesson on body parts and clothing, but the history got in the way. I'm afraid that we derail our instructors a lot, but we are getting very useful information about the country, the culture, the people, and learning how to fend for ourselves in many different situations.

I sometimes think the instructors must wonder who are these crazy Americans, but they have been very supportive and excited about our stay in Portugal. One of the instructors, Susana, brought in several pages that she had printed off from the Internet, because she wanted to be sure that we had all the information about Sintra, and a couple of other palaces/castles that Grace is going to drag me off to.

We send our love, and we'll catch up with you later.