Uma Faixa Branca Novamente: A White Belt Once Again

I thought I wanted to write about my first dinner in Portugal and my and my roommates’ Sunday adventure to the beaches of Carcavelos. I still do, but I want to focus on what I am learning. (“I’m having a once-in-a-lifetime-type adventure with all kinds of different experiences, and I intend to write about my life homework.”) After two days in Portugal, surrounded by gorgeous plazas, tiled buildings, cobblestone streets, and breathtaking views of the water, I managed to feel cranky. Why? Because I cannot just snap my fingers and be fluent in Portuguese.

On Saturday night Kara, Mike, and I went to a gorgeous restaurant called Reserva da Villa (Bree had succumbed to jet lag) and had a lovely dinner. On Sunday, the four of us took a test trip to St. Julian’s School, in the town of Carcavelos, which is a few stops away on the commuter train. SJS is where we are taking our counseling courses. We had a great walk into downtown Cascais, ran into a firefighters’ parade, scoped out the school and met a very nice custodian named Fernando, and walked to the beach where we stopped for lunch. Today we figured out how to buy bus tickets, had our first day of class, stopped at a fruit stand, and started our homework. All in all, a series of fun adventures with people I am enjoying getting to know. I even made plans to meet up with an old college friend for dinner on Friday and a Facebook friend for jiu-jitsu on Saturday, once I have gotten truly settled and am mostly done with my first course and with jet lag. The weather is spectacular, and I am taking on the pace of this place, which is to say I am in less of a hurry and am more present than usual.

So why am I cranky? Well, and imagine me saying this in a pouty baby voice: It’s not fair because I am not fluent in Portuguese already. In fact, I suck. I am a white belt. I am at that phase of trying to be a Portuguese speaker where it would be more comfortable to not even try, to pretend that Portuguese as a language—as a concept, even—does not even exist, to make the people here who are able to speak English speak English with me and to act like it is someone else’s problem when the people who do not speak English do not speak English with me. I have reached the stage where ignorance would be bliss and I want to go back to there.

I can piece together the sentence I need to say and even spit it out if I practice it repeatedly beforehand. “E possivel ter uma mesa para tres pessoas?” (Is it possible to get a table for three people?”) “E possivel comprar um bilhete para o onibus aqui?” (Is it possible to buy a ticket for the bus here?)

I am not yet consistently able to understand the response, however. When I asked for the table, the bartender looked at me appraisingly and said, “Fora?” I opened and closed my mouth without any sound coming out, like a fish, and he said, “Outside?” And off we went in English. The lady who told me I could get a bus ticket from her asked me something incomprehensible. When I did my fish impression, she smiled, not unkindly, and switched to English.

As soon as I get to the point where I cannot understand, I concede that it is better to speak English. Usually there is a line behind me or the person I am talking to only has so much patience, which I get. But the feeling of not being able to communicate is terrible, maybe like having no idea how to defend against the game of the blackest black belt in your school. So as I mentioned, I am a white belt at this Portuguese stuff.

So then it is time for me to trot out all those platitudes I have been feeding students for years: Just keep with it; the fact that you corrected yourself after the fact is actually progress and now the goal is to do it in real time and then eventually recognize what you need to do ahead of time; you have to be willing to be bad at something before you can be good at it. All that stuff I shovel when my students get frustrated at not being able to get their bodies to contort for the omoplata or fend off the triangle.

It is so much easier to be on the shoveling side than on the side where you feel like you need hip boots. Yesterday I got yelled at by a bus driver but could not even feel properly chagrined because I did not know what I had done (turns out we were supposed to flag down the bus but just stood there expectantly, which annoyed him. I stared for a split second and then said, “Nao entendo. Desculpe.” (I don’t understand. I’m sorry.) In his defense, when I got off the bus, I waved at him, and he waved back.). Today I tried to ask the nice custodian at SJS how his evening was, and that did not have the desired effect. So back to English I went. Sometimes I think my dictionary is defective, but then I remember it is actually my Portuguese.

One of the things we have talked about in the intro to counseling course I am taking is the important characteristics people need to be effective in the helping professions, of which counseling is one. Our professor started the session with the following quote: “Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new” (Brian Tracey). When I saw that, I was annoyed, because I was not willing, at that moment. I wanted to quit Portuguese. I wanted to be the person who got to tell other people they had to be willing to do those things. I decided Brian Tracey must be a punk.

All day yesterday I was walking around with a giant dark scribble in the imaginary dialogue bubble over my head, feeling stupid and like I was never going to get better at this vercackte language.

And then it started to happen. I started to understand. Later in the day yesterday, while we were at a little butcher shop, I understood part of a sentence, spoken by an older gentleman to a middle-aged woman. Two whole words. They were not even directed at me, which was good, because I did not understand the rest of the sentence. But those two words were the best words I have ever heard: “Voce volta.” (You return.) I may not even have heard “voce” correctly, but I DID hear “volta.” And I knew what it meant in the context. I understood something.

And today, I heard someone at the train station say, “Ate amanha.” (Until tomorrow, or See you tomorrow.) I almost ran up to the woman who said that to tell her, “I successfully eavesdropped on you!” Fortunately, I did not know how to say “eavesdrop.” My dictionary says “espreitar,” but the definition of “espreitar” is “to peep or to watch attentively.” I am sure that would go over well, especially given my track record with being “exitada.”

Later today we Ubered a couple times (turns out it’s cheaper to split it than to take the bus), and both times I sat in the front with the driver and asked to practice Portuguese. I understood about 25% of what the first driver said: He’s from Brazil, he hates the French, he did not know anything about the restaurant we were headed to because it is vegetarian and he is not. On the way back, I probably understood about the same amount from the other driver, who is also Brazilian, has four brothers, is familiar with Gracie jiu-jitsu, and agrees that Cariocas (Brazilians from Rio) speak differently from people from other parts of Brazil and from Portugal.

I am finding learning Portuguese to be very much like learning jiu-jitsu. My optimism and self-efficacy levels go all over the map, and it only takes one very small occurrence to send me to either extreme. Right now, I am walking on air because I understood a few things. Tomorrow I will probably go back to feeling annoyed and dumb and awkward and stupid. And dangit if those platitudes—and friendly, patient people—don’t actually help a ton. So it is with language learning, jiu-jitsu, AND life. I just have to remember that the next time I tell someone I am wearing no underwear when I actually meant to say I was wearing my favorite outfit. Place your bets on when that happens.

Want some help with that awkwardness and discomfort while you try something new? Contact me at or visit me at I will have stories of my adventures in Portuguese that will reassure you that you are not alone.