Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Florianópolis is made up of a network of nature trails that connect the beaches, mountains, and lakes of the island. They are different, though, from the trails found in any state park because of the villages that quite suddenly pop up along them. There are no signs reading “Smallville 100m” warning of their existence. So you’re walking along a rocky path through dense jungle, hearing the crunch of gravel under your feet and the chatter of monkeys in the trees when suddenly you hear the clatter of a cue ball making the first break shot. You’ve stumbled upon a pool hall. Soon roosters are crossing your path, a horse, a cow. Then there’s a string of houses, modest in size and construction materials while outspoken in color. There’s a grocerette, a church, a first-aid post, a video store. On the door of a dance hall is a poster that invites “the community” to a dance that night.
These villages are referred to as “communities,” and it’s not surprising that the poster advertising the dance doesn’t necessarily say outsiders aren’t welcome, but it certainly doesn’t encourage their attendance. While it’s clear how to reach these communities on foot, how does one reach the people who comprise them?
Anyone who knows me knows that the reason I travel – the reason I “hike these trails” – is not to hear the chatter of the monkeys in the trees; it’s to hear the chatter of the villagers, then to chatter with them, and, eventually, I hope to be accepted as one of them.
I wasn’t aware of this obsession, until my older sister articulated it in another city in another country. I had rented a house in the historic center of Savannah, Georgia, for a month in the summer of 2005, and I came to feel I knew the area and the faces in it as well as I knew my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Towards the end of my stay, my sister came to visit, and while we were out one day, a tourist asked me for directions.
Once the tourist was out of earshot, I said to my sister, elated, “Did you see that?! She asked directions, and I knew!!!”
My sister shook her head at me, rolling her eyes. “God, Sonya, wherever you go, you want to pass for a local.”
“Doesn’t everybody?” I thought. But I hadn’t passed for a local; the only person who mistook me as someone who might be able to give directions was another tourist.
At the café where I had had coffee on every single one of my 30 mornings in Savannah, the guy at the counter – who had served me on all 30 of those mornings – asked me (the day before I left!), “So, when are you going back?”
I was exasperated. What tourist stays in the same tiny town for 30 days?!
“Where?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged, “wherever you’re visiting from.”
Why didn’t he think I had moved to town to teach at the college right next door? What was so positively foreign about me? I was a native of Georgia! My people had been in Georgia for 300 years, dammit! I could even resurrect my accent when necessary. Did I really seem so out of place, y’all?
On the water taxi in Floripa, I’ve seen ladies from The Community share their supermarket purchases with everyone on the boat but me. I am not sad that they don’t offer their bag of Ruffles for me to dig my hand into; I am just a little embarrassed that when trying to pass for a local, the only one I seem to fool is myself.
Language has always been my way of trying to reach out to people in the hope that they would take my extended hand and pull me in – whether it’s a Southern accent in Savannah, though mine faded long ago, or Portuguese in Brazil. When I am the outsider, I try to express through language that I embrace and respect the local people and culture in the hope they will embrace me, too. As one of their own.
As a result, my insistence on learning Portuguese, and not speaking a word, a syllable, an utterance of English with any Brazilian person became such a point of pride with me the first time I was in Brazil, at age 23 in 1999, that it threatened to grow into a monster that might have scared off even the toughest, most stoic villager.
When I lived in Brazil for the first time, I adhered to a strict rule that I myself had invented: No English outside of the English schools where I taught. For this reason, I didn’t socialize with the other English teachers, who, coming from all over the world, might have been really interesting and worth knowing. And when students invited me to do things outside of class, I answered, “I’d love to, but, just so you know, we won’t be speaking English.” What an abrasive response to an earnest invitation! It’s no wonder some of those invitations never evolved past the stage of offhand suggestion. I’m just lucky that some of those people, like Renata – first a student, later a dear friend – gave me a chance and didn’t withdraw the invitation.
Once my Portuguese had reached a level that allowed me to build relationships in the language, it was offensive to me when Brazilian strangers would approach and immediately, presumptuously, start speaking English. The sound of my mother tongue inspired real anger in me, and, on many occasions, my response certainly showed it.
Once in a bar a very cute guy sat next to me and asked my friend and I where we were from. The girl with me said, “I’m from Curitiba, and she’s from the US.” Mr. Cute turned to me and said in English, “Oh? What’s your name?” My response? “Eu falo Português.” He politely excused himself from our table and I, the cold b@#$% who was too proud even to say her name if it wasn’t solicited in Portuguese, sat alone for the rest of the night. As we say in Portuguese, Bem feito. It serves you right!
Was it so hard for me to imagine that maybe these friendly Brazilians, who had worked just as hard to learn English as I had to learn Portuguese, were proud that they spoke another language, too? Imagine that.
At the time I figured I was offended by Brazilians’ assumption that someone who looks like me must not know how to speak Portuguese – devestating to a WASP who wants to be a local in Latin America. Their words said, “Hi! What’s your name? Do you want to be friends?” but my ears heard, “I assume you don’t speak Portuguese, so I will stoop to your level and speak English with you, the dumb American.”
But now I wonder if there wasn’t more to it than that. Was it that the stranger, with his use of my mother tongue, had gotten too close? Instead of a hand shake, he had caressed the small of my back. Maybe he was just trying to embrace me.
I wonder now how many doors I closed with my refusal to bend – thinking I was bending so much – my refusal to speak my own language, always insisting on speaking “theirs.”
I love language like a prized object. I have favorite words like someone may have a favorite sweater, words that remind me of a fond memory the way photographs trigger such memories for others. As a baby, when I cried, my father didn’t shake my favorite toys before my eyes; he repeated my favorite words. Bunny. Turtle. Puppy.
For someone who has such a sensual relationship with her mother tongue, why was I so resistant against it? Sure, I don’t want to be the ugly American who wanders into every store in Rio de Janeiro, expects the staff to speak English, and just picks up something and says, “How much?” But why, in intimate situations, with people who wanted to be my friend, was I so resistant to the language that was most intimately connected to me? Maybe I wanted to connect with them. Maybe I believed I was connecting with them. But couldn’t Portuguese just as easily have been a wall I was building around myself, an armor I wore when among those who were foreign to me, a way of not revealing my true self? A way of sheilding my, ultimately English-speaking, heart?
I started to think about all this because, several months ago, I had the opportunity to hike a trail I had never hiked before with two people I had never spent time with before. One was my roommate’s brother, André, and the other, Daniel, a friend of a friend of a friend visiting Floripa for the weekend. A group of us had gathered on the beach – mostly my roommate’s family – when Daniel decided to hike the nearby trail. I didn’t know him, but I volunteered to go in order to escape a Sunday afternoon with someone else’s family.
I was telling the two guys some story as we walked in single file along the narrow trail. André and I had gotten a little ahead of Daniel, so Daniel yelled, in English, although no one had been speaking English, “Wait! What did you say?” And I felt that old anger creep in, stiffen my shoulders and heat the back of my neck and the tips of my ears. He had also been flirting with me shamelessly, and I thought about giving him a helpful hint that Portuguese was a lot bigger turn-on to me than English, but instead I just repeated myself, as he had requested, and I did so in Portuguese.
Dear Daniel is apparently as stubborn as I am because although I didn’t give him much encouragement on the trail that day, he pressed on. And almost always in English. Over some weeks, as our conversations ventured beyond the banal “What did you do today?” my defenses began to weaken. Finally I just asked him, “I speak Portuguese, you know. Why do you insist on speaking English with me?”
He didn’t hesitate. He said, “To reach you.”
And that was when he did. Just when I was about to build a wall around me again, he slid a note through a crack. I don’t know what changed, what made me read it, but fortunately, it was written in a language that I was beginning to understand. And maybe this time around in Brazil I would finally learn how to make a real connection.