Sou Americano Estupido

moransIt occurred to me the other day that being in the middle of learning a language is a pretty unique place to be. Everyone except those in the middle of doing so either already know a second language or not (or in some cases, not even one). It’s a very small minority who are in the middle of learning one. Accordingly, there are things students like us notice that everyone else doesn’t think much about.

It’s hard to think of the things we take for granted in English because, well, we take them for granted. But heck, let’s take the phrase, “Taking it for granted.” Try and teach that to someone who doesn’t speak English. “Where am I supposed to take it? Why is ‘granted’ suddenly a noun? And why is a past tense word still the same whether you are currently taking it for granted, already took it for granted, or are about to take it for granted? Shouldn’t it be ‘taking it for granting?'” Oy, I’m glad I’ve already learnded most of my English. I don’t want to be no moran.

Call an ambulance
On Memrise –our online language trainer– this gentleman is literally saying, “Call an ambulance.” He must’ve been thinking about his ex-wife.

So obviously Portuguese doesn’t have a monopoly on linguistic confusion. As a side note, I would like to compliment the inventors of Portuguese for setting up the spelling to be a lot more consistent than English. I have little trouble remembering how to spell a word. There don’t seem to be as many exceptions as in English, they’re pretty much spelled the way they sound. Now if I could only figure out what those sounds actually mean.

To help us learn Portuguese, along with our awesome tutor Natalia, we use an online program called Memrise. It’s very good. Without a live-in maid or Portuguese captive in the basement to encourage us to speak Portuguese consistently, it’s our best daily friend for reminding us how stupid our brains are.

One of the things they do is give you a Portuguese word or phrase, and then the English translation, and then below that the literal translation. Hilarity sometimes ensues.

Volta you-want to-go to-give one turn-around?Here’s an example as to why translations can be so challenging. They tell us “Dar uma volta.” means “to go for a walk.” Really? “To give one turn-around” is the literal translation? What if I just want to walk straight??

So if you want to take Spot out to do his doody on the neighbor’s lawn (the definition of a walk for many), you would say this. I guess it’s a good thing dogs don’t understand much of anything you say, because they’d think they were supposed to get ready for bed. (I will say it is interesting to hear them bark in Portuguese.)

the what you-want to-do today?


The “o’s” and the “a’s” (“oh!” for male and “ah!” for female) are a constant source of annoyance for us. You really needed to add a “the” in front of “what do you want to do today?” And which word is the male noun the “o” is referring to? If it’s “hoje,” that’s way at the end of the sentence… I’ve forgotten what the “o” was even for by the time I get to the end of that. And why is it male? A day seems a lot more vaginal than penile to me.

The male or female for every noun is one of the other challenges I’ve griped about. I’d like to go back in time and find the inventor of this language, neuter him, and then ask him/her if he/she should now be referred to as a male or female, or perhaps he wants to rethink this whole gender thing? Hmm?

A friend we have in Portugal expressed the sentiment that it makes for a much richer language, indicating that English was a little more, well, dry (which may explain the English, after all). All I know is that it adds one more level of difficulty. For instance, we’ve learned that “novo” means “new.” Accordingly, “New York” is “Novo Iorque,” right? Oh no! You see, “Iorque” is a female word! I don’t even have any idea what a York or a Iorque is, but whatever it is, it means that the proper spelling of “New York” is “Nova Iorque.” That’s just not fair. And don’t even think about asking me what a Brunswick or a Hampshire is, much less expect me to know which one is supposed to have a penis or vagina.

Another idiosyncrasy (“idiossincrasia” – I do like that a lot of our words are similar, like “banana,” which is “banana” in Portuguese) involves the word “em,” which means “in.” So when you want to say, “I live in Sesimbra,” you say, “Vivo em Sesimbra.” Accordingly, if you live in Porto, you would say, “Vivo em Porto,” right? Oh no, you stupid grasshopper! You would say, “Vivo no Porto.”

SPider“No” in Portuguese is one of the hardest words to learn, believe it or not. Part of that is because “no” is usually the second word babies learn, right after “idiosyncrasy.” Or maybe it’s “Mom,” depending on your upbringing. Anyway, it’s very difficult to see the word “no” and not automatically think of no-ness. The word “no” has saved our lives and butt-pain countless times over the years, so we react to it like most women react to spiders, or Harvey Weinstein.

In Portuguese, it means “at the.” So when you live in Porto, you live “at the Porto,” because Porto is a thing, not just a city. So do you “vivo no Nova Iorque?” Iorque is a female thing, after all. To be honest, I have no idea, yet (not that I’ll remember ten seconds after being told).

Anyway, after all this, even if I lived in New York, I’d still just say, “Sou Americano estupido.”

…And Happy Halloween! (Don’t worry, it’s not scary, but it’s worth watching the whole thing)



Yes, they celebrate Halloween in Portugal

While the stores in Portugal don’t go all out like in the states (where Halloween decor pretty much turns major stores into a scene from the Exorcist sponsored by M&Ms), it’s not hard to find costumes, masks and a bit of candy in various stores we’ve been into. I don’t know if they trick or treat; I didn’t bother checking because due to our location in the country, combined with an imposing green gate in front of our house (that also now has with a big red X drawn in blood to signify that Americans live there), I don’t expect any trick or treaters at our house.

MouseIf someone does happen to ring our buzzer, I’ll just toss one of the dead rats from our pool over the fence while screaming, “There’s your trick you little morcego-man!” (Morcego means “bat” in Portuguese.)

Anyway, in honor of the holiday we decided to go see o cemitério grande: Prazeres Cemetery, which is the largest cemetery in Lisbon. It was created in 1833 after an outbreak of a cholera epidemic. I didn’t know that until after we’d been there, so now we have to make a damned doctor’s appointment to make sure we didn’t catch anything. The Portuguese never tell us this stuff!

It sits in the middle of Lisbon on top of a cliff, towering above most everything else. We see it every time we drive over the bridge into Lisbon. It’s quite massive. I always find it interesting to see how cultures handle their dead; I have no idea if it translates into how cultures handle their living. But at least in this cemetery, the Portuguese really go all out with their tombs. I’m sure some of the tombs there cost more than some houses!

Here’s the view from the cemetery. I’m guessing they built it before they realized that in the future you could sell a home with a view for a cool mil or two.
There are rows upon rows upon rows of these streets, all lined with tombs. After walking through all these streets, of corpse we were a little dead on our feet.
Ghost 2
It wasn’t until we got home and I downloaded the imaged that I discovered we had a ghostly tour guide. It really scared me at that point because I didn’t know to offer a tip.
All sorts of men, women, boys, and ghouls live here. Haunts and huncles too. Most of the tombs are sealed with a variety of locks, although it looks like any skeleton key will open them right up.
There is a spooky image in this photo. The tombs are a little creepy too.
The residents are just dying to get out.
I peered inside many of these, hoping to see some bones falling out of the most broken-down ones. Alas, I was boneless.
Again, I had no idea we were being followed by this creepy guy. Upon our return home, I took a bunch of photos in our house just to make sure he didn’t follow us there. I think we lost him at the bridge because ghosts fall through the pavement and into the water, where they become shells of their former selves.


Getting a Portuguese Driver’s License in 113 Easy Steps (and 5,300 miles).

If you scroll down this blog a ways, right above the “Top Ten Things We Love About Portugal” list, you’ll see the image to the right:all-the-things-we-hate-about-portugal

The truth is, today, we kinda might actually now be inclined to make an entry for Number One, entitled: “The Portuguese Bureaucracy.”

Although “hate” is probably too strong a word. While we’ve occasionally been flummoxed, led astray, or put in a chokehold while navigating the Portuguese Bureaucracy, we’ve mostly dealt with it with some degree of bemusement. This is because A) We’re guests here right now, so we’re not about to complain about our host especially when everything else is pretty much paradise, B) Some of the confusion can be attributed to the language and cultural barriers, and C) I give Portugal a lot of grace because despite the fact that it’s Europe’s oldest country, it actually is a relatively young country in terms of government, because they didn’t throw the yoke of their dictatorship off until the 1970’s. So they’re still figuring some of this stuff out.

My latest plunge into the bureaucratic morass involved getting a Portuguese driver’s license. I did a search online to see what I had to do and where I should do it. Searching in Google with the term: “documents needed for a portuguese driver’s license” gave me the following top result:

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 5.21.46 PMSo I looked up where the closest “IMT,” or “Instituto da Mobilidade e dos Transportes” office was (their version of the DMV), and after dutifully filling out the IMT Modelo 13 form and gathering up the other documents, I confidently walked in and took the obligatory number (even though it was in metric, I still understood it), and waited about 20 minutes (which is a helluva lot less time than I usually wait for the DMV, even in metric time), after which I found myself in front of a reasonably pleasant government worker who spoke no English whatsoever.

That was fine, because I can say, “How are you?” and “Lunch was delicious,” and “There is a dog in my pants,” so we were able to muddle through, well, really to nowhere. I actually do know how to say, “I only speak and understand a little Portuguese, so can you please speak slowly?” in Portuguese. After I said that, she proceeded to repeat whatever she had just said, only slightly faster.

Maze of insanityAfter it was clear I would not be able to understand her, and in turn, she had no interest in finding out why there was a dog in my pants, she called in another employee who knew English. He translated for us, delivering the unfortunate news that out of the four documents I had, only one of them was actually necessary, and that I would need three completely different ones that Google neglected to mention, one of which is a doctor’s note that I’m healthy enough to drive. The IMT Modelo 13 form was tossed dismissively to the side: “You don’t need that.”

Google clearly is just as flummoxed with Portuguese bureaucracy as we are.

Another document I was told I needed is a certification that my current US driver’s license is valid. When I asked where I could get such a thing (especially since in the US the driver’s license itself is generally considered enough proof of its validity, so I had no idea what they were talking about), they indicated that they, too, had no idea.

They want me to get a document I’ve never heard of, and they have no idea where I can get such a thing. Huh.

They did suggest maybe that I could contact the US embassy in Portugal to find out. So I did, because we’ve gotten to know them pretty well since we’ve had to get our fingerprints retaken and then taken again for a form to get our visas, and ohmigod I was going to write about that too but now this entry is already too long and my head hurts just thinking about that bureaucratic mess, part of which is the US’s fault. And the US has a 200 year head start on Portugal with its government bureaucracy. Anyway, our embassy helpfully responded that I needed to go to our state capitol and get an “Abstract of Driving Record,” duly certified by the Secretary of State with an apostile, which is kind of like an international notarization. (It’s a little known fact that Jesus needed twelve of those to get into heaven, because when you have an infinitely old bureaucracy, the necessary paperwork is ungodly.) What? Oh. Aposteeel. Not apostle. Okay, nevermind. Although I’m sure he only had to fill out form 09834-B and write a short essay about what it means to be in heaven for eternity, which, as we all know, is a very long time, even in metric.

So, in order to get a Portuguese driver’s license, which they require me to have after being in Portugal for six months, I have to fly back to the US to get a document first.

I fear there are too few of us Americans who are emigrating to Portugal to make a business out of this, but I remember when I moved into a new home, a helpful company provided a basket with all sorts of local coupons and information about the area. That would be a nice thing to have for a move like this.

Neverending mazeUnfortunately, what’s true is that the documents required can sometimes vary from office to office. It literally wouldn’t surprise me if I went into another IMT office only to hear that they want four completely different documents. I’ve seen that very thing in action, trust me. After flying back to the US and getting that certification, I’m going to return to the IMT and take ten numbers from the number-dispensing machine and refuse to talk to anyone else except the woman I saw, despite our language barrier. She wrote down what I needed by hand, and by God, I’m going to hold her to it and not risk having someone else change the rules. I may even get an apostile on her note before I go back in.

In the end, my answer to the Google query would be, “Go to your local IMT office and ask them before you do anything.”

That’s the best advice you’ll ever get if you’re an American trying to switch to a Portuguese driver’s license.


Down the wormhole

Driving in Portugal: How chaos actually makes sense

After driving in Portugal for the last ten months or so (I can’t believe it has been that long!), I think I finally understand A) Why they drive so crazy and B) Why it actually makes sense.

Stupid driverThe Swedish-born husband of our attorney says, “The Portuguese are so nice… until they get behind the wheel of a car, and then they turn into devils!”

It’s true. I’ve puzzled over that incongruity every time I’ve been on the road grimacing at the pesky motorcycles who weave in and out of traffic like flies in a windstorm, enduring the honks of irritated drivers if I take too long to make a right turn, and being startled by a car passing me on the left who wasn’t even in my rearview mirror two seconds before.

But now I get it. And it’s a system that actually works. Here’s my analysis as to why:

Driver lift offThere are very few traffic cops. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a police car just sitting on the side of the road, ready to pounce on a traffic scofflaw. I’m not sure they even own radar guns. Either they decided they just don’t need them, or they can’t afford them. Either way, as a result, Portuguese society has apparently decided everyone will drive under a certain set of unwritten rules. And when virtually everyone agrees to a set of rules, who needs cops?

First of all, there are really no speed limit signs. On the freeways, you’ll see three different speed signs on the three lanes, with the left being the fastest and the right being the slowest. Trust me, if you actually drove in the left lane at the speed indicated, you’d quickly have a line of very irritated drivers behind you, their horns sounding like rabid geese, flashing their brights like they were transporting a woman in the final stages of labor. They would then pass you on the right making sure they swerved back in front of you within two centimeters of your bumper. Got the message yet buddy?

Speed signs
What these speed signs actually mean is: “The right lane generally moves at 55% the speed of the left.” I think it’d be more accurate just to post percentages.

And so the meaning of those speed signs is actually: “Here are comparative speeds only.” In other words, if someone is driving 160 km/hr on the left, and you’re doing 140 km/hr (which is about 86 mph), you sure as hell better not be doing it in the left lane, despite the fact that in the US, it would net you a pretty hefty ticket. It’s not too out of line to say you can almost double most posted speed numbers to set proper expectations of actual speeds.

And you know what? It works. Everyone understands it, and they don’t need any cops to hand out speeding tickets.

CrashAccording to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, Portugal has 12 road crashes per 100,000 population, while the US has 14. So even though they’re driving the freeways at 100 MPH, have no cops to keep things under control, and sometimes seem to drive like maniacs, they actually crash less per person than in the US.

In addition, our car insurance is about 33 euros a month. If memory serves, that’s a fair amount less than half of what we were paying in the US. If accidents were far more prevalent in Portugal, one would assume that out of all things, insurance would be the first place to reflect that.

Here’s how I think they accomplish all this:

There is a cultural/social agreement that everyone understands the following rules. If you violate these norms, someone will essentially feel obligated to let you know about it via their horn. So in a sense, the rules of the road are enforced by public shaming, with no hesitance to let you know when you’ve done something wrong.

The ten agreements I’ve observed are as follows:

  1. The fastest drivers go on the left. If you’re not passing, you better be all the way on the right.
  2. Use roundabouts properly.
  3. If a pedestrian enters a crosswalk (zebra), stop to let them cross. Immediately. Slam on the brakes if you have to.
  4. If a pedestrian tries to cross even a parking lot without being in a zebra, they’re fair game. You can even speed up to scare the hell out of them if you want.
  5. There are no speed limits.
  6. Motorcyclists can drive any way they want. They’re the ones who are going to lose in a crash anyway. Just watch out for them before you switch lanes.
  7. Being polite and letting people into a line is very much appreciated. Not all of them do it, but I’ve received numerous gracious waves anytime I’ve done it, and I’ve seen it done far more often than in the US.
  8. You can drive on the shoulder, or up on a sidewalk, or through a hedge to get around someone waiting to make a left hand turn.
  9. Don’t be stupid.
  10. Honk at anyone who violates any of the above.

Self policingThat’s it. It’s all self-policing. Most everyone agrees to these things, and everyone drives with this knowledge.

Of course, without risk of fines (only of death and gruesome dismemberment I suppose), there are those who drive a little crazy. That’s to be expected. But because everyone understands the rules above, they don’t pose nearly the risk to themselves or other drivers as they would in the US.

I understand that none of this would work in the US, because the US doesn’t have a singular cultural mentality like Portugal. Unfortunately, this difference means that in the US, there is more of the idea that you try to get away with things while trying not to get caught. It’s all about dodging the authorities. In Portugal, it’s all about dodging the ire of everyone else on the road. Ironically, I think their more aggressive driving is a byproduct of a more congenial society. And in a way, it’s like every other driver is a cop.

Driving with a gun
Besides, the Portuguese don’t have to worry about other drivers having guns.

The US can’t really get to the same place because there’s a big difference between pulling back fines, enforcement, and the omnipresence of the police, versus adding all of that to a system largely without them. If you eliminate the reliance on authority the US has, chaos would probably ensue. But if you don’t have it in the first place and self-policing is already entrenched, then, once you get used to a little bit of the craziness, it all starts to make sense.