One week after we arrived in Dourados, Matt went to work, and I took the kids on our first solo trip to a bakery and a park in our neighborhood. I knew by this point that our double stroller presented the double problem of being too unwieldy for the volatile and inconsistent sidewalks and embarrassingly ostentatious, but I plowed ahead anyway. I figured my arms could use the workout, and the hair colors the three of us sport garner attention no matter what our mode of transportation is.
A few blocks from our place, a woman in her sixties stopped to chat with us. My Portuguese is…coming along, but I can understand basic ideas, and people kindly slow and simplify their language when they realize they’re talking with a beginner. First, she cooed over the kids (“Que lindo! Fofinhos!“), and then, in a move so universally grandmotherly that I am still smiling about it, she pointed to August’s little pillow feet and asked why he wasn’t wearing any shoes! It is, after all, wintertime here, and that morning, it was a chilly 70 degrees. Wasn’t he cold?! (Sidebar: I do get a real kick out of telling people that it’s summer back in the U.S. and that the temperature in Minnesota is exactly the same as it is here now.)
I write about this friendly interaction because it is so representative of our early experiences here. By and large, I have been utterly charmed by Brazilians. First of all, I love listening to Portuguese spoken by native speakers. It sounds like a song and it feels like a hug, and even though I understand so little, I haven’t tired of hearing long strings of lilting Portuguese sentences. Second and more importantly, we have been welcomed in a way that we Minnesotans are not used to: with cheek kisses, conversations with complete strangers that go well beyond simple greetings, and actual phone numbers. My biggest fear about our move was that I would feel socially isolated, both because of the language barrier and because we have an irreplaceable network of family and friends in St. Paul- would I be lonely in Dourados? We’ve been here for two weeks now, and that fear has been safely assuaged.
I have to give a lot of credit to Matt for this. He has been working hard to learn Portuguese, and even though I know it isn’t effortless, he is comfortable approaching new people in a way that I admire. He has been fearlessly plunging into Portuguese conversations with our neighbors, employees at shops we’ve visited, and basically everyone we encounter while out. I’m trying to follow his lead. Since we haven’t met any other native English speakers, and since outside of Matt’s two colleagues and their spouses, we know zero people in Dourados, this is pretty much exactly what we need to do to make friends.
It’s probably also what we need to do to improve our images here. I mentioned in my Boa Viagem post the mantra that helped me get through our long flight on the way here: “You’ll never see these other passengers again!” That worked so well when our destination was a city of 12 million people. After our much, much smaller flight to the much, much smaller Dourados- the one where Oscar screamed louder than the propellers- Matt and I joked that there were almost certainly people on that flight that we will encounter again and who will remember us because our kids were so challenging, and because we are so obviously foreigners in a city without many of those. “Please,” I want to say in flawless Portuguese, “don’t judge us based on our adorable yet terrifyingly naughty offspring! We want to be your friends!”
As we knew it would be, the language barrier is significant, and learning Portuguese is my second most important job, right after keeping the kids alive. As much as I am enamored of the people we’re meeting in Brazil, I want the first impression I make to be positive, too. I’ve been slowly building my conversational skills, but I basically start every interaction with an apologetic smile and a disclaimer: “Desculpe! Não falo Portuguese. Estou aprendendo!” It goes a long way, and it’s helping me to form relationships with our neighbors, who don’t speak much English but who will shyly use the words they do know in what I can only interpret as a show of solidarity.
I’ve had some soaring conversational successes so far: on my first solo trip to the grocery store, I was able to tell the cashier that my husband works for the COAMO project, and when I met a Chinese food vendor at a market, I was able to tell her (in past tense!) that I used to eat baozi every day for breakfast. Of course, I also had a very awkward exchange with the folks who were delivering furniture to our place where I understood almost nothing of what was said, and I just ended up stress-eating a bunch of leftover candy from a neighbor kid’s birthday party after they left.
And speaking of as crianças: more than just using our kids for sweet conversations with the neighborhood grandmas, I’m enjoying watching them navigate this new life with their peers. They observe and laugh with other kids, and they use whatever language they have- body, verbal, facial- to communicate. There are plenty of moments of shyness- “Está tímido!” is another sentence I use often- but what I’ve learned so far is that the pull of new friendships is stronger than language.