Friday, 7 November 2014
Brazil. That's where I was, representing my country loud and proud at the Porto Alegre Book Fair, the - ahem - largest outdoor book fair in the world. The fair is proud of that claim and makes it often.
Porto Alegre is a real city, biggish but understandable, not like Sao Paulo which is bigger than most countries. Porto Alegre has a university, some industry, a huge marketplace (that's it in the picture) and government stuff floating on top. There's a good vibe, lively and friendly. Not touristy. Not at all. In fact I had real trouble making myself understood.
I'm used to travelling in Europe where people, especially service people, are polyglots, and since I can get by in English and (sort of) French, I can hail a cab and order a meal and avoid getting run over most of the time. Not in Porto Alegre, though. I almost missed my flight because they changed the gate and only told us in Portuguese. The desk guy at my hotel (The Grand Amazing Metropolitan or something - totally normal mid-price place close to the fair) smiled widely but shrugged at my questions, pointing at my room number and pantomiming opening the door.
And that was the norm. For me Porto Alegre is the city of charades. Thank heavens for the fair volunteers who made sure I got to my various events. Thank heavens for the English-language-based schools I talked to, and the journalists, and the other Canadian authors, who maybe preferred French to English but spoke it well and didn't mind me bumbling away in their language.
But the rest of the trip -- hilarious! I love walking around a new city, getting a sense of it. It's my favorite thing to do. I did a lot of walking around in my few days in Porto Alegre. And everywhere I went, every question I asked, every encounter with a native, broke down to the lowest common denominator of personal exchange: charades.
Yup. Just like this. Take coffee, for instance. I drink a lot of it and Brazil makes good coffee. But I wasn't able to convey that I drink my coffee with milk. Coffee with milk is easy in English, in French, in Spanish. But not Porto Alegre Portuguese. I tried milk on the side. I tried a glass of milk. I got a hundred frowns, shrugs, enlightened nods followed by whipped cream (and once a cream-filled doughnut. That made me laugh out loud). I mimed pouring milk into coffee, and got sugar. I mooed and got a startled response, which I can't really blame the waiter for. Cappuccino worked, but I don't want cappuccino all the time and I couldn't get across the idea that I didn't want the milk foamed.
Not until I lunched with the the Canadian Trade Commissioner, on my last day there. Paulo is friendly and hard-working. We got on well. He blinked when I explained my request, said something to the waiter. The coffee arrived the way I like it - the milk was even warm.
Thanks! This is great! How do I order it? I asked Paulo, who frowned at his own espresso.
I drink a man's coffee he said, and changed the subject.
This part of Brazil - gaucho country - has a strong sense of machismo, and Paulo is a man's man. If I go back I'm going to have to learn the Portuguese for woman's coffee.