Portuguese first landed on my radar in a hot tub in Florida. It was the last day of spring break my senior year of college, and my roommate Jess and I had checked out of our motel and decided to pool hop at hotels we couldn’t afford. We found one with a huge, immaculate pool that Jess plopped into, but I chose the hot tub because Florida isn’t hot enough. I sat down and started eavesdropping on the couple already in there. They were both young, but that was all I could figure out. He looked like a Viking and she looked like one of those Carnaval samba dancers from Rio. They were speaking a language that I could vaguely recognize words of, but it didn’t have the non-stop flow or thick consonants of Spanish, the phlegmy ‘r’ or fronted vowels of French, or the exaggerated intonation of Italian. I was starting to run out of Romance languages I knew, so I asked. The Viking answered in native English that they were speaking Portuguese. They were on their honeymoon, he and his Brazilian wife, whom he’d met on a missions trip in Brazil. She was still learning English, which meant that they spoke Portuguese at home, which made me think of what it would be like to speak a different language in my home, which made me feel scared.
The Viking left the hot tub and Jess and I started grilling the Brazilian. We wanted to know everything: what city she was from, what the weather was like, if she missed home, if she liked it here, where they were going to live. How she got so perfect-looking. She reacted like a cornered squirrel, linguistically panicking. He husband watched her sweat it out from the comfort of a pool chair.
Here in Brazil I’m the squirrel, twitchy and stuttering. I speak a different language in my home and it’s scary. But when I think of how genuinely interested Jess and I were in the nameless Brazilian and how we didn’t care that she answered our questions slowly and grammatically imperfectly, I can only hope the Brazilians making me feel cornered are equally as patient. As so far they are.