Right from the start I knew I was in trouble; in my very first Portuguese lesson I was faced with the words ‘homem’ and ‘mulher’, so I confidently said to the teacher ‘eu sou um homem e você é uma mula’ (I’m a man and you’re a donkey). Not long after the secretary at my school told me that the class register was ‘na sua pasta’ (in your file), so thinking this was an example of the local sense of humour replied ‘eu prefiro bolonhesa, ha ha‘.
In fact food has been a constant source of humiliating gaffes; after a couple of months I ventured into an ice-cream parlour and couldn’t understand the bemused reaction when I asked for ‘um sorvete de cocô’ (a poop icecream, instead of coconut – coco). At least I didn’t shout it at the top of my voice, as my friend did in a bakery, when after watching several people jump the queue she lost her temper and loudly demanded ‘quatro pauzinhos’ (four little sticks, instead of rolls – pauzinhos).
She soon got her revenge, however, when my neighbour came to my house and asked me ‘você tem um T?’ (an adaptor in these parts), ‘sure’ I replied as I went into the kitchen and starting looking in the cupboard, ‘qual que você quer, normal ou camomila?’ (which do you want, normal or camomile?). Not quite as embarrassing as after I had stuffed my face at a barbecue restaurant and announced to my friends that I had eaten ‘muitos castelos’ (a lot of castles, instead of a lot of ribs – costelas), or when passing the revolving roast chicken outside a supermarket and I exclaimed: ‘aquele frango assustado deve ser uma delícia!‘ (frightened chicken, instead of roast chicken – assado)
Another area that always seems to cause foreigners problems is health; on one occasion my friend went to the doctor holding his stomach and told him that he had ‘muitos problemas de destino’ (destiny, instead of intestines – intestino). Perhaps because he had eaten too many castelos! Not to be outdone, I went to the drugstore with a nasty rash on my arm and asked for ‘uma tomada para passar no corpo’ (a socket to put on my body, instead of a cream – pomada). Sometimes it is a question of adding an extra syllable where it doesn’t really belong, like the time that I was discussing a well known corruption case and I thought it was a perfect opportunity to impress people with my advanced vocabulary, so I gave the opinion that the man arrested by the police was just a ‘bigode espiatório’ (a scape-moustache, instead of a scapegoat – bode).
So next time you worry about making a fool of your self when you speak Portuguese, just remember that you are not alone!