Category Archives: cheesy metaphors

Rocking the Boat

My blogging attempts last semester were *almost* as big a fail as this Amazonian steamer ship.

Olá! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but it’s time I got back on the boat so to speak, and, to mix my metaphors, shake things up a bit. While I started last semester with the best of intentions for writing a few times a week, I clearly failed in that aspect. If you were following, I had been writing with a fair amount of detail about my new surroundings in Brazil, and was enthusiastically showing off everything for friends, family, and other bloggers. My posting dropped off rather abruptly, though, when I ran into some rough waters along the journey of discovery. How could I write home about the bad days? About people I didn’t connect with, food I disliked, and situations that were hopelessly out of my control? Culture shock hit hard, and hit early for me. As I didn’t know how I should or could continue, I decided to step away from the blogging world for a while.

Rest assured that I didn’t forget about my blog, or my original intentions; neither did I stop writing. Going back to my very first post, I asserted the following goals:

  1. Learn about the experience of immigrants and different diaspora groups in Canada.
  2. Explore other cultures outside of Canada through travel.
  3. Find out what it’s like to live in a culture other than the one in which I was raised.

I was still doing all of these things. It just turned out that recording one’s life in the public sphere, be it at home or abroad, is a lot harder than I had originally reckoned.

So, I kept writing, both for myself and to close friends and family, with as much integrity as I could. Things didn’t always make sense at the time, and even now certain stories defy logic, but I persisted with the hypothesis that all my experiences here will lead to a greater understanding in the end. Therefore, while my original intent of publishing as I had new experiences has gone out the window, I am hoping to work through them with the benefit of hindsight. And to that end, you are invited (once again) to follow along, and to contribute to any discussion which might arise.

In the next post I will give a brief overview of where I am now, what I’ve done with myself over the last 6 months, and what I’m going to do for the latter half of my internship year here. After that, expect to see some differences from my first few posts from Brazil…while I intend to keep them personal, they will reflect more on themes and ideas, and less on my daily drama. I’m also going to omit or change names at times for the purpose of preserving certain people’s dignity. Hope to see you tomorrow!

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Filed under Brazil, cheesy metaphors, goals, identity crisis, insecurities, overcoming fear

Ping Pong

Swimming at the Itacoatiara school with Eli and Lee

I mean this both literally and figuratively.  First things first: last Sunday, when I got to Itacoatiara, the boys (Lee and Eli) and I played several rounds of ping pong on the outdoor table at the school.  I think I surprised all of us when I was actually kind of good…and they realized I’m competitive by nature, so we made things interesting: whoever lost a round had to do five pushups (situps for me…I really can’t even do a yoga vinyasa properly).  And for the next round, they had to do ten pushups, and so on.  So it got pretty intense, and we kept intentionally miscounting each other’s reps, and eventually we gave up for laughing.  So ping pong is now sort of an inside joke!

The figurative meaning would be me as the ball, and a decent stretch of the Amazon river as the table, with Fisk bearing the paddles.  I’m going to be bouncing back and forth between the two schools for the next 4.5 months.  I’m not complaining; in fact, having been to, taught, and made friends in both places, I really can’t say I’d prefer it another way.  It does mean the flow of my time in each place gets interrupted, and I’d love to have more time to hang out with people on my days off…but I’m kind of greedy, so I want both.

A new aspect for me in Manaus is my homestay family.  When I got back to Manaus on Friday, I went to Fisk long enough to eat some lunch, then I was whisked away by my new family!  There is a girl named Camilla, who is 15, and a boy named Matteus, who is 17, as well as a mother, Adriana, and a father, Marcos.  They have two cats, one of which was fresh from the vet where she’d had major surgery.  The two cats now have to be kept in separate rooms, as the injured one is cranky and the fight like…well, cats!  The family (and now I) live on the 18th floor of a high-rise apartment, which has amazing views of Manaus.  On a clear day you can see the Rio Negro from the balcony, and the night-time panorama is gorgeous.  I think this family is quite well-off, as they have all the latest gadgets and the kids have had a pretty expensive English education at Fisk their whole lives, so I’m getting a whole different perspective on the city with them.  (By the way…they even have showers with a hot water option – muito chique!)

Adriana has made it very clear to me that I should consider the house my own, and I’m free to get food for myself whenever I want, go out, do laundry etc.  In exchange, I am to exclusively speak English with the kids.  Meanwhile, she speaks only Portuguese and isn’t planning on learning English, so I’ll have to practice my Portuguese to communicate with her.  Fortunately she is very easy to understand; the kids told me that, when they went to Panama, everybody understood her Portuguese though she didn’t have a word of Spanish (apparently this wasn’t true for the rest of the family)!  During the two and a half days I’ve spent with them so far, it has been very comfortable.

On Friday, Adriana dropped Camilla and me off at Manauara, the biggest and nicest of the “shoppings” in Manaus.  I told her I was in search of black pants and shoes to wear to work, so with that mission we set out through a bunch of the women’s clothing stores in the four-storey mall.  I didn’t have any luck finding pants, but it was also a struggle to figure out my size here.  They go by European sizes, but I know what my size should be and it wasn’t fitting right.  She introduced me to Bob’s Shakes, which is, as one would expect, a milkshake stand.  We got Ovaltine flavoured shakes, Camilla’s favourite.  Then, we headed to the movie theatre in the mall to meet up with her friend, Diana.  Diana has been studying English, and is going to Canada (Vancouver) in January, so she was eager to meet me.  The three of us went to a movie…and to my surprise, they picked a Brazilian movie out of a lineup of English movies with Portuguese subtitles.  I was a little worried about how I would get through 90 minutes of Portuguese, but it turns out comedy is funny in any language.  I actually followed the plot with no problem, and laughed at most of the jokes!  I’m glad to know I’m at least perceptive enough, if not linguistically equipped, to understand film.  After the movie, Camilla and Diana helped me buy a SIM card for my phone, and then a pair of black flats for work.  They aren’t anything special, but the price was right and they fit, so I’m happy for now.

At around eight, we left the mall and found Adriana in the grocery store (Carrefour) next door.  It was a pretty familiar sight…it looked just like Loblaw’s in Canada.  We went back to the apartment, where we had a late supper and the parents asked me some questions about home.  I had a glass of wine with dinner, and that combined with lack of sleep and a headache meant I went to bed almost immediately after eating at around 11:30.

It was a good thing I slept early, as I had to get up for work at 6:15 the next morning.  My classes start at 7:45 and I should be there at least fifteen minutes early.  Camilla is in my first class, so Adriana was going to drive us…but we left really late!  I ended up getting there closer to eight :S.  Ah well, that’s what happens when you’re dependent on other people.  I swear I was ready on time for once!  Luckily, I was teaching a class I’d already taught earlier in the week, so I was familiar with the material, and as it was the first day, we spent the first half hour doing an icebreaking activity.

My Saturday class schedule is kind of brutal, actually.  I have class solidly from 7:45am through to 3:30pm, which worried me at first because there is no scheduled lunch break.  I found out though that Mary Jane, who is administration at Fisk Parque 10, just orders the staff lunch and we carve out a half hour lunch between the second and third classes.  I spent lunch and the breaks chatting with the English teachers I hadn’t yet met.  They had lots of comments and advice for me about living in Manaus and Brazil, the most important of which was probably the rundown of Brazilian soccer team stereotypes.  I won’t repeat them on here (if you know you know), but it didn’t actually make it easier for me to choose a team.  Everyone keeps saying they’re going to buy me a shirt from their team so I will have to like it!  I think I’m leaning toward Flamengo, the team for which Ronaldinho Gaúcho plays (shhhhh!  Don’t tell anyone, or they’ll yell at me!).

Fisk Parque 10 Family (Manaus)After classes were finished, I hung around the school until 5:30 because we were having a “surprise” birthday party for Lee.  Just like my students (oh and I’d have to say family :P) in Canada, everyone thinks the surprisee has no idea they’re getting a party…even though they do it for everyone.  This is the second Fisk birthday I’ve been to!  Anyway, Lee is now a friend, so I was glad I could be there for it.  Mr. H., the director, came back for the party too as Lee is his right-hand man.  He made a big long speech in Portuguese (which I half understood) for Lee, and then Lee made a big long speech, and it was all very touching (more so if I’d known what they were saying, but you get the gist when people start tearing up).  We sang happy birthday in English and Portuguese, then I added French just for the heck of it (could have added Italian too, but that would have been going too far and my vocal (in)abilities were already revealing themselves).  Then the photos began, and I finally had an excuse to whip out my camera and get some photos for you!

My host family came to pick me up after that, so I had to leave the party quickly.  We returned to the apartment, and I had some time to relax and unwind.  At around 7:30, some of Matteus’ friends showed up.  They invited me to go down to the “playground,” the outdoor activities centre for the apartment complex, to play soccer.  Play futebol with Brazilian teenagers barefoot in a tennis court and get my ass kicked?  Why yes, I think I will!  It was actually very fun, and I didn’t embarrass myself too badly unless you count not knowing the rules of tennis court soccer, especially considering I am older, less fit, and less Brazilian than the rest of them.  Afterwards we all sat down in a circle (everyone’s feet were black from running around), and they all kind of stared at me.  I keep having these moments where I realize these people have never seen a Canadian in their life and they are full of questions.  These kids were too shy to ask, and the ones who knew some English refused to use it.  So Matteus and Camilla acted as translators, and they asked the usual run of questions such as what I eat, what’s the weather like, what music do I listen to, etc.  My favourite question by far was, “What’s the difference between ‘Oh shit’ and ‘bullshit’?” hahahaha

The kids decided to go out to eat after that, but as I was sweaty and tired from teaching all day, I declined to join them.  I finally got a chance to Skype with my family, and then I just relaxed for a couple hours before hitting the sack.  Not very exciting for a Saturday night, but I’d worked a very long day!

On Sunday morning, Camilla slept in, while I woke up early and lounged around on the computer and reading a book.  Then we had breakfast (lots of sugary and fatty bread-type things, sweet coffee, and some fruit).  After breakfast I was relieved to be able to sort through my luggage and unpack some of my stuff.  Camilla had cleared some space in her closet, and I did some laundry. I showed her some of the stuff I’d brought with me, we looked at pictures, and I painted our nails.  It was finally starting to feel like a living situation, and not temporary!

Alas, after lunch it was time to return to Itacoatiara.  Matteus and Marcos took me to the bus station, where I boarded the bus for my four-hour trip back to my weekday life. This time, I brought with me a small suitcase full of things that will stay there, so it, too can feel like a permanent living situation.  As crazy as it sounds, I don’t think I would change this strange split-life; I have friends and “family” in two cities here in Manaus, and I couldn’t choose between them if I wanted to!

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Filed under cheesy metaphors, friends, Itacoatiara, Manaus, something new

The Sticker Picker-Upper

I’m sitting on a bus on my way to Toronto, which means I got my criminal record check this morning! It was a little hectic, as I had to drop my mom off at work, stop off at my work (to deliver a notice of resignation), and then go to the police station all before 9:30 am. I was hesitant to go to the station, because the woman I’d been talking to had done me a great favour already, and this was the second time I’d be showing up without waiting for her phone call. I approached the customer service window with a sheepish look, but fortunately she had the envelope right there waiting for me! Bingo!

I called my dad to confirm that I could come with him (he is doing business in London today), then rushed home to pack. As I was rushing around triple-checking I had all my relevant documents, my grandma shuffled downstairs in her nightie and handed me a twenty. I asked her what it was for, and she just replied, “For being a good girl.” Adorable. It’s going towards my subway fare, as I don’t have any cash on me, but at this point $20 is a big help towards not dipping into my travel savings before I leave!

I also sneaked in a quick email to my prof, notifying her I’ll be in town. I’m hoping I can meet with her today, so I can go straight to the Consulate tomorrow morning – and thus have time to deal with any potential problems before the weekend (here’s hoping there are none).

Have you ever seen the TV game show “Minute to Win It”? It’s a pretty new program, but the concept is really simple: teams of contestants perform challenges with props made of household items in a series of minute-long rounds. Each round brings the team closer to the ultimate prize of one million dollars. I don’t usually watch it, but my grandma does sometimes. The other day it was on, and I watched one team compete in a challenge for $125,000. Their task (or one girl’s; only one person plays at a time) was to hold an egg on a tray and roll it around to pick up these little red stickers without letting the egg roll off – in under a minute. It took her two tries, but she did it and won the $125,000.

This may sound like a stupid challenge, but when you’re standing in front of a studio audience with spotlights and there’s that much money at stake, I can imagine it must be pretty nerve-wracking. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can relate. It’s like I am that egg rolling around on a tray, trying to pick up elusive stickers on a timeline. Strategy goes out the window, and so many times you think you’ve got one of those suckers when in fact, due to the natural curve of the egg, you missed it entirely. I feel about as vulnerable as an uncooked egg too; my emotions are stretched so thin that if all of this falls apart (and I metaphorically roll off the tray), I’ll crack for sure. Let’s just hope that doesn’t happen – or if it does, that I have a lifeline like the girls on the show and get a second chance!

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Filed under Brazil, Canada, cheesy metaphors, IICA internship, red tape, Toronto, travel documents

The Great Canadian Mirage

Everyone knows about the “American Dream”: the idea that anybody can start with nothing and become a Somebody in their lifetime. I don’t live in America, and after reading Death of a Salesman in grade 10, I don’t put much stock in that concept. Here in Canada, we’re much more realistic. Nobody comes to Canada with the hopes of becoming rich and famous; no, not even native-born Canadians aspire so far (and if they do, they do it in America). So why do so many immigrants come here?

In a word: security. Canada is the land of the social safety net, free health care, and free speech for all. We have low crime rates, high literacy, and we’re nice to everybody. And with all those social programs, there must be more jobs than people in a country where the average family has only 1.1 kids (Statistics Canada, 2007). When fleeing persecution, what refugee wouldn’t be praying for their Canadian temporary residency papers?

Look a little closer, however, and you’ll find that this Northern oasis is more than a little blurry around the edges. Earlier this week, during a conversation activity, I asked my students whether they thought Canada should let in more or fewer immigrants than at present. To my fascination, they were unanimous in their desire for a lower immigration rate. Their reasons were simple: higher numbers of applicants means a bigger backlog when it comes to processing paperwork.

Although they had made it this far, life as a Canadian immigrant turned out to be decidedly different from the picture painted by the Canadian government prior to arrival. You spend three years toeing the line, providing endless documentation, trying to adapt, and never leaving the country lest your waiting period be extended. You realize that your foreign credentials, which were good enough to score you the points you needed to arrive in Canada, aren’t enough to restart your profession here, so you take a low-paying job or live on welfare while you upgrade your skills. You struggle, maybe for years, to understand your new language and culture and are confronted with your social awareness deficit daily.

One student, a Russian immigrant with an engineering degree, approached me after class. “Why does the Canadian government admit immigrants from white collar professions, like doctors, engineers, and professors, when there are no jobs for them? All the jobs are in the trades, they require unskilled labour; why not admit people who are prepared to take these jobs, and not professionals who will have to take a major reduction in pay just for work?”

Good question, Alex. If I knew the answer to that one, I would have run for office by now.

Clearly, he is right that the Canadian immigration system needs a massive overhaul. The points system seems appropriate in theory; it helps immigration officials identify candidates with strong skills and educational backgrounds who will contribute to and not leech from the country’s economic fibre. But realistically, we don’t need those people. Why? We need only revisit those same attractive qualities mentioned above: with a high literacy rate, great health records, and a high average household income, Canadians don’t want or need to take low-paying jobs. (In fact, they aren’t even willing to settle for the rates they get in Canada and are jumping ship to the US – but that’s another post.) White-collar jobs are scarce, and getting scarcer; meanwhile, the market for unskilled jobs is getting flooded with jacked-up resumes from thousands of overqualified applicants. Where, in this equation, does the Conservative government intend to place the “average of 14 percent more immigrants per year” it’s letting in?

It certainly won’t be training all those new recruits, nor will they all get the settlement support they need. As I’ve mentioned before, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration announced just before Christmas 2010 that funding to settlement programming would be cut by 5%, or $70 million dollars, over the course of 2011-2012 (OCASI News Release). My program, Language Instructors for Newcomers to Canada, saw a decrease of 10% this year and will see another 5% next year. Sadly, most programs will become a watered-down version of their former selves, and many have already disappeared altogether.

I’d never thought I’d be an advocate for reducing immigration rates in Canada; I’ve always been of the opinion that we should share the wealth. But it can’t be denied that, while there are many opportunities we can provide by virtue of our high standards for rights, education, and social security, we are doing our immigrants a great injustice by promising more than we can provide. Not all immigrants have access to language programs. Not all immigrants will get jobs that are equal to or better than ones they previously held. And not all immigrants will be welcomed into their community with culture-sensitive programming and support. So, for a country that believes in equal or equalizing opportunity, maybe we would do better to pace our hospitality in order to keep our high standards of quality, and not quantity. Only then will the mirage solidify into the welcoming refuge that Canada has the potential to be.

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Filed under Canada, cheesy metaphors, immigration, student stories

It Takes a Village

I haven’t written anything in a while because things have been a little crazy around here. After months of packing, moving, settling into a rental, then packing and moving again, my family has finally moved into the house my parents and grandma had built. Right now, there are five of us living here (parents and grandma, my youngest sister and me) plus two small dogs (Cooper is ours, Sadie is my grandma’s). Of course, we all know each other well, and most of us have lived with some or all of the others at some point, but it’s the first time we’ve all been under one roof; we’re all waiting for the dust to settle to see what it’s really like.

A little history on my family: we moved into the house on Camelot when I was just five, and lived there for almost nineteen years. In that time, my sisters and I graduated from elementary and then high school, we hosted eighteen Christmas brunches, and witnessed the entire lifespan of our first dog, Charlie. My grandma moved into her house, just a five minute walk away, after my grandpa died. She’s been there for about fifteen years, and has managed quite well for herself. However, a few years ago she began a fight with cancer. She beat it, but the treatment has left her weakened and with a permanent kidney disease that requires her to have dialysis three times a week. She’s getting older, and it became evident that things wouldn’t be able to continue on the same way indefinitely.

Once my parents conceived of the idea of living with my grandma, it was a no-brainer that that was what must be done. Rather than forcing an awkward, stifling living arrangement, they decided to build a house to suit everyone’s needs and maintain their independence. Thus, we now reside in a three-bedroom, three bath bungalow, with a finished basement that includes a separate kitchen, dining, and living room for my parents’ use. I would post pictures, but it’s still too cluttered with boxes and homeless furniture for that.

It must be said that, despite four able-bodied individuals and one stubborn one, plus months between moving dates, there is no way we could have made it through this major overhaul by ourselves. The first time we had to move, from my childhood home to a two-month rental house up the street, we had the help of three of my dad’s brothers, my mom’s best friend, some other friends of my dad, and a couple of neighbours. Everyone pitched in to tow boxes and furniture into the U-Haul and then into the basement storage. We managed to pull off that move in less than 24 hours, including celebratory pizza and beers, and my uncles made the three hour drive back home in daylight.

The second move was even more impressive, in a way, as it involved moving my grandma from her house one day, then moving us from the rental the next. Did I mention that the moving date was during the week, and my sister and I both had to work? Well, once again friends and family stepped up to the plate. I can’t tell you how impressed I was to finally make it to the house on the day of my grandma’s move, to find two old (and I mean that in both senses) friends of my grandma’s had been slaving away in 30+ degree heat, putting things together, cleaning, and making themselves generally useful. Never mind that one is still recovering from her own rigorous cancer battle – she and my grandma were quite the sight, all wiry and breakable, determinedly sifting through boxes.

On the second day, I woke up at 5:30 am to finish packing up my room before heading to work. It was another scorcher when I left work at about 4, and I reluctantly drove toward the new house and what I knew would be another long day of hauling and scrubbing. But my trepidation was put to shame when I arrived to see Foti, a long-time neighbour of the Camelot house, sweating through his shirt as he and my dad unloaded heavy boxes of my books into our new garage. An hour later we were joined again by my mom’s friend Ginny, who had spent the entire day at work but still dedicated her evening to vacuuming and packing up the last of our belongings from the rental and moving them in her own car to the new place. Finally, at 11:30 pm, my mom, dad, Foti, Ginny, and I locked up the rental once and for all and, swatting away the June bugs and mosquitos, made the final trip to the new place. I collapsed into my mattress a few minutes later, although I could hear my parents still moving around upstairs. I don’t know how they did it; especially considering that my mom drove my grandma to the hospital for dialysis at 6 am. On top of it all, it was my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, and I don’t think either of them took the time to give it a second thought.

When I began this post, I knew I wanted to talk about the idea of community: the concept of people working together towards a common goal. I think though, that it’s necessary to point out that although the goal – moving us – was shared, it only benefited a few of the people involved. Why did so many people take the time and energy and patience to help us move? I still can’t really fathom why, but I am so grateful that they did. It was pure, selfless, untempered goodwill on the parts of Ginny, Foti, Ken and Caroline, my uncles, and the many others who lent a hand. It’s such a simple concept, and one that we’ve been taught our whole lives, in kindergarten and Girl Guides, on soccer teams, and even in university orientation; but being on the receiving end, I feel wholly unworthy of such kindness. I wonder if I am as selfless, as willing to overlook what’s in it for me. But this is community: the understanding that, when someone needs to get something done, you step in and help them do it; and when you need help, they will be there in turn. I love my independence, but sometimes I need to be reminded that I’m not just one individual, and that, if I want community, I have a responsibility to give, as well as to take.

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Filed under cheesy metaphors, community, friends

Warming up to the Amazon

Teatro Amazonas, the famous opera house in Manaus.

So it’s been a few days, and I thought I should give an update on my present state of mind vis-á-vis “the Amazon.”

Somehow, against all odds, I’m finding myself warming up to the whole jungle expedition thing.  Well, mostly because I’ve realized that it would be nothing of the sort; in fact, Manaus is twice the size of Ottawa at around 2 million.  If I were to judge my openness to this rainforest ramble on a scale of, oh say, degrees Celsius, then on Sunday night I was at or below freezing (0ºC, for all you Fahrenheit users).  Over the last few days, the temperature has risen slowly but surely (I would say like a Canadian spring, but that’s too unpredictable).  After I talked to the Embassy people on Tuesday it was around 25º.  After I told friends, family, and coworkers and got many encouraging responses, it was pushing 50º.  Centigrade by centigrade, with each conversation and Google search, the mercury has crept higher.  I’m really not sure whether the catalyst here is time or excitement, but the conversion is undeniably happening.

You may have noticed that I’m somewhat of an (obsessive) planner (at least for special events; I am way too lazy to plan for the day-to-day).  Basically, I like to know everything that can be known about a place before I go.  I memorize maps, budget out costs, research activities, talk to other people who have been there, and basically drive myself and others crazy with details.  Last fall I went to NYC with two girlfriends for a three-day trip, and I had a folder, an itinerary, and a home-made travel guide shortlisting all the activities I liked in the bigger travel guide so we could still “wing it.”  Yeah, they laughed at me, but it was totally worth it.  Anyway, my point is this: while I had researched the shit out of pretty much the entire Brazilian Atlantic coast, I hadn’t given a second’s thought to the interior, and especially not to Manaus after I’d dismissed it as impossible.  This led, as you know, to a massive freak-out when I was suddenly told by authorities outside my influence that my placement was in Amazonas.

I think that a lot of my first reaction was due more to unpreparedness (mentally and scholastically) than to a genuine aversion to Manaus.  I also think that the excitement that followed that initial shock was neither positive nor negative, and with the influence of my friends’ and family’s reactions, it has taken on a positive energy.  Hence, the upward movement in the jungle thermometer.  I’m really not much of a worrier when it comes to meeting new people, learning new languages, or starting new jobs; these are things that I would have to do no matter what part of Brazil I moved to.  Once that knowledge set in, I’ve come to realize I can probably handle whatever is thrown at me – and learn to love it, too.

Now that I’ve started to get over my fears, I’ve started becoming more receptive to some of Manaus’s many positive characteristics.  First, there’s the fact that it’s quite a large city, as I said earlier.  This truly is the best of both worlds for me: big cities are exactly my cup of tea (downtown Toronto is still “my” hood), but I didn’t want to get swallowed up in the hustle of 20 million Paulistanos or eaten alive by Cariocan favelas.  (Don’t ask me why enormous cities require food metaphors…must be a subconscious allusion to Atwood’s Edible Woman.)  Anyway.  In Manaus, I’ll get all the culture, night life, and diversity of a larger city without the same kind of hustle.

Secondly, while I probably won’t be able to observe the integration of Brazilian immigrants at close range as I wanted, I will have the opportunity to learn more about the indigenous people.  The anthro/socio side of my trip is extremely important to me, as I’d like to do a social sciences Master’s some time in the near future.  Fortunately I’m equally passionate about all human cultures (although I do tend to favour some at different times), so this change is fine with me.  Besides, I will actually be the immigrant – I don’t need to observe others, I just need to observe myself!

Third, I have always known that the host school and living conditions will be more important than location when it comes to happiness and ease of adjustment.  I had a major breakthrough in this area last night.  Thank God for the internet, it does everything!  I trolled through some of my favourite Brazil expat blogs in search of any hint about life in Manaus.  It was on Danielle’s blog, which I’ve been reading for half a year now, that I found a post with a few dozen comments from other English teachers on the quality of the very school (franchise) that I’ve been accepted into.  And then, the real bingo: I found the blog of a girl who actually went through the same program as me, in the same city, in the same school, and loved it!  All this was at around midnight last night, and in my animated exhaustion, emailed her for details.  Meredith has been kind enough to message me back words of encouragement and assurance, and I look forward to talking to her more.

All of these considerations have my little internal thermometer spiking upwards.  I’m at the point now where I’m sure I will go, as long as the visa pulls through.  However, I eagerly anticipate the moment when I reach 100ºC and my excitement starts to boil over, as is deserved by the trip of a lifetime.

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Filed under Brazil, cheesy metaphors, IICA internship, life choices, overcoming fear

Plenty of Babelfish in the Sea

I was inspired to write tonight, not by my students, but by my experiences as a language learner. This past Friday I finally buckled down and started learning some Portuguese for my upcoming Brazilian adventure. I figure that since I’m going by myself, I really do need to know some language basics for logistics and safety. So, I cracked open my Living Language book that’s been sitting on a shelf, spine uncracked, since I bought it back in March. It promises me I can “learn Brazilian Portuguese in 4 simple steps” with only 40 lessons and 300 pages of paperback. I have also joined www.lingq.com for reading, listening and vocabulary practice, as well as community, where I can “study online 24/7 and meet people from around the world.”  I have already been “added” by a few Brazilians, so I guess it’s working! Now, to speak to them in their native tongue…that might take some time.  Finally, I found a site that offers free weekly podcasts that teach Brazilian Portuguese with English instruction, and have listened to a different one every day this week. I’m actually doing it, people! I can say, Boa tarde, meu chamo Skylar, and I can even spell it in Portuguese. You’re impressed, I can tell.

Anyway, all of this work really puts into perspective what my students actually go through on a daily basis, living in a country that doesn’t speak their L1 (first language). You understand some things, recognize words here and there, and can even read with relative ease of interpretation. But then, some speed-talking native speaker opens their mouth, and it seems like your brain has shut off. Are they really saying the same words you just read on paper? If they are, what happened to that vowel, and what about that consonant – I thought it was a hard d, so why does it sound like a j? Portuguese and I are just getting to know each other though, so with time I have faith I’ll grow to love and even take for granted all its little quirks.

This is not my first attempt at learning a language; oh, no. You could say I’ve been around the block when it comes to languages. I can’t help it, I’m a linguaphile!

French was like a first marriage for me, the kind you enter into when you’re too young to know better, and after years of trying to make it work, you realize it was never mean to be. It all began quite romantically: the 1995 Quebec referendum was probably the first time I became politically aware, and I vowed that if I ever wanted to be a responsible Canadian citizen, I would become fluent in both official languages. Well, 12 years of core French and 2 years of university-level French later, and I am no closer to fluency than I was when I was about 14 (though I’ve learned the grammar rules in their entirety at least 4 separate times). French and I aren’t divorced, but the trial separation has been a great relief.

Then there was my love affair with Italian – the country, the food, the language, and not least of all, the person (yeah, there was one). It was just the antidote to my passionless study of French. I thought I did pretty well with Italian actually, probably because cultural immersion happened simultaneously with acquisition, but unfortunately I only discovered that passion in fourth year of undergrad and haven’t had time to cultivate it since. I don’t think that Italian and I have called it quits for good, but the distance relationship just doesn’t suit us.

And most recently, there was my brief flirtation with Spanish, in which a friend and I took a once-weekly college course to stave off boredom while working in our hometown. The course didn’t cover much, and we only really started to learn vocabulary when we started having study dates about halfway through the term. But neither of us was very motivated to continue, not having any opportunities for practice on the visible horizon. So, much like a hometown fling, the flame died as quickly and quietly as it started, and no one has spoken a word of it since.

And how about Portuguese?  How will it fit into this lineup of mismatched Romantic tongues? Well, this is a quasi-arranged marriage, in that I’ll be thrown into the middle of the language and culture with little preparation in the near future. We may be cohabiting, but will the relationship last long enough to claim common law status with my brain? It may just turn out to be the “for now” relationship that turns into “forever” – but only time will tell. And this bilinguist-to-be will continue to dream of the day when her fluency will come.

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