I’m a Canadian born in the Philippines who fell in love with Portugal way harder than he had expected. Somehow, perhaps somewhere along the hilly streets of Lisboa, the dramatic beaches of Lagos, the quiet charm of Colares, the intimate surf vibes of Peniche, the artistic mystery of Porto, the little chats with locals, the friendships that were carved through deep conversations over Cozido à Portuguesa, robalo grelhado and Francesinha , and the 3-hour wine-filled dinners that always ended at around 11:30pm with um cafezinho, a full tummy and a fuller heart, I found a third home.
I started studying Portuguese in December 2022. I remember, back in January when I first discovered the magical world of super affordable and super delicious lunches at this super popular Portuguese supermarket, I would order in the most beginner-level Portuguese with no linguistic ammo other than a couple of memorized phrases and some last-minute searches of how to pronounce things like Almôndegas, Legumes à Brás, Rolo de carne com espinafres , and Migas de grelos com feijão frade (on top of panic-searching what each of those even entails), and the funcionários would immediately switch to English, long before I even get to finish blurting out my first sentence.
I never gave up, though. I never switched back to English even though the Portuguese themselves already have. So the scene was always me speaking to the locals in Portuguese and the locals speaking to me in English right from the moment I first open my mouth to say my chosen prato principal of the day all the way up until I get to the cashier, where I would always insist on saying the whole sentence “Posso pagar com cartão de crédito?” with Rui Coimbra’s voice in my head even though I knew very well that it was (1) an unnecessarily lengthy thing to say and (2) a rather unnatural route to take given the existence of several other routes that are a bit more natural, such as simply holding up my card up to my chest, or simply saying “Posso?” as I motion my card towards the machine like any normal person would.
But I realized that as somebody who learns best by learning all the rules through repetition before being able to figure out simpler and easier ways to do (or say) things, I had to firmly stand my ground and own up to my rookie choices. “Posso pagar com cartão de crédito?” may not have been the best choice, but it was a choice that made me feel like the best Portuguese-speaking version of myself, which made it a great choice after all.
Saying those words over and over again, day after day, really helped build my confidence. It also helped tremendously with my pronunciation and my accent. And after a year of studying Portuguese, I realize that these three things, Confidence, Pronunciation and Accent , are the only things I can fully rely on in situations when absolutely everything I learned in grammar has somehow left my brain and there is an Alfacinha in front of me who had just finished speaking three sentences and two of those sentences warrant a descriptive reaction while the third begs an answer. I learned the hard way that grammar alone wasn’t gonna help me make the connections I wanted to make with the locals. In order for me to understand and be understood, I needed guts and, more importantly, I needed to have fun with it while being gutsy.
So for a solid month, I consistently went to the same supermarket to have lunch. I never missed a day. My main thought process was “If I’m gonna fail, I’m gonna fail trying, but not stepping out of my comfort zone in fear of making a mistake wouldn’t even be a failure but the voluntary act of forfeiting any chance at all at winning.”
After weeks of relentless lunch-ordering, on February 7, 2023, I went to the same place for lunch, ordered my Salmão Grelhado com batatinhas assadas e salada para acompanhar, uma garrafinha do vinho branco e um bolo de limão , and the staff all spoke to me in Portuguese! Sabes que mais? When it was my turn to pay, the lady at the cash register not only asked me “Quer café?” (instead of the usual “Coffee?”), she also asked me for my NIF !
They say celebrate small wins, and I sure did, that noteworthy day in February somewhere in the Algarve. I remember smiling ear to ear for pretty much the rest of the day that day.
I’m back in Canada now after spending one year in Portugal, and I am already looking forward to the next time I sit down with my friends at our favourite beach in Portugal and catch up over a bottle or two of Douro wine as the sun sets on the pink-orange horizon.