Being around people who don’t speak your language can be one of the most frustrating experiences, especially when you feel the need to be specific or just to express yourself. When there’s just one or two words between you and what you want (to say), it can make you reach for the Rogaine (…because you’ll probably want to pull your hair out). The blow to my normal state of calm was a simple supermarket item that, for the life of me, I couldn’t explain to the clerk behind the register.
It all happened in 2005, in a small supermarket in a removed suburb of Rio de Janeiro. All I wanted was a razor for shaving but I didn’t see any after taking a tour of the aisles and picking up some good ol’ Nescau chocolate cereal. Since I didn’t know the word for razor, blade (lâmina), beard (barba) or even the verb ‘to shave’ (fazer a barba), I was not only stuck, but people were lining up behind me. The best I could come up with was that I wanted to cut my face (“quero cortar a minha cara, assim” as I tried to explain calmly) while I pointed to where my beard would normally be, which I didn’t have at that particular moment to act as a visual aid.
You see, my game plan for that 6-month trip to Rio was to blend in, thus I kept the chit-chat to a miminum (so as not to give away my origin), bought some basic clothes from a nearby mall, watched how Brazilians acted with each other (to see if I could glean anything from them), and steered clear of the tourist traps (it took me 4 months to check out Cristo). I wouldn’t say I kept to the plan the entire time, as I did make a friend or two, but the majority of my tactics didn’t stray too far from my mind, either. As you can imagine, the challenge of pretending to be a local, even while having an acceptable general vocabulary, proved to be too much when my cover was blown and I found myself at a loss for a single simple word.
I ended up leaving the line in the market to search the aisles one more time so I could point to the item that escaped me. After scouring the market, I found what I needed and once I reached the register again, I showed the lady the razor and she looked at me and laughed as she told me the “Portuguese” word for it….Gillette.
The lesson of the day? Keep calm and stay Brazilian.
Originally written for Street Smart Brazil