A collection of writing covering diverse topics such as Jewish mysticism, German history, book reviews and Portuguese fish burgers.
Originally, this blog included essays I wrote when spending 2010-11 on an Erasmus Study Abroad year in Berlin. Now it's expanded to other topics such as Europe, Portuguese life and language learning. Feel free to subscribe and you're encouraged comment.
- Protected: Speech for Dad’s 70th birthday party, May 2017
- Up and Running in Portuguese (or any other language)
- Receita: Beercalhau–Hambúrguers de Pascoal
- Brexit: A view from Lisbon
- wie war Wien oder wie Wien war
- What I Got For My Degree — in 1,353 Words
- Klezmer Threads – June / December 2011
- Queuing outside the Reichstag, thinking about languages – October 2010
- Holocaust Memorial – October 2010
- 8 Days in Early Berlin – August 2010
- Moving – August 2010
*This was written for two friends who, at the time of writing, were preparing to move to Portugal. What follows could be useful for those just curious about languages, so this could apply to learning Polish or Pashto or any language, even those not beginning with a P.
Portuguese is a terrific language. It benefits from the lightness of Latin, and so is very easy to read in many forms while being pleasingly elegant. Where it gets tricky is speaking and listening. (In terms of writing, it’s tough in any language not to come across as a five year-old.) Where Spanish and Italian have very few sounds, Portuguese has a dizzying range of peculiar vowels and consonants. This could be due to its Arabic and Galician influences. While embarking on this language as a foreigner, its peculiarity may be daunting, yet spoken Portuguese is an exciting challenge and rewarding for all its rare status, as well as downright ugliness. It’s the ugliness, or perhaps better put, the roughness and heavy guttural qualities of Portuguese, that can be uniquely satisfying. You might like to think of it as a rumbling tumbling cousin of French; harsher, more rhythmic and strangely exotic.
There are limited resources for Portuguese. Those that are available are often in the main Brazilian dialect. You’ll inevitably pick up a few more Brazilian words because film subtitles, for example, tend to be written in that style. This is no big deal as the Portuguese understand Brazilian Portuguese very well — but not the other way round.
Before I get to some techniques that might help, there are one or two things that are strikingly different. In Portuguese, “the” has two forms, o and a, pronounced “oo” and “uh”, i.e. with the lips rounded (masculine) and neutral, relaxed (feminine). Being the definite article, this comes across as so alien and, well, un-definite.
Secondly, the nasals ão and õe. Like “ow” and “oi” but with the lips tensely rounded. The ão often occurs where you have what in English would be a word ending in -on. Prisão, barão, galão are easy to translate, less so with and the common name João. Any guesses?
The following is written with the understanding that you are not yet in Portugal yet want to get started now. You have to be realistic about how much is doable while being situated far from the target environment. Enjoy the opportunity, though, to sing in the shower, make up stupid rhymes and images, and get the basics down before moving on to more intricate stuff.
First, try to get pronunciation down as early as possible. Why learn a word if the listener can’t get what you mean? For this, there are a few learning techniques which could be helpful:
Songs — learning through singing ensures you are manipulating your mouth, tongue and vocal chords in the right ways, which might feel overly-foreign to begin with. While bringing a bit of conversation fodder to the table, these songs are also possess marvellous doses of poetry.
Here’s a playlist of decent Portuguese songs, the letras of which you don’t need to understand at the moment:
- António Variações, O Corpo é que Paga (vídeo) (letras) — The flamboyant gay icon, Mr Variations was my first love in Portuguese; a queerer Bowie, part-time cabeleireiro (hairdresser) and, quite surprisingly, an enduring daydream amor of elderly housewives. I taught a banker who was very proud for having had her hair cut by Tony.
- António Variações, É P’ra Amanhã (vídeo) (letras) — More verbal squashing very typical of the Portuguese. Listen to the ends of the sentences and be on guard for António skiing through words as if they were never there. In everyday speech, I’m sad to say, pronouns, articles and prepositions are veritable phantoms. As a learner, have to be a cunning Ghostbuster to detect them.
- Zeca Afonso – Grândola, Vila Morena – (vídeo) (letras) — If there were entire books dedicated to this song, I wouldn’t be surprised. Western Europe’s longest dictatorship crumbled to tannoys blaring its tune, with and locals belting the revolutionary lyrics with ecstatic grimaces in the open air. A rousing melody and heart-swelling harmonies. Sing standing erect, armed with cloth cap on head.
- Alceu Valença – Escorregando no Pífano (vídeo) (letras) — admittedly not Continental Portuguese but great fun and classic Brazilian mischief. Useful for learning the progressive tense. Completely filthy lyrics.
- Sergio Ricardo – Conversacao De Paz (vídeo) (letras) — The best song ever written about the UN, probably, because this is the only song I know written about the UN. Suave yet scathing.
- Evinha – Que Bandeira (vídeo) (letras). I honestly still have next to no idea what she’s on about. Great tune and bizarre vocal noises in the bridge.
- Carlos Paião – Playback (vídeo) (letras). Here’s a nice bit of Portuguese from Wikipedia: “é uma sátira ao uso excessivo do playback pelos cantores, que abrindo e fechando a boca, não precisam saber cantar e até se pode enganar que ninguém vê.”
- Marco Paulo – Anita (vídeo) (letras) – The shock and concern people will have when you reveal you listen to these last two will be like the smell of barbequed sardines on an old t-shirt. It will never, ever go away. This is almost the lowest of the lowbrow. The folk-pop genre pimpa, like Germany’s Schlage, descends even further. Both are great to bop along to, and I will defend my love for Marco Paulo to the grave. To the grave, scoffers and cynics!!
Port wine in hand, elbows jutting to the sides, a glazed and unhinged expression, you might like to sing along to the above, all the while paying special attention to a particular set of words. Yes, that fiendish bag of creepy crawlies, used to describe where or when things happen…
Prepositions. These are tough in any language. Portuguese has an elegant and concise approach to one aspect, by combining the all-purpose em (on/in) with the article (o/a) to make either no or na. It takes a very long while to nail the prepositions but a fantastic way to get started is to dream up silly, improbable or just plain dirty situations so they’re fun and memorable. Here’s a relatively clean group:
Following the prepositions, new vocabulary can easily be remembered using bizarre images or daft ideas. Or even, Mnad Mnemonics! For example:
My leg hit a door and now it hurts (a dor, “the pain”).
For sure I like beans (o feijão, “the bean”).
Son! Go to bed! (Zangado, “angry”).
Come on! Let’s go to bed! (a Cama, “the bed”).
Films. I used to dream of having subtitles pop up in real-world interactions. Films are particularly helpful as you have real-time language exposure, with the possibility of freezing clips, and endlessly repeating them. More helpfully, films usually have unusual or spectacular goings-on, which help you anchor new vocabulary to a specific point of the seabed that is your memory.
The method: Watch a scene with no subtitles (legendas). Repeat with English legendas. Repeat with Portuguese legendas. Have a break. Repeat sem legendas. (The free program VLC has handy keyboard shortcuts to do all this at breakneck speed.) Stand up and act it out to your unimpressed cat.
Intermediate learners could try writing down what they think they heard, then to compare it to the correct subtitles. Youtube doesn’t have a great deal to offer with regards to the above, and you only have one subtitling option, but do give it a go with this search (‘filme completo com legendas’). DVDs are the real deal as you tend to have English and Portuguese legendas.
Other films which are useful are Blacula and April Captains. Once you find a library with the DVD, or find the bookshop FNAC, the film A Outra Margem is a touching 90-or-so minutes about a transvestite coming to terms with his nephew’s Down’s Syndrome.
Quite seriously, pets, mops, skylights and other inanimate objects can be very good substitutes for human speaking partners. By addressing the food blender, you are prizing elements out of your memory, and these abstract word clusters brought into the physical world. This helps the agonising amnesia which I believe is often caused by nervousness in real, day-to-day interactions.
With regards to audio courses, without doubt the best version is from the Michel Thomas brand (link). Excellent for pronunciation skills, these CDs treat language learning as a joyful endeavour, rather than laborious chore.
The mighty Michel believed that being a convincing, comprehendible speaker is about your ability to keep your cool and avoid tension or nervousness. Deep breaths and a bit of pluck can go a mile. Avoid rushing. Banish any feelings of guilt forever.
However, like a boxer sparring, it can be good to place yourself in a situation which could be stressful and full of the unexpected. Find a tandem partner, choose a good local cafe, and bludgeon them to a verbal knock-out till the waiter throws in the towel. Or rather, share half an hour in each native language, and don’t forget to repeat, over and over, the word devagar (“slowly”), por favor.
Also, a couple of fairly decent grammar books are Portuguese: An Essential Grammar by Amélia P. Hutchinson and Janet Lloyd. Portuguese Verbs & Essentials of Grammar by Sue Tyson-Ward.
The above are just some potentially useful methods. If one’s not helpful, dump it in the caixote. Try out an array of techniques. Get your brain bending around in all manner of ways.
Once you have settled in Portugal, I hope you’ll be greeted the way I have (and, most importantly, often wasn’t in other countries). For sure there are creeping up on language learners those smug custodians of culture, rude and impatient, making foreigners feel foreign in all places. The Portuguese however respond much better to learners, better than anything I have experienced in other countries where I’ve attempted the languages, namely France, Germany and Czech Republic (Swedes are wonderful!). There aren’t a great deal of people who make the effort with this strange language, so when even at elementary level you are more likely to be received with patience and friendliness. Unusually, the Portuguese are pretty good at explaining their language to boot.
– – Labour pains
Inequalities run deep in society and some are exposed by the vote. Quakers in England, Scotland and Wales are committed to working together and with others – including Quakers across Europe – for a peaceful and just world . . . We refuse to prejudge who is or is not an ally.
We could be looking at the end of the European peace building project. Noises are being made across Europe for leave referenda and if those come to pass the brief summer of European conflicts being solved in highly structured negotiations could be over. My biggest fear isn’t the state of the economy, or whether I will have a grant to go to university in September. It is next generations sixth form history books looking at today and asking how significant it was in causing the next war. I fervently hope that does not come to pass.
*This was originally an email to my Mum but is edited. The formatting isn’t very good and WordPress confuses me. Anyway, enjoy.
On the bus to VIENNA I made friends a Pashtun lady and her mother, and ate lots of chicken and bread. I also made friends with a Congolese man, and ate lots of ham omelette and bread.
Arrived in Vienna. Soon discovered all bars are just big rauchzimmers, so instead of paying for expensive and underwhelming beer while breathing other people’s smoke, I stayed at home a fair bit and read. Hardly any state libraries in Vienna — really!
Interesting Story which Explains the Status of Turkish-heritage Austrians: My friend Alexa is Sicilian and has quite dark features. She used to live in Ottakring, a very Turkish part of the city. She often used to walk past the same Turkish market vendor to and from the u-bahn. She realised the man was being unfriendly to her each time she’d buy something. When she decided to move out of the area, she gently confronted the man, saying that, although she could see he was a decent man, why had he been so brunt? He said, “I don’t like Turkish girls who don’t speak Turkish.” She cleared this up and he was very apologetic. (Bear in mind that the wave of Turkish migrants were officially treated as second class citizens, gastarbeiter, who weren’t expected to stay and were given fewer rights because of this. Even now, the building of mosques is restricted by state law in ways that churches and synagogues aren’t. No wonder some are cagey about protecting their heritage. Perhaps with this in mind, they make fantastic döner kebabs.)
I had two very good jam sessions with some local musicians. I bought earplugs for the second one. This was in a pokey flat with eggboxes glued to the ceiling. He played banjo. I tried out his mandolin. The first was in Ottakring, in a secure recording studio, underground and with clever cupboard spaces and vending machines selling not sweets but records. This first session lasted five hours. My jammee (admittedly not a real word) had two classic German/Austrian characteristics: An addiction to straining his English into a jokey Cockney accent (Theyt’s awwreyet maeyet!) and he possessed a sadistic and deadpan sense of humour. I played my resonator guitar and a drum machine. Hopefully both chaps I jammed with, Uli and Matthias, will make it to Yorkshire this year and I will put their bands on. We shall see.
On a lighter note, I was hoping to go to some gigs, but the first and only one I went to was expensive and, zum Teufel, full of cigarette smoke. Particularly shocking as children were expected to be in attendance for the gig. People are ultra sensitive about having their freedom limited, just like another country. But I’m not Obama insult the Americans.
So instead I went to the opera. Four times! Austrians should be proud of their system Stehplätze. There is a certain comradeship to be found standing in line at the opera, early and eager, with the hope of picking up a €3 standing ticket. On a foul rainy evening a woman in a fur coat joked that the weather must be making me feel zu Hause (at home). Unlike in supermarkets, the queues were full of patient banter.
I saw the flatly racist Pariser Lebens by Offenbach; I saw Hello Dolly in German (amusing just to catch the general thread of plot); Strauss’s Elexa (in the grotesque Staatsoper) and Beethoven’s Fidelio. All bar Strauss were in the magnificently plain Volksoper.
It’s been a manic day, but I part of my plan succeeded in that the entirety of Sunday evening and Monday morning was spent in the forgetfulness of having my degree certification announced on Monday. I only realised This Was The Day when I was doing a job for my boss, carting a barbecue from Argos to the Centre of English Studies along with another teacher. A tenner each! Along the way I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen for ages — my old Alexander Technique teacher, and because I hadn’t seen her for so long I had to relate the bare essentials to her: job, house, degree… Degree! I rushed off and announced to the staff room the This Was The Day. And from this moment begun the world’s most concerted attempt to prevent Pascal from finding out his degree classification.
Up one-way streets I cycled uphill – and quite a hill – to uni, parked my bike, and headed to the grand old School of English. I had a mini flashback to the first time I set eyes upon it – must have been 18, and instantly fell in love with Leeds and its campus, so for this reason the whole day is a bit of a blur. But I’m sure that ice cream was involved.
So into the reception I bounded, and into the helpful arms of Pamela, a receptionist who resembles Snow White’s witch so convincingly it’s almost admirable. I have a long list of grievances to send the School of English and she is one of them, and she did a terrific job of patronising me and other bachelor students for a good three years. For the last time Pam with expert gratuity told me that if you had read the email (I hadn’t received one) that I would know my marks would be published online. So as I was heading to the foyer to flip open my laptop I received a text from a fellow Joint Honours student, Catherine:
Well done on your mark! I need to email you, hope the jobs are going well xx
What mark!? How does she know? I tried to ring her but no answer. I tried to ring her again, but no answer. And of all days, my laptop refused to login to the internet. So then I bolted upstairs to the pc cluster, toying with the idea I might have got a first after all. Door locked. Back down, outside and then to the library. Card invalid. ‘Can you let me through? I want to find out my what degree mark I got… Thanks very much’. Downstairs, another pc cluster, login, Student Services tab, Examinations tab, Results…
The results from your 2012/13 term are currently unavailable.
But that’s not my term! Try again. No time now – I have to prepare for this job interview. Then back upstairs, about to exit the library when the metal detectors beeped and the turnstile locked. Unbelievable! I explain the kind librarian that no, I’m not nicking books (I have nicked one though – no qualms!) but I have instead books from the Leeds library. I’m let through and I make my way upstairs and on to Europe’s largest corridor for my interview about the job as a note taker for deaf and disabled students. It went well. I drunk all the water they offered me. They even offered to delay the interview as I looked panicked, but I said I needed the distraction. Called Catherine again, no answer. A reply! She’s at work.
Through the union, then to another pc cluster to see if it’d work elsewhere. It’s so very likely to be a 2:1, I thought, and in retrospect (and I hate the idea of sounding modest) the odds were pitted against a first. Login, Student Services tab, Examinations tab, Results… The same error. How undignified this was, and how uncomplicated it would have been for the School of English to tear that witch-receptionist from her cauldron to pin the marks up on the wall! One of my last experiences of a Leeds undergraduate was watered down and sterilised by a lazy procedure from my so-called ‘Parent School’; the School of Music presumably being some much more attentive and helpful Uncle which indeed they were. I rung up A Responsible Admin Person and was told I’d receive an email detailing the problem which would be forwarded to the techy computer people. Scrolled the Guardian pages for 20 mins, waiting for that email… Which I never received. I gave up and went for a swim, then headed to the city library for a bit, and then cycled home in the rain. For some reason I had a cracking headache and slept on the sofa, an undrunk cup of camomile tea in my hand. Then Meg, another fellow Joint Honours student (well, ex-student) sent me a text:
Had a sneaky look at the pass list – congratulations! Don’t have too many whiskies 🙂 xx
Really? Really? I sat up and rung Meg at once. ‘Meg! Meg! Sorry I just need to cut straight to it – what did I get?’
‘You got a first!’
With a sympathetic respect for this now most probable news, my headache evaporated immediately, and found myself on top of my unsuspecting housemate Joey, dancing and jumping and whooping and hollering and all manner of boisterous yelling, yes it is true, after four years of toil I have my first! Back out to the dining room, shout down the phone, back into the kitchen, more dancing, jumping, whooping, hollering and boisterous yelling, then into Joey’s room (where else!?) where I checked with Meg that this really, really was the case. Yes it was the case, well done, and along with you did a handful of my other Joint Honours (Ex-) Student friends achieve the same result. Then my headache came crashing back down upon my skull, having transformed into a five-minute migraine, and I lie down on the couch with curly-haired Joey flapping some paracetamol in his hand excitedly. I rung Mum who seemed delighted, but hesitant. Of course Meg’s right, yes I’d better check. I had better check after all, you’re right… Oh dear. I hung up and the seed of doubt took root. Could Meg send me a screenshot perhaps? Dinner needs to be cooked anyway, a worthy distraction. Cooking, cooking… I could ring Elliot! No answer. Or Michaela! No answer. Claire? ‘I’m not near a computer, sorry…’ Then just as I was serving my most sloppy of Vegetarian Slop, I gave Catherine another try, and my first was confirmed for the second time by a friend/eye-witness. Terrific! We had a guest that evening and he brought wine and chocolate. And there I will end the story.
I have a whole refuse-load of opinions awaiting the truck of this tired old blog, but I will save those for then, except for the following: I am of course delighted, relieved and proud of the result (how nice it would be to actually see the damn thing in the flesh) but I remain ambivalent and actually rather bitter about this whole affair, both the ridiculous procedure of finding out, and about the degree as a whole. But all I’ll say for now is that it was never a forgone conclusion that I’d end up with a first – this is not me being modest, simply that the School of English were consistently unsupportive and disorganised. This meant that two-thirds of undergraduate life were unhappily filled with self-doubt. And I’ll end there.
Thanks for all your help throughout the degree. I am so glad it’s over and part of the reason I’m enjoying employment so much is because of my opposition to university life. It might last for a while or I might get sick of it and will crave studying. But as Mark Twain persuasively wrote, ‘I never let my schooling interfere with my education.’
For a while back in England I’d been quietly dreaming of performing on an immaculate clarinet one giant run of full-throttle solos. They would wind giddily round a hall containing cavities of dizzying depth. Yes, a genuine klezmer euphoria. This was after absorbing the fantastic and surreal cacophonies of The Klezmatics, Naftule Brandwein and Giora Feidman.
Not long after moving to Berlin I was given the opportunity to join a klezmer band. It demanded lots: and arrested my pocket agenda, already invaded by far too many scribbles of business.
The guitar is my main instrument and is unfortunately in the mode of klezmer is a rather dull one to play, being mainly fixed on the root and fifth, churning out an oom-pah rhythm for the more colourful violin and clarinet to flash their feathers.
The emphasis for us to get better has relied on sorting out all the boring things first: a weekly rehearsal, a plan of songs. But in arranging songs I have had to relearn all the necessaries of written music: clear symbols, (‘how many sharps are in B Major?’), fixing semi-quavers, sequencing rests, re-drafting, locating instrument ranges – it goes on. Arranging has been a valuable lesson in empathy: making my notes legible, considering the musicians, and keeping in mind their instruments and experience. One arrangement (of Portishead’s Wandering Star) crawled along because I assumed they could improvise quicker than I thought. Yet they have a history almost exclusively limited to written music ordered by a conductor.
The same damn processes – of empathy and pragmatism – is equally true with writing in general. What work! I now make myself legible to the reader I’ll later be. Progressing as a writer has been largely a dealing with that largely underexcercised muscle of plain old pragmatism.
Rehearsing has also made me want to turn into a little musical dictator. I have been involved in too many projects where too little is done because we are too ‘nice’ to each other. Politeness is welcome – to an extent. I cannot stand the excess modesty and flattery in which the British seem to be everyday virtuousos. With the klezmer band I may temporarily assume the role of commander-in-chief now and then. This is with the hope of striking upon something decent without getting smothered in stroking each others’ egos. In doing this, you put your musical balls on the line.
Rehearsing is taxing like no other activity. It is distinctively exhausting in that it drains your emotions. In a choir the individual has chosen to be underneath an authoritarian regime; both the composer and the conductor’s. With the band, I am much more involved, there are less people to hide behind. It can be ungratifying. Rehearsals can offer little in reward though lack of progression, forgetting what we’ve already done, and time-wasting.
My love of Klezmer brought out one shining paradox of identity. I thought I liked it because it was “just music”, not because of its Jewish heritage. But it is precisely that automatic attraction to a foreign style, mode, or approach that summons its unshakeable relation to indivisible ‘me’.
June 2011, revised December 2011