Tag Archives: Portugal

Asking for Cock in a Portuguese Supermarket

There are some linguistic faux pas that are mildly amusing, and then there are those that you’ll be reliving for the rest of your life with your innards squirming like a bucket of maggots under a floodlight. And, oh boy, this one will stay right up there in #1 position until the day I draw my last breath.

But let’s first set the scene. In June 2015, my friend Noelia and I embarked on a drive across the searingly hot Spanish Peninsula, from our homes in central Spain all the way down to the Algarve, Portugal. My Portuguese teacher kindly let us use her sea view apartment in the little town of Alvor for a week – an offer two gals obsessed with Portuguese food could not possibly refuse.

All was perfect with the abode, except for the minor matter of flat remote control battery, which meant that we could not access our allocated parking space. The next morning, we made our way to the local supermarket to buy a replacement battery (as well as loading up on delicious Portuguese cheese).

Now, the Portuguese language is rather tricky to pronounce, and, as in all languages, small deviations can make a huge difference to the meaning of words. Even though Noelia and I both speak fairly passable tourist-level Portuguese and we thought we knew the word for “battery” (pilha), our attempts at locating one in the store was but met by several pairs of quizzically raised eyebrows.

Our remote control required an N-size battery, which is even tinier than AAA, and so “We need a really small one, like this” were among the words that accompanied our hand gestures involving tumb and index finger indicating the size of the desired object.

Eventually, it dawned on the beleaguered members of staff what it was we were looking for, and they ushered us to the appropriate shelf, but, in the end, the store did not sell this particular kind.

While waiting in line to pay for our mountains of cheese, we were discussing, with obvious frustration, how hard it could possibly be to get hold of a silly little battery.

At this point, the guy behind us in the queue, a man in his sixties who could not help earwigging our (Spanish) conversation, cracked up laughing. Once he had managed to recover sufficient breath (but not a straight face), he told us what we had, in fact, been asking for.

Suddenly the staff’s perturbed facial expressions made sense… The helpful bystander to our phonetic phallacy also reliably informed us that, in Portugal, they did not, in fact, have small ones.

It subsequently transpired that Noelia, despite being blessed with a rather forgiving Mediterranean complexion, does not carry off the shade of beetroot very well. As for myself, I can’t say, as I had cringed into a tiny little ball ready to be swallowed by the Earth that was surely about to open up its merciful maws.

Salt cod (bacalhau) on offer at the supermarket we can never ever go back to

Salt cod (bacalhau) on offer at the supermarket that we can never ever ever go back to

Alvor beach, which we DID return to. Frequently.

Alvor beach, which we DID return to. Frequently.

Alvor Beach - rocks

Alvor Harbour

Me trying to choose a cake in a blur...

Me, in a blur, engaged in the task of choosing a cake

...and the result: An enormous marshmallow-inspired slab of a cake!

…and the happy end result: A crockery-busting squishy slab of a cake!

This wasn't the only cake occasion. Here is a delicious three-layered composition with figs and almonds

Needless to say, there were plenty more cake occasions. Here is a delicious three-layered composition of figs and almonds

Portuguese custard tart. Absolutely mandatory.

Portuguese custard tart. Absolutely mandatory.

It wasn't all cake, of course. We stuffed ourselves with seafood :)

We also stuffed ourselves with seafood 🙂 This cataplana (a traditional seafood stew) was meant to serve two, but would probably have fed six strapping sailors.

Not so sure about the entertainment...

Some questionable local entertainment… would a visitor from northern Europe really take their kid to watch a terrified animal having spears rammed into its back?

At least the dogs know to take it easy in this town!

…but the dogs sure know to take it easy in this town!


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com



Three Countries in Five Days

After nearly three months of nothing but Toledo (except for the delightful little day trip to Cuenca) I was starting to go a bit stir crazy. The only thing that kept sane was an upcoming trip, which my friend Noelia had organised: Three nights at her friend’s place in Badajoz, Extremadura, just a handful of miles from the Portuguese border. From there, we would invade the neighbouring country and stuff ourselves silly with all the glorious Portuguese food we could cram down our gullets. Then, it was onwards, across the entire country and down to Andalucía for a couple of days, following a kind invitation from one of Noelia’s workmates, who had bequeathed us a lovely flat overlooking the beach.

All you all ready and comfortable? Let’s get started 🙂

Badajoz has some lovely public gardens

Badajoz has some picturesque public gardens…

...and glorious views.

…and glorious views. The town itself has a very southern Spanish flair, although it’s not much more south than Toledo. The Portuguese influence is keenly felt in the architecture, the colours and on restaurant menus. Salt cod and custard tarts galore!

Moving on to Portugal…

Évora's party piece: A Roman temple from the 1st century

Évora’s party piece: A Roman temple from the 1st century

Roman Temple and moi

Hidden gems

Lots of crumbling gems to discover…

...as well as some modern art. Noelia (left), and our hosts Gracia (right) and Lua (centre).

…as well as some modern art.
Noelia (left), and our hosts Gracia (right) and Lua (centre).

One of Évora's stunning residents turning his back on me

One of Évora’s most glamorous residents turning his back on me

The Almendres Cromlech, a few miles from Évora. A megalithic complex erected 8,000 years ago, and pretty well preserved. We just made it in time for sundown.

The Almendres Cromlech, a few miles from Évora city. A megalithic complex erected 8,000 years ago, and pretty well preserved. We just made it in time for sundown.

We're in Elvas now, another historic town settled since the year dot. Just don't ask me what that thing in the middle is...

We’re in Elvas now, another historic town settled since the year dot.
Just don’t ask me what that thing in the middle is supposed to signify…

Like any Portuguese town worth its salt, Elvas has a castle...

Like any Portuguese town worth its salt, Elvas has a castle…

...impossibly steep, cobbled streets...

…impossibly steep, cobbled streets…

...and plenty of tiles. Everywhere.

…and plenty of tiles. Everywhere.


And, of course, FOOD! Here we are, waiting for ours. The desserts at that place were to die for.

And, of course, FOOD! Here we are, waiting for ours. The desserts at that place were to die for.

For one last look at Portugal, how about this cork oak? The souvenir shops are full of cork products. You can even send postcards made of cork.

For one last look at Portugal, how about this majestic cork oak? The souvenir shops are full of cork products. You can even send postcards made of cork.

Cádiz Province, Andalucía, here we come!

Andalucía billboard



I was very taken with that umbrella ;.)

I was rather taken with that cheery parasol 🙂

Andalucia Castellar

Did I mention the beach...?

Did I mention the beach…?

Noelia and our generous host and indefatigable tour guide, Paco

Noelia with our generous host and indefatigable tour guide, Paco

A cute frog fountain in Tarifa

A cute frog fountain in Tarifa

Soto Grande Boat


Gibraltar... that was the third "country" on our trip. We spent the morning there, I made a beeline to M&S, bought as many packs of hot cross buns as I could carry and several boxes of walnut whip. None of which survives.

Gibraltar, the third “country” visited on our trip. We spent a morning there, during which I made a beeline to M&S, heaping as many packs of hot cross buns as I could carry into my basket, as well as several boxes of walnut whip. None of which survives.

Now there’s just one thing missing, one VERY IMPORTANT thing:

Badajoz Cake


Language Learning: You’ve Got To LIVE IT!

Every language I’ve ever tried to absorb just from books, classes, and, in recent years, the internet, I’ve forgotten. Sure, there may still be some linguistic remnants floating about in the murky Everglades of my brain – rotting limbs of Russian, Japanese and Chinese trapped in the undergrowth – never to be re-assembled again in a futile attempt of making conversation.

It comes down to this: If you want to speak a language, and I mean REALLY speak it, it’s not enough to allot it a fenced-off little corner of your consciousness and shine a torch on it every once in a while. Language is the most sophisticated communication tool ever devised by the human mind; it is designed to allow people to share complex thoughts, infectious ideas and a laugh, to convey their feelings, to empathise with each other. Language needs to be taken out to play, it needs a human connection to really thrive.

As enjoyable as it is to be totally hooked on a book or engrossed in an epic film, language acquires a whole other dimension through person-to-person interaction. When you’re using your verbal and your listening skills to build a relationship with another human being – whatever the nature of that relationship may be – that’s when language really comes alive.

With one’s native language, this happens naturally, but, as most of us will have experienced, when we try to learn a foreign language in an environment where real-life exposure is limited, our enthusiasm usually peters out way before anything resembling fluency is achieved.

Going to class once a week, reading the occasional newspaper article, spending a holiday once every while in a country where the target language is spoken, although useful parts of the learning process, these sporadic activities are not going to push anyone beyond tourist-level competency.

If you want to get more out of it, you need to put more into it, and I’m not just talking more of your precious time. You need to let the language mesh with the fabric of your life, to entice its little tendrils to find their way from your head into your heart.

In practice, this means creating firm links with the country where the language is spoken and/or building and maintaining mutually enriching friendships with native speakers. In this way, you create an emotional dimension rather than limiting yourself solely to the intellectual domain. The former is much more permanent than the latter, it stays with you for life, it doesn’t just slip from your memory banks like a dried-up verb table.

A new language - a door to a whole new life

A new language – a door to a whole new life

As I’ve already lamented, a number of languages I had spent some time learning in the past never made it beyond the launch pad, because I failed to integrate them into my life in a meaningful way. My three main languages, German, English and Spanish, on the other hand, are firmly rooted in my psyche. They are not just something I “do” twenty minutes or so each day. They are part of who I am. If one of them were taken from me, it would be like losing an arm.

German is my native language, and although I left Germany back in 1991, I still have family and friends there. As for English, I lived in the UK for over two decades, virtually all of my adult life, and so I maintain a rash of personal and professional connections with this country, which, incidentally, I still consider to be my home. Also, my day-to-day work life takes place in English. English is, if you will, my main operating language.

And Spanish… well, Spain is where I live right now, so my attachment to this country is growing deeper by the day, as I’m slowly crawling towards greater proficiency in the language. I guess I should point out that my primary reason for moving to Spain was, in fact, to get to grips with Spanish, a desire I’ve been harbouring ever since I was a teenager.

Besides tinkering with my Spanish, I’ve embarked on another linguistic challenge, which is Portuguese. I started learning just a bit over a year ago, and I guess it’s time to start thinking about how I’m going to weave those loose strands of Portuguese into my world. Moving to Portugal is not an option right now, that would be too much of an upheaval too soon, and my level of Spanish still leaves much to be desired.

The good thing about being in Spain is that Portugal is right next door, and that flights are pretty affordable. Before I packed my bags to come to Spain almost three years ago, I signed up for a couple of week-long stints with a language school here. They arranged accommodation for me with a local couple who I’m still friends with, and I made my first few contacts from that base. Seeing as that strategy had already served me so well, I was thinking of taking the same approach with Project Portuguese.

When I started thinking about this a bit more in detail, however, I had a realisation: I don’t actually want the language school bit. The truth is that I don’t enjoy spending hours and hours in a classroom. I’m often left so worn out, that all I want to do afterwards is lie flat on a bed with a wet flannel over my eyes. Plus, I do have a great Portuguese teacher who I see every week, so I’ve got the teaching part covered. The whole point of being in Portugal is to get some practice, to interact with Portuguese people, not have a forced conversation with a Dutch classmate.

Well, I thought, why not try and find someone in Portugal prepared to rent out a spare room to me for a week or so? That would give me the chance to talk about everyday domestic stuff, exchange a few opinions over breakfast, and maybe do some grocery shopping together. After all, I don’t need a 24/7 babysitter nor a full-time tour guide, I can entertain myself and, as a roving freelancer, I shall bring my laptop and my work with me.  I can also offer a language exchange, if they wanted to practice their English or their German.

So, this is going to be my new project 🙂

A friend of mine has already passed me a potential contact, which I still need to follow up. If anyone out there has any useful suggestions or knows someone in Portugal who may be interested, please get in touch.

*    *    *    *

[What does it take until you finally “sound like yourself” in another language? Here is a post I wrote on this topic.]


Boisterous Bottle Banks

Imposing statues, refined art, historic buildings, splendid vistas… all very commendable, but a bit much on a Friday, if you ask me. So I give you Lisbon’s colourful bottle banks instead. Some of them are a bit indecent. You’ve been warned.

See what I mean?!

See what I mean?!

Birdy bottle bank

"Glass only", it says, and "do not leave rubbish by the bottle bank"

“Glass only”, it says, and “do not leave rubbish by the bottle bank”

But if you stick your umbrella half-way in, that doesn't count...

But if you stick your umbrella half-way in, that doesn’t count…

Bottle bank and houses

Red Gate, Yellow Armchairs, Stone Baby

Here are some more pictures taken on my drizzly excursion to Sintra (Portugal), at Christmas.

Red Door

How's that for some eye-catching outdoor furniture...?

How’s that for some eye-catching outdoor furniture…?

Stone baby front

Stone Baby side

The baby was part of an outdoor sculpture exhibition. For the most amusing exhibit, click here.

And If you would like to see a handful more pictures of beautiful Sintra, click here.

Hands Off The ‘Money’!!!

The town of Sintra, located 20km west of Lisbon, is currently hosting an outdoor sculpture exhibition. This piece made me chuckle:


Don’t ask me what this is supposed to represent…the interesting part is to be found at the foot of the construction

Don't Touch

No need to squint… here’s a close-up


…but some sticky-fingered folk aren’t so easily deterred, evidently….

How Did I Get On With My Portuguese In Portugal?

My trip to Lisbon over Christmas was only my second time in a Portuguese speaking country. I spent a couple of weeks in Madeira about seven years ago, but I didn’t know a word of Portuguese back then, and my knowledge of Spanish, at that point, was pitiful. In short, I understood sod all and was 100% reliant on English.

This time, though, it was a different story. My Portuguese is still pretty basic where speaking and listening comprehension are concerned, but advanced in terms of reading comprehension, because I’m fluent in Spanish by now.

Surprisingly, it felt like there was no real language barrier at all, at least not for the purpose of touristy pursuits. My Portuguese stretches far enough to ask for directions, opening hours, prices, to order food, communicate with bus and taxi drivers etc.

For any more complex issues, the good people of Lisbon (at least those I encountered) understood Spanish perfectly well, and they had no qualms about replying to me in Spanish. I was quite amazed by this. In Spain, hardly anyone speaks Portuguese, despite so much shared history and Portugal being a neighbouring country. The Portuguese do not dub foreign films, which may be one of the reasons why  English is also widely spoken. However, as I was in the company of a Spanish friend, I hardly used any English at all during that week.

...and they totally did :)

…and they totally did 🙂

Portuguese and Spanish vocabulary overlap to a significant extent, and so, if you speak Spanish, it will get you quite far when it comes to deciphering written information. However, Portuguese has a habit of contracting articles and prepositions, which is a great cause of confusion to the uninitiated, even if they do happen to speak another closely-related Romance language like Spanish or Italian. But once you’ve cracked the contractions, reading Portuguese is (almost) plain sailing.

To briefly illustrate: the ubiquitous Portuguese word “no” does not mean “no” as it does in Spanish (and in English), but it is a contraction of the preposition “em” (in/on/at) and the masculine definite article “o”. The word “pelo”, which means “hair” in Spanish 😉 is a contraction of the preposition “por” (by/through/for) and “o”. So, knowing how Portuguese contractions work – and you will find these peppered throughout every sentence – instantly unlocks a whole new dimension of comprehension.

The language aspect of my trip was certainly very satisfying. I was assimilating new vocabulary quite effortlessly just by reading the signs and advertising around me, and at no point did I feel uncomfortable or panicky when the need to communicate arose. (I do get a bit anxious about these things… silly, I know, but that’s how it is).

Listening to people’s conversations in the street and on public transport was much more tricky, though. Spoken Portuguese (and especially that of Portugal) is difficult to understand, as pronunciation differs markedly from what you see in writing. Thanks to my patient Portuguese teacher back home, who is from Lisbon, I was able to catch bits, entire sentences on occasions, but I can’t say that I was able to follow in detail what folk were chattering on about. Not that I expected to, at this stage. I was reminded that I had the very same problem with my Spanish a couple of years ago, and it made me realise how far I’ve come since then.

Spanish and Portuguese may be lexically very similar, but there are plenty of "false friends: "Borrachas", which means rubber/eraser in English, are "drunk women" to a Spanish speaker ;-)

Spanish and Portuguese may be lexically very similar, but there are plenty of “false friends: “Borrachas”, which means rubber/eraser in English, are “drunk women” to a Spanish speaker 😉

Lovely Lisbon… Enjoy The Men!

Several of you (no need to mention names, we all know who you are!) have been bugging me about Portuguese men since my trip to Lisbon.

I’ve not been giving the “homens” nearly as much attention as The Cakes, but one can’t be too selfish with a raucous audience to please. So, I’ve rifled through my photos and picked out those featuring male specimens. Though I can’t vouch for their representativeness…

Surely, this is what every girl dreams about:


… some hot, steamy squash soup at the end of the day!

…but maybe dreamy boys are more your thing…?

Working men

…waaay too exhausted to work…! I wonder from what?!

Now here’s one who’s made an effort! Ready for your date??

Maybe if he ditched the costume and swapped the balloons for some flowers...?

Maybe if he ditched the costume and swapped the balloons for some flowers chocolates…?

Now that’s more like it!

Now THAT'S more like it :)

Ben Affleck, The Kaiser and Legolas rolled into one!

Soz... the top half of this specimen wasn't nearly as interesting as the foot end with the puppy chewing the laces ;-)

Soz… got distracted from the top half of this specimen by the cute puppy chewing away at the foot end.