When I was a kid, I used to find my grandfather funny at Sunday lunches:
” Could you please pass the feijón*?
He had already left Yugoslavia some forty years ago and spent most of his life in Brazil, but he still got the pronunciation wrong. He had already created a business, four children and a universe in the tropical country, but he could not say “ão”.
Thirty-seven years later.
I have been for six years in this country that considers the need for vowels superfluous and I still cannot understand that “house” is not feminine, as in Portuguese, and that a pronoun ending with “a” is masculine. Actually, I do understand, I am great with theories, but when it comes to practice, everything goes wrong. On top of that, the ideal accent has a guttural “rrrr” — coming from somewhere so deep it must be near the small intestine — that I am sure I will never be able to keep up with.
And the truth is: if it was only the accent, it would be easy.
These days I was asked what I miss most about Brazil, and after giving the obvious answer, a longing that I never thought I would feel came up. I really miss communicating in my mother tongue.
To be complete, comical, cynical, to make an intelligent conversation flow, one desperately needs a mother tongue. I speak three languages fluently, but I can only be a mother in Portuguese, have a best friend in Portuguese, do therapy in Portuguese, communicate after two glasses of wine in Portuguese.
When I’m with my kids, in the comfort of the Latin language, I educate, explain theories, tell stories, but in social situations I contribute a sentence here and, at most, another one there. I tend to listen, understand the language, but not the jokes, the references, the culture. I smile shyly.
If I could go back in time, I would change a dozen details.
One of them would be to pass the feijón and proudly ask:
How did you make it this far, Grandpa?
*Beans in Portuguese. The correct pronunciation is “feijão”.