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Brazil 1, Germany 7 (Credit: The Telegraph)

To all new students: welcome to Berlin. As you make your way through the city, you will hopefully immerse yourself in the endless exhibitions and concerts, wide-ranging festivals celebrating all things from film to butter, engaging street art, striking museums adorned with (not uncommonly) stolen artefacts, shabby clubs that will reject you thrice in a row, and countless döner places that will have you believing döner is as much a part of the German cuisine as a schnitzel. At this point, it just might be. Many things in Berlin will enchant you, but it is only fair to warn you that there is also an adaptation period (which I have affectionately nicknamed my existence here thus far) that most non-Berliners will have to face.

Coming from Brazil, I don’t think the cultural differences could be any more striking than I have found them to be. After 17 hours of flying, one goes from saying “good morning” to strangers on the street to inadvertently sharing one-second eye contact at the U Bahn – which here could be interpreted as risqué flirting. Why would one look a person in the eyes? We have shoes for that.

Indeed, it is a peculiar day in São Paulo when the handrails of the train are not used for pole dancing by a teenager with a sense of humor or a street artist as a performance prop. I was not naive enough to expect a Carnaval at the U-Bahn, but it did surprise me when I dropped a water bottle on the train by accident and observed that the facial expressions that ensued could contextually fit a funeral. I know you are big on recycling, Germany, but I was going to pick it up.

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Credit: Charlotte Boccone.

 

One of the first things that the two women, a burlesque dancer and a party organizer, mentioned to me was how hard it is to be a woman in their businesses here in Brazil. I was interviewing them for an anthropological project on sadomasochism. In the room below us, a man was lying face up on the floor while a woman in a pink dress and four-inch stilettos was dancing on top of him. Another woman watched with a beer in her hand, sitting on the back of a man on his hands and knees. They were playing The Smiths very loudly when a man asked to worship my feet, but I informed him that I was just a researcher, thanks.

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When the walls speak it is because we are all crazy. (photo by Jelena Barac)

“When the walls speak it is because we are all crazy.” (photo by Jelena Barac)

Surely none would completely disagree with me if I were to say that a language can mirror a culture. Perhaps you would be skeptical if I were to say that language is culture. I guess that would indeed be pushing it too far. If nothing, you could not deny that language and culture are tightly interconnected and influence each other in, even if subtle, significant way. Learning a language without getting to know the culture to which this language belongs would definitely leave one with a half-baked experience, just as it is almost impossible to integrate with people, regardless of how well one knows their culture, if one does not speak their language.

Because of this, among other things, my experience of Brazil, and for that matter of Rio de Janeiro, was largely influenced by my progress—or lack thereof—in learning Portuguese. My understanding of the people and the surroundings in which I found myself varied together with this process: it grew as I started to understand and use the language more and more (often wrong too, which, surprisingly, led to nothing short of a series of discoveries). So I am about to tell you some of my linguistic, if you can call them that way, experiences in the waters of Portuguese language.

One of the first words I learned, even before I went to Rio, was saudades.

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