Monday, December 4, 2017

Buying a Shawl in Porto: A Good Try at Communication


Communication is iffy at best in a strange country. 

After a few weeks in Portugal I know enough to say “Thank you.” And maybe, “Good afternoon.” That’s all! “Toilet” works in all languages. WC is a universal sign.

I actually do reasonably well in Germany and in Spanish speaking countries, at least for survival. And I can ask for the check in French after declaring that I don’t speak French so they don’t make assumptions. But I have actually given up in Czech, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Norway if the clerk or direction giver doesn’t speak English. It would be polite of me to try harder, I know, and I did try when I traveled the world 50 years ago. But it’s just too hard now…

Yet, you have to give me credit for giving it a good try this afternoon in Porto, Portugal.
And because this blog is about words, no pictures!

 I’m on my way to an Eco-Village somewhere in the center of Portugal. Honestly folks, it’s not even on the map! This journey will require one train to another train, a taxi, a bus and then suposedly Katja will be there by car to pick me up. Arrgh! Also AARGH is that just two days ago they sent out the helpful info for the meditation retreat, namely that it’s going to be cold at night and that I might need a shawl for morning meditation. Arrgh again! I left my jacket in stored luggage in Lisbon (since Portugal has been sweaty hot) and no shawl!

So, outside the train station I stopped at the shawl vendor. Actually I had stopped there two days before when the news of Hurricane Irma’s threat on my home was imminent. My kids and dog had evacuated so it didn’t look like there would be loss of limb, but there could be loss of my house and 30 fruit trees. Loss of rental income and loss of world-wide adventure. Egads! So I was more than stressed. I had no control whatsoever and could only watch the whirling winds and projected cone from the phone. Not knowing what in the heck was going to happen, and having lived through 7 months of reconstruction with Hurricane Jeanne, I needed an emotional fix. So, shopping therapy!

I was feeling quite dowdy in camping clothes for 3 months while other tourists in Porto looked quite fancy with their scarves. Nope, I’d left my multicolered scarf from Ireland home, wanting to travel “light.” (Ha!) When what did I see but a lovely blowing in the traffic-breeze light blue nylon scarf with happy yellow butterflies and pink- blooming roses. Such a metaphorical lift of new life, after maybe destruction.

Forgetting my ineptness at Portuguese, I excitedly told the clerk that this was my hurricane antidote (wide gestures of hurricane, my home with heart pointing and tears diagramed, heart expanding due to scarf and flitting creatures.) I really didn’t care if he cared, I just had to share my little lift of happiness with someone!

I paid the 1.5 euro and left, feeling prettier. This didn’t work as well as the port tasting the day before but it was cheaper and lasted longer.

So, tonight when I was belatedly informed I’d need a shawl I stopped at the same stand for a warm Pashmi article. Cashmere, right? I hoped.  Same lack of communication with this clerk. Some of the scarves said Pashmi, some said cashmere, some just said from Kashmir (all with flimsy peal-off stickers, not sewn on.) None of them felt warm.

Trying my luck I asked him the fabric make. Puzzled look. Animal or plant? Nope. “Baa?” Blank look. He took me to the boss who was equally unversed in English. Aha, I thought! Google translate! I typed in “wool” in English on the phone and it typed back the Portugues for wool. Still blank looks. They tried, I tried, I gave up.

When who should appear but the scarf clerk. He remembered me and the hurricane! “How is your house?” In English. “Scarf make you happy?” In English. Then he pointed to a map of Bangladesh, his home. He didn’t know any more about fabric than his colleagues but now it all made sense. They didn’t understand Google translate because they spoke Bengali, not Portuguese!

Well, we all gave it a good try, didn’t we? 

And in the end that’s all you can say for communication — that it comes from the heart.