I have always enjoyed words.
Not in a ‘nerdy’ way – I am not a particular fan of Scrabble, nor did I spend my lunchtimes at school engrossed in dusty volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica unless sitting out another detention – but I like playing with them, juggling around with meanings and evoking perhaps not-immediately-apparent images when stringing them together.
Having a good understanding of several languages adds a further dimension and often gives rise to accidental hilarity, but more of that a bit later.
I also love cats. They are survivors, fiercely independent and at times downright rude, yet they also make for the perfect companions, a constant source of amusement, playful, serious, capable of undying loyalty and affection if they so choose – and, of course, they sleep and eat a lot. I see a lot of myself in them.
In both senses, Tennessee Williams’ self-professed favourite play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, presented itself as a perfect heading for this month’s reflections.
The visual suggestiveness of the title apart, the complex underlying themes of the classic work also fit in with the season, autumn (or fall as the Americans would say), the end of my tennis season in several senses and the climate in general at work during recent times – decay, greed, superficiality, repression, deceit, subterfuge and beguilement.
In fact, the only ingredient missing from Brick and Maggie’s tempestuous relationship tale in my professional life is sexual jealousy! Claims of being ‘a caring family business’ by a certain big company have become little more than lip-service – updates to follow …
For here and today, let us return to ‘words’ and ‘cats’. Much like Dawn – the name always reminds me of a fat spotty girl who sat behind me in primary school and followed me around everywhere – sunrise has long become my favourite time of day. Well, not by choice.
The small oversight of not having replenished Madam Bojangles’ –she looked and acted like a boy 12 years ago – food bowl last thing at night inevitably leads to an early awakening. Initial attempts to rouse me by subtle means, such as gently purring into my ear, soon escalate if unsuccessful, ranging from kneading my chest and sitting on my face to ultimately knocking ‘forbidden’ items such as watches, phones and lamps from the bedside table.
Once fed in semi-darkness, the morning ritual then continues in the bathroom where the shower tap must be adjusted to produce the perfect drip – like her chosen ‘carer’, my cat prefers her libation on draught – before a now contented return to slumber land is on the cards while I watch the sun rise with tired eyes.
The Portuguese word for cat, gato, is not so different from its English equivalent or the French chat and German Katze. However, having just re-read those equivalents from other languages I have to chuckle: phonetically Katze means ‘sit’ in Greek and chat is ‘tea’ in Portuguese while gateau suggests a posh French birthday cake.
There are many such examples which can lead to some rib-tickling misunderstandings during the process of trying to master a new language, and those do not exclude Portugal.
You do not have to be in the Alentejo to take your ‘cow’ for a walk because cão, similar pronunciation, is in fact a dog. And if you thought all Portuguese dogs were called “Bobby”, sorry – Bobby is like the English ‘Rover’, a made-up name for any mutt whose actual name is not known to you.
The north-south accent divide lobby in Britain will also appreciate the difference between a seal and a knife, a foca as opposed to a faca, whereas celebrating a peru at a ten-pin bowling match has nothing to do with Christmas as this particular ‘turkey’ is in fact a strike, or three consecutive clearances. To further confuse the issue, the peru does not come from Paddington Bear country or the former Ottoman Empire – it originates from northern Mexico and the southern United States.
Of course, there are also words unique to any particular language which do not translate easily into another.
The very Portuguese saudade, for example, expresses and encompasses a whole culture, a sense of melancholy if not longing for a lost historical legacy or love – the closest I can get is the German Weltschmerz, feeling the pain of the world weighing heavily on your shoulders.
Conversely, the less Teutonic-sounding Kaffeeklatsch and Schadenfreude come in useful at times without having any direct equivalents in English. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a word describing a morning’s coming together – presumably when the men have gone off to work (how sexist of me!) – for coffee in order to exchange gossip, or to describe the guilty feeling of pleasure at someone else’s misfortune!
Our ‘borrowings’ from French tend to be more refined with the sophisticated-sounding ‘raison d’être’, ‘déjà vu’ and ‘je ne sais quoi’ leading the way while vice-versa ‘les miserables’ across la Manche – almost a Portuguese ‘stain’ – restrict themselves to the use of the much more mundane ‘le weekend’.
Nor is the green, green grass of home the same colour wherever you go. I’m sure visitors to the great British mid-Brexit shores must suffer a third degree of confusion depending on which part of the disunited Queendom they choose to visit.
I still remember the more than slight sense of unease when being called ‘ducks’ by locals, male and female alike, upon arrival in Newcastle-under-Lyme for my fresher year at university – quite a change from the ‘love’, ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling’ I had become used to in London.
Imagine a rather reserved tourist from the Far East casually being addressed as ‘my lover’ in Bristol or a weighty German tourist (don’t you just adore clichés?) called ‘pet’, ‘flower’ or ‘petal’ in Newcastle.
Alternatively, a prim and proper American couple exploring their roots in the Black Country could well be taken aback by ‘chick’ and ‘cock’ while the endearing ‘hen’ might be misconstrued in Glasgow.
Let me conclude my feline merry-go-sorry tour de force through the linguistic jungle, the gentle tiptoeing across the still searing covering of what used to be my safe house this late Algarvean Indian summer, by stating that I am not a losenger, rouker or nickum – or translated into modern parlance, a false flatterer, whisperer of false rumours or a cheating and dishonest person.
I try to say it how it is, even if calling ‘a spade a spade’ these days requires a little window dressing in order to make the truth more palatable to the more sensitive souls amongst us.
On that note, do let me know if you enjoyed this little diversion, or alternatively, tell me to go hide in my cave – either way I’m looking forward to another tête-à-tête in 2018. Até logo!
By Skip Bandele
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Skip Bandele moved to the Algarve 20 years ago and has been with the Algarve Resident since 2003. His writing reflects views and opinions formed while living in Africa, Germany and England as well as Portugal.