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Never too late to learn

By Jenny Grainer [email protected]

Jenny Grainer arrived in the Algarve to live, work and raise a family in 1968. She is a freelance writer and her book ‘Portugal and the Algarve Now and Then’ has sold more than 2,000 copies.

I’m often asked how long I’ve lived in Portugal and jokingly respond, “I came in with the wagon trains” and wait for the date of August 1964 to sink in. I can’t believe it myself sometimes and wonder just what happened to that very young woman and how my memory can still make room for all the changes I’ve seen over such a length of time.

One of the advantages of those early days was that hardly anyone other than the few pioneer expats like me spoke English, so there was a lot more incentive to learn Portuguese.

I’ve always had a knack for dialects and accents so I did very well and learned excellent Algarvean Portuguese – greatly mocked by snobby Lisbonites but gratefully listened to by the warm and friendly people among whom I lived in the Algarve.

TV has greatly improved my linguistic skills over the years and with my children attending Portuguese schools, a lot of eyebrows were raised at home when I got something wrong. I can hold my own very well in most conversations but…I can’t write it very well and my grammar is a bit iffy!

In October last year, my husband and I enrolled ourselves for free Portuguese classes in Lagoa along with about 30 others of a variety of nationalities, and a motley group we are with Dutch, Austrian, German, Rumanian along with lapsed Portuguese who have been living abroad and, of course, we Brits.

I started in the beginner’s class mainly to learn the verbs and I am truly amazed at how much else I have picked up. It has, in many ways, been a whole lot harder for me than the others because old habits die hard, and all those things I have been saying wrongly for years are hanging around to haunt me now – still, I’m really glad I’m doing it and have persevered.

Our teacher is an energetic young woman who speaks excellent English and, in fact, teaches it, but, although it is the lingua franca of all the students, she will only use English to explain when Portuguese, mime, facial expressions, drawings and hand signals have failed. It’s hugely entertaining especially when we play word games and the lessons are never boring.

One of the big advantages of speaking the language is being able to mingle and join in with all the many things now happening in the Algarve that I might never have known about otherwise. The Portuguese aren’t too good at publicising their events, but there are an amazing number of activities, too numerous to write about here, just there for the taking – often free of charge.

Just on the nights that we attend this particular school, there are Portuguese gypsies learning to read and write, a children’s choir rehearsing, ladies baking and others doing handicrafts! We are learning Portuguese and Portuguese are learning English, German or French. Alongside in another section is the Music Conservatorium where folks of a variety of ages learn musical instruments.

The other night, Hélia our teacher invited our class to attend a talk on recycling being held in the small lecture hall of the school so that we could hear the language spoken by Portuguese people other than herself.

The hall was full, with other classes attending as well as ours. I thought I might be in for a boring evening, but, in fact, it was really enlightening with a small party afterwards. The speaker, a lady, told us a lot about the many things that Portugal and, in particular, the Algarve is doing about the recycling of all our varied items of rubbish. I was impressed.

I can still remember a time when recycling was completely unnecessary because everyone was so very poor they wasted nothing. Plastic bags were washed and hung out to dry with the sheets and reused until they fell apart.

I actually felt a sense of national pride at the achievements being made. I’ll never throw plastic caps away again but put them back on the container knowing it might contribute toward a wheelchair. I’ll make sure I don’t put porcelain in with glass bottles and jars because it can contaminate the glass, but I do know now that I can put plastic bottles that have held oil or bleach in the yellow container along with all the other non toxic packaging and it won’t do any harm.

I will still wash most things before they go in their appropriate bin but at least I know now I don’t have to, and I’m very content to know that most of the big supermarkets drive to recycling plants, like the one in Lagoa, with all their packaging materials to be disposed of properly.

I know it’s very difficult to learn Portuguese, mainly because they gave up on us and now teach their children how to speak English as the easier communication system.

It really thwarts early efforts at speaking the language when even the teenager on the supermarket checkout assumes you can’t speak it and won’t let you practice – they don’t have the time.

But persevere – it’s very rewarding. To be able to pick up a newspaper and read the news, answer the classifieds and understand the events column makes you feel a part of the country you’ve chosen to live in. Of course you can always read all of the above in the Algarve Resident, but that’s cheating!