For #100: Portrait of a polyglot.

Today is my 100th post.

I started my blog in June 2009 but I only paid sporadic attention to it until February 2011 when I really started writing. Slowly but surely, the total number of posts crept up until I found myself with just a handful to go before I hit 100.  I wanted to do something special.

The first thing I did was to make an honest blogger out of myself: I lopped off the ‘wordpress’ from my web address and officially became asalinguist.com. Huzzah!

Papa and me, dancing at my brother's wedding.

The second thing I did was to decide what to write about. I’ve mentioned my father previously, (here and here) which may make one conclude that I was somewhat of a Daddy’s girl. It’s a fair assessment. I am the youngest of five children – four sisters and one brother – and while my brother retains the title of Most Pampered (the only son of Portuguese parents), I came in a close second. Not only had my four older siblings broken my parents in for me, but my father was already 54 when I was born. Nice and mellow … no, not mellow. My father, Pedro, was stubborn, curious, mischievous, short-tempered, even laid-back about certain things, but not mellow. Still, his age must have softened him a bit, made it easier for him to be a little more playful and lenient with me than he’d been with my older sisters.

My status as a Daddy’s girl notwithstanding, I also chose to write about him because I write about language and he was a polyglot. Growing up with two parents who didn’t speak English natively certainly had an influence, but my mother’s English was so much more fluent and accurate that we sometimes forgot that she had to learn it as an adult. My father, however, learned it later and never as completely as my mother, and his other languages always played a larger role in his communication, and thus, his identity. I can’t write about language without addressing this early, critical influence in my life.

We were never quite sure of too many details of his past since both of my parents seemed reluctant to divulge them. For a while we thought they might be spies. That certainly would have made life more exciting. I even remember finding my mother’s Resident Alien card one day and wondering if it was some sort of code name or secret spy card. Imagine my disappointment when I learned about immigration statuses in school.

Still, I managed to cobble together some facts. Born in Portugal, my father spent most of his childhood traveling in Europe with his father, who might have been a salesman. His mother had died when he was still a baby.

My parakeet Macoco loved landing on the comb-over. He always got a kick out of that bird.

My grandfather spent a lot of his time in France and Italy, so as a teenager, my father knew French and Italian almost better than he knew his native Portuguese. In the late 30s, his father sent him back to Portugal from Paris where they had been living. Trouble was brewing with Germany and my grandfather wanted him out of harm’s way. He never saw his father again.

Unfortunately, trouble found him anyway as he tried to make his way across Spain, which was embarking on a civil war. My father was detained for several months in a prison camp. We never learned who captured him or why, but my mother did tell us of how he eventually gained his release by learning Spanish and repairing bicycles for the guards, thus getting on their good side.

And so the language count rose to four.

He returned to Portugal, a young man on his own, talented and skilled in mechanics and languages. He opened a garage in a town called São Romão in the mountains of the Serra da Estrela. When I visited the town a few years ago, I tried to look for the red doors of his old shop. They’d still been there in the late 80s, even though he’d left Portugal 30 years earlier.  I saw a lot of red doors. I still don’t know if I found the right ones.

In the 50s, he moved north and became friends with my uncle. He met my mother and they fell in love. It was, in fact, a bit of a scandal since he was 20 years her elder and had already been divorced. Still, they planned to marry, but first, he was going to go to America for a few months to earn some money. He’d heard great things of New York from his friend and he wanted to try his hand at it.

A copy of his first passport photo that I keep in my wallet.

Not realizing that he and my mother would eventually settle in New York for good, he started to learn some English. Proper English. He bought some records. From England. As the story goes, he landed in New York and tried to get a job. He couldn’t understand a single word of New York English that anyone was saying. He decided to go to Montreal instead, where there were still jobs to be had and where they spoke French, as he did. In his words:

“So I go to Montreal, but they don’t know how to speak French! Those Canadians? I understand less what they say than the sacanas in New York! So I go back to New York and suddenly, I know what everybody says. And so I stay here.”

A sacana is a bastard. This is why I know my Portuguese curse words. They’re the ones that always snuck into my father’s English. Other words and phrases made appearances, but none as reliably as the words that offered him the greatest emotional discharge and satisfaction. Among his favorites were Com raio! and Raios te parte! which mean ‘With lightning!’ and ‘May lightning strike you in half!’. He was big on the lightning. Even his favorite interjection was vaguely lightning-esque: “If that idiota comes here again, Zas! I’ll punch his face! You know, like when I used to play the box.”

The Italian showed up when he was in a good mood. He used to sing in Italian when he was happy. “A quindici anni, quando fumai la prima volta mi ubriacai…Fumar la pipa no è peccato l’ha detto Bortolo che me l’ha dato…” He followed that with a series of nonsense words, sung quickly and loudly and finished with a loud “Ahhhhh!”

They were so romantic, those Italian words, that lovely tune. Was it a love song? Was it a tribute to a town or a person? Was it an ode to a sunny day? Many years later, I found out that the song was about smoking for the first time, getting drunk, and then smoking “with zeal”.

I didn’t care. I still love the song.

Couldn't really blame the man for trying to hide from us lunatics.

When he wasn’t singing in Italian, telling time in French, or cursing in Portuguese, my father was doing a decent job at mangling the English language to his purposes and to his foreign pronunciation. In one oft-repeated story, my parents were visiting me in Florida when my windshield cracked. Of course my father wanted to fix it himself but couldn’t without his tools, so he settled for watching as someone else fixed it. I made an appointment at a garage. We drove up and a mechanic approached us. He told us, in a very thick Southern accent, to pull all the way up to the building.

“What he say?” said my father. I translated. From Southern English to Portuguese English. My father asked the mechanic something about the timing or the equipment.

“Huh?” said the mechanic. I translated. From Portuguese English to Southern English. And so it continued for the following hour until my windshield was done.

Sometimes it was the sounds or spelling of English that confounded him. “Why there is an L in would, could, and should if I don’t say them? I don’t believe! You have to say the L! Caramba!” Other times the stress threw him off. “He has a bad chaRACter. I don’t like him.” or “My son learns enGINeering.” He also insisted on giving our regular past tense /ed/ its full respect by pronouncing it as an extra syllable. “I walk-ed in the whole store and couLd not find your mother. You go.”

But it’s okay. You’ll get us-ed to it.

Don't even ask.

That’s how we always ended the round of teasing that invariably happened at family occasions. We sat around the big dining room table, all seven of us, for birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. We were loud, chaotic, and quite frankly, obnoxious. We are a family of teasers. If we weren’t trying to sneak food onto each other’s plates, we were making fun of someone’s chewing or latest haircut, or playing “Look!” (fyi – chew a mouthful of food, then say “look!” and open your mouth wide when someone glances your way). And then it was my father’s turn. He would just nod his head and smirk.

In later years, he not only continued to mix his languages, but it seemed to happen more often. We didn’t notice too much because he’d always done it and we always understood him, even if none of our friends ever did. He seemed perfectly content to continue communicating in his five-in-one language. If he forgot an English word, he’d just use a French or Spanish one. This bought us more time.

Always a ham for the camera.

Slowly, however, he began to have more trouble remembering words in any language. He struggled and became frustrated. He spoke less. He whistled but didn’t sing. Eventually, all his words were stolen as the Alzheimer’s erased them from his memory.

My father died five years ago today. He was 90 years old. I didn’t plan my 100th post to come on this anniversary, but in the last couple of weeks, it became apparent that the two events would coincide, and I thought it was fitting.

And so today, I dedicate my words to Pedro Rodrigues, polyglot. Que Deus o abenςoe. 

28 thoughts on “For #100: Portrait of a polyglot.

  1. I can’t even express how much I enjoyed reading about your dad today! What an amazing man! I laughed at his frustration with language. I agree with him on the Ls in “could”. And how when he moved back to New York, he suddenly knew what everyone was saying.

    I noticed that in all of his pictures he is smiling, a huge broad grin. You can tell he thoroughly enjoyed his family and his life. Thank you for sharing this with us. I am sorry you lost him to Alzheimer’s. My gram had that too in her 90s.

    Today I posted about my own dad, as I lost him 20 years ago this month. It was so hard to stop the tears, but I managed to get out some words. It is hard to convey how much he meant to me and I have a feeling you know what I mean.

    • It was definitely rough to write parts of this post. There was so much more I can write but I tried to keep it focused. The details might have been different but we essentially wrote the same thing. We miss our dads. Thank you so much for reading!

  2. What a wonderful post. Prayers for your father, you and your family on this emotional anniversary; and congratulations on this 100th. You couldn’t have planned it better. “Looking for the Red Door” may be the title of a future post as you remember that trip. I can imagine your surprise at finding so many red doors, but then not caring, as every red door probably has a memory for you. My dad was a polyglot too. He was a Dutchmen raised in Mexico, university educated in the States and his parents were fluent in Esperanto, an ugly language he told me. My friends used to comment on his accent. I never heard it. I was so used to his words and how he said them. I loved this. What an interesting life you parents had. Thank you for writing.

    • Thanks Georgette. And that’s a great title and idea for a post! I have an entire roll of film from Sao Romao (and it’s a small town) and I think if I get those pictures out and start looking through and remembering that day, I can write something about it.

      I love when you said that you didn’t hear his accent. I “knew” that my father had one because it was quite pronounced, but we always understood him. It’s interesting, too, to hear your father’s opinion of Esperanto as an “ugly language”. There are so many devout defenders of Esperanto and dissenting voices are often quiet about it.

    • He once told me that I drive “like a man” – that was one of his highest compliments :) So maybe he was proud of me. He definitely showed his feelings through actions and not so much through words. Thanks for reading.

  3. Great post! My father was Polish, university educated in France, and came to the UK, as so many Poles did, during WW2. He spoke French and English so well, nobody realised, when he was in those countries, that he wasn’t a native speaker. But I remember how amused I’d be as a child when he forgot his native language sometimes when speaking with Polish friends. I couldn’t imagine how you could forget the language you were born into. I can now. An English person living in France, I frequently find myself using peculiarly French syntax, or peculiar words like ‘meat shop’ instead of ‘butcher’, because I can’t remember the right one. Thank you for sharing your memories

    • Thanks for your comment, Margaret, and for sharing memories of your own father. He certainly sounds talented in languages! My mother talks about how English has influenced her Portuguese. She has a bit of an American accent when she speaks Portuguese now! Our brains are funny things, aren’t they :)

  4. Ah, Leonore what a beautiful and moving post for your big 100th! It sounds like your father was an amazing character with a wonderful personality. You can just see the mischief in his eyes in those pictures! What a sweet tribute. :)

    • My father certainly had his flaws, but he was definitely a character. Mischief indeed! :) It always drove my mother crazy, which of course just egged him on (I am sooo like him in that respect!) It ocurred to me yesterday as I was driving to work that he was about my age when he met my mother and if I were living his life, I would be leaving my country in about a year and would not be coming back. It’s like he had two completely different lifetimes. So just when I look around me and think “Is this it?”, I remember that his second lifetime didn’t even start until his early 40s and I become inspired.

      Thanks so much :)

  5. Leonore, I can’t express in one language, let alone five, how much I enjoyed reading about your father. What better way to celebrate your 100th post than by paying tribute to such a wonderful, interesting man. I LOVED this.

    • Thanks so much, Jules! I thought it was fitting because, as I said in a previous post, the only thing he ever wanted was for me to be happy, so since writing is what does that for me, it seemed appropriate for me to write something for him. I’m glad that others enjoyed it so much!

  6. Oh, Leo, brilliant post! I giggled; I brushed away tears – it doesn’t get better than that. Thank you for sharing your warm, wonderful memories of your father. Congratulations on your 100th post. :-)

    • I also giggled and brushed away tears while writing it too, so it means a lot that you got the same emotions out of this that I put into it. And thank you so much for sticking around for most of those 100 posts! :)

  7. Thanks for sharing these memories of your father. I’ve spent many years studying language and have always been fascinated by multilingual families and what effect it has on their relationship from generation to generation. When I lived in Germany I knew so many immigrant families where only the little kids spoke German and translated for grandparents and sometimes a little for parents, and the parents would speak the language of their home country but only a little German, and the grandparents would speak a dialect of the language of the home country but no German.

    • And thank you for actually reading them, too. Our family sort of broke the typical immigrant pattern in terms of language. Usually, you’d expect my parents to be mostly monolingual in Portuguese, I’d be bilingual, and the next generation would be essentially monolingual in English. My parents both put significant effort into learning English so they could make sure we didn’t have any issues. My oldest two sisters both spoke Portuguese at home and had trouble when they started school. Not knowing things would eventually iron themselves out, my mother decided that the family would speak English, and so when I was finally born, I was relegated to trying to get as much Portuguese as I could from the curses, the directions in the kitchen, and the late night talks my parents had about us.

      English may have been our language, then, but the culture of the family was still very Portuguese and I often had to ‘translate’ anyway. I don’t have kids, but my sister has two boys and they are as American as they come! So culturally, we definitely fit the pattern.

    • Thank you! I laugh my butt off every time I remember that story :) The mechanic’s accent was so thick that even I had some trouble understanding at first, but my father never got a word, and the mechanic was clearly overwhelmed by my father’s accent. More than that, my father could also be somewhat physically intimidating and since he was a mechanic, he kept an eagle eye on all the work being done, so they were nervous the whole time we were there.

  8. Leonore, I mentioned to Darla, the thing I miss the most about my Dad is hearing his voice and laugh. He was raised just outside of Boston. His accent was thick, and I loved it.
    Though I’ve never heard your Dad, I have a sense of what he sounded like, and I would have loved to be in a room with him. What fun. I love this story. What a wonderful tribute with bittersweet timing.
    Based on the pictures and the story, I’d classify your Dad as a ‘cute old man’, which is my highest rating. My Dad would have been a cute old man had he lived longer than 65 yrs.
    Youngest of 5? I’m the youngest of 6 – just one brother, too.

    • Oh Lenore, more similarities are coming to light! How awesome :)

      My father had a temper so when he was in a bad mood, it created tension in the whole family, but when he was in a good mood, he was so playful and fun – really a character. And definitely a cute old man; because of him, there’s nothing more adorable to me than a little old European man. The grandfather in Moonstruck? When he took the dogs and made them howl at Cosmo’s moon? How I adored him! :)

      I’m sorry you lost your dad so soon. I’d love to read about him someday.

  9. I’ve been saving your post ever since I returned from England a few days ago, knowing I wouldn’t have time to concentrate on it amid all the unpacking and the moving house that’s going on. You might have warned me it would be upsetting to read, though! Your dad sounds like a great guy and I’m so sorry he’s no longer around to tease you. xxx

    • I’m sorry I’m so late with my reply! (My latest post should give an indication of my state of mind at the moment, so perhaps it will explain a bit :) )

      I certainly didn’t want to upset anyone! But maybe that means that I was able to convey who he was and what he meant to us. Thank you so much for waiting to read and giving it your attention! I appreciate it a lot.

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