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Notes from the Iberian Peninsula

My Spanish is OK, not great; one of the anticipated benefits of a vacation in Spain is the chance to practice.   But my first day in Bilbao, sleepless and jetlagged, all I can really access is Language B, which includes a little bit of everything other than English that I've picked up over the years. 

すみません, je voudrais un café con leche пожалуйста.  Asante sana.

Look it up.


We are at the home of our friends Inaki and Amaia, and we are discussing music.   I want to explain that I sometimes arrange songs for my a cappella group--a concept a bit more complex than the transactional Spanish with which I am (after a good night's sleep) doing much better.   It's an exercise both creative and inelegant, charades with words: how do I paste together the few hundred words at my command to get this notion across?

"I put on a page the notes for the sopranos to sing, and the the second sopranos, and the altos, and the second altos, so that when we all sing together it sounds well."

"Oh," says Amaia, "You write arrangements."



My first lunch in Lisbon I am confronted by certain biological imperatives, so working directly from my Portuguese phrasebook, I ask a waiter where I might find the bathroom.   She finds my accent hilarious.

"Oh my God, the way you talk!" she says.  "You must be Brazilian."


In Lisbon I can get by speaking Southern European:    I learn how to say please, thank you and excuse me in the local vernacular, and then I speak Spanish with what sounds to me like a local accent.  In Italy this involved adding a lot of extra vowels.   In Portuguese it means pushing the alveolar fricatives further back (s becomes sh; z becomes zh) and pushing rounded vowels up (turning o into u).   Works surprisingly well for my transactional needs.   

We rent an apartment for a few days in Lisbon's Graça neighborhood, and I am quite delighted to find that it includes a washing machine.  I love laundry; and halfway through my trip I am sure that most people with whom I share subway cars would agree that my doing laundry is at this point a pretty good idea.   The laundry machine is familar; but here is the dryer:

Hanging clothing to dry is great -- very eco-friendly and all that.  But this is laundry-hanging without a net:   one false move and the jeans go tumbling three stories down.  

If worse came to worst we could figure out in which apartment's patio they've landed -- it's a small building -- and knock on the door to request our clothing back.   But how would I begin to explain the issue in Southern European?

"I am the stupid one of whom the brassiere is on your floor."

In the end the laundry is retrieved without incident.  Another missed opportunity for cross-cultural communication.


In Lisbon we hear music:   a blues band one night, fronted by a native Chicagoan and populated by a grooving bunch of locals.   It's great fun.     The next night we go to hear fado, the traditional Portuguese folk music, heavy on mournful vocals.

It is as soulful as promised.   There are two singers.   One waves his hands around a lot.    The other sings with his eyes closed and a pained look on his face.   I can make out a few words  here and there; but for these purposes my Southern European is inadequate and I really don't know what they're singing about.   I'm pretty sure there's a fair amount about thwarted amor and the occasional blighted corazon.   Lisboa appears a few times, as does the word fado itself.   

But who really knows?   Maybe he's singing this:

Knock knock

Who's there?


Orange who?

Orange you glad I didn't say banana?

As far as I can tell, fado is pretty much the blues in a minor key.   The blues follow set pattern:   three chords over 12 bars, in nearly unvarying order.   Fado seems a bit less rigid; but after a few songs the chord patterns and melodies are pretty predictable.  Blues, fado--you have a structure, and the artist hangs her creativity on it.   Like so many art forms!   Sonnets.   Haiku.  Or this:

Knock knock

Who's there?


Fado who?

Fadon't you hand me that brassiere that just fell three stories onto your patio?



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From Steve | On October 20, 2017 @08:04 am
Hey. Have you seen one of my black and green socks?

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