My [redacted] is enough for business transactions, for humour: I say what the language wants, not what I want. Her laughter. I am the victim of my small vocabulary.

Homo faber, Max Frisch

Anyone who knows me will know I speak more than a couple of languages. Living as a foreigner in Brazil, this comes up most days and it often doesn’t take long for someone to ask me how it is I speak Portuguese “so well”. It’s a mystery to me, as much as to them[1]. This post might sound from a boastful enumerator, but I hope it doesn’t: I’m far more an embarrassed tallier.

Language is a landscape—and each one is different.

Mountains upon mountains  (Jardín, Colombia)

Mountains upon mountains
(Jardín, Colombia)

There’s one I used to speak, can no longer understand, that’s like a faded winter leaf: I can remember words, no meanings, but the intricate mathematical grammar hangs in its skeletal lace. Another sits in a jar of formaldehyde.

Another one, Russian, I worked in once and read in sometimes, but never without a dictionary for half the words. It feels like a misty hillside with a plain below where the slow-blown air sometimes clears and sometimes closes in. Or perhaps it’s like that scene towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, staring out over a snowy Breughelian vista.

The ones I feel I speak best, the irony and minor keys of German or arid, intricate, yet lush Spanish, are so much topographical, like a Caspar David Friedrich painting or the early sun over the Colombian cordillera, where ridge upon green ridge stretches to the horizon with the regularity and crunch of collapsing Toblerones.

Portuguese is different: I have a compass and a car, I am a navigator and have travelled far, but I know I’m on a wide savannah, where half my made-good turns were flukes.

Perhaps it’s familiarity and experience, perhaps it’s the mind-bending visions that come from literature, perhaps I have a synesthetic perception of these things. Or maybe it’s the range of lived emotion that spreads these maps of altitude: the most important relationships of my life (family, friends, lovers, partners) have been in English, German, Spanish. These are the languages that have made me ecstatic, made me cry. Will the same happen with Portuguese? Perhaps, or maybe it will always be a language on the flatlands, where words start to fade as soon as they’re touched and turn into gabbling shadows that sound, at a distance, like English, German or Spanish.

[1] The biggest mystery of all is how some people hear an accent from Portugal, where I’ve not been for 15 years and where I’ve never spoken Portuguese.

The cordillera(Somewhere over Paisalandia)

The cordillera
(Somewhere over Paisalandia)

Monologue: Reading Material

Yes, I know it’s been a while. I’ve been moving continents, getting into a new rhythm, spending time writing other things for work and play. To my previous readers, I hope you’re still out there. To anyone new, I hope to be out there too.

—  Robin: You’ve just moved to Brazil, isn’t that right? So why aren’t you reading Machado de Assis, Jorge Amado or Carlos Drummond de Andrade, but Walter Benjamin instead?
—  Rob: Curiosity and opportunity.
—  R: Would you care to elaborate?
—  R: Curiosity from the walks across the square and under the flyover, in the early dusks of the Pope’s visit, umbrella in front of me, searching for films or for books in the rain. There was a chill outside, like dark evenings in Central European autumn—it must have put me in mind of Europe.
—  R: And Benjamin?
—  R: Well, the films didn’t have much to do with him. It was more classics of European cinema, you know, Theorem, Solaris, La grande illusion, Z… The type of films you’ve always wanted to see and never got around to.
—  R: I’m afraid I can’t see…
—  R: It wasn’t the films. It was the book by the counter in the videotheque. Essays—in Portuguese, of course—on Elective Affinities, I think Kafka and Hölderlin were in there too.
—  R: So you bought it?
—  R: No, I’m not sure I could read German in Portuguese. The tensions would be all wrong, or differently valent at least. But I think I’d also want to dissect it, the words I mean, get behind them and find out what they really were. In the original.
—  R: And Portuguese can’t do that?
—  R: Of course it can, but I’d be concentrating on the spaces between and behind the words. Not on them themselves.
—  R: And the opportunity?
—  R: Economy.
—  R: I’m not sure I follow.
—  R: Economizing. There are only so many books you can have in a foreign country.
—  R: I’m sure you’re right there.
—  R: Not ones you can carry on your back. But foreign books are expensive and rare, and e-books are missing the “aura” of paper that can sit on your sofa or bed, and look at you. Then I found there was a German library in Rio, so I went to look.
—  R: And what did you see and what did you feel?
—  R: Strangeness. Nostalgia. The monotone sobriety of books from Germany. All those Werkausgaben. I don’t think I’ve seen so many since I was twenty and at university. Those thick books, those Wälzer, weighing in the shelves—Thomas Mann, Goethe, Kafka, Max Frisch, Kleist. At university they all seemed such stern figures in the stacks, all so voluminous and I could barely get out four pages for an essay. And then I read them. Those ones especially moved me intensely. And Frisch moved me physically, put me on the crossriver road from Mexico to Guatemala.
—  R: And Benjamin?
—  R: Not so much. I was always scared of him, like I was of all the philosophers. Or maybe it was the same fear of what they might know about me…
—  R: Pardon?
—  R: There’s essay of Benjamin where he writes that people who are scared of animals are because they’re scared the animals will recognise something in them by touching them. Perhaps the same thing happened with the philosophers. Or maybe I knew that their language was difficult.
—  R: And is it?
—  R: Ten years ago. It’s hard to say. I still find it difficult in places. My German isn’t what it was. There are other languages in here, on their own individual wavelengths. Sometimes it feels like one of those tanks in a physics class where the different waves multiply or cancel each other out.
—  R: Please stay on topic.
—  R: I found it parts of it beautiful though. Hard, perhaps like a difficult maze for a child. There are some vivid images of walking in an Italian village, pockets and hands stuffed with fresh figs, bathing and filling him with juice. Or a section on memory and archaeology, how they exist in layers and what’s around an artefact is as important as the artefact itself.
—  R: Doesn’t it strike you all as a bit perverse?
—  R: Pardon?
—  R: I mean, shouldn’t be spending more time on the beach?
—  R: Perhaps, I have been trying.
—  R: Thank you, Mr Packer. You’re free to go.


By Rob Packer

In most of the languages I know, you describe the process of working out where you are on the map or in relation to your surroundings with a variant on orientation: Orientierung in German, orientación in Spanish, ориентация (orientatsia) in Russian and so on and so forth. The word comes from oriens, the Latin word for east, and creates an image in my mind of people lost in a forest or on the steppe bumping about in the dark until the sun rises and the riddle is solved. According to Wikipedia, the actual origin of the word is has an even more metaphysical feel to it, coming from the mediaeval tradition of putting east at the top of the map and Jerusalem at its centre, such as in the Hereford Mappa Mundi. The tradition of setting churches (and Roman temples) on an east-west axis could be an alternative.

The exception is Portuguese, where the word I’ve most commonly seen is nortear, taking its directions as most modern maps do today. This isn’t to say that orientar doesn’t exist in Portuguese (it does) and by the same token, nortear does in Spanish, although I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it used. So why the difference?

I like to think of it as a holdover of the language’s own history embedded within its DNA: according to the Real Academia Española of Spain, the Spanish nortear is mainly used at sea, where mariners have to navigate on the earth’s fixed axis. And the word has its origins in norte, a Germanic word, which (and this is pure speculation) makes me think of it as a word that sprung up from people communicating with each other in the vernacular, which probably dates it later—a more learned Latinate equivalent would be something like boreate or septentrionate. But in Portuguese, you could nortear your way around Rio de Janeiro just as easily as you could mathematics. It may or may not be the case, but I like to imagine the word echoing down from the pre-longitude Age of Discoveries, Vasco da Gama, Henry the Navigator and all the others, whose astrolabes would have orientated them in terms of their latitude, but would not have told them how far east or west they were.

Linguistic Showdown!

By Rob Packer

I was recently confronted and affronted by a friend of a friend. She was from Italy and may have been a plant to ruin my birthday party. It was indeed my party and I could’ve cried if I wanted to, but decided it unseemly for a newly 30-year-old man to blub in a pub in once painfully hip Shoreditch—these days surely merely hip and at some point in the far-off future, just painful. Tears were spared, but teeth were gritted and the anger only subsided when a very good friend I hadn’t seen in six years walked in like a ray of sunshine after the apocalypse.

Read more of this post

Down South

By Rob Packer

It is a peculiarity of Brazilian Portuguese that capital and interior are opposites, which is—as far as I know—not the case in any other language. This is a surprisingly pervasive difference and seems to imply that all capitals are cosmopolitan metropolises, while the interior is a rural backwater or maybe jungle. Read more of this post

The Pleasure of Saying Yes

By Rob Packer

Disagreement is unpleasant: you have to change your plans, you get in an argument, and you don’t get what you want. Far simpler is just to avoid all the unpleasantness and go out of your way to avoid a negative answer: the British and the Japanese are just two nationalities of many stereotyped for doing this. After all, it’s far easier to call an idea interesting, than saying “No, are you mad? Of course not!” Compared to this, the affirmative is easy.

I’ve now been in Argentina for a week and this, of course, means speaking Spanish to shop assistants, baristas and the like—rather than just with my better half, as happens in Brazil. Apart from the odd moment of narcissistic bliss when someone inexplicably asks me if I’m Argentine, this has also made me realize that there’s something I’ve missed during these months in Portuguese-speaking Brazil: the pleasure of saying yes.

This isn’t to say that you can’t agree in Portuguese, but when you first learn Brazilian Portuguese* , most people will tell you that the word for yes is sim. This isn’t strictly true. What they save for the advanced class is that you really only say sim when you could never say yes in English. You actually say something along the lines of “it is”, “I am”, “lets”, “I do”, etc. (according to Wikipedia, this is similar to Chinese, Welsh or Latin). This means paying attention to the exact words being spoken to you: I know I use the wrong word a lot of the time.

On the other hand, Spanish does have a word for yes; it’s . You can use it all the time or repeat it as many times as you like. And the best bit is that—so far—it’s instinctive: unfortunately, that can’t be said for the other mistakes that the similarities between Portuguese and Spanish have had me making over the past week.

 *I’m unsure if this is also the case in European or African Portuguese.

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