Of Dogs and Words

Portuguese is the fourth language I’ve made an attempt to learn. Though you could argue my fluency in English is sound (I make my living as a writer using it, after all), after living with a Brit for several years I’m convinced we never gain complete mastery of our mother tongue.

I took a semester of German early on in middle school, a nod to my heritage on my mother’s side, but it failed to engage me the way French did. French remains my strongest second language—its grammar I learned first, then a passion for its sounds keeps it fresh and golden in my mind. A couple of years of Spanish in college felt like a good idea, and it flowed easily for me: What you see in Spanish is what you say, every syllable.

Before you think I’m a polyglot, let me be clear: speaking none of these languages is my forté. I can read passably well in French, and put a lot of meaning to Spanish on the page. But the words don’t make it from my brain to my mouth very easily in either tongue. To add to my natural hesitation to speak, it took time (and living for three years in Portugal) to get over myself, to recognize that all around me folks made an effort to speak English, and I never faulted their pronunciation or missed words, but encouraged them to keep going. Why wouldn’t they feel the same way about my struggles—even when, over and over, the shishings and dropped ends of words in Portuguese confounded my decidedly non-Latinate tongue?

So I practice every day, usually the most mundane transactions. Our local postmistress shows great patience with me as I’ve moved from barely managing “Bom dia” to now remarking on where and to whom my correspondence goes. I can order wine like a champ; only once in a while do I fail to make it clear what I want, and wind up with a tinto instead of a branco. 

My best teachers have been friends with whom I’ve flown: English is aviation’s global language, which makes it easy to be lazy around my fellow pilots. However, in helping them improve their English, I learn important nuances about Portuguese grammar and vocabulary—which can be both familiar to Spanish speakers, and confusingly opposite. Case in point: “Poupe no gás” means not what you might think…but “Save on fuel.”

One initial curiousity: the tendency for Portuguese natives to use “If you have any doubts…” when an American English speaker would say “If you have any questions…” because the direct translation of the Portuguese words winds up in that phrase, though the word “perguntas” means the same as “questions.” A Portuguese, however, is more likely to express the sentiment as “dúvidas” or “doubts.”

Another construction? The verb “faltar,” which can mean “to lack” as well as “to miss,” resulting in, “You lacked the flight.”

My best Portuguese has been acquired by necessity. When you have dogs, you must learn how to manage them in the local language or risk a real falling-out with your neighbors. “Minhas cadelas e o meu cão” are here in Portugal. They would be “os três cachorros” in Brasil, but here that would order me three hot dogs.

As we learn other tongues, the world opens up around us, and the fog of incomprehension lifts. It will be a lifelong journey for me and my Portuguese, but a fun one. My tongue has already loosened and I can almost trill an “r”!

One dish that translates well across American and Portuguese cultures is a rack of ribs on the grill. A slab of pork ribs coated with marinade and slow cooked in the oven before finding a sear on the grill makes for a fine dinner (enjoyed by man and canine alike). Stephen has crafted his own pan-Asian style marinade with Portuguese accents, and we like it year-round, though it takes on special flavor during the long evenings of summer.

Grilled Rack of Pork Ribs

Costeletas de Porco Assado

Makes enough for 2 with leftovers

1 rack of pork short ribs, 1 to 1.5 kg

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

1 tablespoon honey

Juice and zest of 1-2 limes for 2 tablespoons of juice

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons ketchup

2 teaspoons ancho chile pepper or smoked paprika (pimenta fumada)

1 teaspoon sweet paprika (pimenta doce)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon onion flakes (or 2 tablespoons minced white onion)

2 teaspoons garlic powder (or 2 minced fresh cloves garlic)

1 teaspoon black pepper

Salt to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 140 degrees C (280 degrees F).
  2. Place rack of ribs on a plate, and bring to room temperature.
  3. Make marinade: In a medium bowl, stir together all remaining ingredients to blend fully.
  4. Brush marinade on both sides of rib rack.
  5. Place rib rack on broiler pan, and cover with aluminum foil to seal well.
  6. Place in the oven for about 2 hours.
  7. When the ribs have about 25 minutes left, prepare charcoal grill, or preheat gas grill per instructions for a medium hot fire.
  8. Place precooked ribs on grill, turning after 5-8 minutes, depending on the amount of crust you like. Longer means a more blackened sear!
  9. Heat the remaining marinade to a low boil to finish, and serve on the side as a sauce. Suggested accompaniment: grilled potatoes and a green salad.