All or nothing: The Portuguese taught me well

As exchange student says farewell to her host family, she leaves with a few life lessons

Posted: Friday, July 04, 2008

If there is anything I have learned in the past six months, it is that Portuguese people don't do anything halfway.

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Courtesy Of Brandon Cole
Courtesy Of Brandon Cole

When they eat, they make it a four-course meal. Trays are piled high with potatoes and roasted piglet, followed by more desserts then you would find in the pastry section of Costco.

When they are late, they are hours late. They waltz in like it's the most normal thing in the world, showing up at 10 a.m., when class starts at 8 a.m., or missing the entire first act of the show.

When Portuguese people want to get a point across, they yell in your face. When they study, they study relentlessly, copying textbooks down in perfect lettering, painstakingly page by page.

And let me tell you, when Portuguese people party, they pull out all they stops. They throw parties resembling the Fourth of July and write it off as a mere Sunday brunch.

I was lucky to have a classic Portuguese host family, especially in the sense that they weren't going to make me part of the family halfway. My host father made that clear the minute I put down my bags in their posh little apartment.

He turned to me, gave me an enthusiastic smile and said with conviction in his very broken English "You like your new damn house?!" I did of course, like my new damn house, and as nervous and out of place as I felt, it was comforting to have someone around who was quite certain I should be there.

I met the entire family, complete with wide-eyed waddling cousins and creaky great-grandmothers, and they took to me with vigor. At any family function I could count on being pulled in six directions by roly-poly toddlers, being berated for my life story by both my grandfathers, and being fattened up by my aunts. I became essential to my uncles' drinking sessions, and in return for translating labels on bottles of Scottish whiskey, they taught me how to play vicious Portuguese poker.

My little brother was my first friend. We bonded over chocolate and cartoons after school, always watching in Portuguese with English subtitles, so I could improve my vocabulary.

I had my fair share of crazy nights at the disco, dancing till breakfast, learning what its like to be a teenager in Portugal. It was fun, a life experience. However, in retrospect, the nights I spent folding socks and underwear with my sister and my mom, discussing fine wine with my dad, and helping my little brother with his English homework are the ones I will hold on to more tightly.

There is no way to repay the favor that my host family did for me, embracing me and surrounding me with their culture, placing me in the center of their family and showing me endless generosity.

This experience has been about learning to accept a foreign culture completely. About letting it totally engulf you so that you expand your perspective, while learning more about what you are independently capable of. Being stuck, clueless, in a strange country and coming to love it isn't something that happens if you are hesitant and expect others to make the effort for you. You have to go the whole way, get in over your head and learn to swim from there. I couldn't have had more appropriate role models to learn this from than the Portuguese people. I am certain that thanks to them, for the rest of my life I will never do anything halfway.

• Adrienne Bosworth, who graduated a year-and-a-half early from high school last fall, left from her exchange in Portugal on Wednesday. This month, she will travel with a friend to Jamaica, and she recently received a scholarship to attend Quest University Canada, near Vancouver, next fall. This summer, she will work at The Twisted Fish and Annie Kaill's in Juneau.



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