How Professora Nearly Ruined Christmas

This year’s Portuguese class skews relatively young. Last year, my class ranged from 3rd graders to 6th graders. This year, it’s more like 1st through 5th grade. That wider gap in age and cognitive ability, combined with the fact that half of my class is new while the other half is in their second year with me, has made for some challenges in classroom management and lesson planning.

That being said, I think I’m doing okay. I had a close call this month, though. Professora nearly ruined Christmas.

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Poetry with Professora Elizabeth: Mar Português

With the end of Portuguese school in sight and a class full of students with a decent grasp on how to work with regular verbs in the present tense, I decided to take a break from this spring’s conjugation gauntlet and instead expose them to Portuguese as it’s seen in the wild. No more textbooks; it’s time for real Portuguese words written by real Portuguese people for real Portuguese people.

Today’s the last day of Portuguese school for the year. Check out my class’s first foray in Portuguese poetry, A Cozinha da Avô. In honor of Fernando Pessoa’s birthday, today I’m sharing our class’s journey to understanding “Mar Português.”

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Poetry with Professora Elizabeth: A Cozinha da Avo

Portuguese school is coming to an end for the year. After driving my children through the gauntlet of conjugating -ar, -er, and -ir verbs (along with the lonely pôr, the only -or verb) in the present tense, I wanted to take it easy for the remaining weeks.

Then I got a text message from the preschool teacher.

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Professora Elizabeth and the Carnation Revolution

Most days, I’m happy if my Portuguese students retain enough from the one night a week I have with them to be able to speak to their grandparents. I hope that they remember how conjugation works for when they take other foreign languages. And maybe, if I’m lucky, I have a few that fall in love with the language like I did.

Yesterday was different. Yesterday, I terrified them. Then, I made them think.

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Nevoeiro

As I started Week 2 of the Darkest Timeline, I left the house and walked out into a veil of fog that silenced the usual morning noises and shrouded the usual morning sights. It felt like a fitting way to start a week in a newly unfamiliar world.

Unrepentant fangirl that I am, I had a Fernando Pessoa quote immediately leap to mind to describe how I felt. No, not my usual “Tudo vale a pena se a alma e pequena/Everything is worth (the effort) if the soul is not small.” A very different poem came to mind:

Nevoeiro
Nem rei nem lei, nem paz nem guerra,
Define com perfil e ser
Este fulgor baço da terra
Que é Portugal a entristecer —
Brilho sem luz e sem arder
Como o que o fogo-fátuo encerra.

Ninguém sabe que coisa quer.
Ninguém conhece que alma tem,
Nem o que é mal nem o que é bem.
(Que ânsia distante perto chora?)
Tudo é incerto e derradeiro.
Tudo é disperso, nada é inteiro.
Ó Portugal, hoje és nevoeiro…

Fog 
Neither king nor law, neither peace nor war
Defines the profile or self
Of this dull flame of the earth.
Portugal is saddening –
Shining without light, without burning
An extinguishing will-o’-the-wisp.

No one knows what they want.
No one knows what soul they have,
Neither what is evil nor what is good.
(What distant anxiety weeps nearby?)
Everything is uncertain and final.
Everything is dispersed, nothing is whole.
O Portugal, today you are fog.

 

This poem comes at the end of Mensagem, a collection of poems by Fernando Pessoa. Mensagem is an update of Os Lusiadas, which is Portugal’s version of The Aeneid. (The translation is mine. I did it in less than an hour, so forgive me if I sacrificed the poetry a bit to make it clearer for an English-speaking audience.)

Or, for everyone out there who isn’t a student of epic poetry as a nation building exercise, Mensagem was written as an examination of Portugal’s glorious past in the face of an uncertain future. Luis de Camoes wrote Os Lusiadas as Portugal was reaching his peak during the Age of Discovery. It was the tale of Vasco da Gama’s journey to India just as The Aeneid was about Aeneas’s journey from Troy to Rome. The Aeneid tells the story of how one man founded Rome, but Os Lusiadas tells Vasco da Gama’s story as the crowning glory of an entire people’s accomplishments. It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but at the time it was the equivalent of the moon landing. Vasco da Gama took one long voyage for a man (and his crew), but a giant leap for mankind.

Os Lusíadas was written by Camoes for King Sebastian. It was written to recount Portugal’s greatness, but also to warn the young king that it was his responsibility to maintain that legacy. Instead, Sebastian pursued madness, zealotry. He died somewhere in North Africa, his body never found, in a hopeless attempt to convert the heathen Moors. Heirless, his dynasty died with him. Portugal became part of the Spanish Habsburg empire for eighty years, beginning the long and slow decline that would define the Portuguese psyche ever since.

Fernando Pessoa wrote during a very different time. It was the Estado Novo dictatorship, and one of the regime’s favorite forms of propaganda was to hearken back the Age of Discovery. Pessoa wrote Mensagem for a contest being run by the Secretariat of National Propaganda. They loved it so much that he won in a category they had to create because Mensagem didn’t quite fit the parameters of the contest.

Here’s the thing: Mensagem isn’t a propaganda message. It’s a fucking wake up call. I left off the end of the poem: É a hora! (Portuguese. It’s the hour! or It’s time!) Valete, Frateres. (Latin: Farewell, brothers. or Live long and prosper.)

I feel like we’re living in that hour now. It’s the hour—but what hour is it? Our finest, or our last?

There’s a longing for a better past in the face of an uncertain future in Portuguese literature. Saudade. I’ve always thought it was beautiful, in part because I could never find anything like it in American literature. (Okay, mayyyybe Southern Gothic.)  America never suffered a setback that it couldn’t recover from.

Portugal’s fall was self-inflicted by a mad king. I worry that America’s will be the same.