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  • Writer's pictureAna Carolina Ribeiro

The people in our brains

The tulips were particularly cheerful that almost-spring day in Braga. Photo I took right before going to the station - no AI here!

It had been a long day, with a Catalan class, travelling to Braga and meeting my accountant to plan my upcoming move. Now it was time to head back to Aveiro. I had booked a seat on the so-called high-speed train, the Alfa-Pendular, which always makes me feel queasy, but that was the only option that made sense timewise (don’t get me started on Portuguese trains and their schedules...).

Over the months, I’ve developed a technique to deal with my motion sickness on those tilting trains: a big bottle of water drunk in sips, earbuds playing power metal louder than the guidelines for safe hearing would advise, and eyes sharply focused on my phone. In other words, to avoid feeling sick on that ride, I have to act like a teenager.

That evening, I was all set for doing just that, except I had buried my earbuds deep in my rucksack and wasn’t about to go looking for them as the train set off. Some obnoxious old Portuguese men had decided the entire carriage had to hear their dull and irrelevant conversation, but that was not what distracted me from the silly videogame I had on my phone. It was the old-ish lady on the train seat in front of mine.

She too was talking non-stop to someone on the phone. I’m a translator, therefore I’m curious, and I just couldn’t place the language. I heard bits that sounded like Portuguese, some that could have been French, and I could have sworn I heard a Catalan “això”, although that was probably just my imagination. The rhythm sounded Middle Eastern at times. I racked my brains, but I couldn’t figure out.

But when the rude ticket collector informed us we’d have to switch trains due to an unexplained fault, my fellow traveller looked at me with a puzzled face. I explained to her (in Portuguese, as I had seen her speak to Mr. Grumpy in that language) that I didn’t think we we’d be late, and she started chatting with me.  The second I had the slightest opening, I asked her: “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help overhearing you… which language were you speaking on the phone? I don’t know that one!”

She then opened the biggest smile and proudly said that it was Swahili, “the most widely spoken language in Africa”, as she’d repeat several times during the conversation that followed. Unprompted, she told me about her life, from the point of view of the languages she spoke.

Born in Gabon, she said she spoke French and “the language of my village, as my grandma taught me”.  The train was rocking back and forth, so I didn’t dare talk much. But that didn’t stop my chatty train mate, who explained that she also spoke Swahili, “because it’s the language of Africa – everyone speaks it”. She was ever so proud of knowing how to write it, too. From my very privileged viewpoint, it took me a second to realise why that would be the case.

This whole conversation happened in Portuguese, mine very Brazilian and hers European, with just the tiniest hint of a foreign accent. Still fighting the queasiness brought on by the Alfa train, I managed to ask her if she had been living here for a long time. “Only five years”, she said. “But Portuguese is not difficult, Swahili is much harder”.

As we switched trains (for a few moments, I probably didn’t look quite so green), she asked what I did for a living. I told her I translated from English and Spanish into Brazilian Portuguese. Then she wondered if I spoke any other languages, to which I replied that I also spoke French and some Catalan. She seemed delighted, although I didn’t understand why.

The rowdy old Portuguese men resumed their noisy chatter, and my train mate told me that they sounded like some people that live in her village in Portugal who, according to her, only spoke their language and therefore had only one way of seeing the world. She then pointed to her head with pride, saying: “I speak four languages. That’s four people in here! That’s four times more intelligence, you see, four worlds!”.

The return of my motion sickness couldn’t stop me from beaming at that line. She did, too, before excusing herself to answer another phone call.

A month later, as I left the classroom of my B1 Catalan exam, I remembered that lady and her words. And I felt privileged and proud to be creating a fifth world in my head, aquesta vegada en català.

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Mar 29

What a beautiful article.


Allison Wright
Allison Wright
Mar 29

What a lovely story! Congratulations on entering the fifth dimension, and another world of discovery.

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