Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Portugal Part V - Azulejos

At the job site I had a new assignment; Lili and I were teamed up to tile the bathroom. I was excited to learn something new, and that I would be doing something at the job site that was related to an aspect of Braga that captivated me in my off hours. Tile covered the sides of buildings everywhere; some was hand-painted, some was cracked and deteriorating, all of it was gorgeous. I wandered the streets with my camera taking pictures of it, I probably took more pictures of tile than of anything else.

Luis, one of the Portuguese workers, showed us how to spread the cement onto the back of a tile with a trowel, press it onto the wall, insert small plastic pieces that looked like mathematical plus signs into the spaces between tiles to create an even gap that would be filled later with grout, and gently pound it onto the wall with a mallet. Luis checked our work regularly, this job required more communication than cementing the walls. We spoke to him in English and he responded in Portuguese, and when necessary the Habitat Portugal staff would translate for us. Luis had seemed so gruff to me the first day on the job site, but not nearly as much as the foreman, who looked so much like the mustachioed character from the Mario Brothers video games that we'd all taken to calling him "Mario", even though his name was Manuel. He didn't seem to mind, and in turn used the name "Maria" for every female Habitat volunteer that came through. Irène explained that Maria was a very common name for Portuguese women, so common that women named Maria often went by their middle names to differentiate themselves. In fact, Irène's first name was Maria. Mario was using a shorthand - since he didn't know our names, he was using the one name he was pretty sure covered us all.

Luis and Mario were very different in stature; where Mario was diminutive, Luis was imposing, and where Mario wore facial hair Luis was clean shaven. One word I'd picked up from them was mais (pronounced maish) - more. No matter how thickly I cemented the walls, they always needed mais. Invariably, I learned the word for cement too - massa. Mais massa, mais massa, I heard it fifteen times a day. Working on the more specialized job of tiling the bathroom I realized that Luis wasn't gruff at all, it was just hard to communicate more than the basics with his English speaking volunteers. When I pointed to some pipes that were sticking out of the wall, and asked how I should go about tiling that particular section, he mimed tiling over the pipes, then crossed his arms, smiled, and waited for me to get the joke. He'd become playful around Lili and me, and the three of us relaxed in each other's presence. He made fun of our language ticks - "um, um" he parroted Lili, bumping his shoulder into hers. "He's messing with me!" Lili howled. My tick, apparently, was "okie dokie." I was mildly embarrassed at the Midwestern-ness of it, but I suppose it could have been worse. He began using English phrases around us, chief among them was "oh mai god", which meant anything from good job to what the heck are we going to do about that?, depending on the inflection used. My favorite was "penzil please", which he seemed quite proud of.

I began to understand a few words of his Portuguese, mostly from context, and sometimes because it sounded similar to French, but once in a while it felt like some kind of Vulcan mind-meld. Being immersed in the language was forcing my brain to start delineating the sounds that came out of his mouth and entered my ear canal into discrete words, the way it must be for infants. When it turned out that the ceiling sloped towards the front of the room, and we had to figure out how to match up the tile, Luis looked at me and said "shprimenta", which I understood immediately as "experiment," and "papel" was close enough to "paper" for me to figure out. I learned how to say "tile" too, but only because I asked Irène how to say it - azulejo.

Lili and I worked in that room for two days, tiling first one wall and then the next. When we packed up at the end of the last day it was completely tiled. The house wasn't finished, and another group was coming in a few weeks time to continue working on it, but we'd made measurable progress. The last day that our group was there, the family who would someday live in the house walked through it in wonder. Their youngest daughter filmed us at work, and interviewed us, asking questions that were translated through Habitat Portugal staffers. She interviewed me as I stood on a ladder wearing a hardhat with the name "Vladimir" written on a piece of masking tape across the front. She asked me if I'd ever done anything like this, and if I had learned anything, then held a microphone out to me in her eight year-old hand. I told her that I'd learned new skills, and that the experience had increased my self-confidence in my ability to do things. Then she filmed Lili and me as we lay one of the final tiles in the room.

After we packed up, Luis and Irène drove the team back to our hotel in their cars. I sat in the passenger side seat of Luis' van as he drove down the hill, Justin Timberlake's "bye by bye" playing no the radio. When he let us out by our hotel he kissed all the women on both cheeks, shook the hands of the men, and on the count of three we yelled "mais massa" to him as he drove off.


j.cro said...

I wish I could adequately communicate through words the smile on my face the overall good feeling I have from reading this part of your story.

It's good to see you back at the blog. I've been checking in every few days just to make sure I'm not missing anything.

JP said...

Thanks, it's good to be back at the blog, I kind of lost my groove there for a while but hope to make it a regular thing again.