A Language, an Island, and an Experiment in Ungraceful Aging
By Gabrielle Bauer
That’s what everyone asked me when I announced my plans, at age 60, to learn Portuguese and spend five months in Florianópolis, an island city in Southern Brazil.
And then: Won’t your husband mind? Won’t your children mind? Won’t your clients mind? Implicit in these questions was the assumption that they would mind.
I did my best to explain my need for this trip: the elephant’s paw that gripped my chest on my sixtieth birthday and responded to neither Zoloft nor a kitchen reno. My craving to immerse myself in a different culture. My desire to prove that life’s delightful and unpredictable turns didn’t end at sixty.
When you step off the beaten path, you’ll get support from some people and criticism from others. The criticism, I submit, has greater value than the support.
Not satisfied with my answers, one relative probed further: Isn’t this something people do when they’re a lot younger? I recognized it as the question behind all the other questions. It was fine to go off-script at age 20, but at 60—with a husband, with children still finishing university, with a slew of writing clients to serve—you weren’t supposed to entertain such foolishness. It was selfish.
When you step off the beaten path, you’ll get support from some people and criticism from others. The criticism, I submit, has greater value than the support. It helps you identify the weaknesses in your grand idea, which means you can fix them. It can also spur you to beat the naysayers—like the friend who sent me a study claiming that mature adults could not become fluent in a new language—at their own game. The authors of the study, published in the journal Cognition, also maintained that we oldies could also forget about mastering pronunciation, because by the time we reached middle age our tongues were set in their ways.
This was just the push I needed. My Portuguese self-study program involved more madness than method, but I had passion and stubbornness on my side. After plowing through the online Duolingo program to get the basics under my belt, I posted a solicitation for language exchange on a Facebook group for Brazilians in Toronto. Dozens of people responded. I met them in coffee shops all over town, pushing my mouth to form Portuguese sounds until the right words started coming out.
As for pronunciation, I told myself that if Meryl Streep could master all those foreign accents, surely I could handle the sing-song phonetics of Brazilian Portuguese. The ão nasalization, the contrasting R sounds, the final M that wasn’t an M… the sounds intrigued me so much that I forced my aging tongue into submission.
By the time I landed in Floripa (the local nickname for Florianópolis), four days before Christmas 2017 and three weeks before my sixty-first birthday, I could understand and speak the language—not perfectly, but well enough that a shopkeeper told me I sounded like a Brazilian who had lived away from the country for a few years. Take that, Cognition.
Some of the critical talk came from my own head. You’ll never make friends here, the demon on my shoulder whispered in my ear. Floripa is a beach town, full of young and beautiful people. Nobody will be interested in you and your varicose veins.
Everyone brimmed with curiosity about this tall Canadian woman with a wedding ring and no husband in sight.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Everyone brimmed with curiosity about this tall Canadian woman with a wedding ring and no husband in sight. One day on the bus I began chatting with a woman wearing a fringed caftan. She introduced herself as Rozeni and told me she was about to be welcomed into the Nichiren Buddhist sect. The temple—a house, really—was just a couple of bus stops away. Might I be interested in attending the ceremony with her?
Rozeni became my first Floripan friend. She lived alone in a small house with crooked floors and rusted appliances, her back yard strewn with dogs and rabbits and mango trees. Over the next few weeks, she introduced me to her other friends, most of them Buddhist. Just like that, I had a social circle.
My newfound friends cooked up a stew of experiences to cure what ailed me. I hopped on motorcycles, fell off surfboards. Let myself be blindfolded during a vegan dinner so I could focus on the texture of the foods. Attended a tense public appearance by Brazil’s ex-president Lula, just days before he was jailed. A five-year-old boy taught me to meditate.
After my month-long stay at an Airbnb came to an end, I rented a one-room apartment with turquoise walls and palm trees slapping against the window. It had a near-vertical set of stairs leading to a loft bed and no appliances except a mini-fridge. I continued to rely on Floripa’s hopelessly unreliable public transportation system to get around, but none of it mattered when my soul was being fed so lavishly.
Accept all invitations, all foods (the stranger and squishier the better), all experiences. Say yes to things.
What made all this possible was a decision I had made when I set foot in Floripa: accept all offers. It’s the mantra of improv and it works damn well as a travel motif. Accept all invitations, all foods (the stranger and squishier the better), all experiences. Say yes to things.
What about ayahuasca? Rozeni wanted me to try it. A brew of mind-altering herbs, ayahuasca also causes violent retching. Rozeni, who used it regularly and called it mother aya, told me it had turned her into a new person: less afraid, more comfortable in her skin. Would I attend a ceremony with her? Hell, yes.
I was the only non-Brazilian among the 13 participants at the all-night ceremony, which took place in a dim hostel room with floral sheets draped to the ceiling. We lined up before our shaman, a diminutive man whose dreadlocks roped down to his thighs, and took our turns drinking a goblet of the pungent brew. An hour later, pleasing geometric shapes began dancing in front of my eyes, and for a few brief moments everything seemed right with the world. We all had plastic buckets in front of us, and every once in a while someone would lean over to fazer limpeza, or “do a cleansing.” When the nausea hit me—with hardly a second of warning—there was nothing to do but lean forward.
Any insights yet? I recognized this as the albatross on my shoulder—the one who wouldn’t shut up and demanded results. The thinker, the judger, the ego. “No insights,” I answered. “Just experience. And that’s good enough. Now, do you think you can hop off your perch? I was kind of enjoying the break from you.”
Somewhere along the way—I can hardly remember when or how—Fábio dropped into my life. Four years younger than me, he called himself an anarchist (my weakness) and had a baseball cap that never came off his head. He showed me the island’s hidden trails while railing against Brazilian politics. While he pointed to azure jays in the sky and sinningia plants on the ground, I studied his profile.
Before my departure to Brazil, my husband and I had agreed that our marriage was solid enough to withstand a flirtation or two. We wouldn’t go looking for trouble, but we had each other’s permission to run with opportunities that fell in our lap. But it was not to be: Fabio found me delightful, just not in that way. It hurt more than I cared to admit.
The question we should all be asking each other is: why not? We’re not here on the planet for very long, so why not give the finger to our self-imposed limitations?
After the requisite moping period, I redoubled my efforts to meet new people, the need to leave roots in this vast and welcoming country growing stronger as my return to Toronto approached. As it happened, a couple of them did see me “that way,” the youngest just twenty-two years old. I didn’t return his interest and the age gap veered sharply into the creepy zone, but damned if my ego didn’t enjoy the boost.
More importantly, I was able to knock down a prevailing myth about age: it gets harder to make friends as you get older. Varicose veins, age spots and all, I made more friends during my five months in Brazil than I have in Toronto, where I have lived for the past 30 years. I can only assume it’s because of the energy I radiated. When we open ourselves up to the world, we become more interesting versions of ourselves, and other people want to join the party.
One thing I knew for sure: the questions everyone had thrown at me before my departure—why Brazil, why now, why alone—were way off the mark. The question we should all be asking each other is: why not? We’re not here on the planet for very long, so why not give the finger to our self-imposed limitations? Why not learn to form new sounds and fall off surfboards and meet people who will haunt us forever? Shouldn’t that be our default? Hell, yes
About the Writer
Gabrielle Bauer is a Toronto freelance writer with six national awards for her magazine journalism. She is also the author of two books. When she turns 70, she plans to learn Turkish and spend some time in Istanbul. To learn more, visit her website at https://gabriellebauer.com/
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