A voice, a language, a trip
One day, some months before turning sixty, I woke up with a voice in my head. The voice spoke clearly: It’s time to learn a new language and go on a trip. A long trip. Alone.
Twenty-seven years earlier I had learned Japanese and gone to live in Japan, where my knowledge of the language made all kinds of wonderful things happen: deep friendships with Japanese women, a romance with a Japanese doctor, and a travel memoir that won a national award.
I just had to replicate the experience at least one more time before I died (minus the romance: I’m happily married now). My husband would have to understand.
Oh wait, I was turning sixty. My brain was firmly lodged in the “Where did I put my keys?” zone. Could I still learn a new language? Live in a new culture? And which culture?
Brazil had always loomed large in my mind, a great hulking mass that begged to be explored. Brazil it would be, then. I would spend the better part of a year studying Brazilian Portuguese, then live in the country for five months.
Before hitting the language books, I took a battery of memory tests at Toronto Memory Program, just to see how the ol’ brain cells were doing. Truth be told, I expected the testing to be a breeze. I had been to Harvard, after all. And then I got the test results: smack-dab in the average zone. Talk about being taken down a peg or three.
Well, I wasn’t going to let my sputtering synapses stop me. I hopped online and completed the Duolingo program in Brazilian Portuguese. Next, I began meeting up with Brazilians living in Toronto (thanks, FaceBook) for conversation exchange, while Brazilian soap operas (thanks, YouTube) helped boost my comprehension.
Within a few months of study, I began to notice something curious: while I was still forgetting where I put my keys (or the medical term for vomiting or my former piano teacher’s name), a few seconds of concentration would bring the locations and words back to me. There was no doubt in my mind: learning a new language was improving my memory.
I’ve now been in Brazil for a month. After spending three days in São Paulo I landed in a charmed island city called Florianopolis, which boasts 42 gracefully curved beaches, sand dunes, fresh- and salt-water lagoons, pokey restaurants serving the morning’s catch, and fishing villages dating back to colonial days. Some days I have to pinch myself.
This is not like Germany or Holland: your average Brazilian does not speak English, which means I’ve had to step up my game. At the end of each day my brain cells are crying, but there’s nothing like total immersion to get you up to speed.
I’ve had some lonely days, but I’ve also made several new friends. I’ve danced along with Samba bands, tasted impossibly juicy Brazilian fruits like cupuaçu and maracujá, and landed a part-time job teaching English. I’ve dressed in white on New Year’s Eve and run into the ocean—a tradition in Brazil—where the surf-grade waves knocked me off my feet. Oh yes, and celebrated my 61st birthday.
Every day is confirming what I’ve long suspected: to stay young at heart, not to mention “young at brain,” we get more bang by learning and doing new things than by injecting botulinum toxin into our foreheads or buying that blood-red sports car.
Above all, I’m learning that adventure has no expiry date.
Gabrielle Bauer is a Toronto Memory Program writer specializing in health and medicine.