Sleep and Caffeine Make the World Go Round


Welcoming committee from when I first arrived.
Welcoming committee from when I first arrived.

It’s been less than a week and yet it feels like I’ve been here forever.

On Tuesday I was supposed to have my first day of Portuguese school, but the class was canceled, unbeknownst to me and Virna. Portuguese school takes place at the public school and is free. But Virna and I showed up and were told that the class had been canceled. The teacher who told us invited me to her English class, and I said yes, since I was thinking of Abi and her thing was to always say yes. The class was for basically anybody who wanted to learn English.

As far as I could tell, people in that class ranged from eighteen to forty years of age. They were doing presentations on their life. I sat through several presentations of terrible English. All I really wanted to do was leave since I had no idea who any of these people were and was waaaay outside of my comfort zone. I was asked several times if I had a boyfriend or wanted a boyfriend. I said no to the first and shrugged uncomfortably to the second. Finally the class was over, but Virna wouldn’t be coming to pick me up for another thirty minutes. The teacher showed me into an office where I watched about half of a super dramatic soap opera. I have no idea what they were saying in it, but I do know that some girl liked this guy and they all live in a super fancy house and these two girls were fighting and it was really insulting to the other if they pulled all of the covers off a bed. Yup.

After my host mom came to get me, we went to buy the tee shirt that is my uniform for Portuguese class. It is simply a polo shirt with the school logo. I’ll take a picture of it eventually.

Then, on Wednesday, was my first day of school! I was super nervous because all I was imagining were basically horror stories. When I was in eighth grade and lived in Mexico for the year, my whole class laughed at me on the first day of school because a kid pulled a joke on me since I didn’t speak Spanish. I also arrived an hour late since I was in the wrong time zone. I also have heard stories from other exchange students about their terrible first days of school. People would say that they would come home and cry and cry and cry. Needless to say, I was braced for the worst. It could not have been more of the opposite.

Another view of Natal.
Another view of Natal.

Since I had already been introduced to my class the day before, everyone already knew who I was and invited me to sit next to them. I was kind of an instant celebrity. They all love love love the United States even if they have never been and would tell me all about it. They watch American TV shows and listen to American music. A lot of them speak decent English and nearly fell over in gratitude when I told them that they were great at English. Of course, some of them couldn’t speak a word of English.

A quick note here: Due to my Spanish, I understand A TON of Portuguese, especially if it is spoken slowly. But when I open my mouth Spanish tends to fall out, and people give me strange looks and tell me to speak in English.

Okay, so back to school. Many of my classmates don’t speak English, and then they talk to each other really quickly and have a conversation (in Portuguese) that tends to go along these lines:

STUDENT: Does she speak Portuguese? Where is she from?

OTHER STUDENT: No. She speaks English. She’s from the United States.

FIRST STUDENT: Do you speak English?

OTHER STUDENT: A little, but not very well.

FIRST STUDENT: Ask her what her name is!

OTHER STUDENT: No, you ask!

And at this point, all I want to say is, “I understand everything you are saying, except I don’t know how to tell you that in Portuguese. So I’m going to sit here and pretend like I have no idea what’s going on.”

Hey guys, guess what? Meu nome e Claire.

I’ve listened to that conversation maybe fifteen times, so I really really really can understand it in Portuguese.

I feel like my class is so welcoming and kind. They want to know everything about me. I think America could learn a thing or two about Brazilian hospitality. Being the new kid at an American high school is nerve wracking and terrible because you are never sure if anyone is going to say hi to you. I remember this from my freshmen year. And, of course, it’s over dramatized in American movies and TV. But here I have so many people trying to get my attention and asking me to sit next to them.

The break/lunch hour is at eleven, and then you can go and buy food or eat what you have brought. Virna gave me money to buy food. Because I am in the school with most of the other exchange students, they showed me the ropes and told me how to order. Basically, you tell the cashier what you want and pay, and they give you a receipt. You take the receipt to a different person who gives you what you ordered. This is the only fun part about school since you can actually talk to people and make friends.

I have quickly found out that the exchange students at my school are not expected to do classwork or homework or take tests or quizzes. We are to concentrate all of our energy on learning Portuguese. This makes class sooooooooo boring. We all bring books or journals or are on our phones and nobody says ANYTHING since we are just those people who aren’t actually here for a grade. And even if we wanted to do the work, so far all of the teachers have simply lectured and I can’t follow what they are saying and take notes and pretend like I’m a part of the class. So I’ve doodled and journaled and read the single book that I brought. Also, since I am not the only exchange student in my class, I am not quite as popular as I’ve heard other exchange students in Brazil are. But they are like kings and queens because they are usually the only exchange student in their school. I’m okay with this because I like seeing my exchange buddies every day. Sadly, Pierre and Veera do not go to my school, but I will see them a lot anyways!

This is a rough schedule of my day:

Wake up at 6 and eat breakfast. School is from 7:30 to 1:15. Come home and eat lunch with Virna. Take a nap (i.e. pass out from exhaustion and culture shock. I swear Virna thinks that the only thing I do is sleep. I tried to tell her that I’m simply tired because everything is new and different and therefore exhausting, but she told me maybe next semester I can go to classes later. When I get better at Portuguese I’ll try to explain again.) Do whatever activity Virna has planned for the night. Pass out for bed. Repeat.

Yesterday, I finally had Portuguese class. It was kind of a cultural experience more than anything else. We learned about vowels, which was good, because it helps to have some basis of how to pronounce things, but the teacher also put on music and danced samba and lectured us that they don’t really move their upper body. She also taught what the word for nickname was. I had fun just because it was so different than what I was expecting, and I met a lot of new people. Other than the exchange students in Rotary, there were some exchange students from a different program. Two Italians, a Spanish girl, a girl from Thailand, another girl from Germany, another guy from Belgium, and a girl from Turkey. They were just loud and happy and I had fun.

Dona Fatima cooking.
Dona Fatima cooking.

Here’s something interesting. Virna has a person named Dona Fatima (unsure of spelling here) come around three times a week. She cleans and makes breakfast and lunch and does the laundry and probably more that I am unsure of. This is pretty cool, but I’m totally unsure of the relationship with the two people here. Dona Fatima has a daughter named Eduarda who is currently in Finland with Rotary. She is Virna’s god daughter and stays with her during the week. Soooo I totally don’t understand at all the relationship. I’ll ask at some point.

When Dona Fatima isn’t cooking, Virna takes me to various restaurants. They follow the same pattern of the restaurant I described earlier; you get a card and they weigh your food (I even think you pay for the weight of the plate, but food is so cheap it doesn’t matter) and you pay for everything at the end. Virna hasn’t cooked at all so far. Sometimes we have leftovers. I’m not sure if this is a regular thing or if it’s just for now while I’m still settling in.


I guess the only other thing to report is that I am pretty scared of Virna’s dog. She has two dogs, a Chihuahua and a poodle. The poodle is really old and is blind and literally has to be dragged around everywhere. He actually makes me pretty depressed since I think in America we would have put him down by now. Poor thing. I’m not sure how to spell his name but it sounds like Cafoo. Now, Zeca is the Chihuahua. Sometimes he is really really nice and you can pet him and hold him, but a few days ago he just went wild and bit my foot. It didn’t break the skin or anything but it scared me and I put antibiotic cream on it just in case. Apparently he thinks that he needs to protect Virna from me. So now I am really careful when I am around him because I am never sure what mood he’s going to be in. Also, when Virna’s boyfriend Leonardo comes around, he’s really mean to Virna because Leonardo is now the person to be protected.

My dog bites a few days later.
My dog bite a few days later.



Someone asked me about the pronunciation of Natal.

Na: It’s like “Nah, I’m not hungry.” Or “Not” without the “t”.

Tal: “Tall.” As in not short.

TAL THE NATIVE WAY: “Tow” except “ow” as in my foot hurts.


I was informed today that skin cancer is more prevalent in Natal than any other place in the world because of an atmospheric phenomenon that makes it closer to space (or something?) so there are more sun rays that hit this part of the world than anywhere else. I will be googling this ASAP as well as purchasing sunscreen and a hat tomorrow.


I go to a private school that Virna pays for, not Rotary. I asked her about this but she didn’t seem to think anything of it. She told me that the public school is really really good but there are drugs and things there so Rotary doesn’t want the exchange students to go to that school. I’m still a little bit confused about the whole thing, as are my fellow exchange students.


Virna drinks coffee at every single meal, and then some. The coffee here is really strong and they only drink small cups of it. I had a cup and was buzzed on caffeine for like three hours after and that hasn’t happened to me in a long time ever since I started drinking coffee more regularly. I just thought I would comment.


Thoughts on race: Last year I took Socratic Seminar and one of my assignments was to write a twenty page research paper. I wanted to do something about Brazil, so I researched race relations and Brazil. It was super interesting, and the short story is that Brazil likes to pretend that racism is not a big deal, when in fact it is very prevalent. The government never officially discriminated against blacks, and because of this, Afro-Brazilians never formed a cohesive alliance to create social change like Martin Luther King Jr. did. If you take a survey on a Brazilian street and interview fifty different people who look exactly the same (to you) they will all (most likely) give you different names for what race they are. Personally, I think that this in particular is fascinating. Anyways, I think (based on my extremely limited knowledge of Natal) that I am in a city that has mostly lighter skin. I wouldn’t call them white, but they aren’t black. Today, the philosophy teacher was black, and the first thing someone said to me, and this was a guy who had never spoken in English to me before since he was too shy, was that the teacher is black. I wasn’t able to ask if that made the teacher inferior, but I got the feeling that that’s what he meant. And then when I got home from school today, Virna’s boyfriend told me that Brazil is not like the United States because they don’t have as many issues with racism as the United States does. Just some food for thought.


I knew this already, but saying thank you can go a thousand miles. I’ve noticed that Brazilians don’t seem to thank their wait staff, etc. and I have been since you should always say thank you and they seem super surprised and grateful.


Traffic. I can’t even describe it it’s so crazy. Virna consistently drives in the direct middle of two lanes. Motorcycles weave in and out. Everyone seems to follow a pattern of chaos that they all know. Yet I haven’t seen people crashing into each other right and left.


They never have spicy food. They don’t like it. I like the food, but I’m kind of dying that it isn’t spicy at all. I miss my spicy food. I have a tiny bottle of tajin that I brought but I’m saving it for a special occasion.


Virna bought me five different kinds of mangoes to try. They smell so good! I’m going to start on them tomorrow. I love mangoes and I’m so excited about this!


Living the farm life with Virna
Living the farm life with Virna

Two parrots live in the apartment downstairs and are constantly making parrot sounds. It’s pretty cool.


I have yet to see a can of Diet Coke here, or even Pepsi, but Coke Zero is quite prevalent. In my opinion Coke Zero is better than Diet Coke so I’m completely fine with this.


Well, thanks for reading my essay! I’ll update again at some point!

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Thanks again, Claire, for the well written and very newsy report. You have a flair for observing and then recording those observations in very clear way.

    I wonder if the UV rays are more extreme because you are over the hole in the ozone layer. I thought that problem was was down in Patagonia, but maybe not. 50SPF might help.


  2. Good to hear how things are going Claire! I enjoyed reading this.

    If you’re bored in class you should try doing some of the work, taking quizzes, etc. There’s no pressure to perform because your grades don’t matter, but that might be good. It will give you something to do and help you learn Portuguese by engaging more with the class. You could probably learn some cool vocabulary that is pertinent to the subjects you and your classmates are studying.

  3. HI Claire, we love these reports! You have a knack for taking us there and helping us really understand your experience. I love how thoughtful you are about issues like race — what a fascinating difference from the way things are here and what a cool opportunity to get to observe. And, of course, your sense of humor is awesome! Think of understanding their conversations as a superpower they don’t know you have. 🙂

    Thanks again for keeping us in touch!

    PS – Waffle is mad at Zeca for biting you and will send instruction on being a good dog.

  4. Hope you found sunscreen and a hat! That was a funny sentence. Keep up the good reports and writing. Love ’em! Love you! Hate Zeca. (Try cheese to bribe him, then maybe he’ll like you the best and bite Virna.)

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