So, You're Going to Lisbon…Communication and Coffee

Dear Deri,

Before my children learned to speak their mother tongue, they used sign language to communicate with others. Their vocabulary was limited to: please, thank you, more, and I’m sorry.  If those four words become the limits of our vocabulary, will that be enough?  Well, those 4 words and the word for coffee. Coffee is a given, right? Oh, and wine, and beer. Shoot, I think I just answered my own question.  I will need to get a Portuguese dictionary of libations and other useful phrases.

Dear Joey,

I personally did not have the time to brush up on any Portuguese before leaving, which is sad, because my sister is married to a Brazilian and speaks fluent Portuguese now, so I could have at least asked for some pointers even if the dialect is different. I was very nervous about it, but I needn’t have been. Some Disquiet students were rather impressive with how much they taught themselves and did a pretty good job of communicating through trial and error and their little English to Portuguese handbooks. However, while a fun exercise this is not necessary. The great thing about Lisbon, especially in the area you will be in, is that almost everyone local speaks enough English to facilitate easy communication. Actually, I noticed many shop owners and wait staff spoke several languages, due to the high number of European tourists that flock to that area. They also seem to have a talent for figuring out where you are from before even tell them. They can spot Americans a mile away. (My first night there I was looking for food and a man said “Oh, American.” and directed me to a McDonald’s. Sigh.)

That being said, knowing the basics is helpful. Sim and não (yes and no), and faz favor (please) are easy enough. Fala inglês?  (Do you speak English) is a good one to memorize, of course. The Portuguese word I used the most was obrigada, the feminine form of thank you. I used it so much I found myself still saying it to people when I got home. (Obrigado is the masculine form, and the distinction is determined by the speaker, not who it’s being said to. I think I messed this up a lot but no one flogged me for it, so there’s that.) Bom dia/tarde/noite (good morning, afternoon, evening) aren’t really necessary phrases but go a long way in endearing  yourself to the locals, because at least you are trying.

And of course, do NOT attempt to use any Spanish you know as a substitute. Big no-no. I actually shied away from attempting to speak much Portuguese because I was afraid I would slip into Spanish, and also I had a hard time with the pronunciation of things because it is so much different than Spanish, and the last thing I wanted to do was offend anyone.

Bear in mind, all of this is irrelevant if you have mastered the universal language  of pointing and grunting. There’s always a way to get your point across.


Oh coffee. Where to begin? The Portuguese, like most Europeans, take the their coffee seriously and there is about a million ways to drink it, at least it seemed that way to me. If you just ask for coffee (um café), you will get a tiny espresso that is apparently not intended for sitting and sipping. I noticed most people would order it and then stay at the counter, gulping it down in a few sips. For the drink most of us are familiar with here, you can ask for a café Americano, but honestly, it’s not very good. It’s not their forte. The drink I found myself, and most of the other students, gravitating to was um galão.  This is served in a tall glass with shot of strong espresso and the rest filled with hot milk. With a little sugar it is quite tasty and a bit addicting. By the end I found most of my food intake was galãoand gelato and various local pastries. (Totally unrelated, all my clothes apparently shrank on the plane ride home…)


Alcohol is pretty straightforward. Most places have an impressive wine list that will not seem too unfamiliar. If you are a beer drinker of discriminating tastes, you may be out of luck. I’m not much into beer so I wasn’t horribly disappointed, but when I do drink it, I go for high quality stuff. The national beer is something called Super Bock, Portugal’s answer to Bud Light. It’s everywhere, and I mean everywhere, and at some places that was the only offering. It’s not great, but it’s cheap, usually only a Euro.  


Ginja  is something you must try at least once. It’s a cherry flavored liquor that packs quite a punch and there is nothing more essentially Lisbon. A shot is also only about one Euro, but it goes a long way. After my first shot, I walked home quite please with life in general. Probably also helped with my Portuguese. 

Published on May 05, 2016