Mistaken Cultural Identity


I found out later that she was 75 years old and traveling alone for the day.

“Você fala português?” she asked, picking me out of the crowd looking directly in my surprised eyes. Hoping so.

“No,” I said out loud with an apologetic smile and a shake of my head, glad that I understood her and stunned that she asked. Proud, too, in a very strange and unexpected way. She thinks I’m Brazilian, I smiled.

We were in Bruges, and she was a part of the tour group I was on that had taken a 4.5 hour bus ride from Paris to spend the day in Belgium’s very own fairytale-land.

“She doesn’t feel well,” said the small lady in the tortoise-rimmed glasses and colorful head wrap standing next to her.

“I don’t feel well,” she said in English to no one in particular as we all stood huddled together in the wind and rain waiting for our guide to appear for the walk back through the maze of Bruges to get us back to the motor coach for the long ride home. We had spent the day exploring on our own. “I can’t walk that far. I need a taxi,” she said.

I will help you, I thought and said out loud at the same time. “Uno momento. Attendez,” I rattled off in Spanish and French, unclear why, since she was speaking English.

“Obrigada,” she said as I gently placed my favorite shawl around her shoulders to keep her small body warm; the one my friend brought back for me from Cairo years ago. The friend that is sick with cancer and can barely sit up right now, I thought fleetingly.

She thought I was Brazilian, I kept thinking for absolutely no sane reason, wanting to tell her that I went to Bahia, but feeling shy considering the circumstances. And she reminds me of som… she reminds me of my grandmother!, I figured out in an instant as my eyes welled up with tears. Again, for no reason. Why am I crying? I wondered as I stepped away from the group to get myself together.

I keep thinking about her. That little Brazilian lady with the pink lipstick and headscarf to keep her hair from getting wet.

And I keep thinking about my grandmother. Her name was Ivy.

Something about these two is very similar.

And they are both fine.

My Brazilian lady friend (we got her a taxi) and my grandmother (who is no longer with us, but was clearly with me in Bruges) are both just fine.

And it was a beautiful day.

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