Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

In the Pursuit of Words in Rio

TOURIST360.COM Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro

Cafune. I learned this word in a translation class when I was 17. That day’s lesson was on idioms and phrases that have no exact English equivalents. We learned age-otori, the Japanese way of saying that someone got a haircut that made them look worse than they did before. We learned pena ajena, the Spanish expression for the secondhand shame you feel upon witnessing someone else’s humiliation. But, for some reason, the word that really stuck with me that day was cafune. It’s the Portuguese word for the act of running your fingers through someone’s hair, simultaneously implying affection and tenderness.

This simple act is something that I have seen done, have done to others and experienced others doing to me. However, in all that exposure to the noun itself, I had never even considered that someone somewhere might have come up with a single word to describe it, making a common occurrence into a concrete concept through the targeted use of language. It’s not that cafune doesn’t exist in places where Portuguese is not spoken. On the contrary, comforting a loved one through physical contact is a basic human instinct, a universal response. Yet, ever since that class two years ago, I’ve been able to express it in a whole new way.

I grew up in Silicon Valley — a diverse place where I was constantly exposed to a stream of different cultures, people, dishes and words. Many of my classmates spoke one language at school and another at home, something that I always observed with slight awe and a bit of jealousy. It seemed that these secret words, which meant nothing to me, allowed my friends a kind of special access to another version of themselves.

While I did not grow up in a bilingual household, my parents have always considered travel and understanding different ways of life to be very important, so my sisters and I began visiting foreign countries at a very young age. In total, I have been fortunate enough to visit 14 countries on four different continents, and I know without a doubt that traveling and language are my two great loves.

My big summer plans, a six-week study abroad program in Rio de Janeiro, are a product of this love — and a chance to improve my Portuguese. English is my first language and my Spanish is close to fluency, but my Portuguese still has a long way to go.

All eyes will be on Brazil this summer as its most popular tourist city transforms into the host for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The South American spot, known for its beautiful beaches and iconic landscape, will be awash with both enthusiastic soccer fans and political protesters as the country continues to struggle with tension arising from extreme income inequality. It’s an exciting time to be in Rio, and a time that I know will have a large impact on many individual people and international affairs.

After months of anxiety over deadlines for scholarships and applications and a recent panic attack induced by the discovery that I had lost my passport, the trip is finally starting to seem like an exciting reality. Yet, while I may have my plane tickets and my typhoid vaccine, I feel anything but prepared for this adventure. After two semesters of Portuguese, I’m still not confident in my ability to communicate effectively without the use of a translation app and some desperate gesturing.

However, there is no better way to learn a language than by living it, by immersing oneself in the culture, society and landscape of the region where the language is spoken. So, that’s what I intend to do. For those fast-approaching six weeks, I will be a carioca, a native of Rio de Janeiro. I’m going to interact with locals, try different food and see the sights, with the mindset of getting all that I can out of every experience. I want to find a new version of myself in a cidade maravilhosa, the “Marvelous City.”

But above all, I want to find new words — words to express things that I already know and words to convey everything that I will learn. It seems to me that Rio de Janeiro will be a fantastic place to start looking.

Allison Hillsbery is a rising sophomore in the McDonough School of Business. Ready for Rio appears every other Monday at

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