By Hannah McKenzie
Hannah joined US Servas in 2022 and lives in Chicago
I began my SYLE experience in São Paulo, Brazil, and then moved on to meet my hosts in Rio de Janeiro (where I am now based). SYLE is the Servas Youth Language Experience in which youth ages 18-30 are able to spend a month in the country of your choice immersed in the local language and culture. I completed a four-week intensive course in Brazilian Portuguese at a language school located just beside the famous Ipanema Beach. My experience with SYLE was perhaps a bit unusual, as it was not a stand-alone month of travel but rather the beginning of a longer chapter I will have here in Brazil.
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When I arrived in São Paulo, I was welcomed graciously by Servas member Elaine. She is a Portuguese literature teacher, and we had fascinating conversations about politics, Brazilian culture, and the deeper layers of her own language. I remember her talking about the profound nature of the difference between the verbs estar (to be, temporarily) and ser (to be, permanently); I thought about my intentions for my time in Brazil, how I want to create a life here in which I can say not only that “estou feliz” (estar) –enjoying Rio’s beauty, finding my comforts here—but also that “sou feliz” (ser), that I have put in the energy necessary in search of my deeper satisfaction, connection, and inspiration.
Elaine made me feel so comfortable in her home; her warm and curious spirit is something special. I enjoyed sitting and chatting in her living room, which at the time was covered with beautiful paper stars and rockets from the animation she was working on. During a big storm on my second night in the city, we ate the Brazilian fruit jabuticaba, a sweet grape-shaped fruit that grows straight on tree trunks.
After I visited São Paulo, I moved on to Rio and met several other Servas hosts, both the few I lived with and others who I met just as day hosts. I was welcomed by Salvador and Zula, and their sons Alvaro and Alexandre. They introduced me to crepioca, a breakfast crepe made from eggs, milk, and tapioca (a starch made from cassava root). I loved seeing Zula’s beautiful embroidery art and am grateful to the whole family for their patience with my Portuguese. I have been learning the language much more quickly thanks to the generosity of people like them.
Deolinda also hosted me for some time in Rio. The walls of her home are covered with her vibrant art, paintings full of life and color just as she is. Deo is a precious person; she moves through the world with total energy and inspiration. She is quick to laugh and has a kind heart, and I consider her a dear friend of mine in Rio. She has been kind to share many language tips with me too, having worked for many years as a Portuguese teacher for foreigners in Rio. I have gotten to know her extended family, as she has continued to include me in her family events—including Christmas celebrations—even after I’ve moved out. I have been very grateful for this kind of inclusion, like being invited to Andre (another Servas host)’s birthday party. In this way, SYLE has already provided me something special beyond the month-long program itself.
Not only has the program provided me with a structure for language immersion that has helped me a great deal with learning Portuguese, but this experience has introduced me to a wonderful community and support network.
I have met other young Servas travelers passing through Rio, and now sincerely feel that I am part of this larger community of of cultural sharing and understanding. I am so grateful to all my wonderful Servas hosts who have made me feel so welcome in Brazil. I am endlessly appreciative of Dennis Mogerman for the scholarship, which enabled me to have this immersive language experience and begin my new chapter in Brazil with such warmth and support.