Everybody speaks wrong!

Where the Portuguese speakers are

As our cab inched toward Sao Paulo on my first day in Brazil what now seems like
many years ago, my friend pointed out the city’s old train station and the neighboring Portuguese language museum. He enthusiastically recommended the museum but advised me to consider waiting to go since everything is written in Portuguese. Thus it wasn’t until almost exactly three months later that I finally found myself back again on a Monday morning, emerging from the complicated underground network of Luz station and arriving in front of what felt like my ultimate test and reward for learning a new language. I snapped pictures of street signs, the Jardim da Luz across the street, the small plaque in front of the museum, everything I could think of to commemorate this most momentous of occasions. As I approached the gate, the security guard informed me that the museum is closed on Mondays.

The museum being closed wasn’t all bad (Parque-Luz)…

IMG_3942With approximately 4,000 things to do and only two days left in the country, it felt like a significant setback. Still, I doggedly headed back the next day, determined to cash in on my Portuguese language-learning efforts. As some consolation, Tuesday is free admission day, and a quick elevator ride later, I was confronted with a large, dark room, with screens wrapping around each wall. These turned out to be audio-visual presentations on Brazilian cultural themes such as football and samba. As a non-native speaker, the music and the interviews seemed disjointed and were difficult to follow so I turned my attention to a large timeline. Here, starting in 4000 BC, Brazilian Portuguese’s roots are elucidated as three separate timelines of African, European and “Amerindian” languages, which begin to merge at the beginning of the 16th century upon the arrival of Portuguese explorers and the beginning of the slave trade.

The heart of the story begins, as all good ones do, in the 3rd century BC when the Roman Empire finally subjugated the Phoenician city-state of Carthage, in what is now the Iberian Peninsula. Common or “Vulgar” Latin quickly replaced any languages previously spoken in the region, and over the centuries that followed, efforts at linguistic fraternization, first by invading Germanic tribes and later by the Moors, were continuously rebuffed. Thus it was that a brief soaking in unique nasal Celtic vowels here, a sprinkling of Germanic fighting words and Arabic agricultural terms there, that Portuguese emerged, largely unscathed, some 15 centuries later.

Portugal’s history is, of course, an interesting one, particularly in the way it explains the diversion of Portuguese and Spanish—hint: Portugal ain’t got no answer to Spain’s alhambra. But the museum knows it’s not fooling anyone; no one’s here to learn about Portugal. We came for the Brazilian Portuguese! And as the 16th century panel proudly states: “from this point on, it is no longer possible to talk about the Portuguese language without talking about Brazil.”

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They say you can’t go home again

Brazilian Santa wears havaianas of course! I didn’t learn until my last few weeks that Oscar Freire (and not Avenida Paulista) is Latin America’s true 5th avenue analogue. I think that’s probably for the better…

I wanted to write something upbeat on January 1 to usher in the new year and contemplate the many things I learned over the course of a challenging 2014. Instead, I woke up, made a feeble attempt to bid farewell to my last party-goers and spent the rest of the day musing at the irony that after a year of feeling like I had no voice, I would ring in the next in its literal absence. It was in this way that I also discovered that I had unknowingly made a tacit promise to myself to never blog when I was upset. On the other hand, it’s also possible that when I was in Sao Paulo, I viewed everything as an exciting and “novel” experience that I could blog about, allowing me to view even the most frustrating of encounters in a positive light.

I’ll admit, not having to aliquot drinking water from this monster has been nice!

Here in NC, that’s a little more difficult. Of course, it was easy to come back and re-adjust to the luxury of having my water glass constantly refilled at every bar and restaurant. It also wasn’t that exciting to once again have access to my full wardrobe—it turns out I only wear about three different outfits anyway. And I immediately took it for granted that I had a car to take out at 11pm and buy as many groceries as I wanted at the 24/7 Harris Teeter. These were the simple things, and they seamlessly integrated themselves back into my life.

Other things have been harder. I bump into someone on the street and instinctively, murmur, “ah! desculpa!” Similarly, sometimes when mentally formulating an e-mail, I get several lines in before realizing that I am writing an American and can (well, probably should) write in English. Before, I never understood it when my Brazilian friends would tell me that they missed speaking English. “How can you miss having even the simplest tasks being made more difficult?!” I would marvel. When I came home from studying abroad in Sevilla many years ago, I remember feeling as if a shroud was being removed and the sites and sounds around me were finally coming back into focus. There were certainly no feelings of saudades that time when I ordered my first meal back in English.

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It’s cookie time!

Cookie Party: USA Edition Season 14 (2014).
Well, at least Olafs excited
Well, Olaf’s excited at least

What started as a benign holiday tradition involving a few high school girl friends has now turned into more of a deranged personal obsession. For every one of the past 15 years, with the exception of the fall I lived in Spain, I’ve hosted a “Christmas” cookie making and decorating party—pretty much anything you (or a perverse college kid) can think of, I’ve seen it in cookie form. The tradition might have died peacefully in my freshman college dorm room that first December away from home, but I had already realized that in college, there are two simple means through which to make new friends: alcohol or food. Much to my grandmother’s confusion (“but what do you do at parties?”), I chose the latter.

And so it was one chilly Chicago day, that I found myself hurrying down a smoke-filled stairwell with a few hundred of my suddenly not-so-biggest fans. Whose idea was it anyway to put thick odor-blocking double doors between the kitchen where I was throwing cookies in the oven and the suite where people were decorating them? Later college cookie parties were more successful, which is to say, I don’t remember setting off any more fire alarms. After I graduated, it was only logical to bring the cookie-making to my new math teaching job at a boarding school, especially in my official capacity as faculty advisor to the new “cultural cuisine club” (college counseling took issue with “baking club” as an extracurricular activity). Now, five years of 30+ person, grad school cookie parties later, I knew that, even if my friends would just  be humoring the crazy gringa, the tradition had to be brought to Sao Paulo.

This proved to be a little more difficult than I had anticipated. Thanks to a little help from
the internet, the challenge was not in the sugar or gingerbread dough itself; the only slightly unusual ingredients required were molasses and cloves, and I found molasses at Pão de Açucar and skipped the cloves because, well, I forgot to look for them. Powdered sugar is readily available, and it wasn’t difficult to find decorative sugars or sprinkles. Although sprinkles are sold at Pão de Açucar and bigger grocery stores, I bought them at a party store on Rua Augusta because it had lured me in with its muffin and bread pans. Sadly, I was rudely awakened from my double chocolate banana bread reverie by the realization that I would have exactly 3 days left in Sao Paulo to enjoy my new bread pans (next time, I’m bringing my own!) so I bought some pretty colored sugars as a consolation purchase.

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School’s out for summer

I’ve never been the most assertive person. I had a hard enough time maintaining some semblance of authority when I taught high school math, that had I really stopped to think about it first, the prospect of teaching English to adults would have been pretty daunting. Luckily, after a week of cliff-notes English grammar with Sam, I was thrown into it without any time for reflection. In fact, if memory serves, my deepest reflection at the time was probably the astounding realization that regardless of purported destination, all three 847P buses pass through Vila Madalena, and why the heck did I first need to walk the entire length of Faria Lima to find that out? But I digress…

Ok, so they’re not all perfect—one of my students sent me this picture, ten minutes after class (in Berrini, of course) should have started, saying he couldn’t make it because he had to hang out with his new dog

After I figured out how to get to my classes without first extensively researching and googlemapping each route the night before, I realized maybe the time had come to focus on the content of the classes themselves. Checking in with myself thus, I was disappointed to find I wasn’t doing a very good job. The two-hour long, back-to-back classes every day made it difficult to attain even the oft-cited first year teacher bare minimum of staying a week ahead of the students. Every day I found myself frantically skimming each class’s textbook in the hour ahead of time and mentally sketching out a lesson plan through the book’s various parts. And inevitably on the days I felt least prepared, I would hear a knock at the door 20 minutes before the start of class and in would breeze Rafael or Luciano, so enthusiastically escorting my similarly over-zealous student that it seemed he was instead bringing me the long-lost puppy I didn’t even know I had, never mind had lost. Didn’t my students know they were supposed to be late or not show up at all?! Seriously, why did I have to get the good ones?!

Gaining visitor access for an In Company class

Many seasoned expats caution against the mentality that just because you speak English you can teach it. While I never questioned them for a second—I have enough experience teaching to know that being an effective educator is challenging enough even without trying to teach material you yourself never actually learned—but I will admit to just a teensy bit of hubris. I’ve always liked writing and even presenting. I particularly enjoy the challenge of exploring different ways of framing or, in the case of editing, reframing an idea. Add to this a little bit of teaching experience, and I thought maybe, just maybe, I would have an easier go of it than those other hapless expats. And yet, there I was, on one of my last days of classes, facing my waterloo: an extremely confident middle-aged man questioning me publically on a grammar point about which I was not absolutely confident. I tried to answer him assertively, but my confidence began to waver as he tapped away, consulting his smartphone. “I mean. Maybe, it’s different in England?” I concluded, backpedaling.

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A day in Liberdade

Somehow Bruna and Maisa have a sixth sense for knowing when I’m feeling lonely or sad. A few weeks ago, when I was having a particularly difficult weekend, Bruna messaged me Sunday morning, asking me if I wanted to take a walk down Paulista and grab lunch with her and Caio. Of course I jumped at the offer both to spend time with this sweet couple and to also force myself to get out of the house.

Upon my request, we headed to “Shopping 3,” where it appeared that half the city of Sao IMG_2762Paulo had flocked to look over the temporary stands that are set up every Sunday. Caio confirmed my estimate, explaining that, in the absence of a coast, Sao Paulo’s 40+ “shoppings” are the city’s answer to a weekend beach trip (Maisa had abandoned us for the real beach that weekend). Thus we spent a happy hour, meandering through the stands, Caio and Bruna helping me carefully pick out souvenirs. Upon leaving the shopping mall, Caio suggested that we wander around Liberdade, the city’s “Little Japan.” While I am not partial to sushi (way too ditzy for a gordinha like me), I was excited to see this famous neighborhood, which houses the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan.

Why, you might ask, are there so many Japanese-Brazilians living in Sao Paulo today? Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer is essentially coffee and slavery. After the slave trade was abolished mid-19th IMG_3316century, the Brazilian government offered subsidized immigration to Europeans in an effort to address the shortage of “cheap” labor. This resulted in a massive influx of Italians who continued to arrive until 1902 when the Italian government banned subsidized immigration to Brazil due to poor working conditions. This then paved the way for the arrival of Japanese immigrants who, having recently been released from feudalism into extreme poverty, were eager to own land and make a better life for themselves. When World War I began shortly thereafter, many countries such as the US prohibited Japanese immigration, thus further increasing the Japanese presence in Brazil. Although now, 100 years after the first Japanese immigrants arrived, the Japanese population is dwindling, the culture has still left an indelible mark on the Brazilian way of life, especially at the dinner table.

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