Monthly Archives: September 2014

Saturday in the Park


Sao Paulo is indeed the concrete jungle everyone promised me it would be. Every building follows a different design than its neighbor. It is not uncommon to see a small house between two high rises, connected by an overpass, simply because no one planned out how much space a business might need ahead of time. The city is always in a hurry, and it is no rare occasion that a pedestrian gets run over by a motorcycle flying around the corner, although there is apparently a movement to increase awareness. Throughout the city, there are a number of reprieves from the concrete, if not the madness, in the form of abundant greenspaces scattered throughout. Unlike what I initially thought, however, it turns out that rather than slowing down for the weekend, Paulistanos simply take their intensity to the park.

Yesterday morning, my roommates, Bruna and Maisa, brought me to Ibirapuera, the biggest park in Sao Paulo. Not surprisingly, 19.9 million other people had the same idea, and Maisa tells me it’s far worse when the sun is out. Still, as my almost maniacal smile inIMG_2181 Maisa’s action shot illustrates, it was wonderful to be running with her, far away from the city blocks and the crazy traffic. I had run to Ibirapuera once before from Tammy’s apartment, and, due to all the traffic interruptions, 2.5 miles took me about 40 minutes. This time Maisa drove us there, and it was such a relief to be running in the park where my only limitation was how quickly I could dodge the other runners and walkers. Another immense difference between running in the park versus around the city is due to a tiny, insignificant Sao Paulo fact that no one in the blogospheres seems to mention. Seriously, Sao Paulo bloggers, I want my money back! The fact is, this city is a crazy series of steep peaks and valleys, making even the shortest run a pretty unappealing proposition. My family went to Quebec City earlier this year, and Sao Paulo is actually quite similar, except with three times the area to cover and over 20 times as many people. When I first arrived, the hilly terrain was (and still is) by far the biggest shock.

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Restaurant week!

Fried polenta; middle-eastern hamburger; boteco with typical, blue-tiled walls

I’ll admit I still haven’t figured out how to navigate the restaurant scene here. Although I imagine the US is also very bewildering for foreigners, I maintain that, if only because IMG_2142of the extreme variability in the ways your tab can be tallied, eating out in Sampa is significantly more complicated. My first experience eating out was at Bella Paulista, the fancy bakery near Av. Paulista, just a few hours after I’d groggily stumbled off the plane. Upon entering the bakery, I was confronted with a turnstile and a man in a suit. As if entering a parking garage, my friend pushed a button on a machine next to the turnstyle, and a small plastic card popped out. Seeing that I was at a loss, he pushed it again, and handed me my own plastic card, indicating that I should go through the turnstyle. As I struggled with the turnstyle, the man in the suit handed out plastic cards to the people behind us.

When we entered the bakery, the chaos reminded me of Durham’s hip and super-stressful restaurant/shop/bakeries, “Foster’s” and “Parker and Otis.” However, unlike these places where everything is ordered at various counters around the shop, at Bella, we were seated IMG_1829and brought a menu. When we placed our order of coxinha, pao de queijo and fresh squeezed orange and mango juice (in honor of Paula, of course!), the waitress walked off with our plastic “comandas” (this might be a niche market for aspiring artists who want to expatriate), returning them several minutes later when our food came. It wasn’t until the next morning when I went out to breakfast at a padoca, or bakery/bar, with Tammy that I understood the function of a plastic comanda. This time the card was not required for entry, but we were each handed one when we sat down at the “bar.” When we ordered our grilled pâo de queijo, sprinkled with queijo parmesâo and filled with queijo requejâo (yes, that’s three types of cheese), the man behind the counter grabbed our cards. A few minutes later, when I ordered water, it was only after significant prompting and gesturing from Tammy, that I realized I needed to hand in the plastic comanda again. At the end of our breakfast, we hopped down from the bar and brought our comandas to the register where we were rung up.

Now that’s a classy check!

I think if that’s how all bars, café-type restaurants and padocas here worked, I might just about be able to get the hang of it. However, enough cafés here employ more familiar payment methods, that on the slightly rarer occasions I do need to use a plastic comanda, I am constantly forgetting to give it to the waitress, leaving it at the counter, or not taking it back from the cashier. This last can be particularly fun if there’s a turnstyle, since you also can’t leave the establishment without dropping your “paid” comanda in the slot. And after ordering food at the counter, I’m usually so relieved to have successfully communicated my request, that when the waitress looks at me expectantly, I still have no idea that she’s waiting for me to hand her the comanda.

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Home sweet home

View from Tammy’s apartment complex

Somehow my first two weeks in Sao Paulo are over, which means so is my Airbnb stay with Tammy. I think I originally tried to give myself credit for making the brilliant decision to find a place through Airbnb, but in all reality, I just lucked out to have such an excellent host as Tammy. Yesterday was my last day staying with her, and I was very sad to leave!

IMG_1823In addition to the critical fact that all of her previous residents had only the most positive things to say about Tammy herself, I chose Tammy’s listing because of its proximity to Paulista and a metro station, the fact that it has its own gym, and the constant presence of a “porteiro” or doorman for enhanced security. The irony of this last is that, at least initially, the porteiro did a better job of keeping me in than non-residents out. What do you say, especially when your language skills are poor, to a doorman you can’t even see?

And so, I was terrified of leaving and not knowing what to say over an intercom to get back in. When I left the apartment alone for the first time, I felt like I was sneaking out furtively, hoping I could somehow con my way back in. My fears were far from assuaged when I returned later that first day and pushed the little blue button at the first gate. A few seconds later, a man’s voice mumbled something to me through the speaker. Without being able to see the person I was talking to, I felt at a loss for what to say to make myself understood. I attempted some Portunhol iteration of, “I’m staying with Tammy on the 11th floor,” but this only elicited more uninterpretable (to me at least) questions. Eventually I seemed to have provided enough information to enter, and I smiled and nodded, “Boa noite, obrigada” at an opaque window as I passed through a second gate.

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From 9 to 5 (and then some)

Living in Brazil on a tourist visa doesn’t leave many “viable” options for work, but of course with jeitinho, there’s always a way. Most Americans work under the table as either English teachers or nannies. Luckily for me, although less so for my younger brother, I’ve always been a teacher. In first grade William was forced to do third grade math. In second, he was learning NH history and state symbols in strict accord with the state 4th grade social studies learning standards. Actually, as my mom reminded me, if he hadn’t scheduled “recess” so often, he probably would have finished calculus by 10th grade instead of 11th (slacker)! Although English was probably my favorite subject in middle school, my high school teachers piqued my interest in math and science, and, aside from the occasional informal edit for a friend, my love of writing and English has, since then, been indefinitely set aside.

While teaching English as a foreign language is certainly different from my childhood goal of teaching middle school “Language Arts” (“Isn’t LA a city?” my dad would ask. “Why can’t the school in this town just call it English like everywhere else?”), it has been an interesting opportunity to revisit the idea, and I feel somewhat better-equipped than a lot of expats who move here and just need any job to survive in an extremely expensive city. Also, after working in the lab, mashing up and culturing mouse/bird spleens almost every day for the past 5 years, I’m realizing how much I miss working with students, trying to see the material through their eyes, sharing their excitement when something clicks, and helping them work through their frustration when it doesn’t.

About a month ago, I responded to a posting on an expat social network forum searching for native speakers to teach English. Based on the information I gleaned from my perusal of Brazil expat blogs, I didn’t really expect to receive a response to my e-mail inquiry since most schools apparently prefer to meet potential teachers in person. I was therefore IMG_1879surprised when Michele’s request for a skype interview showed up in my inbox the following day. Despite my distance from Sampa at the time and my lack of English teaching experience, Michele seemed excited both that I speak American English (yes, I do have mad skillz), and that I have some experience with and am passionate about teaching and therefore, unlike many expats, would not just be doing it to make money. She said it’s tough on both the school and the students when expats on tourist visas leave after working for three months, and maybe I could try to get married to a Brazilian so I might qualify for a permanent visa? Aside from making me feel uncomfortable for the obvious personal reasons, these words also made me feel guilty, because teaching English is not my dream, and I’m still hoping to slide over to teaching science or math at an international school.

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Second first impressions


I should have already known from my previous travels, but I figured out earlier this week why last Sunday the major shopping districts looked so bereft of shops. Much like in Seville, when stores here are closed, a garage-door like contraption is rolled over the storefront, such that the name of the store is also often hidden. To any gringo passing by on a Sunday morning, it would look like rows of abandoned, graffitied garages, punctuated by the occasional cellphone service store. But walk down Rua Augusta on a Monday, or even a
Saturday, and suddenly the streets are lined with colorful shoe stores, chocolate shops, stores selling pirated CDs, and movie theaters. I was especially excited when a friend showed me Livraria Cultura, one of the best bookstores in the country (but apparently not even Sao Paulo’s most beautiful), where people stay for hours simply to read. During the week, the casually attired Sunday crew is replaced with suited businessmen walking together in droves, and there is not a fluffy dog in sight. No matter the day, however, there always seem to be clusters of teenage boys, doing tricks on their skateboards, while narrowly dodging pedestrians.

Best bookstore in town!

As much as I enjoy a lazy Sunday morning, I’ll admit I was relieved to see the city come alive. I’ve wanted to at least experience living in a city for a while now (Tammy pointed out that I chose quite the city!), and I was a little disappointed at first when I thought Av. Paulista’s offerings were confined to banks and office buildings. On the other hand, I’m sure after a month here, the slightly slower-paced Sundays will be a welcome reprieve! In accord with the Paulistanho stereotype, people here do seem to work long hours; Tammy and Ricardo, who are in finance/consulting often work as late as 10pm and bring work home over the weekend, and the lawyers taking a 7pm English class I was observing, returned to work at 8pm after class. Several people have also mentioned to me that, while the process may not always be altogether efficient, Paulistanhos love organization and lines and, for example, will line up for a flight an hour before it begins boarding. The work culture might be a little different and, some might argue, less efficient than in the US and I can’t yet confirm whether many Brazilians conduct their business over hours-long lunches, but it’s clear to me that Sao Paulo, or Sampa, as it’s affectionately known, is a hard-working, business-driven city.

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