It’s really impressive that I’ve made it this long without talking about food! I am even more surprised to find that there is a country in the Americas that appreciates cheese more than the US. In my extensive four-day experience here (I have a feeling there will be lots of food updates in my blogging future) I have found that, if it can be done, cheese, or queijo, will be baked or injected into every snack or meal. Many kinds are available, but the ubiquitous queijo here is Catupiry, a mild, creamy cheese, ideal for its chameleon-like abilities.
I tried my first Brazilian snack or salgadinho at Ana’s house a month or so ago. As an appetizer, she had made coxinhas, which are fried drumstick-shaped balls of dough, filled with shredded chicken and catupiry. Piping hot and dipped in hot sauce, how could I not instantly fall in love? I learned the hard way when I made them for my Brazilian party though, that they are also quite time intensive, so I was excited to get to Brazil where I could leave it to the experts. Needless to say, a giant coxinha was an integral part of my first meal here at Bella Paulista. The other component of my first “meal” was pão de queijo. These are, of course, made mainly from cheese (although not catupiry) and cassava flour, making it the ideal healthy gluten free snack, in much the same way that nutella is a healthy part of this complete breakfast. My pão de queijo was served with another white cheese grilled on top, and of course, the first breakfast I ate was parmesan-cheese encrusted bread, smothered in grilled cheese. I am not complaining (queixando?! If only that x were a j, that would be much more clever).
I will admit that my first day here made me a little more nervous about finding my way around than I wanted to let on. I kept telling myself that I’ve been fine navigating all sorts of other major world cities, even Seoul, where I couldn’t read signs or talk to anyone, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I think a major difference with Sao Paulo is that I’ve heard from so many Brazilians how careful I need to be—don’t use your iPhone to take pictures, don’t wear sunglasses on your head, be wary of people walking too fast or too slow, always carry R$20 so that the homeless people won’t shoot you. It’s enough to make anyone feel a little bit paralyzed. In the midst of North America’s summer I had also blissfully forgotten that with the winter season comes early darkness. By the time I woke up from my nap/haze on Saturday around 6pm, it was dark outside, and I was petrified of venturing out alone.
Things shifted yesterday though thanks to my Airbnb host, Tammy. I had hoped staying in an Airbnb might be a great way to meet people, get to know the city and maybe even make a friend. For once, I was not wrong. Tammy has lived in Florida as well as London, so perhaps she understands what it’s like to be a foreigner in a strange new place or she is just a really understanding, patient person—probably both. Yesterday morning she brought me to a nearby bakery, and she made sure to point out again the direction we had come from to get there, even though the apartment is nearly visible from the bakery. These are the types of kindnesses I seriously appreciate but am usually too embarrassed to ask for.
Tammy’s apartment is in a high rise located on what looks to be almost a back road, but it’s actually in a neighborhood in the center of the city (Bela Vista) and just half a mile away or so from Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo’s answer to Saks fifth and Michigan Ave. Stela told me that I can find any cute brand name article I could possibly desire on Paulista and then simply go to the cross street Rua Augusta to buy the knock-off. Walking along both these streets with Tammy yesterday though, I never would have guessed that there is shopping on either of these streets. There were no shop windows, few pedestrians, and it was hard to believe on a sleepy Sunday morning that this was the center of the city, never mind a major shopping district.
Every time I go to the airport I have a feeling of excitement. I have an idea that those planes sitting on the tarmac could take me anywhere in the world and that the adventure is out there, just waiting to be had. But then inevitably, no matter how wonderful my trip is, it ends too soon (and somewhere along the way I get stuck in PHL, probably just to quell some of my excitement), and it’s back to reality. This time feels different though. I don’t walk past gates saying “Chicago/O’Hare” or “London/Heathrow” with envy. This time the adventure is mine to define and pursue!
With the help of my friend Katherine, who drove me to the airport Friday morning, my travels got off to a great start, and the rest of the journey was almost too smooth for me to believe. I was switched to an aisle seat on both legs (I felt like I had somehow tricked the Brazilian couple when they asked if I would switch to the aisle seat so they could sit together in the middle for the 10 hour flight), everything was on time, my friend was waiting for me at Guarulhos, and the “city of drizzle” even came through with a beautiful day of sunshine. My greatest personal achievement however, came early on when the flight attendant came around with food. He first addressed the Brazilian man next to me asking, “pasta or chicken?” When he posed the question to me though, he offered, “massa ou frango?” Apparently my earlier request for uma agua was so convincing that he took me for a native. Needless to say, I was thrilled. I should probably just take the win and go home now.
Moving somewhere—anywhere really, but especially a foreign country—forces you to think about what you really need, and I am not talking about my family and friends this time (although I need you too!). No. I’m talking about things. How can I maintain some level of comfort without trying to bring my whole country and way of life to Brazil? To start with, I’ve been trying to read about what adapters to buy and whether I need a converter. However, apparently every state in Brazil uses a different voltage and a different plug type. Supposedly, the country is trying to standardize to type N power sockets (which of course is only used in Brazil and South Africa, so universal adapters are of no use), but for now it’s a mixed bag. I think the voltage is the same as the US (127/220V), but if I’m wrong, I will find out immediately when I blow out my hair straightener…
The other main thing I’m worried about is water. I have heard it’s not the best idea to drink unfiltered Sao Paulo water, and I normally drink several liters of water a day when I have the time. I think a lot of places just have filters on the tap, but I can’t assume that that will be the case everywhere I stay, and I know I will be really unhappy if I can’t drink as much water as I want. Never having been there, I can’t decide if a Brita filter or water bottle would be worth it.
Today is technically the day that I “graduate” from Duke with a Masters so it seems only fitting that I cap the experience with some acknowledgements. Given that I decided not to finish what I originally set out to do, my sentiment is a little different than the traditional post-thesis defense slides. Still, today I want to thank my many friends in the triangle area who have helped me be strong enough to leave my PhD program and seek out what is healthy for me, and, perhaps most importantly, helped me realize that I am not a failure and I can have a long and successful career, whether it’s in the sciences or not.
No one wants to ask their friends to prove themselves, but due to an unfortunate series of events over the past year, a lot of my friends were put in awkward positions, and time and time again they have supported me and helped me heal in order to move forward. Every time I’ve been at my lowest, someone was there with a hand and a hug to peel me off the floor. I was worried when I left the PhD program that some friends would take my decision personally and remove me from their lives—PhD ABD blogs/forums discuss this as a reality of leaving a program. However, my friend Ricardo was completely right when he said, “everyone who loves you will understand.” People have gone out of their way to be inclusive and to organize special events to make sure I feel in the loop. Seriously. Now I feel like I have the best of both worlds: all the friends without the days on end of failed experiments! Ironically these same friends who I will really miss, are the people who have helped give me the confidence to take the leap and live in another country.