Monthly Archives: October 2014

Change Brazil

It’s been drizzling all day, never convincingly, but always just enough to give you hope that maybe it will all-out storm, finally making a dent in refilling the Cantareira water system that is currently at 3% of its capacity. All day today you could feel the air buzzing, everyone waiting for the election results to start rolling in. For the past month, people have been tuning in to presidential debates, usually with some mixture of interest and disgust. On the street, campaigners have been handing out stickers and waving giant flags, eager to persuade even a non-voting Gringa. I have learned there is no use trying to avoid it, especially with your advanced English students. Every conversation inevitably reverts back to Brazilian politics. Months of anticipation finally culminated today around 8pm, when Globo TV posted an update with 95% of the votes counted. Immediately after, we could hear people shouting in the street and car horns blaring. In one of the closest elections in Brazil’s history, the sitting president, Dilma Rousseff had won.

Though disappointing to many, this was a surprise to none. Dilma had been projected to win for weeks. Among the poor, especially in the country’s Northeast region, Dilma was the favored candidate, due in large part to her party’s welfare programs like the “Bolsa Familia.” Here in São Paulo, however, where people tend to be wealthier, Aécio, of the more centrist PSDB was far and away the favorite. Brazil’s economy has all but screeched to a halt, and inflation has increased as of late; as any good American also knows, who better to blame than the current president? Aécio, a former governor of Minas Gerais state, is staunchly pro-business and against the more interventionist policies of Dilma’s Worker’s Party. He was therefore the logical choice to steer the country’s economy back on course. And then there was the assertion that Dilma, as a former member of the Board of Directors, was involved in a major scandal involving the state-owned oil giant, Petrobras. Although many people weren’t extremely excited about Aécio, the election seemed like a good opportunity to start afresh after the Worker’s Party’s 12 years in power and let someone else make the mistakes for a while.

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Brazilian “curiosities”

Parque Ibirapuera

Over a year ago, a French man who had been living in Brazil (Minas Gerais) for some time posted a list of 65 Brazilian “curiosities” or “peculiarities.” For whatever reason, the list has just recently gone viral (again?), and I learned about it yesterday from both Stela and my roommate Maisa. Olivier’s tongue-in-cheek, exaggerated tone makes it clear that, though grounded in reality, the list is meant in good fun, and as such, it has resonated with Brazilians and Gringos alike. I would love to translate the whole list, but I’m not sure that this is such good blogger etiquette so I will just discuss some of my favorites.

Just another day, waiting in line

Many of Olivier’s observations are not particularly shocking. For example, Brazilians will be the first to admit that culturally, they are obsessed with forming lines. If it is not possible to physically form a line, you will receive a number in order to create a digital line such that the process might waste still more time. In addition, as many foreigners are well aware, music is a part of life here. Everywhere you go there is live music, and many Brazilians know how to play guitar although, according to Olivier, if you ask them, they will tell you they don’t know how. There is so much musical talent here, and yet everyone is busy playing covers! And of course, as Stela warned me before I arrived, many people here place extreme importance on external signs of wealth in the form owning imported cars, going to expensive restaurants in fancy neighborhoods, etc.

I foolishly thought I could pick up some black flats on the way to work at Iguatemi shopping mall---it turns out they only sell Prada and Salvatore Ferragamo. Not quite up to my standards, you know.
I foolishly thought I could pick up some black flats at Iguatemi shopping mall—it turns out they only sell brands like Prada and Salvatore Ferragamo. Not quite up to my standards, you know.

Like me (or, really rather, “I, like him,” since he kinda got here first), Olivier comments on the rigid requirement of using a napkin when eating finger food, making the additional observation that these napkins are invariably made of plastic such that they are solely useful for blocking the hands from touching the food—actually Tammy also pointed this out to me on my first day here. If you want to wipe your mouth or hands, you’re out of luck. Brazil also produces the best coffee in the world, yet it’s prepared so poorly, often with the addition of kilograms of sugar, that you would never know. I know nothing about coffee, but I agree that it is very common to see people dumping massive amounts of artificial sweetener into their tiny cafezinhos.

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Physicists and Popsicles


The city is running out of water just as temperatures are reaching the high 90s so free blueberry Red Bulls was a welcome surprise on the bus!
The city is running out of water just as temperatures are hitting the high 90’s so a free blueberry Red Bull was a welcome surprise on the bus!

As I may have mentioned in a recent, somewhat grumpy post, I spend a lot of time on public transit. In fact, I think I have now taken every form of public transportation available here. My first, and in my opinion by far the best, is the metro. It is pretty cheap (R$3), easy to use, relatively clean, and it reliably arrives every 2-3 of minutes. The huge downside, as anyone will tell you, is that it is far from extensive. In fact it’s kind of a nice surprise when I can get where I want to go using the metro. There is an upside to this too though. Once when I was in a particularly large hurry, I was pleased to see that I’d somehow caught the yellow line express, which apparently skipped about 3 stops I didn’t need. Curious to know for future reference how I would know which trains were express, I asked a friend. She laughed, telling me that there are no express trains in Sao Paulo; those three stations simply had yet to be built! Apparently the supposed completion of the metro is a big joke to Paulistanos, as is the construction of a monorail, which was to be completed prior to the World Cup.

Successfully made it through the bus turnstyle!
Successfully made it through the bus turnstyle!

All around the city, there are a number of train lines supplementing the metro. However, I’ve only used them once as they rarely go where I need to and they are slower than the metro. What all this amounts to is that I spend the vast majority of my time on buses, which is always something of an adventure. First, many parts of the city have bus stops delineated solely by a metal pole or stick in the ground. The other day, I asked a group of women standing around talking whether we were at a bus stop and, if so, how I could tell. They laughed and said, “Yes, of course it’s a bus stop. It’s obvious because two buses just stopped here!” The more established bus stops have shelters and occasionally even a posting with the numbers of the buses that pass by. And yet, even then, I have found that if you flag down a bus not included on the posting, the motorist will stop (for a millisecond) to snap you up. Usually you have just enough time to leap onto the bus before it jolts forward, flinging you toward the back. Luckily your flight is interrupted as your stomach jams into a turnstile, reminding you to hold up your “bilhete unico” bus pass or pay R$3 to the guy sitting next to it, who is calmly watching you flail. And somehow, now that you need to use all your strength to push through an inexplicably heavy turnstile while also employing enough finesse to lift your bag over the top, the momentum of the bus has changed to pull you back toward the front.

With a bilhete unico, the R$3 charge per ride reduces to R$1.65 when transferring between the metro and the bus and its free when transferring between buses
With a Bilhete Unico, the R$3 charge per ride reduces to R$1.65 when transferring between the metro and the bus, and its free when transferring between buses. Money can be added at most metro stations and stands on the street.

I think I remember a time, not so long ago, where I worried about how I appeared to strangers on public transportation, but that time has long past. Now I just want to stay upright. Just yesterday, I saw a woman fall headfirst down the stairs from her perch standing next to me. And even finding a seat is no great victory. The backs of the seats are plastic so your knees jam into them, bracing you from the curves and jolts resulting from a suspension system that easily rivals my childhood neighbor’s much-vaunted Gary Fisher’s Rockshox. Needless to say, I long since gave up trying to read or prepare for class on the bus. I also learned pretty quickly that buying the deliciously greasy mini Pão de queijo at the Vila Madalena bus station terminal, immediately prior to boarding, was a huge mistake. I think there is an expression here something like, “eat in the street, die at home.” I would just make a slight adjustment and replace home with bus.

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Whatever happened to Xuxa?

I’m going to blame Larry and Michelle for my renewed addiction to Gilmore Girls, a show famous for its rapid-fire dialogue (Yes, Dad. I know. No one talks like that) and its many pop culture references. It is interesting to now re-watch the show from an adult perspective. This is not just because I’m finally seeing the Gilmore girls for the brats they are but also because I’m realizing just how many cultural references I missed the first time around. In one episode, in an attempt to derail her mother’s line of interrogation, Lorelai’s mutters the random aside “whatever happened to Xuxa?” Now I have never been abreast of the latest trends, but until I started tutoring with Stela a few months ago, I had never heard of Xuxa, the wildly popular Brazilian model-turned kid’s television star from whom many Brazilians of my generation learned their ABC’s.

“Friends” in my English textbook! The show is so popular here that a “Friends” bar/cafe just opened on Rua Augusta

Xuxa is just one small example of the cultural interaction between Brazil and the US. While Brazil seems to import our music, films, and even English expressions, very little of Brazil’s rich cultural heritage seems to make its way back up north in return. There are certainly great things about the US for sure, but I find that it is often idealized here. Many Brazilians have asked me what in the world I’m doing in a country that is so behind the times when I could live in the US! I (finally!) went out dancing last weekend, and partway through the night, my friend whispered to me that the group of girls we were dancing near wanted me to go join them. I won’t pretend that I haven’t forcibly entered strangers’ dance circles before, but an actual invite from a group of girls? This has NEVER happened to me in any country anywhere. The girls were visiting from the northeast and I think they likely just wanted to meet people and be friendly, but there may have also been a kernel of truth to my (Brazilian) friend’s hypothesis that they wanted to meet me because Brazilians have a fascination with all things American.

Everywhere I go, signs of American culture are sprinkled in with the green, blue and yellow
t-shirts, shops and signs. Radio stations play Seether and Maroon 5 and Rihanna (just can’t seem to escape that one), and in a taxi the other day, my driver was blasting Ozzy! In Quebec City this summer, the situation was similar, making me wonder what it would be like to grow up somewhere where you’re surrounded by music in a foreign language. I am pretty certain the preponderance of American English here does not do much to improve English fluency, as I know many people who just enjoy the beat and the music of a catchy American pop song without understanding any of the lyrics. Needless to say, however, Brazilians are clearly getting an interesting perspective of American culture through our music and films. I showed my school’s administrators a picture of Will and Paula at a Northwestern football game, and they exclaimed, “it’s just like the movies!!”

Of course Bradley Cooper would be selling Haagen-Dazs at the shopping mall

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Mama said there’d be days like this

A few weeks ago, Stela made the apt observation that my blog doesn’t include much of “o ruim” with “o bom.” And it’s true that I have been focusing almost exclusively on the good parts of life here when of course I’ve certainly had my fair share of frustration and loneliness. I knew going into this experience, however, that I would have to keep a positive attitude, be open to new experiences and making lots of mistakes (apparently I just ordered hard-boiled eggs—the only kind of eggs I don’t like), and most of all, cede control over a number the things in my life. This last may have been the easiest, since, as my dad would put it, in my PhD program, there was a train going and, when I left, I hadn’t been conducting it for a long time. Overall, my frustrations here have not necessarily been specific to Brazil either but more to things that could happen anywhere or in any major city. Still, without further ado, in honor of my first month here, Stela, here are my personal ups and downs of life in Sao Paulo.

O Bom

The people here are the friendliest you’ll ever meet, especially in a city with 20 million busy, hardworking people. Every single person I have stopped in the street for directions has patiently tried to understand my Portuguese and to give me directions at a pace I can understand. Bus drivers are happy to tell me when we’re approaching my stop. In fact, any time I try to surreptitiously open a map on a bus, someone nearby will ask me if I need help. Whether I’m walking down the street or waiting for my pupils on the 20th floor of an office building, everyone who walks by will smile at me and the secretary and anyone else who happens to be in the vicinity, saying, “Bom dia! Tudo bem?” This is in stark contrast with most cities, where people think I’m strange for smiling, never mind saying “good morning” to people I don’t know.

Maisa and Tammy in Parque Villa-Lobos

That people in general are extremely friendly here does not take away from the fact that I am incredibly lucky to have the friends I have here. My roommates are always checking in on me to make sure things are ok and that I don’t need anything. When my credit card was cloned two weeks in (at this point I’m thinking Wellsfargo doesn’t know how to find Brazil…), they offered to chip in so that I wouldn’t have money problems. When my roommates went to their hometown to vote last weekend, they invited me to come along. I of course know many very kind and thoughtful Americans as well, but we, as a people, tend to be less immediately open and trusting and warm with new people. Heck, I still haven’t figured out a great way to pay Maisa and Bruna rent (I will!!!), but they were offering to lend me money!

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