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.
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…
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?!
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.
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 Paulo 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 century, 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.
I woke up yesterday morning, ready to accomplish my last round of errands: pick up a paycheck at the Callan school, cash it at the bank, make one last souvenir-run at Shopping Vila Olimpia, and finally, rush to the luggage store to buy a vessel capable of transporting it all. However, my to-the minute itinerary was thwarted when I realized upon arriving at the Vila Madalena metro that I had forgotten my passport, which I needed both for entry into the Callan school building as well as cashing my paychecks at the bank. Wearily, I slogged back uphill to the apartment, slowly perceiving that I had an even bigger problem; it was suddenly becoming very difficult to stand upright, never mind walk without feeling like my stomach was seizing up.
When I finally arrived back at the apartment I collapsed onto my bed, unable to move. I tried to sleep it off, but every few minutes, I felt a deep, slashing pang, like my kidneys were trying to eject my stomach through my ribcage. All I could think as I lay there was, why, after managing to stay healthy over three months of inconsistent eating and sleeping habits, did I have to get food poisoning the day of my flight (not to mention, what the heck did I eat?)?! Clearly I wasn’t meant to leave the country. I focused on revising and prioritizing my previous plan. Maybe I should just forget about the money. The most important thing was to be well enough to make my flight later that night.
Still, miser that I am, I really wanted to leave the country with all the money I had earned running around town in circles at the cost of my own health. I will spare you the gory details of the interim period, but feeling a bit better and knowing the banks close at 4, I finally forced myself out of bed around 2:30 when Samantha very kindly brought me a carry-on to use and some medicine. I also took a shower, and, for the first time, the water cut out at the end. Maybe it was time to go home after all?