Brazilian “curiosities”

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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.

In his commentary on common expressions, Olivier marvels at the response, “imagina” (this is often further shortened to “magina”), which literally means, “imagine” but is colloquially used to express “no problem.” “Imagine what?!” he asks indignantly. But then he concedes “perhaps it is actually me who is lacking in imagination.” For my part, I always appreciate hearing a cheerful “magina!” when I stomp on someone’s foot on the bus, but I agree that the literal translation makes not one iota of sense. Olivier goes on to helpfully recommend that, if you would like to say something, even in a conversation between two people, it is a good idea to advise the other person that you are going to speak by first saying, “I’m going to tell you something,” “Let me tell you something,” or “It is as follows.” The best of these is “look, just so you can see,” to which Olivier snarkily responds, “ah! Thanks for letting me know! I had forgotten why I have eyes!” I recently observed this firsthand during a heated philosophical argument between two of the administrators at my school in which one continually cut the other off saying, “just let me talk! Let me tell you something!” before proceeding to repeat his argument as to why it is possible to love 5 women at the same time (but that’s another blog post entirely)…

Gerson and Luciano, two school administrators, proudly showing off the Portuguese palindrome: “Socorram-me, subi no ônibus em Marrocos.” Yet another reason why it’s unhealthy to work past 10pm every night.

It is often said that Brazil is a country of contrasts. I think one of the implicit contrasts is between foreigners’ stereotypes and the reality. As Olivier observes, couples sit next to each other at bars and restaurants as if they were in a car—I think this is really nice. Not that I go to restaurants to watch couples canoodling (and usually they don’t), but if you want to be with someone, or hold someone’s hand in a restaurant, why all the restraint, Americans (and apparently French people too)?! He further notes that every stage of a relationship has a very specific name and even an accompanying verb. My favorite is namorar, which is similar to “dating” but strikes me as a bit more romantic. It is not uncommon to see couples making out on the metro or in the street, and unlike in the US, magazines like playboy and maxim are openly displayed in the many kiosks throughout the city. However, all the PDA, airbrushed topless women and plastic surgery gives foreigners the impression that Brazilians are extremely sexual and comfortable with nudity, whereas in reality, Brazil is actually quite conservative. It’s one thing to kiss someone on the dance floor—in fact dancing with them apparently makes it practically obligatory (although I don’t know this from personal experience, of course, Mom!)—it’s another to go home with them. And unlike the popular perception, topless beaches are actually quite rare, and outside of the club, women are relatively conservative in dress.

Olivier also dispels a stereotype I certainly had when he notes how poorly Brazilian men dress. I haven’t specifically noticed this, since I usually see men in suits during the workday (I still don’t have much of an idea of what happens after 10pm since I’m always too tired to venture out), but he says that for their every day attire, men pair their tennis shoes and shorts with whatever t-shirt seems to be lying around. Those who dress well are “gay,” an assertion he remarks that Brazilians are apparently also fond of making. By contrast, and more in keeping with my perception of the culture, several of Olivier’s points poke fun at the lack of social follow-through. After meeting someone, it is common to say, “we’ll hang out! Let’s plan something!” and then never even exchange contact information. Apparently, in Brazil, “to show up,” means “to never show up.” For example saying, “I’ll be there later,” in practice means “I’m not going.” I think I may have some American friends who would argue that I’m an excellent Brazilian, but it’s only because I want to do everything with everyone!

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Breakfast date at Bella Paulista with Fernanda!

I couldn’t agree more with Olivier’s last few observations. In Brazil, the people are extremely warm and receptive to new people. As I too have experienced, it’s totally normal here to welcome new people into your group of friends with open arms. Even the Portuguese expression of “Seja bem vindo” or “Welcome” translates directly to “Be welcome” as if the person is really commanding you to have a nice stay in their country. As Olivier says, this warmth makes all the difference in the world. There have been many days when I’ve been extremely stressed and frustrated, but I have never once regretted living here, and I know that’s solely due to the wonderful people I’ve met. The sad part is, as Olivier so accurately points out, that despite the many wonderful aspects of the country and the people, Brazilians have so little faith in Brazil. Especially in this tense time leading up to the presidential election tomorrow, there is the still more heightened perception that obviously things aren’t going to go right because it’s Brazil. In general, Brazilians have an inferiority complex, especially with respect to the US. I know I am naïve to many of the realities of life here, but I love when Olivier says, “I’m waiting for the day when Brazil opens its eyes.”

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Tammy, Bruna and Caio in the Vila Madalena! Just missing Maisa!

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