Category Archives: Culture

They say you can’t go home again

Brazilian Santa wears havaianas of course! I didn’t learn until my last few weeks that Oscar Freire (and not Avenida Paulista) is Latin America’s true 5th avenue analogue. I think that’s probably for the better…

I wanted to write something upbeat on January 1 to usher in the new year and contemplate the many things I learned over the course of a challenging 2014. Instead, I woke up, made a feeble attempt to bid farewell to my last party-goers and spent the rest of the day musing at the irony that after a year of feeling like I had no voice, I would ring in the next in its literal absence. It was in this way that I also discovered that I had unknowingly made a tacit promise to myself to never blog when I was upset. On the other hand, it’s also possible that when I was in Sao Paulo, I viewed everything as an exciting and “novel” experience that I could blog about, allowing me to view even the most frustrating of encounters in a positive light.

I’ll admit, not having to aliquot drinking water from this monster has been nice!

Here in NC, that’s a little more difficult. Of course, it was easy to come back and re-adjust to the luxury of having my water glass constantly refilled at every bar and restaurant. It also wasn’t that exciting to once again have access to my full wardrobe—it turns out I only wear about three different outfits anyway. And I immediately took it for granted that I had a car to take out at 11pm and buy as many groceries as I wanted at the 24/7 Harris Teeter. These were the simple things, and they seamlessly integrated themselves back into my life.

Other things have been harder. I bump into someone on the street and instinctively, murmur, “ah! desculpa!” Similarly, sometimes when mentally formulating an e-mail, I get several lines in before realizing that I am writing an American and can (well, probably should) write in English. Before, I never understood it when my Brazilian friends would tell me that they missed speaking English. “How can you miss having even the simplest tasks being made more difficult?!” I would marvel. When I came home from studying abroad in Sevilla many years ago, I remember feeling as if a shroud was being removed and the sites and sounds around me were finally coming back into focus. There were certainly no feelings of saudades that time when I ordered my first meal back in English.

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A day in Liberdade

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 IMG_2762Paulo 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 IMG_3316century, 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.

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Why I’m thankful for Thanksgiving

Some Niemeyer architecture overlooking the beach

Here in Sao Paulo, there are three November holidays: Day of the Dead on November 2nd, Day of the Republic on the 15th, and something that  translates literally as “Black consciousness day” on the 20th. This last I originally interpreted to be an ancient religious holiday, a day to atone for your sins perhaps. It turns out it’s a recent creation that is recognized only in Sao Paulo state and is actually somewhat akin to “MLK Day” or “Civil Rights Day.” No one could really tell me much about it, although one student did say it’s sad we still need this holiday, given how many black people there are in Brazil. Still, especially since the other two November holidays fell on weekends, everyone is happy to have the day off. In fact, because this one falls on a Thursday, a lot of people have Friday off as well. There is even a Portuguese verb specific to this method of extending the weekend. My students were surprised to find that no such verb exists in English and, unlike in Brazil, it is not standard to have 30 days off (plus holidays) in the US.

All this is a long way of saying that things have been quite busy. Because today (Thursday) is a holiday, many of my students moved their classes to Mon-Wed, so between that and my poorly-timed decision to pick up a particularly difficult editing assignment in the meantime (think, a French manuscript barely google-translated into English), I was working nonstop from 7am-10pm the past few days. Needless to say, I am quite relieved it’s finally Thursday. I went out for a beer with co-workers last night and even slept until 7:30!

Where the party’s at!

I also had last Saturday off thanks to the Day of the Republic (Independence Day #2?), and Maisa brought me to her hometown of São Vincente, a small coastal town in São Paulo state. There, she introduced me to her family, and everywhere we went, we ran into another sister or friend. When I remarked on how popular she is, she just shrugged and said, small towns are that way. At night, we went to her friend’s birthday party, which was held at an open-air bar overlooking the ocean, and because the bar is closed on Saturdays, we had the place to ourselves. It was pretty cool. Here, birthday parties (and probably parties in general) are more family affairs. The bar was filled with 20/30-somethings, their parents, and young children. At first it felt uncomfortable seeing young children running around in a bar while people were getting sloppy drunk, but it is a normal part of the culture here. To my benefit as well (no one asked, “why the heck is this Gringa here?”), everyone is included in everything. At one point I was talking to someone when we were interrupted by the arrival of his mother and aunt who he immediately called me over to meet.

Some crazies we picked up along the way

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And now for something completely different…

At the Mercado Municipal: view from above; sanduíche de pernil (pulled pork on left) and de carne seco (on right); and testing out the fruits of the world—only walking quickly away stops them from giving you more samples.

While I am something of a perpetual, unintentional tourist here, learning something new about Brazilian culture every day, my stay has been disappointingly lacking in formal tourist activities. It’s a shame too because Sampa is filled with art, Samba (and the now oft-derided, pop-like “pagode,” which my student described as music about nothing), museums and landmarks. One of my few touristy ventures has included a Saturday afternoon trip with a coworker to the Mercadão or mercado municipal, a giant indoor market in the centro (old downtown) of the city. The Mercadão, which opened its doors in 1933, is comprised of 100’s of stalls of exotic foods including fruits and spices from all over the world. In fact, aside from my touristy inclinations, one of the reasons I wanted to go to the market was to buy garam masala since I couldn’t find it in a traditional grocery store. On the second level, the Mercadão houses several restaurants famed for such favorites as pastel de bacalhau (a cod pastry), and sanduíche de mortadela (Italian sausage sandwich).

Near the market is the famed Rua 25 de Março. On Saturdays in particular, theIMG_2467
street is packed with people buying and selling knock-off designer athletic apparel, electronics, toys, and clothing. It is known as the best place in São Paulo to score a great deal while simultaneously being mugged. We didn’t linger long, but I was happy to find a fabric store selling cheesecloth so I could make my first attempt at homemade paneer (again, impossible to find here—I asked for “gaze tipo queijo”). Instead, we headed to peek into the 400-year old São Bento monastery. Though very pretty, it turned out we’d missed the real highlight of the day by hours: the monks singing Gregorian chants at daybreak.

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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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