Category Archives: Culture

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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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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The Honest Candidate

It’s a big day here in Brazil. For the past week, it’s been impossible to go anywhere in Sao Paulo without hearing “Dilma! PT! PSDB!” as well as a number of choice words I will leave to your imagination. Campaign posters are everywhere, TV stations have been airing publically funded campaign ads in specified time blocks, and the streets are filled with people handing out political propaganda. On Thursday, the fourth presidential debate was held, and over the weekend, Brazilians all over the country journeyed to their hometowns to place their votes. By now, Sunday evening, the votes are in, indicating essentially that all the excitement is culminating in six more weeks of winter.

Because no one candidate garnered the majority of the votes in today’s first round of elections, the top two candidates: the current president and PT’s Dilma Roussef and her PSDB rival Aécio Neves will go head-to-head two weeks from now. This was a surprising first round result in what has been a dramatic and even tragic election season. On August 13th, less than two months before election day, Eduardo IMG_2242Campos, the candidate representing Brazil’s third major party (PSB) died in a plane crash in Sao Paulo state. At the time, he was polling well behind the other two candidates, and it seemed clear that Dilma would keep the presidency. However, after tragedy struck, Campos’ vice president Marina Silva began to rise in the polls, giving all indication that this radical environmentalist who grew up poor and illiterate in an Amazonian state, might give Dilma a run for her money.

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Saturday in the Park


Sao Paulo is indeed the concrete jungle everyone promised me it would be. Every building follows a different design than its neighbor. It is not uncommon to see a small house between two high rises, connected by an overpass, simply because no one planned out how much space a business might need ahead of time. The city is always in a hurry, and it is no rare occasion that a pedestrian gets run over by a motorcycle flying around the corner, although there is apparently a movement to increase awareness. Throughout the city, there are a number of reprieves from the concrete, if not the madness, in the form of abundant greenspaces scattered throughout. Unlike what I initially thought, however, it turns out that rather than slowing down for the weekend, Paulistanos simply take their intensity to the park.

Yesterday morning, my roommates, Bruna and Maisa, brought me to Ibirapuera, the biggest park in Sao Paulo. Not surprisingly, 19.9 million other people had the same idea, and Maisa tells me it’s far worse when the sun is out. Still, as my almost maniacal smile inIMG_2181 Maisa’s action shot illustrates, it was wonderful to be running with her, far away from the city blocks and the crazy traffic. I had run to Ibirapuera once before from Tammy’s apartment, and, due to all the traffic interruptions, 2.5 miles took me about 40 minutes. This time Maisa drove us there, and it was such a relief to be running in the park where my only limitation was how quickly I could dodge the other runners and walkers. Another immense difference between running in the park versus around the city is due to a tiny, insignificant Sao Paulo fact that no one in the blogospheres seems to mention. Seriously, Sao Paulo bloggers, I want my money back! The fact is, this city is a crazy series of steep peaks and valleys, making even the shortest run a pretty unappealing proposition. My family went to Quebec City earlier this year, and Sao Paulo is actually quite similar, except with three times the area to cover and over 20 times as many people. When I first arrived, the hilly terrain was (and still is) by far the biggest shock.

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