Category Archives: Friends and family

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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It’s cookie time!

Cookie Party: USA Edition Season 14 (2014).
Well, at least Olafs excited
Well, Olaf’s excited at least

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.

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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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50 ways to piss off your cleaning lady

IMG_3189As I imagine some of you may have noticed, Thursday was Thanksgiving. It’s not exactly recognized here, but I still wanted to do something or, at the very least, not be alone. Almost on a whim, I messaged Olivia, my one American friend here, and we decided to do an 11am “dinner” since we both had to work in the afternoon. Then I realized Maisa would also be free since she had (voluntarily) been included in her company’s last round of cuts, and it was the perfect excuse to finally meet Frika, an Indonesian woman I’d only ever talked to online/via whatsapp. Everyone agreed to come, and suddenly, 90 degree weather aside, things were beginning to feel a bit more festive.

Then, predictably, came the stress. I always get very excited to host special events, and then the reality, in this case that I’ve never cooked a whole bird before, never mind in a foreign country, sets in. Serendipitously, Maisa was going to the store on Tuesday, so I jumped at the chance to share a taxi with her instead of trying to make the humid, two-mile journey with apples, potatoes, a turkey, and who knows what else, hanging from my shoulder. I also appreciated the chance to have a São Paulo supermarket expert in tow for this all-important trip. My biggest concern was the turkey. I’d seen plenty of chickens but never a whole turkey. Maisa seemed confident that “Chesters,” whose name was coined by a major brand, are ubiquitous here, and I should have no problem finding this specific kind of turkey. However, we were out of luck at the upscale “Pão de Açucar,” only finding one brand of giant R$55 pre-seasoned turkey. I decided for the first time in my life to pretend that I know how to go with the flow and to buy a small frozen whole chicken instead. It turned out to be the right choice since I later found out that Chester is actually chicken anyway!

The rest of the shopping trip went smoothly. I found green beans (vagem), apples, Yukon-like potatoes, and plenty of baking materials. For a moment I contemplated making my mom’s world-famous pumpkin bread—the Japanese post-doc in my former lab said it was the best pumpkin bread he’d ever had, the wording of which made me curious to know how much pumpkin bread people in Japan eat–but I decided that, in the absence of canned pumpkin, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take on hacking apart and pureeing a pumpkin on top of all the other new experiences awaiting me (our lack of a bread pan may also have quelled my enthusiasm a bit). Also on the list of nearly impossible-to-find Thanksgiving must-haves are cranberries. There’s a chance the Mercado Municipal has them, but I decided it wasn’t worth traveling across town so that I might increase my potential to have the opportunity to spend hours trying to make them palatable.

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Two left feet

Above: non-traditional Jabuticaba Caipirinha. Below: an international blur representing Spain, Brazil, USA, France, Russia and Germany.

Despite the popularity of samba and the “balada” here, I’ve only been out on the town a handful of times. My first few were laid back weekend afternoons at the boteco with Bruna or Tammy and some of their friends. This usually involves sharing a giant Coors-lite like beer from a bucket of ice in the middle of the table along with some fried appetizers. Although I love the camaraderie, this approach is particularly dangerous when there is no free tap water and the waiter is constantly refilling your glass from a seemingly endless supply of communal beers he is bringing to the table. Add to this the fact that you’re a gringa and everyone wants you to try a Caipirinha—Brazil’s national drink for stupid tourists—and you’re toast.

I have also had the pleasure of crashing several of Maisa and Bruna’s girls’ nights. Although they certainly don’t happen every week, “the girls” told me Brazilians will use anything as an excuse to celebrate. When a particularly rambunctious one happened to fall on my dad’s birthday, they assured me that they were most certainly celebrating him. I’m a bit skeptical, but I won’t begrudge an evening to drink wine and eat biscoito de polvilho and some of Bruna’s excellent cooking.

My experiences are few and I’m no alcohol expert, but in general, it seems that beer is the drink of choice at bars here, and there is really only a choice of two different companies, Brahma or Skol (and they are actually both owned by the same company). I’m told that microbrews do exist somewhere in Sampa, but most people are happy to partake in something relatively cheap and light that can be drunk in massive quantities. A friend told me that when they went to the US they were shocked by how little beer they could drink because it’s so heavy and hoppy. For my part, I was shocked to find that Tammy’s Guinness look-alike Brahma Black was actually extremely sweet and cream-based. Hops do not seem to have reached Brazil, and I am totally fine with that. What saddens me more is that I have yet to drink wine outside of the house. It is extremely expensive, and Brazilian wine is not considered to be very good. I think Maisa and Bruna usually bring back an Argentinian wine for upwards of R$25 instead.

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