Category Archives: Friends and family

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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Home sweet home

View from Tammy’s apartment complex

Somehow my first two weeks in Sao Paulo are over, which means so is my Airbnb stay with Tammy. I think I originally tried to give myself credit for making the brilliant decision to find a place through Airbnb, but in all reality, I just lucked out to have such an excellent host as Tammy. Yesterday was my last day staying with her, and I was very sad to leave!

IMG_1823In addition to the critical fact that all of her previous residents had only the most positive things to say about Tammy herself, I chose Tammy’s listing because of its proximity to Paulista and a metro station, the fact that it has its own gym, and the constant presence of a “porteiro” or doorman for enhanced security. The irony of this last is that, at least initially, the porteiro did a better job of keeping me in than non-residents out. What do you say, especially when your language skills are poor, to a doorman you can’t even see?

And so, I was terrified of leaving and not knowing what to say over an intercom to get back in. When I left the apartment alone for the first time, I felt like I was sneaking out furtively, hoping I could somehow con my way back in. My fears were far from assuaged when I returned later that first day and pushed the little blue button at the first gate. A few seconds later, a man’s voice mumbled something to me through the speaker. Without being able to see the person I was talking to, I felt at a loss for what to say to make myself understood. I attempted some Portunhol iteration of, “I’m staying with Tammy on the 11th floor,” but this only elicited more uninterpretable (to me at least) questions. Eventually I seemed to have provided enough information to enter, and I smiled and nodded, “Boa noite, obrigada” at an opaque window as I passed through a second gate.

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Welcome to the Jungle

I will admit that my first day here made me a little more nervous about finding my way around than I wanted to let on. I kept telling myself that I’ve been fine navigating all sorts of other major world cities, even Seoul, where I couldn’t read signs or talk to anyone, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I think a major difference with Sao Paulo is that I’ve heard from so many Brazilians how careful I need to be—don’t use your iPhone to take pictures, don’t wear sunglasses on your head, be wary of people walking too fast or too slow, always carry R$20 so that the homeless people won’t shoot you. It’s enough to make anyone feel a little bit paralyzed. In the midst of North America’s summer I had also blissfully forgotten that with the winter season comes early darkness. By the time I woke up from my nap/haze on Saturday around 6pm, it was dark outside, and I was petrified of venturing out alone.

Sugar is much more fun here

Things shifted yesterday though thanks to my Airbnb host, Tammy. I had hoped staying in an Airbnb might be a great way to meet people, get to know the city and maybe even make a friend. For once, I was not wrong. Tammy has lived in Florida as well as London, so perhaps she understands what it’s like to be a foreigner in a strange new place or she is just a really understanding, patient person—probably both. Yesterday morning she brought me to a nearby bakery, and she made sure to point out again the direction we had come from to get there, even though the apartment is nearly visible from the bakery. These are the types of kindnesses I seriously appreciate but am usually too embarrassed to ask for.

Tammy is now a Blue Devil!

Tammy’s apartment is in a high rise located on what looks to be almost a back road, but it’s actually in a neighborhood in the center of the city (Bela Vista) and just half a mile away or so from Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo’s answer to Saks fifth and Michigan Ave. Stela told me that I can find any cute brand name article I could possibly desire on Paulista and then simply go to the cross street Rua Augusta to buy the knock-off. Walking along both these streets with Tammy yesterday though, I never would have guessed that there is shopping on either of these streets. There were no shop windows, few pedestrians, and it was hard to believe on a sleepy Sunday morning that this was the center of the city, never mind a major shopping district.

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Scientists unite!

Today is technically the day that I “graduate” from Duke with a Masters so it seems only fitting that I cap the experience with some acknowledgements. Given that I decided not to finish what I originally set out to do, my sentiment is a little different than the traditional post-thesis defense slides. Still, today I want to thank my many friends in the triangle area who have helped me be strong enough to leave my PhD program and seek out what is healthy for me, and, perhaps most importantly, helped me realize that I am not a failure and I can have a long and successful career, whether it’s in the sciences or not.

No one wants to ask their friends to prove themselves, but due to an unfortunate series of events over the past year, a lot of my friends were put in awkward positions, and time and time again they have supported me and helped me heal in order to move forward. Every time I’ve been at my lowest, someone was there with a hand and a hug to peel me off the floor. I was worried when I left the PhD program that some friends would take my decision personally and remove me from their lives—PhD ABD blogs/forums discuss this as a reality of leaving a program. However, my friend Ricardo was completely right when he said, “everyone who loves you will understand.” People have gone out of their way to be inclusive and to organize special events to make sure I feel in the loop. Seriously. Now I feel like I have the best of both worlds: all the friends without the days on end of failed experiments! Ironically these same friends who I will really miss, are the people who have helped give me the confidence to take the leap and live in another country.

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Stela Connections

I realize my last post was really more of an unfinished thought, but I wanted to get some ideas down as a bookmark to return to later. For me, Cidade de Deus was a movie I needed to write about even though my ideas aren’t yet fully formed. I couldn’t move on to the next post without jotting down some thoughts. It feels like it ties in with all too relevant (to the US) themes of subtle racism and invisible privilege, but maybe that’s just because that’s been my recent academic focus and is on my mind. I would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts sometime!


For today though, I wanted to write about something much lighter. I want to talk about some really wonderful new friends I’ve made thanks to my tutor. Stela may be my Portuguese tutor, but where she really shines is in hostessing and connecting people. When she invited me out to Piazza Italia to watch Brazil’s first World Cup knockout round game with a few of her friends, I was nervous to go alone. Usually, as long as I’m actually invited, I am not too shy to walk into a group of people I don’t know, but this felt a little different. Even though Stela invited me, I really felt like I would be crashing a party. The people there, many of whom were family or had known each other for many years, would all be Brazilians bursting with national pride. I was just an American, with no real connection other than a tutor who had invited me to learn a little more Portuguese in real time.

When I arrived for the match, however, the scene was a little different than I expected. The whole restaurant was filled with yellow and green shirts and toy vuvuzelas. There were families with young children climbing from one adoring set of arms to another and young professionals dressed up in sparkly “Brazil” tank tops and miniskirts (well, maybe just the women). The minute I walked in, Stela screamed as if this was the most exciting moment of her life and gave me a huge hug, escorting me to her own table at the very center of the action. During the game, there were of course still circumstances that made me feel like an outsider—should I refer to the team, saying “we” or “you?” Am I allowed to speak critically about the Brazil side, or is that akin to criticizing someone else’s mother when only they are allowed that offence? But none of these concerns were at all brought on by my tablemates, who, between lively rounds of yelling at Neymar to chuta or vai, would ask me about myself or talk about their home state in Brazil and lie to Stela that we were only speaking Portuguese, whenever she returned from her last flutter around the room.

A tiny slice of the cheering section

Continue reading Stela Connections