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.
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.
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!
Another thing I really love about Brazil is the language. Previously I had convinced myself that the reason I don’t find Spanish, or English for that matter, very pretty as languages is because I can more or less understand them; they have become solely utilitarian, rather than collections of mellifluous sounds. But now, while I’m far from fluent, I am able to understand Portuguese reasonably well, yet I still find it to be a beautiful language. This could in part be because Brazilians are always so supportive of foreigners’ attempts at Portuguese (see point 1). At first, I naively took all the praise to heart and genuinely thought I was learning Portuguese much more quickly than I ever learned Spanish. However, then I realized that Spanish is so widely spoken that no one is going to bat an eye, never mind congratulate you if you can hold your own in Spanish conversation. Portuguese, by contrast, is more rarely spoken, such that if, as a foreigner, I make a real effort to speak Portuguese (and not Spanish, like many foreigners apparently do here), people really appreciate it and applaud your effort. Even though I know people here are just being generous, it’s nice to hear, “only 4 months! You speak so well!” as opposed to, “ay Katy?! You’ve been here 2 weeks! How do you not know the word for hangers yet?!” So upon further reflection, it seems clear that my feelings toward a foreign language may have something to do with my experience interacting with people in that language!
And of course I would remiss not to mention how easy it is to find a job as an English teacher in Sao Paulo. In my case, it helped that I already knew some people here, but I don’t think my situation is all that unique. Before coming to Brazil, I had never fully appreciated how lucky I am that I just happen to have grown up speaking the language that is in such high demand right now. Marketing English speaking as a “skill,” feels like a scam to me, and, at some language schools, it is. I always want to qualify myself to students: “I have experience teaching!” or “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher!” but the primary focus of many is just on working with native speakers, rather than teachers who have been carefully selected or trained. None of this is to say that teaching English in Sao Paulo is any kind of get rich quick scheme, but generally speaking, I think it is possible to come out relatively even while meeting some interesting people.
Finally, Sao Paulo has many of the same offerings you would expect in any major city. For me this is particularly nice since this is the first time I’ve ever actually lived in a city. I love that it has such a huge diversity of well-educated and well-traveled people from all over the world. Given it is so international, it is not surprising then that, though it may cost you upwards of R$1,000, you can find almost anything you might want here. In fact, for the bargain price of R$20, you can find peanut butter in any old grocery store. In addition, Sao Paulo also has a relatively clean, reliable metro that can get you to about 1/3 of the places you want to go. In general, I really like living somewhere where there’s a restaurant on every corner, an infinite number of cultural activities and always something fun going on. Now, to find the time to do any of them!
Sao Paulo is famous for it’s terrible traffic. Transit is blog post fodder for another day, but suffice it to say that regardless of your mode of transport here, you can never count on being on time for anything. It usually takes me about an hour to get to Samantha’s school by bus, but I leave an hour early to give myself a buffer as well as preparation time. However, the other day I still managed to be half an hour late for class because my bus came to a complete standstill for an hour, just ten minutes after we had left the station. There are certainly traffic jams everywhere, but Sao Paulo lives up to its reputation as being in a class of its own. On the (albeit dubious) plus side, everyone in Sampa is aware of this, and no one faulted me when I arrived partway through class. When I apologized and told Gerson, one of the school’s administrators, how I felt like I was always running around in circles, he responded, “Sao Paulo is like that. You run around, working so hard and producing very little.”
In that vein, my biggest frustration here has been my jobs. I have been substituting about 25 hours a week for Samantha and another teacher and then filling in the gaps with the Callan method job. All of this sounds perfectly feasible and lazy even until you factor in a minimum of about 5 hours of total travel time throughout the day. I was also pretty upset when an admin at Sam’s school told me this past week, “Tomorrow you’re going to start teaching a new class every Tues/Thurs at 9am.” Oh, ok, great! I teach a class from 8-9am, a 30-minute walk away, but no problem, I have a helicopter. My students are also only available during mealtimes and after work, so I work through mealtimes, commute during work times, and get home well after the supermarkets are closed. This means most weekdays I only have time to eat a banana in the morning and, on occasion, when time affords, some bread and cheese hotpocket-like concoction from a Padoca while I’m running to a class. I can’t tell you how excited I was to have midday off yesterday so I could take a break from running around in circles to eat something for lunch (and meet up with my new friend Fernanda too of course)!
The other problem with the combination of the two jobs is that one job never gets me home before 10:30 or 11:00pm, while my other job has classes starting across town at 7:30. This of course means that, at best, I can only get about 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night, which anyone who knows me will tell you does not make me a very fun person to be around. It also means that, even though Maisa and Bruna always make an effort to include me, I can never go out or even socialize with them because they’re either already out on the town or asleep by the time I get home. Clearly, this situation is not sustainable.
My goal for the near future then is to quit the Callan method job and to figure out how to have some control (and forewarning) over my schedule for Sam’s school. My longer-term goal is to quit both jobs and find a job that only requires a single commute, allows me to eat every day and maybe even have the semblance of a social life. In the meantime, I have to go to bed because it’s Friday night, I just got back from work, and I have to leave for school at 7am tomorrow morning to teach the same class for 4 hours. The good news is that, not only did I eat lunch today, but the egg turned out to be soft-boiled.