Second first impressions


I should have already known from my previous travels, but I figured out earlier this week why last Sunday the major shopping districts looked so bereft of shops. Much like in Seville, when stores here are closed, a garage-door like contraption is rolled over the storefront, such that the name of the store is also often hidden. To any gringo passing by on a Sunday morning, it would look like rows of abandoned, graffitied garages, punctuated by the occasional cellphone service store. But walk down Rua Augusta on a Monday, or even a
Saturday, and suddenly the streets are lined with colorful shoe stores, chocolate shops, stores selling pirated CDs, and movie theaters. I was especially excited when a friend showed me Livraria Cultura, one of the best bookstores in the country (but apparently not even Sao Paulo’s most beautiful), where people stay for hours simply to read. During the week, the casually attired Sunday crew is replaced with suited businessmen walking together in droves, and there is not a fluffy dog in sight. No matter the day, however, there always seem to be clusters of teenage boys, doing tricks on their skateboards, while narrowly dodging pedestrians.

Best bookstore in town!

As much as I enjoy a lazy Sunday morning, I’ll admit I was relieved to see the city come alive. I’ve wanted to at least experience living in a city for a while now (Tammy pointed out that I chose quite the city!), and I was a little disappointed at first when I thought Av. Paulista’s offerings were confined to banks and office buildings. On the other hand, I’m sure after a month here, the slightly slower-paced Sundays will be a welcome reprieve! In accord with the Paulistanho stereotype, people here do seem to work long hours; Tammy and Ricardo, who are in finance/consulting often work as late as 10pm and bring work home over the weekend, and the lawyers taking a 7pm English class I was observing, returned to work at 8pm after class. Several people have also mentioned to me that, while the process may not always be altogether efficient, Paulistanhos love organization and lines and, for example, will line up for a flight an hour before it begins boarding. The work culture might be a little different and, some might argue, less efficient than in the US and I can’t yet confirm whether many Brazilians conduct their business over hours-long lunches, but it’s clear to me that Sao Paulo, or Sampa, as it’s affectionately known, is a hard-working, business-driven city.

Fun colors AND good for orienting oneself!

Unlike people in some other big cities I’ve been in though (ahem, NYC), I am still finding Paulistanhos to be incredibly friendly, kind and helpful. Tammy and her friends have gone out of their way to be inclusive, show me the cool places to go and make me feel comfortable with a new language and culture. Call me weird, but I really appreciate that if I smile when I pass a random woman walking down the street, she actually smiles back (yes. Probably they should run in the other direction). For me, the acid test of a city’s friendliness is when someone who is American, and clearly not proficient in the local language, tries to ask a local for help. Yesterday when I asked a shopkeeper what the word “catraca” meant because I was supposed to meet someone near one and had forgotten to look it up before leaving the house (some of us had gotten a little too dependent on having internet on-the-go), she left the store to walk me down to the underground metro entrance.

Last week, when trying to meet someone in Vila Madalena to discuss teaching job prospects, I walked around for an hour, completely at a loss to find a tiny side street—it didn’t help that some of the street signs here are incorrectly oriented. Again, without aIMG_1946 usable cell phone, my only recourse was to start asking random people on the street, and by chance, I ended up sampling a small cross-section of the population. A shopkeeper re-oriented me and recommended a cab company. When I overshot again, a fashionable middle-aged woman sent me back in the other direction, and finally, a businessman with a google maps-equipped iPhone patiently gave me directions so clear even a child could follow.

This is less specific to Sampa, but I’ve been told to bring a change of clothes, rainboots, and an umbrella with me every morning, since the weather can change at any moment. My first week has been nothing but sun, temperatures ranging from ~75-88, and mostly cooler nights. I should really be hoping for rain though since Sao Paulo is in one of it’s worst droughts in the past century, and, according to Ricardo at least, the city government is pretending nothing is wrong. Tammy’s apartment is very new so she thought it might be ok to drink from the tap, especially if I use my filtered water bottle, but I’m starting to think maybe it would be better for the city if I only bought bottled water. It’s hard to get too inspired to buy water though when you then see sidewalks being wiped down with water (although less so than in Spain when there was streetwashing at least once a week, if I remember correctly) by a shopowner.

Graffiti from world cup protests
Graffiti from world cup protests

As is well publicized, Sao Paulo exemplifies the country of extremes that is Brazil. On almost ever block, alongside the businessman and fashionistas, you can see a mini shanty town or a homeless person sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk. Yesterday I saw a mattress and blankets inside a room of Banco Itaú ATM’s. Having never lived in a big city, it’s hard for me to compare, and I’ve heard that some cities like Chicago have tried tactics to prevent panhandling in major tourist areas like the Mag Mile. Still, I know that housing here is almost impossible to obtain so I imagine the situation might be significantly worse. What is strikingly different to me here though is the amount of homelessness versus panhandling. In Chicago, panhandlers call over or even come up to you, begging for money. In Durham (NC), on many major street corners, there are panhandlers wearing (presumably) local government-issued reflective vests, often holding up marginally clever signs. Here, I’ve seen almost no panhandlers—the closest was a man who came up to Tammy and me trying to sell a metal bookmark he made and there are certainly street musicians—homeless people just lie there on the sidewalk. Walking along in all my excitement of living in and exploring this city, it’s been a jarring and important reminder of how difficult life is for many people here.

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