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.

This time though, I chatted in Portuguese with the Brazilian woman who had been sitting next to me on the plane up until our inevitable parting at customs. I spent a little extra time on my customs declaration form, secretly hoping I would be able to help someone who couldn’t speak English. In what I had envisioned would be a magnanimous and thoughtful gesture, I offered a couple my $6 luggage cart (they had been free in Sao Paulo!) in Portuguese before they politely informed me in perfect English that they were actually from Colombia. It dawned on me that I had become one of those insufferable, “I spent five minutes in another country, and now I don’t remember how to speak English” people.

As most people assume, some of this attitude certainly stems from pride. Just like any other skill, it takes time and effort to learn a new language, and it’s natural to want recognition for any accomplishment. Upon reflection though, I think it’s actually less arrogance than a desperate attempt to cling to a unique experience that in some ways is gone forever. For me, returning from Brazil has given me the sense that I am leading two parallel lives. On the one hand, I felt so lucky to return and immediately pick up where I left off with such great friends. Much to the amusement of my soccer buddies, my soccer game had weakened immensely during my time in Brazil, but they unquestioningly welcomed me back into the fold. In some ways, being away has motivated me to explore new parts (for me) of Durham culture, like finally going to pop-up chorus with Melvin.

I still whatsapp with Maisa and Bruna and others, but sometimes it’s hard to know that life is rapidly coursing forward, and I’m not there to be a part of it. Bruna moved in with Caio over Christmas (which, Sam had told me, some Brazilians refer to as getting married), and Maisa’s 2015 plans have her moving to Australia in just a few months. And as much as I don’t miss the schedule, I even feel a tinge of nostalgia reading my schools’ group whatsapp messages, picturing Michele ragging on Joao for his European Portuguese. Of course my friends are moving forward with their lives, in Sao Paulo as in Durham, and I’m happy for them. I just need to find my own way forward, hopefully by building on this experience.

Fe! I miss you, my fellow sweet-loving buddy!

I can’t say if living in Sao Paulo, short time that it was, “changed” me. Sure there are little things. I remember, after throwing my bag on the floor the first time I went to Stela’s, she quickly moved it to a stool, explaining that a Brazilian woman would never leave her purse on the floor. I realized the other day as I set my purse on a chair, that now I automatically seek an elevated place for my bag. And of course, if the Starbucks across the street wanted to start making my favorite calorie bomb, pão na chapa com requeijão, I would be pretty ok with that. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the superstition that if a visitor physically lets themselves out of your house, they will never return. On my last day, post-cookie party, Fernanda and I sat staring at the door handle to “my” apartment for a few moments before she finally exclaimed, “Cat! I want to be able to come back!” And I have no idea if it’s related or it’s simply out of extreme politeness, but my students would also never leave the classroom until I opened the door for them.

What I really owe to Sao Paulo though, are the seeds (or maybe just half a seed) of a greater global awareness. It is just a small step, but talking to students about the Brazilian presidential election and their frustration with the country’s lack of infrastructure forced me to question my US-centered partisanship and wonder if perhaps my core political “values” were more relative or at least US-specific than I had once thought. Instead of watching a sitcom on a recent flight, I watched the world news because suddenly that world didn’t seem so irrelevant or far away. The newscaster was discussing the fact that despite the recent meltdown of the Russian economy, Putin has retained an astounding 80%+ approval rating. He argued that, as with leaders in many emerging markets, Putin is particularly popular with young people because of his nationalism. I immediately thought of Irina, who had moved back to Russia, and wondered how she was doing (she reassured me that she was fine and advised me against believing anything they say in the American media). Although paulistanos would tell you the reasons are obvious, I also cogitated, given that Brazil has been considered an emerging market for quite some time, why Dilma doesn’t enjoy anywhere near the same popularity.

What’s not to love in a city with pole-dancers in the main business district?

Not that pondering international popularity contests is going to help anyone, and I am no political scientist, but I am now staunchly on team pro-study abroad (take that, Kamen!). Many people have told me that no matter where you go in the world, everyone is the same. And of course, on a fundamental level, that’s true; people everywhere have the same needs and desires and should be treated with respect and humanity. That’s an excellent starting point. However, I don’t think stopping with this over-simplification is productive. Instead, we need to also try to remove ourselves from our US-centered viewpoint, perhaps geographically, and be sensitive to cultural differences (and not just the fun superstitions or tasty cuisine) that arise from another country’s complicated history. Only then can we even start to understand what motivates and drives a people or a foreign policy.

I won’t pretend that after 3 short months, I have any handle on Brazilian or even Sao Paulo culture. Plus I’m a scientist. What do I know about these things? Meu! Que saudades de você, São Paulo!

Metro map for gringos


5 thoughts on “They say you can’t go home again

  1. I’d guess that being back from a foreign country makes us feel like we stopped and everyone kept going forward. Far away from our lives making us exasperated by it, wondering what we’re doing with our lives. The fact that things had been happening while away doesn’t help either.
    Wow! I made it sound too dramatic haha should have linked Pink Floyd’s Time for a full-on depressing effect. Best not.
    By the way, that your football skills have worsened during your stay is something that couldn’t be helped taking the current state of football in Brazil. 😉
    I’ve been to SP a couple of days ago too. So hot! Still getting used to the summer over here.
    Wish you a great new year as well as more cookies (so you can replace requeijão as you high calorie fix)!
    Ps.: you can also leave a broomstick behind the door to avoid unwanted guests! So many funny superstitions. This type of “witchcraft” is known as ‘simpatia’.

    1. Yes! Let’s just hope I start moving forward soon before Pink Floyd’s Time starts resonating too much! Definitely an odd feeling, being stuck between worlds—it seems you can relate. 😛 I forgot to ask you, what are you studying in your post-grad in Japan? Do you speak Japanese? That should be an exciting adventure!

      Also, I read online about the broomstick behind the door, but I never observed it so I felt like it would be cheating to include it. And not to worry, as someone who loves baking, I’m always surrounded by “health” food. Hope you’re having a nice New Year too and are enjoying your own personal calorie bomb guilty pleasure!

  2. I’ll be in the interdisciplinary maths sciences course. 🙂
    I do speak the language but I wouldn’t call myself fluent yet. I’ve got much to learn. It’s a very different language compared to most and it’s got its own difficulties. I like to think I’ll be alright there nevertheless.
    I usually eat healthy food too but I can’t say no to cookies. In fact I love trying different ones. The best are the ones you make yourself though. Mm… need some cookies now 😛
    Cookies can be surprisingly expensive in Brazil as it’s sold as a premium product usually. Since it’s not part of our tradition many people don’t see for what it is, that is well… cookies.

    1. Ah, so you’re a math/science person too! Japan should be a great place to study as their approach to math and science education is supposed to be far superior to ours anyway (although I can’t for speak for Brazil’s). Anyway, I’m impressed!

      And yes, cookies were not the same in Brazil—not bad, just different. My co-worker’s Brazilian boyfriend tried my first attempt at cookies in Brazil, and he was mostly just impressed at how soft they were. It was probably for the better that cookies were so expensive there, since they are very portable, and I was always running from one place to the next…

      Are you/did you go to Carnaval in Brazil? I wanted to go, but it ended up being something of a hassle. I’d love to hear stories though! Someday I hope to experience it.

      Also, I’m sorry to have been so inattentive to this blog lately. I’m trying to start up a more science-focused blog too, and I haven’t been good about organizing my time!

  3. I’ve been pretty busy myself as well so no worries 😛
    Like many people you’ve probably met during your stay I don’t care much about Carnaval. It’s not something I can relate perhaps. The fact that it pretty much means a big party with loads of drinking, sex and even drugs to many people doesn’t help either. There are a lot crimes committed during the festivities too. Though there’s some dancing and fancy costumes, in many ways it brings some of the worst bits from Brazil when you get to know better. It’s also not a national holiday even though many unknowingly think it is.
    Organising your time, come up with a routine and sticking to it can be tough already, never mind having two blogs! Good luck.

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