That’s So Brazil

Post #9: The World’s Greatest Party

I’m talking about Carnaval, of course. The official day falls right before Ash Wednesday, but the revelry starts a week earlier, with each new day upping the ante.

To mark the official start of my personal Carnaval season, my friend Ya Ya's caipirinhaYa Ya made me a caipirinha with cachaça rum, limes, and acerolas from her garden. It wasn’t quite noon yet, and I only drink before noon during long layovers at airports, but hey, this was Carnaval. Que comecem os trabalhos, as people say around here. Let the work begin.

Take your pick: desfiles (parades), samba school competitions, masked balls, special events such as “drink and draw” parties, and street food at every corner. Unless you spend all week in a cave, you’ll see beer cans piling up on sidewalks, joints being passed around under palm trees, and men relieving themselves in parking lots.

If you think this sounds a little de trop, you’re not alone. Several Brazilians have told they hate the debauchery of Carnaval, an admission sometimes preceded by an embarrassed “I know this may sound very un-Brazilian, but…” One man told me he viewed Carnaval as a ruse to distract people from the serious problems facing Brazil. Instead of fighting for a better country, he said, people spent weeks or months practicing their Carnaval dance moves and planning their costumes, with hardly a pause to take their heads out of the sand.

No doubt he had a point, but the energy in the air was hard to resist. Most nights I headed down to Praça da Lagoa, the main square in my part of town. On a tarpaulin-covered stage, rock and samba groups banged away and people massed around them, singinSujos 6g and dancing and waving their raised arms like windshield wipers.

I’m not a huge fan of crowds, but I wasn’t going to miss the bloco dos sujos (block of dirties), a traditional Floripa street party where men dress like women, women dress like men, and “Carnaval rock” music (apparently a genre) blares from all sides. From my perch on the steps of a cathedral, I watched the pom-pommed breasts and shimmering tutus and dyed-popcorn booths lose their sharp edges and become pure colour.

But all is not well in Carnaval land: the bane of cultural appropriation has come to town. A sententious video I found on YouTube exhorted people to avoid cross-gender, indigenous, gypsy, Afro-Brazilian, and “sexy nurse” costumes unless they belonged to those groups. (Which begs the question: how do you determine if you’re a sexy nurse?) When a famous Brazilian actress, Paolla Oliveira, appeared at a Carnaval ball in full Indian regalia, she had to dodge a barrage of cyber-tomatoes. As someone who lands squarely on the “culturaCultural appropriationl appreciation” side of the debate—and who loved Oliveira in the soap opera O Profeta—I found this regretful.

Fortunately, most revelers in my midst did not let political correctness trump good old-fashioned fun. On the final evening in the praça, men jiggled their falsies, sexy nurses let their real (and likely enhanced) wares hang out, and Afro-Brazilian bangles swung proudly from ears, necks and wrists of all colours.

Before heading home I rode my bicycle along a few side streets, where I passed by a string of men doing their business in bushes. Long live Carnaval.

 

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That’s So Brazil

Post #8: Age is but a… oh, never mind

The other day I was standing in a long line at the bank when I suddenly remembered: as someone over 60, I was entitled to hop over to the caixa preferencial, which had a much shorter queue. A sign above the teller’s booth served as a helpful reminder: “This line is for old people—anyone as old as 60 or even older.”

Old age 1“Coming right up,” I felt like saying. “Just hang on while I retrieve my walker and pop in my hearing aid.”

Along similar lines, the Brazilian novel I’ve been reading recently brought a new character into the story, a “very old man” with wrinkles criss-crossing his face, cocker-spaniel pouches under his eyes, and the weight of the world on his rounded back. A couple of pages later the author let it be known that the man was 60.

With insults and injuries such as these, I can’t be blamed for being a wee bit twitchy about my age. I turned 61 a few weeks ago, but damned if I was going to let anyone know. Not here in Brazil, where people “refresh” their cheeks and breasts and butts as one might rearrange the furniture in a living room. Brazil cosmetic surgery

For most of my midlife years, the guess-my-age game has given me a reliable ego boost. “You’re really 52? I would have guessed mid-forties.” “Fifty-seven? No way.” As recently as two years ago, I was propositioned by a handsome Italian man on the boardwalk in Cannes. I put a quick end to his nocturnal aspirations,  but still… ego boost.

In the past couple of years, though, something has changed. I look in the mirror and don’t see it—I have no frown lines or turkey chin, and my body hasn’t gone all sausagey on me—but clearly the rest of the world does. People are no longer shocked when they learn my age, and on my third day in Brazil one person actually guessed higher.

After that I stopped playing. I have no interest in seeing people’s un-shocked faces. Now, if someone asks me how old I am—and Brazilians often do—I just smile and say, “A gente pode mudar de assunto?” Can we change the subject?

Let’s face it, youth is a currency, and I don’t have quite as much coin as I might like. Before meeting Brazilian cyber-buddies IRL for the first time, I’m tempted to give them fair warning. You know, truth in advertising. “Hey, just letting you know that I’m 61, even though I feel like 25, both physically and mentally.” I actually wrote this to one young dude I was planning to meet for English-Portuguese conversation exchange. He never showed up.

To be fair, I’m meeting a ton of people who don’t give a fig about my age. (If anything, Brazilians seem less concerned about age-gapped friendships than people back home.) I’m making friends of all ages, just as I’d hoped. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t peeved at this “betrayal of the flesh.” I have worlds of energy inside me. I’m ready to rock, roll, and samba. Why didn’t my epidermis get the memo? Ω

Edited to add: Today a woman in a second-hand clothing store asked me if I was 50 yet. She also told me that I speak better Portuguese than many Brazilians, so she’s clearly not a reliable source, but I’ll take what I can get. Ego off life support—for now.

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