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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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That’s So Brazil

Post #7: A Wave from Brazil

Everyone has to be somewhere, and right now I’m in Brazil. On December 17, after 11 months of anticipation, fear, and sanity questioning, I plunked myself in a plane bound for São Paulo, with a return flight booked for five months later.

I spent the first few days in the megalopolis with friends of friends, a middle-aged couple called Zuleid and Rubens. The days went by in a blur of food, conversation, more food, visits to cultural landmarks, and still more food. Zuleid, a self-confessed fruit freak, had juicy BrazBrazilian fruit 3ilian fruits all over the house and I got to try them all: maracujá, guaraná, cupuaçu, goiaba, abacaxi, their tastes as exotic as their names.

After studying Brazilian Portuguese in a disorganized manner for 11 months, with never more than an hour of conversation at a stretch, I was now thrown into an all-Portuguese environment. I had not only to listen, but to answer. By the end of each day my brain cells were crying, but there’s nothing like total immersion to bring you up to speed.

On December 21 I bade my hosts goodbye and moved on to Florianópolis, the city I’ll be calling home for the next five months. That’s when the reality of this venture hit me. Meals were no longer materializing on the table. Steaming coffee was no longer within arm’s reach. The adaptor I had bought in Toronto was the wrong size, and if I didn’t find another one in a hurry my cell phone and computer would run out of power within hours. Three hardware stores later I was approaching panic, when a nice man with a workshop and hacksaw fashioned the requisite item for me.

The Airbnb room I had rented measured less than 50 square feet, and I was well and truly on my own. I ached for my family. Never mind that I had chosen to take this solo trip at age 60—to experience, for probably the last time before I died, the type of cultural immersion that had rocked my world in Japan. I still ached for them.

But the mountains! The ocean! You’re never far from either in this city, known to Brazilians as the “island of magic.” While Florianopolis (handily shortened toFloripa map 2 Floripa) is a state capital and has close to half a million people, it’s more a collection of small towns than a standard city, thanks to said mountains. With forty-two gracefully curved beaches, a salt-water lagoon, sand dunes, one of Brazil’s largest universities, restaurants to suit every palate, flashy bars, and old fishing villages dating from colonial days, the island has enough variety to sustain a lifetime of exploration.

But I wouldn’t get to enjoy any of it unless I pushed myself. Unless I risked falling flat on my face. Well, I had plenty of experience in that department. Face-plants it would be, then.

Within a week of arrival I had an invitation to a beach and to a bar, where a local Samba band stole my heart. “Nas coisas do amor, temos que cuidar, mas não cuidar demais,” the lead singer crooned. In matters of love, we have to be careful, but not too careful.

She might as well have been singing about travel.

#solotravel  #sixtyplus  #portuguese  #florianópolis  #brazil  #brasil

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Post #6: The Spanish cure

The fear came without warning. I woke up one morning and there it was, darting around like a squirrel in my head. How will my husband manage while I’m gone? Never mind that: how will *I* manage without him? When I get mugged in Brazil, will my attackers be carrying a knife or a gun? Fantasies that normally gave me an anticipatory thrill, like scoring a B&B on the fly or getting lost in a maze of Gothic streets, filled me with dread. Maybe I just didn’t have the heart for this anymore.

Squirrel

The next day was the same, and the day after that even worse. Deep breathing didn’t help. Meditation didn’t help. (Not that I gave it more than two minutes.) I tried to recapture the mounting excitement that had marked the previous weeks, but the squirrel wouldn’t leave.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Until recently, this Brazil thing had been no more than a pleasant abstraction, a notion to toss around at summer barbecues. But then I started taking steps: getting my yellow fever vaccine, gathering documentation for my visa, settling on the city where I would live. This was no longer a barbecue topic. This was a leap into the unknown, into disruption, into chaos.

A week into the squirrel thing, I had to go to Barcelona for work. Determined to regain some confidence, I tacked on a couple of days of touring at the end of the trip. When I arrived in a nearby town called Girona, I resolved to speak only Spanish to the locals, Spanish words 2even though my Spanish was more than rusty and everything I said came out as Spantuguese. As it turned out, I still knew enough of the language to fend off an old man (you know, someone in his sixties) who insisted on showing me “the great view” from his apartment.

Back in Barcelona, I spent the last night of the trip in a hostel, where I shared a room with four other people. “One of my roommates is snoring like a jack-hammer,” I texted my husband at 4 a.m. “Next time, your own room!” he texted back. At that moment I agreed with him, but I’ve since changed my mind. There’s nothing like staying in a hostel to make you feel young.

I’m happy to report that the squirrel is gone. Maybe it will come back, maybe it won’t. Either way, this trip to Spain has shown me that Brazil isn’t too big for me.

#Brazil #Spain #solotravel

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Post #5: There’s no cure for this. But what’s the alternative?

I’ve been reading a slim Portuguese volume called As Mentiras Que Os Homens Contam—The Lies Men Tell—and it’s charming the pants off me. The chapters are mercifully short, and I read a new one every night before bed. Savor it, like a good Riesling. I chuckle, I guffaw. This is a seriously funny book.

On this particular night, in paragraph two of my latest chapter, I run into a word I haven’t seen before: caixão. I know that caixa means box and that the ão suffix makes things bigger, so caixão must mean big box. A few lines later I get it. Caixão means, ah, ah, what’s that word again? It’s the box you put dead people in before burying them. You know the one, right? It’s called, ah, ah… Damn it, why can’t I think of the word? Memory leak 2

A torrent of related terms floods my mind: hearse, procession, gravestone, undertaker, pushing up daisies… But not that word.

I try to picture myself at a funeral—maybe that will jog my memory. Well. The funeral that jumps to my mind is my own mother’s, twenty-nine years ago. I had to choose the box myself. I remember standing in the funeral parlour, the reality of having no more parents just beginning to sink in, while the funeral director showed me samples of mahogany and cherrywood. It was not a fun time. No wonder I’ve blocked out the word.

But I haven’t blocked it out. I remember it in French—cercueil—and I now know it in Portuguese. Just not in English. I call up its distinctive hexagonal shape and imagine myself opening it, hoping to find its name inside. Nada.

Pink coffinThis wouldn’t have happened to me at thirty. Or forty. Or fifty-nine. There’s no escaping it: it’s the beginning of the big biochemical blowout, the synaptic switch-off, the slide into vacant-eyed oblivion. By the time I get to Brazil I’ll probably have no words left, just chin hairs and missing teeth.

What am I doing, trying to learn another language when I can’t even remember my own? I should just invest in a rocking chair—a model that comes with knitting needles and a lapdog—and call it a day.

But no, I can’t do that. I’m enjoying Portuguese too much. And if I give up on my sputtering synapses, I may as well buy a nice little plot and bury myself in my own… ah, ah… it’s coming, it’s coming… my own coffin!

Blog: That’s So Brazil

Post #4: Portuguese Irregular Verbs

A few weeks ago, while poking around Amazon.com, I came upon a book that promised to resolve all my challenges with Portuguese. It was called Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and I had to have it.

When the book arrived two days later, I ripped open thePortuguese Irregular Verbs packaging and settled in for a good brain sweat. And then I read the first sentence: “Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld often reflected on how fortunate he was to be exactly who he was, and nobody else.” This was not a book about Portuguese irregular verbs, this was a novel. Oops.

The book wasn’t bad, if you go in for understated and veddy proppah British humour. Professor von Igelfeld was a professor of philology who had written a 1,200-page treatise called—you guessed it—Portuguese Irregular Verbs. The book had made him famous in his field. Trouble was, his field only had about 50 adherents worldwide. Though he flogged the book wherever he could, sales had flat-lined at 200 copies.

Absent-minded professorWhen he wasn’t writing treatises, Professor von Igelfeld spent his time flitting from one conference to another, where the four or five people who attended his lectures hung on to his every word. Wherever he went, disaster followed: he ordered the wrong dish, offended a hotel clerk, or missed a chance to marry a woman because his best friend proposed to her a day earlier. Never one to dwell on might-have-beens, Professor von Igelfeld took solace in the thought that his magnum opus would grace scholars’ bookshelves long after his death. By the end of the book, I wanted to give the guy a hug.

But I still hadn’t solved my problem, which was to commit the hundreds (maybe thousands) of Portuguese irregular verbs to memory.

When I first cast my lot with Portuguese, I feared the language would be too easy. It seemed awfully similar to Spanish, which I had studied in high school and could still muddle through in an emergency. I needn’t have worried. The verbs alone have been supplying all the challenge I need. Take the future subjunctive, a tense that the Spaniards wisely jettisoned many moons ago. My Portuguese grammar book instructs me to use the future subjunctive tense (as opposed to the perfectly serviceable present or future tenses) when “referring to future situations that are not certain.” Huh? Isn’t “not certain” the very essence of the future?

I wish I had Professor von Igelfeld by my side so I could pick his expert brain. I’m sure he Professor 2would clear up my confusion. If nothing else, I hope that a philologist just like him will one day write a book just like his, though I’m not sure 1,200 pages would cover the topic.

Blog: That’s So Brazil

Post #3: Testing, one two splat

On the day I turned 60 I took a memory test. I was about to learn a new language and wanted to know if my brain would cooperate.

The last time I had taken a standardized test, I was 21. It was the GMAT, the test required for admission into MBA programs. Cornell University liked my score enough that they offered Brainme a spot, even though I hadn’t applied.

This time I would get tested by the Toronto Memory Program, a clinic that specializes in researching dementia and treating patients with wobbly memories. In other words, people nothing at all like me.

The backwards-sevens test was a cinch. So was the psychomotor test, which had me tracing lines between letters and numbers as fast as my muscles would allow. I was nailing this thing! Next, I had to list all the zoo animals I could Zoo and farm animalsthink of in 60 seconds. I hadn’t been to a zoo since my kids were in diapers, but how hard could this be? The first few animals rolled easily off my tongue: lion, tiger, cheetah, polar bear… then a little imp flipped a switch in my brain and all I could picture were farm animals: chickens, turkeys, sheep. What the hell was going on?

I moved on to the cognigram, a computer-based test of visual memory and reaction time. Each time a playing card appeared on the screen, I was to press “yes” if I remembered seeing the card before and “no” if I didn’t. Every time I got a wrong answer, the computer beeped. I got a lot of beeps.

Drumroll, tally, score: “normal range, about one standard deviation above average for my age.” How could this happen? I’d scored 98th percentile on the GMAT! I’d gone to graduate school at Harvard! (I quit after a semester, but still.) All my life I’d woven a story about myself, a story that flowed from the premise that I had a rather special brain.

Like all people who don’t ace a test, I started in on the excuses. I was nervous. The test didn’t assess higher-level thinking. It was biased toward visual memory. If they had tested my auditory recall, I would have knocked it out of the park. Yeah, whatever.

Looks like I’m no longer a member of the special-brain club, just another schmo trying to learn a language. Whatever I accomplish will be through hard work, not turbo-charged synapses. If nothing else, I’ll get an A for effort.