That’s So Brazil

Post #13: Bye for now, Brazil

What we know is this: all things in life come to an end. I leave Florianópolis today with mixed feelings—excitement at seeing my loved ones in Toronto, sadness at stepping off this “island of magic”—and a full heart.

It is said that Floripa either embraces or expels people. It was my good fortune to have the city embrace me in a tight grip, to offer me endless adventures, and to place a cast of delightful characters along my path. I marvelled at, and at times felt undeserving of, all the warmth and welcome I received.

Perhaps not all of it was luck. Learning Portuguese gave me a ticket to the local residents’ lives, to their hopes and fears and frustrations with their own country. While my initial goal of “sounding like a native” proved overambitious, I was able tBabel 1o understand and make myself understood, to share laughter and tears with my friends, and even to tell a few bad jokes.

Taking social risks also helped. I cast wide nets online, invited people for coffee after fleeting exchanges in stores or on hikes, and approached a local musician after his set—a gambit that culminated in a private concert on my back porch. Just about all my overtures were met with interest and several led to friendships.

There were challenges, to be sure. I learned that “venha jantar com a gente, quando quiser!” did not mean an actual dinner invitation was forthcoming. Along similar lines, the cultural tic of leaving plans to the very last minute, and then cancelling said plans due to a father’s birthday or a sick dog, caused me all manner of frustration. In time I came, if not to love this aspect of Brazilian culture, to roll with it and tease my friends about their flakiness.

Like all great trips, this one was above all a journey of self-discovery. I discovered that I could deal with bank machines that sometimes accepted my credit cards and sometimes did not, a public transport system that often left hour-long gaps between buses, and engarrafamentos that made Toronto’s traffic look like an Indy 500 race, without my customary first-world impatience. I discovered that I don’t need much material comfort to be happy. Living in a 12’ x 12’ apartment, washing clothes by hand withoDream 1ut hot water, shooing away the occasional cockroach—none of this put a dent in my mood.

Above all, I learned that age does not place hard limits on what a person can dream and do. (Well, that’s not quite true. I can confidently state that I will never ride a surf board amid Floripa’s crashing waves.)

Through all my adventures, I never lost sight of my husband and children, who understood my need for this trip and cheered me through it. I also drew strength from my two Brazilian friends in Toronto, whose support blasted through the miles between us.

I plan to come back someday, possibly with my family. But I will not attempt to repeat an experience that, by its very nature, can only happen once. And that shines all the more brightly for having a finish line.

 

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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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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 #2: It was supposed to be Greek

The project I now call That’s So Brazil began life two years ago as Gone Greeking. For two years I looked forward to the day I would turn 60, start learning Greek, and get my Big Fat Greek Adventure off the ground.

At first I kept the idea to myself, but eventually I told a few people. TGreek Island Patiohen a few more. I never doubted that Greek and Greece would work for me. The language seemed suitably challenging, and what’s not to like about feta cheese and ouzo on a cliffside patio in Santorini?

Then came the big day. I opened my husband’s gift—a set of Greek language instruction manuals with nine CDs—and began studying.

By day three, something started to feel wrong, and by day five I just knew.

It’s hard to say why Greek didn’t do it for me. It was difficult, certainly, but then so was Japanese, which I learned at 33. In fact, the U.S. Foreign Service Institute deems Japanese to be the most difficult language for an English speaker to learn, and that didn’t stop me.

All I can say is that Greek was difficult in a different way. Learning Japanese was like landing on Mars. Nothing looked, sounded, or felt the same. But once I accepted the change of planet, I found I could get around after all.

Greek was not Mars, but the rote memorization that lay ahead seemed endless: three genders, four cases, and a bunch of rules no less arbitrary than tax laws. And the writing! Try telling a 60-year-old brain that what looks like a V is actually pronounced N, what looks like an N is an E, and so on. I wanted not only to challenge myself, but to enjoy myself, and I couldn’t see that happening. There was nothing to do but move on to Plan B.

Grazil 2Talk about embarrassed. I had paid for a Gone Greeking blog site! A domain name! From Greek to Portuguese, Greece to Brazil—surely people would find me capricious and random. They would snicker as they waited for me to ditch Portuguese and take up Swahili or Djinang.

Fortunately, my husband was there to remind me that people don’t really care what other people do. They’re too busy having fits about their cell phone bills, deciding which Netflix shows to watch, and wondering what other people think of them. Drew was right, of course. People didn’t snicker, at least not within my earshot.

And I’m happy to report that I won’t be hitting the Swahili or Djinang textbooks anytime soon: Portuguese has stolen my heart. So has Brazil, though I haven’t set foot there yet. Go figure.