31 October 2011

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh, My!

On my very first night in our new house in Búzios I walked around and around opening and closing doors like a kid with a new toy. Coming from a New York apartment, I was especially delighted at the luxury of having all those doors to open and rooms to enter. When I opened the door to one of our guest bedrooms and turned on the light, I heard fluttering. I sensed motion. I thought, "Oh, a butterfly. How nice!" I looked harder. Awfully big for a butterfly, and such a dull brown. I thought, "Must be a large moth. Gee, they have big moths here in Brazil." I looked harder. The flying was so frantic and the noise so strangely thwup thwup thwup-y. And the wings, they were so un-bird like. The truth dawned on me ...

One of my first new vocabulary words: morcego
That was my first up close and personal bat. No big deal for people who live in the country, but I was a city girl. We still often see bats flying around at sunset, but now that the house is occupied, lights are on, music is playing and people are talking, the bats don't come inside. And if one does occasionally go astray and come into the house, it's likely one of us will just say, "Oh, look, dear. A bat."

Our life here didn't turn out — as I had initially feared it would — to be one National Geographic moment after another. As far as fauna are concerned, things are relatively calm. I don't even remember now what I had expected. Swarms of red ants? Scorpions? Tigers? Lions? Was I confusing South America with Africa? Did I watch too much Johnny Carson on the nights that Wild Kingdom's Jim Fowler was on? Oh, sure, we've had our share of "invasions." One early evening it was dragonflies, hundreds and hundreds of them, wrapped like a cloak around our house for about 30 minutes. Another day — and for several days running — there was a swarm of bees inside the house at the top of the stairs. I'm allergic to bees. I was nervous. Plus we learned that bees are protected by law in Brazil; you're not supposed to kill them. Best I keep mum on the outcome.

No question but that my family and friends have it worse in the States. Woodchucks in the garbage pails. Deer in the front yard. Bears in the backyard. Not to mention those 49 exotic wild animals running loose in Ohio last week.

Here are some of our friendly visitors: 

Our pet cricket. This cute guy stayed glued to this perch for a week before moving on.

This pretty cone snail emerges after every rainstorm. It looks like any ordinary snail. But it's poisonous! Do Not Touch!

This prehistoric monster lives in our hibiscus bushes.

One of a family of three possums living in our roof. They have been evicted. 

These visiting vultures were a little too close to the living room for our comfort.

It's not exactly the snake-pit scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it's as close as I want to come.

27 October 2011

If the Shoe Fits . . .

My entire current shoe wardrobe
I've undergone a complete wardrobe overhaul since moving to Brazil, and no item of my apparel has changed more than my shoes. The above picture? That's it, that's my shoe wardrobe as it now stands. Not a mid- or high-heel in there, though I used to own dozens of them. No more pumps, platforms, stilettos or wedges. Not a single boot, not for rain, not for snow. In truth, this abundance of flats and sandals owes more to lower back problems, developed over years of wearing seven-inch heels, than to my new environment. But the flip-flops, or havaianas as they're called here, I owe to Brazil.

I remember flip-flops growing up, but my mother warned against them. They were bad for our feet and bad for our posture. We were allowed to wear them at the beach, but nowhere else. So flip-flops were relegated to the furthest reaches of my closet. I wore mother-approved "sturdy" shoes during my formative years and then, as a young woman, I went a little crazy and wore platforms and pumps with heels as high as I could find them, which was just short of Lady Gaga's current inventions. I developed back problems and bunions, in addition to suffering my fair share of blisters and corns.

The flip-flop brand "Havaianas" dates from 1962, but I met my first pair in the early '90s. And now they're almost all I wear. They're comfortable, they're colorful, they're convenient, they're easy on the bunions, they're available all over the place in all kinds of styles, and they're cheap (at least here in Brazil, where you can still buy a pair for the equivalent of $9). Havaianas even have their own Facebook page! 

havaianas, havaianas, havaianas
It's said that you can always tell a tourist by those sensible walking shoes they wear. But here in Búzios the reverse is true. Who's the tourist? You can pick her out in an instant on our lovely main street, the Rua das Pedras, famous for its charm, its restaurants, its nightlife, and its large, uneven stones, strewn about in dangerous disarray. She's the one in high heels, trying to remain elegant and poised while at the same time clutching her companion in the hope of avoiding an embarrassing (and painful) fall. She's the one looking down all the time, missing the sights around her. And by the end of the evening she's the one with sore feet, a few blisters, and occasionally a scraped knee or two. The locals? Oh, we're the ones sitting around in havaianas, feeling smug.  

For the shoe fetishists out there, here are a few pairs of shoes I have loved over the years:

I gave most of my high heels away before moving, but I couldn't part with these. I can't wear them, but I take them out and look at them twice a year

Original Pro-Keds. You won't see their like again.

I saw these flat sandals in NYC in 2010 and I lust after them. Anyone know where I can buy them?

24 October 2011

Pan American Games 2011

Ballpark franks 
I remember passing many a childhood summer watching baseball with my father. Just the thought of Yankee Stadium still conjures up the smell of stadium hot dogs, a smell unlike any other hot dog smell in the world. I remember continuing to watch baseball on my own through the years, when Reggie "Mr. October" Jackson owned the game. I remember the dangerous excitement of being in Madison Square Garden in the '70s, back when the Knicks were the Knicks and counted Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Walt "Clyde" Frazier among their players. I remember the 1972 Olympics, when Mark "The Shark" Spitz picked up his gold medals. In that same Olympics I saw the amazing Olga "The Sparrow from Minsk" Korbut burst on the gymnastic scene, the first of the spectacular pre-teen gymnasts. And I couldn't help but wonder, Where do they come up with these nicknames?

It's no surprise to me that I now find myself sitting in front of the TV watching the Pan American Games being played in Guadalajara, Mexico. Many of my friends in the States probably don't even know the Pan Am Games are going on. Am I right? I'm thinking you're all caught up in your World Series baseball championship. Here, the Pan Am Games are the big sports news event of October. Right now Brazil is in second place behind the United States in total medals won, which is no surprise to anyone living here. The word "Brazil" is going to figure in any sentence that has the phrase "second only to the United States" in it. The list is long, so here are just a few: Brazil has the second largest number of airports and landing fields in the world, after the United States; Brazil is the world's second largest producer of ethanol fuel, after the United States; Brazil is the second largest consumer of cocaine in the world, after the United States; Brazil has the second largest fleet of business aircraft, after the United States; it's the second largest country on Twitter, after the United States; and it is the world's second largest swimming pool market after you know who. I read somewhere recently that Brazil is also the world's second largest market for Mont Blanc pens after the U.S., but I can't verify it. I don't doubt it, though.

One sporting event in which Brazil is definitely not "second only to the United States" is volleyball, a game I myself loved playing back in high school. I've been cheering on both the Brazilian girls' and the Brazilian boys' volleyball teams for nine years now, through all their national and international competitions. This past week at the Pan Am Games the girls' team passed, set, attacked, blocked and spiked their way to a spectacular gold medal victory against arch-rival Cuba (which got to the finals by beating the other team I root for, team USA). The Brazilians waltzed through the first set, 25 to 15. Then the Cubans woke up, remembered who they were, and the rest of the match was played point-by-point, until the Brazilians finally nailed it in a fifth set tiebreaker. I spent the weekend recovering my strength in time to cheer on the boys' team, which begins its preliminaries tonight. Here we go again!

Sheila slams another one
One more thing: I fervently hope US gymnast Shawn Johnson doesn't retire any time soon. I get such a kick out of listening to the Brazilian announcers try to pronounce her name. Comes out something like Zhawng Zhawnsawng.

Ah, the life of a sports fan!

20 October 2011

Language Learning Late in Life

Mon père returns to his Paris birthplace
I began to be interested in France when I found out that my father had been born in Paris. I was probably not even ten years old at the time, but I knew instinctively that there was something about Paris, something romantic, something very ooh là là. So as I got older I set about learning French. I figured it was in my blood. I memorized and sang French songs, watched French films, read Simenon, fell in love with Yves Montand, made French one of my best subjects in school. And it was all so easy! I was young, my brain’s grammar mechanisms had me conjugating and modifying and translating faster than you could say "Vive la France!"

But contrary to expectations — family’s and friends’, that is — and contrary to my own ideas about my life, it’s not on the Left Bank that I wound up pitching my tent. No, somewhere along the way my eastward trajectory took a sharp turn south, and I ended up in Brazil. And if I was going to be able to discuss symptoms with a doctor or argue about the telephone company’s charges, if I were to communicate with anyone at all, I was going to have to fire up my neurons and start learning a "second" language all over again. I knew this was not going to be easy. I remembered from my college linguistics courses that it’s young people who enjoy the language-learning advantages, not older people. Mon Dieu!

I hardly spoke at all during my first two years in Brazil. I really can’t imagine what people thought. I must have given off quite an impression, a quiet, demure person with no ideas or opinions of her own. Mark, who had learned to speak Portuguese when he first started visiting Brazil long before we met, did all of the talking for us. But this was incredibly frustrating for me — probably for him as well — so I set about learning this new language. I watched closely as people talked, trying to pick up on body language, much as a child would. I also used my own tried-and-true method: I memorized and sang Brazilian songs, watched Brazilian films, read Jorge Amado, fell in love with — well, I stayed true to Yves Montand. I watched Brazilian news shows, trying to mimic the over-articulating news anchors. I also read lots of murder mysteries. It was a favorite genre of mine in the States, and I knew that the dialogue would be easy, along the lines of, "All right, punk, where were you on the night of the murder?"

A few of my language tutors: Inspector Espinosa, Detective Bellini , Investigator Augustão
I know a lot of people think of Portuguese as some poor cousin of Spanish. It’s not. There are more native speakers of Portuguese than there are of German, Japanese, Russian or even my beloved French. Portuguese has some amazingly complex and interesting tenses: the personal infinitive (all but unique among the world’s languages), the future subjunctive (a "conjugated" infinitive), a future perfect subjunctive, and two pluperfects. And there’s plenty more to shake the confidence of a neophyte: for one thing, the imperfect tense is frequently used idiomatically in Portuguese in place of the conditional tense. There is also one use of the future tense in Portuguese which has no equivalent in English, and that is the use of the future to express what is probable in the present; the same thing goes for the conditional tense, which is sometimes used to express probability in the past. (Don’t worry, this won’t be on the test!)

Given all these complexities, and given my late start, I was convinced that I would speak only in the present tense for the rest of my life. And I did exactly that for years. Thankfully, most people still caught the gist of what I was saying. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, I began using simple past tenses, then a future tense or two, until one day I made a wild leap into the subjunctive abyss. I found myself discussing politics over dinner, laughing at jokes, chatting away with people in supermarket lines, and railing at the telemarketers. All in all, I’m feeling pretty confident. Confident enough to take on Mandarin if I had to move to China? No, not that confident.

17 October 2011

Aging in Brazil

I buy my first senior ticket!

I was a whippersnapper when I moved to Brazil, a mere 51 years old. I’m now 60. In a normal world, 60 is nothing. I certainly don’t feel old, and I’m told I don’t look old. I’m in good health, I have no major complaints. As far as I’m concerned I’m not 60 at all. I’m eighteen, with 42 years’ experience.

So then why have I lately become obsessed with growing old? Well, one reason could very well be that my health plan catapulted me into the next premium category before I finished blowing out the candles on my birthday cake. And that new 60+ premium represented an increase of 12%! That was an unsolicited reality check. Another reason could be that 60 is a watershed age in Brazil, and I was feeling a little anxious to have crossed over some invisible line, even if seen only by people who need to check my ID card.

I unknowingly chose a terrific country in which to grow old. Brazil has nice names for old age, like "melhor idade" (the best age) and "terceira idade" (the third age, which seems to imply a fourth or fifth). Somehow, to my ear they don’t sound as old, as heavy, as the "Golden Years" does. And Brazil has a 70-page Senior Citizen Statute for persons 60 years or older which is vigorously applied. Seniors get immediate and preferential treatment at banks, post offices, and all places that offer public services; they (I suppose I should bite the bullet and start saying "we") have priority for receiving tax refunds; we enjoy a 50% discount on tickets to all leisure and cultural activities: movies, theaters, sporting events, concerts; we are eligible to participate in the Viaje Mais Melhor Idade program (More Travel for Seniors) which offers 50% off at hotels, as well as various other travel discounts. It is against the law to neglect, disrespect, discriminate, abandon, act cruelly towards, or in any other way compromise the health and security of an elderly person. Period. Penalties range from six months to 12 years in jail, plus heavy fines.

Of course, things don’t always go so smoothly. The 60-and-over preferential line is shared by three other categories: the physically challenged, pregnant women, and adults with babes in arms. This can get somewhat complicated. A few years ago, before joining the geezer line myself, I witnessed a rather nasty fight at my bank between a pregnant woman and an elderly woman. The older woman had arrived in the line first, the pregnant woman second. The pregnant woman pushed in front on the theory that pregnancy trumps age. People got involved, took sides, switched sides, switched back. The armed bank guards began getting nervous. The incident was amusing, pathetic and completely out of character for the normally peaceful, deferential and smiling Brazilians. (Oh, and the pregnant woman won.)

In five years I will reach 65 (okay, get the chorus of God-willings and insha’Allahs and se Deus quisers over with ...). Sixty-five is the next watershed age here. Why? Well, at 60 you get to go to the front of the line, but at 65 you get to travel on all subways and buses, even interstate buses, for free! Mark has been enjoying this privilege for the last three years. And the money we save can be invested in canes and walkers. But I’m not going to think about that right now. Right now it’s time for my nap.

All cities have playgrounds for kids; Rio has playgrounds for grandma ...
... while grandpa waits at the office

13 October 2011

Specialty Foods and Products

Me and my shadow at the Casa Pedro, in the SAARA in Rio 
I used to know where to go for anything in New York. Someone was looking for an out-of-print book? "Have you tried the Strand at 12th and Broadway?" Bitter lemons? "Go to Kalustyan's on Lexington." The TKTS line is way too long in Times Square? "Why don't you try the TKTS booth in the World Trade Center Concourse? They open earlier and there's never a line there." I felt oh, so very competent, and sometimes even smug.

So it was somewhat infantilizing to find myself in my new country and not know where to find some seemingly essential food products. Particularly out here in the boondocks, about two-and-a- half hours outside of Rio. How was I going to prepare Moroccan couscous without couscous grains? Or saffron threads? Or cheesecloth? What is cole slaw without celery seeds? Biscuits without creme of tartar? Anything Thai without Thai curry paste? What's a Gimlet without Rose's Lime Juice? Lemon poppy seed cake, or everything bagels, without poppy seeds? Where was I going to find ghee, besan, garam masala, and all the other Indian spices I needed? The list kept growing. I became panicky. I felt incompetent. Truth is, I was hungry!

So it became a challenge — a matter of honor — to find what I felt I needed to keep my kitchen up and running the way I wanted it. Looking back now I realize that my success in finding various foodstuffs was directly linked to my acquisition of the Portuguese language: it was mostly a simple matter of asking friends and reading magazines and newspapers. That's how we finally found the SAARA, a neighborhood of mostly Arab and Jewish businesses, somewhat akin to New York's Lower East Side in its heyday. SAARA is both an acronym for Sociedade de Amigos das Adjacências da Rua da Alfândega (Society of Friends of Alfândega Street and Environs) and a clever play on words, since "Saara" means "Sahara" in Portuguese. The SAARA has EVERYTHING a person needs or wants, from specialty foods to fabrics, gardening tools to  jewelry, housewares to party decorations to perfumes. We stop there every time we're in Rio and, for better or worse, I've regained my feeling of competence. Smugness too.

Two more pictures from my Casa Pedro:

But with victory come certain small defeats. I still can't find cheesecloth, though the fault is all mine. I know they have it here, and I've even been told what they call it: it's cânhamo. But what kind of store carries it? I shall overcome this little setback, and I will triumph over celery seeds, too. At least when I ask for them people say they've heard of them. That's always a positive sign.

What we'll never find again: poppy seeds. We used to buy them at the SAARA's Casa Pedro, but they no longer sell it, they told me apologetically, since its sale in Brazil is now prohibited. Poppy seeds. Say it out loud here and the federal police may appear out of nowhere and slap handcuffs on you. Oh, how the world has changed! Remember when poppy seeds were nothing more than a little poison that a light dusting of snow could remedy?

09 October 2011

An Expat in Brazil

Right now I'm gazing at this very view. It's always the same, yet it's always different. It's beautiful when the blues are blue and the greens are green, it's beautiful in a tropical downpour, it's beautiful in the oppressively muggy summer, it's beautiful in the chilly wind of winter, at night it sparkles with the lights across the bay. There's something new to look at every minute: fishing boats come and go, wind surfers glide by, kite surfers fly overhead, we watch graceful seagulls and scary, mean-looking vultures. Birds I can't even begin to name fly in and out of our house (and sometimes commit bird harikari against our windows). The tide ebbs and flows, as tides do.

My husband, Mark, and I have now lived in this house, in Búzios, Brazil for nine years. We are often asked why. It's an honest question, but we have never come up with a pat answer, or a clever sound bite. I figure as I muse about our life here, and blather on in this blog, the answer will develop on its own. I will say that Mark had the intention of (and is currently working on) writing a book about Brazil, one with a more scholarly approach than, say, the Peter Mayle Provence books. But it had been my intention to write one of those, and I have quite a collection of these expat adventures, played out in France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Greece and Mexico. But I have no clever or funny anecdotes about plumbers or maids or walls falling down (the Peter Mayle experience just hasn't been our experience) so I let it slide, and the years went by.

I decided to try this more modern approach of a blog. I hope to make it interesting, informative, challenging and even funny (but not in the plumbers-that-don't-show-up-on-time way). And I think there are things to be said about living abroad in your 60s that the AARP magazine hasn't begun to explore. If all goes as planned, I'll be posting Mondays and Thursdays.

A word to my Brazilian friends: those of you who read and speak English will be able to follow my musings. Mas peço desculpas aos meus amigos brasileiros que não falam, nem lêem, inglês. Saibam que não vou dizer nada ruim! Todos vocês já sabem do que a gente tem!

This is what we looked like in New York:

This is what we look like now: