28 November 2011

Come on Down!

Mark and I bought a beach house with five bedrooms not because we have a large family, or thought it would be fun to jump from mattress to mattress like Goldilocks, or because we love having an overlarge number of bedclothes to keep clean and moth-free. As fugitives from a one-bedroom loft apartment in New York that was sorely lacking in the guest room department, we felt we had years of hospitality arrears to make up for. We bought this house quite deliberately to accommodate lots and lots of visitors.

In a frenzy of preparation for the guests we were convinced would be lining up at the front door, our first purchases were bed frames, mattresses, pillows and sheets. I then thought it essential to buy a large calendar to better organize our visitor schedule. We discussed endlessly who we thought would come first, how long people would stay, how many we could accommodate at one time. Would we mix families? Mix family with friends? Could we handle kids? How many? I kept a list of things we would ask people to bring, like the most recent Sunday Times, or my special Crabtree & Evelyn hypo-allergenic face cream. A good friend of ours once told us about a sign she saw hanging in a house in East Hampton, which you see here. I toyed with the idea of hanging this sign in our guest rooms. That's how much in demand I thought we'd be.

We are grateful to our stalwart family and friends who have come to visit from the U.S., some more than once. We've also had a strong showing of friends from Brazil and Argentina. But let's face it, I threw out my reservation calendar years ago. We now read The Times online, and I found a substitute face cream. The thing is, we still haven't welcomed as many guests as we expected to, or all of the ones we most expected, nor have any guests overlapped. We still have all the extra sheets and towels, which we occasionally have to wash and iron and air out to keep them fresh and clean. (Otherwise, the sea air wreaks moldy havoc.) The mattresses are still nice and new and firm. No matter what, we always keep two guest rooms at the ready. The other rooms? We turned one of them into my painting studio and the last one into a storage space.

Royal suite
Presidential suite

Do we take the less-than-steady stream of visitors personally? No, we're grownups. We do understand the cost and the bureaucratic annoyance of getting a visa to come to Brazil. We understand how far we are from North America and from Europe. We understand what a pain it is now to travel by plane, with the security concerns, the invasive searches, the discomfort and the constant delays, not to mention ever-rising ticket prices. Yes, we even understand that Brazil — and we — are not on the top of everyone's must-see-before-I-die list.

Again, to those of you who have made the trek — and you know who you are — we thank you! We had a blast, and hope you did, too. For those of you who haven't made it here yet — and you know who you are — our invitation still stands. But you'd better hurry. We just might decide to downsize!

24 November 2011

Rio's Cultural Treasures

Beach going at João Fernandes
Most visitors to Búzios come for the natural beauty of its beaches. Some come to swim, surf, boat, kayak, snorkel, hike, play. Others come to spend the day flopped in a lounge chair under an umbrella, ordering caipirinhas and platters of grilled fish from the omnipresent beach waiters. Frankly, if you don't live here surrounded by your work, your friends, your books, your music — your stuff, as George Carlin might say — there's really nothing much else to do (outside of catching a movie at the Bardot Cinema). That's why there's a Rio de Janeiro.

Like Búzios, Rio has its array of beautiful beaches and stunning nature. But Rio also has a big city cultural life that Búzios lacks. That's why, when Mark and I were in Rio last week with a free Sunday on our hands, we stayed away from Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. We spent the day instead in historic downtown Rio at the exhibits and events going on in and around what's been dubbed the Cultural Corridor, starting with the CCBB (Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil).

The CCBB is in a gorgeous neoclassical building owned since the 1920s by the Banco do Brasil, and restored to glory in 1989 by the bank, a huge underwriter for the arts. The CCBB has various exhibition spaces, theaters, movie screens, concert halls, a bookstore, a café, a restaurant and the de rigueur WiFi space. Admission is free. You want to pop in after doing some shopping and wander through an exhibit, or just sit in the marble rotunda and relax? Be our guest, says the CCBB. The exhibit we caught was India! (the exclamation point is part of the title, and it's deserved), an amazing interactive and multimedia show covering 3,000 years of Indian culture, from the age of antiquity to modern times. If you go in to the exhibit thinking that India is all tandoori and raga think again. The contemporary aspects of the show are a revelation, from the hilarious Bollywood film clips to the teeming black and white photographs of the gritty, seedy side of Indian life today, by Raghu Rai.

Traffic at Chawri Bazar, Raghu Rai
The God Ganesha in the entrance hall

Right outside the CCBB is the Casa França-Brasil, another historic neoclassical building that's been used as a cultural center since 1990. There's always something engaging, if not titillating, happening there. The current show is of colorful video images superimposed over huge photographs of faces and flowers. Interesting, but nowhere near as memorable as their exhibit a few months ago: two naked people lying in a giant hammock, sleeping. Next door is another cultural center, this one underwritten by the Correios, Brazil's postal service, housed in yet another historic building with yet another extraordinary exhibit. An indefatigable curator by the name of Romaric Büel spent years talking to and cajoling Rio's richest and most successful art collectors to exhibit their never-before-seen-in-public pieces of European art — their Renoirs, Picassos, Chagalls, Bosches, etc. — just one time. Not all of them agreed, but those that did gave us a real treat.

Sonia Delaunay
Auguste Renoir

From Correios we followed the winding maze of narrow streets lined with old buildings that have been restored and turned into restaurants, galleries and used-book stores. At the end of the maze is an archway, and beyond it sits the Paço Imperial. Originally built in 1699 as the Mint, then used as a governor's mansion, a royal palace and a post office, the Paço Imperial has been a a cultural center since 1985. When we stopped by last week they were just finishing a multimillion-dollar renovation. But on our next trip to Rio we plan to make a beeline there for their next exhibit, 100 Years of Brazilian Art, culled from the Banco Itaú Collection, which is the biggest art collection in all of South America.

21 November 2011

As Time Goes By . . .

There's a line I like in the cowboy flick Open Range; it's when Robert Duvall's character says, "Ten years! Y'know what they call that? They call that a decade!" That line has recently been popping into my head as Mark and I creep up on ten years in Brazil. I want to wedge some chewing tobacco in my cheek just like Robert Duvall and spit out "Ten years! Y'know what they call that? They call that a decade!" But I don't. The reference is somewhat obscure, and I think it would be unseemly for me to be spitting out chewing tobacco.

When I was a kid, ten years were an eternity. As an adult ten years seem more like a blip. During this "blip" that I've lived in Búzios I've witnessed enormous changes, both positive and negative. We all rejoiced when the Búzios authorities finally built a hospital, but from what I hear it doesn't serve the population as well as the little 24-hour polyclinic it replaced did, and I hope that if something bad ever happens to us we can find a helicopter to get us to Rio. They also finally stationed a fire brigade in town, but the fire truck often has no water in it and can't answer calls. The construction industry has been energized by enormous population growth, but the new houses and condominiums translate into more cars, more congestion, more noise and more strain on the infrastructure.

Our basic services, though, have improved in these ten years. The local utility's supply of fresh water via pipes along the beach used to be so spotty that we had to supplement with deliveries from tank trucks. Now water is piped daily and plentifully, no trucks needed. We have always had electricity, but that service, too, used to be spotty. Now, Búzios has been chosen to be the first "energy intelligent city" in all of Brazil. (I can't wait to find out what this really means. They start rewiring next year.) Initially our access to the Internet was via a slow and frustrating dial-up service. One decade later and we have super fast broadband service.

When I got here Búzios still showed something of its tranquil origins as a little fishing village, with picturesque fishing boats bobbing in the bays and fresh fish markets dotting the waterfronts. The boats and the markets are still there, but now so are hulking transatlantic cruise ships, which anchor off the coast and loom over the tiny downtown buildings. During an October to March cruise season Búzios welcomes upwards of 300 of these floating cities, sometimes four at a time. Thousands upon thousands of people in brightly colored cruise wear are disgorged from the ships. If you don't own a T-shirt shop or an ice cream parlor, stay inside!

Shopping has improved. Ten years ago you couldn't find anchovies (which for me are an essential ingredient in any pasta tomato sauce). There was one large chain supermarket at the time and one mom-and-pop grocery. Not an anchovy to be had in either of them. One decade later and Búzios has four additional markets, and all six now carry at least two different brands of anchovies. Now we're talking progress!

Ten years ago our only available "pit stop" on the drive between Rio and Búzios was a place called Delícias do Rancho. It was a funky complex, reminiscent of the kind of thing you'd stop at on Route 66 in the 1950s, with a restaurant, a store, a series of souvenir shops, a petting zoo, horses for kids to ride and a chapel. The bathrooms? Just acceptable. Now we stop at the super modern Oasis Graal, which looks like an airport minus the planes and the landing strips, but with the food court and duty free shops. And their bathrooms? Clean, bright and gleaming. More progress!

As I reflect on this passage of time, this decade-long cycle we've been through, I'm comforted that some things never change. Our neighborhood bakery still prepares delicious cheese baguettes every day at 3:30 pm. The annual International Búzios Film Festival is always in November, and the Argentine heartthrob Ricardo Darin always shows up. The sun still rises every morning in the east and still sets every night in the west. For as long as we stay put in this house we will continue to head to our terrace at the end of the day to watch this glorious spectacle:

17 November 2011

Radio MEC

The Voice 
Back in New York the soundtrack of my life included jazz, classical, popular standards and show music. I'm talking now pre-iTunes, pre-iPods, pre-online streaming and pre-Pandora, when you actually had to get up and turn on the radio, tune in a station and adjust the aerial, or place a large, flat, disk-like object into a box called a record player and gently, gently, lower a needle. I woke up to Phil Schaap's Charlie Parker program on WKCR, spent the rest of the day with Michael Bourne on WBGO between Singers Unlimited in the morning and then Afternoon Jazz. I spent Saturday night with Jonathan Schwartz and his Saturday with Sinatra show. There was always WQXR for classical music, and I got my annual injection of Bach at the end of every year with WKCR's 12-day, round-the-clock holiday Bach Festival.

I wasn't finding any radio stations I liked at all during my first year or so in Brazil. Outside of the big cities it's hard to get anything beyond the evangelical stations, whose signals are super strong — somebody up there likes them? — or those infernal rock/light rock/boom-boom-boom stations you hear in stores all over the world, music played more for the young employees than for the customers. But I wanted to listen to the radio. I know I could have put on my own CDs (and I did), but sometimes a radio playing quietly in the background is just better. So I persisted, I fiddled with the dials, I gave up, tried again, gave up again.

MEC's Rio Headquarters
One day in Rio I began fiddling with the car radio once more. This time I tried the manual tuning mode, slowly clicking every single number from the 80s through the 90s, the usual band area for my preferred music. All of a sudden, clear as a bell, at 98.9 FM, there was a Chopin piano sonata. I couldn't believe my ears, or my luck in having found the station. Mark said I was a genius. "You're tuned to Radio MEC," came the announcer's sonorous voice. (Do all classical music stations everywhere in the world send their announcers to the same announcer school?) Okay, I had the call number and the call signal. Now I could play this beautiful station at home.

Not so easy. Radio MEC is nearly impossible to pick up in Búzios, at such a distance from Rio. I tried and tried and tried again. Mark and I bought aerials both complicated and simple, used them with and without aluminum foil. We moved the radio to different rooms, placed it at different angles and heights. I stood close to the aerial, stepped away from it, stood on one leg. Eventually, I actually succeeded. I don't know why, exactly. Some combination of persistence and how our house sits just so. But whatever the reason, we get radio MEC and our Búzios friends — who have also tried — don't.

There's a good reason everyone wants to pick up this station. Radio MEC plays beautiful classical music, yes, but it plays much, much more. It offers a smorgasbord of styles: there's Momento de Jazz with Nelson Tolipan, whose knowledge of American jazz is astonishing. Tolipan's show is on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 11:00 pm, and plays "what's new in the world of jazz along with the best of the big bands." Prefer bossa nova? There's Bossamoderna, Sundays at 10:00 pm. On Mondays at 6:00 pm there's Roda de Choro, showcasing an early Rio de Janeiro instrumental music called "chorinho," or "little cry." If you like ragtime, you'll love chorinho. Can't get into Rio for a favorite performer's concert? Chances are you can hear it live on MEC, on Sala de Concerto, Fridays at 5:00 pm. 

Why all this detail? Well, in this new online streaming Internet age of ours you can listen to MEC anywhere in the world at http://radiomec.com.br and I'm just whetting your appetites. In return, I get to return to the familiar, homey voice of Michael Bourne on WBGO. That's globalization for you!

A few of Brazil's composing greats:
Heitor VIlla-Lobos 1887-1959
Francisco Mignone 1897-1986
Ernesto Nazareth 1863-1934

14 November 2011

O Beautiful for Spacious Skies

"Blues skies smiling at me, nothin' but blue skies do I see" is the song lyric that pops into my head most often as I sit on my terrace and look up. Of course, the sky's not always blue and it's not always smiling, but it is always interesting. I felt really sky-deprived in New York. I spent so many years scurrying past the towering New York skyscrapers with my head down that I think I forgot what a sky could look like. My new sky seems different, bigger, vaster, more varied than I'm used to. I now spend a good deal of my time following — and photographing — its comings and goings. Of course I'm not alone in this, people all over the world look up at their sky in wonderment and click. Just browse Flickr and you'll see hundreds of thousands of extraordinarily breathtaking sky and cloud and sunset pictures. And some of my Facebook friends, too, have posted gorgeous sky photos. Here is my contribution to that panoply of pictures, a sampling of my ever changing, beautiful spacious sky:


10 November 2011

Girls' Night Out

Every world traveler brings a little something of himself to a foreign country. On a grand scale, an Englishman by the name of Charles Miller introduced soccer to Brazil, a sport now so identified with Brazil that Miller is but a forgotten footnote. Brigitte Bardot came to Búzios in 1964 and left behind an enduring legacy and the blueprint for the most sat-upon, hugged and fondled statue ever cast. Other people have left behind just a dog-eared paperback, or a little loose change in the sand. My contribution falls somewhere in between: I've brought the concept of Girls' Night Out to Búzios. I consider this my single greatest cultural achievement.

Not that women here hadn't always met each other socially, gone out to bars and restaurants and lived it up, had bachelorette parties, of course they had. Teenage girls have sleep-overs, their Moms take off for weekends in Punta del Este sans husbands. But those get-togethers are not deliberately designed as a counterpoint to Boys' Night Out. That was my contribution, my Gloria Steinem-inspired political statement. (Although let me say right up front that my husband is not a Boys'-Night-Out-er, he doesn't play poker, guzzle beer while watching either American football or Brazilian futebol, or participate in any way in any night out with any boys. So my Girls' Night Out was not exactly started as a political statement to get back at him. No, it was started because it was fun.)

I have been meeting with my dear friend Cristina once a week for at least the past eight years. Indeed, our GNO, as we call it (or GMO when we meet for breakfast, or GAO when we meet for that late-afternoon pick-me-up) is quite possibly the longest-lasting institution of its kind this side of the equator. The whole thing started when Cristina was recommended to me as a teacher for private Portuguese lessons. After three lessons it was obvious that we had considerably more to discuss than irregular verb conjugations! So we began to meet more socially. We told our husbands that our out-of-the-classroom meetings at night —  for dinner, with a little wine —  would serve to reinforce our language abilities. In some ways we really meant it. In some ways we knew we were on to something that would go far beyond grammar.  

Cristina and I have a real commitment to our Girls' Night Out, and there are reasons why it has endured as long as it has. We are disciplined about keeping our weekly date, barring emergencies, illness or travel. We are disciplined about alternating languages, one week Portuguese to upgrade my level, one week English to keep Cristina up to snuff. And we are very disciplined about respecting our self-imposed time limit of two hours. No doubt in my mind but that this disciplined approach is what has shaped an otherwise casual get-together into an Institution that has come to be known, and even envied, around town. 

We spent one whole year dining at a great restaurant called Patio Havana. We were really enjoying our evenings there until we realized that the waiters knew our orders by heart and stopped bringing us menus. Time to change! We've moved around a lot since then, switching days, places and times like two spies engaged in clandestine operations. For the last six months we've been very happy meeting for breakfast at a little neighborhood bakery. But just last week so many people stopped by our table — "Oh, must be Friday morning if you two are here!" — that we realized it was time to change again. Starting next week we'll be meeting at — never mind!

07 November 2011

Driving in Brazil

My mother taught me that if you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all. So because I like to think of myself as an obedient daughter — and because I think it was good advice —  I'm tempted to hold my tongue on the subject of driving in Brazil. But I won't. I can't. Brazilian driving is the bee in my bonnet, the pea under my mattress, my pet topic, my bugbear. It is the only stress in my stress-free life. I can't get through the simplest outing in the car without screaming some choice epithets, flashing the finger, gesticulating, yelling, or holding my breath in mortal fear (and I'm not even driving, I'm just the passenger).

Brazil does have a Traffic Code, and it is based on the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. There are extensive Rules of the Road, including long sections on Defensive Driving and First Aid. In order to receive Brazilian drivers licenses Mark and I had to study these rules, then take a sophisticated computerized test, a difficult psychological written exam and an eye exam. The Motor Vehicle Bureaus around the country perform rigorous annual vehicle inspections. There are radars and speed bumps everywhere, and heavy fines for scofflaws. It is not for lack of regulations, enforcement or will that Brazil has plunged so far down the traffic fatality slope, fatalities which last year alone totaled upwards of 40,000.

So what is it? Aggressive tailgating, reckless passing — on the right, on the left, into the oncoming lane — it just doesn't gibe with my sense of the Brazilian spirit of paz e amor. I was baffled until one white-knuckle ride into Rio, when it came to me in a flash. Futebol. The national sport, the national passion. They're all playing soccer. The drivers are forever cutting in front of each other to take any field advantage they can, they're passing with reckless abandon to get to the imaginary goal posts. One car scrapes against another? Just a rebound, the ball (or in this case the car) remains in play. Driving at breakneck speed on the shoulder? No worries, that's just an offside position, which is not an offense in itself.

Sir? Sir? I believe that's called the Oncoming Lane.
Mandatory traffic rules I learned in high school Drivers Ed are treated by many drivers here as optional. Stop signs are just a  suggestion, observed by only a few. A Yield sign is observed by no one. Emergency Vehicle Priority? That's just a challenge for a driver to maneuver behind the emergency vehicle and ride its coattails. Pedestrian Priority? You're joking. And weren't we taught that to keep a safe distance from the car in front of you, you had to be able to see the car's back tires? Brazilian drivers tailgate close enough to smell the alcohol on the breath of the driver in front.

I've lost count of the number of near accidents I've witnessed. But since they were only near accidents, since the drivers maneuvered and veered and avoided and stopped just short of the actual accidents, there is an argument that can be made that Brazilians are excellent drivers. I even see the logic there. Apologists cite the poorly maintained roads, the bad or misleading traffic signs, and some blame the weather. Huh? The weather? But nobody is forced to put the pedal to the metal. That's cultural. After all, Brazil ranks second in the list of foreign-born winners of the Indy 500, and third on the Formula One list. They love speed. It's not for nothing that the soccer breakaway is one of the most exciting plays in the game. 

One thing for certain, no one in Brazil has ever watched "Signal 30," the driving safety film they forced us to sit through in Drivers Ed. Remember? A film so graphic for its time, so horrifying, that even the most macho football team captains ran out of the classroom vomiting and girls fainted in their seats? Well, I remember it. And I think it should be resurrected in Brazil. So right here, right now, I'm going to do my part: 

Alert: Strong Content, Parental Guidance Required

03 November 2011

Teaching Through Chocolate Chip Cookies

One day recently Mark and I were chatting with a woman whose picture-framing services we had used a few times over the years. Before we took leave of her, she asked what our nationality was. French? Swiss? Since Brazilians generally accept you as you are and don't ask too many questions, we were surprised. The "Vote for Obama" sticker on our car hadn't already given us away? But Sonia had a reason for asking. In her spare time, she runs a non-profit, after-school program called COEDUC for underprivileged kids. On Thursdays she had been bringing in foreigners from among the alleged 96 nationalities living in Búzios to talk to the kids about their countries of origin and to prepare some kind of typical food for them to sample. Sonia had already found an Englishman, a German, a Bolivian, a Chilean and an East Indian. Now she had bagged Americans. She told us the whole business would take about two hours. But what actually happened was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

As I see it a basic problem of the public education system in Brazil is simply that the kids are in school for only half a day! They either get the morning session (8 am to noon) or the afternoon session (2 pm to 6 pm). A mere four hours, some of which is spent eating a school snack. With the school day so truncated, parents and educators are challenged to find a way to keep the kids off the streets and in some kind of engaging educational program for the rest of their day. One of the answers to this challenge is found in these COEDUCs. They're financed mostly by donations, staffed in large part by volunteers and — like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire — rely an awful lot on the kindness of strangers.

When we were asked to "do" the U.S.A. we didn't know what to expect. We weren't sure that 25 preteen and teenage kids would even be all that interested. Wrong! The kids were not only interested, but they already knew a lot about the U.S.A., and they were bursting to share it! I told them I was born in Miami Beach and they knew that it was in the State of Florida. But that was a gimme, Brazilians know all about Florida and Miami and Disney World. But when I told them I was raised in New Jersey, how could they know that New Jersey was right next door to New York? What American schoolchild can name any state that borders Brazil's Pernambuco? These kids learned that Mark was born in the capital of Massachusetts, and they shouted out Boston? (Clearly, the steady stream of American exports like CSI, Friends, and Two and a Half Men does more than just entertain.)

After the talk it was time for the food. We had brought PBJs and BLTs, and real Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies that had come fresh out of our oven that morning. These tasty American childhood treats are not known here. Thanks to Wikipedia, I also had stories about the history of the sandwiches and of the cookies. They liked the stories, they liked the sandwiches, and they loved the cookies! They jumped up and down. Too much sugar perhaps? They clamored for the recipe or, if not the recipe, could we come back the following Wednesday on "Culinary Day," and show them how to make them, could we, pleeeeeeze?

We did return the following week and the kids continued to impress. I was particularly struck by how the older ones helped the younger ones, how they all made sure everyone had a turn at measuring and mixing, not to mention tasting the buttery, sugary, scrumptious raw batter. Look at these pictures! Student chefs at the New York Culinary School aren't that focused, serious or dedicated.