17 December 2012

What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?

"Maybe it’s much too early in the game,
Ah, but I thought I’d ask you just the same,
What are you doing New Year’s,
New Year’s Eve?"

Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser

And before you answer, here’s a real blast from the past, from the Lawrence Welk show!!

Well, this surely is the question. We all ask it every year and — true to form — the question has already been circulating among our friends here in Brazil. What are we doing New Year’s Eve. Everybody’s feeling everybody out. Are you giving a party? Have you been invited to a "good" party? Can we tag along? Are you traveling, or will you be spending New Year’s Eve at home, just hanging out? Maybe we’ll hang out with you? Brazilians like to make their plans at the last minute, so nobody’s committing. And we’ve Brazilianized enough not to have committed yet either. We don’t know what we’re going to do.

Our 2006-2007 party
We have given five New Year’s Eve parties out of the ten New Year’s Eves we’ve spent here. But the decision to give another party is a real "on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that" kind of decision. Because on the one hand, we feel it’s selfish of us not to give a party. Our house is positioned in such a way that we can see six or seven different fireworks displays going on all at once around our bay, including a spectacular private show put on by the owner of Cirque du Soleil, who has a house two or three to the right of ours. How can we not share that remarkable advantage with our friends?

On the other hand, a good New Year’s Eve party is an enormous commitment of time and effort. If you want to give a good party, with good food, good drink and good music, you have to work at it. At our last party we had about 50 people (including party crashers), and the invitation list will only have grown exponentially since then. But we can’t help but think, why let a lot of work stop us? Because it’s really a lot of fun, too. Why else have this house, and in a party town that people flock to in droves during the holiday season?

They enter any way they can

I'm sure she crashed here, too!
On the other hand, there’s the little problem of electricity. During the holidays the 28,000-strong population of Búzios swells to as many as 200,000 people. Hard for the electric company to sustain the demand of so many air conditioners and hair dryers! More than once we’ve lost electricity on New Year’s Eve itself. And even if we stock up on candles and batteries and flashlights, any party we’ve planned and prepared and worked on and set food out for can easily go bust. Without electricity you can’t hear the doorbell. You can’t play music. You can’t turn on the stove. You can’t see your way down the stairs. You can’t have a party.

Crowds, noise, congestion -- Happy New Year!
And then there’s the problem we suffer if there is electricity. Because a good, strong supply of electricity guarantees that whoever has rented nearby houses can blast their music, the relentless boom-boom-boom that drowns out our own big band music. Last year, it was just Mark and me, and we couldn’t hear our own conversation. We also couldn’t sleep. So do we go out? On the one hand, that’s an attractive idea. If we go out, to a party or to a restaurant, we’re free from all that work. But on the other hand, we get caught in horrible bumper-to-bumper traffic, slowly inching our way nowhere fast.

So we still haven’t a clue as to what we’ll end up doing on New Year’s Eve. Whatever we decide to do, I wish you all a very Happy New Year! I’ll be taking a break from blogging for a few weeks. See you next year!

10 December 2012

Birds of a Feather

My husband, Mark, used to own the LP pictured here, Cantos de Aves do Brasil (Brazilian Bird Calls), back in the days when people used to own LPs. It was a serious piece of research, recorded back in the late '50s by Johan Dalgas Frisch, a Brazilian engineer and ornithologist. I was proud that it was part of our record collection, though I hardly listened to it. It's not exactly something you can put on the record player and tap your toe to. In fact, it wasn't until we left New York and moved to Búzios, and the first Brazilian bird crashed into our living-room window and perished (our first big drama here), that I started to pay real attention to the amazing birds soaring and dipping and gliding and singing all around us. I've wanted to write about them for a long time, but thought I couldn't write anything without knowing their names. But you know, I will never know all their names, in any language. So why not just put up all the pretty pictures? I do know some names, after all, and we can make the others up.

I'm going to start off with the prize, this gorgeous creature who came to visit for the first time last week, and stayed for hours before flying off. It was completely untroubled by our presence, by our picture-taking, by our talking. This bird seemed so used to being near humans that we thought maybe it was someone's escaped pet. I wish it would come back.

This one has a name! It's a bem-ti-vi (or great kiskadee), called so because the name mimics its call, or tries to. They're very common here, but no less beautiful because of that. There are two in this picture. Can you find Waldo?

We have lots of hummingbirds, but rarely do they sit still for a picture. This one did.

The garça (egret) is one of the most exquisitely graceful birds I've ever seen.

I don't know what these are, I call them the "tiny black-and-whites."

Next door to us there's a wooded area that houses large families of this bird, the martin pescador, or kingfisher. It has an awful cackle, but it's fun to watch.

Other families who live in that treed lot are brown doves, cooing, cooing, cooing all the time. And yes, they often do sit nestled up next to each other. It's really sweet.

Lots of seagulls by the sea. No surprise here.

We hear this one before we see it. It's the extremely noisy woodpecker.

Since I began this post with a gorgeous bird, I shall end it with this really ugly vulture.

03 December 2012

How Does My Garden Grow?

Long after I had left the proverbial nest, my parents started a vegetable garden in the backyard. They grew great big Jersey beefsteak tomatoes, sugar snap peas, zucchini, eggplant, carrots, squash, you name it. I think my moment of epiphany came one day when my mother was preparing dinner (grilled salmon with roasted new potatoes) and sent my father out to harvest some sugar snap peas. He brought in a bagful, she sauteed them in butter, and served what became one of those memorable meals the family would talk about for years later. Everything was delicious, but it was those peas, those just-off-the-vine, sweet sugar snaps that clinched the deal. I’ve wanted a garden of my own ever since.

American Gothic lives!
Mary, Mary, quite contrary . . . 

Unfortunately, I lived in apartments for about 20 years, so whatever ambitious gardening plans I might have had were put on hold. Couldn’t even set a couple of potted herbs out on the windowsills — co-ops have Rules, after all — so I bided my time. And just when I was getting stiff-jointed and cranky, just when my back pains made it all but impossible to bend down, let alone plant, weed and harvest, that’s when Mark and I bought a house where it was really tempting to play the farmer in the dell at long last. I was undaunted and ready to plunge ahead, even if it hurt. At first we didn’t know where to put the garden. How were we going to "plow the North 40" on a property built on a steep incline? The only level area lay alongside the beach some 68 steps down from the house (not to mention 68 steps back up). No dice. I tried planting some herbs in a narrow strip of dirt alongside our kitchen, but they never got enough sun. No dice. Then I thought, let's use the jardineiras, deep planters built onto the outside walls of our terrace. But these jardineiras hang some eight meters above the ground. No way was I going to be able to handle a garden there. No dice. Then along came Sandoval.

Jardineiras in the sky

Sandoval is our new caseiro, or caretaker, now a mere eight months into his job. He grew up on a farm in the northeastern state of Bahia. His nostalgia for farming and my desire for a vegetable garden were a match made in heaven. Sandoval is young and nimble and fearless, and jumps in and out of those jardineiras like an Olympic gymnast on the balance beam. And he makes it down those 68 steps and back up without a huff or a puff. It took ten years, but we’ve begun to harvest our first crops.

So far, we’re doing pretty well in that "North 40" by the beach. Sandoval’s been nursing various fruit trees, like banana, sugar apple, passion fruit and avocado. Our successes up in the jardineiras have been three varieties of lettuces, green and red peppers, cherry tomatoes, kale, beets and carrots. As for my kitchen herbs, we’ve been harvesting parsley and cilantro, but are watching oregano, basil, rosemary and thyme with some trepidation. They’re looking a bit frail. Our failures, on the other hand, have been many: zucchini, melon, cucumber, eggplant, turnip, scallion, pumpkin and green beans have all turned to mulch. But we keep on buying seeds, and Sandoval keeps on planting them. There’s something wonderfully visceral and satisfying about picking your own peck of peppers to pickle — not to mention pulling up your own carrots. Right, Miz Scarlett?

26 November 2012

Armação Beach

Armação Beach might be the most unusual beach in Búzios for being the only one with a street dividing the water & sand from the mortar & brick. At least the street is just one-way, so it's not too heavily trafficked. I think in ten years here I've never seen anything but a handful of people use Armação as a beach, with Búzios residents staring at them in amusement. Really, nobody goes into the water here, nobody even walks on the sand. Why do that, with such a lovely walkway set along the entire length of the beach? No, it's the view that people go to this beach for, the view and the commerce on the other side of the street, with its bars, restaurants, discothèques, hotels, shops of all kinds, and even a mini-golf.

The waters of Armação Beach lap onto what's called the Orla Bardot, Búzios's version of la promenade of St. Tropez. Stroll the orla (or waterfront) and you'll come upon a series of statues, the famous one of la Bardot herself . . .

. . . and the slightly less known statue of three fishermen (all sculpted by Christina Motta) . . .

. . . plus a newer statue of Juscelino Kubitschek, the president who built Brasília, sitting in front of the house he borrowed to enjoy weekends in Búzios with any number of mistresses.

There are still some charming old fishermen's cottages along the orla which may or may not be landmarked, no one seems to be particularly concerned.

Lots of small boats anchor off the entire length of Armação Beach and, during high season, monumentally huge transatlantic cruise ships join them, looming over both the smaller vessels and the tiny downtown buildings as if they were characters in a sci-fi film.

You won't go hungry on Armação Beach. Restaurants both up and down the scale line the Orla Bardot . . .

19 November 2012

One Wedding and a Funeral

The Igreja Sant’anna, the very first church built in Búzios, has stood high atop the hill between the beaches of Armação and Ossos for 272 years. The church is steps away from some real touristy honky-tonk, with lots of crowds and noise, and yet retains a peaceful simplicity and intimacy that still surprises both visitors and residents. People just don’t expect to come upon such a place in Búzios, and it is without a doubt one of the highlights of the itinerary Mark and I follow when we have guests to show around. The church never fails to come through on our promises. Besides being a tourist attraction, the Igreja Sant’anna property also houses the only cemetery in Búzios, the former Cemitério dos Escravos, or Slave Cemetery.

The church as seen from Ossos Beach . . .

. . . and back down from sacred heights

Mark and I have been to exactly two events at the Igreja Sant’anna in our ten years here. The first, the wedding of a neighbor’s daughter, took place a good seven or eight years ago. It was an interesting wedding, the usual Búzios mix of upscale and downscale, with half the guests hauling over from Germany (our neighbor being German) and the other half more local and decidedly more casual. The service bounced back and forth between German and Portuguese, and I have to say I was never very sure what was going on. But this wedding provided us our first glimpse of the inside of the church, which is usually kept closed except for special occasions: simple, rustic, water-damaged and dignified, just what we had expected.

The second event was just last Friday, this time a funeral. A friend’s mother passed away — at the remarkable age of 96 — and we were called to the chapel behind the church for a velório, or vigil, to be followed by her funeral. I haven’t been to many funerals in my life, and never one in Búzios, so I was caught a bit off guard. Wandering aimlessly through the somber gathering of friends and family paying their respects were bikini-clad tourists in transparent beach cover-ups and floppy straw hats, doing the usual picture-taking and bathroom-seeking that one does at a tourist attraction. I watched as occasionally one or another tourist strolled into the chapel and then stopped short — was this a real coffin, or a prop for more picture-taking? I was both scandalized and charmed. As for the actual funeral service, that, too, took on a very Búzios tone. Since our friend’s mother had died during one of the most important Brazilian holidays, the Proclamation of the Republic, there wasn’t a clergyman to be found, not a priest, not a pastor, not a minister, not even an acolyte. So in the best Quaker fashion, the attendees themselves ran the service. I think it took on a dignity that it wouldn’t have had with any priest. Much better, I thought, and oh so very Búzios. Rest in peace, dear Luisa.

Chapel at left, steps up to cemetery at right

12 November 2012

The Great Escape

Back in September I wrote about what my husband and I call the "obligatory mention," the way aspects of Brazil — its culture, its music, its geography — are often mentioned kind of out-of-the-blue in movies, books and magazines from other countries. In that blogpost I warned that I would soon write about the most frequent obligatory mention of all, The Escape to Brazil after Committing a Crime. But this theme is not just a quick mention, sometimes it's the entire plot point. And this criminal escape idea isn't an arcane one, it's alive and well, even here in Búzios. Many people, for instance, have often wondered out loud what Mark and I are doing here, anyway. The initial, and most prevalent, idea was that we were CIA agents. Then people thought, no, there's nothing in this beach resort any government would want to know. They're probably hiding out from some nefarious deed. Could that explain the deference with which some people treat us?  

Brazil does enjoy — if "enjoy" is the right word — a dubious reputation for being the escape hatch for fugitives from justice, particularly Nazi fugitives. Back in March of this year, secret National Archive files were opened, and they revealed that 9,000 Nazi war criminals fled to South America after WWII, 1,500 to 2,000 ending up in Brazil, most of them "under a false name and with a dark past." Straight out of the movies, huh? I mean movies at the end of which the few surviving characters pile onto an airplane and fly off to Rio, like Nuns on the Run, Five Fingers, A Fish Called Wanda, The Lavender Hill Mob, That Man From Rio, Notorious and The Thomas Crown Affair (famous for Steve McQueen's Brazil rant, "samba, Sugarloaf, jungle, piranha").

Biggs holding his safety net
Many people blame this whole image on Hollywood, but Hollywood has certainly fed off real life and vice versa. Brazil was the destination of choice for Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, who sought and enjoyed refuge here for 36 years, "protected" by the Brazilian child he fathered (back when it was common knowledge among fugitives that Brazil would not deport anyone who had fathered a Brazilian child). More recently, Brazil finds itself harboring Cesare Battisti, convicted in absentia by an Italian court for four murders, after then-President Lula vetoed a Supreme Court order to extradite him. But here's a heads-up to fugitives: things are changing. Jesse James Hollywood, an American drug-dealer who fled to Brazil in 2000, was arrested and deported in 2005, with no concession made for his having a Brazilian child. And Kenneth Andrew Craig, an American child molester who had fled to Brazil in 1998, was found in Rio, arrested and deported in 2011.

Battisti , unable to wipe the smile off

In a wonderfully ironic twist, Florida has become the destination of choice for Brazilians fleeing Brazilian justice. Mind you, it's mostly white-collar crimes, corruption, extortion, that sort of thing. There are scores of them. Everyone seems to know someone — or know someone who knows someone — who's fled to sunny Miami. The most recent and notorious example is Ricardo Teixeira, former president of the Brazilian Football Confederation. Teixeira was so mired in allegations of tax fraud, money laundering, bribery and embezzlement that he finally resigned his post last March (citing medical reasons), disappeared from Brazilian headlines for a while, only to reappear in Florida, where he happily counts his money in his $2 million Boca Raton mansion.

Teixeira's new digs

Note to readers: For those who can't get enough, you can read an interview with me on the website called ExpatBlogs that was published last week:

05 November 2012

Are you . . . Obama?

This is the question that some Brazilians have timorously asked of Mark and me in these last weeks before the U.S. presidential election. Are we Obama. Mind you, these are people who don't know us very well, because those who know us don't have to ask. To us it seems transparent that two Americans living in Brazil, immersed in its culture, open to learning other perspectives on life and how to live it from people who are really good at it, who prefer havaianas to high heels and bandanas to baseball caps, are de facto Democrats. But some people have to ask. And so they do, courteously and respectfully, so as not to offend on the off chance we are . . . the other guy.

These are Romney flip-flops
These are Búzios flip-flops

Generally, a Republican who opts to live outside the United States stays close to the two things he loves most, his money (Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Switzerland) and a good golf course (Scotland, Barbados, Australia). If you meet a Republican here in Brazil, you're probably visiting an oil-producing center, like nearby Macaé, and the Republican is probably just doing a two-year temporary stint. And if you chance to find a Republican in Búzios, my guess is you're just playing through at the Búzios Golf Club & Resort. Oh, not that Democrats don't sometimes play golf as well, they do. After all, was golf not the sport of choice for Clinton and Obama's recent "family- that-plays-together-stays-together" reconciliation?

But let's put my little jibes aside for a moment. Let's focus on the fact that if Brazilians could, they would overwhelmingly vote for Obama. Ninety-three per cent of them, according to a recent poll. How is it that they instinctively understand how antipático the other guy is? For that matter, how is it that the whole world instinctively understands? An October 25th article in the global edition of the New York Times reported that if the rest of the world got to vote, President Obama would be re-elected in a landslide. For the rest of the world, this election is a no-brainer. I can't help but roll my eyes whenever I hear one or another Republican speechify about how the United States holds a special leadership role in the world. I think they ought to come out here in the world and see what the world might have to say on the subject. And I think they ought to take a good look at this BBC-prepared graph:

Who will win tomorrow? This is the question Mark and I have been fielding from Brazilians who think we have some special insight. We tell people we don't know. We discuss what happened in 2000 when Gore won, and then lost. We talk about what the Republicans are doing to steal this election, from buying up the companies that own voting machines to sending letters to Hispanic voters urging them to get out and vote on the 8th of November! (I'll wait until that sinks in . . .) We talk about the latest polls, we talk about how polls are skewed, and we remind our fellow buzianos how on the day before the recent mayoral election here the polls showed the sitting mayor ahead, with 41%, and his closest competitor with only 32%, but that it was the competitor, Dr. André, who actually won with a slam-dunk 48.55%. Who will win tomorrow? I don't know. We've already voted, and all we can do is keep a bottle on ice and remember Scarlett O'Hara's immortal words:

29 October 2012

Am I Homesick? Or Am I Home?

"Close your eyes and tap your heels together three times,
And think to yourself, There's no place like home,
There's no place like home . . ."

It was recently suggested to me that I'm homesick. I really sat back in my chair when I heard that, because I thought that lately I had been feeling profoundly at home in Brazil. But I was gently told that some of my recent blogs were getting a bit — well, perhaps a bit critical of Brazil. Hmmm. Was I really beginning to pick a fight with my chosen country of residence, with its habits, with its culture and customs? If so, is that a symptom of homesickness? As I mulled over this idea, I ran the above video clip in my head, with Dorothy chanting her famous ticket-out-of-Oz-and-back-to-Kansas. Then I heard voices singing, "Mid pleasures and palaces, Though we may roam, Be it ever so humble, There's no place like home,"(1) complete with a plaintive, background violin. Then suddenly Perry Como popped into the video of my mind, singing about how there's no place like home for the holidays, no matter how far away you roam.(2) Well, I've certainly had this idea of "home, sweet home" fixed in my head since childhood, whether by the movies, or literature, or songs, or quotes and, of course, those omnipresent samplers hanging on walls.

But what is home, exactly? Is it the place where you were born and/or raised, the place you always long to return to if you were ever so foolish as to have left it? Is it the place where, "When you have to go there, they have to take you in?"(3) Or, as the free-and-easy people say, is it any place you hang your hat?(4) A friend of ours once said that for her, home is where the dogs are. I always liked that, I felt I understood her. But I'm an old-fashioned kind of gal, so for me, home is where the heart is. That means home is where my husband is, and I never thought of myself as anything but at home here, in Búzios, with Mark.

No, I don't think I'm homesick, not in the nostalgic way, the nostalgia of saudades that my friend might have meant. I think I'm very much at home in two countries, even as I am very much a foreigner in two countries. That might be confusing, but it's also what adds zest to my life. I do feel that ten years here — paying taxes, getting involved in the community, dealing with all the small things that need dealing with every day — has earned me the right to be a little critical. Let's face it, I wouldn't be a true New Yorker if I didn't rant a bit. Just know that if I do rant, though, I rant out of love.

(1) Home, Sweet Home, music by Sir Henry Bishop, lyrics by John Howard Payne
(2) (There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays, music by Robert Allen, lyrics by Al Stillman
(3) The Death of the Hired Man, by Robert Frost
(4) Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home, music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer