30 April 2012

Paying Taxes

Today is Tax Day in Brazil! All people who are required to file an income tax declaration must do so by midnight tonight. Mark and I filed our Brazil taxes weeks ago, right after we filed our United States taxes. Right, Brazil and the United States do not have a tax treaty, and right, that means we have to file double taxes. Both countries make a tax claim on the worldwide income of their citizens and resident foreigners. At least that's the law. But income tax is a delicate subject to approach. People have their own ideas of how/when/who to pay. They also fall into so many different categories, with so many exceptions and deductions and readjustments that it's hard to organize a discussion. Anyway, among people we know there are those who don't agree with me that filing double taxes is a legal requirement. Some of our friends admit to doing a bit of fudging, or even a lot of fudging, and just hope to stay under the radar. But Mark and I long ago decided to comply as best we could when it comes to the dreaded T-word.

In Brazil, the tax-filing process is first-world: fast, efficient, safe, private and worry-free. You collect your documents and your numbers, prepare your taxes right on the computer using the government's secure program (where the calculations are all done for you). You then file directly to the government at the click of a mouse. You receive an immediate acknowledgment of receipt, plus an all-important receipt number, and with that receipt number you follow the progress of your declaration from the status of "received," to "being processed," to "processed" or — should worse come to worst — to "under analysis," the status you don't want to see. (If you get that status, you can start to worry.) This process I've just described is how Mark and I have been filing our Brazilian income taxes for years. On the Internet. For free. Our status right now? Processed.

As for the United States, the tax-filing process for us at least is third-world: slow, cumbersome, manual, done on paper and sent via the postal system. The forms and the instructions might be available online, but if you want to file electronically you cannot have a foreign address. So Mark and I — and millions of others — have to file our United States income taxes the old-fashioned way. But even if we lived in the States and wanted to file electronically, would we be able to? By ourselves, I mean, and for free, the way we file in Brazil. No matter how much googling I do, or how many friends I ask, I get contradictory information. It does seem that you can file online but only by using some IRS-endorsed "electronic return transmitter," as they're called, to whom you pay a fee. So if I understand correctly, if you do your own work without using a tax preparer, you then send your work — and all your private information — to some third party you pay to click the "send" button for you. On the face of it I must say that sounds ridiculous. I don't care if these companies are endorsed or not, they're collecting information about us. Requiring people to use  an intermediary seems so backwards.

Albert Einstein once said that "the hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax." He of course was right, irony and humor aside. Some people try to do the right thing. Some people make honest mistakes, and rectify them. And some people do their utmost to defraud governments all over the world. It takes a long time for their comeuppance to come up, but here are a few tax evaders from around the world:

Paulo Maluf, Brazil, starting to sweat
Silvio Berlusconi, Italy, still smiling
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia
Ponty Chadha, India
Odd Nerdrum, Norway
Douglas Bruce, fine example of a Colorado State legislator

26 April 2012

João Fernandes Beach

There's something very peculiar about João Fernandes Beach here in Búzios. If you're a visitor from abroad the stamp in your passport says Brazil, but for all intents and purposes you've just walked into Punta del Este Norte. João Fernandes has for some unexplained reason developed a cozy, if not incestuous, relationship with sun-seeking Argentines and Uruguayans. You'll hear Spanish to the left of you, Spanish to the right of you. Most fascinating of all is that no matter how hot it is, even if it's 104º F in the shade (40º C), João Fernandes Beach is the place to watch people drinking steaming hot yerba mate from equipment they brought from home for this purpose. It's a mystery.

João Fernandes, a fairly short beach with a narrow strip of sand, is chockablock with bars and restaurants, and we've tried them all. Over the years, though, Mark and I have taken almost all of our guests to Pomba, the one we like best, for a brochete de peixe (brochette of grilled fish). And we wouldn't think of going to another restaurant on João Fernandes ever since a Pomba waiter sat down and wrote this poem for us back in 2004. The poem ends, "It's enough that I'm your man, and you're my woman." A bit much at lunch, but then again, this is Brazil — and though the clients hail from the Spanish-speaking neighbor countries, the waiters at João Fernandes are still Brazilian.  

Our brochete de peixe . . . delish!

***NOTE TO MY READERS: Starting next week I'll be posting once a week, on Mondays only.

23 April 2012

Five Typically Brazilian Behaviors We're Getting Better At

Last week I talked about some typically Brazilian things that Mark and I used to do but don't do any longer. Let's flip the coin now. We've been guests in this country for a long time, and I think I can honestly say there are some Brazilian behaviors we're getting better at. For example:

1. Spontaneity — Americans are anything but spontaneous. We're a people of self-control and self-restraint; we believe in planning and organization. It's been something of a challenge for Mark and me to join our impulsive, free-spirited friends in the carefree way many of them go about their  lives. "Apareça em casa," they tell us repeatedly. ("Drop over anytime.")  How can I, I worry, without calling first? "Vamos ao Rio agora? Vamos!" ("Shall we go to Rio right now? Let's!") But wait, I think, I'll have to pack, make a few phone calls, cancel some appointments. I feel as if what seems effortless for my Brazilian friends has for me at least been a real struggle. On the other hand, I must have had a little seed of spontaneity in me back in 2001. The picture here was taken when, in a flash of impulse, Mark and I decided to make this house we were being shown our new home.

2. Using first names — I spent years in the States scolding telemarketers when they used my first name, or receptionists, or salespeople, or anyone who didn't even know me. Such cheek! Now here I am, in the country of First Names Only. In fact, many people, including the ones in call centers, don't seem to be able to talk to you at all if they don't have a name to call you by first. So, everyone calls me Barbara, or sometimes Barbara Ellen, to distinguish me from some other Barbara. (Funny, the first time I heard "Barbara Ellen" here I looked around to see if my mother was there. Previously she — and only she — called me that. And believe me, it was not a good sign.) Not only am I called by my first name, I've learned to call everyone by their first name, too. There's Doutor Paulo Roberto, Delegado Guillerme, Professora Adriana. And the day I meet her, I'll call her Presidente Dilma, too.

3. Entertaining for long, long hours — Entertaining is something Mark and I loved doing in our New York apartment. (We were particularly proud of our "dining room," a real conversation-starter.) But no matter how good the food, or the conversation, or the music, our guests would generally leave after two-and-a-half hours, three tops. Occasionally they'd eat and run after one hour. Well, an amazing thing happened once we started entertaining here in Brazil. We learned fast that often people come for dinner and stay for five hours. Five hours! It is also not unheard of to invite people for a 1:00 lunch and then, at around 7:00 or 7:30, start to wonder what's in the pantry to rustle up for dinner. Of course, now that we're used to it and expect it, we're always prepared. And we get to do the same thing in someone else's house!

High-level kissy face
4. Kissing & hugging — Put a bunch of reserved Americans in a room with a bunch of effusive Brazilians, and one group is bound to change. I guarantee you that it won't be the Brazilians who emerge from that room with a newfound habit of handshaking and nodding at each other. No, the kiss-kiss-hug-hug greetings will win out, hands down. Some Americans we know, even those who have been here more years than we have, are still downright creeped by all this touchy-feely slobbering. They're quick to stick out their arms, which they use as a distancing device, so as to get the greeting over with. But Mark and I have made great strides, and I'm happy to say we've really gotten into it. Nowadays, we even initiate the hugs.

5. Not touching our food with our hands — Brazilians pick up what we call "finger food" with the intermediary of a napkin. And not just finger food, they also use napkins to pick up sandwiches, hamburgers, fried chicken, nearly anything edible. Is it that Brazilians don't want the food to get them dirty, or that they don't want to get the food dirty? Either way, diving into food with your hands is considered rude behavior here. Mark and I have been very good at following suit and using napkins, and we're also getting used to knife-and-forking even a pizza. But when we pass through the States the napkins stay in Brazil. We wouldn't be caught dead eating a pizza in New York in any way but the right American way, as taught here by the hilarious Jon Stewart:

19 April 2012

Our Dr. Seuss Plants

Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theodor Seuss Geisel, is known to and beloved by nearly every American who grew up before, in and after my generation. He was the author and illustrator of the clever and imaginative rhyming children's stories that shaped my early years and that continue to resonate for me to this day. It's thanks to Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose that I learned it was wrong to take advantage of another's kindness. And why are you always supposed to listen to your mother? Well, the Cat in the Hat knows all about that. It's from good old Horton, in Horton Hatches the Egg, that kids learn if you make a promise, you keep it.

"I meant what I said, 
And I said what I meant, 
An elephant's faithful, 
One hundred per cent!"

No, I'm not regressing back to my childhood, at least not too much. I just thought it was time to introduce the two plants on our property here in Brazil that I call our Dr. Seuss plants (or sometimes Plant One and Plant Two, in honor of Dr. Seuss's Thing One and Thing Two). I have no idea what the plants' real names are, and I don't particularly care. To me, they've jumped straight off Dr. Seuss's drawing pad, and I love them. 
And that's that.

Plant One, or perhaps . . .
. . . Gertrude McFuzz?

Plant Two, or perhaps . . .
. . . a Fiffer-Feffer-Feff ?

Brazil has its own Dr. Seuss, might I say,
Whose name is Monteiro Lobato, and they
Have made him an icon in much the same way.
His characters are entertaining, I grant,
They delight and amaze and surprise and enchant,
But it cannot be said they resemble a plant.  

16 April 2012

Four Typically Brazilian Things We Don't Do Anymore

Those were the days
1. No more caipirinhas — Time was when Mark and I could each drink two of these magic, green potions in one sitting and even contemplate ordering a third. The first two words I learned in Portuguese were "mais uma" (one more), and the "one more" in question was a caipirinha.  I drank caipirinhas in preference to wine, beer, sake or water. I learned the simple recipe of crushed lime (remove the pith!), cachaça and sugar, sugar, and more sugar, so that I could serve the drinks at home. But then, as the years passed, two things happened. My weight began to increase and my ability to enjoy a good night's sleep began to decrease. Caipirinhas might not have been the sole culprits — age and alcohol in general probably had a hand — but we thought it would be a good idea to wean ourselves off. Surprisingly, neither one of us even has a taste for one anymore. We're back to wine, beer, sake and water.

You may start slicing, sir...
...with a little on the side
2. No more rodízios — Before moving to Brazil, our trips here always included several visits to the over-the-top restaurants called rodízios, which serve limitless amounts of grilled meats right off the spit with all-you-can-eat side dishes of french fries, fried manioc, fried bananas, rice, garlicky kale, and with as many trips to a salad/vegetable buffet as you could manage. We gorged on sausage, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, beef, sirloin and filet mignon (the restaurants serve it more or less in that order, too, in the hopes that the customer is good and satisfied by the time the more expensive cuts arrive at the table). We drank the afore-mentioned caipirinhas. We rolled home and groaned and swore we wouldn't go to another rodízio again. But we always did. Now, however, we find that not only can't we eat that much anymore, we're fairly horrified by the rodízio excesses (okay, okay, except for rodízios of pizza or sushi, which I've convinced myself are less evil).

3. No more trips to Corcovado — Most city dwellers never look up. Parisians hurry past the Eiffel Tower and New Yorkers scurry past the Empire State Building. But cariocas (residents of Rio de Janeiro) go about their business with one eye at street level and the other on the glorious Christ the Redeemer statue on top of Corcovado. As tourist attractions go, it's an amazing one. Make the trek up Corcovado Mountain and your reward is a stupendous, jaw-dropping gorgeous view. Mark and I were always eager to shepherd guests up to the top, and enjoy their reactions as well as the view. I think I've been to Corcovado at least three times now, Mark maybe a time or two more than that. But the idea of going up again leaves us cold.  I'm not above admitting to a bit of a blasé, "been-there-done-that" attitude, but don't think that the recent quadrupling of the price of admission is an encouragement, because it isn't. Not to mention the crowds, which have grown so large that the once quick act of buying a ticket and hopping on the cute little train that chugs up the mountain can turn into a four-hour wait in a very long line in very hot sun. We'll still take guests to the ticket window, but we'll wait at the bottom with an ice cold drink, thank you.

Some Hippie Fair goodies from years past
4. No more Hippie Fair — In years past Mark and I never passed through Ipanema on a Sunday without going to the Hippie Fair, a weekly arts-and-crafts event that takes over the Praça General Osório in the heart of this Rio neighborhood. It was a must-do, all the guide books said so. And they were right. We loved it. The wares were unusual, creative and reasonably-priced, and when you were committed to bringing back souvenirs for family and friends it was hands down the place to shop. Over the years we found lots of loot, for ourselves and for others. Well, having not gone for a good long time, Mark and I decided to pay the fair a visit last month. First problem? Parking. Second? Parking. We finally found a spot blocks and blocks away. The exercise would do us good, we said. But when we finally got there and plunged into the fray we could see the change immediately. Fewer artisanal goods, less creativity and more industrially-produced products. The prices? Well, now the "artisans" take credit cards, which they never did before, so that should give you an idea. I still believe it's a great place to go if you've never been before, and you might even find a good deal or an actual artisanal piece. But for now, we're done. Look for us at the antiques building on Siqueira Campos.

12 April 2012

Geribá Beach

If you start out from our own Manguinhos Beach and walk due south across the narrow isthmus neck of our peninsula you will find yourself on Geribá Beach in something like 20 minutes. Brace yourself. Geribá Beach is light years away from Manguinhos in tone and in style. Manguinhos, where we live, is a residential beach inside of a quiet, untouristed bay. Geribá Beach is open to the pounding ocean. It's surfer heaven, dude. It's a world of energy, youth, loud music, hordes of people and dogs. There are always volleyball and soccer games going on. Watch out! You've also got to duck the paddle balls and swerve around the bodyboards. Geribá is what Brazilians call the most badalada of the Búzios beaches. It's where it's happening.

Mark and I used to frequent Geribá Beach often when we first arrived here, and we always took our guests. We would go there at the end of the afternoon after the tourists had returned to their pousadas to get dolled up for dinner and nightclubbing in town. We would check ourselves in to one of the thatched-roof restaurants set up near the restinga, the low-lying vegetation at the back of the beach. We would order ourselves a grilled dourado (it's a fish, don't press me further). We would get ourselves crocked on caipirinhas and talk pure nonsense that sounded brilliant at the time, but that we wouldn't remember the next day. We would watch a beautiful sunset. Then a few years ago Brazil's environmental agency, IBAMA, pulled the charming restaurants off the beach and, in the name of environmental protection, imposed regulations about what could and could not be served at the beach, and where and how. In place of the fixed restaurants came modular plastic units, easy to take apart and put back together. Not to mention ugly. Out went the metal cutlery and china plates, in came paper plates and plastic cups (explain to me, please, how that's more environmentally sound). We stopped going to Geribá Beach, even for our early-morning power walk. Now we stick to Manguinhos, or we go elsewhere.

But we had to return to Geribá Beach to take some pictures for this post. We waited for the Easter holiday crowds to go home. And you know, it's truly a beautiful beach. I realized I'd been missing it.

Taken from a cliff high above Geribá Beach

Same cliff, bigger angle

Coming to the end of the Easter holiday

Thinning out, time to head home

A couple of stragglers

Ahh, now you're talking

09 April 2012

Retiring Abroad

Everywhere I look nowadays there are articles about retiring abroad. Maybe it just seems that way because I'm living the topic, but a glance at the Yahoo! front page, or at Kiplinger's, or International Living, or the inescapable AARP Magazine says different. The articles come with many titles, but basically they're all the same: Best Places to Retire Abroad, Top Ten Places to Retire Overseas, Ten Great Overseas Destinations for Retirees, and on and on and on. Thousands of articles, but always rounding up the usual suspects for the American retiree: Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, Panama and Nicaragua for closeness to home; France, Italy, Spain and Portugal for European culture and civilization; and Argentina (if one insists on South America) but only because of the comforting idea that Buenos Aires is so like Paris. And Brazil? Not in the top ten.

But there are also the runners-up, the B-list countries like Vietnam, Ecuador, Uruguay, Croatia, South Africa, Turkey and Malaysia. Be daring, think outside the box! these articles seem to be saying. But Brazil? Not even a runner-up. Well, whether we're on the lists or not, I'm always devouring the articles, so full of advice, opinion and suggestion, both helpful and annoying. My favorite part of these articles usually comes at the end, the list of Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start Packing. You'd think the readers were high school kids instead of retirees who've lived a life and are presumably competent. For example . . .

Have you thoroughly researched your target country? Well, gee, who would move away from his native country sight unseen? It's one thing to be an escaping war refugee, or a 22-year-old off to an adventure in a new place, or 28 and getting married to someone from another country and jumping in feet first. But retirees? Of course they've done their research. What a question.

Have you asked yourself what you're willing to do without? The examples given in the article that asked this were 1) American TV shows, and 2) Oreo cookies. I swear, if you can't live without Oreo cookies you should stay put, and as close to a 7-Eleven as possible. And it might be more helpful to inform people that American TV has conquered the world. Buy a cable TV package wherever you end up and, if it matters so much to you, you'll not miss one episode of This Old House. 

Do you know if retirees get special senior benefits? Now you're talking! This we want to know. It's a subject that needs plenty of research, and had Mark and I done more of it I suppose we would have learned, for instance, that Malaysia has an incredible incentive program for foreigners over 50, including easily-obtained perpetual visas. But we found it more fun to learn what our benefits were in Brazil as each birthday passed by. Oh, look, I'm 60! Half-price tickets at movies, shows, museums and sports events. Coming on 65? Free rides on all public transportation. It may not be Panama's unbeatable pensionado program, where they practically pay you to move there, but we're happy. 

Should Mark and I have asked ourselves these questions before we started packing? Or any of the other questions regarding crime rates, health care, residency requirements, taxes? Well, we didn't. Truth is we weren't planning to retire here at all. We liked the idea of living abroad, we liked Brazil, it was time for a move so we moved. We did so without any thought to obstacles in the form of visa restrictions, hostile banking laws, or webs of bureaucratic red tape. As I say, we didn't come here to retire but, as time passed and we weren't doing very much in the way of earning a living, we realized that we were de facto retired. I've been grateful for the location we chose. We may not have had all our ducks in order before we moved, but with the luck of the innocents they're quacking away quite happily now.

05 April 2012

Customer Service

I love browsing. I love to walk into a store and take in the atmosphere, actually breathe it in, look around, take my time, see how the products are displayed, look for sales, handle things, put them back, touch the fabrics, buy what I need and buy what I don't need. You know, browse. Yet in all my years of shopping in Brazil I've enjoyed very few chances to browse. There's no word for "browse" in Portuguese, although you could say olhar sem compromisso (look around without obligation). But that really misses the deeply satisfying "browsiness" of the behavior. No, in most stores Brazilians are serious about face-to-face, hands-on customer service. I rarely walk more than two feet into a store before a salesperson comes right up to me and says, Pois não? (May I help you?)

Somehow I don't see this as helping 
For most Brazilians this is an expected and welcomed part of the shopping experience. It's part of what makes Brazil Brazil. Must drive Brazilians crazy to walk into a CVS Pharmacy in the States and have to wander around aisle after aisle, looking for — and never finding — a salesperson. But for me, this immediate approach on the part of the sales help is counterproductive. In my early years here I used to just walk out of the store. At least now I'm getting better at standing my ground. Sympathetic friends have taught me to say, 'Tou só olhando, 'brigada (Just looking, thanks). But then I find that the salesperson sticks with me, follows me around the store (as in the picture) just in case I might have an urgent question. I know this all sounds very grouchy and grumpy, but I really cannot do quality shopping — let alone browsing — if I'm being watched and followed. It makes me nervous. 

One more thing while I'm on the subject of shopping. In Portuguese, boa noite (good night) is both a greeting and a farewell. Therefore, when you walk into a store after sundown, the salesperson says boa noite as you walk in and boa noite as you walk out. A salesperson who hears English spoken by customers — and who wants not only to be helpful, but to practice his English — almost always says "good night" as you walk in. And every time this happens to my husband and me, no matter how much we expect it now, our immediate reaction is to think that the store must be closing, we'll have to leave. It's instinct. Well, I want to be helpful, too, so I always explain to the salesperson that English speakers make a distinction. Good night is a farewell, a good-bye, a taking leave. When people walk into your store, say "good evening" if you mean to greet them. I don't think any salesperson has ever believed me. 

Even U.S.-based reporters for the Brazilian television networks seem to have misunderstood the Good Night, Irene sign that many homeowners across the East Coast put up on their property as the hurricane barreled down on them last August. It was explained, wrongly, to the Brazilian television audience that these signs were put up to greet the storm, as if the homeowners were taunting the storm: Come and get me! In truth, the homeowners were actually saying, Irene, it's over, you're dead meat, you're history. And there was a double whammy confusion. Besides not getting the meaning of the signs at the most superficial level, they also didn't know the reference being made to the ultimate leave-taking American folk song. Here's the version that The Weavers sung at the end of all their concert performances. 

02 April 2012

Four Bedrooms, Ocean View?

Would you build a residential building on Central Park West with the best rooms of each apartment facing an air shaft and the worst part of the building, the elevators, the service area and the stairwells, facing the beautiful park? OF COURSE NOT! Would you build a residential building on the Île Saint-Louis with the best rooms of each apartment facing an inner courtyard, and keep the sweeping view of the Seine and the famous rooftops of Paris for the elevators, the service areas and the stairwells to enjoy? THE IDEA IS ABSURD! Would you build a residential building in Rio de Janeiro with the best rooms of each apartment facing a side street and another building, and the worst part of the building, the elevators and the service areas, facing breathtaking Ipanema beach? NO WAY . . . sorry? . . . oh, really? . . . well, it seems it's just been done, and this architectural folly is the talk of the town.

Ipanema's most recently-launched residential building, the Scenario, sits on a wedge of land like a pizza slice, with one side facing the beach and the other side facing another residential building across the street. It has five apartments, one per floor, each one boasting 212 square meters (2,282 square feet). What has everyone scratching their chins as they look at the building is that what's normally called the "noble" side of the apartment — the side with the living areas and bedrooms — is the side facing the street. The "privileged view," the view you would think the owners bought the apartment for, is given over to the kitchen, the service area, the maid's room and elevators. This design has turned Brazil's very clear and basic class distinctions upside-down, and has everyone in the neighborhood joking and laughing about what have to be the most valued and valuable maid's rooms in the world.

Enjoying street traffic from the balcony
Elevators, kitchens and  maid's rooms overlook the beach

The architect, Henrique Farhi, who has designed over 650 buildings in Rio, explains away his odd design as a solution to a zoning issue. He wanted every bedroom to have a veranda. On Gomes Carneiro Street, the "bad" side, he had the right to hang the verandas out over the sidewalk. On Avenida Rainha Elizabeth —  the "good" side, where the bedrooms logically should have been — zoning regulations do not permit verandas to hang out over the sidewalk. The enclosed parts of the apartments would have had to have been recessed to keep the verandas within the building line. The bedrooms would have been teeny-tiny.

Well, that explanation on its face doesn't cut the mustard. Dig a little deeper and you realize that what the real estate developers have really done is make a very carefully considered judgment call about how to squeeze the most amount of money out of the project. A square meter in this neighborhood of Ipanema goes for 50,000 reais ($27,500). Would people be more likely to pay a premium price for a smaller apartment with a gorgeous view, or for a larger apartment with little or no view? We'll never know for sure, but the developers knew their business. To the astonishment of many, all five apartments were sold in a week.

The view that might have been