25 June 2012

National Anthems

How difficult is it to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States of America? Consensus says it's extremely difficult. The song has a range of one and a half octaves. There's not an American who can listen to it being sung without tensing up at the tricky "rocket's red glare" part and then, once we're through that, mentally commune en masse to push the singer over the dreaded "land of the free" part. Nowadays pop stars cheat their way through it by riffing, but I prefer the song sung straight. If I had my druthers, though, I'd sing America the Beautiful, God Bless America or My Country, 'Tis of Thee anytime.
It was claimed that Whitney Houston had a five-octave range. I don't know enough about music to comment on that, but here's her version of The Star-Spangled Banner, from 1991. However many octaves she could soar through, I've never ever heard it sung better:

Now, if I put my mind to it, I can still dredge up all the words to France's national anthem, La Marseillaise. My favorite scene in Casablanca has always been the one in which Victor Laszlo encourages the real French people (not those Vichy frauds) to stand up and sing their anthem loudly and proudly in order to drown out the provocative Die Wacht Am Rhein being sung by the Nazis a few tables away. I always sing along with them (the French, that is, not the Nazis). Very rousing moment. And here it is, that famous battle of the anthems from Casablanca, just because I wanted to watch it again:

Let's see, I know the first line of O Canada, the first line of Deutschland, Deutschland, Über Alles; I know the last line of God Save the Queen, which is a little bit of a cheat since the melody is the same as My Country, 'Tis of Thee. And I can hum the Hatikvah. Which brings me to my current conundrum, the Hino Nacional Brasileiro, the Brazilian national anthem. I have the melody down pat. I can hum, or lalalalala it, just fine. But even with the lyrics written out in front of me I can't seem to match them to the music. At least not fast enough. I'm always a line or two behind, trying to get my mouth around "brado retumbante" just as everyone else is belting out "raios fúlgidos." Why does this matter, you ask? Well, in the larger scheme of things I suppose it doesn't, other than that for me it's a sign of respect to know the anthem of a country you've been living in for ten years. Here's my challenge: I have two years to memorize it once and for all, practice it and be ready for the 2014 Soccer World Cup games here in Brazil. I have a feeling they'll be playing the anthem an awful lot.

Brazil's national anthem is peppy and sprightly and full of bounce, but it is famously interpreted by singer/actress Fafá de Belem as if it were a sultry cabaret number. Here is her inimitable version, complete with an about-to-open-up blouse. The cameraman does his share of lingering, perhaps in hopes of a great photo op.

18 June 2012


The muck-a-mucks of Eco'92
In last week's blogpost I spoke of my first visit to Brazil on June 12th, 1992, a/k/a Dia dos Namorados, or Brazil's St. Valentine's Day. It happens that something much more important was going on in Rio de Janeiro at the same time. From June 3rd to June 14th of 1992, Rio was hosting the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, known here as Eco'92. Most of the heads of state who attended this summit arrived during its final weekend, landing just about when we did. Though security in the airport was extremely tight, and Mark and I didn't actually see anyone, we later figured out through news reports that we had come in somewhere between François Mitterand and George Bush, Father. (And we actually did see Mitterand, days later, visiting the Pelourinho of Salvador at the same time we were.)

Turner and Fonda and admirers
Those were difficult times in Brazil. Companies were leaving the country in droves, citing violence as one of the many reasons for pulling out their investments. Rio was living the worst of its drug wars, and all during Eco'92 a jittery federal government sent army tanks to patrol the streets. There were 64.57 murders for every 100,000 residents of the city, and nobody wanted a conference participant to join that statistic. Mark and I spent most of Eco'92 in Salvador, Bahia, where several heads of state (besides Mitterand) came to visit after the summit. I knew, for example, that Prince Rainier was in Salvador, because while we were visiting an over-the-top pousada on Itaparica Island called Quinta Pitanga, its owner, an American named Jimmy Valkus, kept looking at his watch. (Rainier was expected the next day, but bad weather kept him from showing up.) Once Mark and I got to Rio, I remember being more interested in learning who was staying in what hotel. I remember that Ted Turner made a big splash along with Jane Fonda at the elegant Gloria Hotel. And I remember there was an African delegation that tried to skip out on its huge bill at the Novo Mundo Hotel (they were stopped at the airport).

Wasn't Bob Hope in that one...?
Twenty years have passed and Brazil is about to host the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known here as Rio+20. This time around, things couldn't be better for Brazil. Investment money is pouring in, and financially the country is doing better than most of the rest of the world. Rio's murder rate has dropped to 22.2 per 100,000 people, and most of the favelas (slums) that served as the backdrops for past drug wars are now "pacified." But in some ways things are so good that they're bad. In a burst of (abusive) capitalistic fervor, most Rio hotels jacked up their prices threefold for the duration of Rio+20. A spate of cancellations (such as the European Parliament's), sharply reduced delegation sizes and the resulting bad publicity have left everyone here very worried about what will happen during the Copa do Mundo in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.  Although the federal government intervened and forced the hotels to return to their pre-Rio+20 rates, there's been no follow-up, nor has there been any news about relief on the lodging front. Whatever the prices, space is short, so much so that the mayor of Rio has been asking people to open their homes to accommodate all the visitors. The last we heard, Arnold Schwarzenegger still can't find anyplace to stash his sweat pants. Ted Turner is making an appearance again, this time sans Jane. Michael Bloomberg is already scheduled for his favela tour with Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes. And there's a lot of buzz about Hillary Clinton's presence, with its "With Bill? Without Bill?" whisperings. Instead of Prince Rainier, this time it will be his son, Prince Albert. Instead of Fidel, it will be Raúl.

Needless to say, I think it's ironic that we're here again in Brazil during another ecological summit. Mark and I will again be spending it outside of Rio, in yet another place to which some of the participants will undoubtedly travel post-summit for their "see-a-bit-of-Brazil" visit. I'll be waiting for them in Búzios, tending my sustainable garden.

11 June 2012

Dia dos Namorados

On my very first trip to Brazil, in June of 1992, I picked up a Brazilian newspaper in the plane, even though to the best of my knowledge I couldn't read a word of Portuguese. But it turned out that with my background in French and the Esperanto-y-ness of Portuguese, I could read a good many words. But mainly I was just glancing at the ads, which were easy to figure out given the visual aids. And it was there I learned that Mark and I were arriving in Brazil on June 12th, the Dia dos Namorados, Brazil's St. Valentine's Day. Most countries around the world celebrate St. Valentine's Day on February 14th. There's a partial exception in some double-dosing Asian countries, where the women give gifts to the men on February 14th but the men don't return the favor until March 14th. As for Brazil, Brazil adopted June 12th for two reasons. First, February 14th is way too close to Carnaval, a time during which people have other things on their minds. Second, June 12th is one day before Santo Antônio's Day, and Santo Antônio is the casamenteiro saint, the matchmaker. Traditionally, many single women pray to Santo Antônio and perform a variety of rituals, or simpatias do amor, in order to find a good husband or boyfriend.

So there we were, arriving in Rio amidst all the same St. Valentine's Day hype we get in the States. The airport stores were piled high with boxes of chocolates, bouquets of flowers were set out for sale everywhere, there were jewelry promotions, perfume promotions, and plastered on the walls were ads for all the "special packages" being offered in hotels around Brazil. Though I would have liked to have stayed in Rio for a few days, Mark was in Brazil to write a series of articles for the tourism promotion people from the State of Bahia. We were not our own masters. From Rio we immediately caught a connecting flight to Salvador, and from there the fine people of Bahiatursa swept us away to a resort hotel they wanted us to know in Praia do Forte about an hour up the coast to the north. Mark didn't particularly mind being whisked away right off the plane to an isolated resort hotel. He'd been in Brazil a good many times previously. But for me it was a strange first entry into the country. I'd caught a teasing glimpse of Guanabara Bay as we landed at Rio International Airport, but next thing I knew I was plopped down in a place I'd never heard of in the middle of nowhere. A resort hotel on the weekend of the Dia dos Namorados, mind you, full to the brim with young couples in the flush of new love and out for a romantic weekend.

Romantic, did I say? Back then, my idea of Valentine's Day, whatever name it happened to be masquerading under and whatever the date, ran kind of along the lines of a white tablecloth, a candlelight dinner and then maybe a hand-in-hand stroll along the Brooklyn Heights esplanade with the lights of Manhattan twinkling off in the distance. The Dia dos Namorados weekend at the Praia do Forte Resort Hotel turned out to be more like a trip back in time to summer camp. Brazilians, at least some of them, have a very eco-outdoorsy, pathfinder side, and, reluctant good sports that we were, we valiantly joined the young folks on the first of their two days of vigorous nature walks. We admired views and listened to the guide's blahblahblah. (Mark listened, I nursed my various insect bites.) We trudged through (probably snake-infested) forest. We waded through streams over slippery rocks. Returning to the hotel in the van, I complained to Mark about what all this forced activity was doing to my back. Well, surprise surprise, these "kids" we were out with all understood my English, many of them owned up to being medical students, they had all kinds of advice for me. Back at the hotel two of the girls insisted on giving me a rubdown, and how do you refuse Brazilians when they're so Brazilian-ly outgoing and accommodating and nice?

Nowadays, Mark and I have gone back to observing the Dia dos Namorados in a more conventional way. This is Búzios, after all. We have restaurants with white tablecloths here. Lots of them. For after-dinner strolling purposes we have our glorious Orla Bardot, bobbing fishing boats on moonlit water and — in the distance — the lights of Barra de São João, the town across the bay. No way the Dia dos Namorados ever passes, though, but that I remember my first peculiar one in Brazil with all those energetic medical students. By now, they must all be in mid-career.
Happy Dia dos Namorados to everyone tomorrow! 

04 June 2012


Mums the word . . .
Many, many years ago in France I was invited to a dinner party and wanted to bring a gift for the hostess. Flowers! Always a good idea, I thought to myself. So I arrived at the dinner armed with a huge bouquet of gorgeous chrysanthemums. But my bouquet was accepted with a very reserved "merci," spirited away to some back room, and never mentioned again. I chalked it up to French sangfroid. It was only days later that I was told by a friend who felt sorry for me that one never, ever, brings mums to a French household — unless the household is in mourning. Oops. Live and learn. From that day forward I understood that gifts are not so easily translated from one country to another. Don't bring clocks to a Chinese home, for example, clocks are for funerals. Don't bring white flowers to the Japanese, or anything white for that matter, it's the color of death — and funerals. (I think there's a theme here.) Invited to a home in Mumbai? Don't bring anything leather. And don't bring anything purple to an Italian home, you're just bringing them bad luck.

Well, wherever I'm living there's no way I can go to someone's home empty-handed. (Remember Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin? We had the same mother . . .) Mark and I always bring something when we're on our way to a dinner, whether edible, drinkable, readable or playable. There's one thing very strange about the gift relationship here in Brazil, though. You go to a birthday party, for example. You put the gift you've brought onto a pile with the other gifts. But, if the gift isn't opened and gushed over immediately, only rarely do you get a thank-you note or a thank-you phone call. In the States, you spend half your childhood under instructions from your mother not to leave your room until you've written out neatly, Dear Grandma, Thank you for the pretty handkerchief that you gave me for my birthday. I'm sure I will use it well. Or Dear Uncle Morris, Thank you for the $5.00 you sent for my graduation. I'm sure I will use it well. Here it just seems not to be the custom. And what's even worse than the silences after birthday parties are the silences after weddings. Don't take this wrong, dear Brazilian friends, but on several occasions we have been to stores where a marrying couple has enrolled in the wedding registry. We've ordered a desired gift and paid for it. If it's not acknowledged, how do we know it's even been delivered? Are we supposed to ask? Help us here, we're truly in the dark.

Still blooming, after all these years
Now that I've gotten that quibble off my chest, let me add that Brazilians are not just the warmest, most loving, hugging-est people I've ever met, they're also way over the top in their own gift-giving. Plenty of times people have turned up at our house for a casual dinner as if it were Christmas in Bethlehem. We've received our share of beautiful flowering plants, some still alive and flowering, many years later; we've been pleased to receive cases and cases of wine, always very much appreciated, plus scotch, and champagnes of all labels. We've enjoyed lots of homemade goodies, too. Possibly the most original gift was a hand-blown glass swan, blown just hours before its delivery. The worst? Several sets of Brazilian underwear for me. Way too small. Way too uncomfortable. Way too intimate. I re-gifted it, and quickly. Among the gifts that have most touched my heart, though, are those that have come from our cleaning lady. She is forever bringing us vegetables from her garden and strange, exotic fruits plucked right off her own trees. And several times a month her mother — who's never met me, but has some idea I'm too thin — makes something sugary sweet for Dona Bárbara. What more warmth can a person receive?