24 September 2012

Blogs I Can't Write

Just one button short of news anchor decorum

There are a lot of blogposts I can't write. I am completely stymied by a deeply ingrained strain of American puritanism coupled with a strong desire not to offend my Brazilian friends. When I was growing up it was common etiquette not to talk about sex, politics or religion, but these are not the problem topics for me here in Brazil. No, there are other subjects way more delicate, provocative or touchy than that classic trio. Just as an example, there's no way I would ever write a blog about the differences in style between American and Brazilian women. No way. Unh-uh. If I'm still surprised when I see the two-sizes-too-small fit of Brazilian women's clothing, causing all kinds of intimate body parts to protrude and bulge, I guess that's my problem. If I still roll my eyes when I turn on the evening news and see killer décolletage on a serious female news anchor, that's my problem, too. And this is, of course, a two-way street. Plenty of Brazilian women roll their eyes at me — at my comfortable, oversized clothes, often purchased in the men's department. But as I said, this subject will appear in no blogpost of mine.

And I will never discuss how middle-class adolescents are raised here in Brazil. I'm such good friends with the parents of some of these kids, I wouldn't presume! I raised no children in any country, so who am I to mouth off? It's just that a lot of these kids don't know what a household chore is. Remember chores? My sisters and I grew up doing chores around the house, it was a natural part of growing up. How can a person ever go out on their own if they don't even know how to do the basics, like make a bed, wash a dish, prepare a simple meal? These kids I know are all such great kids, they're smart, they're talented, they're funny, they care deeply about their families and the world at large. Why should I be so worried? Well, I'm worried because a lot of them are looking forward to participating in English-language exchange programs some day. Boy, are they going to be in for a shock when some host family in Iowa starts assigning chores!

No, this plate does not fly
But let's drop this topic before I end up telling the story of the Brazilian family from São Paulo that spent a weekend with us during our first year here. They brought two adolescent daughters and an adolescent niece, which made for quite a full house. But that was no problem. After all, three girls gives me plenty of extra hands, no? No. For example, these girls thought that plates have wings, and somehow fly into the kitchen after you've eaten. When they were encouraged by their strange American hosts to help carry the dinner plates to the kitchen, they looked at their mother, stood up uncertainly, picked up one plate with both hands and walked with it into the middle of our kitchen, where they stopped. "What do I do with it now?" asked the eldest. Ugh, I simply can't talk about this. Except to mention that we have never invited them back.

Tiny apartment, tinier maid's room
Look, I know plenty of Brazilians who know how to cook, shop, clean, wash and iron clothes, in short, keep a household running smoothly. But I also know an equally large number for whom all of the above tasks are challenging, if not out-and-out daunting. These are the Brazilians for whom live-in help was created. Which is another topic I will not broach, the different attitudes between our two countries on the subject of domestic help. I've never been in a Brazilian house or apartment that didn't have "dependências," one or more rooms stuck away behind the kitchen, earmarked for use by the live-in staff. Now, I know we have maid's quarters in the U.S., and I know the concept exists all over the world. But the tweak here in Brazil is that these rooms, these dependências, don't just exist in the larger houses and apartments. They exist in the smallest of bungalows and even in a one-bedroom apartment. Everyone, absolutely everyone, is expected to have live-in help. And that expectation goes a long way to explaining why kids don't have any chores to do. Don't get me started. I know, different strokes for different folks. Mark and I have one cleaning woman who comes in just twice a week to do the heavy stuff and our friends consider this a flaw in our character, some strange American quirk. Well, some cultural differences run very deep. So I won't mention them here. Frankly, I don't know what I'll write about this week.

17 September 2012

My First Five Portuguese Vocabulary Words

When you jump into a new language at a fairly late age, you take the grammar, the vocabulary and the expressions as they come, and tread water as best you can. You learn the basics — hello, how are you, I'm fine, thanks, what time is it? — and with perseverance you keep on building until you reach a whole new level of effective communication — what do you have in the way of anti-wrinkle face cream? Sorry, I can't eat this, I'm allergic to it. How many certified translations did you say you require? But in all of this swirl of language-learning, I will always remember five words I learned in my first couple of weeks in Brazil:

1. Tiroteio [chee-ru-TAY-u] (a shootout) — There are unfortunately lots of shootout stories that make news around the world, and the Brazilian press certainly keeps up its end. As soon as I arrived and started scanning the newspapers here, tiroteio stared me in the face over and over, and it was a mystery to me. It was a romance language word I couldn't hang my hat on. Where were the roots of the French fusillade, or coups de feu? Well, off I went to the dictionaries, and tiroteio has stuck in my head ever since as one of my very first words. Anyway, I at least had a leg up as I began reading Brazilian police thrillers.

Mr. M. himself
2. Jeitinho [szhay-CHEEN-yu] (a manner, a way, or what Americans might call "Yankee ingenuity") — Everyone but everyone uses this word here in Brazil, so I heard it and learned it early on. It's an integral part of the Brazilian character. But it took years for me to understand fully that there's good jeitinho (knowing how to solve a problem efficiently) and bad jeitinho (bribing a public official to look the other way as you add an illegal extension on your house). Some of the best jeitinho I've seen here came from one of our caseiros (caretakers) who had watched his fair share of MacGyver reruns. There was nothing this kid couldn't fix if given a hammer, bubble paper and an empty mayonnaise jar. And that leads us to the next word . . .

3. Gambiarra [gam-bee-YAH-ha] (jury rig) — If you have really good jeitinho, you can always improvise a successful gambiarra. We thank our very first caseiro for this word. "What are we going to do?" we asked him, staring at the water gushing from a leak, certain that he didn't have the experience or the technical know-how needed. "No problem, I'll do a gambiarra," he said. A what? Well, he had the problem fixed in the time it took us to look the word up in the dictionary. Although a gambiarra originally referred to the mess of theater lights of different sizes and colors above a stage, it has come to mean any kind of creative jury rigging. Every so often even I can do a good gambiarra — at least until we can get a professional in.

The original gambiarra
The new gambiarra

4. Saideira [sigh-DAY-rah] (one for the road) — Here's a great, economical word that really delivers in one delicious mouthful the meaning of four words in English (or five, if you want one more for the road). As soon as I learned it, I embraced it and repeated it often (perhaps too often?). But I never hear it or use it now without seeing this version of Frank Sinatra singing One For My Baby.

5. Bagunça [bah-GOON-sah] (a mess) — I heard this word over and over before I had any idea what it meant. Everything seemed to be called a bagunça: a child's bedroom, store displays, urban signage, the political scene or even a bad Botox job. It all fell into place when I realized it was our "what a mess!" I now use it whenever I can, particularly if I need to end a conversation.  Once you proclaim something is a bagunça, there's nothing more to say.

10 September 2012

The Obligatory Mention

No question but that nowadays Mark and I are very alert to any mention of Brazil in movies, books or magazines, or in any other medium, since Brazil is now our personal reality show. Maybe if we lived in Thailand we'd be sensitive to all the references to that country ("Hey, Mark, The King & I is on TV again.") But let's face it, what we've come to call the "Obligatory Mention" of Brazil is so pervasive that half the time most people don't know it's there. Walk into any restaurant in New York, Los Angeles, Vienna or Tokyo and I promise you, you're likely to hear Bossa Nova playing in the background. You may not know that's what you're listening to, but it is. After all, Bossa Nova is great dinner music. It's also great elevator music, and you've heard it there, too, many times.

We've lost count of the number of times we're watching a movie and there's a sudden, unexpected mention of Brazil. A few months ago we were watching Alain Resnais's La Guerre est Finie, a movie set in France and Spain, with lots of talk about Italy. I was dozing off when out of nowhere came the throwaway line, "Bill's going to Brazil." Mark and I looked at each other in solemn acknowledgment of the Obligatory Mention. And just last week we were watching Howard Hawkes's To Have and Have Not. At one point, Lauren Bacall's character, "Slim," explains how she washed up on the shores of Martinique into the arms of Humphrey Bogart. She lists one, two, three countries before pausing dramatically . . . here it comes . . . "and before that I spent a few months in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil."

Read Annie Proulx's Shipping News and you'll find one of the characters at the end of the book say, "No, I've decided to smile, forget and fly to Brazil. Warm. No fog . . . balmy breezes." In Chester Himes's All Shot Up, a detective potboiler set in 1950s Harlem, a character who has to get out of town fast follows the usual route in such cases: "At eleven o'clock that morning Roman Hill shipped out on a cargo vessel bound for Rio de Janeiro." Here's a more subtle reference, in Tony Parsons's Man and Wife: "She seemed to be in high spirits, blasting a plastic football . . . claiming against all the evidence that she was Pele." And then there's a strange, if not wholly incorrect, reference in Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played With Fire: "Matilda is a hurricane that formed off Brazil a few weeks ago." Gee, when was the last time any hurricane formed off the coast of Brazil? For that matter, when was the first time? A second reference in the same book ran truer to form: "‘Maybe he got on a plane to Brazil after shooting two people in Enskede,' Bublanski said." (By the way, there's a recurrent theme here, the Escape to Brazil after Committing a Crime, and I'll be talking about it in a future blogpost.)

There was a great Obligatory Mention in an August 28th Op-Ed piece in The New York Times by David Brooks, titled "The Real Romney." With delightful irony Brooks wrote, "Mitt grew up in a modest family. His father had an auto body shop called the American Motors Corporation, and his mother owned a small piece of land, Brazil." But my current favorite Obligatory Mention came on the last night of the Democratic National Convention. Thirty minutes into President Obama's acceptance speech the cameras panned the audience and stopped on a woman carrying a huge sign proclaiming: "Brazilian-Americans for Obama." That's not just an Obligatory Mention, that's plain smart.

03 September 2012

A Smart City

"In the beginning there was nothing. God said, ‘Let there be light!' And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better."
Ellen DeGeneres

Some people own Smart Cars, or Smart TVs, or Smartphones. Some people wear Smart Jeans. Some subscribe to SmartMoney Magazine. Others read the SmartPlanet blog. Now, I don't want to be a smart aleck, but I am here to gloat. Within three years, Mark and I will be enjoying an opportunity that very few people are given in this world. We will be living in a Smart City, a city of new light, a city with a completely transformed electric grid. Residents of Búzios, State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil are giddy from this news. We are told that we are going to be the first Smart City in Latin America, and the fourth Smart City in the entire world. (Although by another count I've seen there are already ten Smart Cities around the world, with six runners-up.) But whatever the truth is and wherever Búzios ends up on the list, this is going to be interesting to watch.

Looks to be a long row to hoe . . .
It all came to light (no pun intended) at the 2012 World Cities Summit meeting held some months ago in Singapore. During the summit, 100 urban infrastructure projects were submitted to a panel of judges, all industry professionals. Out of those 100 submissions, ten of the most innovative projects were chosen. And of those ten, the project submitted by AMPLA (our very own electric utility company), Cidade Inteligente Búzios, was chosen best Urban Energy Infrastructure project.

Now, with all due respect, most residents of Búzios took this illuminating news with a huge grain of salt. I mean we're talking about a city where delivery of electricity runs from just okay to almost reliable, provided there's no windstorm to knock out transformers around town. Lately we've been losing electricity about once or twice a month (it's been very windy), and for extended periods, too. But even a two-second electric blip is enough to knock our wi-fi router out for three days. And the electric bills? Extremely high. Our own monthly bill hovers around R$520, or $256, and this is for energy used by two very conservation-conscious people. But we've been told to expect that once we turn into a Smart City we'll enjoy a 20% reduction in our bill. Modern, smart meters will be installed in every home and business, all part of the gradual implementation of a new, computerized electrical network. Well, I'm always up for a discount. Can't wait for its implementation.

The city's first "catavento," or windmill, literally wind-catcher. This being an election year, everyone's of course been calling it a "catavoto," or vote-catcher!

We're also talking about a city where way too many street lights shine all day long, as well as all night. On top of that, the city government extracts a scandalous R$15 ($7.50) from every single AMPLA customer each month to contribute to this "public illumination." That's way over R$300,000 ($150,000) each month. And then they don't turn the damn street lights off! But now, in our Smart City, we're promised increased energy efficiency in all public buildings and reduced energy losses city-wide. We'll have free wi-fi all over town and energy-saving LED bulbs lighting one's way home. Can't wait to see all of this, either.

They're going to turn this . . .
. . . into this?
My favorite Smart City proposal places special posts all around the city for people to recharge their electric bikes. Yes, that's right, recharge their electric bikes. Well, I can't wait to see how this proposal develops. Búzios has no bike lanes. We hardly have any real sidewalks. Where, exactly, will the owners of these rechargeable electric bikes be peddling? Frankly, I'm completely skeptical (though ever-hopeful) about this whole Smart City scheme. I say, Go ahead, light up my life.