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

22 October 2012

Forbidden Fruits

Latex lurks, waiting to strike . . .
My inability to eat, enjoy, savor, relish and otherwise delight in the myriad exotic fruits of Brazil is quite possibly the only downside of my living here. Years and years ago, way back in adolescence, I found out the hard way that I am allergic to what are known as the stone fruits of the rosaceae family, namely, peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots and pears. Can't eat them. Can't rub them against my lips. Prefer not even to look at them, if I can help it. A little later in life I also developed an allergy to latex. Those brightly-colored, but now dangerous, rubber gloves lying by the kitchen sink? Threw them out. More years were to pass before I would finally learn that what I have is a fairly unusual latex-fruit syndrome.

Here in Brazil I instinctively steered clear of two widely-available and beloved fruits, mango and papaya, no matter how often they were pressed on me. I don't really know why, they come from altogether different fruit families. But something about them made me lump them together with my forbidden fruits. And I'm sure glad I did because recent studies have found that mango and papaya cross-react with latex allergies. Whew, that would have been a close call, given that my allergic reaction skips the mundane itching and swelling, and runs straight to life-threatening anaphylaxis. And there's probably no antidote available in our local hospital, to boot.

So what is it like to live in a country full of fruits I either can't eat or am too scared to try? Probably something akin to how a diabetic feels in a candy store. Frustrated. Deprived. Wistful. Resigned. Here's a sampling of some exotic Brazilian fruits to which I unfortunately have to give a wide berth:


This fruit is ugly to look at, but I'm told it has a pleasant sweet and sour taste. However, it exudes a yellow latex when pressed, so you won't see me even touching it.


This fruit, high in both vitamins C and A, is frequently used to treat burns because of its soothing qualities. And The Body Shop now uses it in their baby moisturizers, so there might be something to the claims.


Also known as the Japanese persimmon, caquis were introduced to Brazil by the Japanese immigrants who came to work the coffee plantations in the early 1900s.


The cupuaçu is an entire pharmacy in a fruit. It will stimulate your immune system, lower your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels, improve your brain function, boost your gastrointestinal system and keep your cardiovascular system flowing. Or so I'm told.


We just planted a fruta-do-conde (sugar apple) tree, and am I ever happy about that. Many people believe that this fruit kills cancerous cells more effectively than chemotherapy. If our tree bears fruit, I plan to try this one.


Graviola, or soursop, is also said to have anti-cancer potency. But it is also used to treat herpes, coughs and arthritis.


The skin of this fruit is often used as an astringent.


There is a tremendous commercial market for the palmito, or heart of palm, plant on which the pupunha grows. But outside of the Amazon region, there is little demand for the fruit. Not surprising, since it's toxic until cooked. But boil it for a while and you'll benefit from high levels of anti-oxidants and vitamin A.


Another nutritious, good-for-what-ails-you fruit, full of vitamins A, B and C.

Since I have no adverse reactions to berries or cherries, I have taken a few chances here, and found that I can indeed enjoy some Brazilian fruits:


Another of the so-called "superfruits," acerola has 32 times the vitamin C as regular citrus fruits. It's used to fight anything from a cold to a cough to  the  flu, and from cancer to diabetes. It is said to strengthen teeth and bones, lower cholesterol and help keep your skin firm.


The carambola, or starfruit, has the reputation of interacting badly with drugs, much like the grapefruit. Stay away if you suffer from kidney failure, kidney stones, or if you're undergoing kidney dialysis treatment. Can't say why I risked eating this one, but I did. Dee-licious!


The amazing jabuticaba, a fruit that grows right on the trunk of the tree. It's really funny to see — and really delicious to eat. I've had this one both right off the trunk and in jelly form. But my favorite way was as a full-bodied, dry wine . . . 


Also called the Surinam cherry, and like cherries the pitanga fruit is delicious and sweet — the seeds, however, are toxic. I've had the fruit, and spit the seeds.

15 October 2012

Palha Italiana

"I have this theory that chocolate slows down the aging process . . . it may not be true, but do I dare take the chance?" 
Author unknown, but my kind of gal

Palha Italiana, literally "Italian straw." Nothing to do with Italy. Nothing to do with straw. But this ultra decadent Brazilian dessert speaks to the chocoholic in everyone. It's delicious. It's criminal. It's a perfect balance between candy and cookie. It's kind of like the Italian "salame di cioccolato," probably the result of Italian immigration to Brazil, or Turkish Delight cake. It's also very similar to America's very own fudge brownies, as long as the brownies have something added in, like nuts or peanut butter or Oreo cookies. But, still, Palha Italiana is a very Brazilian addiction.

salame di cioccolato
Turkish Delight

Fudge brownies with peanut butter

The ingredients of palha italiana are simple: one carton of sweetened condensed milk, one package of vanilla wafers, 4 TBS powdered chocolate and 2 TBS butter. (The proportions of the last two ingredients are all over the place — some recipes use 8 to ½, some 3 to 2, some 2 to 1 . . . you're on your own here).

Pound the wafers into little pieces and reserve.

Put the condensed milk, the chocolate and the butter into a saucepan and begin mixing over heat. As soon as the chocolate mixture starts to pull away from the bottom of the pan, turn off the heat and mix in the wafer pieces. Mix until you have a "dough."

Plop the dough out onto a flat, butter-greased surface. Open the dough up by pounding on it with the palms of your hands. Let cool, cut into rectangles, and watch people devour them.

08 October 2012

Debate & Drop-off

There's nothing like going to a partisan event with a partisan crowd. Mark and I were in London in 1998 at the time of the final World Cup game between Brazil and France. Brazil was expected to win. We had the inspired idea of going to watch the game with Brazilians at a Brazilian restaurant. As you all may know, Brazil lost, but it was still a great, roaring crowd to be with. Another time, Mark and I found ourselves in Rio during the weekend of the Oscar broadcast. We thought it would be fun to go to an "Oscar Event" we'd read about that was to be held at a video club. We found ourselves among diehard movie fans. They groaned when their favorites lost, cheered when they won, and in the downtime between Oscar presentations they kept busy by playing a hard-fought film trivia contest. People at our table were thrilled to learn we were Americans, by the way. They had some idea we'd know all the answers. Well, we didn't. Our table lost, and embarrassingly, too. So, what better way to watch the first Presidential debate than to drive to Rio and attend a "Debate and Ballot Drop-off" event with a group I belong to called Democrats Abroad Brazil. We'd get to meet these people who I, at least, felt I knew from our back-and-forths on Facebook, cheer on our candidate and deliver our absentee ballots to a consular official handcuffed to the Diplomatic Pouch.

We were all set to attend this partisan gathering at a bar called Devassa, in Ipanema, when we were informed just days before to show up at the Marriott Hotel on Copacabana Beach instead. The Marriott? Really? Well, yes, we were told, the consular official would feel more comfortable attending a "bi-partisan" event, so other American groups were being added to the invitation. But wait, a bi-partisan event at the partisan Marriott? A hotel owned by fellow Mormon and fellow Lake Winnipesaukee mansion retreat owner Bill Marriott, who just happened to introduce Mitt Romney at a fundraiser a few weeks ago by praising his ability to tie up a yacht? That Marriott?
Okay, off we went to the Marriott, our least favorite hotel in that tourist-trap stretch of Copacabana Beach. We found the surprisingly young consular official, who accepted our ballots and stuffed them into her very unofficial-looking pocketbook. We met the indefatigable Melissa Mello e Souza, our group's leader and secret weapon, off in a corner indefatigably registering new voters. I looked around, searching for other familiar faces from my Facebook group. I saw instead an awful lot of people who looked as if they knew how to tie up yachts. We ate the over-priced Tex-Mex food offered by the hotel, and then settled in to watch the debate. Our very well-behaved crowd even paid heed to Jim Lehrer and foreswore partisan reactions. No applause, no booing, no cheering, and no throwing of nachos at the screen.

Watching the debate-watchers
Melissa's voter-registration table

I admit to having felt a tad uncomfortable in this Republican redoubt, at least initially, but as the debate slogged on the audience began to react a bit, and the reactions made it clear that the Democrats Abroad turnout far out-numbered that of the other associations involved in the event. And I don't know whose hand was guiding this, but the couple that sat at our table turned out to be extremely affable and gratifyingly like-minded. You know you can relax when the conversation flows from the very polite "And how long have you been in Brazil?" to a discussion of the emotional significance of a New York deli sandwich. You know you can rejoice when they pull out their "Vote for Obama" T shirts. And you know all's right with the world when your only worry is whether or not you've got enough guest rooms back home to lodge all your new friends.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TROPICAL DAYDREAMS! Tomorrow marks my one-year blog anniversary. When I started blogging, I thought I would do it for just one year. What could I possibly find to blather about beyond one year? Well, I've been so heartened by my readers' comments and feedback, both on the blog itself, via e-mail or Facebook, and in person, that I feel I must blog on. And so I shall. One year more?

01 October 2012

Paquetá Island

Once upon a time, Mark and I were frequent travelers, but for the past six months we have rarely ventured farther than the closest supermarket. Maybe it was encroaching age that was at last taking a toll. Maybe we were feeling that by living in Búzios we were already at the destination. And we sure don't have any business reason for going anywhere anymore. So why subject ourselves to all that airport unpleasantness and all that road rage? Last week, though, we decided to scratch the one little travel itch we have felt of late. We took advantage of a long overdue resupply and stock-up visit to Rio (two and a half hours to our west) to make a day excursion to a tiny little island called Paquetá up near the northern shores of Guanabara Bay. Paquetá is nowhere near as close to the consciousness of Rio residents as, say, Staten Island is to the consciousness of Manhattan residents. Still, there is something provocative in the mere anomalousness of this little dot on the waters. So we went.

And you know what turned out to be really really nice? The ride out and the ride back. Now I had my share of Staten Island Ferry dates back in my college days, especially when the ferry ride cost a mere nickel and my dates, also students, were badly strapped for cash. The late-night trip to Staten Island and back is fabulous. But this Paquetá ride? You pass right alongside the strangely greenish wedding cake architecture on the so-called Fiscal Island. You pass under the monumental Rio-Niteroí bridge. You thread between hulking containerships waiting to load and unload cargo at the port of Caju. And if you return, as we did, to downtown Rio at dusk, take care, because your heart just might soar. Dusk turns to sunset and then dark. The lights of the business district are all atwinkle, the Christ Redeemer Statue atop Corcovado is ablaze, Sugarloaf is alight, the brightly-lighted ferries to and from Niteroí cross back and forth in front of you, aircraft comes in to Santos Dumont Airport so close that you can smell the jet fuel. Spectacular.

A scorching 45 C in Rio (113 F!)
And our day on the island? It can't be held against Paquetá that we visited on what was reportedly the hottest day of the year here in southeastern Brazil. After all, who would even suspect that you would have something called "the hottest day of the year" in winter? We ended up spending most of our time in the garden of the Casa de Artes drinking bottled water in the shade and sucking on olives and mopping our brows. That had not been our original plan. We had planned to take full advantage of this car-free island and rent bikes to go exploring. But the people who did rent bikes also wound up in the garden of the Casa de Artes and they drank more water than we did.

The invitingly shaded Casa de Artes

The famous bird cemetery on Paquetá
Toward the end of the afternoon, we took a pedal taxi (slightly motorized, actually) as far as the world's only known bird cemetery. Strange place to find oneself. We walked along a couple of the civilized-looking beaches. If they get the pollution in Guanabara Bay cleaned up in time for the Olympics in 2016, maybe people will be able to swim at them again. We looked at the pretty historic houses. We repeated over and over how smart we had been not to have packed a bag and looked for some place to check in. The lodgings on offer were grandiose in name (the Palace Hotel, the Hotel Lido) but short on comfort. The glory of this little island is that there's nothing to do there. But that's also the problem. There's nothing to do there. So what's worse? What the Americans would do with such a place at the edge of a major population center — a Travelodge here, a Starbucks there, a TGIF down the way? Or what the Brazilians do, which is nothing?