25 February 2013

Creepy Crawlies

The worst creepy crawlie I can remember from my childhood in New Jersey is one for which we kids had to make up a name: we called it a spopper, because to our non-entomologist’s eyes it was a cross between a spider and a grasshopper. This huge, black spider-like insect was able to "hop" all around the house, even up flights of stairs. You do realize what that hopping capacity meant to a young child? Right, we were not safe in our beds upstairs, that creature could get us at any time! Yes, spoppers were the most fearsome of our house insects. Beyond that, we had the usual assortment of ants, mosquitoes, caterpillars, inchworms, bees, wasps, dragonflies, fireflies, butterflies, all watched from the safety of a screened-in porch.
Take one spider . . .

. . . and one grasshopper. Put them together. Now try to go to sleep.

In New York City, at least during the times I lived there, the biggest and scariest creepy crawlies were definitely the lumbering water bugs, just slightly higher on the disgusting scale than the cockroaches. It didn’t matter how clean your kitchen was or how spotless and shiny your bathroom, hoards of cockroaches roamed with impunity, and water bugs stared you down with real New York attitude.

You lookin’ at me?

Look, don’t get me wrong, I don’t shriek and jump on a chair at the sight of a bug or an insect, but I’m sincerely creeped by them. So my major preoccupation about moving to Brazil focused less on visas and language acquisition and such, and more on how I was going to deal with what I imagined would be tropical-country masses of swarming insects. How would I cook — particularly in my oh-so-very-French mise en place way — with unidentifiable bugs crawling everywhere? Would we be able to sleep? Would we be constantly bitten and come down with dread, tropical diseases?

It’s nowhere near as bad as we feared. In fact, I am amazed that it hasn’t been bad at all. Of course, it helped immensely that one of the first things we did was to install screens in all of the bedroom windows. It seems so obvious, but screened windows are not universally used here in Brazil. But we designed and installed ours and now we — and our guests — sleep like babies, blissfully free from dive-bombing, buzzing mosquitoes. And in the kitchen, I can mettre as many foods as I want to en place without having to deal with armies of ants making off with our dinner. And I’ve even developed a certain affection for these two cuties:

I know we have cicadas in the U.S., but I don’t recall ever actually seeing one up close. Here they’re called cigarra, and the one you see pictured is the biggest example of the cicada family. They eat poinciana, or flamboyant, trees, damaging them until the branches fall off. And they shriek and scream like the devil while they’re doing it.

Here’s one we don’t have in the U.S., the bicho-pau, or stick insect. Hard to see them in trees and plants, but if one gloms on to a wall in your house it — forgive me — sticks out like a sore thumb.

By the way, I’ve never once seen a spopper in Brazil.

18 February 2013

The Carnaval Grinch

Dr. Seuss's famous Grinch
How could I have let Carnaval just pass me by this year? I really surprised myself. In the past I’ve always followed the Rio samba schools, or gone to the Sambódromo, or joined a street bloco, or kept samba playing incessantly in the background. I’ve gone to my share of Carnaval parties, I’ve learned the lyrics of my favorite sambas, and on Ash Wednesday I’ve parked myself in front of the T.V. to watch the apuração, the final judging of Rio’s top twelve samba schools. Last year I wrote six blogposts on various Carnaval subjects, each one more enthusiastic than the other. So what happened this year? I feel like the Grinch who stole Carnaval.

If you’ll forgive me my bluntness, I just couldn’t get it up this year. I didn’t care. All I kept thinking was, Thank goodness Carnaval falls early this year. And I held on to that, because it meant an early end to the high season in Búzios, an early end to the bumper-to-bumper traffic, an early end to long lines in the stores, an early end to the groups of loud, noisy renters in the house across the street from us and in the house right next door. I didn’t even care when I read the stunning news that at three weeks before Carnaval, two of the most traditional samba schools in Rio, Mangueira and Portela, were nowhere near ready. Not one of the eight floats that each school would use in their parade had been completed, not one. Usually at three weeks to show time at least half of the floats are ready to go. This was an amazing story for those who follow the Rio schools. What did I do after I read the article? I put it aside and took a nap.

Perhaps my ennui is just a reflection of an unusual Carnaval year. For the first time, more than half of the  special-group samba schools chose themes cynically, expecting to garner paid sponsorships. There were themes honoring South Korea, Germany and Rock in Rio, just to name three, and the schools had no reason to doubt that the honorees would dig deep into their pockets in gratitude. But they miscalculated badly. In hard economic times, some of the entities so honored said, Thanks, but don’t expect any financial aid, we didn’t ask to be honored. In one instance (South Korea) money was promised but, in the end, never paid. A week or so before Carnaval these schools were scrounging for ways to pay their debts. Things were not going quite right.

Firemen at the ready . . . but not part of the show
Fainting tree, also not part of the show

At the end of the day, though, I still do love a good competition. I began to wake up a little when the champion school, Unidos da Tijuca, had serious problems barely five minutes into their parade. One float broke down, pieces from another float broke off, smoke came shooting out of yet another float, and several participants were overcome by heat exhaustion. This was the school to beat and there it was, giving the championship away, point by point. Another serious contender was Beija-Flor, which also had mechanical and technical problems during their parade. And there was more drama with Mangueira, always a crowd-pleaser and my all time personal favorite. They had finished their preparations in time, they put on a great show, but then ran six minutes over the allotted parade time of 82 minutes. This meant that even before the judging started they’d lost six decimal points, not an easy deficit to make up.

Float stuck on TV tower
Broken-down float

So last Wednesday I found myself settled in front of the T.V. to watch the apuração, and for two hours I "got into" Carnaval. That was all I could muster this year. But this Grinch will get her comeuppance in 2014, when Carnaval falls on March 4th, three weeks later than this year!

11 February 2013

Closing the Stable Door After The Horse Has Bolted

On November 28, 1942, my mother told her parents she was going to meet some friends at the Cocoanut Grove, the swankiest night club in Boston. When word of what was to become the deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history reached my grandfather, imagine his despair as he spent much of the rest of the night frantically searching for his daughter, who, thankfully, wasn’t there. On her way to the club, she and her friends had changed their plans and gone somewhere else. In his relief, my grandfather was furious, and grounded my mother. I don’t remember the whole story now, but grounding might have been the least harsh of the punishments my grandfather meted out.

By now the world beyond Brazil has heard about the tragic fire of two weeks ago in the disco Kiss, in the town of Santa Maria, state of Rio Grande do Sul. The similarities between this most recent nightclub disaster and so many others are startling. How is it that nothing ever changes? Whether it’s Boston in 1942 or West Warwick, Rhode Island in 2003 or Buenos Aires in 2004, clubs are still allowing illegal pyrotechnic flares to be used in closed rooms full of flammable, toxic materials. Exit doors are still being locked and chained from the outside and windows are still being boarded up. And bouncers are still blocking the escape routes of panicked, screaming people because they can’t let them leave without paying. Jeez, do they teach them that in Bouncer School?

There has been plenty already written about the Santa Maria tragedy itself, I won’t add much more to it here. What I’m watching is what’s happening all around Brazil in the tragedy’s aftermath. All of a sudden, laws that have been ignored for decades are being rigorously enforced. All of a sudden, there is manpower aplenty to conduct inspections of hundreds of thousands of nightclubs, bars, restaurants and theaters. Most of the public venues being inspected are, indeed, operating without proper documents and against safety regulations. But ostentatiously shutting them down after allowing them to operate in the first place? Visions of Captain Renault closing down Rick’s Place in Casablanca run through my head:

Look, I’m all for abiding by the law. I come from a country of (mostly) law-abiding citizens. But no one’s being fooled here, these inspections and closures are predictable and heavy-handed. Can’t help but think, What if they had been doing these inspections all along, in a timely manner and on a rotating schedule? How many lives might have been saved? Because doing it now, in one fell swoop, with no discussion allowed, is resulting in draconian closures, a huge economic impact and the renewed cynicism of an already cynical public. It’s the quintessential closing of the stable door after the horse has bolted.

In our own little town of Búzios, five locations were closed down, including the inoffensive Gran Cine Bardot, our jewel of a movie theater, which has been operating for 19 years. It seats a mere 111 people (though we rarely see more than 50 people there at one time) and it has three exits and several visible fire extinguishers. Any pyrotechnics at the Bardot are on the screen. What on earth could the inspectors have found? All we’ve learned is that the theater’s owner must now provide 16 documents in order to be able to reopen. In the meantime, while the theater complies with the law and remains closed, all of the other clubs, bars and restaurants went right back to business as usual an hour after they were shut down. Good old Búzios, where total anarchy trumps zero tolerance.

04 February 2013

Brazilian Potlatch

As soon as I was old enough, my grandparents sent me a $5 check for my birthday. Later that year my mother sent a $5 check to my grandmother for her birthday. A few months later another check appeared in the mail, this time for one of my sisters, in the amount of $5. Then a $5 check was sent to my grandfather, and this went on, year in, year out. This gifting and re-gifting of $5 was my family's amusing interpretation of the custom of potlatch. First practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the United States, potlatch is more than gift-giving. It is a deliberate redistribution of resources, either through money, foods or other material things. That my family was redistributing the same resource was merely our little joke.

Here in Brazil my husband, Mark, and I have gotten deeply involved in a Brazilian version of potlatch that is as intense as it is over-the-top. Oh, it started out innocently enough, in the tradition of the don't-go-anywhere-empty-handed mind set. Invited for dinner? Bottle of wine. Lunch? Maybe flowers, or a dessert from the bakery. But slowly we got sucked into a livelier, more inventive potlatch which, at least in our circle, centers around the redistribution of foodstuffs, whether from the garden, the stove or the still.

The kitchen garden, or horta, potlatch is our most active exchange. Whether we've invited people for a meal or a friend just drops by, we have been on the receiving end of large bags of homegrown kale, of bananas and avocados picked right off their trees, and of baskets of fruits I'd once never heard of, but which now I covet: acerola and pitanga. We have returned the favors with red and green peppers, lettuces, cherry tomatoes, beets and carrots, all picked from our own garden. And we have melon ripening as I write. Already some people are eyeing them for future exchanges.

All from backyard stills

We also have developed an interesting alcoholic beverage potlatch, which includes moonshine as well as the store-bought variety. We have happily accepted all kinds of interesting homemade cachaças, each more gut-burning than the other. And we hold up our side with honor, bringing bottles of my own homemade limoncello, a digestif that I love, but which is not readily available here. I make it in large batches, so there are always extra bottles to give away. But our booze potlatch isn't all mountain rye from pappy's little still. The offerings have ranged from bottles of lovely red wines to cartons of sparkling wines, from 12-year-old Scotch to Piper Heidsieck. My all-time favorite is the 1.75-liter bottle of rosé that was brought — along with many, many other bottles that day —  by friends we had invited for a weekend of high-end gluttony. I don't know what to do with the empty bottle, but I can't bring myself to recycle it just yet.

As for prepared foods, well, we seem to have entered another plane beyond the homemade cakes and cookies of my youth. Here the exchange revolves more around homemade jams and jellies, and even chutneys and crystallized ginger. The winner in this potlatch category, though, is our cleaning lady, Rosângela. Over the years she has taken it upon herself to make sure Mark and I taste all the Brazilian dishes she feels we should know, and she makes sure that what she brings is engordante (fattening), since we're too thin for her taste. And every year around Christmas she brings us rabanada, similar to but not quite French toast. Every year around the June holidays known here as the festas juninas she brings us canjica, similar to but not quite rice pudding (it uses hominy instead of rice). Her garden is enormous and her generosity is boundless. She comes on Tuesdays and Fridays . . . wonder what she'll bring tomorrow.