29 April 2013

Visam, Visat, Visas

I’ve just read David Sedaris’s article Long Way Home in the April 1st edition of the New Yorker, about the theft of his passport, with his Indefinite Leave to Remain sticker inside, his hard-won right to residency in the United Kingdom. I got to thinking how devastated I would be if I lost my passport, with the precious Brazilian visa confirming my permanent residency in it. These visas, once successfully obtained, are not necessarily so very easy to replace. Sedaris replaced his U.S. passport itself without any great difficulty. But, even though his Indefinite Leave to Remain status was quickly confirmed by computer at British Immigration whenever he traveled, replacing the sticker would turn out to be an expensive and lengthy and frustrating bureaucratic process. As Sedaris said, "People think it’s easy to leave home and resettle in another country, but in fact it’s exhausting, and purposefully so." You want to live in Britain or Brazil without being a citizen of one of those two countries? You can do it. But you’re going to have to sweat for it. Governments put up lots of roadblocks to residency in order to weed out the lazy and the mere dreamers, among other types. That is of course their right. But the roadblocks are getting increasingly hard to navigate around!

If you’re going to stay in any foreign country for more than six months — and have qualms about the consequences of overstaying your welcome — you sure need something bigger and better than a tourist visa. When in 2001 Mark and I got it into our heads to move to Brazil for what we initially thought would be "a while," we looked at the long list of temporary visas available to foreigners. As an editor, writer and journalist, Mark applied for the obvious visa, the coveted foreign correspondent visa — coveted for its amazing four-year validity — and I would apply as the correspondent’s spouse. Behave yourself, and you can apply to renew, one time only, for another four years. Wow, we thought, eight whole years. Perfect! As I think back on our two-month journey through the bureaucratic maze of notarizations, consularizations, certified translations, fees and money orders, I am struck by how smoothly it all actually went. In 2002 there were about 300 foreign correspondent visas granted by Brazil, and two of them were ours.

We've spent a lot of time at the Brazilian consulate in NYC
Four years later, when it was time for our renewal application, we found that the rules and regulations were pretty much the same. We knew the basic hoops, we jumped through them all, and were granted renewals. But time passes quickly, and before we knew it the end of our eight-year temporary visa status was looming. Time to make the leap to permanent status if we could. Given the options available for permanency (marriage to a Brazilian national, adoption of a Brazilian child, retirement visa or investor visa) we applied for the investor visa. It seemed to carry the least emotional baggage. It would mean investing in and opening a business, keeping the business going for three years until we could turn the investor visas into permanent residency visas, and then be free to close the business if we wanted to. Actually run a business? Not exactly my heart’s desire. But these were the terms, and with the help of some extremely competent professionals, we met the challenges, scaled the roadblocks, completed every bureaucratic requirement Brazil threw at us, and secured our investor visas. Did we wait three years for permanency? No, to our surprise and delight we received immediate permanency, because Mark was over 65. Score one for the golden oldies!

As I think back on our six-month journey for permanency I’m amazed we succeeded. I’m not so sure we’d have been so lucky today. Countries like Panama and Malaysia practically pay you to move in. Uruguay will give you a sweetheart residency deal. But many, many other countries, Brazil among them, are tightening up on who they allow in and how. I don’t imagine we’ll be seeing many more Americans here, at least not unless they’re sent by their companies, given Brazil’s current visa requirements. For example, I was surprised to learn that Brazil no longer requires the fairly straightforward and easy-to-get Good Conduct letter from your local police precinct. Now what’s required to prove you’re a solid, honest U.S. citizen is FBI Clearance! Wow! And from what I see online, getting FBI Clearance isn’t so easy, no matter how solid and honest a citizen you are. I’m so very grateful all that bureaucratic papelada (paperwork) is behind us. At least, until they change the rules.

22 April 2013

Paradise Lost

As Mark and I patiently waited our turn at the 127th Police Precinct in Búzios, I had time to soak up the atmosphere. It was something like Hill Street Blues meets Barney Miller, with just a touch of Kojak thrown in, since three of the four inspectors on duty had shaved heads, à la Telly Savalas. Everything seemed so familiar, from the way the cops walked (that certain cocky-but-smooth strut) to the way they dressed (tight-fitting jeans with a large, roomy shirt to conceal the gun). The women’s bathroom was out of order, as I’m sure women’s bathrooms are in precincts all over the world. Even the world-weary cop banter, which was sometimes hard for us to follow, seemed familiar. And yet something was very different. Gone was the American cop’s crisp, military-like "State your business, sir." In its place was the Brazilian "Have a seat, take your time, would you like a water or a coffee?"

Okay, my Brazilian friends have now all raised their eyebrows and sighed heavily. Yes, Mark and I look foreign, and foreigners are treated especially well. Mark and I also look — er, um, mature. And people of mature years are also given some special consideration in Brazil. So, okay, maybe we got the VIP treatment. It’s just that as I looked around it didn’t seem that way. Each complainant was getting the full and focused attention of an inspector, and for as long as was necessary. And everyone appeared to walk out of the precinct satisfied (I’m of course talking about the lucky ones who didn’t arrive in handcuffs!).

DJ setting up first speaker . . .
And here's the second speaker
By now you’re wondering why we were there in the first place. Well, we weren’t exactly robbed, unless you consider it a crime to rob people of their sleep. There was no violence perpetrated against us, unless you agree with me that ear-shattering, bone-crunching music at 3:00 a.m. is a violence. There was no reason to bother a first responder, unless you were worried about a seemingly dangerous spike in blood pressure. In short, we were there because of Neighbors from Hell, and I don’t mean the TBS series. To our anger and despair, the house directly next door to ours has begun renting nearly weekly to large groups of 15 to 25 people for parties. Oh, wait, wait — the owner says they’re not renting for parties. They’re renting to "responsible and good people only, who use the house as families do." (These are the actual words of the absentee European owner in a recent e-mail!) Uh, sure. Right.

The dubious humor . . . 
. . . of some renters
The rental activity, which began in the high season, and which we tolerated because it was high season, has now become intolerable. We’ve called the police repeatedly, but there seems to be only one patrol car for all of Búzios, and Mark and I concede that murders, rapes and armed robberies trump mere murderously high decibels. So, no car. Instead, we received some very sound advice on how to proceed after the fact, and that’s why we found ourselves at the One-Two-Seven, waiting to file a registro de ocorrência, a criminal complaint against a neighbor. I mean, we’re too old for this shit, you know? And we’re not alone. More and more law-abiding citizens, Brazilians and non-Brazilians alike, are fed up with the flagrant it’s-Búzios-so-anything-goes attitude of outsiders.

We’ve now had a crash course in Brazilian law. We filed our complaint under Article 3.688/41 of the criminal code, Perturbação do sossego alheio (roughly translated, disturbing the peace). And unless the owner of the house next door has a crisis of conscience and comes to his senses (an outcome we’re trying to achieve via e-mail communication), we will take our registro to a lawyer, who will file an action under Article 1.277 of the civil code, Direito de vizinhança (the right to peace, health and safety in one’s neighborhood). It’s really a crying shame that it’s come to this. Paradise Lost? We’re working on Paradise Regained!

15 April 2013

Mercado do Mica

Down at the end of our street, all of a five-minute walk from our house, there is an old-fashioned Mom & Pop grocery store, the Mercado do Mica. Unpretentious as the place is, though, you are as likely to see luxury SUVs as broken-down bicycles parked at the curb. In the line checking out at the cash register, women dripping with jewelry and toting Vuitton bags stand alongside folks digging deep into their pockets for a handful of five- and ten-cent pieces. There are plenty of generic supermarkets in town, but Mica’s, as it’s commonly referred to, is a Búzios institution. Mica’s is a magnet for the Who’s Who of Búzios as well as for the Búzios Who’s Not Who. It is a repository of  Búzios history and a fount of information and gossip about the neighbors. Not much happens that Mica doesn’t know about, even though he sits at the cash register with his back to the front door.

Mica is one of a large number of brothers and sisters of the Mureb family, one of the very oldest of Búzios clans. The Mureb family used to own a huge swathe of our neighborhood of Manguinhos, and the original family, plus extended relatives, are still a formidable presence. Mica’s daughter, Monique, runs the corner video store with her husband, and that’s where we run for the new releases. One of Mica’s brothers, Cilíco, runs a restaurant/pizzaria two doors down, and he’s served up our share of delicious arugula and sundried tomato pizzas. Mica's son, Fabrício, is a dentist, whose office is just a few doors away. Mica’s brother-in-law, Murilo, is our insurance broker, and another brother-in-law, Hernan, is a real estate broker we’ve had some dealings with.

"Here a Mureb, there a Mureb, everywhere a Mureb, Mureb . . ."

Mureb pizza
Mureb videos

Mureb teeth

Nowadays, Mica’s is the first place I go to look for anything. It’s true what people say: he’s got the best prices for miles around. But I struggled with Mica’s for a long time. The market was small, it was dark, it was hard to negotiate. There was too much that was hidden away so that you had to ask for it rather than just grabbing it off a shelf as I was accustomed to doing in supermarkets. People took forever at the cash register, talking, talking, talking. Hey, I wanted to shout, there are people waiting here! Let’s move it! And then, at least initially, there was my own weakness in Portuguese. Cashiers in a supermarket rarely require anything more of you than a grunted thank you or you’re welcome, but at Mica’s you’re expected to contribute something to the endless stream of banter and conversation. I remember one time picking up a bag of Italian polenta, but then, at the cash register, Mica’s wife (who does have a name, though to this day Mark and I call her Mrs. Mica), asked me what I do with this unusual product. Anyway, I’m pretty sure that’s what she asked me, but no way was I able to answer. Couldn’t even rely on hand signals. Just shrugged my shoulders and skulked out, humiliated.

It was after that experience that we stopped going to Mica’s. The supermarkets might have cost more, but at least there you didn’t have to talk to anybody. But we felt very "un-Búzios," and we were wracked with guilt. It’s a small town, you know? We were constantly bumping into Mica at the bank, on the street, in the pharmacy. We were always friendly, but we knew that he knew that we had opted out as customers, even though we lived right up the street. We had to conquer this Mica thing.

Reds, Whites, Rosés!
Arborio, Basmati, Thai!
Finally, about a year ago, we took the plunge. Mark made a formal apology speech. With my much-improved communication skills I’m now blathering to everyone and anyone at Mica’s who wants conversation and even to some who do not. We are back to taking advantage of Mica’s amazing prices on wines. Mica’s is also the only store in town with basmati rice at an amazing low price. It is the only store with cooked, canned chickpeas (as opposed to the kind you get uncooked in a bag and have to soak overnight and boil for four hours the next day). And when you’re in the middle of preparing a meal and you run out of vegetable broth, it’s a terrific thing to be able to run down to the corner and get just that one little item at Mica’s. What could I have been thinking all these years?

08 April 2013

The Búzios We Never Knew

Can't get more glamorous than "la Bardot"
I don't have enough fingers and toes to count the number of times Mark and I have been told, "Oh, you should have seen Búzios 35 years ago!" — or 30 years ago, or even as recently as 20 years ago — "Now that was something special!" I can always see the comment coming, too, because people get this funny look on their faces, and their eyes go all glassy. They wax poetic about the utter simplicity of the place, how rustic it once was, how marvelously uncomplicated. Sure, the electricity went out a lot more often than it does nowadays. And water wasn't piped in, it was trucked in, 20,000 liters at a time. But oh, those were the days! The urban "rabble" hadn't yet discovered this seaside paradise of ours. The people who came from Rio were all beautiful people. Champagne ran in the streets. And Mark and I missed it all — or so we're told.

Of course, if you talk to the real oldtimers, you'll hear tales of a time, not 35 years ago but 50 or 60 years ago, when the real buzianos never even used money. Farmers brought their lettuce and manioc and bananas and carrots by donkey to the neighboring town of Cabo Frio, where they exchanged these products for bags of rice, coffee and beans. Fishermen did the same with their day's catch. And at the end of the day people gathered around the village water well to gossip and exchange news while filling their buckets with water. Such is the nostalgia for this time that a few years ago a candidate for mayor actually ran on what Mark and I came to call the "water-well platform." She fervently wanted to recreate the Búzios of her youth. Well, nostalgia has its place, and a lot of people regret not just the passing of the ultra-glamorous Búzios of, say, the '70s and the '80s but even the really primitive Búzios that preceded it. Myself, I'm an indoor-plumbing girl. I don't think that fetching water at the well is all that romantic. And I am apparently not alone, since that water-well candidate I mentioned did not get elected.

There are still vestiges of this other time, though, if you look hard enough. For example, there are two eye charts in my ophthalmologist's office. One is the Snellen chart with that big familiar E at the top center. But the other one I'd never seen before, with only symbols and figures on it. "Is that for kids?" I asked my doctor. "No," she said, "there are still some adults here who don't read or write." That gave me pause, until I remembered that the educational system in Búzios — back in that simpler time — went no further than 4th grade, and many of those adults are still alive.

Though Búzios has changed dramatically in the last 30 to 40 years, the glorification of Búzios as a tranquil, rustic fishing village is still the driving force behind current tourist propaganda. But as for idealizing the days when, for example, there was no electricity, I think it's time for a reality check. Everyone can get behind a romantic, candlelit dinner. But electricity keeps the fridge cold, the boilers running, the pools filtered, the air conditioners holding global warming at bay, and the hospital blood banks full of usable blood. And when we lose electricity here in Búzios — which is happening all too frequently these days — no one goes running out into the streets to rejoice. It's true, we don't know the Búzios of 35 years ago. We never will. But we're here now . . . doesn't that count for something?

01 April 2013

Moqueca de Peixe

The classic Brazilian stew known as moqueca has a lot in common with other countries’ signature dishes, such as France’s bouillabaisse and North Africa’s couscous, in that there are at least 347 different ways to prepare it. You can make a Bahian moqueca (with dendê, or palm oil, and coconut milk), or you can make a Capixaba moqueca (without the dendê and coconut milk, but with a red coloring called urucum); you can use any kind of fish or seafood you want, or use meat, chicken or eggs, or even bananas instead. No matter who you talk to in Brazil, that person will insist that their recipe is the best recipe. But it’s not all argument, because most moqueca cooks do agree that you must cook the stew in a clay casserole and serve it from the same dish. Most cooks also agree on the various add-ins: onion, tomato, bell peppers, chili peppers and cilantro.

Over the years Mark and I have devoured our fair share of moquecas, both in restaurants and private homes. With the arrogance of the newcomer we believe we can tell a good moqueca from a bad one, and we never hesitate to share our opinions with the rest of the moqueca mavens. But make our own? No, not with those complex flavors. It’s only within the last month that we took the plunge and bought a clay moqueca pot at a roadside stand on the ride in to Rio (for a whopping $7.50!) Once back home, we researched recipes, donned our aprons and voilà! It turns out to be incredibly easy. (Note: since I find dendê impossible to digest, I tend towards the Capixaba version. Feel free to add dendê, and good luck to you if it’s your first time.)

Our first moqueca was made with shark (cação), which seems to be the classic Búzios version, but the one pictured here is being made with dourado. Besides the fish steaks, which you should marinate a while in lime juice, garlic and salt, slice or dice up onion, tomato, green pepper (optional) and cilantro, some malagueta peppers, urucum, and coconut milk (not usually used in a Capixaba version, but who’s looking?)

Put some oil in the bottom of the pot, mix in some urucum, and then start layering in this order: onion, tomato, pepper, cilantro. Then place a layer of fish steaks, and do another layer of onion, tomato, pepper and cilantro. Throw in some malagueta peppers at this point, too.

Start layering  . . .
Fish layer
Final layer, close her up

Cover and boil for about 15-20 minutes, adding a little water if necessary. Then add the bottle of coconut milk, and keep cooking for another 10 minutes or so. Test the fish for doneness.

Bring the whole pot to the table and serve it over rice while your guests drool. It’s easy, delicious, nutritious, a great dinner party dish.

(Note: In Brazil, Moqueca de Peixe is also served with farofa (a toasted manioc flour mixture) and pirão (a very thick, gravy-like side dish made from fish heads). I’ve always had some trouble with pirão since it, too, is made with dendê, so I leave it out. I apologize to my Brazilian friends, but you all know there are plenty of foreigners with this particular disability.)