31 March 2014

From the Terrace

When there’s nothing to do and our friends are out of town; when there’s nothing good on television and the movie theater is closed . . . we sit on our terrace and watch our private show:

There's our basic view . . .

. . . and sailing events . . .
. . . and flocks of seagulls . . .

. . . stand-up paddlers abound . . .

. . . and so do kayakers . . .

. . . there are always tourist schooners . . .

. . . and once there was a cruise ship . . .

. . . and once we saw a strange-looking, glass-bottomed boat . . .

. . . we have helicopters . . .

. . . an occasional sea plane . . .

. . . and a parakitist or two . . .

(This is not the view from our terrace. Just checking to see if you’re still with me.)

. . . we've got fishermen . . .

. . . marathoners . . .

. . . and beach cleaners . . .

. . . sunsets in gold . . .

. . . and sunsets in silver . . .

. . . and fireworks come New Year's Eve.

24 March 2014

Oh, Well, Of Course . . . You're Americans

It’s hard to get beyond stereotypes, isn’t it? Even if you were brought up to respect other people, and not to make assumptions based on race, religion or national origin. Even if you pride yourself on being politically correct, you’ve got stereotypes in your head. Otherwise all those nationality jokes wouldn’t be so funny, right? You know the ones, they start out, "An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. . ." Each national type has its (stereotypical) characteristics. The Irish are drunks, the French are snobs, the Italians are womanizers, the Swiss are organized, the Mexicans are lazy, the Japanese are courteous, the Americans — well, here the list can be quite long. Off and on — though thankfully more off than on — Mark and I are told, "Oh, well, of course . . . you’re Americans. That explains everything."

national stereotypes in a word

Here in Brazil there’s no getting around the fact that we stick out in a crowd as foreigners. There will always be something un-Brazilian about the way we hold ourselves, the way we walk and the way we dress. But at least Mark and I are both thin, so if people just look at us they don’t immediately take us for Americans. (Sorry, America, but your growing obesity has preceded you around the world. Stop drinking those free soda refills, just stop!) No, if people just look at us they often guess that we’re French, which I accept as the highest of compliments. It’s only after people get to know us that our "American-ness" shines through.

"I told you to control your dog!"
And just what are the characteristics that define us so obviously as Americans? I’ve often wondered, because in my mind we don’t fit into the usual stereotypes: we’re not always in a hurry, we’re not stressed out, we’re not consumerist, and we’re not loud, angry or rude. Many years ago we were standing outside our house, on the street, with several of our neighbors. Somewhere nearby a dog starting barking furiously, and a guy — a big, heavily-muscled, thick-necked former Marine type — appeared from across the street (was he renting the house?) shouting, "Control your fucking dog!" Just like that, in real American English, although the only people on the street at the time who understood English were the two of us and our caretaker. And we don’t have a dog. Our caretaker turned to us and said, "That’s what I always thought Americans were like, until I began working for you."

Get out the manual!
However, there are American characteristics that do fit Mark and me like the proverbial glove. For example, we plead guilty to being punctual. It never fails but that Mark and I marvel at how empty a Brazilian movie theater is until the movie starts, at which point the Brazilians start arriving, and climbing over us to get to their seats. We are also guilty of being very, very organized. We make lists. We keep files. We remember birthdays (and did so way before electronic calendars). My recipes are in alphabetical order within their respective food categories. And to the astonishment of our friends, we have a written maintenance manual for our house, which we prepared so that the various infrastructure systems could be kept running smoothly from one caretaker to the next. No other house in all of Búzios has one, except perhaps one of the German households (Oops . . . talk about stereotyping!)

There have been times, thankfully few and far between, when the words, "You’re so American!" are not said with a wink and a smile, but rather with a jeer and a frown. I admit that those times make me a little nervous, because it means I’ve crossed over some line I can’t see. Was I too arrogant? Too aggressive? Too standoffish? If so, I apologize right here and now. I mean to be a good guest in this country. Please believe me, Mark and I don’t think we’re the best, or the smartest, people in the world. We have not been sent here to spy on anyone. And we never, ever, use the word awesome.

17 March 2014


What astonishes most visitors to Búzios is that it is actually a walled city. Not a Medieval walled city like Carcassonne in France or Ávila in Spain, but a walled city all the same. If you build a house in Búzios and if you have anything at all you want to keep out of other people's hands, you build a wall around it. Actually, the wall in Búzios is so fundamental that the wall is almost always built first. Then you may, if you’re really paranoid, cement shards of glass into the top of the wall or even run barbed wire along it. Only then is the house constructed inside the wall, as if it were a mere afterthought, or a detail.

And Búzios is no different from the rest of the world, where one man’s wall is another man’s blank canvas. Property owners do from time to time have to get out the paint can and paint over a "Dudu loves Angela" graffiti, but more often than not our bare walls are used for signage, they’re used to post menus, they’re used for sloganeering, and sometimes for fabulous, extravagant murals. Here’s a sample . . .

. . . of some signage . . . and some menus . . .

. . . some great sayings and slogans . . .

"It's better to be happy than sad.
Happiness is the best thing that exists."

"How many people must die in order for you to clean up your backyard? Dengue kills!"

"Where do you work out?"
"At the library!"

. . . there's some great stuff, kind of in English . . .

. . . there's trompe l'oeil . . .


. . . and lots of fabulous, arty stuff . . .

10 March 2014

94 Days to the World Cup

Back in January, when questioned as to Brazil’s preparedness for the 2014 World Cup, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said that Brazil is "the country which is the furthest behind since I’ve been at FIFA and moreover, it’s the only one that had so much time — seven years — to prepare itself." Ouch. Well, as of today there are 94 days before the World Cup kicks off. I’ve been defending Brazil all along, but now I’m worried, too. Let’s look at the scoreboard:

OK, now, just a few more seats
Stadiums are the sorest of the sore points. Across the board they have been plagued with construction delays, rising costs, and accidents. Of the 12 stadiums promised, three are still struggling to finish in time, and are not expected to be ready until May 15, less than one month before the opening match. FIFA is beyond upset. You see, once the World Cup starts it’s FIFA that is totally responsible for all the stadium operations. Normally they have time to test everything, like the bathrooms, the security setups, transportation, volunteers, food, credentials and medical support. But they are seriously running out of testing time.

An internal Brazilian government report concluded that the World Cup will result in some of the longest flight delays Brazil has ever seen. And they came to this conclusion TWO YEARS ago! The airports are the first contact most visitors will have with Brazil, but very little has been done to improve anything in the airports, from parking lots to waiting areas to air conditioning. The various airport projects promised to FIFA sit on top of a pile of broken promises. Work that was expected to be done in 7 of the 9 airports that are run by public authorities will not be completed before the start of the World Cup. For shame.

Public transportation
After all, it does say "Draft Only"
Oh, how the Brazilians hoped and prayed that the various urban transportation projects would improve their lives long after the roar of the World Cup fans faded. But all they see — day in, day out — is the same shoddy infrastructure they’ve always known. Only 5 out of 41 of the promised urban mobility projects have been delivered. Of the rest, some won’t be finished in time, and some haven’t even started. More broken promises. More shame.

FIFA is furious that it won’t have the normal 90 days it needs to equip the stadiums with IT wiring for the Internet and mobile phones. The IT standards for international broadcasts have a pretty high bar. FIFA will have to begin installing now, while some stadiums are still under construction and the cement isn’t even dry.

Fan fests

It's already over in Recife 

It seems that many of the host cities have found themselves unable to provide the outdoor areas, complete with huge viewing screens, that were required by FIFA. That leaves FIFA with no choice but to file a slew of breach-of-contract lawsuits. And that doesn’t even begin to address the worries that many cities have that these fan fests, if they come off at all, might become the settings for protests and/or vandalism. Which leads me to:

Social unrest
Here’s more recipe for disaster: growing public anger over massive government spending, which has resulted in more and more street protests; escalating violence, with gangs and vandals piggy-backing on the legitimate protests; and strikes, lots of strikes, both real (like the sanitation workers in Rio, during Carnaval no less, and still ongoing) and threatened (Rio police have threatened a World Cup strike). Not the Brazil people want to share with guests to their country and viewers around the world.

Last week in Globo online, the question for readers was: "How do you feel about the World Cup organization, three months before the event is to start?" Here’s how the voting went:

54% — Shame for the state of the airports and the constant delays.
26% — Optimism. There are problems now, but it will all work out in the end.
18% — Don’t care a fig for the World Cup.
2% — Preoccupied with the pace of construction.

But . . . it has been decreed that every day that the Brazilian team plays in the World Cup will be a national holiday. Gotta look at the bright side.

03 March 2014

Oscars? Carnaval? Oscars? Help!

The unthinkable is happening this evening, Sunday. The (for me) all-important 86th Academy Awards are scheduled to start at 9:00 p.m. Brasília time, the very same hour at which the Império da Tijuca samba school is scheduled to step onto Rio’s Sambódromo runway as the first of the evening’s six samba schools. What a conundrum! Well, this would not have been a conundrum if, like most normal people, Mark and I had cable television. If we did have cable television, I could watch the Oscars on TNT and Carnaval on Globo’s channel 1, and switch back and forth to my heart’s content. But this year I have been hoist by my own petard. Globo, which usually transmits the Oscars live, chose instead — and rightly so — to stick to its Brazilianness and just transmit Carnaval. So no Oscar broadcast on Globo. No TNT in our house. No Oscars, period.

In past years I’ve watched the Oscars on Globo, even though they start an hour late (after the novela) and translate the proceedings in a loud voice-over, leaving me to strain to hear the original English. I mean, the translations are very competent, but not every reference or joke translates well. Every year I try to find someone on the Internet who livestreams the Oscars, but I’ve never succeeded. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences keeps a tight hold on its intellectual property, and even in this day and age of "everything’s available on the web," this show is most emphatically not. So I know what is going to happen this evening. I’m going to be relegated to getting written updates on the Oscars from the various sites that can at least do that. What a bore. Globo’s only sop is that tomorrow, Monday, it will offer a cobbled-together special program called "Tapete Vermelho do Oscar" (Oscar’s Red Carpet) at the ridiculous time of 3:34 p.m. Too little, too late.

These people know their movies!!
One year we tried to satisfy my Oscar cravings by going to an Oscar party at Cavídeo, a real film buff’s video store in Rio. They show the Oscars in English, with nice, quiet subtitles, in a room above the store. But they also have a hard-fought film trivia competition before the show starts. Well, Mark and I felt pretty smug when we learned of the competition. After all, we’d been watching films since — well, for a long time. I admit to thinking that my knowledge of film was most likely superior to that of anyone else in that room. This thinking was fueled by a Brazilian who, hearing us speak English, came over and asked if he could join our "team"; he figured we’d do well. Well, we didn’t. We were pathetic. Awful. A disgrace to Hollywood. We lost, and lost badly. Brazilian moviegoers are really something. They know their movies.

I really haven’t felt like watching Carnaval at all this year; I haven’t seen anything in the papers or on television to excite me. Mangueira, the only school I really care about, will not be coming out until one or two o’clock or later in the morning, and that’s w-a-a-ay past my bedtime. The schools that parade tomorrow? Do I care? One thing for sure, I’ll probably still watch the apuração, when the winners are announced, on Wednesday. Except — oh, no — the apuração collides head on with the amistoso, the friendly soccer game, the last one Brazil will play in before the World Cup, against South Africa! Both are on Wednesday afternoon! They’re going to overlap! Which one will Globo broadcast? Here we go again!