28 April 2014

Rio Lite

Niemeyer's lasting mark on Niterói
Back in the days when we still lived in New York and my husband, Mark, used to write from time to time for a travel magazine, he got it into his head one day to do an article touting the city of Niterói, a 20-minute ferry ride across Guanabara Bay from downtown Rio. He spoke of Niterói as a glittering mirror image of Rio — but much easier for a stranger to manage and negotiate than the big, bad city of Rio. He might have been just bluffing for the article, but he really wasn’t far off. Before moving to Brazil, we had once or twice taken the ferry across ourselves. The views, needless to say, are stupendous. There’s a breeze that you don’t get on city streets. It’s a way to pass a couple of hours when you’re still a tourist but you don’t want to go to the beach, you don’t want to go to another museum, you’ve already had lunch and it’s too soon for cocktails, let along dinner.

Refuge in the center of Icaraí, "our" neighborhood
There was probably not even a decent hotel in Niterói at the time that we first started to take the ferry there, if there was any hotel at all. By the time the two of us slept in Niterói we were already living in Brazil. We were going to pick someone up at the international airport in the early morning, and we thought it would probably be more efficient to sleep in Niterói after the two-hour drive in from Búzios and then just cross the bridge at first light. We believed that we had even located a proper hotel. But, despite its appearance and its discreet name (something like the Queen Victoria or the Prince of Wales), it turned out to be what the Brazilians call a motel, merely disguised as a hotel. Motel in Brazil means a place with round beds, mirrored walls and ceilings, entrance via the garage rather than a lobby in which you might run into someone you know, and rates by the hour. This motel/hotel was the only place we could find in Niterói. What did we know?

Da Carmine, our favorite DOC-pizzaria
But over the years we’ve had fun getting to know Niterói. Back in the days when we were still struggling with visa issues, it was to Niterói that we went to see our immigration lawyer. We also have friends who live in Niterói, in a big house in a vast walled condominium. When they throw a gala birthday party with endless barbecue and beer and whiskey, live music and genial company and, in addition, offer to put us up, it’s hard to say no. Most recently we’ve made Niterói our launching pad for a next day in Rio. If you live out in the sticks, as we do, there’s no way to escape the occasional foray into Rio for supply and resupply (I’ve written about that in the past), to pick guests up at the airport, to catch a plane yourself, to see an occasional medical specialist, or to plead your case with this or that bureaucracy. Niterói, with its now large supply of luxury hotels and cute pousadas is a perfect place to stay if you have to be in Rio at an early hour of the morning but you don’t want to have to get up in Búzios before the cocks have started to crow.

You can lay out a lot of money and live on Sutton Place and look out across the East River at Queens. Pleasant enough view. Or you can pay a lot less money and live in Queens and look out across the river at Manhattan, one of the world’s most coveted views. Well, the same goes for Rio. Although the view from Rio in the direction of Niterói is quite spectacular, the view from Niterói in the direction of Rio is super-spectacular. Niterói has become our Rio Lite, with plenty of places to stay at much lower rates, with less-crowded restaurants, with way fewer parking challenges, with sidewalks you can stroll on without getting bowled over, and with no see-and-be-seen pressures. A person could even live there — that is, if we didn’t have Búzios.

Back atcha, Rio!

21 April 2014

Would I Ever Be Able To Repatriate?

Occasionally — very occasionally — I toy with the idea of returning to the United States, and wonder how easy or hard that might be. Would I be able to re-integrate? Because the longer I live outside the United States the less I know about how things work there, and the thought of what I don’t know anymore is paralyzing. How could I get anything done, order phone service, buy medicines, use a gas station? When I last visited the States four years ago I had no idea you had to swipe your own credit card at some cash registers. I stood in the drugstore like — well, like a foreigner, with my arm extended, trying to give the cashier my card. (A belated thank-you to the nice, patient person who explained what I needed to do in slow and clear English!)

I read somewhere recently that an expat is a foreigner in two countries, and there may be some truth to that. Besides the simple tasks I seem no longer to know how to accomplish in the States, there’s a whole vocabulary I no longer understand. When I left the United States, bundling meant wrapping yourself up in a warm blanket on a cold, winter night, hopefully with your honey to keep you warm; apple picking meant lifting up your arm under an apple tree and harvesting the fruit; an earworm would have been a terribly disgusting thing to have crawling inside your ears; to flog meant to beat someone with a whip or a stick; a hotspot was where it was happening, baby; and a tweet was the sound a bird might make. Do you see how out of it I am? I sometimes don’t have a clue as to what my American friends are talking about on Facebook, either. Example? A friend posted a question, which I didn’t understand, and here was the answer: The update comes with the background app refresh function on, which allows apps to refresh their content when using Wi-Fi or cellular in the background. Huh?

And should it ever happen that I do decide to repatriate, where would I repatriate to? With no fixed address anymore, the entire country spreads out before me. That, too, is paralyzing. I’ve always been drawn to the Northeast, but my mantra is NO MORE SNOW, so that would seem to rule out the very area I’m most drawn to. I don’t think that at this late stage of my life I could tolerate living in Red America, so that rules out some of the most beautiful and scenic states like, say, Arizona. Should I follow a much earlier fantasy of mine, and move to France? No, wait, that’s just more ex-patriating, more culture shock, with a language I once spoke but don’t anymore, more mountains of bureaucracy to plow through. Mon dieu!

And what on earth has happened to my husband, Mark, in this blog full of "I, I, I?" Well, while I’m fantasizing about moving and wondering about reverse culture shock, he’s as happy in Brazil as a pinto no lixo. Perhaps happier. He says he feels more at home in Brazil than anywhere else he's ever lived. No, this strange feeling of being vaguely betwixt and between is mine alone. But there’s something else lurking behind any worry I might have about repatriation difficulties. It’s something I read in a book by Tony Parsons called "One For My Baby," where the main character speaks of "the sense of endless possibility that every expat experiences, the feeling that your life has somehow opened up, that you are finally free to become exactly who you want to be. When you come back home you discover that you are suddenly your old self again." Wow. Return to being my old self? That, too, is a paralyzing thought.

14 April 2014

Bright Lights, Big City

Jardim Esperança—not too bad, just not pretty

The first time Mark and I drove across the bridge into downtown Cabo Frio, the municipality next to ours on the map, I remember yelling, "Get me out of here!" It could be I thought that I had died and had been consigned to spending eternity on New York City’s 14th Street — particularly the part of 14th Street west of Fifth Avenue as I remember it from the 1980s. The image still in my head is of tall buildings looming over low-end commercial establishments with garish, clamoring signage and gondolas full of cheap underwear out on the sidewalk; streets teeming with people and cars and bikes and buses; and lots of noise, lots of shouting, lots of amplified so-called music. And it didn’t help that back then the only road into Cabo Frio took us through a somewhat scruffy community with the encouraging (or perhaps mocking?) name of Jardim Esperança, or Garden of Hope. Actually, many very nice people live in Jardim Esperança. They work in the pousadas and the restaurants and the grocery stores in Búzios and Cabo Frio alike. They clean houses, drive buses, deliver prescriptions to sick people. They do all kinds of useful things that more prosperous people don’t do. Still, particularly for a newcomer, it wasn’t all that pretty.

quite an improvement!
But things have changed. And, to some extent, so have I. One advance was the completion of the Guriri Road, which connects Búzios and Cabo Frio via a particularly pretty stretch of countryside with the dunes of Peró Beach on one side and fields and pastureland on the other. No more Jardim Esperança. And the trip now takes a mere 30 or 35 minutes as opposed to the 45 minutes or so of yesteryear.

Our favorite bookstore in Cabo Frio
As for the old downtown that I found so horrifying, the Cabo Frio of today finds itself in a tug of war between the forces that want to keep the old downscale commerce on the one hand, and the forces of gentrification on the other. There is still plenty of garish signage and noisy hustle and bustle. But now there’s one of those cozy little bookstores in which you get the strong sense that the real money isn’t in the books but in the quiches and the espresso and the Australian shiraz poured by the glass, and where the artisanal stone sink in the ladies’ room seems to float in mid-air, attached to nothing. There may still be plenty of traditional Brazilian beach town restaurants, the kind in which the men sit around bare-chested and the women in bikinis, gorging on over-generous mixed grills washed down with buckets full of beer — those places aren’t going anywhere. But now there are more and more chic, sophisticated restaurants with French names and jazz on the sound systems.

Cabo Frio has also matured into a booming and well-regarded medical center, and I believe that it’s with the many doctors that work there that the town is keeping pace. I mean, they have to live, eat and shop somewhere! Once you get out of downtown, with its surrounding high-rise apartment buildings (that probably house the nurses and lab technicians) you find yourself in charming, leafy, low-rise neighborhoods, each with its own special character. The one pictured here is my personal favorite, a neighborhood called Passagem. Look at this refuge! It’s completely out-of-time.

And now all of a sudden, off in a part of town where there had previously been nothing but wide open space, there’s a real, honest-to-goodness shopping mall, complete with plenty of free parking. I know, very American of us to head, zombie-like, to a mall. The first time we went there we wondered if we would ever return. Well, we have returned. Repeatedly. Cabo Frio has really changed, and to this day I’m embarrassed by my initial reaction to it. When Mark and I haven’t been to Rio for a while, when we hunger for some bright lights, we jump in the car and head to Cabo Frio. Sometimes it’s fun to be the Out-of-Towners, gawking at the big city.

**A little bit of horn-blowing**
 My blog has been featured on InterNations, a Web site for the expatriate community (http://www.internations.org/). My interview with them can be found at: http://www.internations.org/brazil-expats/guide/recommended-expat-blogs-brazil-15696/barbara-tropical-daydreams-6?ah01_enabled

07 April 2014

Guardian Angels

Curtis Sliwa and his beefy Guardian Angels began patrolling the New York City subways in the late ’70s, at a time when I was one of the many single women riding home nervously during those extremely violent years. The City authorities didn’t particularly warm to Sliwa and his group’s constant interference in their crime fighting but, frankly, New York City wasn’t doing such a terrific job on its own. So when I saw those red berets and those muscles come into my car on the subway I breathed a deep sigh of relief and blessed them for their interference. I arrived home safe and sound every night, and lived to write this paragraph.

Whether a Guardian Angel is as handsome as Curtis Sliwa . . .

. . . or as warm and fuzzy as Henry Travers in It’s a Wonderful Life . . .

. . . or as beautiful as this statue which Mark and I like to think is watching over our house, the truth is you don’t really need a fancy Guardian Angel, one with capital letters, to keep you from repeatedly falling off into the abyss in the course of the day. Sometimes the ordinary everyday good will of your fellow human beings, what I think of as lower-case guardian angels, is enough to do the trick. It was just this ordinary everyday good will — which, by the way, Brazilians seems to have in inexhaustible abundance — that kept the abyss at a distance from Mark and me the other day, in Rio.

Miserable traffic on the way in from Búzios — bad enough on the stretch from Itaboraí to Manilha, worse still on the city streets. Passel of miserable but unavoidable errands. Heat to roast a chicken without any help from electricity or gas. Around midday, we started up one of the steep, twisty streets leading to the semi-alpine neighborhood of Santa Teresa, Rio’s answer to Paris’s Montmartre, with a view to checking into our favorite pousada before the unpleasant afternoon errands we had planned for ourselves. But someone had other plans. The transmission — the old-fashioned standard kind in our car—fell apart.

Best I could get off Google Street View . . .
Enter Gustavo, the furniture store salesman, in front of whose store we rolled to a stop. While Mark went to scrounge up a mechanic, Gustavo came out and sat me down in one of his many chairs at one of his many tables (it was a furniture store, after all) and served me limitless cold water. Coke, if I wanted it. Probably cachaça, too, if I had asked. He warned that we were parked in a bus stop, but assured me he would talk the cops out of towing our car if it came to that. Did I need a bathroom? Internet? Anything to eat? I had but to ask and the world was mine.

Josevan's garage
Next to the rescue was poor sweating Josevan, the mechanic, who had walked with Mark the several blocks from the garage where Mark had found him. Josevan got under the car as best he could but to no avail. He announced that he would drive us to his garage, which to our amazement he did, in an overtaxed third gear and in heavy stop-and-go traffic. All the while Josevan kept up a reassuringly bright conversation and, at one particularly tense moment, with a honking truck driver behind us, he tried us out on a sing-along. At the garage he got another car off the hydraulic lift in order to work on ours, fixed the car in a jiffy, charged us a pittance, and sent us on our way.

Mind you, I didn’t say that Josevan was the world’s greatest mechanic, just that he was a typically Brazilian fountain of good will. On our second attempt to get up to our pousada in Santa Teresa, the transmission failed once again. We were on an incline, on another twisty, narrow street, pointing up. There was no way the car would go forward for us. We were blocking traffic. And, with cars parked on either side of the street, there was no getting out of the way by rolling backwards either. Out of the house closest to us came this elderly gent, who quickly sized up the situation. He moved his SUV, immediately behind us, so that we could roll into his space. He insisted on driving us and our luggage up to the pousada. He lent us his cell phone to call Josevan (Mark and I being the last people in Brazil and maybe in the whole of the Western Hemisphere to think they can carry on their lives without a cell phone.) And then, while we all waited for Josevan to get up the mountain, the elderly gent’s elderly wife served us a choice of tropical fruit juices and cookies.

OK, maybe Josevan isn’t just a typically Brazilian fountain of good will, maybe he is also the world’s greatest mechanic and that first time around he just slipped. He got us down to his garage again, in third gear, and by maneuvering the streets in ways that are hard enough to manage with all five gears in working order. He worked on the car for another hour. More money? Nah. Here’s what he asked: "Do you happen to have a bill from your country? Like a one-dollar bill? Just for good luck."

You can be sure we will bring this dollar bill with us next time we go to Rio.