29 September 2014

Election Time Again

Brazil is having a presidential election this Sunday. Unlike the United States, where in some ways it feels as if politicians never stop campaigning, here in Brazil the campaign season is rigidly controlled by rules that date back some 20 years. For example, the major networks are allowed to give only one minute of daily campaign coverage to each candidate once the allowed campaign season is in swing (which this year started on August 9th and will run until election day, October 5th). Television and radio commercials air three times a week in two 25-minute blocks, all paid for by the Brazilian taxpayers. (This free air time is divided up between the political parties using a very complicated formula, please don’t ask.) Mark and I can’t vote, of course, not being citizens. But the taxes we pay help fund this folderol.

How dare I call it folderol? I dare. This is my fourth Brazilian presidential election as an observer. And I observe, as any sane Brazilian observes, that it is during this 58-day period, and almost exclusively during this 58-day period, that the words "education, schools, health, hospitals, sanitation, and security" are on every politician’s lips. There’s more at stake than just the presidential chair, and a horde of would-be senators, governors, deputies and councilmen are joining the presidential candidates in making exactly the same promises that have been made for years. Brazil needs more hospitals, vote for me because I promise to build them. Brazil needs better education, vote for me because I promise to take care of that. Brazil’s infrastructure is still primitive, vote for me because I promise to build better roads and bridges. Corruption in Brazil is pervasive and the bad guys have too much immunity, vote for me because I promise to change that. Yadda yadda yadda.

Posters, folders, stickers, campaign materials of all stripes are being tacked onto every available wall and post. Funny, though, there have been very strong wind storms in the last few weeks here in Búzios, so at least here all this material has blown down. And I must say, we’re kind of liking it as litter on the streets rather than in our faces. We can turn off the radio when the political block of time begins, we can turn off the television, too, but we unfortunately can’t escape the cars fitted out with huge speakers, blasting political jingles over and over and over. And what I really wanted to see during the course of this campaign were the televised debates. But believe it or not, there’s no one trustworthy place where voters can get information about the debate schedule. Brazil needs a nice, neutral League of Women Voters!

Some politicians love the campaigning more than they love the governing, but the current president, Presidente Dilma, seems to be at her most uncomfortable right now. At her best she is taken to be a dour, unsmiling bureaucrat, but now her party, the PT, has been trying valiantly to humanize her. They’re making her smile more, though it’s obvious how uncomfortable that is for her. She’s even been forced to tape a series of cooking videos, even though she’s famous for not wanting or knowing how to cook. So far she’s kinda sorta made an omelet and some pasta.

Anyway, it’s only a few more days now before all the vote-for-me ads disappear from print, radio and television. Voting is obligatory in Brazil, and Brazilians are gearing up to do their duty. And since voting in Brazil is done quickly and efficiently on electronic voting machines, we’ll all know within minutes who won or, if no one manages a majority, who will continue to compete in a second round to be held October 26th. Right now all the polls indicate that the second round will be between Dilma and Marina Silva, and Marina has a strong chance of pulling it off. Wow. Brazil’s first black, evangelical, pulled-herself-up-by-her-bootstraps woman president. That’ll be worth a few blogs!

22 September 2014

I Pini di Búzios*

I spend a good deal of my time at home gazing at pine trees, real Northern Hemisphere pine trees, something of an oddity here in subtropical Búzios. But there they are, three of them, on a property just two houses away from us. You probably can’t read the height of the two in the photo to the right, since I wasn’t able to get anything like a kid on a bicycle hauling a friendly Extra-Terrestrial over the treetops into the picture for scale, but they absolutely soar. If I guessed, I’d say the taller of the two is about 60 feet. They fascinate me, and for the simple reason that before moving here I imagined that I was going to be surrounded by palm trees, banana trees and tangly jungly vines. Never would I have imagined sitting on my terrace occasionally humming O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter.

The Austrian owner of the property on which these pines grow was sharing a bottle of wine with us the other day on our terrace. His looming pines watched us silently. "So what," we finally asked, "is the story on those pine trees?" He said, "Christmas trees." As simple as that. He had bought them as Christmas trees and then, instead of just throwing them out, he had planted them, and these giants are what resulted. Of course, the trees did not go zero-to-60 overnight. Our neighbor has been here in Búzios for well over 30 years.

Hugo of the pine tree
There’s another Búzios pine tree I had a very strong attachment to for many years, and I wish now that I had a picture of it from back before some Paul Bunyan-type came along and chopped it down. (Local environmental law says that if you want to chop down, or even trim, any of the native species on your property, you have to get a permit; in the absence of a permit, you risk a fine. Non-native species? Whack away at will.) This other pine I am thinking of was on the property of our dear and now long-lamented friend Hugo Oks. Of all the Argentines living here in Búzios, charming and aristocratic Hugo was far and away our personal favorite. On an afternoon on which he served one of his famous moqueca lunches, his towering pine tree, taller even than our neighbor’s three, was the beacon that lighted our way. I won’t say you could see it for miles off, but, because Hugo’s property was at the top of a fairly decent hill, you could see it from quite a distance. Even if you weren’t on your way to Hugo’s but you were headed somewhere else in the general direction of Ferradura, there it was, tall and proud. Then dear Hugo kind of allowed himself to die at the absurdly early age of 59. His property was sold and then — who knows why? — there was all of a sudden no more Hugo pine tree any more than there was a Hugo.

Roasted pine seeds, deelish!
Although pine trees in Búzios seem — to me at least — to be a bit strange, down in the much more temperate climes of southern Brazil, they flourish. One of the traditional cold-weather snacks in the state of Rio Grande do Sul are roasted pinhões, or edible pine seeds. I have a friend from there whose childhood is full of memories of pinhões right off the fire, the way some of us remember the roasted chestnut street vendors in New York. But why is it that I look at our neighbor’s pine trees every day in such wonder as they tower over his palm trees and his banana trees and his poincianas? Maybe it’s because I, too, am a transplant. And it’s not that we transplants have to stick together. It’s just that sometimes we recognize each other, with a subtle tip of the hat.

*with apologies to Ottorino Respighi, composer of the symphonic poem I Pini di Roma

15 September 2014

Lost in (Mis)Translation

I don’t like to use this blog to rant, and I believe I have successfully held to that rule (except for anything I write about Driving in Brazil which, believe me, is a subject impossible not to rant about). However, today I must rant. And it’s not a rant about Brazilian bureaucracy, or how the Patriot Act in the U.S. has begun to criminalize innocent Americans living abroad, or anything of the sort. In fact, it’s a rant that could be ranted anywhere in the world. It’s a rant about how a number of people here — Brazilians, Germans, Argentines, doesn’t matter — have over the years asked Mark and me to help them with translations into English (which we have done gladly, and at no cost) and then argued with us — ARGUED WITH US! — about what we, the native speakers of English, have provided.

The first time this happened was over dinner in our house with some guests. One of them, an extremely competent Brazilian speaker of English, asked us some question or other about a grammatical point that had been bothering him. Forgive me, I’ve racked my brain, but I can’t remember the exact question, only that it was about a rather subtle point. What I do remember clearly is that after I answered, and satisfied the guy who had asked the question, there came an arch, Brazilian-accented voice from the other end of the table : "No, you’re wrong." And this woman, the girlfriend of a friend of ours who was being introduced to us for the first time, went on to explain why I was wrong. And, of course, she was wrong. Well, how it all turned out has fallen into the folds of forgotten memory. To this day all that remains in my mind is how taken aback I was at the pig-headed sureness of this non-native speaker and the sharpness of her attack. Oh, and how she’s never been invited back!

The next occasion was over a translation Mark was asked to do for the Búzios tourism office. The text included the Portuguese-language word outrora, for which a dictionary might suggest "formerly, of old, yore, long ago, in former times, before now" as translations. But Mark, who is a writer, and for whom words are important, found a better translation for the gist of the sentence in the word "yesteryear." Remember growing up watching episodes of the Lone Ranger ("Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear")? Remember sitting in high school French class, reading François Villon’s poem Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis with its most famous line, "mais où sont les neiges d’antan," translated so famously as "where are the snows of yesteryear?" Or maybe you saw the second episode of the first season of the animated version of Star Trek, the one called "Yesteryear"? No? None of the above? Well, neither did the person who received this translation, an English-speaking Brazilian who had never seen the word "yesteryear." And since he had never seen it, it was obviously wrong. So he "corrected" the translation. And that ended any further translating Mark or I would ever do for any government office in Búzios.

     It’s a WORD, dammit!

Years went by, requests were refused, until I relented when a friend asked me to provide the English translation for a book she and a friend were doing on Búzios beaches. I told her I wouldn’t do it unless she could guarantee that no one — absolutely no one — would mess with my translation once it was submitted. She swore that nothing would happen, in fact, with everything so computerized nowadays it couldn’t even happen! Well, in this computerized world, here’s what happened, and you don’t even need the original Portuguese: My translation read, ". . . that sits at the foot of the Santa’Anna Church hill," and somehow the text that was published became ". . . that lays over the feet of Santa’Anna Church." Lays over the feet? Is that even English? Where did it come from? Not to nitpick, but there were other words just dropped from the translation, leaving the sentences completely unintelligible. You can imagine how proud I am when I see my name in print as the translator.

And only a month ago a German acquaintance called, a woman who translates both Portuguese and English into German. Lucky for her it was Mark who answered the phone, because he had a wealth of information for her about the expression she was having trouble with, which was "Strait is the Gate." Mark first explained the expression, then he referred her to Matthew 7:14, "Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few that be that find it." He also referred her to the 1909 novel by Andre Gide, La Porte Etroite, for which "Strait is the Gate" is the English translation. And just so that she’d have a richer understanding he talked about the English expression, to be in dire straits. Seems, however, that she was working with an incorrect English text that had printed "straight" instead of "strait." Not her fault. Not Mark’s fault. But she argued with him anyway, even though he was right and the English text was wrong.

I never have, and never would, argue a point of grammar or usage with a native speaker of any language not my own. It’s absurd! I mean, I feel I’m a competent speaker of Portuguese, but there’s so much I don’t know, so many cultural references, historical references, so many regionalisms, so many plays on words that I couldn’t possibly know better than a native Portuguese speaker. All I’ve ever asked for is an understanding that it works the other way, too.

08 September 2014

Marcelo Lartigue (1953 - 2014)

Marcelo Lartigue, owner, editor and one of the founders of Búzios’s 33-year-old weekly newspaper, the Perú Molhado, or Wet Turkey*, was quite possibly the single most important person in Búzios. Argentine by birth, he was the heart and soul of the irreverent, often scathing, sometimes vulgar and always polemic newspaper, analogous to France’s Le Canard Enchainé and Britain’s Punch. Whether you liked Marcelo or didn’t like Marcelo, found him humorous or just provocative, gentle or biting, there was no getting around it. Marcelo was a force and a personality. Hard to think of any city and newspaper that reflected each other better, and to the greater honor of both.

I never understood a word Marcelo said. Really, not one. Even after all his years in Brazil, his Portuguese came out as Spanish as — well, as Spanish as his Spanish. I’m not sure when or how we all first met, but as soon as he learned that Mark was a writer, you could see the light go off in his head. From that day on we would hear "Bocha" being shouted at us, whether from a car veering off the road in our direction or from the depths of some restaurant we’d be walking by. (Bocha was Marcelo’s nickname for Mark. Don’t ask.) Anyway, there was Marcelo, hoping to get Mark to write something — anything — for the paper. Well, Mark didn’t need courting. He happily complied. And although Mark always wrote in Portuguese, together we once did an entire English-language version of the Perú Molhado for distribution at a tourism event in Las Vegas.

(See http://issuu.com/operumolhado/docs/1109ingles for the whole issue.)

Marcelo died last week from two heart attacks suffered after undergoing a liver transplant. Not just any liver transplant, either. The story is much more compelling. In an attempt to save her father’s life, Marcelo’s 18-year-old daughter Eva donated a portion of her own liver the week before. I don’t know Eva well — maybe I met her all of two times? — but I admire her enormously. Hers was an act of great love and astounding courage.

Some years ago Marcelo came by the house to ask Mark and me to give him English lessons. For some reason or other he needed to be fluent in six weeks. It wasn’t easy turning him down, but we did. We tried to convince him that if he couldn’t learn Portuguese after 30-plus years in Brazil, he probably wouldn’t do that well after six weeks of English lessons, either! Marcelo noticed my artwork all around the house. We talked about it a bit, and I showed him my studio. After that day, whenever he had a chance, Marcelo would ask me for one of my abstracts. I never gave him one. Now I wish I had.

Mark begs the privilege of adding a word:
Over the years, I’ve worked with a good many of the world’s great editors and publishers — Harold Hayes of Esquire; Daniel Filipacchi, who owned half the magazines in France; Hefner. Marcelo had more energy and imagination than any of them, and for shameless exhibitionism he rivaled my late lamented friend Al Goldstein. Marcelo was the paper as much as the paper was Búzios. How our little city can survive this loss is beyond my comprehension. It will certainly never again have the same heretic charm.

*Actually, there's more to the name than meets the eye, because peru is also a slang term for penis. Typical Marcelo.

01 September 2014

Lady Barbara

Proper forms of address are among the first things a person should learn in a new language, because getting that part right is a sign of respect. French makes it easy, you’re safe calling people either Monsieur or Madame until you get to know them better. Here in Brazil you might be tempted to use the Portuguese-language Senhor and Senhora as you would in French, but I advise you not to. The protocol is different, and slightly more complex. If you don’t know the person, say you just need some shopping help from the woman behind the counter, you would refer to her as "a senhora," in the third person (or "o senhor" for a man), something along the lines of, "Would madam help me please?" If, on the other hand, you know the person’s first name but don’t know them intimately, you use an honorific plus the first name: Seu José (Seu being short for Senhor), Dona Maria, Delegado Roberto, Doutor Paulo, Presidente Dilma (yes, it’s "President Rousseff" only in The New York Times!). So, Mark and I have been Seu Mark and Dona Barbara for as long as we’ve lived here.

"Gosh, it’s hot in Brazil with all these layers"
I have been thinking about these cross-cultural paradoxes because of the dilemma that our current caseiro-caretaker, Sandoval, has been facing. Sandoval belongs to a more modern crop of caseiros. He finished high school by studying nights, and he is now, at age 22, attending law school, also at night, after doing his day's work at the house. Sandoval, in addition, is making great strides in his English, and he is doing this not by sitting in a classroom for two hours a week but by hanging around with Mark and me. We made it a rule to carry on our business with him only in English — though providing him with the Portuguese when an English-language word is obscure. And, if he lapses into Portuguese when he’s talking to us, we will usually say, "OK, now the same thing in English please." But here’s the rub. How was he to address us in English? For Mark, he came up with "Mr. Mark." Nothing to think about twice here. But, wouldst that I couldst containeth my smile, he’s taken to calling me "Lady Barbara."

Another caipirinha, Milady?
I haven't corrected him. I can't bring myself to correct him. I don't have the heart. Besides, if you look in the online bilingual dictionaries, "lady" is the word regularly used to translate the Portuguese-language "dona." Mrs. or Ms. plus my surname would — in a country in which the President herself lacks a surname — simply require too abrupt a leap into an alien mind set, and Mrs. Barbara, Miz Barbara or Miss Barbara would obviously reek too much of the unreformed old American South of Driving Miss Daisy days, and worse. So Lady it is, and Lady it shall stay. Truth is, I kind of like it. The Old South is just as well dead and buried; why not resurrect Olde English? And doesn’t it make Mark a Lord? I have occasionally felt tempted to let fly a "Would his Lordship prefer his tea on the veranda?" Yea, verily, I would encourage our female friends to come and visit while the honorific is in place. I tell you, girls, it does give one a frisson of grandeur!

Joan Diener
And finally, just for my sisters: Yes, yes, yes, every time I hear "Lady Barbara" I want to wheel around brusquely, hair whipping in the wind and scream, "Lady? I'm not your lady! I'm not any kind of a lady!" I know that you two hear it, too. (What am I referring to, readers? Aldonza's song, from Man of La Mancha, as screamed by — oh, sorry, as sung by Joan Diener. My younger sister and I performed this very number brilliantly in the wee small hours one morning at The Duplex, the quintessential Greenwich Village landmark for the Broadway-besotted.)