My Way or Your Jeitinho

When I’m angry, I usually yell. And it’s the kind of thing that works exponentially.

You get the picture. And I have a feeling that this post may end up that way. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, but I fear what I have to say may not be so pretty or appropriate for everyone (read: proud Brasilians without much perspective).

I often feel like I am being taken advantage of–strike that. I will speak more frankly here, because, well, I can. Since moving to Brazil, I (and my family) have been blatantly overlooked, lied to, disrespected, almost killed and/or maimed, and yes, taken advantage of more times that I would like to remember or count. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are MANY things I enjoy and even LOVE about Brasil and its people, but there are also those things I could do without. And I think many Brasilians would rather live without them as well, but I can only truthfully speak for myself. I am beginning to understand something called the Jeitinho Brasileiro (the Brazilian way), and if you don’t know what that means, I will be curt and blunt in my explanation.

“If it is to my advantage, I will do it, even if it means I will hurt you or unfairly take away your advantage.”

This way of thinking permeates Brasilian (and other Latin American) culture and society, so much so that many do not even see it, or if they do, they accept it as a way of life. And, as Brasilians do not often separate the personal from the professional, the Jeitinho Brasiliero can be easily identified in business dealings, political life, the grocery store, etc. “But Matt,” you say, “what is so wrong with that? This is a dog-eat-dog world, and you have to be strong to get ahead. How is that different than anyplace else in the world?” Maybe a few examples would be helpful.

I have often waited for long hours in bank lines, or lines related to Government services. The time that one passes in this way is excruciatingly boring and frustrating, but it is a part of life here, and I accept that. Often, while waiting in these lines, someone will arrive who feels that her question or issue is so important that it merits going to the front of the line, interrupting the person (who probably is a friend or cousin of theirs), and resolving her issue quickly and effortlessly. And people in the line will often watch, sometimes in disbelief, and other times not even caring.

There are many crosswalks that exist all around the city, and there are MANY people walking. For those crosswalks that do not have a traffic light controlling them, it is written in Brasilian law that drivers of cars are required to allow pedestrian traffic to cross. The few times that I have experienced drivers stopping for me have been truly wonderful, but normally this does not happen. We run across the street in fear of our lives. I have many times almost been hit by cars while crossing the street with my children. The times that I have attempted to remind my Brasilian brothers and sisters of this, my request for simple “gentileza” (kindness and respect for others) has been ignored, scoffed at, and oftentimes, refuted. One man even said “No! That crosswalk is not for you!” Well, then who or what is it for???? Talking Elephants????

I have had many issues arise (both professionally and personally) that are difficult to resolve. Many times, just in order to buy time, or to try and please me or assuage my fears, I have had people lie to me–over the phone, directly to my face, representatives from the apartment agency, neighbors, at my kids’ school. These are not usually HUGE lies (although sometimes they have been), but they are often the type of lies that promise something that is very well intentioned, but will not or cannot be delivered.

In traffic, if the person ahead of me needs to stop for any reason and for any period of time, they will stop–even if it means their decision to stop will cause traffic to back up and inconvenience many people behind them.

I could go on, but I think it better here to stop, clarify, and evaluate a few things. Many of the situations described above are small, yes, but when they add up over time (sometimes even just over one day), it is easy to imagine how one might feel like screaming their head off. And I have. But don’t think there aren’t some larger systemic examples of the Jeitinho. It is to the advantage of many here who are rich (in which I include myself) to keep the poor (who FAR FAR FAR outnumber the rich) in the place that they are. Within the last ten years, the government of Brasil has shown its desire to “help” those that are poor to live a better life–they have greatly increased the “Bolsa” (welfare-type benefits) which gives money and assistance (medical care, education) to those in need. And of course this has changed many lives for the better, but it also has a dark-side, a side which keeps the poor just happy enough that most of the time they can overlook the dire circumstances of their life; a life which for anyone looking from the outside, reeks of the uncivilized third world indigence that Brasil (and other countries in South America) so emphatically claims to have left far behind.

And so now I have said it one way, and I’ll say it again. To live in this way is not civilized. Of course, you CAN lie, and cheat, and cut, and ignore, but this way of life is not civil, respectful, or mannered. Let me be clear: my words and thoughts are in no way meant to stand as judgement against Brasil or its people. As I have said before, I love this place, and for the time being I am raising my family here, growing as a human being and as an artist here, working here, loving here, enjoying the people and the many beautiful places here. But the truth has a way of shedding light on everything, even the things that are really ugly. We must also realize that whether a society is civilized or uncivilized has no real effect on its intellectual output, it’s ability to function, it’s artistic contributions, and as is especially clear in Brasil’s case, it’s economy.

What then are the benefits of a civilized society? Well, I will leave that for you to think about, and if you want, leave a comment and continue in this civil conversation. Suffice it to say I believe there are many reasons, the least of which have the potential to give each and every person a measure of respect and value that can transform a city or a country from a place that is merely “live-able” into a place in which life is “worth living.”



A Fragrant Offering

I smell.

Morning coffee. Soapy shower. Fresh air. Old food. Smokey neighbor.

We live in a world of shared spaces, and many of the smells that find their way to my nose come uninvited. Some of them make me quite happy: I love the way each of my kids smells different when they wake up in the morning, the smell of my bread baking in the oven, the diesel-y freshness of the bus as it clamors by, the brilliant dusty-ness of the air just before it rains. I love them not for the smell in itself, but for what it produces inside of me, for memories, for good intentions. The smell of the dust in the air just before it rains is not really my favorite, but each time I smell it, I remember a conversation with a friend in which she confessed that one of the main reasons she moved to Oregon was the seemingly infinite possibilities of this smell. The sheer innocence and abandon and truth of this memory is still lingering in my nose.

I also have a smokey neighbor who lives just below my apartment. Let me be clear: I don’t really mind cigarette smoke in public places, so long as it has somewhere else to go. But it’s not my favorite smell in my own house. While I’m taking a shower. Or cooking. Or practicing. Or playing with my kids. So when Shelley and I first began smelling this, we thought we’d be smart, and we started to drop hints in semi-loud voices of how we thought that cigarette smoke was bad for your health, not good for the kids, etc. Mineiros tend to communicate indirectly, so we thought we were being clever and culturally appropriate. It didn’t work. She kept right on smoking.

So our voices started getting louder, and our opinions stronger.

“Wow! I hate cigarette smoke!”

“I can’t believe someone is smoking again!”


Good intentions have a brief shelf-life.

How I might think of my neighbor

And I wish I could say that worked too. Or that we (mostly me) only yelled at her once. But, no. Except recently I can feel my spirit changing (or tiring more easily?) and as the smoke rises, I’m wondering if I can change my reaction, my desire to scream, choke, stop, madly educate, judge. I’m reminded of the many stories of Old Testament sacrifice, where the smell of burnt animal flesh and blood is rising–a fragrant offering, a call to prayer and thanksgiving. I’m positive that in comparison, that smell is more invasive and pungent than one small Dona smoking in the common area that feeds into my bathroom and laundry room.

But I digress. I think it’s possible for that the smoke rising into my life could be a call to prayer as well:

A prayer to love neighbors

of thankfulness

of patience

A fragrant reminder that what I deem to be ugly, disgusting, and unworthy on the surface often contains that which is sacred, holy, and loved.

Pão and Teleology

I don’t always do what my wife says, but we were just talking about something and she said “You should blog about that.” And she was right. So here I am.

A running conversation with another friend had me itching to blog about the nature of civilized societies, but that’s much too serious for tonight. I’m thinking of something lighter, flakier, something that draws people together, something we all can share.

I’m a creature of habit–I like to do the same things (well, not always…), and so when I walk to work in the morning, I always walk the same way. I like the fresh air, and I like to see how things change. There’s a lot of building going on in this city, and most of it is the slow type. Brazilian builders use an older form of construction that is not as quick as we are used to in the United States. In fact, sometimes it seems downright lugubrious–but as slow as it moves, eventually buildings get finished, and life moves on.

One building project I always pass is at my favorite french bakery, which is actually the only true french bakery in this city (at least as far as I know). I found the bakery from a recommendation, and I had actually passed it MANY times without knowing–it had no sign, and just looked like a normal house, but once you enter it, you have entered another world. The first time I found the courage to ring the bell, it was early afternoon and when I entered, there was no one else there (strange, I thought, for the best bakery in town). I found out soon after that they actually weren’t open yet (the morning and early afternoon is just for baking), but it was great because I got to know one of the owners who welcomed me with many languages (I believe she speaks three or four) and many wonderful new tastes. I became an instant fan. Of the bread, and the people.

Since then, I have been back many times, had many conversations, talked of playing concerts, of having feasts, and of shared passions. Six or seven months ago (maybe longer, who can remember?) they started their own remodeling project–a small project, only supposed to last two months at the most. Well, life’s plans often become stretched out here, so that you can see every millimeter of dust that needs to move; it is a slow but persistent change, sometimes unnoticeable, and yet somehow everyone knows it is there, happening, moving, changing.

Yesterday, the change yelled. I was passing by on the bus, and noticed my friends in a new way. I quickly got off at the next stop and ran (as fast as one can with a cello on the back) to experience it for myself! “Look at this! Everything is NEW!” And we celebrated the new space. And talked of concerts, and feasts, and passions. And I bought some bread.

Sometimes I yell…to celebrate.



Iron pipes, toilets, empty bathrooms, and flowers…Happy Easter!

Life is complicated. People are complicated. Yelling does not seem to ease these complications, and yet many times when both life and people meet me, it is very easy for the yelling part to just, well, come out. Take today for example,

You knew this was leading somewhere, didn’t you?

My current living situation has offered me a vast array of challenging situations with which to build up my severe lack of patience (I think I have already mentioned this, but I fear it may be a reoccurring theme). The knock on my door this morning was no different, and was, in fact a continuation of a situation that has become particularly, for lack of a better word in English, “enrolado”. It was the owner of my apartment who had arrived to inform me that although no one could come and move the enormous piles of dirt and rusty iron pipes from my back porch, if I wanted to, I could move them myself to an area of my apartment building which has been specially reserved for this type of storage. She even brought the key.

So kind of her you are thinking, no doubt. Yes, I know.

Well, although I might have accepted if I were some kind of international body builder (or maybe even just a mildly strong person), I decided to decline–my own physical body health is something that I prize, and I know my limits. I could have left it at that, said “Happy Easter!” and sent her on her way, but that would not have made for such an interesting story. And apparently I go for the interesting stories. I proceeded next, somewhat calmly at this point, to inform her that I would not be moving the three ton plastic bags full of iron ore from my back porch, and let her know that I was quite disturbed that at this point, after two long months of being without a second bathroom, that we were being asked to shoulder yet another inconvenience as we were hoping to have a beautiful Easter party tomorrow on our porch and the rusted pipes, dirt, and shitty plastci bags did not go with our Easter party theme.

Yes, you guessed it. By the end of that sentence, I was no longer “calm.”

She asked me to calm down (in a very calm voice, I might add). That was the trigger. I let her have the rest of the two months (maybe more?) of pent up anger that were building inside of me: the injustice of paying full rent for a less than full apartment, the constant problems that don’t get resolved, the promises that go unfulfilled, all of it. Everything. And in the end? I think perhaps we both learned a few things about each other. The dirt is gone, thanks, in part to Nilson, a neighborhood drunk that she hired, and to the help of my daughter’s drawing teacher (he got more than he bargained for, for sure). I said I was sorry, went to the store for some beer (we were going to a party later), and also brought back a pink Gerbera daisy for her as an Easter/I’msosorryIhadtoyellatyoubutitworkeddidn’tit gift. By the way, there’s still a toilet on my back porch, but I’m okay with that. It goes with our theme.


Driving me crazy.

Driving is not so good for my heart. Or my head. For some reason, going long distances (more than 45 minutes) in a car kills my spirit. My operating system did not come with tranquility already installed, and so I had to install an after-market version, and that version doesn’t work while I’m behind the wheel.

What to do, what to do?

Me in my Fusca

Usually I talk to myself. And to the people that are driving near me.

Allright silver chevy, let’s keep movin’; “OH COME ON RANGE ROVER! REALLY?? REALLY????”

I naturally talk to myself anyway, so I spent much of my time in the car talking myself down from the ledge of driving oblivion. Needless to say, if the car ride lasts longer or possibly includes a traffic jam, things can spiral down pretty quickly. Let’s just hope you are not a child of mine that is not behaving in the car at that point. Or possibly someone else who has gotten the directions wrong yet again. Yeah, you won’t likely receive much mercy from me in those instances.

But what is it with the car? I can take short trips and be just fine. And if I know where I’m going, and the roads are great and directions perfect and there’s no traffic, I can sometimes drive for hours without incident–singing away the day, tongue wagging in the wind, not a care in the world.

But NONE of those things exist here.

Which is why it is AMAZING that I do as well as I do. Seriously, driving in the United States is a piece of cake for me now. But here? I don’t often know where I’m going, and if I do, it doesn’t matter. I still can get lost, or make a wrong turn and end up going in a direction I don’t want to go for twenty minutes before I can turn around and fix my mistake. You don’t want to be in the car with me then. It’s not pretty. And let’s not forget that the roads are horrible here (most places), and the drivers? well, they’re just trying to survive, just like me. Many will cut you off or traverse three lanes in order to turn left, but that is the road currency here, and there seems to be a mutual respect for bad driving in all it’s forms. I still get mad at those folks, but it’s not always necessary: the other day the devil incarnate that cut me off turned out to be a nice middle aged soft spoken woman who actually apologized for cutting me off. I was surprised.

Too bad I flipped her off first.