One of a Kind

I'm moving out of my neighborhood in a couple of days. It's a bit stressful yes, but before I leave, I thought I might give you an idea of my everyday experience here in Brazil. I live on what looks to be a small street, but it is a major thoroughfare in and out of my neighborhood. There is often traffic on my street–honking horns, and honking delivermen on bikes (delivering bread from the bakery, of course), and like almost everywhere in my city, there is always a constant din of construction noise.

To avoid the traffic and driving as much as I can, I often walk where I need to go. Just up my street is a very fancy boutique for women's clothing–I have never been inside, but I'm sure they have some great deals on dresses in the R$5,000-7,000 range. Seriously. And I will sometimes run into the new BMW that belongs to one of my neighbors–not such a huge deal in the US, but here it was purchased for three times the amount of retail in the US. I'm not bragging, and certainly not everyone around here lives like that (myself included), but it does give you an idea of the kind of traffic that frequents my neighborhood.


Graffiti tagging is hugely popular all over my city–it's ugly, but a fact of life that we deal with. Just about a month ago (maybe more?), this unusual graffiti appeared on the side of an apartment building about two blocks away from mine:

I know what you're asking: Yes, it is a direct translation. Many questions have arisen for me as I have hiked past this wall many times a week (it's on the way to my kids' school). Why? Why this word? Is it an advertisement? Does someone living there have this specialty? I know, these questions are impossible to answer, and most likely, it was just a cruel joke played by a random drunkard with some extra blue paint. So here's my real question: WHY IS IT STILL THERE? Does no one in that building have any time to cover it up? the self-respect and respect for their neighbors to paint over it? Why, after more than a month, is it still shouting at me every time I pass?

I don't know. But I have a guess. No one really cares. Its an incredibly lucid symbol of why its so difficult for me to live here. There's so many things I love. But now it's time to leave.

 

Look the Other way

So the other day I was enjoying another wonderful walk to work, watching the buildings I always pass slowly get taller, and enjoying the fresh clean air. Oh, and yes, of course, yelling at the cars that almost hit me as I cross the road. This time, right after I screamed a quick “OI!!!!” at the passing car full of women who were on their way to some important salon appointment, I looked behind to find a young woman in trendy sunglasses (read: Ray Ban's from the 1980s which are for some reason enjoying a renaissance of sorts with the younger generation here in Brasil), and I smiled at her as if to say “Yeah, I got your back, don't worry.”

She responded differently than I would have assumed: “You scared me…,” she said, in a low sultry, insistantly laid-back voice. “Oh,” I said, “I'm sorry, but I think it's important for them to understand that the law says they need to stop for pedestrians who are crossing the street in a cross-walk.”

“You're not from here, are you?” she said, in her best yousillytouristyouobviouslydon'tunderstandbrasil voice. And then she continued to explain to me why here in Brasil, it's just best to let that kind of stuff go, because it will never change, and your life will be so much better if you just forget about it. And I responded with my best American politeness that I completely understood what she was talking about, and that while I value the same kind of serenity in my life, I could not disagree more with her statement and found that she was completely wrong. Was she aware of the laws? Weren't they written there for some good reason? To which she languidly responded that she was in fact aware of the laws, and also was studying to be a lawyer, but still, she argued that my attempts to raise others awareness were going to do nothing but make me more and more angry.

Studying to be a lawyer, eh? She obviously had no idea who she was talking to. I was born a lawyer. It's in my blood. Bring it on.

You see, don't all people deserve respect, whether they are in a car or not? And if we cannot respect these laws, how can we be expected to follow any of the laws? And without laws, how can we call ourselves a society? or part of the civilized world? And was she also not aware that there are also plenty of places WITHIN BRASIL that people are already obeying laws, respecting each other, slowing down to let others cross the street? In the end, she saw my position, and then quickly ran into a bank before she lost too much ground in her argument. A good lawyer in the making.

That is the problem with living the good life–you have to give up a lot of things that would make your life easier; things like ignorance, self-indulgence, and laziness. And then you have to continuously ask your self (and your friends if you're brave) the hard questions: How can I give more respect to my neighbors? How can I care for the widow, the neglected, the overlooked? Who is my neighbor?

Not an easy way to live (I don't do it very well), but the alternative is just empty “beleza.”

 

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!”

“IS SOMEONE SMOKING DOWN THERE????”

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.