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.

 

Responsibility is Not a Four-Letter Word

I'm having a bad day.

It's ok. Bad days happen, I know. The problem for me is that sometimes I just don't know how to get out of my funk. So I'll write about it, and let's see what happens.

Take advantage whenever you can

As you can imagine, when you move from one country to another, there are a few details involved. This morning, one of those details was to call the person from my rental agency (read: another business created solely for the purpose of taking advantage of others, see also Cartorios and Government Agencies in Brasil) in order to clarify some of the details of our contract. Specifically, I wanted to know whether or not I would be responsible to fix a small crack in the window that we did not make (most likely came from weather changes). The agency confirmed that, yes, I do need to fix the window, because according to the law and contracts and blah blah blah blah blah…

I suspected that would be the case, and I'm not really concerned with shelling out a few more reais at this point. It's the principle: I don't want to be held responsible for a window that I did not break. Of course, I tried to explain that to them, and here's how the conversation goes (this conversation happens over and over again here, so I know it well):

Use with Care

Me: I understand what the contract says, but the reason I'm asking about the window is because I didn't break the window.

Agency: Well, how did it happen then?

Me: You know how it works with glass right? Over time, glass can develop small cracks that, with the aid of changing weather conditions, can grow. This is one of those small cracks that grew.

Agency: Yes, but was the window like that when you moved in?

Me: No, the crack in the window appeared over time. It's not large now, and the window functions just the same with the crack as without.

Agency: Ok, but unfortunately, you have to replace the glass because according to the contract, you are responsible. Does that make sense?

Me: No, that doesn't make sense to me, because I didn't break the glass.

Agency: Who broke it?

Me: No one broke the glass… You know how it works with glass right? Over time….

Exhibit A: Broken Glass

And the conversation could continue in this way for eternity, I suppose. Ours did not, because I was consequently and repeatedly interrupted by lightening fast speaking…this did not go over well with me. I don't like being interrupted. I speak slower in Portuguese because it's not my native language, and because I need time to form my thoughts. That gives people an easy window to interrupt, especially on the telephone. But when I tried to explain my thoughts, they just kept talking over me. That made me angry. I don't like to get angry.

Finally, after I yelled a bit and they stopped talking, I explained how terribly rude it is to interrupt. Here's how that went (also a conversation I have had with MANY folks here):

Me: You do understand that its very disrespectful to talk when another person is talking?

Agency: But sir, you were yelling at me, and this is not acceptable.

Me: I only started yelling after you repeatedly interrupted me. You do know it's rude to interrupt?

Agency: But sir, it is my right to interrupt you. This is my job.

Me: I don't understand how it is your right to be disrespectful. Look I am a very educated person, and I have lived in many other places. I just want you to understand that interrupting people is very disrespectful.

Agency: You are so educated, and yet you would yell at me?

Me: I don't see how my yelling is any worse than your constant inability to wait for me to speak…

Agency: But again, it's my right to interrupt and speak when you are speaking. This is MY job.

Me: But wait a minute. Who is paying for this rental, me or you?

Agency: Sir, according to our contracts it's the renters who pay the owners and blah blah blah

Me: Yes, but you didn't answer my question. Who is paying? Me or you?

Agency: Well, you are, sir.

Me: Exactly. So then without me paying, you don't have a job. So I don't see how it is your right to disrespect me.

Agency: But going back to the original question, according to the contract, you are responsible for….

Taking responsibility is hard, I understand. Here's what I will take responsibility for: I did live in this apartment, I did sign a contract (however unjust and evil it was), and I am trying (to the best of my abilities) to uphold my part of the bargain. I will paint and try to make everything “bonitinho” before I leave, even if it is tantamount to robbery to hold me accountable for fixing things that were old and not well taken care of before I arrived (many things that, as far as I can tell, you possibly covered up so that I wouldn't notice until after I already moved in). And I did yell. I'm sorry for that. That happens sometimes, especially when I feel that others are not giving me the respect that I deserve. Respect that EVERYONE deserves.

And how about you? What will you take responsibility for? And herein lies the rub: almost everyone I meet here is NOT WILLING TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANYTHING THAT GOES WRONG. This is a serious issue, a character flaw. And it has infected an entire city, and large portions of the country of Brasil (believe me, I have been more places in Brasil than most Brazilians). When a person (or a culture, I suppose) responds to criticism or problems with either blame or apathy, that person has what is called a “character disorder.” I know this affliction (heck, I slip back into this from time to time…it's very common in men), and I have to say, it's pretty serious. Too serious to tackle in the same blogpost, so let's leave it here for now. Dangling…

(from Shawshank Redemption: the first 30 seconds will suffice)

 

My day hasn't gotten any better yet. I think I need a beer.

 

You would scream, too.

No Problem! I'm Flexible!

One of the many things I have appreciated about living in South America is the pace of life, the encouragement to slow down, to worry less. Wherever I go here, there are people encouraging me to calm down and situations that require flexibility.

But lately I have been wondering, “Why? why so much focus on this calm lifestyle? why? why? why???” Sure, I know, it's part of the culture, but cultures come from somewhere, grow over time, and even change through the influence of powerful events, and people, and political movements. So, why so much emphasis on tranquility? where did it come from??? why? why? why???

Estou muito tranquilo.

And here's what I think: because if you don't constantly remind yourself that it's okay, that life will go on, that eventually things will work out, then all the things that are NOT okay, the things that threaten your life, the things that WILL NOT work out, along with the constant bombardment of alarms and busses and cars and people and honking and sirens and yelling/singing garbage workers, will slowly drive you insane. I'm talking, literally, pulling the hairs out of your head, rubber room, ape-crazy insane.

Here's an example: this past week, there was an important soccer game (which, by the way, almost all of them are) and one lucky team (and their fans) from my city won the game, and as a result, became champions for the third time. That is great. It's just wonderful. And here's how wonderful it was: for 36 hours, my calm “tranquilo” mantra-infused life was accompanied by a near constant barrage of honking horns (both high and low, because motorcycles have the high beeps, and cars have the lower honks in differing keys, cuz yeah, I'm gifted like that and I can recognize that stuff), random blasts of fireworks, and choirs of yelling fans. Oh yeah, and the occaisional patriotic fight song soaring out of the poor stereo of the small fiat driving as slowly as possible past my apartment window. At 2:30 in the morning.

That was a hard 36 hours. We didn't sleep so well, it was hard to work, and by the end, I'm sure my heart rate was at a higher level than it has been for the past 36 years. I talked with friends, and co-workers, and yes, it was quite hard for them as well. In fact, most people I spoke with (Brazilians included) agreed–its not so much fun.

And here's the thing: while this example was extreme, it was not irregular. This happens ALL THE TIME. Brazil is noisy, Brazilians are noisy. People here think they have more of a tolerance for noise, that it doesn't affect them as much. I'm not so sure. All this talk of a calm lifestyle here, it's just a band-aid. The wound is deep, and painful. Yeah, you would scream too.

 

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.”

 

A Race-y bit

Just read an article that got me thinking about race…well, actually I had been thinking about it recently anyway. We often watch movies together as a family–sometimes more recent ones, and sometimes movies that I or my wife grew up with. Netflix has expanded some of their Musical offerings, and I just can’t help but get excited about showing these to my kids. Emblazoned in my memory are extremely happy moments where I was either enjoying, re-enacting, rehearsing, performing, or listening to many of the masterpieces of American musical theater.

Yes, I very often do “feel a song coming on…”

Our last movie night the musical offering was “Oliver!” and I had a wonderful time sharing “Who will buy?” and “Oom Pah-Pah” with the kids. But one thing REALLY surprised me: I had never noticed the strong Jewish stereotypes in the character Fagin–he is dressed like a raggid Hasidic, secretly rich from thievery, and always singing in suspiciously placed augmented intervals (oh that darn augmented second, just so…Jewish?). After a little “wiki”-research, I found that Dickens’ original novel has often been condemned for the overt anti-semitism portrayed through Fagin’s character, and that Lionel Bart’s intention was to lesson that effect by making the character more of a loveable theif rather than an outright villain. But I’m not sure what’s worse: suspiciously copious augmented seconds or straightforward semitic stereotyping.

I ask the same question a lot here in Brasil. When I first arrived, I could see that the colors of this society were much more integrated, and there is definitely a different racial “feel” here because the history of slavery, while still prevalent, did not leave such an indellible mark on society (but don’t worry, there are recent dictatorships and rampant corruption to fill that void). Instead, class differences linger, and divide, and in many ways, continue to drive Brasilian society. Under the surface, racial tensions aren’t that much different here than they are in the United States; while there is racial integration in all levels of society, it’s still a pretty safe rule that the darker the skin gets, the poorer the population becomes.

And amidst all this, what IS a parent to say? The issues (if not the solutions) are obvious to me, and I am always tempted to make them clear to my kids as well. So, what did I say about the movie? I think I first remarked out loud how interesting all the stereotypical Jewish references were, and then I told the kids (who were already tired from a 2 1/2 hour movie) that sometimes people like to have an over-simplistic version of certain groups of people because they feel it is funny, or at least easier to understand. “What is over-simplistic, Dad?” Well, I tried.

 

I really hope this isn’t catching…

As I have said here before, living in any foreign country is no easy task, and usually there are many moments of each day that I am reminded of the difficulty.

I regularly have the opportunity to explain Brazilian laws to other Brazilians: they always appreciate this, and while they usually respond with a raised voice and claim that I am wrong to think that a crosswalk would be for pedestrians, I usually find I can yell louder.

This tendency to find ways around the law can be “cute” sometimes, other times frustrating, and other times horrifying. Last night, a large truck carrying steel rods overturned on a road near where I live, killing at least three people, possibly more. By law, that truck was not allowed to be driving on that road. Not such a “cute” cultural tendency when it turns out this way.

There are a number of things that happen in daily life here that cause me to pause, to reflect, to pray, to yell my head off. And then there are the things that happen that make me think: My God, we have GOT to get out of here!!!!!! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!!! well. I can be a bit dramatic sometimes.

A good friend of mine visited recently (he is Brazilian) and we had some time to just sit and chat. We talked much of the things we love here, of life, of faith, and some, yes, of our concerns for this growing giant, Brazil. He too has noticed many of the things that concern me (he lived outside of Brazil for 5 years from which he gained a certain amount of perspective), and for me it was enlightening and confirming to share my thoughts with a native. I believe that cultures (just as people) have fantastic, wonderful, and one could even say, “holy” elements–characteristics that enable them to rise above pain, to create beauty, to foster love, to harmonize people. The opposite is also true: cultures have sins, diseases that fester and threaten to break them down, to limit their ability to grow economically, spiritually, creatively. I realized many of these cultural truths while living in the US, and they are becoming clearer and clearer to me here in Brazil as well (some I have already shared here). But recently I have considered some of these malodorous elements of Brazilian culture and I have wondered, or worried: are they catching? contagious? I do not remember much envy in my thoughts before living here (judgement, yes, but not so much envy), but now I find it creeping into my thoughts, my decisions, my desires. I would never before have considered the possibility of just “parking wherever I want” no matter the consequences for others or the law, and yet many times I find myself making choices while driving that show no regard for my fellow citizens or for the law.

And maybe that’s why some days I find that I’m so tired. It’s like my mind and spirit and soul are fighting off a cancer, and that can be hard work. Constantly sifting through the elements of my day, searching for what can be kept, discarding what may be harmful, adapting my character, my ideas. Gruelling work, revealing my ugliness, my holiness–yes, sometimes I yell, but I’m finding other things surfacing under that rage, pushing their way to the surface for air: sorrow, and hope.

A good friend just returned, and I’m so happy to have him back in town. I picked him up last night, and he remarked about how much my driving had changed. “Dude, you drive like a Brazilian now! Hahahaha!” Yes, I said, BUT I do one thing different. I stop for pedestrians.

 

I REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEly want that

As I’m waiting on hold (again) to see if I can get someone to come to my house to set me up with new internet service, another quaint cultural observation is brewing, and so I will share. Perhaps one of the most useful things we learn as we are growing up is to keep on trying, don’t give up, “if at first you don’t succeed…” And seriously folks, this is great advice, but not advice that one has to use every moment of the day when growing up in the United States. Things come easily and quickly in the States: if I want something, and have the money, I can have it RIGHT NOW, and this value and possibility of immediacy is an essential part of American culture.

But not so in Brazil (and probably in many other Latin American countries), and before moving here I don’t think I could even begin to imagine the extended applications of simple perseverance in everyday life here. Wait…did I say “simple” perseverance? Sorry, I meant another adjective, maybe one that leans more towards the “eternal festering plague” type…well, I can’t find the exact word. Suffice it to say that things here don’t come easy: grocery store shopping, finding an apartment, setting up a cellphone, buying furniture, communicating with administrations, service at a restaurant… And this has lead to many frustrating (and wildly enthusiastically maddening) moments in my life. Yelling, tears, questions unanswered–its the stuff of movies folks. But hey, it’s life here, and I am learning.

I’m learning that if you want something, like say, a new couch, you have to be REALLY SURE you want that one. You will find that couch, pay for that couch (and it will NOT be cheap here, folks), and then you will wait, at least two weeks, more likely two months, for that couch to arrive. After all that, you don’t send it back if you don’t like the color; you take what you get, and you are happy that it FINALLY arrived. Or, like me, you call the internet company to schedule someone to come to your house to set up your service for the FOURTH TIME because you are sure you want that service. Yes, I have already given them all my information, and assured them that I want to PAY THEM MONEY, but somehow, completing my order has eluded them. That’s okay, I have found my zen place this time, and even though I had to wait on hold for a long time, I still spoke very kindly to the lady that assured me that THIS TIME, someone will definitely come. In the morning. On Tuesday. And if not? I’ll probably try again.