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.”



How Bazaar

This was one of those days that I always dread: I had to go to a government organization (Detran: the Brazilian equivalent of the DMV in the US) in order to get the official documents for the car that we recently purchased. It is always a pain to go to government organizations here: long lines, delapedated buildings, and usually more than one trip back home because of some incorrect form or missing signature.

The Throng of Those Awaiting Government Documents

I had done my homework: prepared my papers, made my copies, checked my directions…Alas, when I arrived, I was informed that I had filled out the wrong form.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Things were looking positive before my arrival; I had followed the directions correctly, and I was even able to make a left turn where I needed to, just like Google maps said I could. But it's hard to describe the stark reality that met me–the closer I came to my destination, the more I began to be surrounded by what only could be described as some kind of government services bazaar. There were people all over the road, trying to entice me into their offices and to convince me that their service would be much easier than going into Detran myself (here, they are called Despachantes). And there were those selling the goods that might make it easier to pass the inspection, and those selling food and beer (mind you, it was only 8:30 in the morning) and any number of cheaply made goods. Somehow, I was able to see through the spectacle and arrive within the gates of Detran for my inspection. Here is where I found out I had the wrong form. Sigh.

The Inspiring Waiting Area

But then I thought, surely someone from the circus outside might be able to help! Aha! A glimmer of hope! I had forgotten of course, that the circus is only there to entertain…and also, in a cash driven culture like Brazil, a pocket full of credit cards will not buy much of anything.

I returned home…sitting in the remains of morning traffic for about 45 minutes…thankful that my new car is well equipped with a/c and a stereo to keep me calm and comfortable.

For some, the story would be over after this. Battered, downtrodden, left to lick my wounds and fight again another day. BUT NOT SO FOR ME!!!! oh no no no. This was the day I had set aside to conquer the demon Detran, and I would not let one small oversight (two, if you count the fact that I had no cash with me), keep me from vanquishing this terrible foe. I got the right form. I filled it out. I printed it off. I ate lunch. And I returned.

Oh, and yes, I passed my inspection, and received my new documents that same afternoon. Only after waiting in many lines for a few hours, mind you. The correct form indeed made all the difference.

The Entrance to the Compound

But for me, I'm still stuck in the confusion and nervous energy of the Bazaar. When I first arrived just outside the Detran “compound” (think tall grey concrete wall with steel door entrances) I felt that queezy feeling that comes when you know you are surrounded by people who are ready to take advantage of every vulnerability you have. And government agencies bring about vulnerabilities: they provide a service that I need, but I have to jump through all the correct hoops in order to get that service. It's an easy place to be preyed upon by those wanting to “help,” and of course to make a quick buck. On my second arrival, my return after lunch, the invasive zoo that greeted me struck a different, more spiritual chord. Yes, I am spiritual, and I think sometimes, I even “hear from God.” I don't use this language lightly, or even to feel holier than thou; it's just the words I sometimes use to describe an experience where I see things anew, more truthfully, more clearly and deeply. This was one of those moments.

As I arrived, I was immediately transported into the story where Jesus arrives at the Temple in Jerusalem, only to find the outer courts (and I can imagine, the whole surrounding areas) full of money changers and peddlers looking to “help” the arriving worshippers and pilgrims who were in need of the spiritual renovation in their lives that could only be found through a certain prayer or sacrifice at this very Temple. I understood that this was an even greater Bazaar than my own surroundings, and this clear and terrible image was accompanied by a simple message: “Matt, this is how I felt when I arrived at the Temple. Now can you see why I got so angry and turned over those tables? Now can you feel a little of what I felt? The pain? The anguish?”

Yeah. I'm still chewing on that a day later. Sometimes I yell, and get angry, but it ain't always with that good a reason. Perspective–it's a filling meal.


I Think I Can.

Life takes over sometimes. Blogging falls to the wayside for more pressing things: children screaming, extra practicing, visits with friends, and other inescapable indulgences such as, oh, I don’t know, for example, maybe, hypothetically… the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Yeah, I have that fever right now, and I will shamelessly proclaim it to the mountaintops. Or at least write it down here.










I love the Olympics. And I’m not sure, but I feel that it is a growing love. I mean, I enjoyed Beijing, and the last winter games wherever they were (haha, just kidding. Vancouver was awesome too), but my love seems to have grown exponentially in the last four years. I am feverishly consuming hours of the stuff–rooting for underdogs, criticizing over-pronations, tearing up for home-team wins, and always finding myself amazed at the capacity of the human body and mind. I was amazed by this from the start; even in the opening ceremony, I couldn’t really take my eyes off the screen for the procession of athletes from all over the world. Right, I mean, while the British retelling of history was cool and all, it was the parade of nations that was somehow the most captivating for me. So many beautiful young women and men, all at their physical peak, ready to show the world everything they have been training years to accomplish. I thought of what it might be like to be among them, processing into the stadium with peers from all over the world…I was, and still am, in awe.

Brazilian Gold Medalist: Rings

And it’s not just the competition, which of course is exciting. For me, the Olympics also represent the inherent human desire to be better, to not give up, to become something that is the best. I strive for this too, sometimes too often, and sometimes in the silliest of places, but I do this everyday. Heck, I hope we all do, and I think some of my life’s more frustrating moments are when I perceive that those around me have given up. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do think that giving up or letting go have their place, but not when it comes to treating people with respect and dignity, or civil rights, or obeying traffic laws, and yes, definitely not when it comes to the Olympic Games.

It’s tiring work, but it can also become addicting. I love pizza, so why not try to make the best? or find the best restaurant? or have the best friends? or play on the best instruments? or think the best thoughts? or read the most important articles? enjoy the best art? Does anyone else have this problem? I sure hope so. Go USA! Go Canada! Go Brasil! Go…Humanity!!!

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.


One sorry cookie slut

I spent a good deal of time this afternoon in the kitchen: baking, prepping, cleaning. I do enjoy that: I enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes when everything turns out just right. And I love making bread for many reasons: I know exactly what goes into it, I get to use my hands, it doesn’t take long (I have a rhythm when I make it), and it tastes DAMN good. Seriously, it is really hard to buy bread for sandwiches at the store–none of it tastes much better than cardboard.

Cute, but yucky to eat.

My bread is better


I also love to make cookies. I love to make cookies because I love to eat cookies. But I love to eat cookies so much, that pretty much any cookie will do. I am a cookie slut. I have thought long and hard about what makes the perfect cookie, and I have my methods and my secrets (most of them are not so secret). I always hope the cookies will turn out perfect, because I want to eat perfect cookies. I love to eat cookies.

Living in Brasil makes me sad about cookies sometimes. Their store cookies are different, but they are fine; that is not the problem. What makes me sad? I don’t have all of my cookie tools here, namely my kitchenaid mixer, and a suitable sifter. You would think the sifter would be easy enough to find or bring from the US, but somehow it has slipped through the cracks yet again, and I do not have one. I miss that. But even more, I miss my mixer. And it is ridiculously heavy, so bringing it here is kind of crazy. But I’m getting kind of crazy, so it just might happen next time. Why can’t I buy it here? Well, I could, I suppose, if I wanted to spend 1/3 of my monthy paycheck. “Oh, I’m sorry kids, we’re going kinda light on food these next few months, but hey, we do have that fancy mixer that Daddy’s been pining after!” Yeah, that quote is not going down in the annals of great parenting history.

Another thing that took forever today was getting home after my concert. Public transportation is pretty impossible on Sundays in Belo–life slows down, and the busses don’t come very often. Plus, there’s this HUGE fair every Sunday right in downtown (very close to where my concert was taking place), and it makes navigating that section of the city nearly impossible. And so here’s what my trek home looked like: about 15 minutes of hard walking with a cello on my back, waiting for about 15 minutes at the bus stop, a 20 minute bus ride (there was traffic, this ride should have taken only 7 minutes), and another 8 minute walk home. Interesting cultural observation at the bus stop: Brazilians (at least here in Minas) rarely speak up when someone is cutting in front of them. There were dozens of people waiting for taxis at the bus station, and when one would arrive, it didn’t matter how long you had waited; whoever got to the door first was the one who got in the taxi. But no one ever said “Hey! I was here before you!” Nope. That’s just the way things go. There has actually been a recent study about this phenomenon, and if you are interested you can look here.

That’s all I will say about that now, but I’m sure I will have more to say in the future. I’m never short on thoughts, or ideas. Just cookies. Always short on cookies. *sigh*


I wanna hold your hand

Oooh….New blog post! New category!!

“Meh,” you say, “what’s the big deal?”

I have done a lot of thinking about cultural issues in the past, even before moving to Brazil. I have to say I’m fascinated by culture and how it interacts with language, religion, and everyday life. I suppose this interest is part of why I was willing to live in a foreign country in the first place–I love discovering how people work and how that interacts with the forces that surround them: family, country, laws, faith, history, etc.

I’m going to try and keep things positive, but truthful here–“Culturally Incorrect” if you will. That is my attempt at a pithy name tonight. I tried.

The other day I was walking and thinking, being careful not to get hit by cars, and watching mothers and fathers do the same with their children hand in hand…I like that. I regularly like to walk holding my children’s hands–it’s a comfort to know that they are right with me, and there’s something significant and spiritual about the fact that we are “walking alongside one another”. And that got me thinking about the difference between the way we communicate something in English and in Portuguese. In English, when I ask my children to hold my hand, I say “Hold my hand, honey!” or something close to that. In Portuguese, it’s not much different, but literally translated it would sound more like “Give me your hand!” Ok, not so interesting on the surface maybe, but I look closer and see some important differences. The English phrase asks the child to use their hand to hold the adults, meaning that it is the child’s responsibility to do the holding, and that the hands, while together, will remain independent of one another–my hand will remain my property, and your responsibility will be to hold it. This type of language construction is an easy window into American culture: we value independence and individuals, and even within families there is a resistance to trust when it comes to valuable items (including body parts). I like this thinking–it’s clean, and it makes sense to me. The Portuguese begins similarly with a demand, but in this case, the demand is for the child to GIVE their hand to the parent, and implicit within the language here is that once the hand has been given, it is now my responsibility to take care of that hand. I’m not a native Brazilian, so I’m still trying to fully understand how this is reflected in the culture, but initially it seems to point to more of a willingness to trust, to be taken care of, and to nurture those around you. I see it on the bus, and encounter it in stores: it’s not the same “Can I help you?” bend-over-backwards-to-please-you consumerist mentality that you might find in the States, but it’s like I’m suddenly everyone’s favorite son, with all the good and bad things that come along with that. It can be way overwhelming at times, and I often mistake it for disrespect, but that’s more my own baggage than the fault of the culture. A whole country chock full of people looking to trust and be trusted–crazy for this independent skeptical American to wrap his head around, but in my best moments, I recognize it for what it truly is: beautiful.


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.”