Friday, 23 October 2009


I’d pictured it a little differently – maybe a cheesily grinning President Lula shaking my hand and handing me a gold-plated Brazilian identity card, while all my Brazilian heroes (to wit, Carlinhos Paraiba, former trojan Santa meio-campista now wasting his time with Coritiba in Serie A as opposed to gloriously representing Santa against various collections of plumbers, bus drivers and garis in the Copa Pernambuco, Nelson Rodrigues, Milton Nascimento (actually he’s out because he’s cruzeirense), Tom Zé, Faustão, Xuxa, a few others who I can’t quite remember now) and a massed crowd of o povo Brasileiro cheered wildly. Lula would be doing this in recognition of my services to the Brazilian people – or in other words writing this blog, telling any moaning upper middle class Brazilian I come across to shut his/her cakehole and that there’s plenty of other places in the world (even in (gasp!) Europe) that are just as banjaxed as Brazil, being tricolor, because everyone knows Lula is really O Mais Querido despite pretending to be corinthiano, and being co-founder of the world’s least successful voluntary project, more of which (maybe) later.

In the end though, its all quite perfunctory and not half as interesting as I had planned (which should perhaps be the title for this blog). I go to the policia federal at the airport, tell them my story, sit nervously for a few minutes until someone says ah bollox to it we may as well let him in after all its only the pissing amnesty who bleedin’ cares (or words to that affect) and four years of (all entirely legal) visa shenanigans of various stripes have come to an end, and, thanks to nice Mr Lula and nice Mr Ken Ho (I think), I am the proud owner of a two-year provisional visa which should then, provided I don’t decide to take up a career as an international drug trafficker or abuser of infants, become permanent.

Woo-frickin-hoo. The only thing is that having always been something of a stranger to permanence of any kind (whether in love, living arrangements, or my various not very glorious careers), I get a funny, twitchy kind of feeling in my pants when I think about being here forever. Though of course I’d always planned to be here, um, forever – it’s just that now it might really be forever, well, forever seems a mighty long time. And – and this one’s harder to understand, or maybe it’s not – Brazil looks a bit different now too, and the what the hell am I doing here moments are coming thick and fast.

What the hell am I doing here moment number 1: The weekend after National Day of the Visa (there’s a national day for everything else in Brazil, including dentists, bus drivers and commercial workers, so why not?) The Fanautico drags me off to Itapoama for a weekend of sun, sea and shandies at a friend´s beach house. Though really it’s a weekend of cachaça, cachaça and cachaça from sun up to sun down to sun up again. On Sunday night we ease on down the road to a clutch of grim little bars huddled under the trees – up ahead is Brennand (surely mentioned before – recifense phallic sculptor and owner of half the city) family land – as usual the crickets chirrup and the moon flits through the trees and it feels – apart from the 4x4s belting down the highway, that we might be in the middle of witchy primeval forest. Only – the Brazilians amongst us (i.e. everybody except me) start gyrating and twirling the minute we get there, despite the music being two old cheesers with cowboy hats and epic moustaches on keyboards and vocals, and no-one seems to want to talk about anything, only shout and slap each others’ neatly packaged (the girls, that is) arses and drink and call for more drink and more drink and more drink. I stand glumly for a bit, feeling thoroughly out of things, yearning for a quiet pint in a morbidly silent boozer in Crystal Palace, Dundrum Bay or Whalley Range. And I think – WTHAIDH? Until I find a novel solution to the problem – drink more, and faster.

What the hell am I doing here moment number 2 (in which it is revealed that slavery never really went away): I may be a honky but I´m hung like a donkey, sings Shaun William Ryder as The Ferrari crashes over rocks and leaps across craters on Avenida Getulio Vargas. Then I get tired of Shaun William Ryder’s shouty shouty snarly snarly and turn on JC/CBN. JC/CBN is a bit like Radio 4, except it isn’t really, because it has commercials with songs that go Pitu Cola ooh-ooh, Pitu Cola aah-aah, which does nothing for one’s moments of intellectual reflection. A man comes on and talks earnestly about do’s and don’ts in a job interview. He sounds like he has a degree in Science of Workplace Dynamics or something equally handy (to quote, indirectly, Paul Calf). Whatever you do, he says, don’t ask any questions in your interview. The interview is for the employer to find out about you, not for you to find out about the employer. And you certainly don’t ask about holidays, or benefits. You can find out about those things from your colleagues when you start work. For some reason my knee jerks violently and hits the steering wheel and The Ferrari narrowly misses an oncoming 910 Rio Doce – Piedade bus. Meanwhile the presenter of the radio show is mmm-mmming his agreement with our Doctorate in Ergonomic Office Furniture and thanking him earnestly for his advice, and yes, I know most minimum salary workers in Brazil don’t have a hell of a lot of employment options and aren’t likely to find themselves headhunted by Ernest Young or Price Waterhouse Cooper, but still……

What the hell am I doing here moment number 3: Actually there isn’t really a number 3, just a general feeling of weariness. Because it sometimes gets tiring, living in Brazil, in another country, where for the Foreign Johnny many things that the locals see as normal and expected are new and not expected and as annoying as hell. Debating strategies are one such example – a debate between two Brazilians generally involves both individuals talking quite loudly and repeating themselves as much as possible and if at all possible speaking in a continuous stream to prevent the other person from speaking at all, with occasional breaks used for turning away and invoking support from onlookers by mocking one’s opponent, perhaps by calling him a corno, or cuckold. This is frustrating for me because I like to argue and in Norn’ Iron, at least, it is customary to at least allow one’s opponent to express his point of view before calling him a silly feckin’ eejit and breaking a bottle over his head.

More examples - that I have to pick up my bog-trotting The Clampetts meet The Adams Family neighbours’ rubbish and carry it up to the dumping spot at the top of the road. That when I went to a nice beach ™ on Sunday we sat in a bar which played ear-crushing forro eletrico all day, which rather spoiled the sound of the wind rustling in the palm trees. That it’s bloody hot all the time (actually I like this). That I live very close to the sea and see it every day (actually I like this too).

(And all these (hottness and sea excepted, naturally) are also proof of one of the lowest parts of the gringo experience - that when living in another country it´s hard to separate the individual from the mass. If a roaring white van with BNP stickers on the windscreen runs over my foot in London or Belfast or Manchester, for example, I think, you f***ing c***. If the same thing happens in Recife (replacing BNP stickers with Sport stickers perhaps), I think you f***ing Brazilian c***. Which is wrong, obviously, but I think pretty unavoidable).

Moan moan moan.

I suppose what it is really is that one just needs to go home every once in a while, to matar saudades and to count one’s blessings and to remember that with an old small car, a small young dog, an old small house, and a small young girlfriend (though not that small or young, your honour) I have pretty much all that I need or want here in Recife. I’ll tell you the results of investigative research into this particular theory sometime in 2010, after I get back from a month in England and Norn’ Iron (and it’s amazing what you can buy with a year’s worth of teacher’s salary in Brazil these days – half a new car, half a small house (though probably only in Ibura or Santa Amaro), a return ticket from Recife to London). And I must admit I’m looking forward to it, a bit – to walk across Crystal Palace Park in the freezing bloody cold, to spend a few hours in the wonderful Bookseller Crow On The Hill (there’s a link to the website below), to spend r$16 on the 30 minute journey into central London and then r$20 on a pint of warm flat beer and r$24 on a pack of cigarettes which you can’t frickin’ smoke anyway then talking about property prices and amazing new bands for three hours before being told (rather rudely) by the barman that at 11pm it’s time to go home. And, of course, on any tube or train journey, observing the famous London stare – gazing just above the person opposite’s shoulder, just to the right or left of the ear – so that said starer doesn’t have to expend the effort to look away but at the same time sure as hell isn’t going to acknowledge fellow passenger in any way.

These visits home – one every two years, roughly, have divided my time here in Brazil quite nicely. The first, after six months, had me gushing on about how wonderful Brazil was, a land of freedom and opportunity and happiness where everybody smiled all the time (and all the birds were well fit ‘innit, of course). This was in the days, of course, of The Ex-Girlfriend and all those fun and games, and when I knew bog all about anything in Brazil (what’s changed, some might say). The second, two years after landfall, saw me older and a bit (but not much) wiser about Brazil and its disappointments but still cheesily passing out Chico Buarque and Joao Gilberto CDs to my not very interested friends. Now things are what they are – no longer a frothy tourist or even novice wannabe Brazilian (a fruitless task anyway), more a slightly jaundiced gringo from a rather small and confusing country (just try explaining Norn Iron’s relationship with the UK and the Black South to a Brazilian) who still believes in the essential rightness of Brazil (which is that people like each other, generally, and are not repelled by the company of others) vis-à-vis the essential wrongness of countries which have lost this quite, duh, fundamental human quality.

It’s a bit like your bird innit – after six months the first haze of sex and happiness glows strongly and colours everything. After two years we are more than aware of the cracks that are rivening their way through our little paradise. After four years perhaps we reach a peaceable kind of contentment where there are moments (1, 2 and all of 3 above, for example) where we would happily strangle our life partner (or country) of choice, but still, on the whole, are happy and remember enough of the reasons of why we loved said partner or country in the first place to keep us trucking on and trucking on and trucking on. Basically – you’re happy if you’re happy, and you’re sad if you’re sad, and you could be happy in downtown Kabul when it all starts kicking off if the chick in the dayglo burkha you like gives you a cheeky wink and you could be sad in a five bedroom penthouse apartment on Avenida Boa Viagem if you’re not quite as rich as you want to be.

And here endeth the sermon, as always prefixed with the words but what would I know?

1 comment:

Joanne said...

Damn - it's a little scary just how much I relate to your ramblings, James. Here I am in beautiful Koh Samui in Thailand and thinking I should be enjoying myself a lot more than I am. After travelling for almost a year, I haven't had the epiphany that I was hoping for. Maybe I would find happiness if I just come and join you and your gyrating friends? Maybe not? Thanks for the note you left on my blog. Love Jo
P.S. Forgive me - I've read many of your blog entries over the past few years and have just been too lazy to comment until now. Congrats on the visa.