Sunday, 29 November 2009

Sportswriters (and carrying on from last week´s themes of irony and misunderstanding, can I just make it clear that I´m not really claiming to be a sportswriter, I´m just making an observation about sportswriters) are often blessed or cursed by the sporting landscape they write about. The great baseball writer Roger Angell, for example, was lucky enough to write about characters with names like Dizzy Dean, Virgil Trucks, Enos Slaughter, Goose Gossage and Vida Blue, as well as chronicling baseball at a time when the game was indelibly linked to American culture and history and moments such as The Shot Heard Around The World were as vivid and memorable as presidential elections, while Roger Kahn lived with the Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers for a year (or a lifetime) and so in The Boys of Summer wrote about what it meant when Robinson broke the race barrier in baseball. Roger Angell also got to write about the Amazin’ New York Mets of the 1960s, simultaneously the worst and most wildly supported baseball team in baseball history, which might give you some idea about where this little tale is going to end up.

I didn’t really want to write about Santa this week, because it´s football and not everybody likes football and Crime and Punishment and Don Quixote and The Great Gatsby don’t talk about football, not even once (though Gatsby does include a few baseball references) and therefore how can I hope to write a timeless classic if all I do is waffle on about football (though there are probably more essential reasons as to why I’m not writing a timeless classic than football).

But it’s Santa, and on Saturday O Mais Querido won the Copa Pernambuco, beating Central from Caruaru (or Ballymena) 4-3. Which might not seem like a lot, and really in The Big List of Sporting Events the competition probably ranks somewhere beneath the Collegio Arraial De Bom Jesus (where The Argument works) Girl’s Under 11 Netball Tournament. (Rumour has it that some of Santa’s current galaticos tried out for the CADBJGU11NT but didn’t make the cut).

But, still. A little historical perspective – when growing up in Belfast I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to support The Reverend Ian Paisley’s Boys Club XI, more commonly known as Linfield FC (feel good hit of the summer – we’re up to our necks in Fenian blood, surrender or you’ll die). The good thing about supporting Linfield was that they won, on average, 27 cups and trophies and silver pots a year (the Irish League being even more bizarro world confusing than the Brasileirao). Which was all very nice and all, and even seemed like the normal way of things. But then I left Norn’ Iron for ever and ever, and happily forgot about Linfield FC and all such shenanigans. And after that – 20 years (almost) of watching rubbish football teams in England and Brazil (namely Manchester City, Atletico Mineiro and Santa Cruz), and thousands of pounds and reais and hours wasted, and not one little trinket, bauble, or Christmas tree angel to show for it! Relegations, oh yes, relegations I know. How many? Ten? Fifteen? But trophies? Nada, nowt, zilch. And for Santa themselves, of course, the suffering has been even worse, as previously documented in these pages.

Until now. Peter Robb, author of A Death In Brazil, maybe the best book ever written about Brazil by a non-Brazilian (or even by a Brazilian not named Gilberto Freyre or Euclides Da Cunha), writes that the nordeste is home to the greatest concentration of poor people in the Americas, to which I can only add that Arruda on match day might be home to the greatest concentration of poor people in the nordeste. (A Death In Brazil is full of piquant observation and great sentences – one of my favourites being Rio is huge and lovely and terrifying. Sao Paulo is huger and more terrifying and not lovely at all).

This makes Arruda a generally safe but distinctly edgy place, and also means that Santa might just have the most dedicated and raucous supporters in Brazil, given that football probably occupies a more tender place in the heart of someone who has few pleasures and fewer options in life than it might in the heart of someone who squeezes in going to the game between lunch at Spettus Grill (which may be found, of course, in Boa Viagem Uber Alles) and a trip to Cirque Do Soleil in the evening (ok, so Cirque Do Soleil has left Recife now, but who can pass up the opportunity of making sarcastic reference to an event that charges R$400 (or something) to watch a bunch of French-Canadian clowns jumping on a trampoline? Apparently there aren’t even any lions or tigers, which makes it a pretty piss poor excuse for a circus in my book).

Saturday’s game is a fine example of all things tricolor. After the teams drew 2-2 in Ballymena last week, all Santa have to do is draw 0-0 or 1-1, or even (what a concept!) win the second game. 20,000 roll up to Arruda for a competition where normally games are played on weekday afternoons and tickets are not even sold and Sport and Nautico field junior teams. 20,002 if you include The Argument and me. The Argument, used to the cosy confines of the socios section at Nauticinho, is not impressed with the wild west saloon bar ambient of Arruda. People don’t take their shirts off at Nautico, she says, a reference to the fact that most people around us aren’t wearing shirts (or shoes or sandals either). The huge Inferno flag rolls up over our heads and little bits of plastic fall on top of us. Uuuugh, says The Argument. Then everyone starts bouncing up and down and shouting oooh Inferno aiii, and even sing a song about how Nautico are so little and have so few supporters that they could all fit in a fuscinha (VW Beetle). The Argument is not amused. The game starts and the sky goes black with thunder clouds and it’s very hot and very muggy and now everyone is bouncing up and down and singing oooh Inferno aiii again (one of the unique things about Santa, it seems to me, is that about 60% (and probably more) of the team’s supporters associate themselves with Inferno Coral and wear Inferno shirts and sing Inferno songs. This is a much higher number than at most other Brazilian teams, where the torcida organizadas represent a fairly small percentage of the clubs’ overall support. Again, it all adds to the slightly end-of-the-world feeling one gets at Santa games).

The game itself is Santa-in-a-tin. After 3 minutes Santa’s Gonçalves, caught distracted by a pretty white bird flying across the black clouds, lets the ball roll under his foot and someone from Central runs through and scores. We’re all human, he says after the game, we were born to make mistakes. Never a truer word spoken. Irritated, a few minutes later he rolls his hefty bulk up the other end and scores an equaliser. Everyone jumps up and down and sings Oooh Inferno aiii. Then Santa score again (Joelson) and again (Joelson 2) and again (300 year old veteran Gaucho). 4-1 Santinha at half-time! Anyone other than myself would be celebrating. 4-1!, squeaks The Argument, Santa might score 10! I give her a dark look. Ha! With five minutes to go it’ll be 4-3 and we’ll all be on our knees praying for the final whistle, I tell her.

Which is, oddly, exactly how it turns out. Only Central score three goals, not two, to make it 4-4, which would have meant the cup going back to Ballymena on the away goals rule. A nice man with a yellow flag, though, decides that Central’s fourth goal is offside, which sparks a huge ruckus (or even a rumpus) amongst the Central players, and 432 players are sent off. And then the referee blows his whistle, and the riot police come onto the pitch to protect him and the man with the yellow flag from the Central players, and the Santa players run around the pitch with the big golden cup. Gaucho takes his socks off and throws them into the tricolor hordes. Oooh Inferno aiii, everyone sings, for variation. And then The Argument and I take the bus into town, rolling past huge throngs of smiling people in Santa and Inferno shirts standing at the bus stops. Maybe it’s the start of something for Santa, says The Argument, looking happy, and maybe it is. The Christmas lights are on in some of the squares around Avenida Norte and Encruzilhada. We go to Recife Antigo, where we drink with The Argument’s hard-living chums until 1am, and then we take another bus home, running across the Buarque De Macedo Bridge to catch it, the lights of the city glittering in the black water of the river underneath.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

A quick aside, before we get started - I have received some correspondence from an old friend residing in the fine neighbourhood of Good Jesus, Belo Horizonte. We might, in tribute to the greatest cultural export his admirable country has ever produced, call this friend Celine - a name I feel sure will be to his liking. Celine is of course Canadian, and to be Canadian is a wonderful thing – most Canadians I know, including my friend in Recife, Small Shoe, and my marvelous Cousin Joanne, are open, generous, welcoming, funny and just plain nice. In fact if there is a negative quality one may attribute to the Canadian people, I cannot think of it - other than perhaps to say that the average Canadian’s relationship to irony is approximately that of the average Bornean tribesperson’s relationship to a US F-15 jet fighter passing overhead – it is to be gaped at, pointed at, even admired, but ultimately will remain a large, mysterious object flying thousands of feet above one’s head and may therefore, sadly, never be fully understood. (This is probably old news, and best illustrated by famous Canuck Alanis Morissette, who as everybody knows wrote a song called Ironic about people dying in air crashes – which is not really all that ironic).

This one glaring fault is rather a pity, given that the currency of this blog might well be described as irony (rather than, say, wisdom). Celine was outraged, it seems, and even went so far as to call me stupid and ignorant (and who’s to say he isn’t right?) because I said in last week’s piece that I didn’t really know why American Big Business was a bad thing. Celine was apoplectic that anyone could be so ill-informed, and so sent me some remarkable documents showing US and CIA involvement in the Brazilian military coup of 1964, which lead to the doubtful presidency of our good friend and neighbour White Castle. Even better, Celine also promised to reveal secrets about scurrilous US goings on in Cuba, El Salvador and some kind of spat in SE Asia during the 1970s of which I myself have heard only rumours. It may even be, according to Celine, that the Americans never really put a man on the moon, and that it was all television trickery! (Actually this is quite a commonly held opinion in Brazil). I can only thank Celine for this information, and apologise profusely for my ignorance, and point readers in the direction of his excellent photos, which really do look exactly like the real thing, and which can be found at

Though Celine raises an interesting point. I felt that I could make such flippant passing reference to US subterfuge in Brazil because I believe that I have a vague idea of who most of the people reading this blog are (it’s not hard when one’s readership numbers in the tens rather than the tens of thousands), and therefore can make (possibly rash) assumptions as to their understanding of this kind of thing and things in general. For example, I rely on the assumption that I can make jokes about Canadians like the one above and people will understand that I don’t hate Canadians and I am not a virulent racist (and if I was I’d hardly waste my time getting all stirred up about Canada). I believe that most people reading understand that I have a little (emphasis on the little) idea of what those naughty CIA boys got up to in Brazil pre and post military coup, and therefore don’t need to mention it, and I also believe that most people reading have themselves a little (or perhaps more than a little) knowledge of the same subject, and therefore don’t need me to tell them about it.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I really have no idea who is reading all this cobblers. Perhaps some people reading it hate me and it, and read it just to vent their own spleen, much in the way that I am strangely drawn to re-reading Man And Boy. Perhaps an Unabomber or two is reading it and finding weird subliminal messages hidden between my endless druthering about Santa Cruz. Perhaps I am inspiring cult fan groups. Perhaps some female readers will soon be sending me their underwear. Perhaps no-one is reading at all. Who knows? I certainly don’t, which manages to be both the beauty and the agony of it all at the same time.

Anyway. The little aside wasn’t so little after all (they rarely are). And so, feeling more like Bras Cubas than ever (modernistic little side comments to the reader, meandering narrative style, very little of substance to say), down to business.

Of which there is very little. Recife basks in scalding summer temperatures. I drive to work. I drive home from work. So much ho, so much hum. I think I know what’s wrong, and no amount of summer flowers blooming in the garden, or palavras, or Pavement reunion tours, or Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO, or viewings of Inglourius Basterds in Recife’s wonderful little Alice In Wonderland style Teatro Do Parque, is going to make it right. The problem is that I have changed neither address, employer or potential life partner in over a year, which breaks the Golden Rule Of How To Be Happy, which is to change something important in your life at least once a year to avoid boredom. Still, if I’m being punished, it’s a pleasant enough punishment.

So with no stories to tell I thought about writing a little pastiche in the style of JMG Le Clézio, who I am currently trying to read (a fruitless pastime). Something like - over the town the sun baked down – it was white and incredibly hot, so hot that it split the hard crystallite diamonds of the concrete paving stones into two, and then four, and then eight – between the rivened cracks the armoured steely body of an ant crawled over the ratcheted sharp metallic body of an other ant. Gross woke up with a headache – his head felt like it would explode – arches of indigo and cerise and crimson and yellow blasted and blasted at the inside of his brain. Though to really be Le Clézio-esque I would have to expand those few lines out over a hundred pages. But then I thought if one can’t really manage to make head nor tail of things when reading a writer then one shouldn’t perhaps try to write like him (though the description does well enough to tell of walking the parched streets of Recife in November any time after 7am and before 4pm).

Which leaves me, once again, with nothing very much to say. Of Brazil all seems to be toddling along nicely enough, the usual old one and a quarter steps forward and one step back, though accompanied as always by an endless deluge of media nay-saying that allows Brazilians who should know better to wring their hands and say oh woe oh woe oh woe a lot. Brazilian self-loathing is a curious thing – during a conversation regarding things that should and shouldn’t be banned a colleague posits the theory that topless sunbathing should remain prohibited here because Brazilians aren’t educated enough for such a thing and then goes on to paint a fairly gruesome picture of the gang rapes and sexual assaults on the beaches of Recife that would ensue if the city’s female population were to remove one half of their bikinis. Which seems to me, I must say, rather fanciful – for now, at least, Recifense males seem generally able to control themselves when confronted with acres of exposed female flesh, so it seems unlikely that the removal of a further small piece of nylon would cause such a terrible breakdown of public order. (And of course it’s not really Brazilian self-loathing at all – because the speaker of such words is always making the point that he isn’t, of course, such a feral beast – it’s his countrymen who are letting the side down in such fashion. If only everyone were like me, things would be different, he might as well be saying. Furthermore the individual in question, a portly fifty something married gentleman, followed up his discourse on Brazilian moral decay by stating that if were he to find himself dying a slow agonizing death his greatest regret would be that he had never eaten (the usual apologies for the local parlance) a really fat black woman. Which might suggest he has a little ways to go before reaching truly urbane metrosexual sophistication).

So with every other conversational topic rendered useless, all that remains to talk about, as always, is football. Santa have roared their way into the final of the juniors-and-veterans-free-for-all that is the Copa Pernambuco, which for most isn’t much, but for Santa is a hell of a lot, and spotty adolescent colts such as Natan, Léo, Elvis and Jefferson have teenage tricolorettes going all weak at the knees. Sport, just to show that real life can be like the movies, and that the bad guy always gets his desserts at the end, have been relegated to Serie B in marvelously humiliating fashion. Conspiracy theories abound – wandering around aimlessly by the seafront, I get into an argument with a Sport fan at the news stand. I told yer man there six months ago that the CBF and the referees would put Sport in the second division! he yelps - a reference to an errant referee’s whistle that cost Sport a goal against Palmeiras. He didn’t, of course, he’s simply labouring under the mass popular (and particularly Brazilian) delusion that nothing is ever anyone’s fault or responsibility and that dark forces (in this case a Rio-favouring CBF) move mysteriously amongst us, shaping our hapless fates. Which they probably do, though not on this occasion. Sport are going down because they´re bobbins, I want to say, but don’t, because it’s before breakfast and I have a strict no street fighting before breakfast rule.

Nautico, to The Argument’s chagrin, are soon to join Sportinho in the second tier, leaving Pernambuco without a team in the top division (and the nordeste down to a measly two representatives – Vitoria from Salvador and the happily promoted Ceará). The Brasileirão is galloping to a fantastically rambunctious finish, with São Paulo, Flamengo, Palmeiras and Atlético Mineiro (Galoooooo, as they’re better known, if I haven’t mentioned it before, are something of my lost love, following a year as an Atleticano in Belo Horizonte, and of course Inferno Coral’s longstanding alliance with Atletico’s Galoucura) all doing their level best not to be champions, and Fluminense and Botafogo doing their level best not to be relegated along with Nautico and Sportinho. Hardly a game goes past without refereeing scandals, and Keystone Cops punch ups, and riot police on the field – Mauricio and Obina, Palmeiras teammates, kick seven bells out of each other during a defeat against Gremio*, the entire Cerro Porteno (Paraguay) team go mentalist against Fluminense at the Maracana while losing the Sul Americana semi-final, engage in fantastic Chuck Norris vs Bruce Lee karate action at the final whistle, and end up in the slammer. Shaggy from Scooby Doo lookalike and Fluminense craque Fred calls them a bunch of marginals. Such is the excitement in Rio, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte that crowds at the Morumbi, Maracanã and Minerão over the next few weekends are likely to be greater than the population of several small European countries. Taken in by all the excitement, The Argument and I resolve to fly to BH for Galoooooo’s last game of the season on December 6th against Corinthians (of which more nearer the time). It’s all very Brasileirão, which, while it might no longer rival Spain and Italy and England in terms of quality of football and hefty salaries, is still a hell of a lot more exciting than all three put together. And in a way, in its combination of occasional incompetence and corruption and frequent lack of personal discipline, and joyfulness, and tragedy, and once-in-a-blue-moon glory, is as good a metaphor as anything else for the rest of the country, and I suppose, life in general.

Just a final note before I go – it would have been nice to have been able to make some kind of commemorative mention of Oirland’s incredible achievement of qualifying for the next World Cup by beating France in Paris. With Algeria having qualified yesterday afternoon (and large swathes of North London therefore awash with celebration), and Oirland winning 1-0 in Paris, I even imagined a gringoish cross-cultural meeting in the street between an ecstatic Mohamed from Algiers (or Finsbury Park) and Kevin from Cork (or Kilburn). You beat France in Paris, my friend, well done, well done!, says Mohamed. And you beat, ah, right then, who the hell did you beat anyway? says Kevin. Egypt, my brother, Egypt! Much hugging. Only of course it never happened, because Thierry Henry, admirably doing his bit for cross-cultural bonding, decided to play by Páirc An Chrácaigh rules. Terry didn’t just handle the ball, as I´m sure you know, he caught it, stuffed it up his jumper, smoked a couple of Gitanes, read some of the naughty bits from Madame Bovary, took a few sips of an impeccable 2006 Bourgogne Chardonnay, fiddled around with his minitel, then took the ball out from under his jumper and kicked it onto the head of one of his pals (probably called Jean-Claude or Marcel) who bundled it into the net. Ah, well. I gave up on football ever making me happy years ago.

* Minutes after this Palmeiras announce that neither player will ever wear the team’s shirt again. Crikey.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

You look like a gringo, Suel says to the The Hero (unnamed, I think) of Patricia Melo’s O Matador (The Hero has recently dyed his hair peroxide blonde as the result of losing a bet on Palmeiras vs. São Paulo). The Hero challenges Suel to a duel and kills him. You called me veado, says The Hero, just before he shoots Suel in the head (veado being Brazilian popular slang for homosexual). No I didn’t, says Suel, I called you a gringo. Same thing, says The Hero.

Which seems like as good an introduction as any to a bit more mindless chit-chat about what it is to be a foreigner in this most foreign of countries (finding yourself a foreigner living (as opposed to visiting) anywhere is a bit strange, and probably not part of anyone’s life plan. If people even have life plans. I, probably quite obviously, don’t. I can’t help comparing myself every now and again to Stupid Phillipe, the French boyfriend of a girl I once knew in London, whose English was so bad that he once brushed his teeth with shaving cream. Or perhaps he just drank too much).

Recently Recife’s most sensational scandal-sheet (an impressive enough title to hold, given that all of Recife’s four newspapers are pretty sensational and scandalous, though two of them pretend not to be), Aqui, has been all of a stir because a Belgian man called Olivier Xavier Albert Shoonjans, who knocked down four people with his beach buggy in Recife on the 22nd of September, killing one of them, has been released on r$1000 bail. This is neither the time nor the place to comment on a foolish Belgian and his criminal or otherwise activities, other than to say if guilty Mr Shoonjans should obviously suffer whatever punishment fits the crime (reading the collected works of Tony Parsons in a never-ending loop for 50 years, for example).

What called my attention though, was Aqui’s curious reporting style. Gringo Behind Bars!, roared the headline on a Monday (which was also Brazil’s most Brazilian of holidays – The Day of The Dead, when all are expected to pay their respects to the deceased. Thankfully I have no deceased to pay respects to, though I suppose I could wander over to Arruda to say a little prayer for Santa and their corpse-ridden 2008 and 2009 seasons). Anyway, back to Aqui. On Wednesday, Page 2 – Foreigner arrested yesterday!

Now maybe I’m being a little paranoid about things, but it just all seems a bit askew. I know one shouldn’t compare cultures and habits, but even in good ol’ dyed-in-the-wool racist hotbeds like Norn’ Iron the mainstream press might turn squeamish at the thought of blazing foreigners are nasty and never trust a gringo headlines such as this. Still, I tell myself, it’s Aqui, it’s a gutter press tabloid, it’s not representative of Brazilians in general. Except, except, except. Like most gutter press tabloids Aqui has perfectly nailed its public with a heady brew of photos of bloody corpses, naked women, and a news content that deals almost exclusively with gruesome murder, football, and novelas. And so really Aqui is pretty much as representative as it gets.

Am I being neurotic? Probably. But. There’s the G word itself. Most people in Brazil will tell you that gringo doesn’t have any negative connotations, and that it just means foreigner. Which is poppycock, obviously. Because most (if not all) of the time when Brazilians say gringo it’s accompanied by a healthy bit of eye rolling (such as he paid r$10 for a packet of chewing gum! Well what do you expect, he’s a gringo (eye roll-eye roll-eye roll)) and nudge-nudging. So at the very least then, gringo means a bit dumb and with more money than sense.

Gringo also seems to mean, generally speaking, American (though having said this on my way back from the bakery this morning someone asked me if I was French – perhaps because of my dashing Gallic good looks) which, as might be imagined, gets right on the tits of anyone who isn’t American - remembering always, students, that there’s a hell of a lot of difference between dictionary definitions and what people are usually thinking when they use a word. A couple of years ago when living in humpin-jumpin downtown Recife, I stopped off for a chicken patty (to paraphrase very fine (at least memory and nostalgia and my new found pride in all things Irish – a gringo story in itself, this one, how one starts blathering about how great (or war torn, depending on the context) the oul’ country is/was, now that one finds oneself a jimmy foreigner, and yes, should the Black South wangle their way past France in the World Cup play-offs, I’ll probably be wearing a Liam Brady replica shirt and listening to The Wolftones and singing 40 Shades of Green come June 2010) whiskey drinking fag-smoking Irish comic Dave Allen, only your God knows how else to translate coxinha) on the way home.* An old man was propped up by the chicken patty stand, complaining about the new traffic regulations on Conde Da Boa Vista. It’s all a load of bollox, isn’t it, he said, turning to me. Whatever, I think I might have said, being tired and not generally in the mood for octagenerian whinging. Things turned a bit ugly. Don’t care? Of course you don’t. You’re all the bloody same, aren’t you? says Old Man. Come here for a good time and don’t give a bollox about Brazil. We? I said. Who, exactly, is we? You, he said, pointing a finger somewhere near my chest for emphasis. Americans. I bristled and thought about giving Old Man not just a geography and history lesson but also a chicken patty in the face. I didn’t, though, because carrying out acts of violence against old men is not generally the way one should live one’s life.

And the thing is that it wasn’t his fault. Brazil and South America in general have a long history of being abused by foreign powers (I’m assuming here some of the people reading this have spent most of the 15th-20th centuries living on Mars, or in Ballymena, or alternatively that some of them are readers of the never-knowingly insightful or profound**) – the Portuguese and the Spanish a very long time ago, American Big Business more recently (I don’t know exactly how American Big Business has abused Brazil, particularly, but I’m sure it has, because everyone tells me American Big Business is A Very Bad Thing). You’re rich and we’re poor, is the general thinking here, and like all people who think themselves poor and look over the fence at their richer neighbours, it’s generally held by the poor neighbour that it’s the fault of the rich neighbour that he or she hasn’t got enough money to fix his or her roof or hang a new door (the irony here is that Brazil itself is as rich as Midas, in terms of natural resources and industrial punch – not that ordinary Brazilians get their paws on any of it). And I suppose if I was Brazilian I’d probably assume most pasty-arsed white folk wandering around lost outside my house played for Team USA! Team USA! (population 500 squillion) as opposed to Team Norn’ Iron (population 500 and some sheep).

But still. Am I wrong to get a bit peeved when people think I say y’all and mom and pop and vote Bobama? (I probably would vote Bobama, but that’s not the point.) That Brazilians generally divide the world into two nationalities (there’s an epic amount of generalisation going on in this article, but bollox to it – how the hell else am I supposed to talk about gringoism without referring to national stereotypes and such like?) – (1) Brazilian and (2) gringo? And therefore that it matters not that I’m from Northern Ireland and that centuries of culture and history (fairly crap culture and history, admittedly, but still) get wiped out in one fell swoop and I get lumped in with sworn enemies like the bloody English? Or that a friend of The Argument who is married to a thoroughly nice chap from, let’s say Argentina, warns The Argument to be careful if she is thinking of hitching her wagon to a gringo’s horse - because they’re not like us, you know. That when I buy a second hand copy of Capitaes Da Areia in the street for R$5 it’s not the perfectly honest and non-malandro book seller who plays the g-word card, but my charming, loveable and altogether marvellous friend The Portuguese Teacher, who says you probably paid too much because you’re a gringo. How much would you bloody pay for a mint condition Jorge Amado?, I think I shout, 50 pissing centavos?

And I know (again) that it’s nobody’s fault, all this Brazilian bunging together, just ropy (or entirely absent) geography lessons and the occasional insularity of the South America character. And that the average British subject of course couldn’t tell his or her Caracas from his or her Quito, and that Her Majesty’s Finest even on occasion choose to gun down a Brazilian house painter on the Underground because he looked a bit Arab, sarge.

But, still.

Oh dear. I’ve completely lost the thread of my argument, I confess, to the extent that there ever was an argument. So. What’s the secret to eternal gringo happiness? Just relaxing and not caring? I admire very much my friend The Quiet American, who spent a couple of months in Recife earlier this year. Off he marched to Arruda for the Santa–Sport classico. Resplendent in sandals, white knee socks, baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses last seen being used by Officer Poncharello in C.H.I.P.S, gigantic and extremely pale, he looked, as he stumbled around perilously close to the Inferno hordes, like nothing so much as a large, amiable polar bear knocking back a few palavras at the hungry hyena watering hole. Look, I think he might have said, I’m a gringo. I look like a gringo. I’ll always be a gringo. What the hell’s the point of trying to hide it?

Quite right. Maybe the ones who don’t try to hide it are the happiest of all. I’m thinking about the fun lovin’ boys and girls from England or the US who get transferred to São Paulo with work, or marry upper middle class Brazilian women (or occasionally, but rarely, men) and ship themselves lock stock and barrel over (or down) the Atlantic. They arrange get-togethers in Irish Pubs and rugby and cricket matches on, and seem to quite often live in João Pessoa, well, because it’s nice. And what’s wrong with nice? They know they’re gringotastic, they don’t try too hard to be Brazilian, they like drinking agua de coco on the beach and don’t always take that much of an interest in Brazilian culture or history or get to know too many of Brazil’s worker bees (though some admirable souls both take an interest in culture and history and mingle with the proletariat***). Good luck to them, these number 1 gringoes, I say, for not worrying too much about things, not trying to be something they’re not, and for simply concentrating on the most important thing of all – being happy.

You can of course go to the other extreme too, and allow yourself to get sucked into the toenails of Brazilian life. This will provide you with hours of tremendous fun (provided you like boozing, football, girls who wear the tiniest clothes in the civilised world, and most importantly want to meet some of the nicest people you’re ever likely to meet, who, oddly enough, seem less obsessed with whether you’re gringo or not than many of their supposedly more educated countrymen and women) – and you’ll certainly get some good stories, and will learn an awful lot about what’s important and what’s not in life, and will generally be a much better person than you were before. The toilets are foul though, and afterwards you might well find yourself looking after an ex-girlfriend or two with a bullet hole in her arm. Probably, also, you won’t be able to stick it very long, and soon you’ll find yourself living in a nice flat or apartment with SKY TV (gringoes are often endowed with lifestyle choices and an upward social mobility that Brazilians are not) with only the memories of the time you spent as a number 2 gringo left.

There’s even a rather ridiculous kind of gringo rivalry. Look at them, one gringo might say to another, pointing at a coach load of German tourists wandering the streets of Olinda. What a bunch of gringoes. The inference being that the speaker, by wont of his tremendously successful integration into Brazilian life, or perhaps his excellent Portuguese, no longer considers himself a gringo at all. I’m pretty much half-Brazilian these days, the particularly brass-necked (or wood-faced) might even say. These people, the number 3 gringoes, are the unhappiest of all, it seems to me, because they spend their time measuring levels of gringoness, and desperately trying not to be gringo themselves, and as a result of their obsession become the most gringo of all.

I’ve been guilty of it all myself, of course, on more than one occasion. I’ve made fun of number 1 gringoes, which I feel bad about sometimes (but not always), and tried my hand at being a number 2 gringo. In weaker moments I´ve probably made a few number 3 gringo type comments. But I’m tired now, and not as young as I used to be, and maybe it’s time to stop thinking decent restaurants with nice toilets are the devil’s work and an evil capitalist plot to maintain class oppression in Brazil, and to accept that shopping centres, while unlikely to ever truly be art, are at least convenient.

Because anything else – trying to become Brazilian, or thinking you’re somehow better than other people in the same boat as yourself because you know the difference between caju and caja – seems to me rather foolish, if not downright hilarious, because in the end we’re all gringoes, we always will be, and we’re all doomed, doomed, doomed. But, I suppose, or at least hope, happy.

* A R$10 prize to anyone who manages to unravel, or even get to the end of, this sentence.

** Something of a Gerald Ratner moment, this, as my entire readership goes up in flames.

*** Ironic usage - explanatory footnote for the benefit of North American readers (he said, generalising like a good Brazilian should)

Friday, 6 November 2009

Reading Dostoevsky is good for considering the balance of one’s soul, and while I haven’t been reading Dostoevsky recently, I was in desperate need of a punchy-literary style soul related opening to this piece. Taking a balance of my own lilywhite soul recently, I conclude that it’s a little on the skimpy side, with precious little hope of barging its way to the front in any bouts of afterlife queue jumping.

This in mind, I resolve to save myself from the hellfires of eternal damnation and become a Buddhist. A rather heavy drinking and smoking Buddhist, that is, and one who is partial to the odd carne do sol and chips every once in a while, and one who has from time to time fornicated and plans one day to fornicate again (sorry Ma, but fornicate is too good a word not to use every once in a while). Do Buddhists fornicate? I remain unenlightened. Isn’t Roberto Baggio a Buddhist? And didn´t he shack up with Madonna for a bit? Which seems like it might be quite conclusive evidence for the Buddhists-heart-fornication bumper sticker argument.

So if I can’t be a proper Buddhist, can I at least be a Buddhistant? A medium to hard drinking Irish Protestant who thinks Buddhists are nice, but isn’t going to shave his head or give up any of the good things in life like cigarettes and booze and carne do sol any time soon? Maybe. But so far my Buddhist conversion hasn’t got much further than liking incense because it makes the house smell less damp and - stifle the sniggers at the back, please - um, going to yoga classes.

Because it’s nice to go to yoga classes! It’s nice to ride my bike (with its shiny new Santa Cruz stickers) along the beach at seven in the morning and wander still sleepy into the Buddhist temple! And it is a real life Buddhist temple, with monks and everything (though from the outside it looks a bit like a Job Centre in 1980s Chelmsleywood) and which smells of incense (obviously), and has instructions over the bathroom sink about how to wash your hands in a proper Buddhist way (wrists are more important than I realised). It’s nice to take my shoes off and put on my rather fetching white Buddhistant yoga pants! It’s nice to sit next to my companions (nine ladies of a certain age) on a little blue mat with my legs crossed!

Though, try as the monks and the little walnut-faced maybe half-Chinese Buddhist yoga master might, Buddhistant or Buddhistolic (I remain unconvinced that my colleagues, probably good Brazilian Catholics, have given up booze and fags and meat either) yoga in Brazil is still, well, rather Brazilian.

At the beginning it´s all very much as you might expect – we all sit on our little blue mats and do some stretching. Don’t push yourself too hard, the yoga master, whom we might call Yoda, tells me. It’s your first time. Do as much as you can. Yeah right, grandma, I think, looking at my creaky-hipped competition. Then there’s a bit of put-your-left-leg-in-and-take-your-left-leg-out hoky coky action, and the Atlantic glistens outside the windows, and the palm trees rustle in all the balminess, and the big bright blue sky glows above all of it, and a few Buddhist statues smile beatifically down as though to say could be worse, couldn’t it? And I agree – it could definitely be worse.

But it’s a stressful business, yoga in Brazil. Yoda speaks very quietly, so I have to keep opening my eyes to see what’s going on. And I keep thinking about things that I have to do, like cut my toenails and wash my socks and ring The Argument. So it’s quite hard to concentrate, really. Outside doesn’t help. Just as everyone is getting all nice and relaxed, and the only sound is the pan-pipes or the whale mating ritual or whatever it is on the Ministry of Sound Presents The Clubbers Guide To Buddhism CD that’s playing, a car passes in the street playing Avioes Do Forro’s post modern rendering of the Faust myth - olha a barriguinha, olha a barriguinha (look at the little fat belly, look at the little fat belly) at teeth-crunching volume. The windows in our little Buddhist sanctuary shake. The car seems to have parked up outside the Buddhist temple, because the music continues. And continues. In the military transit hotel across the road a gang of squaddies are doing some kind of work which involves hitting hammers against metal very hard. Two men in the street are talking in very loud voices. Cabra safado, I said, cabra safado! (Naughty goat, I said, such a naughty goat!), says one. The other one laughs. Another two men are having an argument about money. Their voices grow louder. There come two loud retorts like the sound of a pistol being fired. Some of the less focused Buddhistants or Buddhistolics run to the window to have a look. Just a car backfiring, laughs one of them, sitting back on her little blue mat. Yoda glares at her. Order resumes.

I try hard to get into the swing of things, but I am having difficulty aligning little fat belly with a sense of inner calm. And wondering just who has been a naughty goat and what he did to earn the title. I close my eyes very tight, though I can’t hear a word Yoda is saying, what with the banging and the music and the shooting (sorry, car backfiring) and the yelling. Still it is nice to sit in the big bright room and feel the warm air pass over my face. But everything seems to be taking a very long time. I start to thing about things I have planned for this morning, and wonder if the supermarket has opened yet.

There are a few minutes of silence (inside at least). I wonder has Yoda fallen asleep. After a while, when I hear a general rustling, and I think everyone is probably standing up, I stand up too and stretch my leg out in quite an ambitious fashion. Check it out, grandma, I think to myself. I open my eyes. Grandmas 1-9 are doing headstands. And I can’t remember the words to ommmm.

The Buddhistolic (or Buddhistant) bastards.

NB: Readers are advised to enjoy all this levity while they can, because next week it’s really going to kick off with the next instalment in the gringoism series…