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 www.gringoes.com**) – 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 www.gringoes.com, 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)

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