Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Christmas in Recife is the usual tawdry affair and no amount of blink blinks draped over council offices and bridges and floating Christmas trees on the river can make up for the almost satanic lack of respect for biblical tradition – do Brazilians not know that the first thing that Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus did on Christmas Day in far away B´Town was sit down to a roast turkey dinner with sprouts, carrots, parsnips, three types of potato (roast, boiled and mashed), sausages, bacon and boiled ham, followed by Christmas pudding, mince pies, Christmas cake, cheese and biscuits, ginger snaps, and a banana? Damn them all to hell, says Your Life Is An Impossibility, who, having long ago discovered that Christmas sucks in Brazil, has decided to avoid it all together.

Which meant that the highlight of this (or probably any other) Christmas was trooping off to Marco Zero this week to see the living incarnation of Papai Noel, President Luis Inácio Da Silva, aka Lula, hang up his boots for the last time (at least until he resurfaces, Jordan (Michael, not Katie) like, in four years).

Lula is, as everyone knows, The Greatest Brazilian President Ever, or at least he is if you´re poor or working class or from Pernambuco, his home state, where he has a 4000% approval rating. Lula is also a pretty good indicator of who you are as a person – if you think he is an embarrassing peasant jester then you´re probably a monied Brazilian who once voted for Fernando Collor, if you think he is the second coming of Jesus Cristo then you´re probably one of the people mentioned in the second line of this paragraph, if you think he inherited most of his policies from chess grandmaster FHC and hasn´t done too much else apart from fuck things up then you´re likely to be a clever clogs type who just likes to have a different opinion to everyone else, and if you think he´s pretty great but didn´t do enough to improve public education or cut Brazil´s cancerous civil service dependent culture then you´re probably a fantastically talented writer on the cusp of literary stardom who writes a blog called Your Life Is An Impossibility.

What he is, undeniably, is a politician who is grippingly in tune with his people. This is a rare thing and not to be underestimated, because it´s what makes Lula great. To the unknowing witness Lula is cheese, or brega. Watching him stomp up and down the stage, sweating and beating his chubby chest with his chubby four fingered hand and shouting about companheiros and companheiras is the public speaking equivalent of listening to Frank Sinatra at Christmas. It gets you in the mood and presses all the right buttons.

Lula talks about being a filho do sertão and the crowd roars approval (I´m a filho do sertão, everyone thinks). Lula talks about o povo brasileiro and the crowd shrieks with delight and applauds wildly (I´m one of the povo brasileiro, everyone thinks). Lula wheels on an urchin from the Coque (notoriously grim Recife favela) Children´s Youth Orchestra and the crowd spontaneously combusts (I could be a child from the Coque Children´s Youth Orchestra, everyone thinks, though they couldn´t).

But what saves Lula from brega overkill is the fact that everyone knows he´s walked the walk – when he bangs on about riding the flatbed truck 2000kms down to São Paulo with Dona Lindu at the wheel you know he really did ride the flatbed truck 2000kms down to São Paulo with Dona Lindu at the wheel, and when he rails about poor Brazilians having cow pats for Christmas dinner you know he really did have cow pats for Christmas dinner. This is what the FHC mob forget – the occasionally admirable Fernando Henrique kicked off many of Lula´s social welfare programmes, but he would never have gone far enough, because as a wealthy Brazilian the poor for FHC remained a squalid, amorphous mass that had to be handled somehow, but without much hope that they could ever be humanised completely.

It´s this, finally, that makes Lula, for this writer at least, one of the great public speakers of our times, up there with such estimable company as Hitler, Stalin, Martin Luther King and Paisley. It´s the thrilling realness of it all, the knowledge that you are watching one of the few politicians who, whatever his faults, really gives a monkey´s toenail about any of it.

He even means it while he´s being as smooth an operator as any New Labour spin doctor, playing the it´s all the paises ricos’ fault card for the twentieth time tonight (guaranteed to get the goat of any gringo not from a pais rico (rich country)) because he knows it appeals to Brazilians’ them and us mentality and gets the troops on board. There´s no grease anywhere to be seen except in his stubby whorls of brillo pad hair.

And so with apologies for schoolgirl crushes on middle aged Brazilian politicians and with mixed animal metaphors dancing through the brain, it´s homeward bound, and the usual thrilling trawl up Conde Da Boa Vista, one of the few pleasures which have not yet fallen prey to your writer´s current Recife jaundice. At ten o´clock at night this is the kind of Travis Bickle’s New York urban hell that bolsa familia and the like have not really helped (the pittance paid out by such schemes has had more effect in rural areas where starvation was until recently a valid life choice) – the streets are scattered with the cadaverous bodies of the homeless, street children scavenging through rubbish bins, and malandros of every stripe.

But it is life, and you have to live it, and so you wind your way home thinking about stopping of for a palavra or two in one of the seedier bars so you can watch more of it, until you feel bad about wanting to watch more of it, because for the people living it there are, of course, no such cushy life choices to be made.

And so, with not much else to do, it´s onwards, onwards.

Art: Ciranda (1988) by Glênio Bianchetti (Bagê, Rio Grande Do Sul)

NB: For those with appetites whetted for more of the Reverend Ian, I´m happy to suggest this.

Monday, 27 December 2010

This (now pretentiuous quote free) blog has talked about the Hull librarian’s toad work before, I´m sure of it, though your correspondent has neither the energy nor the inclination to go back and find out where.

Moving to Brazil is one way of driving the fat amphibian off with a pitchfork, and no doubt explains early season gringo euphoria once off the boat and onto dry Brazilian land. Mortgages and oyster cards and career glass ceilings have all been left behind with the charcoal weather and the world seems a brighter, bluer, happier place. Of course you´ll have to work a bit, but it´s only teaching English, which as any gringo* knows isn’t like a real job, and there’s a fair chance that you’ll be free at eleven o’clock some mornings (the holy forbidden fruit grail of every working drone) to wander up and down the street or go to the park or beach or read the paper or just have a nice, entirely power free, nap.

And so life morphs for a while into a kind of pre-lapserian paradise. It´s sunny every day, the beer is cold and the women are warm (being the polar opposite of how you remember it back home) and you don’t work very much. Probably you get paid cash in hand, so you don’t even pay taxes.

The question is whether such daydreaming can sustain, or if the paradise will soon turn out to be a fool’s one. Five years and counting now for this guinea pig, and it feels as though as though nooses are being tightened all around.

The frolicing carefree days of giving the odd English class here and there have been replaced with a fairly hefty workload (up at six every morning and home too late to watch The Big Bang Theory!) and recently when catching myself beating Guinness The Dog over the head with a newspaper it occurred to me that even the earwig stress (toad work´s second cousin) might be becoming an issue.

The muscular real has stomped all over the weakling pound in recent years, so the days of dipping into the savings to splurge a tenner on four or five beers and a kilo or so of prime barbecued picanha are long gone.

Things have accumulated – cars, credit cards, middling expensive rented apartments – meaning that more money must be made to pay for them all and more time spent organising paperwork and queuing in banks.

Sooner or later there will be little Your Life Is An Impossibilities to think about and then will come the big decision of whether to stump up for private health care and schools or whether to hurl them screaming from the parapet into the bedlam of the Brazilian public system.

The realities of the Brazilian market must be confronted, namely that the poor never used to exist as a retail force** so everything fancier than rice and beans is still aimed exclusively at the middle classes, and the middle classes are seemingly happy enough to pay through the nose for anything at all as long as it´s sold at the shopping mall – you´re right sir, it is a very shoddy two seater couch, and even better, it´s only R$1500!

In other words like anywhere else the more you build a life the more you find life has been built on top of you. What is sad about this is that there was a time when this writer wrote the following:

It was at moments like these that The Luck came to me again and as my imagined future with Ana stretched out before me, a small house in a quiet, lower middle-class area like Santa Teresa or Santa Ines, a garden and perhaps a dog, later a scattering of children, I wanted to kneel and pray before it.

and genuinely believed that such a life was possible and was all that anyone needed to be happy, whereas now it seems like it would be a very hard thing to do to reduce my life back down to the level of simplicity and contentment that I once felt and would need to feel again were I try and live in such a way.

So we are left with the holidays to remember what a life sem sapo would be like. And Your Life Is An Impossibility is on holiday now, which means days spent the way days should be spent – a swim at the Salesiano College at 6am, a stroll down to the market to buy bread and cheese, the rest of the morning spent lolling at the beach, two or three good solid hours writing and reading in the afternoon before the evening’s carousing begins. Though of course the saddest thing is that even in the happiness of such days we can already feel the bitter sweet taste of their hurried passing.

*other than this gringo, who has never been so fulfilled and driven (career wise) in his life, honest, boss.

** now changing – today social classes C and D are spending more money than A and B.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

You wanna go where everybody knows your name goes the song in the theme tune to the best show about a bar on TV – though it´s a big fat gringo bar, as we know now, with shiny wooden tables and clean toilets and beer nuts and coasters.

It would be nice if in downtown Recife there was a bar I could go to where everybody knew my name, or even after I´ve told everybody my name they could say it right and not pronunce it JEMIS (that’s two syllables if you’re counting).

There once was such a bar in Brazil, as frequent readers will know – Bar Do Jaime in the bairro of Santo Antonio in far away Belo Horizonte, where Jaime doles out free cachaça to the regulars and calls beers palavras, or words.

Ever since then it’s been harder going. First there was a year in the dry county that is João Pessoa – people drink in Paraiba, but they drink at home or standing outside their cars with the doors open and the stereo saying clownish forro really loud, or sometimes they go and have a little drink at one of the beach bars, but they don’t drink.

People in Recife drink, particularly downtown and out in suburbia. Even As Republicas has its barbecue joints the size of football pitches (with thanks to Peter Robb), and its never hard to find a beer at the beach, only now it comes in cans and as everyone knows beer tastes oddly different and metallic and generally unpleasant in a can.

There isn’t much that is pretty about most of the bars downtown though Bar Central has its xique merits if you don’t mind paying R$7 for a sausage. Really most of the bars downtown are grim little dives – holes in the wall with a fridge and sometimes a reeking toilet, or a shabby kiosk perched on a street corner with a few plastic tables and chairs scattered nearby.

But to complain about the lack of creature comforts would be to miss the point – such places exist so people can drink, and talk, and stare at women walking past, and for that what more do you need than a plastic chair and table and a fridge full of beer?

Cadu's is not Bar Do Jaime, though it has Jaime’s reeking toilet and sticky tables. At Cadu’s the tables spill onto the street, and it is a quiet, shady street, overhung by stooping jaca trees. There are more wild street dogs and more homeless people at Cadu's, for Santo Antonio is a bairro nobre of Belo Horizonte which in itself is a city considerably more nobre (though not half as interesting) as Recife, and Boa Vista is not even a nobre area of Recife, though it used to be.

Most of all, Cadu is not Jaime, for Jaime is small and dapper in a faded way, and charming and eager to please, whereas Cadu is basically a miserable fucker. But the bar is quiet at night and no-one parks their car in front and pounds out the ubsequious and awful forro, and you can sit and read a book and drink a beer or three, and you can even call them palavras if you want, though Cadu won’t know what you’re talking about it.

What is best about Cadu's is that it attracts a dog eared but bohemian crowd, and if you go there alone you can usually attach yourself to a nearby group of bearded students or trade union representatives or university professors, particularly if you are a blog as charming as YLIAI.

It is here that things like this* can happen, whereas things like this almost never happen in As Republicas.

I went to Cadu’s last week for the first time in a long time. I went because it was a holiday and I went because I wanted a drink. I sat and I read a book for a long time and I thought about the 21 year old boy who had thrown himself off the tenth floor balcony of the apartment building behind this one that same day, and I had a little drink and then a boisterous group of people (students and trade union reps and professors perhaps) arrived. So I wandered over and asked if I could sit with them, and they said yes and we sat and talked until three o´clock and then it was time to go home to bed, only just before I left Cadu asked me if he could buy a copy of my book and if I would sign it, because he wanted to put it on the shelf next to the cash register. And I suppose of such small triumphs the part of life that makes things bearable is both made and unmade.

Note: The painting at the beginning of this piece is Seculo XVIII by João Câmara.

* Entry dated 2/5/2008.

Friday, 3 December 2010

In Recife, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, langourous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems.* While Rio burns Pernambuco fiddles with its unmentionables, and it seems that no ill could exist in such a place. Wrong, wrong, wrong, of course: while the death count in our beloved state capital is down 39% in the last two years it’s still enough to make an Iraqi wince.

The vengance wrought by a YMCA-esque trinity of 12,000 policemen, sailors and soldiers in Rio not only brings back sweet memories of a blissful Irish childhood – look Ma there’s a tank in the middle of the street – but also has a biblical air about it which makes one think of religion. Not the my church is better than your church kind of religion but the old fashioned fire and brimstone thou shalt not do this that and the other type of religion. Such foolishness is grist to the mill of the idle mind responsible for this blog and segues nicely into a new series of occasional articles entitled The Ten Brazilian Commandments, with Faustão as Moses/The Voice Of God, Luciano Huck reprising Yul Bryner’s Rameses and Dilma Rouseff as Nefertiti.

Number 1 (adopt Faustão style Voice Of God) - Thou shalt not trust anyone else, ever.

Over in As Republicas YLIAI is struck down by bird/pig/summer flu and the world of Brazilian education must struggle wearily on alone for a few days. No major problem here – a couple of days sweating in bed (the only type of sweating done in this bed for quite some time, more’s the pity) and he´ll be right as a tropical rainstorm. And he is and all is well, and he returns to work the conquering hero, passed from hand to hand over the chanting masses assembled outside the gates.

Only what he doesn’t know of course, is that to get paid for any sickness related absence in Brazil you need a doctor’s note, whether it’s one day off or 365 days off. This is a cultural sticking point – anyone from Norn Iron (or even the weak sister Dirty South) grows up knowing that the best cure for a broken leg is to walk it off, whereas the average Brazilian runs squealing to the hospital when he or she breaks a fingernail.

Independent research (mine) has shown that this puts great strain on an already creaking and underfunded national health service. Further argument – that YLIA knew it was flu, that it would pass in a few days, and that going out in the noon day sun to stand in line at the health centre (afroth with tropical bacteria) might possibly make things worse rather than better – cuts no ice. If you don’t get a doctor’s note, how do I know you’re not lying, runs the logic, because of course: thou shalt not trust anyone else, ever, particularly when one of the parties is employer and the other employee.

It doesn’t take a Melvin Bragg radio programme to work out why – the first employers were our old friends Mr and Mrs Casa Grande, and the first employees their escravos, and the escravos were probably out to half-inch the family silver, and let´s face it, not much has really changed, has it?

This is why supermarket check out girls get any discrepancies deducted from their wages, and why the good burghers of As Republicas live in fear of being robbed by their domestic help. I had my first whiff of this a few months ago when a well-heeled acquaintance offered the loan of the famed Dona Maria one day a fortnight (don’t look so surprised – who would have the time to produce all these literary wonders and clean the bathroom too?). She’s a pessoa da confianca, stage whispered well-heeled acquaintance, accompanied by much raising of eyebrows and covering of mouth with hand, there aren’t many of them around. Or in other words – she’s trustworthy, and that’s hard to find, 'cos most of them are bloody crooks.

It’s not hard to find more examples. Check it first, growl the office managers who pay YLIAI in cash. That´s nice, he thinks, counting the money carefully, they want to make sure it’s right. Only they don’t really, or at least not entirely, they just want to make sure you’ve said it’s right, because then you can’t come back and say it wasn’t later.

Things came to a head recently when Brazilian pin-up Juliana Paes made the news after she signed an autograph and was then invited by her admirer to accompany him down to the local cartorio to have her signature authenticated. She declined, of course, but the fan argued successfully that a signature is worth nothing in Brazil unless it’s authenticated at a government registry office. Our Juliana was forced to get the number 57 bus down to the nearest cartorio to have her signature stamped by a titular councilor seventh grade who had matched it with the copy of the signature that the office had on record.**

So where does it all come from? Can it really be the fault of the sweaty Portuguese and their mustachioed wives all those centuries ago? That’s the theory – everyone started off by robbing everything they could get their hands on, and it’s pretty much continued that way ever since. Throw in a healthy seasoning of masters and servants and the educated rich and the sweaty thieving dishonest masses and there you have it – Brazilian society in a nutshell.

And in closing if religion is to be discussed an honourable mention must go to The Ex-Girlfriend, who recently informed YLIA that she is to become an evangelico, the hardest core of Brazil’s many hardcore churches, whose members must not drink, smoke, wear skimpy clothes or use make-up, listen to rock music or have sex before marriage. This either means that The Ex-Girlfriend has already stamped her first class ticket straight to hell, or she means to renounce her old ways, which will make it a sad day for manufacturerers of figure hugging, organ revealing shorts and tops (BC is the term in these parts, with B meaning beira (border or edge of) and C standing for, well, cu, a rude word that translates roughly as, um, asshole) the world over.

Lastly, following inspiration provided by the state bank number 3 sponsored art exhibition currently touring the capitals of Brazil, the artwork above is Independência, a 1969 work by the late Rio painter Di Cavalcanti.

* With apologies to Richard Ford.

** Not strictly true, this part.

Friday, 19 November 2010

I hate women who only want bits of me. I offer her the enormous totality of me, and she says yes, I´ll have the conversation bit, and the company bit, but not the bed bit, or even the handsonmybigtits bit. I hate the partial livers, I’m an allornothinger.

So says Albert Angelo, a creation of BS Johnson, who cut holes in his books so that readers could see through to the bits that were coming up, and published The Unfortunates in 27 unbound sections in a box. BS is obviously a hero of this column (and would be even more so if I´d read any of his books other than Christie Malry´s Own Double Entry). Especially when it was discovered in Jonathan Coe´s brilliant biography of the Hammersmith Beckett, Like A Fiery Elephant, that for most of his life, from the time he was a chubby sexless undergraduate through to his years working in the accounts departments of poxy suburban London companies like The Standard Vacuum Oil Company, believed that he was a writer, and a great one at that.

This is as usual nothing very much to do with anything, except that YLIAI can identify strongly. Real life gets in the way of dreams, as Tiririca said, and if you’re not careful you can find your life full of too much real life. YLIAI has been, at various junctures, the following: paper boy, builders’ yard skivvy, shopboy (sweet shop/launderette/greengrocers), distributor of flyers, distributor of illicit substances (details unavailable at time of going to press), obscure government department office lackey, door to door salesman (cleaning products), licker of envelopes, cloakroom boy (nightclub), box office clerk (nightclub), telephone company office lackey, record company tea boy (royalties department), record company high flying pretend lawyer, teacher of English to disinterested Brazilian teenagers. All of these were both awful and wonderful at the same time, though plenty of times the scale tipped way too far over to the former, and only rarely did it land much on the side of the latter.

The writing nonsense probably arrived somewhere in the middle of all that (it was understandably not that much in evidence in the hopes and dreams of a suburban Belfast teenager, for whom cassette based computer games and hitting girls with sticks because they couldn’t play football were far more important), and has dawdled on ever since, despite a stunning lack of commercial success.

It has been tied in a sack and thrown in the river more than a few times, and has been beaten to a pulp by the idiot glamour of London clubs and bars and back stage passes to Stereophonics (I know) shows. But is still there today, hence the awful machinations of this blog and the undiscovered gems (I promise) contained in The Psychological Benefits Of Exercise and to a lesser extent Your Life Is An Impossibility.

This is all rather narcissistic, of course, and so apologies. But there is some relevance to things brasileiro, I swear. It is this - with all this idle reminiscing about the past one cannot help but put one´s life into an overall context, to look for the grand plan, and with mine I cannot help but think there has not been one life but several.

Many will surely say the same, but of course I am not just talking about the ugly duckling into uglier swan transformation of aforementioned unloveable Belfast schoolboy into equally unloveable Manchester based university stooodent. Those two are simply phases of life, and everyone has them.

But not everyone has their period of Madchester cops and robbers nightclub door security based shenanigans (so you sell the tickets on the door, then I´ll get them off the punters at the top of the stairs, then I´ll give them back to you and you sell them again only this time you put the money in your pocket then we divvy it up again at the end of the night), coupled with being involved at the very lowest level of the equally aforementioned illicit substances trade (and YLIAI must stress that his participation never really amounted to more than putting one “friend” in touch with another “friend” and he certainly never got his hands dirty or did anything that was even remotely, um, illegal, officer).

Not everyone either, then goes all Dick Whittington and heads off to London and achieves a modicum (the bare minimum of a modicum, for readers of a recent piece) of success in the tawdry bauble that is the music industry, which is ironic because anyone could, given that all you need is a bit of common sense and a sense of humility that leaves you just short of believing you are Genghis Khan, as said industry is almost entirely bereft of both such qualities (common sense and humility, if anyone got lost in that wordy tangle).

And then, getting up to speed, not everyone decides to jack it all in and move to a ramshackle and often bloodily violent bespeckled jewel of a city in the sometimes parched, sometimes lush, occasionally brutal and depressing, almost always thrilling nordeste of Brazil (artistic licence here, because regular readers will know that before Recife came Belo Horizonte, which is almost none of these things, and after Belo Horizonte came João Pessoa, which is really just bloody awful).

It is Brazil that gives most claim to the theory of having lived more than one life, because this is life now and it is entirely different from life as it was a long time ago, and the memories of life as it was a long time ago are fading fast. Mistakes are made when speaking English – the long time gringo talks of marking a meeting with friends, or says it depends of the weather, and he’ll spell it Brasil and not Brazil even without wanting to. The silence and order of more rigid (and let´s face it, better organised) societies up on the other side of the equator appear odd and repressed, and it seems peculiar that people should care about their friends or colleagues arriving ten or twenty minutes late, because since when is time really that important anyway?

It is only really this – the sense of being torn from the womb of one´s cosy and comfortable motherland and hurled (bumpy landing guaranteed) into the whirl and jumble of an entirely different type of place, where you don´t speak the lingo and everything seems odd and vaguely threatening, that gives one a sense of being in the middle of another life. Phases, or stages, of life – marriage-divorce-motherhood-oldage-death – are a different plate of rice and beans altogether.

So then – not better (at time of writing living in Recife feels like chewing glass, though this is probably a product of work and financially related stress, and spending too much time embroiled in the city’s hellish traffic network), not worse (it’s still sunny, even in the longest traffic jam in the world), but different. Wow. Take that, Einstein.

And to end, a quick tribute to BS Johnson, who as almost nobody knows killed himself in 1973, aged 40:

Now I have met a girl here named Chris who lives in the flat below us, and is My Sort in the natural way of things, we get on in almost everything except religion, and religion unfortunately affects sex from her point of view. In fact it proves an insuperable barrier to everything except kissing and a little gentle ear-chewing, and even this latter is regarded as devillish and will probably be confessed in due time. The rot started the first time we went out, the morning after coming home from a dance at three in the morning. I asked her how she had slept; she replied that she was so tired that she had fallen asleep in the middle of her prayers. I restrained myself, but with an effort, and I had to lean against the wall to stop myself from falling. I can´t remember the last time I knew a girl who said her prayers – wait, yes I can, I was four at the time, and she was three; I think I had just seen through God, and I was annoyed at him for not existing. Anyway, I flatter myself into thinking that Chris is praying for my conversion, though conversion from what I don´t know, since I have no beliefs to be converted from. It´s embarrasing, to say the least, out in the street, for whenever we pass a catholic church she crosses herself; not protestant ones, she says ‘that one’s yours’, whenever we pass one she has not crossed herself for; I, of course, hotly deny ownership. Ah, well. ‘Tis enough to drive one to rape, or something. (From letter to Stuart Crampin, August 6th 1959)

Monday, 1 November 2010

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking said Nietzsche (or Justin Bieber), an opinion YLIAI heartily agrees with. And where better to go for an urban walk than downtown Recife on a Saturday night, particularly with the prospect of a palavra or four waiting at the end?

So you go out the door of your apartment and down three flights of stairs, then through the doors of the building and out the gate and into the street, where the church across the road is lit up in shimmering red and green and orange for a wedding. It is a muggy but breezy night and your shirt is already sticking to your back. You turn left on the corner, touching Zita on the arm as you pass the corner beer hut. Zita is setting out the tables that later will be filled with drinkers but still she stops and looks up at you and peers at you through her glasses and she says tudo bom meu filho and you wave and walk on.

You press play and it is Greg Dulli singing tonight tonight I say goodbye to everyone who loves me just as you walk past a policeman going into the strip club slash brothel. Two fat men are trying to light the charcoal of their barbecue stand against the soft warm whip of the wind and across the street on the third floor of the flop house hotel a man is leaning out of his window and smoking and watching everything that is happening down below.

Turining left towards the avenida you pass a strip of bars. Two of them have been plunged into darkness though the drinkers drink on, sloshing down their Skol and their cachaça and laughing in the murky gloam of the light cast by the bigger gaudier barbecue joint on the corner.

Then just behind the shopping center you weave your way through Recife’s very own Sodom and Gomorrah, or Bar Pithausen, where on Saturdays and Sundays the street becomes a Noah’s Ark of adolescent sexual ingenuity – hetrosexual and homosexual and bisexual and trisexual and asexual cavorting merrily until the early hours. It is the same story in Mustang, the big bar on the avenida, though here the gay abandon is diluted by the surliness of the non-sexually liberated and more hardened recifense drinkers.

In the bank all the machines are out so you head down the avenida where the wind has picked up and the buses rattle past and the mendicants and hawkers and scavengers are out in force. The hawkers are selling Barbie dolls and water and pirate DVDs and bus passes and everything in between and the scavengers and the mendicants are eyeing the crowds hungrily for prey. As long as you walk fast and with steely determination you will probably not become a victim.

Everywhere along the avenida tucked into doorways or stretched along ledges or gutters are stick thin homeless people huddled under cardboard and tarpaulin, oblivious to all the people stepping over and around and sometimes on them.

When you get to Sete De Setembro you turn left and walk through the hot dog and the newspaper stands, past the dire pagode clubs and behind the beautiful big white law college building where the palm trees wave their fronds. Then you are at the park where through the fence and in the dark you can see swans, and you zig zag along the bottom side nearest the river and then you turn right and there is the gaggle of bars that you have been looking for.

So you sit down then and rest your legs, and of course there is drink and always, always, something to see happening around you, and just as you sit down there is Greg Dulli again, singing up on the ladder they sing how high does a brother have to climb to touch the light? won´t you take me up there with you you said you would, no-one ever could shake that ladder like i could, which for some reason (maybe it´s the echoes of an old slave refrain, maybe it’s the sense of deperation and regret) seems as fitting an end as anything.

Monday, 25 October 2010

YLIAI has always been a bare minimum kind of chap. Blessed (if that´s the word) with the bare minimum of charm and brains, he has throughout his life devoted the bare minimum amount of time and effort to study, work and personal betterment, and has, as a result, at the ripe old age of nineteen times two, achieved the bare minimum of prosperity and success.

He’s not complaining. In some way the bare minimum is the only road to follow, as it allows one to devote the maximum time possible to more pleasurable activites than work or study, such as daydreaming, reading, watching bad football teams, and semi-professional drinking, and not feel too bad about it.

But, and contrary to common gringo stereotypes, Brazil is not at all a bare minimum kind of place. Or rather it can be; Faustão only knows that the the country has more (far, far, far more) than its fair share of idling wastrels and vagabonds, a great many of whom inhabit the realms of the Brazilian civil service, but some of whom can even be found in the private sector - on a recent shopping trip YLIAI was somewhat affronted to find, upon asking if there were any books by little known Brazilian authors Machado De Assis or Jorge Amado to be found in the vicinity, shop assistant number 3452 slouching off to the computer to check. YLIAI wouldn’t have minded, but it was a bookshop after all, and the writers in question are pretty much the equivalents of Shakespeare and Parsons* in the Brazilian literary world. It was a bit like going into a fish shop and asking if they had any fish, and your helpful assistant of choice running off to ask.

Fans of non-sequitors will find themselves in very heaven – shop or bank or restaurant dialogues along the lines of do you have any cheese/bread/coffee/rat poison – no – do you know when you might be getting some in – no – oh – can i help you with anything else sir are more common than fruit flies.

So far, so standard Latin American amanha and siesta prejudice. But it’s not half the story, particularly amongst the young. From the study drones of As Republicas heading off to the (free, ironically) federal university to do law or medicine or eningeering, to the hundreds of thousands of lower middle class and working class worker ants doing nursing or business administration degrees at often shoddy private (and paid for, ironically) universities downtown and in the suburbs, sometimes it seems like all of Recife is hitting the books.

YLIAI doesn’t have much interest in the former, who are really only oiling the wheels of the conveyer belt to success. But what has always brought a moistness to his eyes is the sight of the bus stops of Boa Vista at ten o´clock on another steam bath of a recifense night, packed to the gills with nineteen to twenty-five year olds on their way home to Caxanga or Rio Doce or Muribeca. All have been working all day and then have been in class from six or seven to ten. Behind the high-fives and the hugs on the bus all look as knackered as Chilean miners.

It is the same with the garçons (the waiters – and what a disappointment to find there were to be no waitresses in class - waiting tables is an almost exclusively male affair in Brazil) that YLIAI teaches at a swanky seafood restaurant in As Republicas. All knock off at around one and wait for the night bus to take them to the palace of earthly delights that is Cais Da Santa Rita, where they will wait until two for another bus to take them home (all invariably live in some of Recife’s grimiest and most remote neighbourhoods). They will probably get to bed at around three, and then are up again in the watery early light (six thirty or seven) in order to make it back to the restaurant for English class.

All this is done in the hope of a better future and a better life, and all of it makes the heart swell with admiration. YLIAI should know how hard it is – in a previous incarnation he attempted to combine the responsibilities of high-flying-pretend-music-industry-lawyer-by-day with dedicated-law-student-by-night. He lasted about six months, whereupon the road forked and he ended up in Brazil and a life of quietly pleasant boozy mediocrity. Not that he’s complaining, you understand.

* See post dated 26/3/08

Monday, 18 October 2010

Even after all this time (five years certainly feels like a long time) one can find new perspectives on Brazil, or at least fresh reminders of perspectives once known and now forgotten.

These fresh vistas and reminders can be found in the strangest of places. As regular readers will know YLIAI works at a private language center in As Republicas, where he is fortunate enough to receive, on a regular basis, refreshing insights into politics, socialism and the liberal arts from colleagues and students alike. Private language centers in Brazil, occasionally and dubiously referred to as schools, are the 21st century equivalent of Australia´s penal colonies – unfortunate gringoes are shipped to Brazil in their hundreds to do penance for the sins of the past, and while the work is not as arduous as rock breaking it is only occasionally any more interesting.

The CDs used in the classroom provide a not entirely welcome reminder of how things work in the Old World (most specifically the part around London). There are people discussing what restaurant to go to (“what do you fancy dear? Oh, I’m not sure, I’m quite in the mood for a chinese”), people talking about a film they watched the night before (“the acting was quite good – Tom Cruise was in it. Oh, I do like him”!), people ruminating on their most passionate, most hidden desires (“I went out with Tom on Saturday. Oh, I like Tom. Me too. We had a really nice time”).

All of the conversations are oddly stilted and quaintly coy, which you might put down to the fact that English grammar book publishers probably don´t spend that much on the actors they use on their CDs. You would only think this, of course, if you didn’t know that this is how people really speak in certain parts of the outside (many Brazilians like to refer to the rest of the world that isn´t Brazil as a fora, or the outside, which is all very Isaac Asimov).

YLIAI’s favourite CD involves a phone call between a woman working in Milan and her friend back in London. Said friend has decided to give up his college course and move to Italy. The whole set-up, needless to say, crackles with latent sexual tension. If I do come, friend asks, can I stay at your place for a while? That´s easier said than done, says our heroine, you haven´t seen the size of my flat, and anyway I share with another girl, so I’ll have to ask her. Stick it up your jacksy, in other words. Pandemonium in the Brazilian classroom. Que mulher chata, né professor, opine the little scamps, quickly followed by cries of que amiga ruim. Yes, I say, what an annoying woman, what a terrible friend. There is considerable confusion while everyone debates why the woman won´t let friend sleep on her floor. Maybe she’s his ex and she put the horns on him, is one very nordestino interpretation. Maybe she´s a big shoe, is another, though quite why the woman’s being a lesbyterian or not would make any difference is not explained. Finally we have a winner. It’s because they´re gringoes, and gringoes are like that, says someone, which, while not always being true, seems in this case as good an answer as any. Gold stars for everyone!

Moving away from the classroom, we might turn to the world of books are great innit. Re-reading a bit of ol’ Dostoevsky, YLIAI is struck by the thought that all Brazilian society might be explained by a quick delve through Russian literature.

Gogol´s Dead Souls is an obvious opener, for what could be more poltico Brasileiro than a story about the buying and selling of the souls of dead serfs as a tax scam? The latifundiarios might have done the same thing if they’d had their wits about them, and you can run the same wheeze all the way up to the present day and Fernando and Rosane Collor´s imaginary water trucks not taking imaginary water (all not imaginarily paid for with public money) to the definitely not imaginary thirsty masses in the sertão.

The titular councillors and other elements of oficialdom so beloved of Gogol and Dostoevsky and the rest (and that was how he became Akaky Akakievich. The child was christened and during the ceremony he burst into tears and made such a face it was plain that he knew there and then that he was fated to be a titular councillor...subsequently everyone came to believe that he had come into this world already equipped for his job, complete with uniform and bald patch) are simply the Brazilian funcionario publicos transplated to another age, though the former are thrusting bull market entrepeneurs or manic pioneers compared to the latter.

And there might even be a little of Raskolnikov´s Napoleon complex in every drug overlord up on the morro. YLIAI hopes so, for the sake of the sanity of all involved, because that would at least be one way of rationalising, if not justifying, the taking of life on such a fantastic scale.

So far, so pseudo-pretentious. But really none of this is any use at all when it comes to analysing the differences between Brazil and Not-Brazil. What we need is a virgin traveller from a fora, apple of cheek and shiny of eye. Into which breach steps YLIAI´s sister, urban sofisticate of the thrumming metropolis of Dundrum, County Down, Norn Iron, and recently departed from these shores following a rollicking two week mini-break in Recife.

In her way YLIAI´s sister is as much an anthropolgist as Lévi-Strauss or Gilberto Freyre, even if the literary or scientific merit of her chosen medium, the postcard, is not always widely acknowledged. Dear Auntie Ivy, she writes, having a lovely time in Brazil. Weather nice but a bit hot. People are very friendly. Food not bad. See you soon.

And is there really anything more that needs to be said?

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A whirl and flurry of activity has descended on Recife – roads are being torn up and relaid, praças given a bit of a tidy up, a fresh lick of paint on the odd council building here and there. All of which must mean it’s election time again, and the incumbents (gubernatorial downwards) are showing just how hard they’re trying – look, your tax dollars at work!

It also means a constant rodizio of campaign vans, bikes and helicopters (ok – I made the helicopters up), blaring out an endless stream of sloganeering jingles (at local level in Brazil policy is hardly mentioned and your best chance of winning is The Three C’s – a catchy name, a catchy candidate number and a catchy song).

The comedic aspects of Brazilian electioneering are manna to the average gringo blog writer and Your Life Is An Impossibility is no different. This blog’s favourite hopeful is Edmar De Oliveira (3131), who has staked his chances on getting to the Casa Civil entirely on the pena da morte (death penalty) card. His jingle is a winning adaptation of Tropa De Elite by São Paulo alternative rock band Tihuana – Edmar De Oliveira, he´s as stubborn as a bull, you raped and murdered so now you´re gonna get it too, Edmar De Olvieira, he´s got the courage, you´ve got the vote. And so on.

The song originally became famous in Brazil when it was used as the theme music to the film of the same name, though it doesn’t really have much to do with police death squads and the like. Unfortunately YLIAI couldn´t find much information about Tihuana’s views on the death penalty. Boasting as they do the requisite goatee and skater pants alternative rock look, however, means it’s worth a bet that they might not be Old Sparky’s biggest fans. When it boils down to it, though, who cares about Tihuana? They only wrote the song, after all, and intellectual copyright in Brazil is the legal equivalent of the Loch Ness monster – there have been rumoured sightings but no-one really believes it exists.

YLIAI first came across Edmar a few weeks ago, when his entourage decided to use the Colegio Salesiano car park as a meeting-up point for a pre-election roll around the city (one wonders what the priests thought of it all). There were enough blacked out HUVs to make P Diddy blanch, and standing around between the cars smoking were scrums of hulking security guard types in berets and dark glasses (wonderfully capturing that oh so difficult hard but camp look previously perfected only by Nazi prison guards (leather boots, tight pants, choir-boy complexions) and 1980s and 90s UVF marchers (sunglasses, muscle tops, big moustaches).

After a few minutes cigarettes were hurled violently to the ground and crushed under heels. Engines were revved and Edmar’s tune echoed around the neighbourhood. YLIAI felt a bit scared.

Who knows if Edmar will win or not? He probably has as good a chance as any of the other jokers (sorry, candidates) running for deputado federal. The Three Cs are all in place and his would-be terrifying entourage is certainly visible and memorable. Even better, he seems to only have one policy, which means he can’t get caught out on any tricky idiosyncracies like Marina Silva, everyone´s favourite third wheel, who gets top marks for liking trees and education but null point for not liking homosexuals very much.

And with the death penalty schtick he´s tapping into a pretty chunky percentile – half the country, it seems, is addicted to schock (and shlock) gonzo TV shows such as Bronca Pesada, a true Shakespearean bloodbath for the age, involving footage of the corpses of murder victims lying in the street interspersed by ranting man-on-the-Jordão-Baixo-onibus Cardinot shouting into the camera about how can these animals be allowed to get away with it! Because it´s Brazil, and in Brazil impunity is king!

Furthermore a recent straw poll of as many as five teenage boys* from As Republicas revealed that 100% of respondents supported life imprisonment or the death penalty for those found guilty of any crime whatsoever, including pick-pocketing. At least race wasn´t an issue – our survey revealed that respondents said race didn´t matter at all, as all criminals are black and brown anyway.

So forget wishy-washy time wasters such as Dilma or Serra**, and step aside limp-wristed pinkos like Marcelo D2 (‘o estado não tem o direito de matar ninguem’). Edmar is on his way.

* YLIA knows that you can't really take teenage boys' opinions seriously. But it fitted in well with the argument, so.

**José must have known from the outset that he was going to get whup assed – he was the only one of the three main presidential candidates to be referred to only by his last name, making him a cold fish by default (he is anyway) and not all warm and cuddly like Marina and Dilma. This, it might be pointed out, is perhaps the only time anywhere that the words "warm and cuddly" and "Dilma" will appear in the same sentence.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Spring has sprung and summer is almost upon Recife, and everywhere you go (or at least the greener parts, or at least away from the canal) the scent of bougainvillea and jasmine hangs heavy in the air. Despite the distance and the differences in seasons September remains a time for renewal – back home it was autumn’s new school jotters and a crisp bite to the air, in the nordeste of Brazil it is the balmy thud of summer's arrival and the promise of nine months or so of obligatory evening boozing to ease the night sweats, the occasional weekend spent idly lollying on the beach, and trying to avoid going outside between 10am and 3pm because it’s too bloody hot. But it is a kind of renewal all the same. And with renewal comes fresh inspiration, and fresh inspiration comes today at 6am while crawling lazy laps of the Salesiano college pool.

And so with aplogies to Christian Lander, Your Life Is An Impossibility is proud to present the first in a series of, well, at least two or three, entitled Stuff That Folk From As Republicas Like.

Stuff That Folk From As Republicas Like – Number 1: Disney

Folk From As Republicas (FFAR(s) - pronounced fif-far) love Disney like tea loves biscuits. For FFARs, Orlando, Florida is the Thebes, the Athens, the Constantinople of the dwindling twilight of the 20th century and the watery daybreak of the 21st. Ask a FFAR teenager what´s his favourite city in the world – he´ll tell you Orlando. And why not? Orlando is where FFAR families go to stock up on I-pods and I-phones and Playstation 3s (all of which cost the equivalent of a small apartment in Recife) and designer label t-shirts emblazoned with slogans written in English that no-one back home will be able to understand. Orlando is where mum and dad can sit back and see for themselves the results of all those hours of private English classes they´ve paid for (and for which Your Life Is An Impossibility must admit to having blood on his hands). Orlando is clean and organised and safe (at least compared to Recife). Most of all, Orlando is close to Disney.

But while Orlando and Disney are great with the family, the whole experience only really makes sense if you´re a bright of tooth, flawless of skin FFAR teenager, lucky enough to be booked sem mae e pai on a Disney package holiday. The whole thing starts months in advance with a big party or two for all the lucky viajantes at one of Recife´s hottest nightspots – usually Nox (it’s a matinee, under-age affair, so coke and crisps only). Here you can see your friends, get a free Disney t-shirt and talk about how great it´s going to be when you finally get there. The toniest parties even boast an appearance by a (to be named later) TV Globo soap opera (B-list) superstar! Caralho meu irmão!

Then comes the big day. Pockets stuffed with wads of dollars, little Eduarda and Eduardo board the Disney Express jet, ready to broaden the mind, learn about new cultures, experience life on the crazy highway of independent travel, and shake the hand of a man (or woman) dressed as Mickey Mouse.

There´s nothing wrong with it, I suppose, and I know if I was a 16 year old FFAR I probably couldn´t imagine anything more exciting than two weeks of illicit underage drinking and attempted mucky-touching with the recifense equivalent of Sharon Blenkinsop from the lower sixth. But Your Life Is An Impossibility is by now far too old and bitter for such carryings-on, so.

And so let them have their fun, Your Life Is An Impossibility says. For surely only the most bah humbug of churls would suggest that for the money spent on those two weeks, the FFARs could just as easily go to Patagonia or New Orleans, Barcelona or Cairo, London or Lesotho. In all of these places they might just learn something that would dent their unshakeable FFAR confidence and lead them to question a little more the world around them. Which might be, you know, nice. Though maybe I´m wrong - maybe Goofy is more the philosopher than we thought.

* For newer readers, As Republicas is taken to mean As Republicas Independentes De *** ******, which could in turn be taken to be a well-heeled beach front neighbourhood in the south of the city. For legal reasons, of course, it must be pointed out that such a neighbourhood is definitely not Boa Viagem, and any resemblance to such is coincidental and probably entirely in the mind of the reader.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

It is a galling moment for someone who has spent a considerable length of time waging subtle war on As Republicas and their ilk. Your Life Is An Impossibility is outside Arruda, waiting for a bus which will take him over 1,000 kms to Sobral in Ceará to watch a football match. On the way to the meeting point YLIAI bumps into Nel, a comandante of the Inferno Coral. YLIAI knows Nel quite well, from bars and football matches, and once conducted a very amateurish but very enjoyable interview with him and a few Inferno chums.

Nel seems pleased. Vai viajar, he asks, and YLIAI tells him of course he's going to viajar. It is hard to imagine why else one would be outside Arruda on a Saturday afternoon with a backpack when there is no game that day. What bus are you on? Did you buy a ticket yet? Why don´t you come with us? YLIAI is relieved to tell him he has already secured a ticket for another bus – not that there´s anything wrong with the Inferno bus, but there comes a time when one is a bit too old and tired, not to mention too gringo, for such fun and games.

Then his chum, who we might call Derek, pipes up. Of course he won´t come with us, look at him, he´s a playboy. He´s got an apartment face! An apartment face! What can it mean? It means of course that YLIAI looks like he lives in an apartment, which subsequently means he's middle or upper middle class or even, gulp, rich, as opposed to living in a small house in Ibura or Casa Amarela, which would be the stamp of working class authenticity. It´s true, YLIAI admits, I live in an apartment. Ha, says Derek, I knew it. Look at his playboy face!

Nel stumbles rather than leaps to YLIAI's defence. He´s one of us, he says (YLIAI isn't, though sometimes he thinks he´d like to be – it looks like a lot of fun), he´s quite humble (clearly YLIAI's lower middle class gringo masquerading as working class Brazilian schtick has been effective). But Derek is unconvinced and continues to crow. Then Tom Wolfe´s little Irish donkey kicks in and YLIAI sees red. I´m a gringo, knobcheese, he rashly shouts, what kind of face do you think I should have? Am I going to have plastic surgery so I can look like I´m a See You Next Tuesday from Ibura like you? Derek’s face clouds over. He does not look happy. Nel ushers him away.

It is the start of another foolish and ridiculously long journey to an unappealing destination across miles and miles of arid desert. The first of these was from Belo Horizonte to Salvador (48 hours there and back) with The Ex-Girlfriend (still living in Recife and alarmingly single these days). Then there was Belo Horizonte to João Pessoa to start a new life (52 hours there, with no back, more's the pity) – which didn´t really go very well at all, given that João Pessoa is an elephant´s graveyard of a town where people go to retire if not to die a happy death. Then there was Recife to São Luis and then on to Belém in search of, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of skirt (40 hours (or more) there and 40 hours back). And now there is Recife to Sobral (34 hours there and back) to watch a game of football.

All such journeys are dizzyingly exciting at the outset and occasionally intoxicating during – ghostly truck stops in towns lost amidst thousands of miles of desert covered by blankets of stars and endless tropical night. Huddled villages clustered along the roadside where, again, lives impossible to imagine are being lived – glowing yellow lights shining out from tiny windows and from under rough wooden doors, children playing in the dirt along the side of the road, adults staring glumly out at the bus roaring past.

All are thrilling but exhausting and confusing to the mind – hours of driving in the dark across some of the worst roads outside Somalia make it hard to remember the hour, let alone the day. The mind warps and the belly revolts – seven coxinhas are no replacement for a proper dinner. On the outward journey Paul Auster´s tedious Invisible is read, on the way back, drained by the outward journey and drinking and defeat, YLIAI gets fifty or so pages into Conrad´s The Secret Agent. Both, good or bad, save his mind if not his life.

For it is a funny bunch on the bus – none of the sparky wit of the younger crowd that went to watch Santa in Maceió or Campina Grande. This is a dull, mouthy, middle-aged lot who clearly spend far too much time travelling much too far to watch Santa Cruz lose football games. Ciro (precocious and only reasonably reprehensible star striker of Santa´s arch-rivals Sport) says he´s depressed, opines one passenger, which just goes to show he´s a fag. Only fags get depressed.

YLIAI's seat partner refers to him as the gringo for the entire thirty four hour journey, which gets a little wearing. He only stops when YLIAI starts calling him paraibano, which is about the worst thing you can say to a pernambucano. Later, he starts telling YLIAI how the planes that hit the World Trade Center were well targeted, which shows two things (a) that he´s an idiot, and (b) that Brazilian anti-American feeling runs deep in plenty of places.

One of the drivers, no doubt (un)happily married, has brought a scantily dressed young friend with him to play I-Spy and sing Ten Green Bottles and generally while away the time in a more pleasant fashion. The womenfolk on the bus are not impressed. He´d better get us there quick, because if he doesn´t I´ll call his boss and tell him about the little piriguete he´s brought with him! And I´ll find his wife and tell her too! I hope she cuts his balls off! shrieks the one behind YLIAI, just as he is dozing into restful sleep.

Other than that there are the truck stops, shared with the Inferno - we are travelling in convoy - and at every stop everyone gets out to eat and drink and smoke and piss and sing songs. YLIAI is wondrously asked to tell his (footballing) life story to Brazilian national (footballing) television*. We roll through the spooky prehistoric sertão of Rio Grande Do Norte, and see the sun rising above the hills of Ceará, and finally we reach our miserable, baking destination, Sobral, where everything goes wrong and then it is back again, the mind narrower rather than broader, despite all the travel. Maybe Xavier De Maistre, author of A Journey Around My Room, had the right idea.

* Link available on request, though I can assure you it´s not worth the effort.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

A momentous week in Brazil – it is Independence Day on Tuesday and today marks the publication of the 100th article/entry/bit of nonsense on Your Life Is An Impossibility. Anyone who leaves a nice comment wins a Your Life Is An Impossibility pen and t-shirt pack, though you´ll have to come to Recife and get it.

I had thought to write something else this week but then sometimes days of national celebration give pause and make us look inward and back and so I thought I would jot down a few scribblings about the last five years and what Brazil has come to mean to me.

We might start with the cast. To name just a few: The Ex-Girlfriend, Celine, The Louth Media Mafia, Antonio Conselheiro, Mr X, The Argument, Inferno Coral, Joãos 1+2, Mother Sururu aka A Gata Do Bairro, Miss São Luis, Guinness The Dog, and of special importance today of all days (see for further information) Brasão. All (with the exception of Celine, who is Canadian, The Louth Media Mafia, who is from Louth, and Mr X, who doesn´t exist) are people the like of which I would never have met had I not flung drunken half-baked chat up lines in the direction of a decidedly non-plussed Brazilian girl on a late night train from London Victoria to Beckenham about six years ago. All have made my life richer and all have taught me things (especially Guinness The Dog) I would not otherwise have learnt.

And that is what I give thanks for today and every other day (or at least when I remember). Brazil made me intelligent, said Fernand Braudel, and Brazil has made me intelligent, and more patient, and more open and considerate and even caring.

Compare and contrast - (1) during large chunks of my time in Brazil I have given up quite a lot of my time to voluntary work in poor neighbourhoods. In London I worked for Ministry of Sound (2) in Brazil I no longer get too worked up about long queues and things not always working the way they should. In London I once threw a shoe at a London Underground employee because the tube I was waiting for was delayed and wouldn´t arrive for about 9 minutes* (3) in Brazil my objective is to work as little as humanly possible so as to have more time to write, and I am quite happy for my standard of living to suffer as a result. In London I once spent more than a year campaigning for my job title to be changed from Business Affairs Assistant to Business Affairs Manager, and I once bid more than the asking price for an apartment because I was an acolyte of Ministry of Sound´s demonic and despotic leader James Palumbo, and Palumbo and Ministry´s business strategy was called Total War and involved paying over the odds for everything in order to blow the competition out of the water.

I have thought about things here that I would never have thought about had I continued my happy enough but emotionally and intellectually limited life at home – history, social inequality, politics and corruption, justice and policing, racism and prejudice.

I have seen things I would never have seen – great bursts of verdant tropical undergrowth bursting between derelict buildings, a million stars in a velvet South American night sky, the earth stretching to a horizon so far away that it is impossible to imagine – and heard things I would never have heard – hundreds of crickets chirping as soft evening melts into night, church bells chiming in front of my window, ten thousand young people singing songs from their grandparents´ time during carnaval, hissing pounding drums at football stadiums, the voice of Milton Nascimento and the songs of Chico Buarque.

Brazil, oddly for a country where there is so much that is wrong, has come to represent everything that is right. There are many foolish laws but not many recently passed laws have been foolish – when the government banned humorous attacks on presidential candidates recently it was a shock because it did not seem a very Brazilian thing to do.

Now when I read The Economist (have I mentioned that I read The Economist?) I read about what Brazil has done to reduce poverty while in the UK section there are arguments about how people´s rubbish should be divided up and incomprehensible marketing/political vocabulary such as “Big Society”, whatever that might be. Brazil is a country where things are markedly becoming better where other countries seem staid and bored and with not much left to think about anymore.

Brazil has taught me that it is nice to talk to people (though it is less nice to talk to people from As Republicas) at bus stops and on street corners, whereas in London I would cross my fingers and toes that the seat next to me on the bus would remain vacant until I reached home. Brazil has made me envious that I am not Brazilian in that I am not really friends with my cousins (with one honourable Canadian exception) and there are not regularly seven or eight people at my house for Sunday dinner, even though I would hate this, but I would hate it because I am not Brazilian, and if I was Brazilian I would like it.

Brazil has shown me hospitality and generosity that has made my eyes water and my heart swell. Brazil has shown me that there is beauty in the ugliest places and happiness where people have least reason to be happy.

And so it is Sunday and I wake today before six and the sun is shining and the sky is an endless blue. I take Guinness The Dog to the beach and throw a ball for her to chase. There are palm trees waving spindly fingers and a few lonely joggers and women setting out deck chairs at the beach bars. Then I go home and make pineapple juice and scrambled eggs and listen to Chico Buarque De Holanda**. Now I am writing this and in a couple of hours I will have lunch with The Argument and then I will catch a bus to Arruda where I will join a raucous throng of 50,000 or more to watch Santa Cruz play a football game in the bottom division of the Brazilian championship. I will meet some friends there and we will drink too much cold beer in little glasses by the side of the rotting canal. We will feel the sun on our backs as we drink and there will be fireworks and car stereos blaring and grilled meat on spits. After the game I will catch the bus home and maybe have a last drink in Cadu´s or somewhere like that and I will think about the day and then I will go home to bed.

* A note to new readers – every entry on Your Life Is An Impossibility will contain at least one example of artistic licence. But while I might not have thrown a shoe, I did get very cross indeed. Nowadays if a bus or other form of public transport arrives or leaves only nine minutes late I am deeply grateful and give a short prayer of thanks to Brasão.

** I know this sounds like I´m laying it on a bit thick, and I don´t really listen to Chico Buarque very much, but a sunny Sunday morning is the perfect time to listen to Chico Buarque or Elis Regina or João Gilberto, so.

Monday, 30 August 2010

I go out drinking with the Louth Media Mafia and The Pampas Goat and as is the way of things deadlines slide past and I am left with two options home – a R$25 taxi ride or one bus and then another via the storied Cais De Santa Rita. Like any right thinking wastrel/scribe/human being I choose the latter and so I wander off towards the bus stop thinking I will catch an empty late night bus home.

Only the bus when it comes bears the fruit of Recife´s other rush hour – that of the waiters and the pot cleaners and the floor scrubbers of the city´s (or As Republicas) better restaurants. It is packed and it is very loud because everyone is talking to one another which is remarkable in itself because they are all getting off twelve or fourteen hour shifts. I am immediately aware that I am the only person on the bus who is not like the other people on the bus.

There are no women because Recife´s restaurant staff are almost exclusively male (women deemed perhaps too susceptible a prey to the machisto clientele) but the chatter rolls on undaunted. The men themselves are a mixture – ugly and beautiful and fat and thin and young and old. All of them are wearing plastic sandals and sleeveless shirts and most of them are wearing baseball caps. I am both sadly and happily acquainted with lives such as theirs – happily because they are good lives to know and be a part of, sadly because they should be better than they are.

They are travelling miles to small houses on unpaved streets in distant neighbourhoods such as Sitio Novo and Janga and Agua Fria and Chão De Estrelas where they will creep into tiny living rooms and then on to bedrooms where the stale breath of wives and girlfriends and children hangs sweet and heavy. It is a life that I once considered I could be part of and who is to say that I could not or if I would be more or less happy than I am today. It is also a heroic life because these are men who work to buy clothes and food for their families and not much else and it makes me feel heroic (but also, with my relatively pampered life, slightly false) to be close to them.

The bus stops in front of the Cais which is or are being redeveloped so there are red plastic fences everywhere and great holes in the pavement and the street and it is even more chaotic than usual. Across the river is the Paço Alfandega shopping center where a t-shirt might cost R$400 which is most of a month´s salary for most of the people getting off the bus.

I wait for another bus which at two o’clock comes and it races through the downtown streets and over another bridge with the black water glittering underneath. Then we are on Conde Da Boa Vista and caught in this reverie I almost miss my stop and only at the last minute do I manage to pull myself up and ring the bell. The bus stops and I get off and wander home through the beautiful and amazing streets of Boa Vista which are amazing because they are neither the streets where my fellow passengers boarded the bus nor the streets to where they are going to, but are instead the streets where I live.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

It is Sunday and it is odd to be out in the spectral Recife dawn – at the taxi rank beery cab drivers hoot obscenities at a pair of drag queens traipsing their way to home or somewhere better and a gaggle of hardcore drinkers stare morosely at the pavement in front of Zita´s. I am old enough now for the thought of approaching the dawn from their side - the nighthawk side - to no longer appeal much and I am happy enough to be up and about and to feel reasonably at peace with the world.

The reason for all this early morning activity is that later on today Santa Cruz will play a very important game four hours or so south of here and I am going to the game and in an hour or so I must be outside Arruda where I will board a supporter´s coach with a group of people (men, mostly) I do not know. The Argument has wisely declined my invitation to spend a romantic Sunday with the Inferno Coral. And while I know that I have promised not to write any more about football on these pages this story is about the journey, not the game, so please, quiet at the back.

It is not always very Brazilian to do things on your own. The unloveable tools of my (paying) trade – English grammar books – occasionally make the mistake of suggesting student conversation topics along the lines of do you prefer to spend time alone or with other people. This provides the cue for amateur night at the local church theatre where auditions for “terror-struck victim” are in session. Mouths hang agape, eyes widen and bulge, hands are raked through hair. Practising English is no longer an option - the very idea of going to the cinema or a bar or restaurant on one´s own is just too horrendous to contemplate.

But there is a good side to all this emotional dependency. I manage to get through about half an hour as lonely as a cloud until the bus breaks down somewhere near the Wheel Of Fire favela (we are about 20 minutes into the journey and still in Recife) and I have no choice but to engage my neighbours in conversation while we wait for another bus.* Once I do that within minutes I have been invited to be best man at the wedding of the chap behind me, to be godfather to the newborn son of the chap beside me, and to marry the minxish 19 year old daughter of the chap in front of me (she goes like the clappers, he almost says but doesn´t), the last of which would seem to be the more pleasureable of the three duties. Whatever happens the five of us (six including Lolita) will eat and drink and frolic and carouse the streets of Maceio until the early hours, or at least until the bus leaves again which will be at about seven o´clock. All of this is not something that easily happens in chillier climes.

Then the second bus turns up (or rather doesn´t turn up – we must stomp along the margins of the BR101 for twenty minutes before we find it) and we are on our way. Turn the music on, someone shouts, and three men jump up and try to crank up the DVD and the TV. This proves more difficult than you would think. Every time there is some progress – someone manages to turn the TV on, or the red standby light comes on on the DVD – there is riotous applause.

Brazilians love music as much as they love rice and beans and they love rice and beans a lot. Just the week before I had watched the Libertadores final in a bar near home. There had been a forró CD playing. The waiter turned the sound down on the stereo and the volume up on the TV. What the hell do you think you´re doing, a woman with a tattoo on her shoulder demanded. The waiter explained that people wanted to watch the game and that he would turn the music back on afterwards. The woman was flabbergasted. No music? In a bar? Long after the game had started I looked over at her. She sat disconsolate, every so often giving a troubled, unbelieving shake of the head.

And then – and this has nothing much to do with anything – I had a very interesting conversation about music with a friend of mine who we might call Steffi because she loves tennis. We are looking at one of the unloved tools I mentioned earlier and the book is asking Steffi which she thinks is the more difficult and admirable profession to dedicate one´s life to. The choices are scientist, musician, dancer, or athlete. Scientist, says Steffi, because the Brazilian government doesn´t invest enough money in science. Anyone can be a musician – just look at the bands that are famous today. And it´s true. While huge groups of Brazilians love to jig about to such witless toss as Aviões Do Forró (The Forró Planes), and Garota Safada (Naughty Girl, led by the Ziggy era Bowie of the age, Naughty Wesley), and Calcinha Preta (Black Underwear), no-one really gives much of a monkey’s as to who is who, or really holds them up as being artists. Music is music, it´s not hard to do, everyone does it, and no-one makes even that much money out of it (piracy is rampant so most of the money comes from touring).

It´s all a far cry from the days when demi-gods like Chico and Caetano and Gilberto and Milton and the rest strode the land, and it´s even different from places like the First World (tm), where clueless pop stars achieve such levels of fame as to remove themselves entirely from the common herd. Here pimple brained Wesley might be famous, but he´s not that different from the pimple brain who parks his car in front of Zita´s every night and blasts forth Wesley´s obras primas from a set of twelve storey speaker stacks.

When it comes to art (music and films mainly) Brazilians generally speaking have not yet developed the cynicism that other places have (some might say thankfully) and so if the song is alright, and you can dance to it, then that´s pretty much all that matters. It´s a love of music in the general rather than the specific sense. All this in some way goes to justify the truly dreadful cacophony that will issue forth from the coach´s speakers over the next four hours, once they get the DVD player working.

And then in grey slicks of rain we roll out through Recife´s hideous industrial outskirts and then further out into the interior. It´s a strange interior this one – heading south towards Maceió rather than west into the more storied sertão. In the rain everything seems more miserable than it might do in the sunshine. Men sit gloomily in village bars staring out at the rain as toddlers skip over puddles of mud. Teenage (or pre-teenage) girls in skimpy clothes promenade half-heartedly in front of disinterested boys. It is a life the living of which is hard to imagine.

The poverty is terrible in places – on the edge of the sprawling fields are clutches of mud hovels where the sugar cane cutters and their families are staying or perhaps even living. Many of the houses have been destroyed by wind and rain and the residents are throwing more mud at the walls to strengthen their defences. This is the kind of rural poverty that has been stayed at least but not much improved by the government´s social welfare programmes – nobody dies of hunger anymore, but life is still pretty miserable and there is no chance of it getting much better.

It´s not the fault of the social welfare programmes themselves of course, which by and large do what they are supposed to do. It may be that there is no real solution to lives like these – a life eked out in backbreaking, unprotected, manual labour, earning barely enough to live on – other than huge investment and the attraction of new business to these areas, massive land reform, or everyone moving to the cities. The first two are a long way off and as for the last the cities are pretty crowded as it is.

We drive through the town of Palmares, wrecked by the recent floods in which over a hundred thousand people lost their homes. The town is astonishing – a river of mud crawls sluggishly down the main drag, and upon closer inspection the buildings are simply façades – everything from the front door backwards has slid into the river. The flood water has gathered up mountains of trash and shit and spread it, as unpretty as two day old snow, over the town. Broken, abandoned things – bicycles, chairs, hatstands, lie everywhere and lost, gollum like figures creep from alley to alley. The people on the bus are amazed – everyone crowds to the window and photos are taken, which just goes to show that even poverty has a heirarchy – none of these people are rich at all and many live in relatively impoverished neighbourhoods in Recife. But they have never seen anything like this.

And we drive on, bumping across the terrible roads. Towards Maceio the skies clear and the rain stops and the roads get better and we pass other cars and buses bearing Santa Cruz flags and badges (around 4,000 people are making the same journey). And then we are there, and the music is turned off and people begin to clap their hands and sing football songs, and we are off the bus and into the soft balmy air of Maceio on a Sunday afternoon.

* Brazil´s interstate buses are by and large as safe and as comfy as travelling business class on a 747 (though there are rickety exceptions, such as the line from São Luis to Belém) but the football supporters, church groups, and university students on their way to or from the interior who rent private hire buses take their lives into their own hands. I´ve taken three such trips now and every time the bus has broken down, which is better at least than crashing into a tree.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Bowing to public demand, the team behind Your Life Is An Impossibility is pleased to announce the launch of a new blog/diary/waste of time entitled, devoted to all things related to Santa Cruz Futebol Clube. It goes without saying, of course, that it will most likely be unfeckinmissable.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Every Brazilian, even the most lilywhite and golden haired, carries in his soul, if not his soul and his body...the colour, or at least a hint of the colour, of the indigenous people of the country or the negro. Along the coast, from Maranhão to Rio Grande Do Sul, and in Minas Gerais, principally the negro. The influence, whether direct or distant, of the African. So writes Gilberto Freyre in his masterpiece of Brazilian social anthropolgy, Casa Grande e Senzala, or The Big House and The Slave Quarters (or The Masters and The Slaves in its English language edition).

Such a declaration horrified many Brazilians when the book was published in the 1930s, and there are even some today who would be affronted at the idea of even a spot of black blood flowing through their veins. A Disney (more of this later) loving acquaintance once stared, appalled, at a gringo produced text book that showed black and brown Brazilian children playing in a park. What, do they think we´re all like that in Brazil? came the cry. It´s not entirely her fault – there are very few black or brown people in As Republicas Independentes (where everyone is eggshell or off eggshell, or at least believes themselves to be) or in Brazilian soap operas. When they do appear on the novela das oito they are either sultry damsels or poor but ‘appy. Go out to Ibura or Jordão, on the other hand, and there is hardly a white face to be seen. But then said acquaintance, being a good burgher of As Republicas Independentes, wouldn´t have much call to go out to Ibura or Jordão.

In truth its hard to count just who is what in Brazil – I once sat around a table at the Bears´ house, the table littered with beer and cachaça bottles, and asked each person to say what they thought number the other people around the table would be on the Dulux colour chart. Well he´s black, Lighter Skinned Bear said, pointing at Papa Bear. Am I fuck, said Papa Bear, I´m moreno. Are you bollocks, said Lighter Skinned Bear, I´m moreno, so how can you be moreno? You´re moreno claro, dipshit, came the reply.

An open ended survey question on colour in the 1970s produced 135 different colour categories, though pity the poor soul who described himself as purple. Numbers change according to the vocabulary – no-one really wants to say they´re pardo, but change it to moreno and the numbers skyrocket. Races move in and out of fashion, so look out for a big jump in black and brown in this year´s census – there are positive discrimination university places at stake. Interestingly, the most commonly used term in ordinary conversation, moreno, has never appeared on the census forms. Its day to day popularity might be because it allows people to play down racial differences (I´m moreno, he´s moreno, she´s moreno, everybody´s moreno!) and so allows the continuation of the great Brazilian myth of the country as a non-racially divided society.

What would put the browny-white cat amongst the slightly darker shade of brown leaning towards black pigeons would be if the census takers adopted the terminology of the Afro-Brazilian movement, which asks people to simply decide if they are black or white. But even though wily old FHC was a fan, it probably wouldn´t work in Brazil – black and white is the system of racial classification in North America, where protestant settlers thought mucky-touching their slaves would mean burning in the hellfires of eternal damnation, hence no morenos in sight. Down in Brazil however, whites, slaves and indians were all at it like rabbits, resulting in the heady racial brew described by the Bears above. And for all that it can appear otherwise, Brazilians are a conciliatory bunch, who generally prefer intermediate to extremist terms – all well and good when it comes to a quiet life, but not so good when it comes to addressing the fact that blacks earn about half as much as whites and get around five years of education to their counterparts´eight.

All this is wandering off the point (to the extent that there ever is a point, of course). Casa Grande E Senzala is a beautiful and fascinating book, as well as being a very nordestino one. It´s the kind of book you don´t even need to read in order to love – instead you can hold it close to your face, and smell it, and weigh it´s heft in your hands. And slightly nerdy Gilberto Freyre was a very clever boy indeed. Reading the book, I can´t help but wish he was alive today to hold a mirror up to modern Brazil, particularly the Brazil of As Republicas. He isn´t, of course, so it is up to Your Life Is An Impossibility, another epic anthropological work, to carry his torch from the past to the present, from The Big House and The Slave Quarters to The Apartment On Avenida Boa Viagem and The Area De Servicio.

The modern day engenhos (sugar cane plantations) are much smaller than their ancestors, though no less luxurious. Most will boast three or four bedrooms, a sala or two, at least two bathrooms, and a large kitchen. Estate agent literature will also list the number of vagas, or car parking spaces, the apartment owner is entitled to in the big parking garage downstairs – essential information for any three or four car family. There will probably be a swimming pool downstairs, and a mini football or basketball court where the children of Mr Casa Grande might frolic. There will be a balcony too, with perhaps a view of the milky green Atlantic stretching (ironically enough) towards Africa. There will also the infamous area de servicio, which may be as simple as a space with a sink and somewhere to hang clothes, or might be grand enough to also boast a shower and a bedroom for one´s, ahem, maid, to sleep (disappointingly for would be Donos e Donas da Casa Grande such splendour is hard to find these days). Of course the area de servicio isn´t necessarily for one´s maid – one might very well wash one´s smalls oneself. But Mrs Casa Grande wouldn´t, on the whole, dream of such a thing.

It is an odd thing for one to get used to, coming from a country where the market in servitude is a disappointingly pale shadow of its former self – the fleets of muted figures who hang around apartments and company foyers, obviously in the employ of someone though no-one seems to know who. They are the maids and the cooks and the cleaners and the nannys and the drivers of the more affluent chunks of Brazilian society – occasionally smiling, generally silent, always deferent, always brown or black. Many is the gringo who when dining in the house of such a well to do Brazilian family as the Casa Grandes has asked the host and is she your cousin/sister?, referring to the silent figure lurking in the kitchen. No, comes the answer, accompanied by hoots of laughter, she´s our maid.

Though of course the life of the pampered (one might say spoilt) modern day maid is nothing like the slavery of Gilberto´s book. She will be permitted, a few times a day, to nip downstairs for a quick fag, if she feels like it, where she might even chat with the other maids. She will be allowed home at the weekends to see her own family, and will even be paid a small salary. When the Casa Grandes sit down to dinner, she will be allowed to eat the same food, though of course she must eat it in her own quarters, or perhaps in the kitchen, where she might be permitted to sit on a bucket. Other than that, hers are the normal workaday tasks – washing Mr Casa Grande´s socks, preparing Junior Casa Grande´s morning juice, making lunch for all the Casa Grandes, cleaning the Casa Grande´s bog, taking the Casa Grande´s poodle for a walk. And at night, when she gets her few hours of rest and settles down to watch the evening soaps on a little TV in her room, it´s a pity she doesn´t have a copy of Gilberto´s book, because if she wasn´t so knackered and had the energy to flick through it, she might recognise a few things.

Finally, a quick note of thanks to The Argument for spending most of her monthly salary on Casa Grande, and for thrusting it into my sweaty hands as a undeserved birthday present, so condemning me to six or so months of trying to wade through its 700 or so pages before giving up and going back to Parsons.