Sunday, 28 March 2010




It might be Ricardo Reis, or it might be the narrator of The Year Of The Death Of Ricardo Reis, or it might even be José Saramago himself (it´s hard to tell) who says on page 46 of the Harvill paperback edition I´m reading that it is questionable whether Christ departed from the world with the words we find in the Holy Scriptures, those of Matthew and Mark, My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me, or those of Luke, Father into Thine hand I commit my spirit, or those of John, It is fulfilled. What Christ really said, word of honour, as any man in the street will tell you, is Goodbye, world, you´re going from bad to worse. Only he didn´t, Ricardo, or José, as any man in the street in Recife will tell you, at least those wearing white red and black t-shirts. What Christ really said at his sorrowful end, probably, was something along the lines of oooh, fudeu, O Brasão apareceu! Which when properly translated is much too rude to appear in this PG certificate column, so you´ll have to make do with oooh, you´re in trouble now, because Brasão is here!

It is foolish, I suppose, to like football all that much, and to imagine you see in it all of the heart and soul and identity and culture of a city. It is slightly quixotic too, when you identify, not consciously but by simple gut feeling, that the team that you see as representing all of Recife´s, and even all of the Brazilian nordeste´s, tragic down-on-its-luck-ness, and therefore the team to whom you have little choice but to hitch your wagon, are Santa Cruz Futebol Clube, and Santa Cruz Futebol Clube are in a tailspin that feels it might last decades. Though maybe it is not that foolish, because as there are those in life who have it relatively easy (the first born sons of Boa Viagem Uber Alles lawyers, to use an entirely random example) and those who have it pretty tough (the waiters I teach at a plush Recife restaurant, who start work at 10 in the morning and finish at midnight, and who all seem to live in the most impossibly remote of Recife´s dingy suburbs, like Maranguape or Camaragipe, the getting home to which must take them at least an hour and a half, maybe two). And even though I never really had it very tough at all, I am the spawn of parents who had it tough enough, and some of that tough enough has rubbed off on me, and for whatever reason I feel more at home amongst the waiters than the sons of lawyers. The logic of this interminable metaphor is that Santa are down on their luck, and always have been, at least since I´ve been in Recife, during which time city rivals Sport have become a nauseatingly arrogant middle-class plaything (effectively banning their working class core support from the stadium during their most important games in decades in last year´s Libertadores with huge ticket price rises, then being surprised when their middle class fan base failed to turn up, preferring instead to watch the games in bars or restaurants or at home, because, as everyone knows, it´s really dangerous to go to football games in Brazil). And that therefore with all this suffering and underdogish doominess Santa, rather unfortunately, as you probably know if you’ve ever read this blog before, are the team for me, and I am hooked, and as in love and obsessed as I´ve ever been with any man, woman or beast. I suppose what I want to say is that Santa are losers, doomed to a life of broken dreams and disappointment, and that, surely is something that everyone can identify with.

A few months ago Santa´s 2010 was drifting into its customary awfulness – defeats against park teams from the interior, the Copa Pernambuco winning team dismantled by clueless coach Lori Sandri. Things reached a nadir with a humiliating home defeat against Sport in front of 41,000 at Arruda, on Santa´s birthday – happy birthday to you, taunted the rubro-negro hordes in the away end. Members of the Inferno Coral invaded the club´s headquarters and smashed up the director of football´s car. The team sank to 7th in the Pernambuco Championship. Same old, same old, thought pretty much everyone who still cared.

And then Lori Sandri was sacked, and 13 year old coach Dado Cavalcanti was appointed. Dado is good. Dado is great. But Dado could not do everything himself. He needed help. He needed Him.

And now He is with us, and yea as He walks by our side we shall not fear though we walk through the valley of death, otherwise known as the Ilha Do Retiro. His is a standard enough Brazilian footballing journeyman´s story – a few stints at biggish clubs followed by the inevitable drift down the divisions. His last club was Fluminense – not of Rio but of Feira De Santana, Bahia. But now He is here and for some unknown reason it is the perfect synchronicity of player and supporter. He first plays a full game against Sete De Setembro – in the first twenty minutes he sets up two goals and hits the bar twice. He finally scores near the end – Santa´s sixth. The Sete goalkeeper accuses Him of trying to humiliate his team. Grow up, He says, it´s a man´s game. On the radio, a squadron of microphones buzzing at His mouth, He says He has come to rescue Santa from their plight, because these people don´t deserve to suffer like this, and a love affair is born. He scores against América in the Copa Do Brasil and runs around the pitch waving a Santa flag.

Santa play Nautico in the Clássico Dos Emoções. After 40 tedious minutes He picks the ball up just inside the Nautico half. He swats a defender aside and chips the goalkeeper from 30 yards out. Bedlam in As Republicas Independentes Do Arruda - Santa have not won a game against either of their city rivals in three years. He helps them score a second. The tricolor masses drift into reverie, imagining the long overdue cruelties to be heaped upon workmates and neighbours after the game. Until near the end Nautico score twice in three minutes, and a gaping funereal silence descends. It is hard to describe what one feels in such moments – a kind of deflating acceptance, maybe, rather than real shock or horror – it is all depressingly predictable. But nothing is predictable now He is here. And with only a few minutes left he picks up the ball on the edge of the box, close to the goal. He stands on the ball and waits, then feints to his left. A Nautico defender dives in and misses and goes flailing to the ground. He feints to his right and the goalkeeper comes towards him and He curls the ball into the corner of the goal and 30,000 people experience the kind of ecstasy that might only be replicated at a double booking of an Irish priests global conference and a choirboy of the year contest. He runs to the gallery after both goals and tears off his shirt – after the first goal He holds up a picture of His daughter and a cartoon from the local newspaper which had cast doubt on His talents. After the second goal and the second displaying of His prodigious muscles He is sent off. After the game journalists ask Him why He took off His shirt a second time, knowing He would be sent off. He grins. I already had three yellow cards against me, and if I´d finished the game like that I would have got a delayed suspension and missed the game against Sport on Sunday. I knew that if I got sent off I´d get an immediate suspension and miss the game against Porto on Wednesday. Now I can play in the clássico. Truly He is not just good at football but wise too. I decide he looks a bit like Marvelous Marvin Hagler and in all the excitement try to restrain any nascent homo-erotic yearnings.

He is featured on TV´s Globo Esporte – not the comedy regional version (which is a and now let´s check in on the state cat-skinning championships from Araripina! kind of thing) but the national one that is broadcast in such distant centers of urban sophistication as Rio and São Paulo. The journalist tells a few jokes that are doing the rounds about Him – He is banned from playing in the World Cup because FIFA want to give the other teams a chance, He once kicked a horse in the chin and so the giraffe came into existence, He is going to arm-wrestle Superman and the loser will have to wear their pants outside their trousers forever. The local newspaper shows a cartoon of a wrecked Recife. Earthquake? asks a passer-by. Nada, comes the answer, He is training.

And now it is the day of the Clássico Das Multidões and even though Santa will probably lose, at least I and the 6,000 other tricolores at the Ilha today, surrounded on all sides by 30,000 baying heathen hordes, can at least dream, because He is with us. I wonder what Sport will do to stop him – man-marking, a brutal kicking, a barrage of bottles from the stands? Perhaps they will not do anything much at all, because, in truth He is not actually all that good, because if He was, He probably wouldn´t be playing for Santa. But He is good enough for now, and He is better than anything we have had for quite a long time, and, best of all, He understands, or at least he seems to.

I wake this morning to the sound of a wandering preacher singing in the beco behind the beco (and watch out for the forthcoming CD, entitled Sounds From The Beco, including favourites such as Dona Maria Shouts Nyyyyyyyaaaaaaaarrrrraaaaa! A Thousand Times and I Like To Turn My TV Up Really Loud, an ensemble piece. The first five hundred CDs sold come with a free untied bag of rubbish). Let me hear you sing, the preacher cries. The smallish gathering raise their voices. I can´t hear you, comes the shout from the ramshackle temporary pulpit. I sit up in bed. I feel it – the call to prayer. I rush to the window. Let me hear you, comes the cry again. And I respond, with all the conviction and faith I can muster, for I believe! I believe!

Oooh, fudeu, O Brasão apareceu!

NB – apologies for the giggly-schoolgirl-at-a-Justin-Timberlake-show ambience of this piece. I am aware that I should know better, that He doesn´t really care, that He will probably be playing somewhere else in a few months, and that it´s only football. But it does everyone good to be a giggly schoolgirl every now and again, doesn´t it? Count your blessings that at least this blog does not involve webcam broadcasts and that you are therefore saved from seeing its writer in his giggly schoolgirl uniform. Perhaps, in this week of schoolgirl uniforms and homo-erotic yearning we should leave the last resoundingly masculine word to Mr Hagler. I played it like a man, but I loved it like a boy, which seems like something He himself might say.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


On the floor there is a dead cockroach (and why is it that you see so many more dead cockroaches than live ones?) surrounded by hundreds of tiny scurrying ants. The ants, I presume, are lunching on the cockroach, though it´s all a bit small to make out. Outside, bats flit amongst the trees – if I sit in the garden I can hear them whipping past my ears. At around five o´clock when the sun begins to sink down behind the lighthouse the chirping of the cicadas is as loud as the whine of a jet plane. And when I remember to water the two bougainvillea plants I bought a couple of years ago they burst out into a tumble of bright pink blossom that curls around the gate.

It is a bucolic enough spot, with a stretch of dull green sea to the front and the hill and the churches and the Alta Da Se behind and up the hill. This part of Olinda resembles a forest that has been built on – perhaps because it once was a forest and has now been built on. And while the building has strangled away a lot of the greenery it is still thick and abundant and rich considering the 4,000,000 or so lives that have sprouted chaotically over and around it.

It attracts the waifs and strays too – gringos in their droves, obviously, sucked in by carnaval and history and the sea, and more than a few aging hippies.

What is also interesting is how even within the same general social classes various bairros in Recife and Olinda possess their own strong cultural identities. In Jardim Jordão, for example, no-one ever goes anywhere, other than Jardim Jordão, or maybe Prazeres or Jaboatão – mention of a trip to another neighbourhood or Olinda or Recife proper is likely to induce nosebleeds or panic attacks. This doesn´t happen in other places that are just as hard-knock as Jordão – you will run into people from Casa Amarela or Santa Amaro, for example, all over the city.

I experience the phenomenon this week when I invite The Big Black*, burgher of Jordão parish, to a social event in Boa Viagem Uber Alles. Hopefully it can be understood why discretion is important here, but the social event involves a cultural celebration at an education based establishment. The Big Black refuses to enter the social event. It´s like a bloody wedding, he moans, looking doubtfully at his Bermudas and havianas. Later, he refuses to come for a drink. I don´t earn R$2000 a month like you, he says, which is ironic enough given firstly that the bar we are going to in Boa Viagem Uber Alles charges the same for a beer as they do in Jordão and secondly that The Big Black has never, as far as anyone can remember, paid a bar bill. (Though I make jokes there is of course a darker reality at play here – while The Big Black is a truculent enough individual at the best of times, such are Brazil´s continuing endearing prejudices that were he to enter the social event he´d be the only black face there apart from the cleaner, and some of the other people at the social event might start looking around nervously to see where their handbags and wallets were).

Anyway the speciality of Amaro Branco, where I am blessed enough to live, or at least this particular bit of Amaro Branco, is a kind of well-honed, sleep-soaked indolence. Of the nine or so houses that circle this one, including the beco, approximately four people seem to work. When I leave the house, whether it´s in the morning or the afternoon, people are draped across hammocks or leaning on gates or standing in the middle of the scrubby square chatting. When I come back they in the same position, frozen as though in a sub-tropical Hopper painting.

Of course economic hardship plays a part – but not always. A new arrival, who rents one of the bigger houses with a garage, offers me the use of the garage to keep my car. Only R$100 a month, she says. R$100 is quite a lot, I say. Yes, but I don´t really want to work at the moment, so the money will come in really handy, comes the devastatingly logical repost. I elect not to sponsor this potential Oblomovinha.

There is something uniquely sleepy about the place - just as with Jordão’s splendid isolation, there are bairros as downtrodden as Amaro Branco all over Recife and Olinda with double the sense of activity and industry. It´s not necessarily a bad thing, just an odd thing.

This of course remains one of the greatest mysteries of Brazil to the foreigner: just how people manage to sustain themselves, to a reasonable if not spectacular level, with no form of visible income. I´m not talking about those at the very bottom of Recife´s social ladder, more those on the third or fourth rung (there might be ten or twelve rungs in total – twelve would get you an apartment on Avenida Boa Viagem). These are people with houses, and enough money for beer and maybe an old car or even an internet connection, but who don´t seem to actually do anything to provide for all this giddy extravagance.

In reality, though, it´s not that impossible to understand – perhaps a small pension or maintenance cheque from somewhere or other, a few government welfare payouts, or perhaps one or two minimum or just above salaries. Maybe the odd loan or donation from somewhere or other, and a house that is owned not rented. The manufacturing and selling of some kind of homemade tat or other is another favourite, as is various family members living in the same house and chipping in when possible. Larger material goods can be purchased in infinite installments now that ordinary Brazilians have discovered the joys of personal debt. It´s all nowhere near enough to be rich or even particularly comfortable, but enough to get by and have some of your day free for pondering upon the meaning of existence, or alternatively whether it will be rice and beans for lunch or beans and rice for lunch.

Anyway, all this nothing much to do can intrude a little on the life of someone who has, or at least believes he has, quite a lot of things to do. Lengthy pleasantries must be exchanged with between two and six people every time I leave the house, which, though it gives the heart a warm glow, taxes the patience of someone whose time management system operates on two levels – late and very late. One happy idler has a taste for translating names. What´s Thiago in English? What´s Guilherme in English? Wait, let me get a pen and paper! I glance feverishly at my watch, calculating whether it will be possible to drive from Olinda to Boa Viagem in lunchtime traffic in seven minutes. Though the lesson here, of course, is that nothing we really have to do is ever so important (assuming the exception of a few things such as open heart surgery, court hearings, giving birth, etc) that it can´t start a few minutes late. Once you learn that, you´ll be a much happier man. Or woman.

Bill lives in Amaro Branco, and as I live in Amaro Branco too and as Amaro Branco is not very big and as I spend a lot of time walking around Amaro Branco with the dog it seems inevitable that we´ll meet. When we do Bill tells me his plans – and what plans they are! He smokes four cigarettes in twenty minutes as we talk, and the sun burns the back of my neck. Bill has eschewed the learning of English or Spanish or the businessperson´s favourite, Cantonese. Instead Bill has learnt Esperanto. Wait – Bill has not just learnt Esperanto. Bill is recording music in Esperanto. Bill is thinking about product lines in Esperanto which will make Bill very rich indeed. I tell Bill that I think the Esperanto ship may have sailed. Nonsense, Bill tells me, it´s just taking a while to get on its feet - this is the year! Bill peers at me through his glasses. He has straggly white hair and a shirt with the four or five top buttons open. He looks a bit like the ex-manager of a 80s rock band – the one that was dumped before the band hit the big time. Bill invites me to come to his house one day to listen to his records in Esperanto. I tell him I will. And then he wanders off along his way and I wander off along mine, thinking about how the sun seems even hotter today than it did yesterday.

*A vaguely racist, though extremely common, Brazilian linguistic anachronism, this one, and not my own.

Friday, 5 March 2010


Among these palm trees and vines, in this bush and jungle, the white man is a sort of outlandish and unseemly intruder. Pale, weak, his shirt drenched with sweat, his hair pasted down on his head, he is continually tormented by thirst, and feels impotent, melancholic. He is ever afraid: of mosquitoes, amoebas, scorpions, snakes – everything that moves fills him with fear, terror, panic.

While Recife in 2010 might not quite be Ryszard Kapuscinski´s Uganda in the 1960s, given that I don´t give much thought to amoebas or snakes, and in mixed chocolate, caramel and vanilla ice cream Brazil the colour lines might not be so clear cut (though oddly I´ve met very few non-white gringos here), the rest of it – pale, weak, shirt drenched with sweat, impotent – certainly fits the bill, given that it´s 35 degrees most days and 30 most nights. Even the newspapers have given up reporting anything else – it´s really hot! – screamed a headline last week. Though actually, that´s not quite true. They´ve given up reporting almost everything else. The big story in Recife these days remains the jaw-droppingly salacious murder of a young German tourist – who it turns out, was murdered not by the usual random gaggle of black or brown skinned teenagers (©the Brazilian media), but by her Brazilian-Italian husband and his adoptive Italian father in law, who turned out not to have been real father and son but in fact lovers, the father having adopted the son in Italy in order to secure him a visa, and the son, as is so often the case, being not just the apple of daddy´s eye but also his favourite male prostitute. Caralho, as they say in this neck of the woods.

Though murderous or otherwise the effects of such heat are punishing enough. One is tired almost all the time. Travel, even within the city, becomes a question of military planning – can my journey wait until the sun is a little lower in the sky, is there much shade to be found along the way? And driving to work one day I am assaulted by a smell of burning meat. Peckish, I look around for the barbecue stand, only there´s none to be seen. It´s only when I tuck my arm inside the car, out of the sun, that I notice the smell goes away. Was it always so hot? I read back through my blog entries over the last few years. There isn´t that much mention of the heat, other than the rather smart line that Recife these days feels a bit like running a hot bath in a very small bathroom with the door closed. Could it be that things are actually getting hotter? Caralho de novo.

Anyway. If nothing else living in such climes gives one the chance to observe, close-up, some fascinating wildlife. My species of choice is that peculiar tribe known as the Brazilian upper-middle class. Whilst small in number compared to the overall population of the country, this sub-set carry extraordinary power and influence. And what a pleasure it is to watch them in their natural habitat! I hate the heat, and the beach, someone says to me in Boa Viagem Uber Alles, you´re so lucky to come from somewhere with a climate like Ireland or England (actually she doesn´t say Ireland or England, it´s all just Europe here), and I try to picture someone who actually lives in Ireland or England feeling lucky about their weather, and to remember how often I slapped myself on the back while living there, grateful for my good fortune in not living somewhere sunny. A teacher is appalled by a new gringo produced grammar book that arrives at school. Each chapter, and the vocabulary in it, is linked to a country. Brazil gets fruit. There is an accompanying comic strip in which brown and black Brazilian children show off different types of fruit. What, she says, do they think that Brazil is full of brown and black people? There is genuine shock in her voice, though I suspect her own personal sample group may be the planes that ferry hundreds of Recife´s more privileged (and therefore exclusively white) youngsters off to Disneyland every year. I am cheered when during a quick survey of adolescents one tells me that, yes, he is planning to go to one of the big carnaval events (the rest are heading to their beach houses). Which one?, I ask. Galo? Olinda? Recife Antigo? No way, he says, Armin Van Buren´s DJing at Cabanga Iate Clube on Friday! And so I sleep easy that night, knowing that the traditions of the Recifense/Olindense carnaval are in safe hands. It must be odd, I think, to feel so ashamed of (or at least removed from) your own country that you dream solely of adopting the culture of other, supposedly more sophisticated places, especially given that you´re probably doomed to fail in your objective of living in one of such countries and so must live out your life in some odd kind of Americanised limbo of shopping malls and McDonalds and Subway restaurants, removing yourself from any kind of public life in your own country (public transport, carnaval, football matches, city centres), all the while neither one or the other. It reminds me off a news story a year or so back, which talked about clearing the street traders out of downtown and housing them in a mini-shopping mall somewhere. The point being was that the mini-shopping mall somehow represented progress (albeit a particularly American view of progress) while the street trading (part of traditional Brazilian life) somehow represented neglect and shame. Curiouser and curiouser, how things work.

Other than that, life goes on. I get off the bus at night and the first thing I see is a cat walkng slowly along the sea wall. The moon is covered by clouds. It´s steamily hot. The boy who sells pirate DVDs is sitting on the same sea wall, counting his takings. People are drinking in Marola, the lovely though rather expensive bar that sits on a rocky outcrop. As stated before, nothing between my feet and Africa except miles of ocean. I decide on a drink at the corner bar (experienced readers will remember RK´s dictat that such heat makes night time drinking obligatory). I sit, and I wave lazily at Manoel the bar owner, and in a few seconds, though I haven´t ordered anything, he appears at my table with a beer, a glass frosted from the freezer, and an ashtray. I wonder should I worry at such prescience. And I don´t know why, but I think back to an accidental, and very brief, friendship I made with a garota da programa a couple of years or so back, while living downtown. At the time I even, for a few minutes at least, wondered if it would be possible to sustain a relationship with a girl in such a situation. I think that I decided that it probably would, not being the jealous type, but things moved on, I found myself in the second chapter of The Ex-Girlfriend saga, and the moment was gone. Anyway, I wonder now where this girl might be, and what her life might be like. Happy and safe, I hope. I suppose the point of mentioning this is that there is sometimes an innocence and a sweetness to living life in a foreign, and younger, country than the one where one was born, and that allows me to think positively and openly about such things and not judge people the way I might have done a long time ago when I was more limited in my outlooks.