Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The World Cup in Brazil is about as much fun as one can have with one´s clothes on (or without someone else´s clothes on, for those so inclined – Your Life Is An Impossibility maintains an equal opportunities policy regarding sexual orientation). No-one does much work, everyone talks about football all the time, there are pretty green and yellow flags hanging from cars and gas stations and shops and houses, and there is a permanent excuse for a sherbert or seven – it´s Greece v Nigeria, let´s go to the pub!

It´s also perhaps the only time when gringos become poor and ordinary Brazilians as rich as Midas, at least in a footballing context. Is it strange to come from a country which is never going to win the World Cup?, I´m asked, and The Argument opines that she can´t imagine watching a Copa and not being pretty sure that Brazil are going to win the whole caboodle. Men lounge, bored, in front of pub TV sets, rubbing their ample bellies, sucking down litres of Skol and munching on fatted goats, and grumble that even though Brazil are probably going to be champions they´re still not as good as they were and they could at least try and do it with a bit more pizzing and pizzazz. I can´t help compare all this to how things might be back home in Norn Iron, where maintaining even a mathematical chance of getting to the bloody thing after the first few qualifying games, more than a year ago, would have been a reason for national celebration (aka the burning of effigies of opposing religious and political leaders atop large bonfires).

It can be draining though, and somewhere in the middle of a seven hour TV autopsy of one of Brazil´s games (it seemed to me that in the second half Maicon´s throw ins were falling a few feet shorter than they were in the first half) I wander out into the streets for a look around. It is a fine night and downtown Recife is all astir with rush hour rough and tumble. Girls in tiny tops and shorts clamber aboard their sullen boyfriends´ Hondas and Dafras, ready to be sped home to Ibura and Camaragibe and Casa Amarela and suburbia north, south, east and west. It might be the world´s most sexually thrilling commute though I´m probably the only one who thinks so. Husks of corn and kebabs and popcorn and chips and hot dogs are being fried on every corner, and Recife´s newest form of traditional local craftwork is on sale everywhere – I can´t help but marvel at the time, skill and effort that must have gone into making so many pirate DVDs of Twilight, Robin Hood and Avatar. In the tiny garret of a gutted building in Patio Santa Cruz (it is the building that became the Hotel Texas in Amarelo Manga) merengue is being played very loudly. I look up, though all I can see is a hole in the roof and a red dress hanging in the window.

With the World Cup comes great boozing and therefore great conversation. Brazil´s last group game is played on a Friday at eleven in the morning, which means if you want to get a decent seat in front of the TV at the Mercado Boa Vista you´ll need to get there around nine. And no matter how much shower time incantation you indulge in (just an orange juice to start, just an orange juice to start), it just doesn´t feel right by the time you get there, and anyway everyone else is already drinking hard, so. And after the game it´s lunch time, and the Mercado serves great food, so you may as well hang around, and then after that there´s the afternoon game, and by the time that´s over, well, it´s Friday night and you´re already out, so.

The great conversation, funnily enough, comes not so much after this game but after Argentina vs Mexico on Sunday. I am out with one half of the Louth Media Mafia, ablaze with fiery passions because East Louth have beaten West Louth in the Irish Bog Rugby championships and will now play North Louth in the final (no-one knows what happened to South Louth). We are talking about Brazilian peril and paranoia, and the talk drifts around to Lula getting to third base with that fetching young Ajmadinejad chap. Without getting into too much detail about what is said or not said (or more to the point remembered or not remembered), the general consensus is that Lula´s crush on Mr Ajmadinejad is not entirely easy to understand, as Iranian boys can be tempestuous and not always the kind of date you want to bring home to meet your parents (particularly if the parents are, as in this case, most of the UN). Good reasons for this particular East Side Story, such as not alienating even further already potentially hostile states, and the pros and cons of sanctions in general, are also touched upon. We are clever chaps, me and the Louth Media Mafia, or at least the Louth Media Mafia is, whereas I´m just pretending to be clever now that I have a subscription to The Economist.

What is interesting from a personal standpoint happens when I tell the Louth Media Mafia that I can now understand, or if not entirely understand at least empathise with, Lula´s (and much, but not all of Brazil´s) willingness to align himself (and the country) against the American and European powers from time to time. Ever since the dictatorship, or even ever since colonial year dot, Brazilian foreign power phobia has run deep, and large parts of the population live in fear and mistrust of Tio Sam. This is why you see pro Iraq and Palestine graffiti strewn across walls, and why Lula is happy to pal up with Notting Hill´s Hugh Chavez and the nice Castro brothers in a big pro-socialist, contra-rich countries love-in. And while the old four fingered socialist spin doctor likes his hobnobbing and glad-handing with Angela and Nicky and Barack and the rest, once he gets back home he can´t crank out the old it´s all the paises ricos fault spiel fast enough. The Americans fucked us once (during the dictatorship), and they´ll fuck us again given half a chance, runs the thinking. They´ll take the Amazon before we know it if we´re not careful!

The Louth Media Mafia is nonplussed by all this, as many right thinking people seem to be, and as I once was myself. It´s paranoid and out of step, so it is, he says, do they really think there are US troops waiting to pounce on Amapá? And when I think rationally and coldly about it I agree with him. BUT what´s really interesting, given that this is not a blog that knows very much about politics and is not entirely willing to get into political debate, is that at the time, blathering away with the Louth Media Mafia, I realise I am arguing quite strongly that I can understand why Brazilians think the way they do! I can understand, even though I can´t entirely agree with it! While the Louth Media Mafia, a few months off the boat, can´t and won´t, and puts it down as crazy Brazilian paranoia, even though we both have exactly the same factual interpretation of the thing! AND THEN I realize that I had the exact same argument with Celine from Belo Horizonte (see entry dated: 19/11/09) just a few months ago, and he was saying the same things as I am now (albeit with much less eloquence), and I was cocking my snook and staring furiously into my beer (or at the waitress´s cleavage) while thinking jesus give it a rest comrade. And now I get it! Now I empathise! And it´s not that I have learnt anything new, or have expanded my knowledge on the subject, it´s just that, well, that´s the way it feels now!*

Though then I started to wonder if maybe empathy is really always such a good thing or not. Bad empathy: Iraq war? Well, what would you have done after 9/11, and anyway those Arabs are a bit mental, aren´t they? Austrian sex monster who locked his daughter in the basement for twenty years, impregnating her a dozen times or so into the bargain? Well, a man has his needs, and aren´t we all just a bit uptight about sex these days? Good empathy: The Argument looks longingly in my direction as I pour the last of the chocolate milk into my glass. Her eyes are moist and she is licking her lips plaintively. No, no, go on, you have it, I say.

So maybe it´s all a question of moderation.

But how far will this peculiarly Brazilian empathy go? Will I soon start to believe that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did their crazy space thing not on the moon but in a back lot at Universal studios? That Ronaldo was drugged in his sleep before the 1998 World Cup final in some madcap Nike-FIFA-Frenchie conspiracy? That Santos Dumont flapped his wings long before those chancers the Wright Brothers learnt to tie their shoelaces?

Then, spinning on from all that good stuff, I wonder, really just how much we can change, should we allow ourselves, and how Brazilian (or anywhere foreign that we choose to live) we might become. I make a list. 1) I no longer get angry, or at least not particularly angry, at preposterously long queues. 2) I enjoy making mindless but very friendly small talk, at great length, with people that I do not really know. 3) It has become completely normal for me to kiss women on both cheeks upon meeting and to even put my arm around men I know, quite spontaneously. 4) I no longer feel strongly enough about internet piracy for it to stop me doing it and have even been known to justify it (It´s all a capitalist plot! Look at these prices! They´re denying me my right to cultural enrichment!). 5) When I meet people I used to know but who are no longer friends, and they tell me to come round to their house or to give them a call, or when I am invited to social engagements to which I have no intention of going, I say yes, of course, fantastic, see you there. 6) I believe a queue is an entirely flexible and informal structure and one´s participation in it is wholly voluntary. 7) I no longer care about being late, and if anyone protests about my lateness I consider them to be unreasonable and anally retentive, and even a bit gringo.

And then I realize I am mere seconds away from starting to 8) beep my horn furiously when stuck in long, motionless traffic jams, even though the cars in front are as gridlocked as I am.

Maybe it´s time to go home.

* In case he gets cross, apologies in advance to the Louth Media Mafia for misquoting and misrepresentation.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Every day that we fail to live out the maximum of our potentialities we kill the Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Christ which is in us. Every day that we live in harness with the woman we no longer love we destroy our power to love and to have the woman whom we merit. At least so says Henry Miller, though I´m not sure if it wasn´t Dado Cavalcanti, the manager of Santa Cruz Futebol Clube and perhaps brother of Doogie Howser MD, who said it first. It´s no reflection on The Argument either, who is a far greater woman than I merit. And though the above has nothing whatsoever to do with football, June means it´s the World Cup, in case you haven´t noticed, and so that will be today´s theme.

Those applying traditional national stereotypes will imagine Brazil transformed into a huge green and canary yellow carnaval for the month, with half-naked girls shaking their maracas at Speedo clad muscle boys up and down the beach. The reality, of course, could hardly be further from the truth. For one it is winter and after a balmy Indian summer the seasons return to form and Pernambuco is battered by phenomenal rain storms. In five days this week enough rain falls to fulfill the quota for the month, and this is the month when almost all of the annual rainfall comes. Driving becomes a terrifying experience, rivers burst their banks, ramshackle houses slide down muddy slopes and there are 40 dead and 1000 homeless in the mata sul and Recife. The leafier parts of the city are generally unaffected, apart from flash flooding when the tide is in and the water table rises (large parts of Recife are built on former swamp land). On one remarkable night the energy goes out along Avenida Boa Viagem, and I imagine the good burghers barricading the entrances to their luxurious, and now very dark, apartments and sitting with shotguns pointed at the doors, fearing that the working class uprising has at last come to claim them, their first born, and their plasma TVs.

It rains too on the day of Brazil´s first game – a hard, jarringly loud downpour - and at lunchtime the city grinds to a halt as office workers head for homes and bars and restaurants to watch the game. The day, in fact, begins surreally – skipping through a rain storm like Fred and Ginger with an olives and drinks-with-pink-umbrellas-in-them-loving work chum (I´m Fred in the analogy, by the way). Our motley crew starts off watching the game in a boring little bar on the avenue that is packed with high school students blowing horns and shouting loudly at each other and the waiters. The schizophrenic Brazilian relationship with the Seleção is soon on show and the first shouts of que time ruim (what a shit team) and Fora Dunga (Dunga Out) are heard after about twenty scoreless minutes - pressure, a rabid media and a glorious history weigh heavy on the shoulders of Brazilian football. Drinks are more expensive than they should be and you can´t really smoke and most people seem to be concentrating more on their bar snacks than the game so at half time we switch to a grittier dive on the outskirts of a nearby favela (Ginger protests that he won´t go anywhere near such a place as his clothes are quite expensive, seemingly unaware that ritual stripping and stealing of clothes is a relatively uncommon crime, even in Recife). It is just as noisy here but the noise now comes from screaming children and smoke bombs and fire crackers. Driving home, finally, is the best part, when Recife, or at least Boa Viagem Uber Alles and Pina, near where 20,000 or so have congregated to watch the games under a big tent on the beach, have that curious look that only post-festivities Brazil has – a cross between a recently finished riotous street party and the not long ago dropping of a nuclear bomb.

On Sunday I give in to Argument induced pressure and agree to watch the second game with her and her friends at a house in another favela, this time the one that squats stubbornly beside the glittering palace of consumer delights that is Shopping Recife, its residents so far refusing the shiny beads and coins offered by property developers desperate to erect 356 floor apartment buildings on the spot. There are two TVs and a big pot of murky feijoada on the roof and approximately 45,000 cans of Skol to be divided amongst 40 or so people (it is someone´s birthday). It is just the place, really, to watch Brazil play in the World Cup, and even though I start off supporting Costa Do Marfim, following the universal rule that you always have to cheer against the team that everyone else is cheering for, the terrible excellence of the Brazilian team and the screaming and shouting that comes up every time they go forward with the ball and the sun shining down hard over everything (the rain has stopped) and the cold beer and the fine company and the children flying kites down below and the firecrackers and the yellow and green shirts and bunting make me a believer, for half a day at least, and I think how nice it would be if it could be the World Cup every day, and also how nice it would be if there were no people made dead or homeless by floods, less than 100km from here.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

On Sundays the beggars congregate outside the white painted church in the grounds of the Salesiano College. An hour or so before the beer hut on the corner has closed and the last few drinkers have weaved their way home through dawn´s watery light. Steady rain falls on Recife and though it is hardly cold there is the hint of damp chill in the air for it is winter in the nordeste. In June two opposing cultural poles battle for supremacy - the distant glitz of the World Cup, lent a certain local spice by the knowledge that in four years recifenses will be lucky enough to savour the charms of South Korea v Greece and Slovenia v Algeria at close hand, and the boozy joys of São João, an almost entirely nordestino shindig (barely celebrated in the gloomy south and south east) where older traditions are swamped by beer branded commercialism and raucous (and awful) modern forro.

It is important to look around and to remember that one stands on the north eastern shoulder of South America and not in Lewisham or South Belfast because after five years here the wonder of Brazil has entirely gone. This is not a bad thing or a strange thing but it is curious how we adapt and how things become normal – on the bus home from a day of watching football in As Republicas Independentes Da Boa Viagem I see a pickup truck with two small ponies strapped in the back and one of the ponies has his (or her) mangy tail and mane dyed bright pink. They look out at us with sorrowful longing but for me nothing in the scene is remarkable at all. The terrible slowness of everything – bank and supermarket queues, for example - ruffles scarcely a feather, and Brazilian africantime, where social engagements are publicly scheduled according to the clock but privately arranged in order of where they stand amongst all the other things one has to do – while I´ll meet you at three might well turn out to mean I´ll meet you at three it may equally mean I´ll meet you after I´ve done the shopping and had lunch and a bit of a nap which might be about three but also might be quite a while later – now seems perfectly normal and even admirable. It is even nice to think that I am now a person who is more accepting of the foibles of others and no longer believes that my time is so remarkably important that any hindrance to the spending of said time in exactly the way I choose must be met with boiling frustration and rage. And for this I must thank Brazil.

Equally the good things in Recife life no longer seem worthy of much celebration – I no longer comment on warm weather and towering blue skies, because after 106 of such days in a row I now expect every day to be equally perfect. Friendliness and garrulousness have become entirely normal and it is now hard to understand the silence of Northern European society – don´t people enjoy talking to each other? At the same time while everything here has now become almost entirely normal I remember that other ways of life still exist – I feel a twinge of sympathy for the somewhat shell-shocked Brazilian I meet on Saturday night who has come home after spending the last sixteen years living in America Do Norte and Switzerland. It´s so noisy here, he cries, holding his head in his hands.

And so feeling nostalgic I leaf through the pages of my award winning novel* Your Life is An Impossibility, written at a time when my life was full of the wonder of living in a country as vibrant and different in Brazil. I skip to the last page and read.

Brazil is a place that makes the rest of the world seem small in the same way that she made everyone else I had ever known seem small. In Brazil, as in her, are all the world´s troubles, all the world´s problems, all the world´s beauty. Brazil is a place that makes the rest of the world – the older world, with its fussy sense of order and its belief that to accept the smallness of your allotted life and to live that life as well as you can represents all that is possible – seem petty and ridiculous. In the midst of all Brazil´s chaos and corruption there is a sense of great freedom, a sense that life will never end but will keep on growing, keep on changing, keep on giving and taking.

And while I no longer believe all of these words it brings a great sense of peace to read them now and to recognize in them still today the country where I have chosen to live.

*Best Book Written By Me 2008

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The sky is big and bright and blue and it should be a perfect day, and in a way it is but in a hundred other ways it is not. The Argument and I resolve to lunch at our favourite restaurant out in the bucolic bliss of Olinda. On the way we discuss art and the role of the artist. The Argument sees the role of the artist as central to the solving of society´s ills in a general sense and I am forced to remind her of Chekhov´s letter to Alexei Suvorin, where he wisely stated you are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that it is obligatory for an artist. This point thus being settled, we move on to discuss whether Spicy Chili Doritos are tastier than Original Doritos. Without Chekov to help us we remain locked in an unsatisfying stalemate.

This is about where things start to go wrong. We have, it seems, taken the wrong bus – this Olinda bus, rather than taking a hop, skip and a jump along Avenida Agamenon Magalhäes, grinds its way through the city traffic down near Avenida Dantas Barreto, then back up to the grubby urban oasis that is Parque Treze De Maio, then along Cruz Cabuga out to Olinda. And it´s Saturday afternoon in Recife and everything is jammed solid and nothing is moving and it gets very hot on the bus and we are very hungry and so tempers start to fray. Lean forward in your seat, The Argument suggests, the bus will go faster. I oblige, and it turns out she is right.

When we get to the restaurant, perched on a little rocky outcrop just in front of fabled Olinda literary haunt Amaro Branco, things start looking up. A great feast is ordered – casquinha de siri, caldinho, bolinhas de charque, prawn stroganoff, beer, cachaça. Magnums of champagne are considered but rejected. Only our waiter is unimpressed. Three times the order is forgotten, the beer arrives warm, and we are generously allowed to pay for a few extra helpings of everything that have been erroneously included on the bill.

Undaunted, we head for home. Except the only thing the bus stop is lacking today is a man waving a big chequered flag, scantily clad pit girls and foaming bottles of champagne. Buses scream past at never less than 120km an hour – I see at least two roar by in the far lane heading for our destination – Brazil´s Left Bank of the Seine, or in other words Boa Vista, Recife. In the end we wait half an hour, during which time I draw up plans for a new Guerra Dos Mascates (Recife vs Olinda spat from way back in the era of the Pernambuco Capitania).

None of this is in any way serious of course, and it all sounds very much like spoilt gringo whinging, I know. But that´s not the point. That the bus took a long time and that the service was terrible is not important. What is important is that nobody cares, ever.

That nobody cares, ever, is perhaps the greatest challenge to anyone from the Old World seeking love, life and happiness in the New World. I could complain to the manager about the terrible waiter, but he probably wouldn´t care, and if he did he might sack the terrible waiter, which no-one would want, even though the terrible waiter is, of course, terrible. I could call the Bus Company Customer Hotline about the speeding bus drivers not caring about whether there are passengers waving plaintively from the bus stops, but I know I probably wouldn´t be able to get through (a representative of the Federal Police in Recife once told me that they don´t answer their phones because they ring such a lot, and if they spent their time answering them then they´d never get anything done – faultless logic, I suppose), and if I did get through, nobody would care.

The not caring goes so far at times that it seems the victims of the not caring are actually colluding with their not caring aggressors. The Argument gives me a stern telling off for getting angry with a bus driver who eventually deigns to stop for us. I get angry because when I suggest that he has a word with his Wacky Races colleagues back at Bus Driver HQ about their not caring he responds by shrugging his shoulders and saying what do you want me to do about it, or, in other words, I myself am equally partial to a bit of not caring every once in a while. It appears, therefore, that caring, as opposed to not caring, will earn you a swift trip to the doghouse.

It´s not, of course, that there is a whole lot of caring in other countries and other places. But in some places there are at least consequences – the not caring bus driver will quickly find himself with a P45 in his hand or a formal warning, the young man playing Calçinha Preta at decibel 10,000 on his car stereo, complete with Bootsy Collins heel size speaker stack, with the boot open at midnight on a Sunday might find that the policeman next to him is caring enough to give him a clip round the ear and tell him to stop it, instead of being sufficiently not caring as to not give a monkey´s and ask him for a cigarette. I´m not quite sure what would happen elsewhere to the well-heeled not caring men and women sitting next to us in the bar, merrily buying armfuls of pirate DVDs from the street-hawkers circulating around us, with nary a thought to organised crime, struggling video shop owners and staff or hopeless cause sponsors of local cinema. Not much, but they would probably, at least, care enough to do their counterfeit shopping in a stealthier fashion – here a rather jowly fellow yells angrily at the DVD hawker – the last DVD I bought from you was a joke – the picture was terrible, and I am put in mind of a forlorn crack user complaining that the last batch he bought wasn´t really up to scratch, and could he please have a refund?

And of course everyone knows why no-one cares. No-one cares because no-one else cares, and it´s pretty much impossible to be the only one who cares, because you might just end up blowing your brains out. And the government don´t care (so goes the thinking – personally I believe they care more than they used to, and at least as much as other governments in other places), and the police certainly don´t care, so even if you do care it won´t make any difference in the long run.

But does all this mean that if you are for caring, and are trying to live in a place where a great many people, it seems, are for not caring, are you, or we, in fact, all entirely doomed?

On the face of it the answer is a resounding no. As I write it is another perfect autumn day – the sky is a flawless blue, a few white clouds drift around in the breeze. I have just got back from taking the dog for a long walk along the beach, I might have an ice-cream later, and I live in the best place in the world, downtown Recife, a neighbourhood so rich in urban harum-scarum-ness that it makes New York look like Coventry.

But on a more profound level there is a sense of doominess when one ponders one´s long term fate – to spend the rest of one´s life pretending that the not caring isn´t important, to pretend that the things one loves about one´s new country far outweigh the things one doesn´t (they don´t), to pretend that the endless grappling with the Brazilian system of jealousy´s weights and measures (and the accompanying terrors of Brazilian straight-line-thinking) is a joy - The Argument will spend Valentine´s Day with a group of The Argument´s female friends (The Tantrum, The Pre-Menstrual Cramps and The Good Cry At The End Of A Romantic Film) in the meat market / slaughterhouse atmosphere of Recife´s biggest São João show, where any unattached female assumes the role of a gazelle grazing innocently at the hyenas´ favourite watering hole. I don´t care, though Brazilian society is outraged.

Maybe it´s old age, maybe it´s modern life, maybe it´s stress. But I am tired, tired, tired, and it is you who are tiring me out, man-who-runs-beer-kiosk-and-who-sneers-at-me-when-I-attempt-to-buy-r$5-worth-of-goods-with-a-R$20 (not caring enough to go to bank and get change), and boy-in-photocopy-place-who-smilingly-tells-me-they-can´t-make-copies-today-because-they-have-no-paper (the smile telling me that the lack of paper is one of the unfathomable mysteries of the universe and the ways of the Almighty rather than just all concerned not caring enough to go and buy more paper). Maybe I should just not care myself.

Legal note: Standard apologies for mass generalisations apply – of course lots of people care, it´s just that lots of people don´t. And just to be clear, the not caring here is not caring in the sense of not caring about one´s responsibilities and obligations as a member of society, rather than not caring in any kind of emotional sense – if there is anywhere in the world I would want to faint in the street it is Brazil, because I know I would immediately be assisted by a hundred concerned citizens. There are places, believe it or not, where the word assisted in that sentence could easily be replaced by trampled on or stepped over.