Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Beach house! For those from sandily-challenged places such as the writer of this blog/article/diary/nonsense the words summon a parade of tantalising images - drifting in an Olympic sized swimming pool atop a Mickey Mouse inflatable bed, a pink drink by one´s side...a two hour massage from a bevvy of scantily clad and lightly oiled Larissa Riquelme lookalikes (happy ending optional)...lightly swaying in a hammock while reading The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore...and so on. Only rich people have beach houses, runs the logic, and therefore all beach houses are palaces of limitless luxury and depthless delight.

Though as Alex Higgins (RIP) once said, the dull cloth of the lives we live may not sew the same garment as the brighter cloth of our dreams. And so it proves this weekend at a beach house in Ponta De Pedras, a rickety fishing village on the north coast of Pernambuco, hard by the more glamourously named Carne Da Vaca (Cow Meat) beach. It is raining as I, The Argument and Skinny Bear head out of Recife. The road is very bad, though it is being rebuilt now and will hopefully be ready for the World Cup (not the one in 2014 - the one after that in 2054).

Dinner was a simple picnic on the porch, paper plates in laps, the only conversation a debate as to which was the better grip for throwing (horse)shoes.

We arrive at the beach house. Outside is the biggest pig I have ever seen. The pig is eating rubbish. The beach house is quite big but not luxurious at all and has beds made of concrete. There is no Olympic sized swimming pool and no Larissa Riquelme lookalike masseuses, lightly oiled or otherwise. It is five o´clock and it is raining so we start drinking. We drink for a very long time.

After dinner, the horseshoes were handed out, the post pounded in, the rules reviewed with a new rule added due to falling down shorts. The new rule: Have attire.

The reason we are at the beach house is that it is somebody´s (Middle Sized Bear´s) birthday. It is always somebody´s birthday in Brazil - if you go to a restaurant or a bar and it is not somebody´s birthday then a volunteer must step forward and pretend it is his or her birthday so that no-one that night will be denied the pleasure of singing parabens para voce. Middle Sized Bear´s mulher brings out a cake. There is Mama Bear and Papa Bear and Skinny Bear and lots of other people there and we all sing parabens para voce. Only because of the wind no-one can get all the candles to burn at the same time so we sing parabens para voce once for each candle - there are four candles, so we sing it four times.

The women smoked on the porch, the smoke repelling mosquitoes, and the men and children played on even after dusk, when it got so dark that a candle was rigged to balance on top of the post, and was knocked off and blown out by every single almost-ringer.

Someone - Papa Bear - drives his car round to where we are drinking and opens the boot and turns up the volume. The boot is full of speakers. The music is as loud as four 747s taking off at the same time, with a ship´s horn blaring in the background, interspersed with a construction company drilling the foundations for a 24 storey building. We play a game - someone is chosen to be dragged underneath the cold-water shower in the garden. I am chosen fourth. I decide not to accept my fate and a minor fight breaks out. The result is that I am forced to roll in the mud before I am forced to stand underneath the cold shower. Then we play dominoes and drink some more. I hate dominoes.

Then the children went to bed, or at least went upstairs, and the men joined the women for a cigarette on the porch, absently picking ticks engorged like grapes off the sleeping dogs. And when the men kissed the women good night, and their weekend whiskers scratched the women´s cheeks, the women did not think shave, they thought: stay.

In Ponta De Pedras the women do not think stay, they think, I feel sick I am going to bed. Papa Bear and Middle Sized Bear and Skinny Bear do not go to bed - they keep on drinking. At three o´clock the cigarette cupboard is empty. Someone volunteers to go and get some. But where? Everywhere in the village closed around five in the afternoon. João Pessoa? someone suggests. João Pessoa is about 100kms away. A pack of cigarettes are found - crisis averted.

And in the morning we go to the beach and swim - the sea is murky grey and it is chilly and it starts to rain again. The Bears eat arrumadinho and drink beer and cachaça. It is nine o´clock in the morning. Then we go home - driving miles across the coastal plain, passing through village after village filled with the inestimable sadness of rural poverty, nothing but small houses and shacks and gangs of shirtless, shoeless young men sitting by the side of the road, watching the traffic drive past with a dull blankness in their eyes. Many of them will never visit Recife or João Pessoa, let alone Rio or São Paulo. They have no jobs because where they live there are no jobs and it is impossible to imagine how a job might come into existence - there are no factories or shops or libraries or municipal buildings of any description. As the car slows to avoid potholes and puddles my eyes meet theirs, and though there is no unfriendliness I have to look away, for I who have been lucky enough to live a different life cannot imagine what it is like to live their lives.

* Extracts in italics taken from Weekend by Amy Hempel.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Heard while listening to Recife´s leading news and sport radio station, which we might call Radio Maracatu, in the aftermath of Santa Cruz´s disastrous 1-0 defeat by CSA of Alagoas, which probably means the team with the biggest support in the nordeste will spend another year (their third) amidst the horrors of Serie D, also known as the fourth division of the Brazilian league championship:

Commercial for medical assistance with erectile disfunction/premature ejaculation fades into background...

Presenter Eric (not his real name): So, did you go the game today Eddie?

Presenter Ernie (also not his real name): No Eric, not today, I spent the afternoon on the sofa listening to my beloved friends at Radio Maracatu commentating from the stadium.

Eric: How beautiful, Ernie, how beautiful! Now listen to this Ernie, because it just goes to show the difference between Brazilian footballers and footballers in other countries.

Ernie: Now you mustn´t generalise Eric...

Eric: Generalise, no, of course not, but you know, it just goes to show.

Ernie: Well that still sounds like generalising, but go on....

Eric: So Cristiano Ronaldo, he gets some girl pregnant, and what does he do, he tries to give her R$10 million to keep schtum, which, well, you know, isn´t exactly responsible parenting, it´s a bit naughty, but...

Ernie: But it´s better than cutting her head off and feeding her to his dogs, isn´t it, Bruno!

Eric: Exactly, exactly! Better than cutting her head off and feeding her to the dogs like our friend Bruno!

Ernie: I see your point, Eric, but still, we mustn´t generalise...

Eric: No, of course not, but you know, just goes to show, they pay them off, we cut their heads off. Anyway another thing, this girl, beautiful girl by the way, beautiful ovaries too no doubt...

Ernie: Nothing like a beautiful ovary....

Eric: No indeed. Anyway she says that old Cristiano wasn´t much of a ladies´ man, didn´t really, you know, hunt her down, go in for the kill, so to speak. By all accounts he was the perfect gentleman. She even says she told him he should take up ju-jitsu or something so that people wouldn´t think he was a poof!*

Ernie: Well now again that´s kind of a generalisation, not all poofs are, you know, as limp as last week´s lettuce.

Eric: No, of course not, you know, but....

Ernie: There was that character in Rio, what was his name, in the 30s, Madame Satã, wasn´t it?

Eric: Madame Satã, yes, like the film, there was a film wasn´t there?

Ernie: There was indeed, anyway, he was a poof, a rent boy even, but Christ he could handle himself! He was a proper man!

Eric: He was, and then there was the bloke up here, Lolita, do you remember, the gangster, and when they took him in they needed six men to hold him down! He was hard as nails! And he was a poof!

Ernie: Fantastic, so there you go, anyway, back to the game, for me the problem with Santa today was...

Show continues. Both Eric and Ernie are in their late fifties or early sixties, and both are well-respected sports broadcasters. Ernie, as it happens, was responsible for one of the all time great Brazil vs R.O.W. comments when, while discussing exiled Brazilian footballers returning home, he reminisced about his time in Paris during the 1998 World Cup...

Ernie: So you´re in Paris, and you think, fantastic, I´m in Paris, and you have a coffee on the Champs Elysees, and you look at the nice buildings and the pretty girls, magic. And then on your second day you go up the Eiffel Tower, cracking, pure magic. Day Three – the Louvre, wonderful. Then after that.....what the hell are you going to do in Paris? You can´t go to the beach, you can´t go round your mate´s or your mum´s house, there´s no barbecues, no football, no cachaça, no samba, Christ, no wonder Adriano and Ronaldo wanted to come home! There´s nothing to bloody do in Europe!

And he´s only half right. Or half wrong. I can´t decide.

And so Santa´s bright new dawn becomes yet another terror twilight - an awful crush on the way in should have told me, as should have the Inferno Coral flags draped funearally on the ground as their teenage wavers waited for space to clear on the terraces. The Inferno banners around the pitch are hung upside down too - a way of showing deep displeasure with the way things are currently in as Republicas. There is no space anywhere downstairs, but plenty upstairs. The state government have recently digitalised the Todas Com A Nota program, which allows anyone with r$100 worth of supermarket receipts to claim a free ticket. The problem is Santa´s core support, coming mainly from the mass of Recife´s poor, are not yet digitalised themselves, and no-one has got around to registering for the free electronic swipe cards.

When things start the game is terrible, Santa are terrible, everything is terrible. A man is carried out of the crowd on a stretcher, his neck in a brace, while his son, maybe nine or ten years old, watches anxiously. As the game deteriorates even further a young man in a pork pie hat and sunglasses runs on to the pitch waving a Santa flag. Chico Science he would no doubt love to be but Chico Science he is not. The crowd goes beserk - a pitch invasion like this could cost Santa the use of Arruda for future games. Brasão escorts him off. A policeman intervenes and pushes Brasão. Brasão squares up to the policeman. Two other policemen grab the young man and put him in a headlock. There are ten minutes left. CSA score, and the 500 or so Mancha Azul in the corner go crazy. The final whistle blows. There is running and fighting outside the ground - Inferno Ibura are in town. Then there are gun shots near the bus stop in Encruzilhada, but it´s probably the police firing in the air. Probably. I walk to another bus stop past groups of youngsters sitting on the ground surrounded by police, their hands behind their heads, and another perfect day watching Santa Cruz comes to an end.

* Their words, not mine, so apologies. Your Life Is An Impossibility is an entirely prejduice free zone, other than prejudice against the Welsh, the Canadians, or people from Louth.

Friday, 9 July 2010

The World Cup is a blowsy tart of a mistress, swanning into town in shocking pink lipstick and painted-on leopardskin mini-dress. Us doltish menfolk moon around her for four short weeks, drooling and babbling and forgetting work, children and, worst of all, our long-suffering partners. We pretend we´ve always known we were too good for this humdrum life, and dream for a moment that it might always be like this – champagne football and super-craques. And then suddenly it´s over, and we realise we never really had a chance anyway, and we creep back home to our frumpy and decidedly unglamorous spouses with our tail between our legs, begging forgiveness, swearing it´ll never happen again, vowing that it didn´t mean a thing. They, of course– in my case Santa Cruz Futebol Clube – always forgive us. They don´t have much choice. They need us as much as we need them.

The World Cup once Brazil are out – at least if you live in Brazil – is a bit like being at a wedding once the bride and groom have left for their two weeks in Magaluf. The band´s still playing and the bar´s still open, so you may as well stay for a bit, but really it´s a bit pointless, and everybody is trying hard not to look at their watches and think about taxis home.

There´s no colder shower then than heading off to Arruda on a dripping wet Wednesday in Recife. I am feeling flush, and lazy, so I plump, for the second time in my life, for an upstairs grandstand seat under the roof. The first time I came up here was when elderly Ma Your Life Is An Impossibility was over, doing her best town mouse – city mouse routine: oh what lovely flags, she proclaimed, as the bottles flew over our heads and Inferno Coral Ibura tried to kick seven bells out of Inferno Coral Rio Doce. The occasion is Santa vs. Vitoria, one of Salvador´s big two and one of only two nordestino teams in Brazil´s Serie A, and the motive is the Nordestão, the recently revived dust-up between the lame and the lost of professional football in the nordeste of Brazil.

Really there´s not much to say – the game is as soothingly dull an affair as you might expect, it turns a little chilly as night draws in, the small crowd, bored, turn on the Santa players after about 40 minutes. In fact Santa play quite well – Dado Cavalcanti should clearly be the next Brazil coach, Menezes is a coltish, good-looking arrival at center-half, Paulo Cesar and Osmar fine full backs. Brasão, of course, is still Brasão, hurling himself after every ball as though it is the last minute of the World Cup Final itself. Vitoria score first, after a cock-up in the Santa defence, but after that Santa take over, and should score more than the one they do get, a Brasão penalty. After the game the players and the crowd drift off, idly chatting, and it is as though no-one would really have minded that much if they´d lost.

And I wonder then, sitting up in the draughty stands, what it must be like for professional footballers to watch other professional footballers playing at the very pinnacle of the game while they toil in ignominy in the trenches. Most of them, of course, are old enough and far enough away from stardom to know that they are probably not going to become true estrelas – they won´t play in the World Cup or even for the seleção, the majority of them will never make it to Serie A, let alone Europe. Do they feel resentment or pain? Do they watch scornfully, bitterly muttering to themselves I could do better than that, or if it wasn´t for that torn cruciate in 2004 that would be me up there instead of Julio frickin´Baptista?

Or do they beatifically accept their lot, and strive only to be the Prince of Pernambuco, realising that football is still a pretty good way to earn a pretty good living in these parts - top names at this level can earn around R$50,000 or so a month, more than twice what your average Recife lawyer might hope for? Looking at the faces it´s hard to tell, for they are the usual athletes’ faces – little of the emnity those in the stands might expect, instead plenty of camaraderie and the quiet elation that comes from intense physical activity.

And then there are the younger players, like Natan and Elvis, skinny and hungry and restless. They are easier to read, as much from their play as from their faces. The ball is never willingly given up, even to a teammate, and even when glory trail after glory trail runs itself into a blind alley, they barely look up or acknowledge their own selfishness. What, say the purposely lowered eyes and bowed head, did you think I was going to give it to you? What would you do with it?

It´s all the seven ages of man, I suppose, and full of lessons for all of us, though I can´t quite think what they might be. Some, I´m sure, would relate to the toiling work of anonymity that is this blog, though I chose writing as my particular route to fame and fortune because, well, your dreams die much later, and you can still be a young literary sensation at 38. Or at least I hope you can.

Sticking with Brazilian football just for a moment, a man who clearly hasn´t learnt any lessons at all is Flamengo goalkeeper Bruno, currently accused of killing a young woman who was also the mother of a child who may or not be is. It is Brazil´s very own OJ Simpson, though even juicier – Bruno allegedly hired a friendly traficante to do the dirty work, and once the girl was dead (strangled) she was cut into small pieces, her bones buried in cement, and the rest of her fed to Bruno´s rottweilers, who might be the only ones in the tale to actually feel very happy about the way things turned out. The story is gruesome and spectacular enough to not really say very much about Brazil, because it could happen anywhere, though there are plenty of very Brazilian motifs if you look hard enough – the slippery nature of extra marital paternal responsibilities (though the normal trick is to run away and deny all knowledge, rather than actually kill the woman in question), the exploitative sexual atmosphere (did you sleep with her at the party, Bruno was asked in a magazine article, yes, we all did, he replied, hinting at quite the bacchanal), and the social classifying (if all the players slept with her then that makes her a whore, and if she´s a whore then what´s all the fuss about, she´s just a whore, who cares if she´s dead, Bruno´s lawyer´s argument might well run in a few months). In any case it´s saved Dunga and Felipe Melo from being Brazil´s most reviled footballers a few weeks earlier than scheduled.

I think about all this as I walk around Recife on a chilly Thursday night. The night before I watched Cormac McCarthy´s The Road, which may well have been a mistake, for I am sensitive of soul. Armed gangs roaming the streets, taking whatever they please? Check. The weak and starving begging for assistance, eating anything they can get their hands on? Check. An endless, dismal sky, promising storms and heavy rain? Check (it´s winter). General air of desolation, abandoned buildings as far as the eye can see? Check. I quicken my step, nervously, and walk on, anxious for home.