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 http://www.seeadarkness.blogspot.com/ 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.