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.