Sunday, 23 January 2011

On Friday I watch a programme about minotaurs, or rather, The Minotaur. On Friday night I dream about minotaurs, and on Saturday morning I wake up thinking I am a minotaur. Actually without knowing it maybe I have hit on a fine metaphor for gringoism – unloved, condemned and exiled, hidden away from society amidst a labyrinth of language schools and private English classes.

Or maybe not.

Anyway, this minotaur eats a healthy breakfast. Freshly squeezed kiwi, water melon and mango juice (the minotaur doesn’t know why either), hot coffee, queijo coalho toasties and honey bread from the padaria Santa Cruz. What could be better? The minotaur lies back on the sofa, replete.

And feels an obscure, wheedling itch in his soul. What can it be? He thinks hard. And remembers. The minotaur has given up drinking. Not for ever, but for now. At least until carnaval.

This is not easy for the minotaur.

Because for good or bad Brazil has always been about the sauce. Everything comes about through booze. Booze is memory. The minotaur remembers his first night out in Belo Horizonte. A street side barbecue joint, packed with bellowing, hair-tossing young people. The First Ex-Girlfriend and her leggy cousins. Picanha. Yum yum. What would you like to drink, minotaur? A beer, says the minotaur. The beer arrives, a big brown icy cold bottle. There are four glasses. The minotaur doesn´t know why. He fills his glass and drinks it down. He fills it again. Drinks it down again. And so on. Until he notices the staring and things are explained to him. Oh, the minotaur says, it´s for sharing. He doesn´t think he likes the sharing. He wants his own beer. This is the gringo way. Only later will he come to realise that sharing is nice, sharing is good. Sharing is a thousand times more civilised than swilling down a lukewarm pint of half weak beer and half strong backspit.

The first carnaval, though not really a carnaval, in Tupi or Guarani, the minotaur can´t remember, one of the squalid outer suburbs of BH. Do you like wine, the minotaur is asked, as he stares at the crowds of (no doubt) pistol packing youngsters from galoucura and mafia azul on their way up to the front, where there are bands, or at least where there is something. It is raining. The minotaur thinks it an odd place to drink wine, but accepts readily enough. When in Rome (or Crete) and all that. The wine, in true Brazilian fashion, is red, ice cold, and very very sweet. The minotaur protests. Then realises that this children´s party wine is in fact much nicer than the expensive, tart stuff he has spent his life pretending to like. It is like alcoholic Ribena. Could anything be better? The minotaur asks for more.

No talk of boozing in Brazil would be complete without mentioning the gringo favourite caipirinha and it´s just-out-of-prison-and-gearing-up-for-the-next-bank-job-stepfather, cachaça. The minotaur doesn´t drink cachaça anymore. Cachaça is The Bad Thing. Cachaça hurts. But it doesn’t matter. Choice is not limited. Agua De Coco and rum. A taste sensation. And if everything is brasilianised, that is alright too. Whiskey comes in a tall glass filled with ice, and, what do you know, it´s better that way.

Lying back on the sofa the minotaur remembers some great drinkers he has had. Christmas Eve in downtown BH with The Ex-Girlfriend, rolling in and out of shady speakeasys until The Ex-Girlfriend decided she needed to throw up. Jaime and his palavras and free homemade cachaça. Lonely drinking in João Pessoa - and if further proof of that city´s spiritual vacancy is needed it is that people don’t drink in João Pessoa, or at least people don´t drink properly – preferring a beer or two to wash down the bar snacks at the beach, or slurping down Skol at home, or worse, in front of their cars, with the boot open and the stereo playing satanic forró. But if you thirst for a quiet beer on your way home from work you will be disappointed, and you will drink alone, while the waiters look on disapprovingly.

Drinking a bottle of wine in a monk´s cell in the Caraça monastery in Minas (the monk wasn´t there and the monastery functions as a hotel too) as the cold drew in through the foot thick walls and the little leaded glass window, while the minotaur waited to see the wolves come down from the hills for their nightly snack of prime rib. Drinking too much in the Papagaio favela in BH (though just at the bottom of the hill, which is the fancy part) with The Ex-Girlfriend, then fighting with The Ex-Girlfriend, then making up with The Ex-Girlfriend. Drinking before and after Santa Cruz and Atlético games. Drinking during carnaval and the World Cup. Drinking with Canute, and The Big Black, and the Pampas Goat, and the Louth Media Mafia, and a cast of maybe two hundred others who the minotaur has forgotten.

Drinking to meet women – for what Brazilian mice can resist the cheese of the lonely gringo minotaur at table, soulfully sipping his way into oblivion, drawing elegantly on a cigarette, a bit like a minotaur Alain Delon, he thinks. There has always been a very clear correlation between what success the minotaur has had with Brazilian minotauresses, and his level of inebriation. Drinking loosens the tongue and the legs, drinking puts words in the minotaur´s mouth, drinking frees the minotaur´s hands to wander hither and thither, innocently of course, upon unsuspecting forearms and kneecaps, so making the minotaur´s intentions quite clear, leaving no minotaur doubt in the minotaur air.

The minotaur thinks back through all The Ex Girlfriends. There have been a few. The minotaur tries to think of which ones he met when sober. He can think of two. The minotaur decides he is not going to list all The Ex Girlfriends now, as this would be self-indulgent.

And the bars. Jaime´s, Cadu´s, Amarelinha (the yellow place found in both BH and Recife), Deca’s, Cais De Santa Rita, bars in Bom Jesus (BH), bars in Santa Teresa (BH), bars in centro (BH). Bars in Recife Antigo, bars in a cidade (downtown Recife), bars strung along the foul litter strewn canal outside Arruda. Bars in Olinda. Bars in the other, nordestino BH, Bomba Do Hemetério. Bars in Jordão Baixo, where the beer comes in plastic cups with the name of an airline emblazoned along the side. Jordão Baixo is very close to the airport, so perhaps the plastic cups walked there themselves. Zita’s. Matuto’s (The Hick’s). Mercado Da Boa Vista. Praças Maciel Pinheiro and Santa Cruz. Bars with the worst toilets in the world, bars where you find a dead rat on the floor before you make it to the toilet. Bars where there have been fights (not many these, not compared to the carnage wreaked at last orders in Belfast or Liverpool or Manchester or Thornton Heath or Bromley) , bars where the minotaur has struck up welcome conversation with a stranger and spent the night thus, talking and drinking. Sometimes the minotaur pays the bill, sometimes the stranger. It evens out, if you’re a minotaur.

The minotaur knows he is forgetting a lot of places and people. The minotaur knows he is forgetting these things because of all the booze. The minotaur knows this (and other things – like the minotaur’s spreading belly) is one of the reasons why he should stop drinking.

But what will he do? For there is nothing better on a hot Recife night, with the moon hanging fat and orange like a piñata (excuse cross-cultural references), than to wander out and find a place where you feel a welcome, maybe with a book or a newspaper, and to drink two or three or seven cold beers, and to think about the way things are. Maybe there will be someone there to meet you, maybe there will not. Maybe there will be conversation to be had with strangers, maybe there will be a forearm to be accidentally on purpose brushed against. Then home, the bill paid, the mind and bladder full.

And now that is gone, at least for now. What will the minotaur do now? Clearly he will never have sex again, though that might not have much to do with the drinking. He will have to find other leisure activities. He will probably go to the cinema a lot. Really a lot. He remembers a desperate time in a desperate town when another minotaur suggested similar drastic measures. Let´s not have a drink today, said the other minotaur, let’s do something else. Like what, the minotaur said caustically, go for a walk? Play tennis? Go to a museum? Both the minotaurs laughed uproariously. You’re right, the first minotaur said, it was a stupid idea. They went to the pub.

And this is what lies ahead for the minotaur now. True, there are benefits. Money will be saved. Bowels will rebuild themselves upon rock solid foundations. Time will be gained, stress levels lowered, bellies will no longer resemble landfill sites.

But where will the minotaur go? Who will the minotaur talk to? What, finally, will become of the minotaur?

Note: Apologies to Steven Sherrill, whose book I only remembered after writing this. I swear. Blame the booze.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

After the standard bewildering overnight bus trek from Brazil’s Gotham the quiet charms of São João Del Rei seem a world away to Mr X. Though not quite – São João Del Rei still has a bustling energy to it that puts the easeless mind on edge. More peace is needed, and that peace comes in the form of Tiradentes, named after the famous teeth-puller dentist of the inconfidência mineira.

It is odd how you have to go away to find out what you have left behind. Belo Horizonte and Minas was abandoned in a veil of tears a long time ago after Mr X convinced himself that he was embroiled in a very Brazilian Romeo and Juliet (armalites replacing scabbards) with The Ex Girlfriend. The four years spent in the nordeste have represented the second part of his Brazilian education (the first being favela fun with The Ex herself) and it has not been four years wasted, so much so that previously terrifying urban hotspots such as BH´s Avenida Parana now seem as cosseted and luxurious as any Milanese fashion precinct.

Tiradentes is not Belo Horizonte but it is close enough for a weekend away, and there cannot be a more soothing (not even Pernambuco´s often rowdy beaches) place in Brazil. It is late afternoon becoming evening in the photograph above, and Mr X is sitting in the garden of the Pousada Do Ô with a chilled palavra on the table and a copy of Ryszard Kapusinski’s The Emperor beside it and also a packet of snouts the smoking of which Mr X will definitely definitely quit in 2011. It is chilly and someone has lit a fire in a house nearby and the smoke rises blue against the mountains. Somewhere, someone is playing a saxophone, and the notes float into the air, soft and melancholy, along with the smoke. Up on the hill behind the pousada the lights of the Matriz Do Santo Antônio church are already lit and stand sentinel against the night. Mr X, at peace at last, has nothing more pressing on his mind than whether to opt for faux European sofisticate (a crepe) or hearty comida mineira (the best in Brazil – feijão tropeiro, torresmo (better known as pork scratchings), tutu) to help wash down his evening whiskey. Tiradentes is very heaven, Mr X decides.

But nothing ever lasts forever, as someone once sang, and on this journey nothing that can go wrong ever really goes right. Mr X has been waiting all trip to take a ride on the Maria Fumaça steam train from Tiradentes to São João Del Rei. On Thursday he goes to the station to check the train is running the next day. Of course it is sir, why wouldn´t it be? comes the answer. He arrives in plenty of time on the Friday. Sorry sir, no train today. Terrible rain we´ve been having. Mr X is perplexed. But you said it was running yesterday, and it hasn´t rained since then. In reply he recieves a shrug and a smile that says you know it´s bollox, I know it´s bollox, but what can you do? It would be like complaining about the way the earth turns on its axis.

There is a bus stop across the road and it is only 12.40 and it is a mere 25 minutes to SJDR so there is no real crisis anyway, just the loss of an opportunity to make woo woo and chuff chuff steam train noises for half an hour. Only the 12.50 bus never turns up and in the end Mr X catches the 13.35 and ends up running across the bus station in SJDR to catch his 14.00 connection to Belo Horizonte. What happened to the 12.50, he asks the ticket collector on the 13.35. What do you mean, what happened, it ran normally, says the ticket collector. No it didn´t, I was waiting at the stop from 12.40. Ah you mustn´t have seen it go past then, says the ticket collector, in what is a very Brazilian Father Ted moment. Mr X wants to point out that the road from Tiradentes to SJDR is not exactly 5th Avenue and there is only one bus that goes along the road and that he has been standing looking in the direction of where the bus is supposed to come from for almost an hour and unless he suffered from a flash blackout or temporary amnesia or blindness it would have been very difficult for a bus to sneak past unnoticed. But there doesn´t seem much point. It would be like complaining about the way the earth turns on its axis.

And what of the unlovely mineiran capital itself? Lovelier than is remembered. Hundreds of CCTV cameras have transformed centro, previously a shadowy ghost town at night, into a bustling, pleasant place, filled with young couples eating ice-creams and bars and restaurants doing brisk business. Mr X decides he is in love with BH again and quickly resolves that he must live there, imagining pleasant weekends – reading the paper in the elegant Parque Muncipal on Saturday mornings, buying wheels of cheese at the Mercado Central, watching Atlético on Sundays, trips down to Ouro Preto once a month, regular visits to the jaw dropping (and bizarrely little known) artistic wonder that is Inhotim. It would be a fine life, and Mr X muses on it for a while before remembering that he does this every time he goes on holiday (previous I´m going to move there locations include Copenhagen, Helsinki, and a handful of unremembered Greek Islands).

He is also, after a while, wracked by guilt. He has been bad-mouthing his adopted home all trip, forgetting that Recife is a marriage (with all the pain and hardship that this entails) while Tiradentes and Belo Horizonte are mere rolls in the hay with whatever bit of skirt happens to catch the eye. Because how could Mr X ever leave O Mais Querido, and ear rattling forro in every bar, and burning heat 365 days a year, and the slack jawed street corner gawpers, and oxe and bone shaking bouncing over pot holes? The answer is he couldn´t, even though god only knows he thinks he´d like to every once in a while.

Ultimately though it doesn´t make that much difference where you are, Mr X decides. Show me the way to shake off memory, as Bill Callahan says, and it´s not always that easy. The first thing Mr X reads in the paper when he gets to BH is that a teenager has been shot and killed in Primeiro De Maio, the tough as old boots neighbourhood where The Ex Girlfriend and various chums were shot a couple of years ago. And no matter where you are the two great black dogs of Brazilian society stalk you – urban uber violence and fantastic jealousy. In Recife a man shoots his bride and best man at the wedding party, in BH a boyfriend stabs his girlfriend (who is also his co-worker and has just been promoted above him) twenty times, leaving her a paraplegic. Following a luta-livre (kick boxing crossed with every martial art known to man) championship in middle class BH suburb São Pedro 41 members of Atletico Mineiro´s galocura, testosterone no doubt pumping furiously, beat a Cruzerio fan to death in the street, a horror story that would make even the Inferno Coral blush.

What Mr X has been wondering all trip, from the parched and impoverished (though fast growing) nordeste to the billionaires of Avenida Paulista, is if a gringo from one of the less salubrious parts of gringoland might arguably have more in common with hard scrabble Brazilians than such Brazilians might have in common with their well heeled cousins down south. Mr X has previous – a few years back while on the way to visit Recife´s famed tits and arses sculptor Ricardo Brennand he had to help a pasty faced and clownishly dressed paulista (complete with expensive camera hung from his neck) extricate himself from a grubby part of Varzea, as said paulista´s nasal diction and rolling r’s had rendered him incomprehensible and foreign to the locals in a way that Mr X, no stranger to rolling r’s himself but by now acclimatised to all things recifense, was not.

The answer is, as the answer usually is, is that Mr X hasn’t got a bloody clue. Class lines, as always, are perhaps more important than borders – a wealthy carioca lawyer would be more out of place drinking in Jordão Baixo than would a Romanian farm worker. The good burghers of As Republicas have more in common with the good burghers of similarly nobre neighbourhoods in BH or São Paulo than they might with those who live two miles away in Coque or Coelhos.

Nordestinos, particularly the less well off, tend to look on the sul and sudeste as a palace of glittering delights that cares not a jot for life north of Espirito Santo (the Watford gap of Brazil). And yet as mentioned before life’s common themes – survival, crime, sex, arroz and feijao, football, and booze run in the blood of the sergipano as they do the santa catarinense. And finally, for Mr X, life is good and bad in Recife as it would be good and bad anywhere, whether it be Norn Iron, Avenida Paulista, or Belo Horizonte.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

When terrible things happen it is time to call on Mr X, for Mr X is Your Life Is An Impossibility´s fearless chronicler of all things dark and frightening, as regular readers will know. Be warned, then – the following is not for the squeamish.

Travel broadens the mind, they say, which may be true, but what is of more importance to a worried man like Mr X is that it also limits the mind. Because when you hit the road all choice and stress and worry drops away and everything becomes the journey – a world of boarding passes and baggage reclaim and delays and airport buses and street maps. This is a welcome thing when, like Mr X, you´re feeling tired of the everyday life.

Travel also teaches you more and more about where you live, because you can´t really say much about home unless you know what at least a few places that are not home are like. A day before this trip Mr X is talking to Mrs X about falling standards in recifense customer service (they were previously abysmal, now they´re really fucking awful).

I can´t take Brazil anymore, I´ve had it up to here!, Mr X whines. Hum, says Mrs X, I know what you mean, but have you thought that it might not be Brazil that´s the problem, but Recife? The nordeste?

Mrs X may be right – Brazil more than most places is a country of wild divergence, oscilating from lives as luxurious as any lived at the court of Louis XVI to places as grim as any in downtown Mogadishu. The nordeste is not Mogadishu but it can be hard and wearying. And so Mr X resolves to travel to São Paulo, the nation´s cultural, economic and pretty much everything else except governmental, capital, to see how the other half live.*

If Tennessee is, according to David Berman, a land of club soda unbridled and hot middle aged women, then São Paulo is a land of fabulously expensive 24 hour bakeries with dog parking outside the door. Mr X is excited – he has been hardscrabbling it for a while in Recife and can hear the siren call of a bit of luxury and sophistication.

Only when he arrives, mid-afternoon on New Year´s Eve, the São Paulo he finds is as desolate and empty as the London in 28 Days Later. Avenida Paulista, the biggest and brashest street in the (Latin) Americas is closed and filled only with tumbleweeds. Where are the famed 42km traffic jams? The licence plate rodizio that permits only cars with even numbered plates on the roads on Monday and Wednesday, and only cars with odd numbered plates on the roads on Tuesday and Thursday? (Presumably Friday is a free for all of Mad Max style transit armageddon).**

But Mr X is not downheartened, because it´s early, and soon two million people will be standing on the very same spot watching fireworks and going ooooh and aaaah a lot. And they do, and Mr X says oooh and aaah a bit himself, and then when it´s all over he feels the call of the wild or at least the bar and wanders off down Rua Augusta in search of fun and foolishness.

Which would be fine, except that three hours later he is still wandering up and down Rua Augusta in search of fun and foolishness. Because Rua Augusta, supposedly the edgiest street in town, this night offers only (a) throbbing techno leather fetish bars (b) come on in sir look at the lovely girls we have waiting for you tonight style flesh pots (c) bars and clubs with valet parking (and all that that entails) and (d) unlovely dungeons filled with EMO teenagers dancing to Nine Inch Nails (or the like – who can tell these days?). Mr X accepts his fate – he is old and weary – and ends the night in Galeria Dos Paes drinking hilariously expensive coffee and feeling sorry for himself.***

He can at least amuse himself by tuning into the accents – regional twangs are always a marvellous hoot for the gringo who has been here long enough to notice them. Paulistas roll their Rs more than Rab from the Gorbals, and talk very loudly, so that a large group of them sounds like a kindergarten class full of toddlers all of whom have just been kicked hard in the shins by other, more alpha-male, toddlers.

It is a taste of things to come. Rain sets in on Saturday night, and it doesn´t stop for four days. On Sunday Mr X identifies the São Cristovão bar in nearby Vila Madalena as a fine place to eat and sup and woo some Paulista Princesses. Mr X walks four kilometres in the rain to the bar. The bar is closed, for no apparent reason. Mr X goes to another place, less nice but still thrillingly pricy, and eats some fried cod balls. The Paulistas, princesses or otherwise, remain unimpressed by his soulful gringo gazing.

On Monday Mr X decides to climb up to the Banespa building to take in what are said to be the best views in the city. But when he gets there the viewing terrace is closed because of the rain. He walks several miles amidst a monsoon that would have sunk the Ark to see the Mercado Municipal and the Catedral Da Sé. He is told he should go to the Circolo Italiano building because the view from the top there is just as good as at the Banespa building. Upon arrival he asks the man on reception if the viewing terrace is open. Yes sir, says the man on reception. He spends ten minutes waiting for the lift and then five minutes going up 50 odd floors to the top. When he gets there the lift operator says sorry sir the viewing terrace is closed because of the rain. On the way out he asks the man on reception if there is a toilet in the 50 storey building. No, says the man on reception.

On Tuesday he goes to the Memorial Dos Immigrantes out at Bresser. He checks on the internet to see if the museum is open. Only as he gets closer, walking past a homeless shelter, the whiff of urine on tarmac rising up to meet him, he says to an imaginary friend I wouldn´t be remotely surprised if this place was bloody closed too. When he gets there a security guard tells him that the Memorial is closed for a year for refurbishment. Mr X feels very sad. A couple of homeless men sympathise. Pisser, says one. Yeah, says the other, I hate it when you trek half way across the city to see an exhibition and it´s closed.

That night Mr X takes his leave of São Paulo, perhaps never to return. It isn´t that he didn´t like the place – quite the opposite. He loved it and could quite imagine himself living there one day. But for a holiday, at New Year’s, without a Mrs X to console him, in the rain...ninguem merece.

* A quote from the rarely mentioned Your Life Is An Impossibility Sr, this, who confused a young Your Life Is An Impossibility no end by driving around Belfast´s well heeled Malone Road district every now and again while shaking his head and saying just shows you how the other half live, and then repeating the trick while driving around the tough as your boots Lower Shankill, leaving young YLIAI in some doubt as to which half he belonged. A doubt that remains to this day, funnily enough, and that has not been soothed any by immersion into the maelstrom of Brazilian social class structure.

** Actually I don´t know how it works exactly, but it must be something like this.

*** He shouldn´t have felt sorry for himself at all - Galeria Dos Paes is the best bakery in the world and it´s open 24 hours, which is a truly marvellous thing, especially when you consider that the only things in Recife that are open 24 hours are the crack houses. Mr X thinks it would be nice to be a Paulista and live in Jardins and chomp on bagels at Galeria Dos Paes every day and buy his y-fronts at Ralph Lauren, until he remembers that the problem with such fantasies is that they are dependent on the tricky to manage pre-requisite of becoming really rich without having to do any work.