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.