I wake up on a hot Recife morning and immediately feel, not that I´m a minotaur, but that I owe money to someone, somewhere, and that the someone is talking about me, and saying, that fecker never paid me back the money he owes me. But I can’t remember who it is, only that I feel terribly guilty about it. I finally remember at lunchtime that I owe a real to the fruit and veg woman at Mercado Boa Vista, and by that time I don’t really care anymore because I’m more concerned about what to have with chips for lunch. Though I should probably pay her back and thank her for providing this clunking link into a few words on (dis)honesty.
An ex-denizen of As Republicas writes on a Facebook (whatever that is) page somewhere about losing a cell phone and a wallet in Germany. The phone and wallet were promptly returned. That’s Germany, says the ex-denizen, there of course having been no crime or unpleasantness of any sort in Germany, ever. The accompanying inference, of course, is that were you to lose your cell phone or wallet in Brazil you’d have about as much chance of getting it back as chips have of ever being nicer than macaxeira frita (10 points for spotting the fried potatoes theme to this week’s bletherings).
Because as everyone knows Brazil is a pais de ladrões. Politicians vote themselves massive pay hikes minutes after getting elected and keep the brown envelopes flowing at the same time, police grifters stop and check more cars on Fridays than any other day as they fill their pockets for a weekend’s boozing, and you can’t walk down the street/take the bus/stop your car at traffic lights at night for fear someone will stick a water pistol in your face and demand your I-pod, and then how will you listen to Lady Gaga (or whoever) on the way to work?
All of which is both true and not true – true in the sense that it happens, not true in the sense that it doesn’t happen all the time, which is the impression sometimes people like to give. On Thursday, for example, Recife and half the nordeste was bought to a thrilling standstill at about 23.30 after a CELPE (or somesuch) technician wired a plug wrongly at the national grid. The perfect opportunity to wander the streets and see what Recife looks like in the even darker than normal. And it’s much the same, no city of light this at the best of times, though there’s a kick to be had from the ghouls and spectres that come looming out of the gloom, and here and there a bar lit with candles and car headlights, suspended like a satellite yards above the invisible pavement.
There is a hushed and ghostly feel to the streets, but it´s almost midnight on a Thursday and Boa Vista is still awaiting its 24 hour Starbucks and Japanese restaurants, so there aren’t usually that many people around anyway. So it comes as a great surprise to read in the Diario De Pernambuco the next day that Recife had experienced a madrugada (late night/early morning) of isolation, panic and violence, in which everyone was a hostage to the darkness. Twitter (whatever that is II) carried messages in which recifenses talked of their terror and anguish at being at the mercy of the night. Presumably the writer is not a veteran of foreign campaigns in Mogadishu or the lower rent bits of real estate near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Even better, the paper also devoted their Saturday front page to the same national (or regional) disaster.*
Which leads to another great Brazilian dichotomy, or even more than one. First of all, why is it that most people brought up in hard as nails spots like (no blowing of own trumpet intended) 1980s Belfast or 1990 New York (a Brazilian urban area type 2,245 homicides that year) adopt an ah sure it’s not that bad at all is it sure it’s only a few bombs/sectarian killings/crack addicts with knives, while many Brazilians become as timid as field mice, crying you’re going to take the bus? Are you mad? as though taking the bus in Recife is as good an idea as a member of the Mubarak clan taking a quick constitutional in downtown Cairo any time soon. Your Life Is An Impossibility had always thought that hardship and danger was meant to toughen you up, and not the opposite. Yes, urban violence can reach horrific levels in Recife and Brazil in general, but the vast majority of it affects the favelas and the periferia. Beyond that, in the middler class parts of town, it is not much more than a risk, or possibility, higher than in Berne sure enough, but hardly certain death. Hum.
The other funny thing is the mild schizophrenia that affects many Brazilians when it comes to violence (The V Word) and crime. Because while everyone complains about The V Word and has their personal freedom limited by The V Word, there is, somewhere deep in the soul, a perverse and sneaky pride in being from somewhere with phenomenally high crime rates. It’s the same with scousers (who are, if it need be said, lovely folk). Any accusation that some of Liverpool’s fame for having more than a few light-fingered citizens might be deserved is met with howls of outrage, while at the same time a fat walleted Londoner will be mocked mercilessly for paying over the odds for a pint in a Dale Street pub, or even for being robbed on his way out of said pub. He´s from London, what do you expect, would run the logic, he´s not hard as nails/street smart like we are. Cue cheeky Scouse grin. The same is true in Brazil, and why wouldn’t it be? Your Life Is An Impossibility has long campaigned for Brazil to be recognised as being a lot more like everywhere else than people (including Brazilians) think. The gringo (that word again) or even paulista being politely relieved of his wallet after blundering into the wrong shady alley should, really, have known better, so the thinking goes. YLIA has lost count how many times he has heard a recifense talk about violence and crime and then, with a resigned and embattled but also quite pleased with oneself smile, say, mas é Recife, né, vai fazer o que? It’s Recife, innit, so what do you expect?
Your Life Is An Impossibility knows what he wants to say but suspects he isn’t explaining it very well, so it might be time to take his leave. It’s Sunday morning, after all, and the sun is shining, and no matter that he was once told he could bribe his way through his driving test if he was feeling nervous (the price was uma Guarana, a teeth rotting Brazilian soft drink, which caused no end of confusion before YLIA realised it was slang for a few quid), or that he gets cheap internet access by illegally dividing up one connection amongst six of his neighbours, or that later on he might watch a few of the pirate DVDs he bought in the street on Saturday. Even affairs of the heart can’t escape – long time online dating aficionado Mr X tells of how no-one pays any more on Brazil’s leading luuurve site, but that budding Romeus and Julietas simply create a free profile and craftily use their email address as a nickname, rather than using the paid-for site email system.
YLIA’s frowns sternly upon o jeitinho brasileiro, and thinks everyone should play by the rules. But, and here’s the rub, sometimes it’s just so hard to be good.
* An honourable mention and a scout’s badge for anti-social behaviour must go to the scallywags who created road blocks of burning tires during the blackout (or the not that hard to remember blecaute in Portuguese) and proceeded to rob motorists by the hundred.