Friday, 12 August 2011

When living in a violent place, inevitably there comes a time when the shadowy threat of urban crime becomes thicker and the night grows ever darker. When that moment arrives the city landscape changes forever – gloomy corners become more threatening, sinister alleys yet murkier, posses of lumbering youth still more menacing.

Signs of violence are everywhere, in the shape of burnt out cars and glass from a hundred broken windows glittering on the pavement, and a thuggish, heavily-armed police presence ogling gangs of hulking teenagers on every street corner.

There is nothing else to do, then, except stir your courage to the sticking point, gird your loins, and head out into the streets. Face down your fears, my son, as William Bonner once said.

But that’s enough about London. YLIAI wishes he could stay in cosy, peaceful Recife until hell freezes over, or Santa Cruz win the Libertadores (the former being likely to come sooner) but, as previously mentioned, it’s time to put his pé no estribo*.

And so we are plunged once again into the netherworld of international travel.

First encounter is with the zapped silence of Lisbon airport, where some of this was written, and which reminds YLIAI once again that life outside Brazil is life lived with the mute button firmly pressed. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, of course, depends on your point of view.

An exciting moment comes when YLIAI hears last call for Angola Airlines flight 5463, and sees an advertisement for Banco Millennium in downtown Luanda, featuring the talents of Yola Semedo, who might be the Ivete Sangalo of Angola for all that anyone knows. That´s when it hits YLIAI that he is slap bang in the middle of the great Lusophone empire (or really conglomeration of a bunch of countries all of whom have not much in common except language). Still, it’s a rickety, if chummy enough axis, and so YLIAI doffs an imaginary cap to Angola, and Mozambique, and Cape Verde and all the rest.

All this though is nothing compared to what awaits YLIAI, ever the Claude Levi Strauss inspired social anthropologist, at Gate 41. There he will come across a tribe as complex and exotic as any lost children of the Amazon – the English.

It is the elders of the tribe he must confront first. Wiry, pasty folk these, though lightly toasted from days by the pool in an Algarve timeshare, or out on the links overlooking the white capped Atlantic. The language spoken is an odd, almost unintelligible variant of English, with a limited vocabulary, seemingly based around the repetition of several stock phrases, such as taking the M25 then the M4 traffic shouldn´t be too bad really this time of day and you wonder why they don’t just and can’t even get a nice cup of tea.

The younger members of the group are more fascinating still. Curiously, there appears to be very little maturation or intellectual development, particularly amongst the men of the tribe, for very long periods of time. As a result 40 year old tribesmen communicate and behave in a way that is almost identical to their 18 year old counterparts.  

Traditional tribal dress is sported constantly – a curious style wherein sexual identity is masked at all times, especially amongst females, seemingly to make the wearer as unattractive as possible to the opposite sex. Social class is similarly disguised by way of a clever trick where very expensive clothes are designed in such a way as to make the wearer resemble an impoverished, perhaps even homeless, humanities student. Plumage is another key part of the appearance of the tribe’s young – the menfolk are required by tribal custom to sport curious hair designs in the so-called boy band styling.

Finally, the day to day activities of the young of the group should be discussed. The idea of work exists here, though the word is understood differently than is common in other parts of the word, here referring exclusively to activities involving advertisement post production, assistant on Channel 4 reality TV show, web designer or new media project manager. Though despite never beginning before 11 o´clock in the morning, work is an important idea and must be talked about constantly. When not at work, the younger members of the group call work constantly, seemingly in order to feel involved with whatever activity is taking place at the office.    

YLIAI feels privileged to be able to spend time with this oddest of communities, though also bewildered – there can be no stranger tribe anywhere in all the dark corners of the world, he is sure.** 

Funnily enough, though not being born into the tribe, YLIAI spent several years living amongst them, way back in the distant past. And yet now it is a world that appears as distant and alien as any gang of green-skinned Martians.

This is because Brazil, and more specifically Recife, has so obliterated any sense of YLIAI’s previous lives, and has assumed such a strong identity in the mind, that it will, ever after, be the reference point by which everywhere else will be judged.

Prior to all this, YLIAI spent a week in the land of musica sertaneja and little cows doing just that – repeating over and over, much to the frustration of Saci Perere of the Centro-Oeste, that it’s not like that in Recife (perhaps referring to the cleanliness of a public toilet), or people wouldn’t do that in Recife (in connection with cars stopping at zebra crossings). 

And now comes the greatest test of YLIAI’s gringo stripes to date – if hurled into the silence and order and politeness of life in Europa, albeit the periferia of Europa (in other words, Norn Iron), which is after all his birthplace, will he still feel at home?

Or will he miss the sweltering crush of a summer afternoon stroll down Conde Da Boa Vista, and the din of the cars and the car stereos and the music pouring from the shops and the bars and the rumble of endless frenetic conversation? Will he pine for the sharp elbow to the kidney in the scrum to get on the bus, and the surliness of just about everybody working in the customer service industry, and the mournful tem troco não shrug of the shop assistant when trying to buy anything with a note higher than r$2?

In short, will he miss Recife? And for how long?

Yes, and forever, probably.   

* With thanks to the Poet of Arruda.

** It should be pointed out that as with many indigenous peoples The English are divided into various tribes, of which this, commonly identified as The Southerners, is only one. Other tribal groupings, such as The Northerners and The Brummies are a more recognisable, likeable crowd. 

Monday, 1 August 2011

And then we came to the end, wrote Joshua Ferris, though he was talking about the collapse of the global economic system rather than the end of four years in Recife. And now that it is the end it is, like the end of anything important, hard to believe that it is over.

Recife has always been a place of intense emotions for Your Life Is An Impossibility. Like with another often grim (at the time at least) northern city several thousand kilometres from here, YLIAI fell in love with Recife right from the start. And the beginning is easy to remember even now. That first bus ride down from joyless João Pessoa, then the metro ride in from the bus station. Outside the windows poverty of a depth that YLIAI had not seen before slipped past - a pond of black oily water where naked children played in black oily mud outside shacks of cardboard and plastic bags and jagged planks of wood. It was and probably is somewhere near Joanna Bezzera, though YLIAI is not sure even now.

Nervously calculating, as the train pulled in, if it would be safe to walk from central station to the R$45 a night Hotel São Domingos in Praça Maciel Pinheiro. It shouldn’t have been, really, and yet it always has been, and still is today – the Gods of Recifense street crime have treated YLIAI benevolently. 

After that the memories become blurred, because there are so many of them. Drinking, of course, and for the semi-professional drinker there can hardly be a more generous bosom anywhere in the world than Recife. In Praça Maciel Pinheiro, to begin with, in the bar with The Worst Toilet In The World, watching the golden arcs of water leap from the fountain in the middle of the square while a statue of Clarice Lispector, complete with reading lamp and book in hand, looked sternly on. 

In that noisy little square behind the big central post office on Avenida Guararapes, where on one of those first nights YLIAI was tempted, by a smile of gleaming white teeth the size of the Capibaribe, to sit nervously at a table of surly youths in Jovem Sport tops (this was a long time ago, it should be remembered, when YLIAI was a novice in the world of Recife football). The surly youths asked the usual questions a gringo gets asked (where/from, what/do, like/Brazil, mulheres/lindas) and forced food and drink down YLIAI’s throat, then refused to accept a penny for the bill. What fun YLIAI might later have had or not had with the owner of the gleaming white teeth shall remain confidential.

Later, funnily enough, there came exchanging testosterone filled chitchat with half of the Inferno Coral in the Beco Da Fome, or boozing out by the reeking canal at Arruda, or simply sitting and reading or thinking or being rejected by Recife’s womenfolk at Cadu’s. When The Ex-Girlfriend showed up, there was drinking a plenty in truly terrible pagode joints (YLIAI should really have known better) all over Boa Vista and beyond. And last but not least there was Jordão, watching the trucks rumble up the hill to deliver water to otherwise parched parts of the netherworld that is Recife’s periferia. 

There were other places too – the unforgettable horrors and delights of Cais De Santa Rita, or the all-night awfulness of Garagem in Torre, or in Recife Antigo or out in Olinda or even, from time to time in As Republicas Independentes De Boa Viagem, though all of these now seem frivolous and unimportant (except for Cais De Santa Rita, which could never be described as frivolous) compared with the real business at hand, which was drinking, and is not to be confused with things like fun or having a good time. And drinking in Recife has always, and will always, mean Boa Vista. 

Then there are the people, many of whom have populated these pages at one time or another. Pride of place goes to The Big Black, and of course The-Ex Girlfriend, who brought the ghosts of murdered traficantes and police death squads into YLIAI’s otherwise tranquil existence, and made him a richer man today, emotionally speaking, than he was before. There were a string of other Ex-Girlfriends too, though they weren’t ex-girlfriends at the time – The Ex-Girlfriend With Two Kids, The Ex-Girlfriend From A Small Town In The Interior, The Argument.  There was Guinness The Dog and Antonio Conselheiro and The Louth Media Mafia and The Accidental Tourist and The Pampas Goat. There was Celine, Mother Sururu aka A Gata Do Bairro, and Parsons, and João 1 and João 2, and Brazil’s Next Top Model, and Mr X and many more. All are gone in one way and in other ways will never be gone at all.

There have been stories too numerous to mention, but which can generally be found somewhere in these pages, particularly from 30th March 2008 onwards. It is easier to talk of places – streets and squares downtown such as Praça Maciel Pinheiro, where YLIAI has walked a thousand times and which, if you forced him to name a place which represents the heart and soul of Recife, would win the big stuffed toy, and Rua Do Progresso and Rua Manoel Borba and Patio Santa Cruz. There was the small house out in Amaro Branco, Olinda, and once again, the darkness on the edge of town that is Jardim Jordão. There is also, of course, Arruda, where all the good and bad things that ever happened in Recife are re-enacted on a regular basis on a small patch of grass and where it sometimes feels as if the entire population of the city has shown up to watch this particular reflection of their own sorry fates. YLIAI makes no apology for using the present tense for this last one as the idea that watching games at Arruda is something that has passed into memory is too difficult to even think about.

But like all great romances (or at least all great romances in YLIAI’s life, which is perhaps a larger part of the problem than he would care to admit) love winters on the vine, the heart turns cold or at least really quite pissed off, and the idea is born that perhaps, perhaps, it’s time to move on. There is never any good reason for it – and God knows YLIAI, with over 40 addresses and counting, has done it often enough – merely the sense that the moment has arrived. 

The remarkable things about Recife then start to feel less uplifting, and the bad things – of which there are many,  including excruciating traffic and potholes and the godawful service in shops and bars and the suffocating bulk of nordeste culture and so on and so on – begin to feel unbearable. The grass of other places becomes much greener – in this case the land of cows and musica sertaneja, and more importantly of Saci Pererê of the Centro Oeste, that is Goiania. Excuses are made to others and to oneself, justifying it all and explaining why it just has to be now. And then the decision is made, and everything is arranged, and before you know it, you are gone.

And so now we really have come to the end. Not of Your Life Is An Impossibility, of course, though Brasão only knows what I´ll write about in Goiania, where the plan is to have a life of such sweet middle class intellectual laziness that there will be no possibility of adventures of any kind. Before that will be two months in Norn Iron which, ironically enough, has become in the heart a destination so distant and exotic that a spell there will surely inspire some kind of Theroux-esque travelogue in these pages.

But none of that is important, finally. What is important, and what I must say before I go, before the sun sets over Boa Vista for me for the last time, is that if there is one reason for the exercise in vanity and foolishness and idleness that is Your Life Is An Impossibility, in fact if there is one reason why any of this exists at all, then it is to be a love letter to Recife.

A love letter telling everyone who reads it that, in a way that is impossible to explain or understand or justify, for at least one lonely soul trapped thousands of miles from home, Recife will, and always be, The Greatest, Most Exciting City On Earth. That it may not feel like it now is hardly the point - it felt like it once, and that is more than most places will ever be able to say.