27 October 2014

Brazil's New (Old) President

Well, Dilma Rousseff was slightly ahead in the polls against my candidate, Aécio Neves, she kept the lead and won the election. Another four years of President Dilma. Another four years of the PT, the Workers' Party, with their hands on the till (and I do mean till, not tiller!). More corruption scandals, less economic growth. More promises, less achievement. Dilma campaigned on all the improvements she had made in education, health, transportation, security . . . though for four years people have suffered understaffed and badly-equipped hospitals, brand new ambulances have sat unused in storage facilities, kids have missed weeks of school due to badly-constructed and collapsing school buildings, 20-year old buses have circulated in the major cities in lieu of the new ones sitting and waiting to be "liberated" from some garage for reasons unknown and unknowable. Same old same old.

Dilma Rousseff

But let’s leave politics aside and focus on Brazil’s election and voting procedures, so similar to — yet so different from — those in the USA. Here are some of the differences:

USA — Voting is a right under the Constitution, and many citizens consider it a sacred duty. But you don’t have to vote if you don’t want to, and nothing happens to you if you don’t.
BRAZIL —Voting is a legal obligation. If for some reason you can’t vote, you must explain why, in writing, at your nearest voting registry. If you don’t do that, you will be assessed a fine. If you don’t pay the fine, various other penalties kick in: you won’t be able to get a passport, you may not be able to get a loan from a state-run bank, you won’t be able to work in civil service jobs, and after three unexplained absences your voting registration will be canceled.

The campaign season is seemingly never-ending. A new season starts right after an election, when the losing party begins to plot its strategy for the next election, years down the road. And a campaign costs tens of millions of dollars.

BRAZIL —The campaign season is rigidly controlled. The starting and ending dates for the campaign are set by law. The amount of television and radio time each candidate has — and which, by the way, is FREE! — is set by law. The content of campaign ads is monitored and controlled by the Supreme Electoral Court. On the day before the election all posters, flyers, and any other campaign paraphernalia must be removed, and noncompliance is subject to heavy fines.

"This time is reserved for free campaign advertising"

If you don’t want to vote for a candidate on the ballot, you can enter a "write-in" vote.

BRAZIL —If you don’t want to vote for a specific candidate, you can vote in branco (white, or in this case, blank), which is something of a protest vote. However, it is added to the tally of the candidate who has received the most votes without your help, thus pushing the candidate further into a majority. In that sense, voting branco is an indifferent shrug of the shoulders. Or you can vote nulo (null), which is a better protest vote. In this instance you vote for a party that doesn’t exist, and the vote is not added to any candidate’s tally.

Absentee ballots are mailed in, the old-fashioned way, with ballots inserted into special envelopes which are in turn put into larger, even more special envelopes, until you have something approaching a Russian nesting doll. And then, just to get our goat after all the time and energy we put into getting our absentee votes to the Board of Election of our last U.S. address, it turns out that the absentee votes are counted only in case of a close result!

BRAZIL —If you live outside of Brazil you are still obligated to vote, and you can do so at the nearest consulate. You vote on the same day and during the same hours as voters in Brazil, and your vote is counted immediately, along with the rest of the country.

the famous hanging chads
The result is known hours, and sometimes days or weeks, after the last polls close on the West Coast. The networks are very fearful of calling an election too soon, in case they turn out to be wrong. And the U.S. thinks it’s the country of super advanced technology!

All polls closed at 5:00 p.m. We knew the results at 8:00 p.m. Now that is advanced!

***Dear Readers***
I’ve been told that the videos from last week’s blog, Drone Strikes, were not visible. If you’re interested, you can access them via their links. The first one can be found at:

and the second one, which highlights our property, can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmu0jJmCie8
Sorry about that.

20 October 2014

Drone Strikes

A dear friend of ours here in Búzios has two sons who live in New York. Recently, his sons were down here visiting. One of the sons, Raphael, built his own drone which — having gotten it through Customs — he carried everywhere he went in Brazil, including to breakfast at our house. I must say, we were rather excited at the prospect of having a bird’s-eye view of our house and our neighborhood!

Here’s Raphael setting up his pet drone —

Here’s the drone starting out on its mission —

While Raphael works the equipment —


And here are the resulting videos, courtesy Raphael Krengiel — the first gives a general overview of our neighborhood:

And the second one is more focused on our property and its immediate environs:

(Wish our house looked better. On one side is that construction project I’ve been blogging about, the one that’s seemingly been abandoned now for almost a year. It’s nothing but a big, ugly scar. On the other side of us, the swimming pool was being repaired at the time of the drone’s visit. Bummer.)

13 October 2014

Culture Shock

Coming in on the Marginal Tietê
What bumpkins we’ve become! We lived in New York, for heaven’s sake, we’ve been in a Big City before. But much to my surprise and consternation I started feeling the first signs of certain anxiety on our approach to São Paulo a few weeks ago. The tall buildings were looming on the horizon, growing higher and more menacing as we got closer. The traffic was getting heavier, with huge trucks and lumbering buses crowding the little cars and blocking the traffic signs. How would we see our exit? I’m convinced that if you miss a turnoff in São Paulo you can easily end up caught in Johnny Carson’s Slauson Cutoff routine! The overpasses and underpasses and highways feeding into São Paulo were becoming more and more complex. It was dizzying.

The monstrous Holiday Inn Anhembi
Mark and I had been invited to attend a congress/convention event in São Paulo on behalf of a business magazine back in the States. Since this invitation was a great opportunity for us to get out of the house and actually go somewhere, we accepted. We hadn’t been in São Paulo for years! I was excited! How was I to know how frightening and bewildering and unpleasant it would be once I was actually in such a vast expanse of concrete, steel, fumes and noise. It didn’t help that we were put up at the largest hotel in all of Latin America, the Holiday Inn Anhembi. A great hotel if you have business in the adjacent convention center. A dreadful place if you don’t. When your day’s business is done at the convention center you’re completely trapped out on São Paulo’s periphery in an enormous complex of buildings and arenas and parking lots. Want to explore nearby restaurant offerings? There are none. Want to do some window shopping? No dice.

There were days when we thought, Hey, let’s ditch the event and take the subway to our favorite São Paulo neighborhoods. At least that way, we figured, we’d be reminded of the best of São Paulo. Unfortunately, the closest subway stop was so far from the hotel that we needed to take the hotel’s shuttle bus to get there. Then there was the subway itself. When did it get so big? When did the transfers get so complicated? Where did all those people come from? I tell you, during one of these rides (okay, it was a Friday at rush hour) Mark and I were so packed and wedged and shoved in that we panicked and forced our way out of the car at whatever the next stop was. We managed to find a taxi, only to end up stuck in one of São Paulo’s forever and endless traffic jams.

But it wasn’t all bad, since we did find our way to São Paulo’s renowned Bienal exhibition of avant-garde art in beautiful Ibirapuera Park, where the piece we liked best was a huge mural on the entrance wall called "Map," by the Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie. Since it was all in English, most Brazilians walked right by. But Mark and I spent a long time studying it, sometimes laughing out loud at its ingenuity.

We also passed through the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art right next door, where an exhibit of hundreds of personal shopping lists caught me up. I must have read each and every one. How could I not? I’m a list-maker from way back!

Doesn't look like much in the pictures, but once you get up close and start reading . . .

We also did our share of ooh-ing and ah-ing at São Paulo’s Municipal Market, an absolute must-visit for me. Walking around the Market, with its unbelievable wealth of gastronomic offerings, I almost — just almost — thought about moving to São Paulo. For about a minute.
Here's just a slice of what's on offer:

A visit to Avenida Paulista is always de rigueur for us; it’s the heart of the banking and office building sector and there are always interesting art exhibits in, or just off of, the bank lobbies. There’d been lots of changes, but we did, as always, pass by one of the last — if not the last — old coffee baron mansions still standing, albeit on its last legs.

Residência Joaquim Franco de Mello, circa 1905 . . .

. . . and circa 2014 . . .

Still and all, what for us was the best part of getting away? Coming home.

Dear Readers,
I’ve ended my third year of blogging! I made a half-assed promise (to myself) to continue through the 2016 Olympics. Maybe by then I’ll have said everything I have to say about Brazil. Or not.

06 October 2014


Back in our New York apartment days, Mark and I befriended a Finn who lived right across the hall from us. I had never met anyone from Finland before, so for me she was fairly exotic. We called her Liisa-with-two-i’s, to distinguish her from another friend of ours, a native American Lisa-with-one-i. Liisa-with-two-i’s was a journalist, and she more than once flew off to Brazil on assignment. What was the interest in Brazil? Well, we all found ourselves in Brazil at the same time once, and Mark and I finally learned just what that interest was. Seems that, for the Finnish press, there was a perpetually intriguing story in the little town of Penedo, halfway between Rio and São Paulo. Penedo was the first Finnish colony in Brazil, with a cultural influence that is still going strong today.

Last week Mark and I were driving to São Paulo, some nine hours by car from Búzios. We like to break these drives up and dawdle a bit, so we made that halfway stop in Penedo, too. What a strange place. What a funny place. What a Finnish place.

First up is Little Finland, modeled on villages and stores back in the home country:

And of course there's Finnish this and Finnish that, everywhere you look:

Not to mention one of the best exports from Finland, properly honored in the Museum of Finland:
Finished with Finland, and back on the open road, heading to the highlands of São Paulo:

29 September 2014

Election Time Again

Brazil is having a presidential election this Sunday. Unlike the United States, where in some ways it feels as if politicians never stop campaigning, here in Brazil the campaign season is rigidly controlled by rules that date back some 20 years. For example, the major networks are allowed to give only one minute of daily campaign coverage to each candidate once the allowed campaign season is in swing (which this year started on August 9th and will run until election day, October 5th). Television and radio commercials air three times a week in two 25-minute blocks, all paid for by the Brazilian taxpayers. (This free air time is divided up between the political parties using a very complicated formula, please don’t ask.) Mark and I can’t vote, of course, not being citizens. But the taxes we pay help fund this folderol.

How dare I call it folderol? I dare. This is my fourth Brazilian presidential election as an observer. And I observe, as any sane Brazilian observes, that it is during this 58-day period, and almost exclusively during this 58-day period, that the words "education, schools, health, hospitals, sanitation, and security" are on every politician’s lips. There’s more at stake than just the presidential chair, and a horde of would-be senators, governors, deputies and councilmen are joining the presidential candidates in making exactly the same promises that have been made for years. Brazil needs more hospitals, vote for me because I promise to build them. Brazil needs better education, vote for me because I promise to take care of that. Brazil’s infrastructure is still primitive, vote for me because I promise to build better roads and bridges. Corruption in Brazil is pervasive and the bad guys have too much immunity, vote for me because I promise to change that. Yadda yadda yadda.

Posters, folders, stickers, campaign materials of all stripes are being tacked onto every available wall and post. Funny, though, there have been very strong wind storms in the last few weeks here in Búzios, so at least here all this material has blown down. And I must say, we’re kind of liking it as litter on the streets rather than in our faces. We can turn off the radio when the political block of time begins, we can turn off the television, too, but we unfortunately can’t escape the cars fitted out with huge speakers, blasting political jingles over and over and over. And what I really wanted to see during the course of this campaign were the televised debates. But believe it or not, there’s no one trustworthy place where voters can get information about the debate schedule. Brazil needs a nice, neutral League of Women Voters!

Some politicians love the campaigning more than they love the governing, but the current president, Presidente Dilma, seems to be at her most uncomfortable right now. At her best she is taken to be a dour, unsmiling bureaucrat, but now her party, the PT, has been trying valiantly to humanize her. They’re making her smile more, though it’s obvious how uncomfortable that is for her. She’s even been forced to tape a series of cooking videos, even though she’s famous for not wanting or knowing how to cook. So far she’s kinda sorta made an omelet and some pasta.

Anyway, it’s only a few more days now before all the vote-for-me ads disappear from print, radio and television. Voting is obligatory in Brazil, and Brazilians are gearing up to do their duty. And since voting in Brazil is done quickly and efficiently on electronic voting machines, we’ll all know within minutes who won or, if no one manages a majority, who will continue to compete in a second round to be held October 26th. Right now all the polls indicate that the second round will be between Dilma and Marina Silva, and Marina has a strong chance of pulling it off. Wow. Brazil’s first black, evangelical, pulled-herself-up-by-her-bootstraps woman president. That’ll be worth a few blogs!

22 September 2014

I Pini di Búzios*

I spend a good deal of my time at home gazing at pine trees, real Northern Hemisphere pine trees, something of an oddity here in subtropical Búzios. But there they are, three of them, on a property just two houses away from us. You probably can’t read the height of the two in the photo to the right, since I wasn’t able to get anything like a kid on a bicycle hauling a friendly Extra-Terrestrial over the treetops into the picture for scale, but they absolutely soar. If I guessed, I’d say the taller of the two is about 60 feet. They fascinate me, and for the simple reason that before moving here I imagined that I was going to be surrounded by palm trees, banana trees and tangly jungly vines. Never would I have imagined sitting on my terrace occasionally humming O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine Blätter.

The Austrian owner of the property on which these pines grow was sharing a bottle of wine with us the other day on our terrace. His looming pines watched us silently. "So what," we finally asked, "is the story on those pine trees?" He said, "Christmas trees." As simple as that. He had bought them as Christmas trees and then, instead of just throwing them out, he had planted them, and these giants are what resulted. Of course, the trees did not go zero-to-60 overnight. Our neighbor has been here in Búzios for well over 30 years.

Hugo of the pine tree
There’s another Búzios pine tree I had a very strong attachment to for many years, and I wish now that I had a picture of it from back before some Paul Bunyan-type came along and chopped it down. (Local environmental law says that if you want to chop down, or even trim, any of the native species on your property, you have to get a permit; in the absence of a permit, you risk a fine. Non-native species? Whack away at will.) This other pine I am thinking of was on the property of our dear and now long-lamented friend Hugo Oks. Of all the Argentines living here in Búzios, charming and aristocratic Hugo was far and away our personal favorite. On an afternoon on which he served one of his famous moqueca lunches, his towering pine tree, taller even than our neighbor’s three, was the beacon that lighted our way. I won’t say you could see it for miles off, but, because Hugo’s property was at the top of a fairly decent hill, you could see it from quite a distance. Even if you weren’t on your way to Hugo’s but you were headed somewhere else in the general direction of Ferradura, there it was, tall and proud. Then dear Hugo kind of allowed himself to die at the absurdly early age of 59. His property was sold and then — who knows why? — there was all of a sudden no more Hugo pine tree any more than there was a Hugo.

Roasted pine seeds, deelish!
Although pine trees in Búzios seem — to me at least — to be a bit strange, down in the much more temperate climes of southern Brazil, they flourish. One of the traditional cold-weather snacks in the state of Rio Grande do Sul are roasted pinhões, or edible pine seeds. I have a friend from there whose childhood is full of memories of pinhões right off the fire, the way some of us remember the roasted chestnut street vendors in New York. But why is it that I look at our neighbor’s pine trees every day in such wonder as they tower over his palm trees and his banana trees and his poincianas? Maybe it’s because I, too, am a transplant. And it’s not that we transplants have to stick together. It’s just that sometimes we recognize each other, with a subtle tip of the hat.

*with apologies to Ottorino Respighi, composer of the symphonic poem I Pini di Roma

15 September 2014

Lost in (Mis)Translation

I don’t like to use this blog to rant, and I believe I have successfully held to that rule (except for anything I write about Driving in Brazil which, believe me, is a subject impossible not to rant about). However, today I must rant. And it’s not a rant about Brazilian bureaucracy, or how the Patriot Act in the U.S. has begun to criminalize innocent Americans living abroad, or anything of the sort. In fact, it’s a rant that could be ranted anywhere in the world. It’s a rant about how a number of people here — Brazilians, Germans, Argentines, doesn’t matter — have over the years asked Mark and me to help them with translations into English (which we have done gladly, and at no cost) and then argued with us — ARGUED WITH US! — about what we, the native speakers of English, have provided.

The first time this happened was over dinner in our house with some guests. One of them, an extremely competent Brazilian speaker of English, asked us some question or other about a grammatical point that had been bothering him. Forgive me, I’ve racked my brain, but I can’t remember the exact question, only that it was about a rather subtle point. What I do remember clearly is that after I answered, and satisfied the guy who had asked the question, there came an arch, Brazilian-accented voice from the other end of the table : "No, you’re wrong." And this woman, the girlfriend of a friend of ours who was being introduced to us for the first time, went on to explain why I was wrong. And, of course, she was wrong. Well, how it all turned out has fallen into the folds of forgotten memory. To this day all that remains in my mind is how taken aback I was at the pig-headed sureness of this non-native speaker and the sharpness of her attack. Oh, and how she’s never been invited back!

The next occasion was over a translation Mark was asked to do for the Búzios tourism office. The text included the Portuguese-language word outrora, for which a dictionary might suggest "formerly, of old, yore, long ago, in former times, before now" as translations. But Mark, who is a writer, and for whom words are important, found a better translation for the gist of the sentence in the word "yesteryear." Remember growing up watching episodes of the Lone Ranger ("Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear")? Remember sitting in high school French class, reading François Villon’s poem Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis with its most famous line, "mais où sont les neiges d’antan," translated so famously as "where are the snows of yesteryear?" Or maybe you saw the second episode of the first season of the animated version of Star Trek, the one called "Yesteryear"? No? None of the above? Well, neither did the person who received this translation, an English-speaking Brazilian who had never seen the word "yesteryear." And since he had never seen it, it was obviously wrong. So he "corrected" the translation. And that ended any further translating Mark or I would ever do for any government office in Búzios.

     It’s a WORD, dammit!

Years went by, requests were refused, until I relented when a friend asked me to provide the English translation for a book she and a friend were doing on Búzios beaches. I told her I wouldn’t do it unless she could guarantee that no one — absolutely no one — would mess with my translation once it was submitted. She swore that nothing would happen, in fact, with everything so computerized nowadays it couldn’t even happen! Well, in this computerized world, here’s what happened, and you don’t even need the original Portuguese: My translation read, ". . . that sits at the foot of the Santa’Anna Church hill," and somehow the text that was published became ". . . that lays over the feet of Santa’Anna Church." Lays over the feet? Is that even English? Where did it come from? Not to nitpick, but there were other words just dropped from the translation, leaving the sentences completely unintelligible. You can imagine how proud I am when I see my name in print as the translator.

And only a month ago a German acquaintance called, a woman who translates both Portuguese and English into German. Lucky for her it was Mark who answered the phone, because he had a wealth of information for her about the expression she was having trouble with, which was "Strait is the Gate." Mark first explained the expression, then he referred her to Matthew 7:14, "Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few that be that find it." He also referred her to the 1909 novel by Andre Gide, La Porte Etroite, for which "Strait is the Gate" is the English translation. And just so that she’d have a richer understanding he talked about the English expression, to be in dire straits. Seems, however, that she was working with an incorrect English text that had printed "straight" instead of "strait." Not her fault. Not Mark’s fault. But she argued with him anyway, even though he was right and the English text was wrong.

I never have, and never would, argue a point of grammar or usage with a native speaker of any language not my own. It’s absurd! I mean, I feel I’m a competent speaker of Portuguese, but there’s so much I don’t know, so many cultural references, historical references, so many regionalisms, so many plays on words that I couldn’t possibly know better than a native Portuguese speaker. All I’ve ever asked for is an understanding that it works the other way, too.