21 April 2014

Would I Ever Be Able To Repatriate?

Occasionally — very occasionally — I toy with the idea of returning to the United States, and wonder how easy or hard that might be. Would I be able to re-integrate? Because the longer I live outside the United States the less I know about how things work there, and the thought of what I don’t know anymore is paralyzing. How could I get anything done, order phone service, buy medicines, use a gas station? When I last visited the States four years ago I had no idea you had to swipe your own credit card at some cash registers. I stood in the drugstore like — well, like a foreigner, with my arm extended, trying to give the cashier my card. (A belated thank-you to the nice, patient person who explained what I needed to do in slow and clear English!)

I read somewhere recently that an expat is a foreigner in two countries, and there may be some truth to that. Besides the simple tasks I seem no longer to know how to accomplish in the States, there’s a whole vocabulary I no longer understand. When I left the United States, bundling meant wrapping yourself up in a warm blanket on a cold, winter night, hopefully with your honey to keep you warm; apple picking meant lifting up your arm under an apple tree and harvesting the fruit; an earworm would have been a terribly disgusting thing to have crawling inside your ears; to flog meant to beat someone with a whip or a stick; a hotspot was where it was happening, baby; and a tweet was the sound a bird might make. Do you see how out of it I am? I sometimes don’t have a clue as to what my American friends are talking about on Facebook, either. Example? A friend posted a question, which I didn’t understand, and here was the answer: The update comes with the background app refresh function on, which allows apps to refresh their content when using Wi-Fi or cellular in the background. Huh?

And should it ever happen that I do decide to repatriate, where would I repatriate to? With no fixed address anymore, the entire country spreads out before me. That, too, is paralyzing. I’ve always been drawn to the Northeast, but my mantra is NO MORE SNOW, so that would seem to rule out the very area I’m most drawn to. I don’t think that at this late stage of my life I could tolerate living in Red America, so that rules out some of the most beautiful and scenic states like, say, Arizona. Should I follow a much earlier fantasy of mine, and move to France? No, wait, that’s just more ex-patriating, more culture shock, with a language I once spoke but don’t anymore, more mountains of bureaucracy to plow through. Mon dieu!

And what on earth has happened to my husband, Mark, in this blog full of "I, I, I?" Well, while I’m fantasizing about moving and wondering about reverse culture shock, he’s as happy in Brazil as a pinto no lixo. Perhaps happier. He says he feels more at home in Brazil than anywhere else he's ever lived. No, this strange feeling of being vaguely betwixt and between is mine alone. But there’s something else lurking behind any worry I might have about repatriation difficulties. It’s something I read in a book by Tony Parsons called "One For My Baby," where the main character speaks of "the sense of endless possibility that every expat experiences, the feeling that your life has somehow opened up, that you are finally free to become exactly who you want to be. When you come back home you discover that you are suddenly your old self again." Wow. Return to being my old self? That, too, is a paralyzing thought.

14 April 2014

Bright Lights, Big City

Jardim Esperança—not too bad, just not pretty

The first time Mark and I drove across the bridge into downtown Cabo Frio, the municipality next to ours on the map, I remember yelling, "Get me out of here!" It could be I thought that I had died and had been consigned to spending eternity on New York City’s 14th Street — particularly the part of 14th Street west of Fifth Avenue as I remember it from the 1980s. The image still in my head is of tall buildings looming over low-end commercial establishments with garish, clamoring signage and gondolas full of cheap underwear out on the sidewalk; streets teeming with people and cars and bikes and buses; and lots of noise, lots of shouting, lots of amplified so-called music. And it didn’t help that back then the only road into Cabo Frio took us through a somewhat scruffy community with the encouraging (or perhaps mocking?) name of Jardim Esperança, or Garden of Hope. Actually, many very nice people live in Jardim Esperança. They work in the pousadas and the restaurants and the grocery stores in Búzios and Cabo Frio alike. They clean houses, drive buses, deliver prescriptions to sick people. They do all kinds of useful things that more prosperous people don’t do. Still, particularly for a newcomer, it wasn’t all that pretty.

quite an improvement!
But things have changed. And, to some extent, so have I. One advance was the completion of the Guriri Road, which connects Búzios and Cabo Frio via a particularly pretty stretch of countryside with the dunes of Peró Beach on one side and fields and pastureland on the other. No more Jardim Esperança. And the trip now takes a mere 30 or 35 minutes as opposed to the 45 minutes or so of yesteryear.


Our favorite bookstore in Cabo Frio
As for the old downtown that I found so horrifying, the Cabo Frio of today finds itself in a tug of war between the forces that want to keep the old downscale commerce on the one hand, and the forces of gentrification on the other. There is still plenty of garish signage and noisy hustle and bustle. But now there’s one of those cozy little bookstores in which you get the strong sense that the real money isn’t in the books but in the quiches and the espresso and the Australian shiraz poured by the glass, and where the artisanal stone sink in the ladies’ room seems to float in mid-air, attached to nothing. There may still be plenty of traditional Brazilian beach town restaurants, the kind in which the men sit around bare-chested and the women in bikinis, gorging on over-generous mixed grills washed down with buckets full of beer — those places aren’t going anywhere. But now there are more and more chic, sophisticated restaurants with French names and jazz on the sound systems.

Cabo Frio has also matured into a booming and well-regarded medical center, and I believe that it’s with the many doctors that work there that the town is keeping pace. I mean, they have to live, eat and shop somewhere! Once you get out of downtown, with its surrounding high-rise apartment buildings (that probably house the nurses and lab technicians) you find yourself in charming, leafy, low-rise neighborhoods, each with its own special character. The one pictured here is my personal favorite, a neighborhood called Passagem. Look at this refuge! It’s completely out-of-time.



And now all of a sudden, off in a part of town where there had previously been nothing but wide open space, there’s a real, honest-to-goodness shopping mall, complete with plenty of free parking. I know, very American of us to head, zombie-like, to a mall. The first time we went there we wondered if we would ever return. Well, we have returned. Repeatedly. Cabo Frio has really changed, and to this day I’m embarrassed by my initial reaction to it. When Mark and I haven’t been to Rio for a while, when we hunger for some bright lights, we jump in the car and head to Cabo Frio. Sometimes it’s fun to be the Out-of-Towners, gawking at the big city.

**A little bit of horn-blowing**
 My blog has been featured on InterNations, a Web site for the expatriate community (http://www.internations.org/). My interview with them can be found at: http://www.internations.org/brazil-expats/guide/recommended-expat-blogs-brazil-15696/barbara-tropical-daydreams-6?ah01_enabled

07 April 2014

Guardian Angels

Curtis Sliwa and his beefy Guardian Angels began patrolling the New York City subways in the late ’70s, at a time when I was one of the many single women riding home nervously during those extremely violent years. The City authorities didn’t particularly warm to Sliwa and his group’s constant interference in their crime fighting but, frankly, New York City wasn’t doing such a terrific job on its own. So when I saw those red berets and those muscles come into my car on the subway I breathed a deep sigh of relief and blessed them for their interference. I arrived home safe and sound every night, and lived to write this paragraph.





Whether a Guardian Angel is as handsome as Curtis Sliwa . . .










. . . or as warm and fuzzy as Henry Travers in It’s a Wonderful Life . . .





. . . or as beautiful as this statue which Mark and I like to think is watching over our house, the truth is you don’t really need a fancy Guardian Angel, one with capital letters, to keep you from repeatedly falling off into the abyss in the course of the day. Sometimes the ordinary everyday good will of your fellow human beings, what I think of as lower-case guardian angels, is enough to do the trick. It was just this ordinary everyday good will — which, by the way, Brazilians seems to have in inexhaustible abundance — that kept the abyss at a distance from Mark and me the other day, in Rio.



Miserable traffic on the way in from Búzios — bad enough on the stretch from Itaboraí to Manilha, worse still on the city streets. Passel of miserable but unavoidable errands. Heat to roast a chicken without any help from electricity or gas. Around midday, we started up one of the steep, twisty streets leading to the semi-alpine neighborhood of Santa Teresa, Rio’s answer to Paris’s Montmartre, with a view to checking into our favorite pousada before the unpleasant afternoon errands we had planned for ourselves. But someone had other plans. The transmission — the old-fashioned standard kind in our car—fell apart.

Best I could get off Google Street View . . .
Enter Gustavo, the furniture store salesman, in front of whose store we rolled to a stop. While Mark went to scrounge up a mechanic, Gustavo came out and sat me down in one of his many chairs at one of his many tables (it was a furniture store, after all) and served me limitless cold water. Coke, if I wanted it. Probably cachaça, too, if I had asked. He warned that we were parked in a bus stop, but assured me he would talk the cops out of towing our car if it came to that. Did I need a bathroom? Internet? Anything to eat? I had but to ask and the world was mine.



Josevan's garage
Next to the rescue was poor sweating Josevan, the mechanic, who had walked with Mark the several blocks from the garage where Mark had found him. Josevan got under the car as best he could but to no avail. He announced that he would drive us to his garage, which to our amazement he did, in an overtaxed third gear and in heavy stop-and-go traffic. All the while Josevan kept up a reassuringly bright conversation and, at one particularly tense moment, with a honking truck driver behind us, he tried us out on a sing-along. At the garage he got another car off the hydraulic lift in order to work on ours, fixed the car in a jiffy, charged us a pittance, and sent us on our way.

Mind you, I didn’t say that Josevan was the world’s greatest mechanic, just that he was a typically Brazilian fountain of good will. On our second attempt to get up to our pousada in Santa Teresa, the transmission failed once again. We were on an incline, on another twisty, narrow street, pointing up. There was no way the car would go forward for us. We were blocking traffic. And, with cars parked on either side of the street, there was no getting out of the way by rolling backwards either. Out of the house closest to us came this elderly gent, who quickly sized up the situation. He moved his SUV, immediately behind us, so that we could roll into his space. He insisted on driving us and our luggage up to the pousada. He lent us his cell phone to call Josevan (Mark and I being the last people in Brazil and maybe in the whole of the Western Hemisphere to think they can carry on their lives without a cell phone.) And then, while we all waited for Josevan to get up the mountain, the elderly gent’s elderly wife served us a choice of tropical fruit juices and cookies.

OK, maybe Josevan isn’t just a typically Brazilian fountain of good will, maybe he is also the world’s greatest mechanic and that first time around he just slipped. He got us down to his garage again, in third gear, and by maneuvering the streets in ways that are hard enough to manage with all five gears in working order. He worked on the car for another hour. More money? Nah. Here’s what he asked: "Do you happen to have a bill from your country? Like a one-dollar bill? Just for good luck."




You can be sure we will bring this dollar bill with us next time we go to Rio.


31 March 2014

From the Terrace

When there’s nothing to do and our friends are out of town; when there’s nothing good on television and the movie theater is closed . . . we sit on our terrace and watch our private show:

There's our basic view . . .

. . . and sailing events . . .
. . . and flocks of seagulls . . .



. . . stand-up paddlers abound . . .

. . . and so do kayakers . . .

. . . there are always tourist schooners . . .




. . . and once there was a cruise ship . . .

. . . and once we saw a strange-looking, glass-bottomed boat . . .

. . . we have helicopters . . .

. . . an occasional sea plane . . .

. . . and a parakitist or two . . .













(This is not the view from our terrace. Just checking to see if you’re still with me.)










. . . we've got fishermen . . .

. . . marathoners . . .

. . . and beach cleaners . . .

. . . sunsets in gold . . .

. . . and sunsets in silver . . .







. . . and fireworks come New Year's Eve.

24 March 2014

Oh, Well, Of Course . . . You're Americans

It’s hard to get beyond stereotypes, isn’t it? Even if you were brought up to respect other people, and not to make assumptions based on race, religion or national origin. Even if you pride yourself on being politically correct, you’ve got stereotypes in your head. Otherwise all those nationality jokes wouldn’t be so funny, right? You know the ones, they start out, "An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. . ." Each national type has its (stereotypical) characteristics. The Irish are drunks, the French are snobs, the Italians are womanizers, the Swiss are organized, the Mexicans are lazy, the Japanese are courteous, the Americans — well, here the list can be quite long. Off and on — though thankfully more off than on — Mark and I are told, "Oh, well, of course . . . you’re Americans. That explains everything."


national stereotypes in a word


Here in Brazil there’s no getting around the fact that we stick out in a crowd as foreigners. There will always be something un-Brazilian about the way we hold ourselves, the way we walk and the way we dress. But at least Mark and I are both thin, so if people just look at us they don’t immediately take us for Americans. (Sorry, America, but your growing obesity has preceded you around the world. Stop drinking those free soda refills, just stop!) No, if people just look at us they often guess that we’re French, which I accept as the highest of compliments. It’s only after people get to know us that our "American-ness" shines through.




"I told you to control your dog!"
And just what are the characteristics that define us so obviously as Americans? I’ve often wondered, because in my mind we don’t fit into the usual stereotypes: we’re not always in a hurry, we’re not stressed out, we’re not consumerist, and we’re not loud, angry or rude. Many years ago we were standing outside our house, on the street, with several of our neighbors. Somewhere nearby a dog starting barking furiously, and a guy — a big, heavily-muscled, thick-necked former Marine type — appeared from across the street (was he renting the house?) shouting, "Control your fucking dog!" Just like that, in real American English, although the only people on the street at the time who understood English were the two of us and our caretaker. And we don’t have a dog. Our caretaker turned to us and said, "That’s what I always thought Americans were like, until I began working for you."

Get out the manual!
However, there are American characteristics that do fit Mark and me like the proverbial glove. For example, we plead guilty to being punctual. It never fails but that Mark and I marvel at how empty a Brazilian movie theater is until the movie starts, at which point the Brazilians start arriving, and climbing over us to get to their seats. We are also guilty of being very, very organized. We make lists. We keep files. We remember birthdays (and did so way before electronic calendars). My recipes are in alphabetical order within their respective food categories. And to the astonishment of our friends, we have a written maintenance manual for our house, which we prepared so that the various infrastructure systems could be kept running smoothly from one caretaker to the next. No other house in all of Búzios has one, except perhaps one of the German households (Oops . . . talk about stereotyping!)


There have been times, thankfully few and far between, when the words, "You’re so American!" are not said with a wink and a smile, but rather with a jeer and a frown. I admit that those times make me a little nervous, because it means I’ve crossed over some line I can’t see. Was I too arrogant? Too aggressive? Too standoffish? If so, I apologize right here and now. I mean to be a good guest in this country. Please believe me, Mark and I don’t think we’re the best, or the smartest, people in the world. We have not been sent here to spy on anyone. And we never, ever, use the word awesome.

17 March 2014

Graffiti

What astonishes most visitors to Búzios is that it is actually a walled city. Not a Medieval walled city like Carcassonne in France or Ávila in Spain, but a walled city all the same. If you build a house in Búzios and if you have anything at all you want to keep out of other people's hands, you build a wall around it. Actually, the wall in Búzios is so fundamental that the wall is almost always built first. Then you may, if you’re really paranoid, cement shards of glass into the top of the wall or even run barbed wire along it. Only then is the house constructed inside the wall, as if it were a mere afterthought, or a detail.

And Búzios is no different from the rest of the world, where one man’s wall is another man’s blank canvas. Property owners do from time to time have to get out the paint can and paint over a "Dudu loves Angela" graffiti, but more often than not our bare walls are used for signage, they’re used to post menus, they’re used for sloganeering, and sometimes for fabulous, extravagant murals. Here’s a sample . . .

. . . of some signage . . . and some menus . . .
                                                        





. . . some great sayings and slogans . . .




"It's better to be happy than sad.
Happiness is the best thing that exists."
                               



"How many people must die in order for you to clean up your backyard? Dengue kills!"



"Where do you work out?"
"At the library!"











. . . there's some great stuff, kind of in English . . .






















. . . there's trompe l'oeil . . .

 

. . . and lots of fabulous, arty stuff . . .