Monday, March 30, 2009

Party in Belo Horizontes!

Congratulations to our friend Dü who just graduated (first in his class) from a Tourism program in Belo Horizontes. A big achievement deserves a big party.

Luiz and I traveled to Belo Horizontes to join in the celebration. Dü’s class has been raising money for a year to throw a HUGE party. Coat and tie and formal gowns were the standard for party-goers. The event was in a grand party space with wonderful food and drink.

To our dismay Luiz and I took our non-functional camera (as opposed to the working one.) Lesson learned. That camera is now in the trash. But, alas, no pictures.

What we loved about the party:
- Being with Dü and Carlos
- Getting all dressed up
- Seeing Dü and Carlos dancing to great applause during the “principals” dance
- The food was great – fancy finger food passed by eager-to-please waiters
- Spending time with Dü and Carlos’ family and friends
- The women looked AMAZING – dresses, hair, shoes…

What made us chuckle or frown at the party:
- Dü’s 33 guests shared a table with 12 chairs (before too long the music had us up and trading seats going to and from the dance floor)
- The party hall was NOT a non smoking area – it was FILLED with smoke
- The dinner was served at 2:00 a.m. (not a problem, just VERY different than would be the case in the States)
- Listening to the very talented band sing American standards with slightly off lyrics, like their version of New York, New York “I want to wake up in the city that has never slept.”
- The current Brazilian men’s tie fashion trend seems to be about a race to the bottom. Ugly, boring, stiff, shiny, diagonal stripes wrapped around all their necks. Yawn.
We left the party around 5:30 a.m. and crashed back at their house - along with 6 others in from out of town. After just a few hours of sleep we were up again with Carlos playing the guitar and everyone singing -- and ordering in a case of beer. While we kept the party going the housekeeper quietly cooked an amazing lunch. By about noon we were drooling over a table set with two roasted chickens, a pan of sausage cannellonis, a vegetable salad to die for and of course fresh beans, rice and farofa. Incredible.

One of my favorite bits from the long weekend was our going to an all-you-can-eat Japonese restaurant. Sushi!!

It’s always great to see Dü and Carlos. They are now planning to come to Niteroí for our birthday party in May.

I should add that Carlos has been losing weight like a mad man. He has lost over 100 pounds! He looks great and reports feeling even better. (The picture above is from 'before'.)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Jim interviewed on

One of my most-visited online resources these past couple of years as we prepared for our move and then worked to get settled has been a terrific website of-by-and-for gringos in Brazil.

The friendly community of folks there have helped with everything from info on opening a bank account to reassurances that you are not dumb -- Portuguese really is that hard! It was on this site that I learned about the "Stable Union" permanent visa option that Luiz and I eventually used (successfully) to get me legal and working.

So I've done a bit to return the favor. The site has a regular column called "Brazil Through Foreign Eyes" wherein a newcomer to Brazil responds to a series of interview questions about their experiences. I'm the featured interviewee this month. Check it out.

Thanks again to for all the support they have and continue to provide me.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Finding movies online

One of my students was telling me about watching "Slumdog Millionaire" the other day. He downloaded it from the internet. Just as their are sites to "trade" music files there are also sites to "trade" movies.

After about an hour of downloading new software and upgrading old I was delighted to get a copy of the new award-winning movie "Milk" - about Harvey Milk in San Francisco.

It was super fun to see the City as it was back in the 70's and to reconnect to Harvey's historic life story. The movie was good - I reccomend it. But the REAL film to see on this topic is the Academy Award-winning documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk" - now THAT movie captures the whole story!

Can't wait to go browsing for my next film...

Friday, March 20, 2009

No income taxes this year

Did you know that even though we live in Brazil that US law requires that we pay income taxes to the US government for income earned in Brazil? And yes, we also owe income taxes to the Brazilian government.

Think about that.

This year it is not a drama. We have been living, for the most part, on our savings (and consistent with our planned budget.) So we really have not earned much of anything in relative terms. (Pay no attention to sporadic freelance activities!!)

According to the very polite and helpful IRS representative (number 0212741) I spoke to on the phone the other day – unless and until we earn the equivalent to US$8,950 we are not required to file a tax return. This means we have NO OBLIGATION this year to mail in anything! Although I fully expect a letter in June from the IRS asking if we forgot to file.

The better news is that as we move forward and earn larger sums in Brazil, we will certainly pay taxes in Brazil, but there is a huge deductable for income earned abroad before we have to file for the US. (I don’t have the number handy, but it is more than I ever expect to earn in a single year.) So basically the rich international political class has to pay taxes (and the successful business folks) but us simple folks just getting by will not be paying double taxes.

Of course the flip side is that as non-tax-paying Americans we will not benefit from any future tax giveaways Washington may cook up to stimulate the economy. You only get those checks if you filed taxes in the previous year – or can deduct them from your next return. Fair enough.

We are disappearing from the American bureaucracy (That’s probably a good thing.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pedicure fest

Gotta love that in-home pedicure service thing that is so available in Brazil.

I came home today after teaching three English classes to find a mini pedicure station set up in our living room. Zozó had called her manicurist to come do her feet, then do Luiz’s. Lucky me I came home just as she was finishing up with Luiz. I said: “I want this too!”

So I sat back on the couch, put my feet (one after the other) into a bucket of soapy water, and placed them on the lap of the pedicurist.

My guess is that it has been four or five years (dare I reveal!) since I last had a pedicure. Nasty dead skin went flying when she grated off the calluses on my heels (yuck!)

But now we can all walk barefoot - proudly - around the apartment.

In-home pedicure: US$4.50

I’m loving it!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Little things can be huge

Sometimes I just take a beep breath and say again: “I love Brazil.”

On our way to the beach this morning Luiz used his free bus pass to enter the bus. I followed behind, handing our beach chairs to him over the turnstile at the bus entrance while digging in my pocket for my fare. Seeing that we were together the trocadeiro (the guy who takes your fare) said to Luiz – "If he is your companion, he can enter for free as well."

Trying not to look totally dumbfounded Luiz asked for clarification. (While I happily slipped into the bus for free!)

It turns out the free transportation Luiz is afforded by the government because he is a resident with a chronic life-threatening illness extends to one additional person who would likely be needed to accompany him to medical appointments. How cool is that?!

So let’s review: The Brazilian government is taking the compassionate and progressive position that one will probably not survive their dire health circumstance if they cannot afford bus fare to get to their medical appointments. Rather than make citizens choose between food and bus fare they are backing up the patient with free transportation.

To go further, the government is acknowledging that people battling cancer and other really shitty illnesses may not, in many cases, be able to manage a trip to the doctor on their own. So the government pays the fare for a companion as well.

I’m sorry to say this, but: NEVER IN AMERICA.

The tangible “family first” culture in Brazil that extends into almost every social interaction with kisses, hugs, touching, smiles, sweet colloquial expressions and comfortable eye contact has apparently informed the government bureaucracy as well. We feel like the medical system is actually rooting for us.

It feels nice.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Celebrating Zozó's Birthday

It’s that time of year – for our annual celebration of Zozó’s 69th birthday.

This year Zozó chose to go with an intimate, yet crowded dinner at a local restaurant with her closest friends. Since only a month ago we had a huge churrasco (BBQ party) to celebrate Tonico’s 78th birthday, it made sense to not go the whole huge party route one more time.

She took us all to her favorite pizza and pasta all-you-can-eat venue (just across the street from our apartment.) They know her over there and she gets the real royal treatment. So did all of us who came to celebrate her birthday.

I don’t think I’ve posted about the all-you-can-eat (‘rodizio’) pizza places. Brazilians will put anything on a layer of dough and call it a pizza: cheese and meat, sure – but also seafood, creamy bananas with cinnamon, chocolate sauce, cream cheese (-ish) and goiaba paste (referred to as Romeo and Juliet) – whatever (but try and find a vegetable! Good luck!) Savory, sweet, somewhere in between; it’s all pizza. Pizza is eaten with a fork and knife – and most savory pizzas are topped with a little ketchup – for that special touch!

We all enjoyed our night out together and Zozó was showered with kisses and well wishes for many more years to come.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Fresh squid for dinner

Saturday morning at 7:00 a.m. Luiz nudged me awake and said "Let's go to the beach." He was determined to get some beach time in before the sun was too hot.

The idea was to go to Piratininga Beach with our beach umbrella and chairs (I insisted on a chair, Luiz decided not to take one - which he later regretted.) Piratininga is a beautiful beach but it does not have restaurants or kiosks lining the shore serving patrons at tables on the sand. It's more a do-it-yourself destination. Although -- there are still plenty of folks walking the beach selling cold beverages, sunscreen, food and whatever else they think you might buy.

So after coffee and a quick shower we were out the door and catching the bus to Piratininga. We arrived on the beach just before 9:00 a.m. and there were already more than 100 people there claiming their spot and enjoying a morning plunge in the sea.

Anyway, by about 11:00 a.m. a couple fishermen were laying out their catch in the back of their boat for sale. The fish looked great, but the squid got my taste buds going. We asked them to clean about 1.5 pounds for us.

They were pretty big squid with bodies longer than 6 inches. As such, there were full ink sacs in each of them. What a mess. Plus, if you've cleaned squid and burst open the ink sac you know that it itches like crazy. The men were good humored about it but would occasionally take a break to dive into the sea and wash off their stained hands.

We left the beach around noon. Once back in the apartment we set out to cook up our fresh, cleaned beauties. And herein comes the inevitable dillema with Luiz and I. I like my seafood barely sufficiently cooked and served with a fresh vegetable sauce or accompanyment of some kind. Luiz enjoys his seafood fried.

So I cut up the squid and divided it into two bowls: one for my concoction, one for his.

An hour later I was savoring my squid in maranara sauce served over pasta and Luiz was draining his fried squid on paper towels to be eaten with a creamy garlic white sauce covered pasta.

Two more different results would be hard to find. But both were delicious in their own way.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Economic downturn and Brazil

Given my lack of Portuguese reading skills I remain on the outside of the local daily news cycle. That said, I read multiple English language sources every day that keep me at least peripherally on the ball.

Friends have asked me to comment on how the global economic downturn is affecting Brazilians. I don’t want to go too far out on a limb here. Luiz and I are not typical Brazilians in so far as we have resources saved from the past several years in the States. This savings puts us in a slightly more freak-free zone. That is, any immediate downturn does not have our butts scraping the ground.

But truth be told it does not seem that the economic perfect storm taking down most of our friends in the US has hit all that hard here in Brazil. We are in a different reality.

For example: Brazilians do not, as a rule, have credit card debt. The average interest rate here for a typical credit card is about 150% per year. Nobody is using a credit card to buy a flat screen TV or to buy groceries. Penalties for writing a bad check or missing a scheduled payment are swift and severe.

While there may be some housing price booms going on in places like Leblon and Ipanema in Rio – and certainly in other locations along the coast or in cities like São Paulo, most Brazilians live in very simple houses in very simple towns. The rise of a vast middle class buying homes utilizing home loans of any variety has yet to reach this developing country – at least at the scale that would/could crash an economy.

Unemployment is up. On the other hand interest rates on some bank loans have been lowered recently so that more people can afford cars. Car sales have been increasing in recent months (big contrast with the US).

So – I guess the poor are getting the last laugh (figuratively speaking - not many of Brazil's shockingly poor are laughing.) If you are broke you can’t get screwed too much by the money changers who are screwing the money holders. But then Brazil is seeing a drop in the export of goods they rely on developed countries to buy. Manufacturers are closing shops. This is having a direct negative impact on the economic growth enjoyed over the past few years.

Maybe the downturn has yet to land ashore in a way that affects everyday citizens.

This article in the recent issue of TIME magazine suggests Brazil may just steer clear of the global economic disaster. I encourage you to read the article – here are some hot quotes:

“Most Brazilians believe [President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] is the reason their country is surviving the current downturn better than other places.” "Lula has an 80% approval rating."

“According to a recent study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), Brazil may be the only one of 34 major economies that avoids recession in 2009.”

“Exports have been diversified so as to reduce reliance on commodities, and before the downturn the nation socked away a record $208 billion in foreign reserves. The banking system has remained well regulated, and so far seems to have been less exposed to the toxic assets that have wrecked many U.S. and European banks. All this has "buffered Brazil quite a bit against the global downturn," says Paulo Leme, emerging-markets director at Goldman Sachs.”

"Brazil's business leaders insist record profits during the 2005-2008 boom allowed Lula to aid the poor; Lula argues his antipoverty crusade fueled the economic growth. It's a chicken-and-egg debate, in which both sides are right. What matters is that social stimulus programs like Bolsa Família have been matched by fiscal measures like a reform of Brazil's engorged civil service pension system. "It's called doing things right," says Lula. "Allowing the rich to earn money with their investments and the poor to participate in economic growth."

Check out the complete article here.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Becoming a teacher

Truth be told I actually prefer unemployment (and the beach) -- when it's an affordable option. If that's not possible I'll take a regular 9 - 5 job; Monday through Friday. Then of course you have the reality of having to make a living. So I teah English when I can.

Lucky for me being a native-born US American English speaker I have value in the English schools market.

FISK, a big language shool franchise in Brazil, with three locations in Niterói, has so kindly added me to their staff. In this case I am not just working for them for a wage -- they have officially signed my workbook - which means I'm an actual employee, with vacations and the coveted 13th salary (Brazilian workers get paid an additional month's salary in December as essentially an Xmas bonus.)

I'm having fun with the kids (so far I find the teenagers here MUCH - MUCH more well-behaved than had been my experience in the US.) And my boss is delighted to have an American on her staff.

My schedule is a bit erratic, but it is filling in. Between FISK and the other school I work for I'm almost getting to a living wage.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Thank you Mr. Harvey

It may seem a bit out of step for me to pay tribute on our blog to a radio personality. I can see how folks would see it that way. But let me share with you a very old secret - Paul Harvey, who died Saturday at the age of ninety, was a specific powerful and early influence for me in terms of my story telling and writing style.

I read his book "The Rest of the Story" back in the early 1980's when I was in college, studying to be a story-telling educator. Mr. Harvey's "wait until the end to reveal the critical piece that pulls it all together" style made a real impact on me. I've enjoyed aspiring to his expertise ever since.

I remember staying up at night in my bedroom on Kelly Street (in my childhood) to listen to his radio broadcast while lying in my bed. Great stuff.

Without going on too long - let me just pay my respects.

Thank you Mr. Harvey. Thank you.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Carnaval in Cabo Frio

For a change we left Rio and celebrated Carnaval in Cabo Frio. This popular beach resort town frequented by Brazilian tourists, young people mostly, is located about 2.5 hours north of Rio.

Our friend Ricardo, who recently moved back to Brazil after 15 years in Pheonix, AZ, just opened a small restaurant in Cabo Frio. We thought we could give him a hand over this busiest of long weekends. That was a good instinct on our part – his single employee waiting tables disappeared prior to Carnaval (and will likely come back afterward looking for his job back.) So we were definitely needed.

Cabo Frio is famous for its pristine beach with sugary white sand and crystal clear water. Perfect for a crowded beach, the water deepens slowly as you walk out from shore. You can wade out a good 75 yards and still find the water only at shoulder depth. Even more – you can then look down and check your pedicure, the water is that clear.

Luiz and I would get up in the morning and visit the beach for an invigorating dip. Even at 9:00 a.m. the beach would already be swarming with people – with no easy place to plant your shade umbrella or spread out your conga.

Then we would help Ricardo through the lunch rush.

At 5:00 p.m. we would be back at the beach.

Carnaval in Cabo Frio takes the form of loud, crowded and nearly endless street parties. For my taste it was all a bit too much. Too many people. Too noisy. And it went on for too long. We would return to Ricardo’s apartment well into the early morning hours – but the parties would boom outside our window for hours. It can be a challenge to sleep with two competing street parties blaring competing music.

But then, the Carnaval atmosphere brings out the cutest costumes: like this band of alley cats looking for trouble!

Salgueiro crowned Rio Carnival champs

Samba school Salgueiro was crowned champion of Rio's fiercely competitive Carnival parades on Wednesday, knocking off a powerhouse rival.

Salgueiro's parade theme centered on the history of the drum and its importance to music in various cultures. An army of 4,100 marched alongside ornate floats featuring prehistoric beasts ridden by cavemen.

The school scored 399 points out of a possible 400 to win its ninth title and first since 1993. In second place with 398 points was Beija-Flor, which had won five of the previous six years and edged out Salgueiro in 2008.

Read more here.

Some good photos here.