Friday, March 26, 2010

How's that Portuguese comin' Jim?

[main entrance to Rio de Janeiro State University]

Not so great, unfortunately. It's tough. I'm not used to being so stumped by a subject matter. (I'm a pretty smart guy overall. *wink*) Nothing short of intense study is going to get me through this. And so far I have been reluctant to commit the time and effort.

Today I started my third semester of classes. The first two semesters, you may recall, were at the Federal University (UFF) here in Niterói. They were great courses, although I got barely passing grades.

[the place is huge, and really 'Soviet' archetecturally]

This semester I'm at the State University in Rio (the Federal University dropped the "Portuguese for Foreigners" program for some reason). The good news is that I'm only paying R$150 for the whole semester! (UFF was nearly R$1,000.)
The bad news is that classes are on Friday afternoon, for three hours, and put me on the bus back to Niterói exactly at the height of rush hour. Going to and returning takes three hours sitting on the bus. Sigh.
[open outdoor walkways between floors/buildings]

We are a motley crew of 12 students from all over the world: Pakistan, Equador, China, USA, England, Germany... and it seems the mean level of proficiency is BELOW mine, so I'm not getting my hopes up for a huge leap forward. But the structure and routine of studying is definitely something I need to help me improve. And the price is right.

The good news is that this particular state university is known for its language courses (they offer everything from Greek to Japanese, to Spanish to Russian, to English, etc.). Hopefully it will be a good course.

Wish me luck. It has been an uphill battle - and one I cannot shy away from.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Getting poked to avoid the Swine Flu

Luiz and I got the H1N1 vaccine today. Zozó will get her shot tomorrow. The Brazilian department of health has just started their campaign to get everyone vaccinated. This early round prioritizes the most vulnerable: children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses.

Given Luiz’s Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, that is to say his suppressed immune system, getting a vaccine is not always indicated. He cannot receive a “live” vaccine because he may then contract the very illness the vaccine is supposed to trigger protection against. In this case the vaccine is made from inactivated virus (dead) so there is no risk of him catching the flu. But, again, given his reduced immune response, he may experience very little benefit from the vaccine overall. But every little bit helps.

Our best strategy is to practice “herd immunity” to keep Luiz from contracting Swine Flu. That’s why I got the shot today as well, even though I am not in the prioritized groups. We need everyone in our household to be vaccinated to help protect Luiz.

We took the bus to a nearby public health center, smiled, identified which category we qualified for (chronic illness) and then got the shot. In and out in less than 5 minutes. And of course it was free.

Yes we can

Now that the beginnings of health insurance reform are taking root back home (still a long way to go, unfortunately) the Republican leadership is really, really upset. Careful guys, you are showing your true colors.

Just listen to Republican leader John Boehner expressing his vision for America:

That's leadership? Vote for a Democrat again in November.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fresh fish in Niterói

Founded 33 years ago, the São Pedro Fish Market is one of the more traditional markets in Niterói. For those of us who enjoy top quality fresh fish or other seafood this market is the best option in town. There are 39 independent stalls with a terrific selection of fresh fare at super competitive prices.

[statue of Saint Peter]

My friend Amanda and I went to the market this morning with the intention of buying an octopus. Many years ago I had a wonderful octopus vinaigrette salad in Cyprus and have never forgotten how tasty it was. I’m determined to recreate that salad.

[shrine to Saint Peter]

While there was no shortage of octopi, it was the “today only” sale on salmon at one stall that derailed my plans. For the most part salmon was going for about R$31 per kilogram throughout the market, steaks or fillets. But this one guy had a deal where if you bought the entire fish, the price was just R$20 per kilogram. Chop off the head and tail and that works out to be less than half what I pay for a frozen fillet at the local supermarket. Octopus salad would have to wait. I had him fillet a fish for me.

[super cute fish monger!]

The second floor of the market is packed with restaurants – so when you finish haggling for a great deal downstairs, you can go upstairs for a fantastic seafood lunch. Better yet – buy a fish you’ve never tried before and take it upstairs to be prepared to order.

Tonight I cooked an amazing salmon bake. Ahhhhh!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Brazilian economy faring well

Brazil is definitely changing economically - for the better. When I first came with Luiz to Brazil 11 years ago the local currency, the Real (pronounced: “hay-al,” plural: “hay-eyes”), was worth only 25% of the US dollar. Everything seemed really cheap to us (but was very expensive for Brazilians).

As time has gone by the dollar has continued to dominate the real, but the Brazilian currency/economy has been steadily gaining ground. Today one real is worth 56% of a dollar. The good part about this, from a now-resident point of view, is that the strengthening economy has meant more people with jobs, more accessible consumer credit, falling prices on many consumer items and an overall increase in the standard of living for millions of Brazilians.

Just looking around you can see and feel the difference (unfortunately, this includes more traffic!) So while in the past home electronics were ridiculously expensive here – computers at 4 times the cost of the same in the US, for example – now that gap is narrowing. More people have new kitchen appliances, have bought a car, or can afford to fly to visit their distant relatives.

In the midst of the global economic shake up, here in Brazil we have experienced a mere speed bump. Of course poor people/countries have less to lose, but for a whole set of reasons Brazil is sustaining some pretty good economic trends.

Check out this blog post by Robin Lustig of BBC Radio and BBC World Tonight. Here is an excerpt:

“Ask people around the world how happy they think they'll be in five years' time, and who emerges as the most optimistic?

Yes, it's the Brazilians. For millions of them, the past few years have brought greater wealth, more jobs - and with them, it seems, more happiness. In four years' time, Rio will host the World Cup final, and two years later, in 2016, the Olympic Games. What more could anyone want?
Over the past decade, average income for the least well-off in Brazil has risen by more than 70 per cent. For the richest, incomes have risen by just 11 per cent. As a result, the gap between the rich and the poor has narrowed. Between 2003 and 2008, more than 30 million people were lifted out of poverty.

How was it done? Some of it by targeting social welfare programmes like the Bolsa Familia (family benefit) on the very poorest. But according to Marcelo Neri at the Centre for Social Policy here in Rio, that accounts for only about one third of the narrowing of the poverty gap. The rest comes from new jobs in an expanding economy.” More here.

Luiz and I feel like we dodged a bullet, pulling out of the US economy when we did and setting up shop here in bustling Brazil. Work is still tough and wages are low, but there is not the heavy pall of fear, despair and frustration that so many Americans have been reporting. The joyfulness among its residents that first attracted me to Brazil is alive and well. And growing.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Craisins in Niterói

My friend Craig was not able to visit us this year, but he sent a terrific care package that included a HUGE bag of Ocean Spray Craisins. These are foreign objects here. There are no cranberries in Brazil – except for the ridiculously expensive R$15 per half liter juice boxes of imported cranberry juice (from concentrate).

Craisins – remember those? I’ve been having a lot of fun incorporating them into recipes. My now-famous Panatone bread recipe is inclusive of craisins. And today I made a batch of oatmeal craisin cookies. Mmmmmm.

Have a look.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tropical Rains

In less than 20 minutes we can go from dry summer heat to flooded streets.

Summer is the rainy season here in Rio. This year, however, we have seen very little rain. That’s good news for the tourists who come here for Christmas, New Year and Carnaval. It is punishingly hot, however, for the rest of us.

The temperature this summer has been unusually hot – and dry. The rain is often the only relief we have from the heat. If it rains only slightly people will not even use umbrellas, they will just look upwards and smile into the falling raindrops.

When the sky really opens up all bets are off. Best to find a barzinho and settle in for a half hour wait until you can continue on your way.

The street in front of our apartment floods if the rain is too fierce. First the road fills with runoff. Then the sidewalk begins to flood. During really ferocious downpours the water rises to the point of invading shops and restaurants.

But it is so refreshing. The dusty streets are washed clean. The clammy air is scrubbed and chilled. Most importantly the temperature is knocked down 10 or 15 degrees.

I’ve come to love the rain in summer.

Book Review

Among my favorite books are historical novels or histories set in Brazil. There are a few great ones out there, including “The War of the End of the World,” by Mario Vargas Llosa (a Peruvian writer who tells a riveting tale of a very famous standoff in the backlands of Brazil at the beginning of the Republic) and “Brazil,” by Errol Lincoln Uys which romps through more than 500 years of Brazil’s history in fluid storytelling fashion.

I just finished a terrific book that tells the tale of US President Theodore Roosevelt’s journey down an uncharted river in the Amazon in 1914: “The River of Doubt” by Candice Millard. It was published in 2005.

In this historical recounting Candice Millard, a former writer for the National Geographic Society, follows President Roosevelt from just after his failed run for the presidency as head of the Progressive Party (nicknamed the Bull Moose Party), through his decision to explore a river in Brazil, and then most engrossingly along that harrowing and nearly fatal journey.

As reviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle: “[Millard] writes with precision and perfect pacing, enriching her narrative with just the right amount of historical back-story and scientific content.”

I loved it and was sorry to finish it in just three days.

If there are any ex-pats here in Brazil who would like to trade/lend a book or two from your shelf for any of the titles I’ve mentioned, give me a shout. We could take our chances with the Brazilian postal service…

Monday, March 15, 2010

Babies at the zoo

I’m not a fan of zoos. Yeah, yeah, I get it that zoos provide an important role educating people about animals and helping to build awareness that breeds conservation impulses.

But I have also been to the zoo in Rio de Janeiro. It is painful. The first time I visited the zoo the elephant was banging its head against the wall. Nonstop.

I want the Rio zoo to be a better place. Really I do.

This latest report about the fecundity of their inhabitants is a hopeful sign. Check it out.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Corcovado shrouded in scaffolding

[Forgive me for the quick commercial preceeding the video!]

For anyone planning a visit to Rio in the next several months consider this: the famous Corcovado (Christ the Redeemer) statue looking out over the eastern part of the city from a glorious height of 2,296 feet is currently getting some routine maintenance. This means it is surrounded by scaffolding.

Unfortunately it will not make for the best picture. Although the amazing views of the city, bay, sea and Niterói across the bay remain unobstructed. They should be done in June.

Just a heads up.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Zozó's birthday party

Today is Zozó’s birthday. In years past this has meant a full-on party with staff at the house in Itaipú for upwards of 75 people; more food than you can imagine and her signature dessert table that could satisfy the children from three elementary schools.

This year things are a bit subdued, as you might imagine. Luiz and I hosted a lunch in our apartment for about a dozen of her closest friends. We did most of the cooking, but some guests brought a few tasty additions.

Zozó has been swamped in painful transitions. She wakes up every morning looking for an anchor to get her through the day. Some of her whirlwind reality may be chalked up to her uneasy avoidance of painful silences, but in fact there are so many changes being forced on her that just keeping her head above water can be a real struggle.

Today we tried to create a calm in the storm for our birthday girl.

All the usual suspects came to celebrate. We had food, gossip, cold drink, and enthusiastic chatter.

Zozó was awash in well wishes, love, calm embraces, sincere encouragement and simple kisses. There was more food than we could eat. Everyone took a little home with them.

After everyone left we recounted the generosities of the day and were grateful for the warmth of good friends

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Singing in the rain

After a long hot spell we have finally seen some relief. Unfortunately the pendulum (as it often does) swang from nothing to too much. The rain has been pretty dramatic.

But yesterday and today have been dry, sunny and beautiful.

Check out this glimpse of Rio after the rains. [compliments Mellin Videos]

Baixo Gávea Debaixo D'água from Mellin Videos on Vimeo.

I can see clearly now

A revolution of sorts has transformed my relationshp with my computer. I can actually see the type on my screen without having to lean in and squint.

Yesturday I picked up my new 'for computer only' glasses.

I've worn glasses for my near sightedness since I was about 9 years old. But now that I am pushing 50 I'm in line for bifocals; regular lenses to see far away, and slightly less dramatic lenses to see things near (like my computer screen). I read books sans glasses.

Instead of switching to bifocals I have purchased these nifty new glasses that put my computer screen and keyboard exactly in focus. YES!

So I continue to use my regular glasses for the streets - but now have an at-home pair for when I am in front of the computer.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Religious presence in Brazil

Coming from the United States, where highlighting particular religious symbols is basically forbidden in government spaces and rare in corporate environments, I am continually amazed to see crucifixes in banks, at the police station, at the grocery store, in the post office and at bus terminals. If it’s not a crucifix it's a shrine to Jesus’s mother, Mary.

[in the city park by our house]

Just a few days ago I was surprised to notice such a shrine looking out over the produce section in a nearby large grocery store.

[Presunic grocery store]

Even the National Cancer Institute, which Luiz and I frequent, has a very large statue of Nossa Senhora (our mother) where patients and their families slip little notes under her feet. (Frankly, it worries me if this venerated institution relies on religious icons as a backup plan.)

[in the Sete Lagoas bus terminal]
But hey, I get it. This is Brazil, where 74% of the population identified itself as Catholic in the most recent census. You can feel the spirituality in everyday life. People cross themselves on the bus when it drives past a church. In addition to Catholic representations we often come across offerings of food and drink in parks, left under trees or near waterfalls. And the largest building (by far) in every poor community is the Evangelical church (what does that say?)

[on the beach near our house]

For the record I thought I would look into the distribution of religious observers (and not) in Brazil. Here is a not-entirely-complete (for the sake of brevity) cataloging of religions and their followers in Brazil (according to Wikipedia):

Roman Catholic 74%
Protestant churches 15%
- Pentecostal 10%
No religion 7.4%
Umbanda .23%
Buddhism .13%
Candomblé .08%
Jewish .05%
Islamic .02%

Friday, March 5, 2010

Zozó's our new neighbor

Brazilian law requires that when fathers like our Tonico die, a portion of their assets must be distributed to their children. Even if their wife survives them, an inventory of their assets is taken and a portion must be distributed to surviving children. Writing out a will cannot completely override this requirement. (Tonico had a will.)

In our case this means that the house Zozó has been living in for the past 15 years with Tonico (pictured here) must be sold and a portion given to his biological son. (Tonico was Luiz’s step-father.) The house is now in probate, waiting for the paperwork to be sorted out. And we are told this could take anywhere from 3 months to 3 years depending on any insistences on the part of Tonico’s son, plus any delays within the court system.

So we wait.

In the mean time Zozó is moving to a significantly smaller apartment with significantly smaller monthly expenses and way fewer upkeep chores.

Actually, since we lost Tonico, Zozó has been living with Luiz and me in our two bedroom apartment, with weekend visits by all to the house. (Shout out to Stephanie here.)

Zozó’s lawyer has made good progress and so far everything seems positive (knock wood).

Today we got some good news. Zozó has secured an apartment. Her new apartment is located three doors down the street from ours. (Again, hey Stephanie!) This puts her in the neighborhood she loves and within shouting distance of us should she need our help. She is delighted.

Stay tuned.

Mercado Central in Belo Horizontes

One mandatory stop when visiting Belo Horizontes is the Mercado Central.

First opened in 1929 with just 22 vendors, the now greatly expanded and fully covered market built in the mid-1960s sits on 14,000 square meters of land with two floors of stalls, plus a parking level. There are 400 stores exploding with goods of every description: meat, fish, flowers, pets, vitamins, beauty products, house wares, artisan items of every description, and much, much more.

It’s a fantastic place to shop. And when you get tired there are luncheonettes where you can relax and share a cold beer and hot food with your friends.

This time around I bought some famous local Queijo Minas (cheese) and some fresh smoked pork sausage. I was looking for a tofu making machine but could not find one. (More on that in another post.)

Carlos, his friend Isabella and I wandered around, got lost a few times, bought our choice items, then enjoyed a cold one before returning to his house for lunch.

If you have a chance to visit Belo Horizontes, don’t miss the Central Market.