Monday, April 26, 2010

Family - in Brasil and in the US

Family dynamics here in Brazil (within ours and other families) are different than I experienced them in the United States. That is, regarding my family in Michigan in the 1970s – 1980s, then later with me in California from the 1980s - 2008, things would be unrecognizable to most Brazilian families. Cultures are different.

It totally freaks people out here when I tell them that when living my adult life in the States I would see my parents (later my father had passed) in person perhaps three times in seven years. They/my mom lived in Michigan or Florida and I lived in California. For me this seemed (and still seems) quite reasonable. When we saw each other we were celebrating an occasional Thanksgiving, Christmas or wedding – or, heaven forbid, attending a funeral.

Here it seems to be unthinkable to go so long without face to face contact. Unthinkable. Impossible. Unimaginable.

In fact my phone contact back then with my mom was so infrequent by local (Brazilian) standards as to be shocking. But my mother and I were quite fine with it.

One of the thoughts I always had back home was that IF I had a vacation – lucky me – I should go explore and have some new adventure somewhere in the world (not always return to my home town for a family visit), the world is HUGE. Here that impulse seems less prevalent. When I speak to people they can think of no place more desirable to go on their vacation than to visit their family. Things are different.

Now that I live here, I should say, I talk to my mother in Florida on the phone multiple times per month. This is totally unprecedented. And we love it.

But what now presents a difficulty for me is the assumed frequent contact with Luiz’s mother. I love my mother-in-law -- make no mistake. But this daily contact thing is so far from my reality that it is confusing, confounding, irregular, disturbing and a bit upsetting. I am not upset with her. It is the daily checking in that is so dissonant. It is difficult to feel our independent selves when always listening to her daily instruction. It can be a drain. Luiz and I – we are our best when we are ourselves, together.

I love Luiz and he loves his mother (as do I). Goddess bless him for his endless patience to care for his mother’s daily needs. I understand and support this. She lives, after all, just three doors down the street.

We both want the best for Zozó. I am not arguing against that. I am just being an American, with my American past experiences – feeling the dynamics of being a Brazilian son of a loving mother who desires our daily involvement in her life. It’s different. I am both up to the invitation – with love – and feeling the difference between how these situations are played out here and how I know how to play them out within my American cultural experience. Things are different. There are different cultural expectations.

And so we struggle as a couple, as a family and me as a person.

Earthquake today in Brazil

We never experience terremotos (eathquakes). This is one thing that locals love to remind foreigners: Brazil never has tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, cyclones, volcanoes – nothing (except floods from the rains).

But today we had an earthquake in the Amazon region.

Global weirding!  It seems quite real.

Can I get a file folder please?

Who knew? No file folders. I’ve been to dozens (literally) of ‘papelarias’ (office and school supply stores) to no avail. Apparently file folders go by another reality here in Brazil. Actually, I know that offices use over-sized pieces of paper, typically of a different color, to separate a bunch of papers for one purpose from another bunch of papers for another purpose (or ‘hanging files’ – which I don’t want). But I have been secretly hoping that in the less-frequented corners of office supply stores I might find a box of stiff material manila file folders.


This is one culture-clash reality I have been reluctant to embrace. It is common to see people with plastic ‘pastas’ (folders) with elastic bands closing the bottom corners. Fewer people have card-stock folders with pockets at the bottom (rare to find – although cheaper). Some brave souls have binders (difficult to find without “Hello Kitty” or “Spiderman” themes printed on them) but it must be noted that the standard here is a FOUR-hole punch, not three. The 4-hole punch is SO expensive I have created a cardboard template with which I can use my single hole puncher to make the holes. (Living simply!)

I just want to create a file system for my ever-growing files for teaching English. No matter how skilled I get at filing on the computer, there remains a STACK of hard copy stuff that needs to live somewhere where I can find it. (I can’t waste the expensive paper or the stupid-expensive printing ink – livin’ local.)

If you will be visiting us soon, forget about any kitchen requests I’ve made – bring file folders! LOL!

The up side to all of this is that since these items are so expensive, people use and reuse them until they crumble into compost in their hands. Nothing extra, nothing wasted.
The down side – well, enough said. Let’s end on a positive note!

[Truth be told: lucky me that I can kvetch about things as insignificant as file folders. I realize my position of privilege and am grateful. Would that this be the reality for the vast majority of my fellow residents of Brasil.]

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Waters of March

As an antidote to the "bad rain" stories posted - listen to/view this classic tune that celebrates the Waters of March.  And smile.

More about the rain

There is a blog I enjoy, Murder Is Everywhere, put togther by a team of crime writers. Most of the blog posts make good reading, but I am especially drawn to those posted by itinerant author Leighton Gage, whose wife is Brazilian.

He recently posted a good description of Brazil's annual struggle with rain. Follow this link to see the photos and learn more.

I should add: the rains have, for the most part, ceased in our area.  We are back to mid-nineties temps!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Just for fun

Really wild visuals.  Hypnotic music.  Check it out.

Ready, Able by Grizzly Bear

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Big holiday week-end

We’ve been here before: Brazilian holidays that serve up endless opportunities to spend time with your family.

A previous post laid out the details of today's Tiradentes holiday. Good stuff. And as a rebel myself I love that the government honors their revolutionaries. Combine that with Rio state’s patron saint holiday this Friday (gotta love the lack of separation of church and state that creates a bumper crop of Christian saint-related days off!) and you get a very LONG weekend holiday for workers in Rio state: Wednesday (Tiradentes Day), Thursday (taken casually – I had a cough!), Friday (celebrating Saint George, the patron saint of Rio state), then Saturday and Sunday.

When was the last time you had a FIVE DAY holiday spree in the US, without having to use a vacation day!? I love Brazil. Although, the heavy hand of the Catholic church/religion is a bit suffocating.

Anyway, we are using the occasion to buy home appliances at discount prices. Zozó has just moved into her new apartment, but she needs a new stove and refrigerator. Today is the day. Gotta love spending other people’s money! Let’s go shopping!

It will be a long week-end of helping Zozó settle into her new place. Glad to be free of work responsibilities. Stay tuned.  Photos of the new apartment are coming.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pineapple coconut pleasure

Somehow I am doing a lot of food posts lately. (Shout out to Danielle.)

When we were visiting Carlos and Dü we grated up a dessert that will stay with me for a long time. Super simple. Delicious. Natural. No added sugar.

Check it out. Here is how to make it.

Go buy a super-ripe pineapple (or two) off the back of a truck parked on the side of the road.

Collect a ripe and ready coconut from the tree in your backyard.

After you have torn through the husk of the coconut to get to the fruit, and have drained it of any water that may remain, slam that puppy against the cement patio to bust open the shell. You want the white meat inside the shell.

Shave off the coarse skin of the chipped-out coconut meat. Then finely grate the meat.

Slice off the outer prickly skin of the pineapple(s). Chop the pineapple into bits about the size of the tip of your thumb. Then simply mix together the pineapple and the shredded coconut. OMG! So simple. So delicious.

You have to try this!

Best music download

Few podcasts hypnotize me like the weekly posting at Caipirinha Appreciation Society. They bill themselves as “Brazilian music beyond the clichés” and WOW do they deliver.

While the music is nearly always in Portuguese, the commentary is in English. Of course the rhythm is universal.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

US Republican leaders are liars (again)

Sorry to go off topic, but we have another fight underway in Washington - this time for financial regulatory reform - and the Republican leadership is again shameless in their deceptive characterizations and fear mongering.

As my old, dear, and missed friend Sister Martin used to say: "Tell the truth and shame the devil!"

I don't know about you, but Luiz and I got KILLED in the financial collapse of a couple years ago. That is money lost forever - which we worked HARD for.

Let's support those trying to prevent that from happening again.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rain disaster in Niterói

It’s not possible to overstate the rain disaster that has struck our home town Niterói.

Imagine that your successful family business has been torn asunder by a landslide or flood.

Think for a moment that your house and everything in it has disappeared due to torrential rains.

Consider – heaven forbid – that your entire family, save yourself, has been taken from you due to lousy building codes and the total lack of civic enforcement of anything remotely associated with good building standards.

Now you find yourself in Niterói.

It is not pretty. Many neighborhoods are suffering.

Pleasing my family

While I have commented on many occasions that my Gringo food goes unappreciated here, I HAVE found one recipe that is a crowd (read: family) pleaser: banana pancakes. Who knew?

Just a little flour, sugar, cinnamon and bananas. The best solutions are the simple ones.

We have fed the now-famous American breakfast food to neighbors and housekeepers alike. Universal enthusiasm.

I gotta stop trying to please with 15-ingredient sauces and twice-baked concoctions. Keep it simple. Keep it sweet.

Please the family.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

You go to the kitchen with the foods you have

Yesterday I set out to make a fresh Mediterranean salad. Light, fresh, with a zing – and low fat. Seemed like a reasonable idea. Here is the recipe.

We have a somewhat fancy boutique grocery store about a block from our apartment so I went there to gather the ingredients. Nothing too exotic. But I guess there is not much demand around here for things like Dijon mustard…

Here is what I could not find at the store: A fennel bulb, feta cheese, Dijon mustard, cannellini beans, and sunflower seeds. So I got creative and thought about substitutions. I substituted leeks for the fresh fennel; fresh, crumbly ricotta for the feta; regular mustard for the Dijon variety; simple white beans for the cannellini beans; slivered almonds for the sunflower seeds.

Blah – The best laid plans…

It’s time to adopt a new strategy. From now on I’m going to stock my pantry with ingredients I find along the way and then work from there. There are a few fancy food stores I’ve discovered, although I rarely see an ethnic food store. Adjacent to the flower market Luiz frequents in Rio are some wholesale food suppliers that carry some pretty out of the ordinary things (I’ve gotten Japanese soba noodles there in the past). I’ll think of it as a scavenger hunt.

Exploiting local ingredients for new and unusual dishes has long been a strategy as well. But I must admit the local palate seems rather narrow. But then, we used to live in the exceptionally international San Francisco Bay Area where every grocery store had an extensive international foods section – not to mention the City’s many ethnic neighborhoods with mom and pop grocery stores targeting the local crowd. Those days are gone.

I definitely have to work on those substitutions…

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

We are safe, thanks for asking

Yeow - it has been raining like crazy! Monday evening Zozó and Luiz went up to the house in Itaipú to gather a few things while I taught a couple English classes in our apartment. Little did we know what was coming.

As night settled in the sky opened up. Fierce rains. Before long the street in front of our apartment was flooded (as is typical, unfortunately). Then I got a call from Luiz. The roads were flooded between Itaipú and Icaraí so they were going to spend the night at the house.

The rain continued through the night. By morning the house (high and dry) was surrounded by water, the front yard was flooded and the pool had overflowed. The central street in the neighborhood was a river. Luiz and his mother weren't going anywhere any time soon. We watched the television and spoke by phone throughout the day.

The news was filled with rain horror stories and incredible images of flooded streets and whole neighborhoods. It has been the worst rainfall in 44 years with nearly a foot of rain falling in less than 24 hours. Go here to see pictures posted online from the local newspaper. Incredible.

So far more than 100 people have died in rain-related situations. As is so often the case with heavy rains, mudslides take whole houses down the hillside, crashing into other houses on the way down. It's horrible. And more often than not those affected are very poor people with no way forward.

Luiz reports a lot of damage in the neighborhood where the house is located. Fallen trees, flooded houses, lack of electricity, no food stores are open (and they don't have anything in the house) and the road between them and the safe comfort of the apartment is blocked by a landslide. Sigh.

Hopefully the sky will rain itself out today, the floods subside, and things will get back to normal soon. Fingers crossed.

Update: a family friend was able to find a circuitous route to get Luiz and Zozó back to our apartment. The rain has stopped. Lots of stress is now waning. It's great to be back together again.

Futher update: It is Friday and the rain continues. There was a disasterous mudslide here in Niterói when a portion of a favela built on an old trash dump took down some 60 houses. More info here.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Easter procession in Ouro Preto

Describing the mountain town of Ouro Preto (Black Gold) goes so far beyond anything that can be contained in a single blog post. It requires breaking the rules. In fact, witnessing the Easter procession through the city boggles the mind in terms of trying to tell others of the experience. So in this case I am going to post many, many photos to help communicate just how incredible our Easter getaway in Ouro Preto was with our friends Carlos and Dü.

Sometime around 1698 gold was discovered in the area now known as Ouro Preto. As you can imagine it was not long before it was a very popular place. By 1728 there were more than 40,000 people swarming in this remote mountainous town. Sad to say – many were African slaves brought to do the hard work of mining the precious metal (not to mention building the roads, constructing the many churches, tending the fields and all other acts of labor, hard and otherwise).

What brought us to Ouro Preto this time (we have been three times prior) was the traditional Easter procession that involves most of the community participating in making graphic carpets of natural materials depicting religious themes along nearly 4 kilometers of streets, plus others as actors in the procession portraying the death and (the so-told) resurrection of Jesus. Once the procession begins, they walk over all the carpets from one select church to another. It is amazing.

[people begin at about 9:00 pm the night before, crafting their carpet]

[these three boys worked together - so cute]

[we awoke to a fantastic display of carpets]

[many houses along the route hung out their best linen, or Easter-specific banners]

[this was the final destination church]

[the procession began]

[many young angels - SO cute!]

[it was an hour long procession - but I didn't get many good photos...]

[the priest brought up the rear - all done]