Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tchau, Brasil!

We’ve got less than a week to go before heading back to the U.S. We jokingly named our time here ‘The Year Without Fleece” and “The Endless Summer” (neither being terribly accurate). For the kids, it was almost a year without friends (outside of school time) and play dates (luckily, that has recently changed with the addition of another American family with similarly-aged kids in town). It has been a series of experiments on how to make life easier, the transition smoother. It has also been a constant striving to understand a different language, culture and rules of social engagement. We have made our fair share of mistakes, but we have also learned to move on. If anything, this has been the year of learning patience.

We’ve been here for about ten months and we didn’t go to the Amazon or visit the Pantanal, spend Carnaval in Rio, learn to Samba or do capaoeira. What we did manage to do is navigate a large urban city by foot, bus and taxi, learn to do a lot of improvising, communicate with young and old alike, at times live like rock stars (at least the kids who were people magnets with their blue eyes, blonde-ish hair, and English language), pick up varying degrees of Portuguese, and make a few friends along the way. And Brian’s research (the whole reason we were here!) went incredibly well. Let’s hope it can last him for several years as he writes a second book, numerous scholarly articles, and presents his work at various conferences.

A nice easy thing to say about living abroad with young children is that kids are like sponges and that they just absorb everything. This may be true, but I think it gives little credit to what the kids go through in this process of attaining language and social skills in another country. Young children like stability and routine. And throwing our two kids into a completely different culture and language experience did not necessarily constitute any kind of stability, although we did eventually attain some routine. Considering we gave our kids no Portuguese preparation before arriving here ten months ago, Bas and Ginger have done amazingly well for themselves.

But it’s interesting to see how their personalities have played out in this acquisition. Bas is a perfectionist. He would listen and observe for long periods of time before entering into the ruckus of either the classroom or the playground. It was obvious that he understood almost everything he was hearing, but he wouldn’t speak until he could say it perfectly. And speak perfectly (as well as fluidly and rapidly!) he does. Ginger, on the other hand, is a social being and didn’t let a little thing like language (English or Portuguese) get in her way. She just engaged the kids she would meet in the park or at school in straight-forward play. And this has done her just fine. She does love to sing the songs she learns at school (at full volume), but really, as a three-year old, the path she has chosen here has worked for her and her personality.
As for me, there are lots of things I’ve learned since coming to Brazil last August. Some things have come to me very quickly, others painfully slowly.
*Learning that and cannot be streamed outside of the U.S. (What did I do without internet all those other times I lived abroad??)
*Putting toilet paper in most Brazilian toilets is a bad idea.
*Appreciating that one-centavo coins (similar to US pennies) are no longer in circulation. Cost is either rounded up or down. How stores balance their books at the end of the day, I have no idea. And why don’t prices reflect this and just have prices ending in zero or five centavos?
*Driving in this country means you better know how to drive a stick. (luckily, my brother taught me on an old VW bug when I was 15)
*Tasting Brazilian peanut butter and realizing that it just isn’t the same as the American kind. Ditto for making homemade chocolate chip cookies – similar ingredients but different result.
*Realizing that it’s not safe to cross that side street just because it looks like no one from the lane nearest you is turning. Plenty of cars cross lane(s) of traffic to make a right-hand turn.
*Discovering that cheering for the underdog is purely an American past-time.
*Surviving in the kitchen without lots of fancy appliances (make toast on the stove, rice without a rice cooker, re-heat food on the stove without a microwave, make chocolate chip cookies and banana bread without a mixer in an oven whose temperature varies greatly, make black beans from scratch (you mean they don’t naturally come from a can?), popcorn on the stove top, etc. And there is life without a dishwasher or dryer (but I do miss hot water in the faucets and washing machine)
*Recognizing that there are Portuguese words that seem close to an English equivalent but do not mean the same thing (ex: lanche seems like lunch but actually means snack; puxe (pronounced push-eh) sounds like push but actually means pull – this one has led to some amusing moments)
*Noticing that when a product says ‘sugar-free’ or ‘without sugar’ it doesn’t actually mean that. The harder part has been learning ALL the different types of artificial sugars used in this country. Shelves of saccharine-sweet grossness all along Aisle 9!
*Being content… it did not come quickly, but once the kids started spending some time at pre-school, I had the chance to do some things for myself, like Ashtanga yoga at a local studio and meet up with friend Julie for our weekly coffee (ok, orange juice and empada) break, and suddenly life seemed so much better.

*Offering something to Brazilians and having them say ‘obrigado’ (thank you) which actually means ‘no thank you’ in this case. This might be accompanied by a barely perceptible shake of the head, but sometimes not even that.
*Learning patience for Latin Americans’ sense of time. By the last month here, I purposely would leave my house either at the proposed meeting time or a good 5- to 10 minutes later so I wouldn’t have to wait around too long on my own.
*Finding a place to break the large bills (R$50’s and R$100’s) the ATM spews out. I understand mom & pop stores having problems (although breaking a R$10 or R$20 should not be cause for alarm), but large grocery and department stores? And standing an hour in line to have a bank teller do it doesn’t appeal to me either.
*Trying to convince Brazilians that learning Portuguese is not any harder than learning other languages. Perhaps it’s because spoken Brazilian Portuguese is so informal/different than formal (or one could say ‘correct’) written Portuguese that Brazilians feel that it is more of a challenge?
*Under-valuing the middle name in Brazil. When I was filling out paperwork for my national registration as a foreigner (RNE) the first time I lived in Brazil, I simply listed my parents’ names by first and last name. This time I included their middle names. Well, the Federal Police didn’t take kindly to that. I was two different people in their eyes. It took a special Consular note from the US Consulate in Rio and several months of processing to appease the bureaucrats in Brasilia. In the meantime, I have noticed that PHONEBOOKS are listed not by last name but by first and middle name followed by last name. And when your name is called (at the doctor, etc), it is by first and middle name. I get it now.
*Attempting to decipher road signs’ true meanings. It seems that Brazilian postings are friendly reminders for those who already know where something is more than true guides to finding anything new.
*Struggling to understand when an invitation is really an invitation. It turns out that unless there is a definite time AND place associated with said invitation, it is more likely a polite way of drawing a conversation to an end. I’d have to say this knowledge would have been very useful earlier on.

Yes, there have been many ups and downs. But I’d have to say that, overall, this has been a positive learning experience and given the chance, I’m sure we’d do it again (say in six or seven years when Brian’s up for sabbatical again!)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

You Say It’s Your Birthday?

Kids’ birthdays are cause for celebration, BIG celebration. Imagine if you will a large pack of children ranging from toddlers to pre-teens running amok, fueling their already energetic escapades with candy by the handfuls available from tables scattered throughout the party room that looks like it’s ready for a reception (balloon centerpieces on each table-clothed table). Parents sit around chatting and sipping beer or soda. Lots of finger food as well.

Our experience has been that kids’ birthday parties are held on weekend nights and are for the birthday kid’s friends and their siblings and parents from school, work and apartment building as well as extended family. Every apartment has a party room for rent on the patio level of the building so this is the logical place to hold such a large gathering since there are usually over fifty people in attendance. Birthday themes are chosen and matched to invitations, and fairly elaborate backdrops rented (Backyardigans, ‘Cars,’ Ben 10, and Super Heroes are the ones we’ve witnessed personally). A few of the more extravagant parties have included a food train (a train that has different ‘cars’ with popcorn, cotton candy, hot dogs, and special smoking drinks (dried ice added to food-colored sprite – a huge hit with our kids) offered up by hired help and a bouncy house rental.

Another discovery is that the end times listed on invitations are totally irrelevant. We went to a birthday party last Sunday night (yes, Sunday night), which was, according to the invitation, from 5-7 at Pizza Hut. We were the first to leave at 7pm. No one else showed any inclination in leaving any time soon after us. There were close to forty kids and at least as many adults. A one-year old birthday party we attended in our building complex raged on til the wee hours and the next morning looked more like the scene of a college kegger than a celebration of a one-year old. Beer cans (adults) strewn alongside what remained of the party’s decorations and balloons (sugar-crazed kids run amok way after their normal bedtime). Even last night’s celebration (4-year old Thiago’s bash, listed from 5-9) was going strong after Brian and I headed to bed at 10:30.

Parents easily spend one thousand reais (that’s over US$600) for such parties. Invitations, space, backdrop and decoration rental, food, drink, hiring someone to organize the kids for games, etc. It adds up quickly. So why spend this much on a birthday party?

Our take (as heavily influenced by Brian’s social scientist nature): Social networking and bonding, which the parents are well aware is a key feature of their kids' future success here in Brazil.

So Happy Birthday to You! (Here’s the Portuguese version of Happy Birthday, same tune, many more words, with singing and clapping, and faster with each verse)

Parabéns a você,
Nesta data querida.
Muita(s) felicidade(s),
Muitos anos de vida.

Hoje é dia de festa,
Cantam as nossas almas.
Para o/a menino/a (insert name of birthday boy/girl here),
Uma salva de palmas.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Good Friday

‘Jeito’ means the way. But there’s another word, jeitinho, which literally means the little way. In other words, jeitinho means a way around. Brazilians are excellent at finding ways around what seem like impenetrable walls. Historically, using jeitinho has been key to avoiding persecution (of religion, of music, of dance). Slaves couldn’t practice their native religions? Meld Catholic names with African deities and you have one of many Afro-Brazilian cults like Condomblé. Slaves couldn’t rebel against their owners? Create a martial art disguised as an acrobatic dance and call it capoeira. There’s another way to see this flexibility. Brazilians don’t necessarily see a contradiction in considering themselves Catholic while attending Afro-Brazilian cult ceremonies.

On paper, Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world but looks and numbers can be deceiving. This country is Catholic culturally but not so religiously. People attend weddings and baptisms but seldom find themselves in church otherwise. Brian, who has been coming and going between the US and Brazil for the last fifteen years, says that Minas Gerais, a politically and socially conservative state, is the exception to Brazil’s lazier faire attitude towards religion. It is the one place where we have seen people attending mass on a regular basis, both in Belo Horizonte and out in the countryside.

Throughout Brazil, the Catholic Church has been steadily losing out to the more charismatic Evangelical churches. This is especially true in the poorer areas. Many people in favelas (shanty towns) turn to Evangelicalism as a way of rising above the drug wars prevalent in their neighborhoods, and even, potentially, getting out. The popularity of these churches is not surprising given that they offer social services and are available 24-hours a day to their congregations.

Easter is two days away and the way I know this is that all the stores have been taken over by Nerf football-sized chocolates hanging from arches throughout and that the city seems deserted because it’s a long weekend for most people. Yet, going back to that ‘flexibility,’ Good Friday seems to be the one day a lot of Brazilians seem to honor their Catholic roots. Unlike our defiantly unreligious friends who had us over for a barbeque today, most ‘Catholics’ don’t eat meat today! So Happy Easter to you all, whether you believe or just enjoy the chocolate.

**Note: Not being a Catholic (I'd say I'm border-line Agnostic/Atheist), I didn't realize that Good Friday is much more significant to Catholics (Brazilian or otherwise) than Easter Sunday. As a Catholic woman put it, "We Catholics love to suffer." (or was it that Catholics love suffering? Hmmm)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Lost in Translation

Yesterday had a scary beginning but a decent ending that left me thinking a lot about the power of communication. Brian woke up complaining of a migraine and quickly lost the ability to speak in any comprehensive way. He couldn’t even answer basic questions. As Brian’s frustration at not being able to communicate became more obvious he started sounding like someone with Tourette’s Syndrome reading that Jaberwocky poem (nice cadence, pure gibberish). Both English and Portuguese were gone, gone, gone. So after a six-hour visit to the local hospital (most of it spent waiting), an MRI run, and by the end of the visit Brian’s language getting back on track, the neurologist told us Brian had had a migraine with aura. What a relief.

Now, anyone who knows Brian knows he is a man of words and about words. Seeing Brian unable to communicate was freaky to say the least. Beyond the obvious fear of something seriously wrong with him, there were lots of less direct but in some ways just as meaningful consequences for us. He is the reason we are here. He is the one fluent in Portuguese. He is the go-to guy when things are not going correctly in this country (which is often). I can’t tell you how relieved I was (on so many levels) when his ability to speak in both languages came back, and thus our Brazilian ship had it’s captain at the helm again.

As I mentioned, this episode got me thinking about one’s ability to communicate. When you watch a child learn to communicate, first through gestures, then through words, it’s amazing to think about how that child is acquiring so many tools at once. Yet, as adults, we take our own language for granted. Why is it that learning another language can be so challenging for some of us?

I can safely say that language acquisition is not my strong suit. I’ve lived abroad numerous times and have never gone past conversational wherever I’ve been. And conversational can be a generous term at times when I think back to some of my bigger guffaws in Japan. Perhaps I just don’t pay enough attention… sometimes I’m just daydreaming away while waiting in line when I suddenly realize someone’s been trying to engage me. I quickly try to recollect any of the background conversation I’ve so conveniently tuned out (sort of like hearing muted noises while under water) and piece together something coherent to say. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

I’d like to say my inability with foreign languages is from lack of hearing due to earwax build-up or in the genes or growing up in Maine where plenty of people have French-Canadian last names yet I never did hear anything but English spoken. The only foreign words I heard my dad speak when I was a kid was when he’d say ‘Pardon my French, but shit.’

It’s not to say that I’m totally useless in Portuguese. I get by on a day-to-day basis just fine. I have my little safe space I like to call the ‘set plays.’ This is where I have the same conversation (About the kids – Are they twins? Are they yours? How old are they? Blah, blah, blah; About where we’re from – near Seattle/Portland. Oh, you have some relatives in the US? Near Boston?; About what we’re doing here and for how long – I can even explain a bit about Brian’s research) over and over again so I’ve got it down without having to wrack my brain for the right phrasing or tense to use.

The difficulty comes when things are not in context and someone says something that makes no sense to me. In a way, I’m the equivalent of a functioning illiterate but for languages. I get by. Imagine having had high school Chemistry then walking into an Organic Chemistry class and recognizing the concept but the specifics just pass you by. That’s me.

But that’s my issue with languages. Luckily, the kids are fairing much better! The expression is that kids are like sponges and are able to absorb it all. That their brains are able to pull in and categorize and use what they’re learning at incredible speed. Living in Brazil is bound to have an effect on their language ability down the road, whether they remember this little experience or not. Let’s hope that they take after their dad and that their sponges are able to absorb a variety of things for many more years to come.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Living in the Present – the View from Four Feet

Houston, we have a problem. We’ve crash-landed into our non-holiday life back in Belo Horizonte and we seem to have lost our direction. It’s Monday and the roar of morning traffic filtered up to our sixth-floor apartment starting at 5:45. Cars, trucks, motos (motorcycles) were all revving their way up the busy street outside our apartment entrance, horns blaring by 7. The only thing missing was the city buses. It appears the drivers are on strike today which ended up having profound effects throughout the city’s businesses as a lot of the workforce was unable to get to work. I miss waking to the sound of birds.

We’ve been back since Friday night so have had the weekend to ‘re-enter’ normal life. The kids’ war cry has been how much they miss life in Florianopolis. Who can blame them? We spent the last two months living at a leisurely pace. We were a 5-minute walk from the local beach. We mastered various forms of the sand castle. The kids experienced pure joy frolicking in the surf. And we spent a lot of quality time together since Brian conducted no research and spent only half-days writing up his findings, leaving the rest of the day to play. But it’s back to work for Brian now and back to reality for Bas, Ginger and me.

We’ve been in Brazil over six months now, with a bit over three months to go. I can feel the pull towards planning life upon our return to the U.S. Lining up play dates. Re-connecting with friends. Visiting family. But a funny thing happens when you stop living life in the present. It disappears. And I need to be mindful that we are experiencing something life-changing for the kids, even though Brian and I have both lived abroad numerous times. We need to view life from under four feet and appreciate how to make our last few months here meaningful for Bas and Ginger.

Have you ever gotten down on your knees in the surf and seen how big the waves seem to a three-year old? Well, Brian and I did this and appreciated the view. Our kids have reminded us that what we take for granted can seem pretty daunting to a child. Speaking a foreign language, trying to make friends, trying to understand another culture to name but a few waves crashing down on them.

The kids have not had any formal education here. We have focused on learning about life experiencially which has been fantastic seeing Brazil through their wide-open eyes. But it’s time for Bas and Ginger to finally make some connections with kids their own ages. Tomorrow we have an appointment with the pre-school down the street to see if our kids can enter school for the last three months of their time in Belo Horizonte. Bas has been biting at the chomp to go to school and run around with a pack of boys. Ginger gets rather teary-eyed at the mention of pre-school so I’m not so sure she’s quite as ready as Bas. But until we try, we’ll never know.

So send some positive vibes our way as we try to keep our feet on the ground without getting stuck in the mud.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Get Into the Groove – Life off the Grid

OK. We’re not exactly off the grid but going for a month without household internet or phone makes it very easy to feel totally detached from the world. We’ve moved from our month-long house-sitting gig on the ocean side of the island to a house rental on the bay side of Isla Santa Catarina (Floripa). Ginger was absolutely thrilled when we pulled up to a little white picket-fenced yard and saw that the house had been recently painted pink. And one of the most amazing differences between the two houses is that there is no constant cacophony of dogs barking here. Not only do some homes here not have security walls, but apparently, dogs are trained not to bark but be more like pets.

Daniela is one of the newer areas developed on the island. The crazy patchwork of Lagoa stands in stark contrast to the four long straight streets that run parallel to the beach in Daniela. Each short cross street leads to its own entrance onto the long, skinny beach. This is particularly nice because it spreads the beach-goers throughout the length of the beach. The view is wonderful. We look west across to the mainland (or ‘continente’ as they call it) where the mountains stack one after another up to the ocean. The bay here seems more like a large lake, with the waves gently lapping at the softly sloping shore. It’s a great beach for kids to frolic in and out of the water.
We’ve discovered neat glimpses of sea life on our walks. There are lots of little crabs with beautifully tipped purple and blue claws scurrying in and out of their holes. Occasionally some small fish will wash ashore and I’ve been lucky to see a couple of what appear to be eels (lucky because they’re dead and not nipping at me in the water - those teeth are sharp!). Brian even saw a beachball-sized translucent octopus washed up on shore the other morning while out on a run. The one thing that continues to surprise us is when we actually see someone reading on the beach. That is truly a rare sighting!

Brian has taken a healthy step back from his research. He only works every other day (more or less) and is able to spend some real quality time with the kids who thrive on the attention. Brian is a fantastic storyteller and the kids hang on his every word as he weaves magical adventures starring Bas and Ginger (and sometimes guest appearances from friends from Boise or ‘literary’ characters such as Calvin or Spiderman). Brian has also grown his beard back, the first time in six years. We’ll see how long it sticks around once he’s back to his work life in BH.
This summer (like last year) has been unseasonably cool and rainy but it hasn’t slowed us down too much. We found the rhythm of the island with its huge influx of tourists and have been able to avoid getting stuck in rain or traffic thus far. On sunny or cloudy days, we spend a couple of hours at a go at any given beach. And we’ve finally switched completely over to the local tradition of having a large lunch and a small dinner. It was a little crazy during the transition when we were managing to eat both a large lunch and a large dinner.

We are thankful for our stay on the other side of the island but were ready to make the switch to the rental. We are now in a larger house with a great covered outdoor space that sports two hammocks. The mosquitoes seem to be leaving Ginger alone so her body is no longer riddled with swollen bites. The yard is dog-free and we are now ready for our first two rounds of guests. Tim and Amanda from Portland, Oregon are currently on a mountain bike tour in Santa Catarina and will be joining us at the end of the week and Brian’s parents will come down right before Carnaval kicks into high gear.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Baby Got Bunda

Bunda: the butt, the bum, the tush. Brazilian beachwear for women is all about the bunda. Women of all sizes opt for maximum butt exposure. The Brazilian bikini bottom, regardless of style or size, has one thing in common from the backside - its angle. It’s shaped like an architect’s crisp V. American bikini bottoms are reminiscent of a 5th grade girl’s handwriting -- the same kind of writing where there’s a heart over the i’s and the bikini bottom is the loopy and well-rounded w. An American friend described it more like a diaper – big and bulky. She’s right, but I’m still not ready to make the switch, even for a New Year’s resolution!

Brazilian boys and men still favor the tsunga, a Speedo-like bottom. I have seen (far too often for my own good) older men sporting only a tsunga with socks and sneakers while out exercising. Even under duress, Bas refused to make the switch to the tsunga at his swim lessons even though they required such swim wear. We compromised by getting him a biker shorts-version of a bathing suit. I’m a fan of the surf shorts the real surfer dudes wear around here. Ironically, these are the guys who could actually carry off the tsunga. Oh well!

(note: the photo was taken on a family-friendly beach. You should see the scantily-clad on the hip-happening beaches like Praia Mole!)