Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Feliz Natal from Floripa

We’ve changed venues for the summer. Now that Brian’s done with the first half of his research and team-teaching a grad course at UFMG, we’ve traded land-locked Belo for beach-lovely Santa Catarina, an island in the south of Brazil. The main city is called Florianopolis, the industrial half on the mainland, and the tourist-friendly half on the island, thus the island’s nickname, Floripa. The city and bayside look back on the mainland and there are calm (but not necessarily pristine) waters while the Atlantic side of the island is a surfer’s (and kite boarder’s and windsurfer’s) paradise. There are dozens of beaches to choose from and as we enter high season, the traffic to accompany them as tour buses pile in from around the country as well as neighboring Argentina and Paraguay.

We are fortunate enough to be house-sitting on the ocean side of the island for some of Brian’s friends from grad school days at UT Austin who work at the university here. When they return, we’ll switch over to a house rental on the bay side. The interesting thing about going from an apartment building in the heart of BH to a house here is that, unless you are in a gated community (quite normal here), Brazilian houses stand alone, are surrounded by a high fence, including one across the driveway, and almost always have one or two dogs for protection of property.

The house where we’re staying comes with two dogs, one of which the kids aptly renamed Magali for a character who can only think of eating from the comic book “Monica” series. We’re within walking distance of a surfer beach that hosts the Brazilian surfing championship next month and a long hike straight up over a ‘mountain’ (at least to Bas’ little legs) to a secret beach (funny that they should name it the ‘secret beach’ if they didn’t want to attract attention). We can also walk a different direction into the little town along the lagoon. Oh, and there are sand dunes everywhere. You can even rent snowboards to ‘board’ or sled down some.

In theory, Brian will dedicate several hours each morning to putting his research into preliminary book form while the kids and I explore and play. In practice, only the play part has happened so far. I think Brian was a bit burnt out from an intense semester and is reveling in these non-work moments. (Is this what sabbatical is really supposed to feel like?) We’ve tried out four different beaches in four days, spending a whopping 1 ½ hours at a go. Once Christmas and New Year’s travelers arrive, we’ll have to be much more strategic in when and which beaches we visit as to avoid sitting in traffic longer than on the beach.

So now we are just waiting for Santa (or Papa Noel) to find our new address in time for Christmas Eve and enjoying a little concentrated family time. We truly miss our family and friends and with you the happiest of holidays, y’all.

a late note: turn's out those 'mosquito bites' the kids suffered from the first couple of nights turned out to be flea bites. And the biting hasn't stopped. we're madly trying to find a way to rid the house of the fleas and enjoy the rest of our stay!

Friday, December 4, 2009


There are a few countries out there that absolutely shut down during the month of World Cup play. Brazil is one of them. Brazilians take their soccer very seriously. You could say Americans treat their sports as religion, but it gets watered down when there are so many sports competing for attention…baseball, basketball, football, let alone college and professional teams. There is an acute focus on the professional and the national level of futebol here and it’s contagious.

Belo Horizonte has two soccer teams in the top league, Atletico (Clube Atletico Mineiro) and Cruzeiros (Clube Cruzeiro Mineiro), and they just so happen to share a stadium in the third largest city in the country. Like the cross-town rivalry of the Yankees and the Mets, you are born into a life-long allegiance to one or the other in this city. No matter who you marry or where you eventually live will change this loyalty.

As we close in on the end of regular-season play, the rankings are still a bit up in the air. Brian and I had the opportunity to attend the last home game of 5th place Cruzeiros. With one more game to play, both Atletico and Cruzeiros are vying for a top-four space. The stadium, which holds 55,000 people, had a mere 40,000 in attendance, but with a majority of people decked out in the royal blue jerseys of their hometown team, it was hard to tell if there was anybody cheering for the visitors from Curitiba.

It was a bit unnerving to see the three referees escorted onto the field by five police officers in full riot gear. But it was sweet to see that entrance followed by little kids escorting each home player onto the field before kick-off.

After a great opening 10 minutes then a quick score by the visiting team, it was hard to imagine that 40,000 people could be so quiet. But life pulsed through the stadium when hometown Cruzeiros scored twice in stoppage time. I was a bit shocked when the fan I was sitting next to gave me a huge bear hug after the first goal. I was more prepared the second time and by the third goal, I gave him a hug amid all the jumping up and down by everyone. Although Cruzeiro ended up winning 4-1, it was the feel of the jubilant and totally engaged crowd that I’ll remember. It was so easy to get caught up in the team songs and chants, the amazing percussion section, the unifying movement of the crowd to the songs. I loved being part of it.

If you can’t get enough of soccer, there are several options here. There’s the professional outdoor leagues (Divisions A, B, and C), professional futesal (indoor soccer, but with out-of-bounds), professional ‘showbowl’ (indoor soccer where you can use the wall), futevole (beach volleyball but with a soccer ball and no using your arms or hands) and a million types of pick-up games in every park, grass field, hard court and dirt field you can imagine.

I can’t wait for World Cup 2010 in South Africa!!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanks Giving for Every Wrong Move

Hindsight is supposedly 20/20. How convenient to be able to look back on the choices you have made and learn and grow (and hopefully not repeat the worst of them). I am also thankful for the mistakes I have made. Without them, I would not be where I am, nor the person I am without the combination of the good and bad that came of them. But what about the choices we are making on behalf of our children? I’m curious how Bas and Ginger will see things when they are older, when they look back on their time here in Brazil.

As adults, we are thrilled to be sharing this experience of living abroad with our young children. But as parents, it is hard to accept that you have shaken your kids’ world up so thoroughly, taken them away from the things and people they love and know, and set them down in a new and unknown world, friendless except for each other. Some days are better than others. Some days are definitely worse. It’s hard to say if the kids are truly glad we uprooted them for the year. We probably should have taken the plunge as soon as we got here and put them in a ‘regular’ pre-school where they would have learned the language quicker and made some friends their own age. But we didn’t. We took what we thought was the kinder, gentler route of acclimating them to Brazil, attending what turned out to be the equivalent of after-school care but in the mornings a few mornings a week.

On the plus side, Bas and Ginger are forming what we hope is a life-long bond that does not always develop just because you are siblings. We also hope that their friends back home remember them and welcome them back with open arms and invitations to their houses for lots of play dates upon our return! But we are also thankful to the Brazilian kids who have gone out of their way to include our kids in playground and poolside fun.

It will be interesting to see how this time abroad affects Bas and Ginger in their personal growth and development. Thanksgiving is not celebrated in Brazil, but that doesn’t mean that our little family won’t be taking a moment to say our special thanks for what has brought us to this point.

Friday, November 13, 2009

You Can Have Your Cake and Eat Your Words, Too

You’d think after two children that I’d learn never to say ‘never.’ I’ve lived in rural Japan and slept in a tent across eastern Africa, so I never thought I’d go to an all-inclusive resort before I was well into retirement. I was wrong. After an outbreak of bacterial meningitis left 10 people dead in the beach town where we were scheduled to have a family holiday late last week, we did a quick scramble and found a place just north of Salvador, Bahia.

The resort spreads grandly between 5 km of gorgeous sandy beach (nothing between it and the coast of Angola) and a huge pool with various depths for all ages. It is a very family-oriented place. It was nice not to have to carry a wallet around and have to keep track of expenses or have to decide where our next meal would be. The scale tipped from self-indulgence to over-indulgence pretty quickly. I had a hard time resisting the all-you-can-eat buffet they offered every meal, especially when I could have filet mignon or some yummy seafood option, oh, and then there was the dessert table. Alcohol was free as well. Brian and I occasionally imbibed but not nearly to the extent of everyone else around us! The pool’s wet bar opened at 9:30 a.m. and the other bars didn’t shut down until well after we were all in bed. No wonder the pool was no deeper than an adult’s chest.

The kids loved having their dad around non-stop. No meetings to attend, classes to teach, people to interview, conferences to present at, emails to send. Just play and eat and play and eat some more. Bas and Ginger were like fish. Bas practiced his newly honed swimming skills and Ginger (literally) just dove right in. We really had to keep an eye on her since her free-spiritedness might have ended in drowning. We eventually bought some floaties that you put around kids’ upper arms to put our minds at ease when our backs were turned about our attention-seeking daughter.

There were green parrots in the palm trees around the pool, tiny monkeys hanging out at the kids’ club where they knew bananas could be had, cashew trees full of ripening cashew fruit and accompanying nut hanging off its tip just outside our door, a walk along the beach resulting in a pocketful of cool shells. The one time we went ‘off site’ was well worth it. We ventured to Praia do Forte where there is a sea turtle institute (Projeto Tamar). It was pretty amazing to see how large some of these sea turtle species grew, especially when you got to see how small they started in those eggs. It’s great to know that places like this exist to help these endangered animals make a comeback.

We were blissfully cut off from the world for 5 days. We had no idea that 40% of the country was without power for 4 hours since Bahia was one of the few states that was on its own power grid. Too bad we didn’t realize that Bahia outlets were 220 volts before blowing out our white noise machine! The only other unfortunate thing is that both kids came home with ear infections. I guess that’s the price you pay for having such warm pool water and practically living in it for the entirety of our visit. Overall, it was well-worth it all for the happiness and relaxation we all felt on this vacation.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The (Three year-old) Wedding Crasher

What’s a girl to do when it’s Halloween and you’re in a country that doesn’t celebrate this wonderful occasion to wear a costume? You dress up (in your fanciest three year-old dress) and crash a wedding.

We live a block away from a beautiful cathedral called Igreja Nossa Senohra de Lourdes. On the odd Friday or Saturday night when we are actually out past 7, there is often a wedding getting under way. This is like eye candy for Ginger. Ginger and I have spent a handful of evenings watching the goings-on from just outside the gate as the wedding party gathers. She is absolutely hypnotized by the full-length gowns in a rainbow of colors that the women wear and the pageantry of the bride exiting the car and having the wedding coordinator re-arrange her train.

So it’s Halloween. The closest the kids have come to celebrating is Ginger wearing butterfly wings and Bas a cape on the way to the library this morning. Throwing the kids a bone, we let them pick out a restaurant as a ‘treat’ for the evening. No surprise when they select McDonald’s for dinner. (The ironic thing about McD’s is that it is not cheap. In fact it is rather expensive here. The kids just want the cheap toy). On the way back, we walk by the cathedral and notice the goings-on. Ginger and I make a quick decision that we’ll go back to the apartment around the corner, throw on some nice clothes and watch the wedding from the inside this time.

We slip in a side door and grab a seat at the back of the church. I give Ginger whispered directions about what is happening and what to expect. We inch to the center of the empty aisle for a better view. She is riveted when the main doors open and the parade of people pass inches from her. There are at least fifteen couples who walk down the aisle before the doors close again as the bride arrives and has last-minute pictures taken in the entry-way. The doors open again, the music swells and Ginger is in love.

I keep asking if she is ready to leave. There’s lots of the priest droning on and not much to keep my attention. But not so for Ginger. She’s soaking it all in. The most entertaining thing for me was when one of the photographers, in a rush to get the vows captured, tripped over the bride’s very long trail. Her head yanked back, but amazingly, she kept her poise and the show went on.

Ave Maria played when the vows had been exchanged. I’m not Catholic but hearing this song made me appreciate the fact that my workmate at the University of Texas had the Elvis version at her wedding. A Portuguese version of “And the Way You Look Tonight” played while the bride and groom had pictures taken before walking back down the aisle. Ginger and I took this moment to investigate a group of young girls who were dressed like a bride and her bride’s maids hanging out at the back of the church. Too funny.

As we left the church, the bride and groom were getting in their car to head to the reception. On the way out, we passed another bride in another car waiting to get her wedding under way.

Oh, and just to give you some perspective, Brian spent the afternoon in a favela (shanty town) conducting interviews. And so our life goes.

Friday, October 16, 2009

When Uniform-ity is Not to Our Son’s Liking (Bas the Rule-Breaker??)

It seems like everyone in the service industry wears a uniform here. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the bakery, the auto shop, the grocery store, the restaurant or the car rental place. Everyone has a defining outfit. Upon reflection, it occurs to me that the same is more or less true in the US but that I don’t notice it as much because I don’t see workers on the street, waiting for the bus like I do here. Americans jump in their own cars and head home. But the thing that is different here in Brazil is that uniforms are also required for people to belong to a school or club.

Who would have thought a bathing suit would have reduced my 5-year old to sobs of distress? Bas just started swim lessons at ‘Gota d’agua’ (water drops) Club this week and like everywhere, there is a required uniform. In this case, I had to purchase a Gota d’agua-brand Speedo. Bas was skeptical as I pointed out all the other boys and male instructors wearing the same style suit. But it was beyond the pale when he put it on. The tears quickly turned to sobs as he begged me to get it off him. “It’s too short! It shows too much of my legs!” he cried.

Fifteen minutes of his half-hour lesson ticked by as he refused to get in the water because of his embarrassment over the suit. I finally talked the instructor into letting Bas wear his swim trunks on top of the Speedo. She said o.k. but that this was not usually acceptable and that in the future, he would need to wear the required suit and bathing cap (another mountain to conquer). Oh, and they wouldn’t let him wear his swim goggles either. He had to learn to open his eyes in the chlorinated water. Geez. Do they want him to enjoy this experience or not?

And now a word about Brazilian bathing suits. Most Americans have a vision of some knock-out Brazilian model in a thong bikini strutting her stuff down Ipanema Beach. Yes, it is true that many women here choose this style of bathing suit (whether it is suited to her body type or not), but I have also seen women in a much more modest one-pieces (at least in the more conservative state where we live). Brazilian men tend towards a Speedo-style suit called a ‘tsunga.’ Like the women’s suit, the tsunga is not meant for all types, but all types wear it. I have had to quickly turn my head to hide my laughter when I’ve seen middle-age men exercising in their suits. Ah, the body beautiful! The ironic thing is that some of the younger guys who could actually carry off a Speedo are the ones who opt for the cooler surfer swim trunks. Where is the justice?

Oh, and just to add insult to Bas’ injury, Ginger coyly announced that when she takes swim lessons (starting next week), she’ll like her new bathing suit (a girls’ Speedo-style suit). We’ll see how this one plays out considering her fondness for the bikini.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Honeymoon’s Over... Bring on the Blind Dates

As in life, living abroad has its ups and downs. The initial time in a new place is often referred to as the honeymoon period. Everything’s different and exciting and it’s all a challenge to figure out, but hey, you’re living in another culture! Then little things start to get under your skin and you don’t feel so very amused by all the little quirks of the place. Alas, this hit hard for me a couple of weeks ago. Brian was out of town - the second time in two weeks, the babysitter canceled a half hour after she was supposed to be here so I could escape to a movie or just hang out in a cafĂ© or something away from the two people who dictate my life 24 hours a day (did I mention that they are both under four feet tall?), and the reality of having no friends here became a bit overwhelming. Poor Brian didn’t know what hit him upon his return.

So after a heart-felt conversation, a couple of things became clear. We needed family time away from the city and I needed to start meeting people. The first issue was ostensibly easier to master, although Brian wishes he had more hours in the day to accomplish all he has set out for himself. We sat down with the calendar and mapped out when and how often we could get away. In fact, we just spent the last weekend at a hotel-fazenda about an hour outside of town. It was fun and relaxing and Bas and Ginger had playmates in some older kids who were staying at this working farm/hotel as well. Did I mention that the big attraction was that 9-year old Andre and 11-year old Lorena spoke pretty decent English? The kids were over the moon. They’re lonely, too. We rode horses (Ginger loved it, Bas wasn’t so sure), ate way too much rich food, always followed by even more dessert, and splashed in the pool. We awoke to the amazing non-city sounds of cows mooing, horses neighing, and so many different bird calls, it was hard to tell them apart.

The second order of business was a bit more challenging. I have not been able to meet women whom I might be able to befriend here. As I have mentioned, most families have two working parents, kids from three years and upwards are in school and when not are taken care of by the nanny/maid, and on the weekends, most middle-class families seem to leave the city. So the people I have contact with on a regular basis are the folks working in the shops that I frequent and the twenty-year old nannies who watch the under two set here in our building. Everyone’s friendly enough but don’t know what to make of me.

I finally took the bull by the horn and started contacting the few Americans who are living in Belo Horizonte. I basically started setting up blind dates for myself. I met Julie, a Californian, down here on a two-year contract with the US Embassy to teach English, for a matinee on a Sunday. As I left the apartment, I felt a certain loosening of the shoulders that became a certain lightness of step as I exited our building and headed the couple of blocks down to the art cinema. Dare I say it? I was giddy. We met later in the week for a coffee date that lasted two hours, only ending because I needed to pick up the kids from school. Neither of us knew where the time went. It was such a relief to connect with another adult (besides Brian) and be able to talk about how our lives are being influenced by our new home in BH.

Tomorrow I have another ‘blind date’ with Emily, a woman from Iowa who has a 5-month old. Their family is moving back to the States at the end of the year, but I have heard that Emily has started an English book club that meets once a month, so I will happily attend the next couple of meetings before summer vacation begins. I also have in the works an English/Portuguese language exchange with Lea, an older woman who seems to have a lot of time on her hands as well as a lot of patience, a perfect combination for my language needs.

So now the only thing that needs addressing is how to get all the day-to-day things done, like entertaining the kids, grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking (egads, I sound like a 1950’s housewife) now that I have the beginnings of a social life.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Brian spills the beans about what he's doing here

Brian’s first entry.

The first night, as we drove in from the airport to the city, we were stuck in rush hour traffic. The ride seems to last forever, making me think: “What was I thinking, bringing my family to this huge city.” These first impressions, fortunately, dissipated after we settled into our apartment. Belo is a great city—Brazil’s first planned city (1895 founding), which means that there are parks and activities organized in a very useful way. The kids are slowly adapting to life around them, although a major drawback is that they don’t have enough play dates and friends. Bas and Ginger were extremely happy the other night when they got to watch a cartoon in English—Bas’ mouth was literally open with a huge smile. Paula seems to be adjusting well to life in Brazil although there is a notable absence of friends in her life. Her “adult time” is limited to that brief time between 9 and 10pm when the kids are asleep.

Brazil, based on my brief experience of the past 5 weeks, is in its best phase economically since I started to come down here in 1995. The economy is booming, although there was significant slowdown this last year due to the failure of the US government to properly manage its financial sectors. It is rather ironic that when I started studying Brazil, the US lectured Brazil about getting its financial house in order. The lectures, shall we say, have stopped. Brazil is finding its way back to greater state involvement in the economy (think Japan, Germany, China, etc).

My work, which is the reason that we are down here, is off to a solid start. The biggest challenge revolves around the graduate class that I am team-teaching. The theory is dense and my colleague is much more of an expert in the areas that we are currently teaching. Deliberative Democracy is not an easy topic to think about, but doing it in Portuguese leaves me with a limited vocabulary and a tired mind. However, last Monday, I was finally in charge of class because my co-professor was traveling. I over-prepared because I didn’t know how it would go. I spent 45 minutes lecturing, which is the longest that I have spoken Portuguese in my life. We then had 1 hour of discussion. It went quite well, better than I expected it to. (This is in contrast to a public talk I gave the week before that didn’t go quite so well). I learned the lesson of needing to over-prepare to give a public talk in Portuguese.

My research project is getting off the ground, but it feels as though I have multiple balls in the air. It is possible that some of the balls will come crashing down because of time and money constraints. I hired three different research assistants. One research assistant works 15 hours a week. She is a Masters student. She is working on a project collecting data on the municipality of Belo Horizonte (lists of activists, budget data, setting up interviews). Another research assistant just graduated from college, and lives in a shantytown where I hope to apply a survey and conduct interviews in. He is working on Saturdays, just 5 hours a week. Finally, I hired another graduate student to build a database. However, if the dollar keeps crashing, then I may have to scale back my projects.

I don’t really have typical days. I go to the University a couple days a week. Other days, I try to read and write in the mornings and conduct interviews in the afternoon. I have conducted 4-5 interviews so far and have attended several participatory governance meetings. Part of the reason that I hired the research assistants was to have them set up the interviews, collect data, etc. This should now allow me to really get a lot of cool research done—expect a book in 2011.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Faxineira versus Fashionista

I’ll be the first (make that second behind Brian) to say that I am not a deep-clean kind of person. I’m more of a daily surface cleaner. I keep things in neat (and perhaps numerous) piles. I believe in letting sleeping dust bunnies lay (lie?). But when the mildew between the tiles in the bathroom and the kitchen starts rising up in revolt, I know it’s time to call in the professionals. And that professional is Cida, the faxineira (pronounced ‘fashion-era’) or cleaner. She came to our apartment last Wednesday and spent four hours in our not so big place cleansing. She successfully kept the dust bunnies at bay but sadly did not work miracles on the mildew, although she did reduce the spreading designs it had started to create.

And rumor has it that she will iron! There are two reasons for my joy here. One, when one line-dries clothes here, they are super wrinkly. I have always worn wrinkly clothes (as have the kids – they don’t know any other way). I have never been mistaken for a fashionista, and it’s certainly not going to happen here. But Brian team-teaches a graduate class at the federal university and also has to interview various officials and heads of political organizations so the wrinkled look doesn’t quite fly. The other reason is fear of the iron. Ever since starting an electric fire the first time I used an iron back in 9th grade as I ironed a safety-pin laden toga I was to wear for Freshman Day at Greely High School, I am a bit gun-shy about irons. Seeing an iron still brings back the smell of singed poly-cotton blend.

Cida thought the kids were a riot. They’re speaking English! They dress so strangely! I’m not sure she was as amused when their little footprints left their mark all over the newly mopped floors. Oh well. I was thrilled and look forward to having her back in the near future, whenever that will be. And just curious if anyone can explain why we pre-clean our house before the cleaning lady comes?

In other news, Brian made his first overnight trip away from home (two days in Vitoria, Santo Espirto) last week. This week he’s off for three days to Brazil’s capitol, Brasilia, where he’ll help evaluate Brazilian applicants who hope to go to the US through a Fulbright. Bas, Ginger and I have done pretty well holding down the fort. But the best times are when we’re all together on the weekends. We headed to Ouro Preto and Mariana (two historical mining towns with beautiful churches here in Minas Gerais) this past weekend. Ouro Preto was hosting a jazz festival and Mariana had a children’s festival in one of its plazas. The kids played hard and we all enjoyed the weekend.

Quote of the weekend: Paula to family as we stand in yet another slow-moving long line: "We'll learn patience in Brazil this year." Bas' retort: "except Daddy." Words of insight beyond his 5 years...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When a second glance becomes a stare of curiosity

So if the fashion and cultural center Rio is the Brazilian L.A., the business center Sao Paulo is NYC, and the capitol Brasilia is Washington D.C., that means unassuming Belo Horizonte is Chicago. BH (pronounced ‘beh-ahGAH’) is the third largest city in Brazil, but not many non-Brazilians know where it is or what it’s famous for (for the record, it’s the capital of Minas Gerais which is the size of France, which means it’s also the size of Texas). Minas is part of a huge plateau that runs across much of Brazil’s interior. As the name indicates (‘General Mines’), the area is rich in metals, both precious (gold and diamonds in the 17 and 1800’s) and other (mostly iron ore today). Because of this, the capital is quite wealthy and has done some pretty cool work to minimize hunger, raise the quality of life for the poorest, and lessen the numbers killed each year (no small task in a large city with such disparity of wealth).

In the month we’ve been here, the kids have quickly become urban beings. Riding our bike everywhere in Boise has become a distant memory. They are expert walkers, and in addition, now know how to wave down the bus, pay the fare, hail a taxi, safely jaywalk (or at least know that they need to run right next to me against oncoming traffic), help their dad rent a car so we can get out of the city on weekends, and can identify and understand what the homeless are. The thing that got Bas was not that these people didn’t have a home, but that all their possessions were in little bags around them. The kids also have an understanding what ‘favelas’ (or shanty towns) are. Since we live in a middle-class neighborhood of a city with one of the highest quality of life indexes in the nation, I sometimes wonder if the children have a true understanding of Brazil, a rich nation with very uneven distribution of wealth.

The kids are now going three mornings a week to their playschool, I have found a yoga class (Ashtanga) that I attend once a week, and Brian’s research is going gangbusters. He is being pulled so many directions, he’s like elastic man. I guess you’d say we’ve settled into a routine!

This weekend we attended a festival called Bonecos do Brasil (Puppets/Dolls of Brazil). There were 10-foot high ‘giant’ puppets leading a parade, yet I swear, we got more looks than these! I’m just trying to figure out when a glance becomes a second look becomes a stare of curiosity. I’ve had a lot of experience with this with travels in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It’s not our skin color… Brazil is an amazingly heterogeneous nation, race-wise. It’s not our speech or language… The stares come from too far a distance for us to be overheard. It must be how we dress and act. I’m the first to admit that I’m no fashion plate. Never have been, never will be. But I’m pretty sure I’m the only woman under 75 who’s not dying her hair to cover up the grey. I’ve seen so many shades of fake red, it could fill a paint palette. My use of a backpack and my comfy Chacos definitely add to the oddness. I am not sporting pants as a second skin nor ridiculous heels on these cobbled sidewalks. And as I’ve mentioned, Ginger truly has a style of her own. Other little girls prance around in matching sets with matching socks and shoes. Not Ginger. She is an original, mixing elephant tank top with butterfly flalmenco pants and a bikini top on top of it all. Oh and she usually wears plastic bracelets and three or more necklaces at a time. Perhaps this is what catches passers’ by attention. Regardless of the look, it almost always ends with a smile and then we wave and say “Oi. Tudo bom!” even from a distance. And adults, in passing, often reach out and give Bas’ or Ginger’s head a touch and a smile, something you would never see in the US.

Ginger moment: She always refers to our apartment as our hotel room. I wonder how long this will last considering this is her home for the next ten months…

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Is a PB&J as odd to eat as chicken hearts?

Hope y’all had a good Labor Day Weekend back home.
Our weekend ended up being quite cultural on many levels. On Saturday, we headed about an hour out of town to Instituto Inhotim, a place that promotes the meeting between art and nature. The location is fantastic – forest, garden and sculpted space with several large-scale exhibits for modern art exhibits. (http://www.inhotim.org.br/) We spent the whole day here, popping in and out of cool buildings with interesting and absurd art and wandering through natural spaces with large art installations.

On Sunday, we went back to Mangabeiras Park, which overlooks the city. Bas and an eight-year old girl named Camila hit it off. They played chase around and on the play structure as Camila kept yelling “Nao pode me pegar!” (you can’t catch me!) She ended up joining us for a picnic and tried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the first time. She thought it was really odd (having never eaten peanut butter before) but did manage to finish off the sandwich! (I'm assuming the kids would not have been as adventurous if asked to eat a Brazilian specialty of chicken hearts). On the way home, Bas insisted that Camila spoke some English. We explained that she didn’t (having both talked to her while we ate). It was actually that Bas understood some Portuguese. Woo-hoo!

It was a long weekend here, too. Monday (Sept. 7) was Brazilian Independence Day (when, back in 1821, Brazil attained independence from Portugal without bloodshed). We headed down to the big avenue in Belo Horizonte to watch the parade in the morning, with thoughts of silly Shriners wheeling around and marching bands (Brazilian style with a lot of drums) making their way down the street, like we might see in the US on the 4th of July. Nope. It was a military parade.

It struck me as ironic considering how incredibly militarized the US is and how we never get North Korean-style displays of power for the benefit of the public (and other nations?). But here was Brazil, which has only been involved in wars tangentially in its almost 200-year history (Brian informed me that Brazil currently has troops participating in some UN missions) strutting its stuff down the main boulevard of Belo Horizonte.

As the parade proceeded, the military units from around the city and the state transitioned over to local fire and rescue crews and lots and lots of police units (from civil and military police, to special SWAT-style teams). This is where I started to feel chills down my spine, and not the excited kind. It seemed to me that this was now a show of might over the people, harkening back to the military dictatorship from the mid-60’s to the mid-80’s. Here, marching proudly along the boulevard were special units with big guns and attack dogs (or as we told the kids, rescue dogs), shields and batons. Perhaps they were trying to convey a sense of security to the people, but if you were from the lower classes, I bet you felt that this was more of a ‘friendly’ reminder of who’s really in charge. The parade ended with several helicopters hovering over the end of the procession. The intensity and noise of their whirring blades made me (all the more) thankful I’ve never lived through an occupation. When we asked the kids what they liked best about the parade, Bas said the tanks and Ginger the dogs.

We ended the long weekend by attending a Jazz Festival being held in a neighboring district. The entrance price was a donation of a non-perishable good (at least 1 kilo’s worth) and some enterprising young men were selling bags of rice and such right before the entrance to those folks who forgot to bring a donation along. It was fun to wander around the closed-off streets and hear different types of jazz and do some serious people watching. The best thing was watching Ginger do her interpretive dance to it all.

On a final note, the kids have started playing their version of Mary Poppins (we have an abridged book of the movie). The odd thing is that Bas and Ginger are not choosing to play Jane and Michael, the kids, but rather Mr. and Mrs. Banks, the parents. I, unsurprisingly, get to play ‘Cook’ while they get to order me around. I now see their reason for being the parents instead of the kids… The most amusing part is their British accents, based on Brian’s and mine, which, needless to say, are awful.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Rose By Any Other Name... has a lot of explaining to do to the Brazilian Authorities

I’m about to enter Brazilian bureaucracy hell, dragging Brian and the kids with me. When the four of us went this past Friday to register with the authorities as foreigners living in Brazil, there is a mountain of paperwork you must fill out as well as provide numerous documents that have been notarized in addition to paying a chunk of change to be legally here. On one of the required forms, I put my parents’ full names, as it states I should. Unfortunately, six years ago when I first came to Brazil (and knew even less Portuguese than now) and had to register with the authorities as a foreigner living in Brazil, I mistakingly put my parents’ names as just their first and last names, Nancy Perry and Phil Perry, omitting their middle names. Well, now the federal authorities consider me two different people and in order to correct the mistake, I have to go to several (at least eight) different local, state and federal agencies to prove I have no criminal record under either name, as well as provide oodles of documents proving who I am. What a mess. Brian thinks this will be a very long and expensive process and that we’ll probably have to hire a lawyer to straighten this out. So if you think your (or more precisely, your parents’) middle name doesn’t mean much, you’d be sadly mistaken!
On a positive note, we were eventually able to put this fiasco behind us in order to enjoy the weekend. We headed to the city’s zoo where there are almost as many interesting animals wandering freely around the large and open grounds as there are in cages. I felt a bit like one of the foreigners who comes to the US and take pictures of the squirrels which are a bit of a nuisance to those who don’t think they are so novel and cute. We also took a wonderful hike in a large park located on one of the surrounding mountains and got a fabulous view back down on the city.
So, here are some other things I’ve/we’ve learned the hard way (but not as hard as being two different people at once):
*A pedestrian never has the right of way, even in a crosswalk. The only time you can assume complete safety is if you are in a crosswalk that has a pedestrian light that is green at the time.
*Never assume that just because you are on a sidewalk that you are safe from cars and motorcycles. Cars are constantly cutting across sidewalks to enter parking garages located in building basements or small lots squirreled away between apartment buildings, while delivery motorcycles often park on sidewalks if they are dropping something off for someone in an apartment building (note: there are no houses in the center of the city, just large apartment buildings).
*There is never toilet paper in public bathroom stalls. Either there is a huge roll located somewhere near the sinks where you tear a few pieces off for yourself or someone is at the entrance and you request some from this person.
*Do not go outside with newly washed, still wet hair. It will immediately soak up all the exhaust fumes of passing traffic and smell of pollution for the rest of the day.
*Do not bother doing laundry on rainy, cool days. Not only will your clothes not dry (obviously we don't have a clothes dryer), but they will become mildewy and have to be re-washed. Ugh.
*There is no way to take a left-hand turn here. You make a big clockwise square to get where you need to go - take a right, then a right, then a right, then go straight on the street you originally wanted to take a left on!

There’s so much more to say, but I’ll save something for another day. Ciao!

Bas’ quote of the week: ‘Why can’t everyone just speak English in this country?’

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

When life sounds like the teacher from Charlie Brown

You know that teacher in Charlie Brown cartoons who sounds like “Wa-wa-wahwa-wa-wa-wa?” Well, I’m pretty sure that’s how the kids are viewing life right now. It is obvious that we are not going back home any time soon and that this living in a strange land with people speaking another language is their reality and they are not particularly pleased with the situation.
Brian is fluent in Portuguese and is the reason we are here in the first place (on sabbatical from Boise State, to do some research, a Fulbright helping fund our time here). I have lived here one other time but should be much better at the language (for me it sounds a bit more like “wa-wa-a word or two I recognize-wahwa-wa,” as I smile and nod, but for Bas and Ginger, it might as well be a cartoon for all they understand at this point. Now that the novelty of our move is behind us, the real part of living abroad begins.
The kids had their first day of ‘school’ this morning. After spending last week visiting pre-schools in the area (public education does not begin until first grade), we discounted all that required the kids attend daily for 4 1/2 hours or more as well as requiring students to wear uniforms. As far as I can tell, most middle-class families have two working parents, so the pre-schoolers play with their maid in the morning, and attend a more ‘academic’ program in the afternoon. We really don’t see the need for our 5- and 3-year old to be asked to sit at a desk for such long stretches so opted for the morning session of the one school that didn’t have a uniform requirement (at least not in the morning session) about 20 minutes away by foot. As one parent described Colibri, it’s ‘after-school’ but before school, meaning one big playtime in the morning (their academic segment is in the afternoon as well). Once Bas and Ginger realized that they would be attending something akin to ‘kid-watch’ at the Y or Ginger’s Mom-and-Tot class at Wesleyan, the kids were quite happy to spend the morning romping around the playground and going in and out of the dress-up playroom and the like.
The one major drawback is that there aren’t many kids there in the morning. The director of the school says it’s because it’s cold season (there are signs everywhere about N1H1 and the importance of washing your hands and covering your mouth when you cough), and as the weather warms up and kids are in better health that there will be more kids in the morning session. We’ll see. But at least we have a place for the kids to begin to hear Portuguese from others and attempt to make some sense of it in a nice, safe place a couple of days a week.
On the plus side, we spent last weekend out in the country to celebrate Brian's birthday. It must have agreed with the kids, because Bas said 'I didn't like coming to Brazil, but I like this (spending the morning walking along the rocky banks of a river with lots of little waterfalls).' It's a start!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

We made it!

We made it! 29 hours from Davis door to Belo Horizonte hotel door. Even with a two-hour mechanical delay on our overnight flight departure in Chicago (which then meant we would miss our domestic connection in Brazil and have to wait another 5 hours in the Sao Paulo airport for that flight), the kids rocked. It helped that the Brazilian under-19 basketball team (just having participated in Portland’s Nike International Challenge) was on our overnight flight and the charismatic and English-less leader, 17 year-old 6 foot 10 ‘Bebe’ took a shine to Bas and Ginger and rallied the rest of the team around entertaining the kids during the delay. Brazilians are known for being a gregarious and boisterous bunch, and this team proved so. The head flight attendant even had to make an announcement for our gaggle of hoopsters and our kids to calm down and take our seats. When the captain made yet another announcement to say it would be at least another 20 minutes before we could depart, Bebe quipped in Portuguese that, after all, they were Brazilians, and that 20 minutes delay was nothing to them. This remark would prove itself true time and again. I should probably learn from this but I think it’ll take me months to let go of my American punctuality.
Once in town, it also helped that Brian had set up an appointment for the morning after our arrival with the one rental company that had fully-furnished apartments for under a year’s lease in our price range in the area of town we wanted to live. This was harder to find than it sounds considering most places here require a year commitment or, in some cases, a three-year lease. And that the Brazilian economy is booming (the US dollar has lost 15% of its value to the Brazilian real in the last three months) while the US economy continues to wallow didn’t help our cause either. Landlords aren’t exactly falling over backwards to meet our needs as renters.
As luck would have it though, the one apartment we all looked at is well-situated (4 blocks away from the central park, 4 blocks in another direction from a well-known plaza, easy walking distance to the central market (think indoor flea market meets animal portion (fish, dogs, chickens, ducks, peacocks, parakeets in small cages, stacked several cages high) of the county fair), the main public library which has a small children’s section, and an American-style (and American gourmet-priced) grocery store); has two bedrooms (the kids will be sharing a room and a bed for the first time in their young lives); and more space than our apartment when we lived in Madrid (now we have a whopping 720 sq. feet). We’re pretty pleased at how fast we were able to make this happen – arrive in Belo Horizonte on Wednesday evening, look at an apartment Thursday at noon, move in Friday afternoon. Besides a soft mattress, scratchy sheets and lumpy pillows (the pillows have since been upgraded), we’re doing really well and are now exploring the area and are on the look out for a school for the kids to attend a few mornings a week.
And a bit about the kids:
Bas has done amazingly well thus far. He is willing to interact with strangers, even those speaking another language. He is really taking things in, studying how and what is being done. He is trying new food and walking everywhere (this is a really hilly city), all without complaint. He even says he’s ready to start school immediately (I think he misses his friends and is hoping to meet some kids his age soon for lots of rough and tumble playtime).
The first thing Ginger asked upon waking up on our overnight flight was if we were in Brazil yet. When I opened up the window cover to allow a large blast of morning light into the dark cabin and pointed out the window, saying “That’s Brazil!” Ginger smiled and said, “I like Brazil!” I hope that stays true. She hardly ate the first two or three days here (an amazing thing for those who know her) but seems to have found her appetite again now that we have a ‘home.’ And her fashion creations draw quite a bit of attention. She loves wearing her butterfly flamenco pants with a tank top, finished off with a bikini top over that. Wow. And I’m not completely sure Ginger has actually touched ground in Brazil…she much prefers that I chauffer her around in the stroller (which again, draws lots of looks since even kids who are just learning to walk are walking!) in this very hilly and very not-smooth sidewalk city.
I’ll write more later about discovering the city and our search for things comforting.
We miss you all and would love to hear from you now that we have an internet connection in the apartment and can check email!

Friday, August 7, 2009

On the Road

We’re finally in motion! After months of planning for our trip and weeks of packing up, stowing away, giving away, cleaning up and clearing out our house for the renters who will move in this weekend, we are en route to Brazil, via California, where we will eventually fly from Sacramento to Chicago to Sao Paulo to Belo Horizonte next Tuesday.

But before that very long day of flying, we had another long one in the car. Yesterday we had a twelve-hour drive, starting before dawn, to Brian’s parents’ house in Davis. Five hours in, Ginger announced that she was ‘done being in the car.’ Weren’t we all! But the kids did an amazing job entertaining themselves and us for that many hours.

Some high-lights on the road…
Seeing the street sign ‘Chicken Dinner Road’ outside of Marsing (makes me want to take that right turn and see what’s down there)
Driving through southeast Oregon at dawn, as the high desert was cast in light and shadow, while we listening to the Star Wars soundtrack. It was more on the annoying side when Bas requested the same album for the tenth time in Nevada. Although slightly endearing that Brian could describe what was happening in the movie based on the music.
Bas asking questions like “Where does the sky begin?”
Ginger requesting then serenading us to the Gourds’ “Country Girl” (wake up wake up! We’re going to the country…)

Arriving to an empty house - Brian’s parents, JoAnn and Dave (who just celebrated his 70th birthday in late July) are out hiking a chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail this summer - we quickly shed our road weariness for a dip in a public pool then dinner out at the fantastic evening farmer’s market in downtown Davis. Now we’re spending the next 4 days at the family cabin on the Russian River, just chilling with the kids. We’ll even get to spend a few days with JJ, Kira, Sophie and Leo.

You forget what a fortunate situation you are in to be able to pick up and try something new for awhile until it’s time to say your goodbyes. That’s when friends and random folks who hear of your adventures away tell you how envious or happy or in awe of your life they are. We were lucky enough to spend our last evening in Boise with some wonderful friends. The children ran around while we sat and chatted over glasses of various concoctions and talked about random things.

It’s bitter-sweet to say goodbye to the good life you are leading at that moment. You have to hope that the one you are leaving it for is just as rewarding in its own way and that you’ll be welcomed back to the fold when you finally come back home.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Life In Transition

We’ve known for ages that we’d be spending the next 10 months in Brazil, but suddenly, we’re a week out from completely emptying our house, packing our bags and leaving Boise, en route to being in Brazil two weeks from now.

What started as a slow and stealthy removal of our and the kids’ toys, books and clothing has turned into a floodgate of disappearance. We’re just about to move into larger items like artwork and furniture and the kids are getting upset, as witnessed by both ending up in our bed last night…first Ginger around 12:30 a.m., then Bas around 2:30. Brian wisely removed himself from the mayhem to the futon couch after Ginger joined us. ‘Sleeping’ between Bas and Ginger in a not so big bed is a bit like being a buffer zone between two active seismic plates, or maybe like getting some sort of tandem massage (a grazing hand to the face or hair, a knee to the back) without the therapeutic benefits.

It'll be hard for all of us to walk away from wonderful friends but we know our time in Belo Horizonte (the largest Latin American city you've never hear of, 5 million metro area) will be a great experience all around, especially once we know where we'll live and where the kids will go to pre-school a few mornings a week!