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. ( 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?’