Saturday, September 29, 2007

Random things round our way: C&A. I was in the local mall this week and found myself in C&A. The clothing chain store was priced out of the UK market in 2000. But, it's much loved in Brazil where it remains as familiar a fixture in shopping centres as a McDonalds. (Perhaps, you can tell it's a quiet weekend when this is all I have to put up).

Pineapple upside down cake.
Tried to bake a cake like my Mum used to do. My first two attempts resulted in a rubbery dough, burnt to a crisp. I only discovered a few days ago that the Betty Crocker cookbook uses Farenheit and not Celcius temperatures. Third time lucky, I baked a better cake but it's still nowhere near as good as my Mum's.

Moving around. This weekend is the calm before the storm. For a change, we're having a quiet night in but then this week Rachel goes to Rio a day after her birthday (which is on the 3rd) for meetings. That leaves me to babysit Nelson who, poor lad, is not suffering gladly (as I write) a tooth coming through. And then, in two weeks time, thanks to cheap tickets with TAM airlines, Rachel and I have a few days away in Chile! The Grandparents will be on babysitting duty and we will pop over to Santiago via Sao Paulo. Roberto, a friend of mine from my MA in York, and his wife Paula are Chileans and live in the capital. Fortunately, they are about and so we will get to see the sites with local tour guides.

Wonderwall. I tried something new in some of my classes this week. I got Advanced level students to write new words to Oasis' song Wonderwall, and then we sang our efforts in class. I wrote the chorus but they wrote the verses. Our version is named Midway Mall after Natal's biggest Shopping Centre. The results are, well, surprising. Oasis lyrics were never the most profound so I feel our effort runs them pretty close... more info on my teacher site here (once there, you need to scroll down to see it).

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Busy week. We seemed to have found ourselves in a busy week. I don't have much time to write here before going back to my lesson planning. One reason for being busy is that teachers are being observed by managers this week. It's like in-house OFSTED for English teachers. Anyway, mine was yesterday and it went fine. I emailed my group before hand and told them to be nice to me and speak no Portuguese during class... they must all be exceedingly loyal as they were upright students for the whole period and didn't utter a peep of any language other than English.

Things I miss about England #21: not much gun crime. The shooting of a young boy in Liverpool last month and other news coming out of England suggests gun crime is on the up back home. In Brazil, it's a massive problem in built up areas and the mega-cities of Rio, Sao Paulo, Brasilia and Recife. In a referendum a couple of years back the Brazilian public voted to keep personal guns legal. It may seem like madness to vote this way, but it is a classic political catch 22. Nobody trusts the system to enforce the law, so they consider themselves better off with the option of having personal weapons for self-defence...

Anyway, little old Natal has the lowest crime for a state capital in Brazil, but that's not low enough for there not to be the occasional local horror story. This was all brought home recently with two incidents in the space of a week outside the English school. Two university students were mugged at gunpoint on Thursday and then on Sunday night some skirmish resulted in a young man being shot dead just down the road, again a supposed mugging. The news has spooked a few of the staff here, but I think the best response is to accept it happens, take every measure and care to ensure your safety and get on with life. Should anything happen, comply quickly with anybody who wants your money. (In Recife, Rio and Sao Paulo when people go out onto the streets they take an extra R$50 as "robber money" to pay off any threatening advances). But here we remain relatively safe. After all, so far there is no indication to me that what happens here is anything more than in Clifton where we lived in York...

Things I love about Brazil #50: the walk home. This might sound strange after what I mentioned above, but during the day the 5 minute amble to our house from the language school for lunch is one of life's little pleasures. Invariably, the sun will be shining, I can see the sand dunes and park to my left on the horizon. Just beyond them is the sea. I pass old folks sitting outside their house and I try to greet them jovially, even when they call me "Alemao" (German). At lunch time the streets are scented with the hazy aroma of beans and delicious Brazilian food. Then I pass the 5-a-side football pitch where some game might be going on, and over the square where the old men clunk their dominoes. Then it's past the pink Cathlic church, past the yellow building where folk practice singing for mass, turn right at the clinic onto our street and home... the stresses of the day just seem to ease off after this gentle stroll. And, I think I might be mad to ever consider swapping this for a commute on the London underground. I've been enjoying a very clever little website that the people here at have set up. Simply, every time a picture is uploaded to blogspot anywhere in the world, they display it live for all to see. This is happening so frequently the effect is of a never-ending slide show of random images. You can find out about any of the blogs in question or click straight to it from the picture. It's surprising how many people blog from Brazil! Anyway, through it, I've seen some very interesting photography and found some fascinating blogs. Give it a go here, at

Friday, September 21, 2007

Meet my new friend Adriano Lima, Paralympic gold medalist. On Tuesday I had the enormous privilege of interviewing Adriano Lima who is a student at Cultura Inglesa, Tirol unit. Adriano, who has minimal use of his legs, is a member with the Brazilian national swimming team. He has a gold medal from the Athens games where he was a winner in the relay. The medals he is holding in the picture are from this summer's Pan America Games which were in Rio. Adriano picked up seven gold medals, in front of a partisan home audience which included his wife and baby daughter Gabriella.

The reason for the interview is that Cultura produces an annual magazine which is given to parents and this will feature in it. Some excerpts from the article I'm working on about him:

How did his swimming career begin? Adriano, who has minimal use of both his legs, was not crippled from birth. He worked as construction worker until he was 17. But, 1990 was a fateful year for Adriano, as he fell off a high wall and broke his back, a terrible incident that was to deprive him of the use of his legs. This tragedy could have cut short Adriano’s hopes of a happy and fulfilled life. After what must have been three difficult years Adriano took to swimming and his evident skills were noticed. Soon, he was competing in his first competition in Recife at an event where he came home with a haul of gold medals. One year later, he was astonished to find himself on a plane to Italy, competing for his country internationally. Despite a harsh start to adult life Adriano seems free of bitterness in spite of the accident. “I’m very happy”, he says with a contended smile on his face. “I have no complaints about my life”.

I ask him about his routine, his training and diet. “Every day, I swim five hours and then I go to the gym for two hours”, he explains. “I never drink beer or soft drinks and never smoke”. And what food does a top class athlete like to eat? “I like to eat food like beans and rice. We eat a lot of fish and white meat to make us strong".
Nothing much to report (for once). It's been an average week, I'd say. Rach and Nelson have gone down to Recife again for Rachel's meetings so I'm home alone but the family will all hook up in Joao Pessoa for a night at a beach house tomorrow...

Amusing uses of English. We've been marking tests recently and so you know what that means? Funny English. I found Sueli, one of the other teachers marking tests from her children's group in the teachers room at Cultura. She was shaking her head ruefully while reading an error-strewn paper: "I stand on my eyes and I shut my knees... don't they listen to anything in class?"

My favourite from my students came in a test where students had to fill in a word in a sentence. The sentence was this: "My friend says that it is safe to shop on the internet as long as you use your common ________". Most of my class got the answer right, the word in the space should of course be "sense". But, one chap, using his imagination, put the word "computer". I gave him a mark as I could not dispute the grammatical correctness of the sentence even if it was a little surreal.

Lastly, a Brazilian showed me this so I sort of feel I have permission to forward it on in the name of good humour. Short clips of a Brazilian radio DJ trying to pronounce the name of UK/USA artists and songs. Clearly, this man never went to Cultura Inglesa. The clip is called "Radialista mestre do ingres" (which translates as Master DJ of Engrish) and you can watch it here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Things I miss about England #67: less wildlife. We found this big moth on our wall the other day. He was about the size of a flying brick. He seemed a bit ill so we trapped him in a box and threw him out. Rachel called me a woos for generally flapping around like a big girls blouse when I saw it. What happened to the rugged missionary kid who would go out looking for critters under rocks? Nelson on the other hand was fearless. He poked at it with great authority. (Does anyone know what kind of moth this is? If my Uncle Les reads this blog, he'll know).

Seriously though, we have bats living in the tree outside our house and we find the odd scorpion and cockroach around our property. Of course, there are mozzies and flies too. And then, there are the stray cats and dogs. Especially with Nelson becoming increasingly independent, sometimes we'd prefer there to be slightly less disease or illness transmitting members of God's good creation around...

Things I love about Brazil #15: more wildlife. But, on the other hand, the wildlife can be astonishing. Rachel and Nelson had a great time watching monkeys at the park the other day. The birds (the feathered variety, boys!) are beautiful in Brazil, but it is a shame that so many of them end up as caged pets on our estate. Probably the most memorable wildlife we've seen was at Pipa beach when Ruth and Julian were here a while back. Just a few feet from the shore a dolphin leapt completely out the water three times, on the final occasion with a fresh silver fish in it's mouth. We were literally speechless at the sight. You don't see that in Skegness every day, do ya?

Nelsinho makes it onto Brazilian national cable TV on a programme about football. His Uncle Nelson sent a picture in of the young lad in a Nautico footy kit. You can watch the clip on You Tube.

Cultura Tirol. The whole family were up over the weekend helping move a Cultura school (in a part of Natal called Tirol) 500 yards down the road to a new building. It was a real family affair with even Rachel's brother coming up from Recife as one of a legion of computer geeks setting up the IT in the library. The new unit started taking students yesterday. I have a lesson over there this afternoon so I'll be seeing it in use for the first time today.

Friday, September 14, 2007

New idea for gaining clients for the language school. Following the car incident on Monday (see last post), everything, thanks to my Father in law, has been sorted A OK. The guy who I bumped is seriously toying with the idea of enrolling his family in Cultura Inglesa school. This sparked an idea with Steve over lunch that day...
S: "It may not be the most orthodox way to get clients for Cultura, but it seems to have worked".
Me: "Well, I'd be happy to bump into as many cars as you like around Natal to get more students for the school"
S: "Yeah, and after they get out the car to look at the damage you could say 'Are you tired of life in Natal? Why not learn a new language and get away from it all'"...

A bit about music. Yesterday, I had a boys night out jamming with Dyego (a teacher from Cultura and a good friend), Mariano (soon to emigrate to the USA - boo!) and Wesley (a cheerful Brazilian drummer who I had never met before). We played from the hours of 10pm to midnight at a rented studio, the only time we were all free. For two hours with hiring the cymbals we each paid R$7.50 - about £2.00. So, I couldn't complain about the good value.

I had to borrow a guitar (it wasn't the greatest work of art, I have to say). We mangled a few hits from REM, Radiohead, Elvis, Pearl Jam and the Goo Goo Dolls amongst others.
We miss Mev here with his all round muscial nouse. I was singing for the most part so you can see it was a flawed venture from the start. Honestly, I think our efforts were what the word "shambolic" was invented to describe. But it was a laugh and we'll do the same next week with some more practice. Although, I'm exhausted today as after we packed up I had to drive Dyego and Wesley home as it was too late for their buses. Dyego and especially Wesley live out in the sticks (or "the boondocks" as my mother would say), and when I fell into bed at past 2.30am, after driving on deserted and sometimes unlit roads, I was reminded again by what a big, open place Brazil actually is.

A bit about photography. One of Brazil's greatest living icons is hardly known in his home country. Sebastiao Salgado is an award-winning, world-class photographer who documents (always in black and white) the plight of the poor, the working classes, those affected by war or famine or forced migration across the developing world. He has also exhibited pictures of wildlife, but it is his ability to capture something of the sadness and hope in people that has made him so famous.

I first found out about him about 8 years ago when I flicked through a book of his at my cousin Paul's house in Washington DC. Since then I saw with Rachel his Migration exhibition in London which was one of the most moving (and shocking) things I have ever witnessed.

Salgado has just opened an exhibition in London about coffee workers in Ethiopia, Brazil, India and Guatamala. See it if you can! A good place to find out about Salgado is here on the Guardian website which has a whole section devoted to him.

Student blog. This semester I tried a new idea which has worked quite well - a blog, in English, for my students. I post details of tests, homework and links to good websites on there. But, I also use it as a board to put more interesting things on - videos, pictures (of the students or their work) and anything else I find that might keep them interested. Sometimes the site gets 30 hits a day so it seems to be working. Related to the information above, I just posted a video on there with clips of Sebastiao Salgado's photography. The video was put together by a Brazilian hoping to raise awareness of Salgado's work. My website is: Take a look!

Monday, September 10, 2007

I hate Mondays. In the manner of Garfield, I have had quite a Monday morning. It all began when Nelson's nappy was so full I got wee on my fresh trousers and shirt and it was a struggle to get Nelson to eat his papaya for breakfast. Several niggly things later, I've dropped Rach at work and am in the car with Nelson and we're pulling onto a main road. Next moment I hear a crunch. I've pranged the back of the car in front of me. Nobody hurt, no damage to us, minor (but expensive!) damage to him. To be fair, it is a notorious junction which involves pulling into a lane of moving traffic. I was so busy checking my mirrors and blind spot I hadn't noticed the guy in front of me had come to a hault.

There's nothing quite like bashing somebody else's car to dry up the flow of one's already frazzled Portuguese. I managed to call Rach who came down and efficiently set about sorting us all out. Unfortunately she accidentally locked the car keys in our car in the process. Mondays! But a short phone call later and a man with an orange shirt shows up on a motorbike. He is a chaveiro (key guy) and manages to get into our car within 30 seconds... (worringly fast if you ask me!). One problem solved.

Steve and Celia show up, somebody else takes Nelson to school. We wait for the traffic police to arrive. After nearly two hours they appear. It turns out a much worse incident occurred further up the road which they had to deal with first. When they do come they are helpful and efficient, albeit slightly confused about the paperwork for me, an estrangeiro. They are seriously "pimped" traffic police with endless gadgets hanging off their belts and proiminant hands-free cellphones draped over their ears. One guy has a pair of aviators on and the other a pair of fake RayBan sunglasses... I'm reminded of the Independence Day parade when all the uniformed forces marched past us (see last blog). On that occasion, the traffic police, with painted faces, had dressed up as traffic lights and could have passed for circus clowns. But on Monday morning, these "real" traffic police before me cut much more imposing figures.

Actually, I was very thankful to God this whole thing hadn't been worse. It could have been a disastrous Monday morning if somebody had got hurt or it had been more serious. Our car was fine, our friend's will need a bit of work but not much. The chap I bumped was quite banterous and took the occasion to chat with Steve about the possibility of sending his kids to Cultura Inglesa... Never one to miss a business opportunity, Steve filled him in on all the details. Brazilians, thankfully, they just seem never seem to get too stressed about it all.

Amy and Steve's birthday. Monday mornings always follow weekends and we did, it's true, have a very good weekend. My father and sister-in-law share birthdays and so the whole family were here with some cousins and friends thrown in for good measure. We relaxed by the pool on Sunday and ate some good shrimp followed by chocolate cake for lunch.

Football update: America don't lose! In the evening we went off to watch America RN play against Sport Recife. At least our local team didn't lost this time - but they will dissapointed to have only drawn 1-1 in a game they could have won. Pita (Rachel's cousin who was with us in York for a year) was one of those around and he's a big Sport fan so we sat in the away supporters end. Since America have started losing so much their support has dwindled. There may have been more away fans at this match than home fans. The huge Machadao stadium was mostly empty.

Football update: time to start supporting another team? Earlier that day, by the pool, Steve got chatting to a guy who it turns out is on the board of ABC, America's local rivals. This chap promptly gave us free ABC shirts there and then and promised us the chance to sit in his executive box at the next ABC game. Now, ABC are in Brazil's third division and I have been to their stadium before. Can't say I really noticed any boxes anywhere, let alone executive ones, but it's a nice gesture. If we do this my conscience will be pricked. Supporting a team is like being married... it seems very sinful to leave ones first love for another model even if the second comes with lots of freebies. America or ABC, who to support?

Things I miss about England #80: Gas from the mains. As part of the weekend festivities I cooked up a (mock) Brazilian curry for everyone on Saturday night. The gas for our oven comes from a container, which decided to run out when I had things boiling on all the hobs. Thankfully, Steve managed to find a place who filled it up, even late at night on a Saturday. Thank the Lord, the curry was saved.

Things I love about Brazil #24: Match day snacks. Watching football live in Brazil is half about the game and half about the associated atmosphere. A big part of the latter is the endless stream of snack vendors who try to convince you to purchase their beer, soft drinks, water, tic-tacs, popcorn and an endless assortment of other goodies. Personally, I wouldn't trust anything with meat or cheese in (you have no idea where it comes from or how it's been cooked!). But for the equivalent of about £2 per match you could have a couple of beers, some cashew nuts and, my favourite, churros - sort of long sugary doughnuty things with caramel sauce inside. I ate three yesterday and didn't need dinner after that.

Church. Rachel's Mum babysat the boy on Sunday morning which gave us a chance to have the rare luxury of getting over to church and sitting, uninterrupted, for the duration of the service. I was pleased I could make out some of Pastor Gerson's sermon. It's not easy with the echo from the microphone but he preached about the cross, saying it was the greatest work of God. Sound theology if you ask me.

After about twenty minutes the heat set in making it difficult to concentrate in any case. The building they use is like a warehouse and is in the process of being renovated and developed. To keep it cool they have about 20 fans on full power hanging from the ceiling and attached to the walls. It's like sitting underneath a fleet of helicopters. Sadly, the desired cooling effect is not as it should be. Most of the congregation and the pastor are wilting by the end...

Friday, September 07, 2007

Brazilian Independence Day. September 7th 1822 is the date formerly recognised as when Brazil became independent from their colonial masters Portugal, although it seems the historical reading needs to be a bit more nuanced than just remembering that one date. (See Wikipedia entry here). My students spoke about Independence day to me yesterday. One lad pointed out: "We gained our political independence on this date, but we still have not gained our economic independence from the USA and other wealthy nations". Even if this is another simplification of a very complex discussion, he is not the only young Brazilian I've met to voice this opinion.

So, today was (another!) public holiday and the three of us went off with Mariano, Babi and family to watch the Brazilian Independence Day parade. This involved all the armed forces, volunteer forces and essentially anybody who wears a uniform marching by through the morning. There was also a brief show of strength from the air (see pic) - Natal has an airbase which trains Brazilian pilots. We all had a great time, including Nelson, who loved the noise, the military vehicles and probably would've enjoyed the dogs and horses if he had been awake to see them.

With such a big crowd closely packed around us we were careful to keep a close eye on our cameras and wallets. But, I comforted myself with the fact that if anything should happen we could call on any number of uniformed agents to come to our aid: be it the police, the traffic police, the military police, the riot police, the lifeguards, the dog trainers, the Calvary, the parachute regiment, the veterans, the girl scouts, the boy cubs, firefighters, the Seventh Day Adventist marching band or the quad-bike-riding sand dune force of the environmental police... the list goes on.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Natal fashion week. Rachel and Amy have gone with Barbara to this tonight leaving me and Celia alone to babysit the boy. It gives me some extra time for bloggage...

Raul Seixas. One of my students leant me a CD of the music of the late Raul Seixas recently. Rachel says he is the man that brought rock'n'roll to Brazil. Actually, the CD I'm listening to is circa 1973 and is absolutely brilliant. It's like Elvis meets Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen and the three of them go off, learn Portuguese, record an album and voila! There are a handful of videos on Youtube if you search under his name. For a very bad example of his abilities, check out the strange, surreal song
in English about a magic train (dare I say it, perhaps created under the influence of chemicals whose provenance may not be strictly legitimate). View it here.

Juliette Fandrich. Congrats to my cousin Sarah and her husband Martin on the arrival of their second daughter!

Things I miss about England #70: Reading the paper.
Julian Kenny kindly left me a copy of the Telegraph when he visited last week. There's nothing like sitting back on the sofa and opening a broadsheet.

Things I love about Brazil #11: Help.
Some people might think it lazy of us or perhaps a reversion to a colonial exploitative era to employ house help. You might especially think this when I say we pay less than £10 for a full day's work. But really, it's a win-win situation. With Nelson trashing the house on an hourly basis it helps to have an extra pair of hands for washing and cleaning. Secondly, it provides valuable employment for somebody, and our pay (which includes lunch and breakfast) is fair given the local Brazilian economy.
Having somebody about the place during the day is good for security if we are all out too. In fact, NOT hiring if you have the means to is seen as being miserly and stingy. We had people enquiring about working the moment we got here.

First we had Miriam and now it's Ana. Both women appear to be somewhat ageless in appearance. I'd place them anywhere between 25 and 45. I think this is because they carry a worldly-wise look about them that suggests the experience of years, but they both seem to have the stamina, energy and strength of a beach volleyball team.

Ana does a great job keeping the house in order two days a week. She fixes great beans and fresh pineapple juice. She is constantly perplexed by my attempts to speak Portuguese and we often get our wires crossed. But last Friday she inadvertently revealed her age to us. We were talking about kids and she mentioned that her eldest was nearly 22. I was shocked! Mentally, I figured, if she had had kids in her twenties, this must place her, at the very least, in the latter part of my age estimate. But then came the punch line: her first was born when she was 15! And I'll leave you to do the math...

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Vegetarian student - an update. During my lesson earlier today we asked our young friend who turned vegetarian how he was doing (see last Saturday's entry for full story). This is what he said: "I tried to be a vegetarian. I lasted nearly a week. But yesterday my friends and I all went to Burger King and I couldn't resist...". I asked him if he would consider taking it up again. " I think that from now on if I am on my own in the house I will not eat meat a lot, but it is too difficult to say no always!"

Rachel the dancing queen. Up until now Rachel has not really had anything she could describe as a personal hobby away from Nelson or I, the family or the Cultura Inglesa language school. So I was really pleased that today her and Amy were able to get off to a two hour belly dance class. Seriously, Rachel wanted to dance and this was the only thing available at a suitable time and with places free. Rachel came back all wobbly-kneed after the work out... but with tummy muscles toned to the strength and consistency of a granite ironing board. I'll keep a close eye on Rachel's belly in the next few weeks and post updates here.

Nelson's first uniform. Pictured, Nelson in his Primeiros Passos uniform. The first day out of civies into his new school clothes was last Friday. My wee lad's all growed up. I don't know where he learned to pose like a model in a mail order catalogue. Perhaps his fashion guru Tia Amy taught him some tips on staring purposefully into the distance while propping oneself up at a jaunty angle.