Friday, July 25, 2008

A postcard from on the road...

Dear faithful readers,

Thanks for your patience with slightly slower blog updating. We've been entertaining some wonderful guests and we've also been on the move. All in all, time on internet has decreased greatly. Today, we saw off the extraordinary Gillums and their 5 kids and we're in Recife with Rachel's folks. All being well, we should be picking up Ruth Leckenby - back for more! - and taking her up to Natal for a well-deserved break after her mission work. Tomorrow, weather permitting, Rach and I and our chappy and chapette will be off to Porto de Galinhas for a 24 hour "relaxing" holiday.

Normal service to resume next week.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The strange people we left behind: part 1. Moving to a new apartment block was definitely for the best, but I'm sure we'll be sorry to see the back of our neighbourhood as it certainly had some colourful characters in it. In particular, we will probably miss the employees of Palader Satanejer. PS is a small delhi which sells authentic Natalense meat, cheese, cakes, bread, alcohol, beans, nuts and sweets and a lot else besides. It's extremely well-run and is worth a visit just for the colours, flavours and smells. Nelson is always is in awe of the various things hanging from the ceiling - a stuffed cow's head, a bottled crab, a side of dried beef, a large bunch of some unknown fruit...

Anyway, the other day I paid them a visit and under the premise that as we had moved I wanted photos of the shop that I missed, I waltzed in with my new camera and after asking permission started snapping away. What I REALLY wanted a picture of, though, was the framed headshots of some of the employees that were propped up on the counter. The reason being, one of them is named Keith. Not so unusual, I hear you say. But, wait for it, SHE'S A LADY!!!!! Let me repeat that again. In the shop near to where we lived is a WOMAN NAMED KEITH!!!!! How funny is that? So, I was delighted I managed to get photographic evidence of a picture of the bizarrely-named female in question.

My father-in-law thinks that probably she is called Keith becuase her parents wanted to call her Katie but misspelt it - or rather, spelt it phonetically as you would say it in Portuguese. When presented with the written word KEITH a Brazilian would probably pronounce the name as KATIE.

Dad is 60, not out. Well done Dad on another milestone.

Danny is 28, not out. And congrats to my ol pal Danny "My Son" Byrne on becoming 28 yesterday. As it would happen the Byrnes sent us not one, not three, but TWO huge parcels from the UK which arrived yesterday too. So, now Nelson has a bowling game, I have a CD and curry and Rach has some cosmetics... we're very grateful indeed. In fact, seeing as I forgot it was Danny's birthday yesterday, I feel doubley indebted to our good friends from York. Voçes estão demais!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Manchester Barlows. We're entering a time of hosting wonderful people visiting us in Natal. Steve's cousin Paul and his family are across from Manchester for their first visit to Brazil. So, it was off to the beach today and they braved the infamous dune buggy rides. So far they all seem happy enough and not too sunburnt. Although, they did have a lot to say about the "style" of Brazilian driving.

Language ups and downs. As I've said before on here, I'm excited because (finally) my Portuguese is reaching levels of some fluency where I can communicate fairly freely. I took an online Portuguese proficiency test and was labelled as Advanced Intermediate level. But, seeing as that was only reading and grammar and not listening or speaking or writing it's a debatable grading.

Nevertheless, the language is on the up. What I've found, though, is a strange thing. Linguists probably have a name for this, but in familiar topic areas where I can speak without having to think too much I have become quite lazy with my Portuguese opting for the easiest and sometimes semi-accurate route to communicating. Steve says that his Dad arrived in Brazil, reached that level and stayed with it for 50 years. I'll try not to let that happen, but let me give you an example of a small slip-up that I made this week, which I shouldn't have made if I was trying a bit harder. We had some guests over for lunch but didn't have enough knives (long story) to set all the places so I suggested to Ana, the lady who helps in the house, that we use spoons. I kept saying to her "Pode usar coelho. Simplesmente, pode botar coelho". She returned a puzzled look. After a while she held up a spoon and said, "colher?". It was then that it dawned on me that I had said "coelho" when I had meant to say "colher". Instead of suggesting she put out spoons in place of knives, I was asking her to lay out rabbits on the table. Most peculiar and a timely lesson to me to keep thinking about what I'm saying in somebody else's language.

John Stauffacher. My mother's brother, an elderly and frail man in his 70s, passed away last night after a battle with cancer. So, lots of prayers going up for that side of the family. We feel blessed to have known this wonderful Christian man who served in France as a missionary with his wife for his entire adult life. Last summer we had the chance to visit France and introduce Nelson to his great Uncle - that encounter seems especially poignant now.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Huge bang. Rach and I sat bolt upright in bed this morning at 5.30am when we heard a huge explosion several hundred yards away. Given that our new home is within a kilometre of a military training base, and given that yesterday they sent 5 low-flying helicopters over our heads (which sent Nelson into conniptions) I was expecting to see the opening salvos of World War III outside our window this morning. But, thankfully, it was "only" an electricity power box exploding, cutting all the electricity (including traffic lights) in the neighbourhood. It's back on now, which is good.

The 16th Sertoes Rally of Brazil.
Much to the delight of Nelson and his Dad, an off-road Brazilian rally finished in Natal at the end of June. Unfortunately, we didn't know about it far enough in advance to see the cars race on the dunes live (although we did catch a report on the TV) but we did see evidence of the rally around time. A trip to Camaroes restaurant to say goodbye to Aunt Amy returning to the UK suddenly became even more interesting when the car park was filled with the Mercedes rally team - lots of huge trucks with grubby, stickered exteriors was enough to inspire Nelson to a big "WWWOOOOOWWWWW". The drivers and team and some local press were in the restaurant enjoying an end of rally party. A few days later and Rachel and I went to a shopping centre and found the Mitsibushi team parked on the top floor of the car park (see pic). Cue another "WWOOOOWWWWWWWW" from Nelson. Oddly, there was also an exhibition of farm animals on the same level of the car park as well as a kid's theme park. Amazing what you can find in a shopping centre car park in Brazil.

Rachel's Granny Lali's 80th. Several weeks have passed but I feel I can't really neglect to mention the huge family knees-up that occurred in Joao Pessoa at the end of June either. Laulau or Lali is a larger than life character, mother of 6, grandmother and great grandmother to countless (see pic with her and Nelson and Gloria) and she expected, organised and warranted a huge party to celebrate a significant milestone. The focus of the weekend was a 2 hour service on Saturday evening at the 1st Presybterian Church of Joao Pessoa where Laulau is a faithful attender and member of the choir. All family were dressed for the occasion, which meant suits and ties for the men, and we were all paraded in as Laulau read out our names. The service included a 45-minute sermon from the pastor who exhorted us to shine brilliantly like Jesus and look to Laulau as an example of somebody who has lived this out. After the service it was downstairs for food and some "short" speeches by select members of the family. But, once Laulau herself took the mic there wasn't a lot of hoping of getting it back again as she regaled us with endless stories (she did the same last year it seems). It was a great night, but poor Nelson was absolutely exhausted when he finally collapsed asleep in the car at 11.30pm. At 5am he was awake and ready to play...

...unlike Gloria. Nelson's sister needs to teach him some lessons on how to sleep. She managed 22 total hours asleep last Wednesday, waking only for feeds. Last night both her and Nelson managed to sleep the whole night through without waking - Nelson woke at 5.30am, Gloria woke at 7am and went back to sleep at 8am until mid-day. We think her preference for sleep is partly inspired by being the daughter of her mother and because she's figured out being asleep is so much more relaxing than waking life when your brother is a poking, hugging, kissing, slapping, prodding, pushing, stroking, patting, picking, cuddling, pulling, shouting, screaming, talking, whispering, surprising kind of guy. She seems to take it all in her stride though and beams huge smiles at all of us now, including Nelson.

Friday, July 04, 2008

OK, OK, we get the idea. I'm carrying my new birthday camera around everywhere which means its handy for any slightly odd or obscure thing I see. Actually, Rach and I often chuckle at the frequent occurrence of random things we come across just from driving around - a donkey standing in the middle of the road with nobody around, a man taking 15 dogs for a walk, a man juggling fire for money at the traffic lights, a huge hole in the road when there wasn't one there yesterday, a strike or protest of something or other... Anyway, we saw this picture above at a petrol station. They seem pretty adamant about not accepting any sort of payment by cards, don`t they? I wonder if they accept cash? If so, I bet they don't have any change.

Legião Urbana (Urban Legion). Back in Recife, Rach managed to dig out two CDs for the Brazilian band Legião Urbana for me. I'd first heard their music when it was playing on the loudspeaker at the Maracajau water park. Rach rolled her eyes when I said I liked it. This was the band all of her friends were into at school but she obstinately refused to listen to. They're kind of the Brazilian Smiths, and I think some of their songs exhibit a heavy REM influence (no bad thing). In many ways the band were known for being anti-religious or anti-church, but my current favourite is the ballad "Monte Castelo" from their album Os Quatro Estaçoes (The Four Seasons). It's a well-known song of theirs from circa 1989 based on the famous words of 1 Corinthians 13 from the Bible. You can watch a performance of it here.

James Blunt. Speaking of music, one of the worst imports of music here from the UK has to be James Blunt's tepid and squeeky vocal performances as sung over the top of predict-a-chord dirgey songs. Unfortunately for us, (but darned lucky for him and his publicity machine) a James Blunt song is being used as the theme to a Brazlian Globo TV soap opera called Duas Caras (Two faces). Now, James Blunt can count among his fans every middle-aged housewife in Brazil as well as every middle-aged housewife in the UK. Ana, the lady who helps in our house, listens to a radio station that plays only Brazilian popular music and James Blunt. Caramba! The song is all over YouTube, but someone has helpfully put Portuguese subtitles over this video of Mr.Blunt perfoming the number in question.

(Small fact: did you know that the Globo's soap operas are so famous and widely watched and Globo is itself such a huge a corporation that they can insist on late kick-offs for any domestic or international Brazilian football fixture so the match doesn't cut into soap opera time. This annoyingly means all major evening games, including Wednesday's Libertadores Final, start at the ridiculous time of 9.50pm!!! If the game goes to penatlies, as it did on Wednesday, it finishes after midnight. I'm always asleep by the second half).

Congrats to cousin Simon and wife Katie on the arrival of Lucie Iona Payne.

Things I miss about England #71: General administrative competence. OK, so it's debatable if this is even such a good thing in England given the numerous horror stories we have in trying to secure VISAs and passports or sign up for a new phone deal or phone the DVLA, but Brazil, on average has to be a lot worse. Don't get me wrong - it's not all bad. My ID arrived in one piece (after 18 months) and we recently got Gloria her Brazilian ID relatively painlessly. But, trying to get Gloria registered as a British citizen is not proving to be easy given there is a postal strike on at the moment. Furthermore, moving house and trying to switch our cable and internet providers and trying to get a spare key from the estate agents is proving to be a jumbled mix of red tape, conflicting stories and loopy administrating for poor Rachel who is burdened with sorting it out.

Things I love about Brazil #87: interesting city names. Our recent travels to Joao Pessoa and Recife and my plan to travel to Fortaleza this month have reminded me that Brazil has some excellent names for cities. Those three I mentioned translate literally as John Person, Reef and Fortress. Of course, we live in Christmas (Natal) which is close to the beach towns of Kite (Pipa) and Chicken Port (Porto da Galinhas) and down south there is Saviour (Salvador), January River (Rio do Janeiro), Saint Paul (Sao Paulo) and Happy Port (Porto Alegre). These names aren't like the ones we have in England are they? There ain't no Skegness, Cricklewood, Blackpool or Ponders End round here...

Oops, I've just noticed I have two entries for "fresh milk" in my things I miss about England list. Why didn't anyone tell me? I must really miss fresh milk to place it at both number 16 and number 48. In it's place (at number 48) I think I'll put celery, another food related item that I really miss...

This post has grown and grown to become another monster entry. Sorry folks.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

I'm no longer in my mid-20s, although perhaps I'm still in my mid- to late-20s. Today is my birthday and I am 28 which seems like a frightfully old age in many respects. I`ve been having a great few days, mostly thanks to Rach who has been working hard to fix up a few surprises. On Sunday I was relieved of parenting duties (Rach's parents were here to cover) so I could relax at the beach and my favourite restaurant without having to worry about the chidlers. In the afternoon I got to see the Spain vs Germany Euro 2008 final and was thrilled with the outcome - well done you Spaniards!

Yesterday, Rach surprised me at work when she hijacked the end of my lesson with my pastors to bring me more cake. For lunch, the grandparents gave Rach and I a couple of hours off to go to Sal e Brasa - an eat-all-you-can meatery (churrascaria) where meat is delivered on spits to your table and is carved off onto your plate. As Rach pointed out, we witnessed probably the finest display of efficient and vociferous waiting we have seen in any Brazilian restaurant to date. These guys were pros, the Premier League of Natal`s food serving workforce. And after the quantity I ate, let`s just say I didn't need to eat any dinner in the evening. Today, my actual birthday, I have a day off and a meal with some students tonight and tomorrow one of the pastor`s wives has invited us round for lunch to eat homemade seafood. I've recieved numerous gifts as well, the biggest and most suprising of which was a fantastic new digital camera from Rach's folks. Schmancy pics to be posted here soon.

Everything else. I have a small library's worth of content to post on here following an eventful few weeks - Nelson's 2nd birthday, travelling, Rach granny Lali's 80th birthday, moving house to a new apartment (with the subsequent parting of ways with the wonderfully eccentric community where we used to live) and finishing off the semester, marking tests and wishing students well. I'll try to get the highlights on here over the next few days. For now, I`ll leave you with just one story...

The incident of the lost key in the night. The move to our new apartment occurred last week with Rach and the kids in Recife, and me up here in Natal abley assisted in the rearranging by 3 colourful characters from the Cultura Inglesa. I've mentioned on here before the extraordinary Sr. Ricardo and Sr. Joaquim and my problems at communicating with them, but we also had on board Sr. Jose, a man of action who thanks to his hiring a trailer for the pick-up was instrumental in getting our stuff moved across town in time for Rach and the young ones' arrival on Thursday. All in all we did OK together despite the frequent mis-communications and occasional differences of opinion about moving methodology. I picked up a few colloquialisms too and I am now well aquainted with the Portuguese vocabulary for moving a house.

However, it was on the Monday of that week that Sr. Jose stayed at our old house and I decided to sleep at our new apartment to keep an eye on our stuff. After a day filled with the strenuous shifting of bulky furniture I felt I was entitled to a dip in the condominium pool late in the evening when it was already dark. Down I went, with just my swimming trunks on and carrying only my towel and the apartment key. After a delicious 5 minutes in the vacant pool enjoying the fireworks in the night sky that accompany the Sao Jaoa festival at this time of year, I got out to dry off. As I picked up my towel, I knocked the apartment key off the chair where it promptly dissapeared between two slats in the wooden floor that surrounds the pool and fell with a disconcerting clunk several feet below. Uh-oh, I thought. I'm screwed.

The pool, you see, is on a raised platform so I spent a few minutes circling the pool trying to find a way to get down under it. With no door or entrance in sight I sheepishly went to find the night porter. Dripping in just my swimming trunks, I explained in my best Portuguese that I was new to the apartment block, was staying there alone, and had just lost the only key underneath the pool. How could I get it back? The Porter laughed - "Nao e possivel. Tem que procurar amanha". I explained that waiting until tomorrow would not be so good unless I was expected to sleep outside in just my wet swimming gear. I'd like to try and look tonight as I had no mobile, no spare key and I was far too far from the old house to walk and I had no car keys and I didn't even know Sr. Jose's number to call him to pick me up. The Porter laughed some more. Finally, I asked for a torch so I could look for it myself - I just needed directing to how to get under the pool. "Vou te ensinar", said the Porter. I'll teach you.

Round the back of the pool the Porter showed me a creaky, rusty grate which he opened into a dark underworld. To get through the grate required getting down on all fours, and the small space under the pool was only about a metre high, high enough to crawl in at least. He handed me the torch. "Tem baratinha, aqui?" I asked sheepishly ("Are there any little cockroaches here?"). He assured me no. That's good I thought, unless he meant there were only big cockroaches, rats, snakes and scorpions. This is just like the Crystal Maze, I thought to myself chirpily, or perhaps a scene from a b-horror flic, I thought to myself not so chirpily. No matter, the key only fell a few meters away from the grate. But, as I moved forward with bare palms and knees on the concrete the Porter shouted after me that I couldn't go that way, I wasn't allowed to climb over the pool's piping. The only way to get to my key was by crawling around the perimeter of the pool. Oh crumbs, I thought as I painfully turned around and shuffled off into the blackness hoping to dear God the torch had sufficient battery power.

Well, the story ends happily. 10 minutes later, I had my key and was out and the dungeon under the swimming pool was surprisingly clean and lacking in critters. I returned the torch (cue another chuckle from the Porter) and made my way up to the apartment, grazed knees and all. Once in, I called Rach. "Honey, you won't believe what happened! Come back, all is forgiven! I am clearly supposed to be married to you on account of not being able to keep myself out of trouble for more than a day...".

On the plus side, we later thought, this didn't happen when I couldn't speak any Portuguese. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my Portuguese is certainly of a level where I could survive given most strange situations, of which this was certainly one. Thank God too that the key was recoverable then and there, or otherwise I could still be walking the streets of Natal semi-naked to this day...