Friday, October 31, 2008

Every silver lining has a cloud. Just a few short observations today and tomorrow. I realised recently how often I get in trouble with Rachel (and other folks for that matter) for storing everything important from keys to DVDs, from money to essential certificates in the pockets of my multi-pocketed shorts. The problem is, I change my legwear everyday resulting in stuff left behind in yesterday's pockets which at times finds its way through the wash. I caught myself recently, much like an Israelite wishing for Egypt, thinking how nice it would be wear a jacket for a change - a big leather one with an inside pocket for a wallet and two hand pockets on the sides for keys (to the left) and coins (to the right) as was my way in York. Living in a climate where no jacket is required (spot the Phil Collins reference) is its own reward and I should be grateful but I can't help thinking that this is an example of a thing I miss about England, in this cast #99 to be exact: leather jackets.

Things I miss about England #63: photocopiers. Things I miss about England #64: people know how to photocopy. Photocopiers are expensive beasts to maintain up in the north-east of Brazil and, like many things, they break down with monotonous regularity (why would it work?), and despite the language school being a good-sized business which relies heavily on photocopied material, its not possible for us to have our own "xerox" as the Brazilians say. So, we have it done at a shop down the road.

Teachers have to prepare their copies several hours in advance if they want handouts for every student in their class. As you might expect, I am only ever that organised about 10% of the time so my photocopying count is always quite low. I always seem to get inspiration for my lesson plans 5 minutes before the class starts (necessity is the mother of invention?) but I often have to make do without copies because there isn't one handy for last minute emergencies. If only I was back in the purple towers of the St.Mikes office in York...

Anyway, even when you do order photocopies from the shop, there's a fair chance they might cock it up. This they did spectacularly for me this week. I am giving an exam preparatory class for FCE (the world's most popular general English test, by the way). I wanted 15 tests photocopied and stapled, one for each student coming to the class. When the copies came back, some bright spark HAD stapled them, oh yes, but without collating them. In other words all the page 1s were stapled together in a pile, all the page 2s were stapled together, all the page 3s etc. As I grumbled away with furrowed brow pulling the staples out, re-collating the whole stack of sheets and re-stapling them one more I wondered to myself, "what possible use in the whole world could I have had for a stapled collection of exactly identical sheets?" - I suggested that the jobsworth at the shop obviously had no lateral thinking capabilities. Fiona, my boss, thought s/he probably didn't have any thinking capabilities, full stop.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Things I miss about England #69: small talk. There's an old joke: Two Italians, two Frenchman and two Brits are stranded on a desert island. The Italians immediately strike up a conversation and launch an Italian restaurant. The Frenchmen do the same and start a patisserie. The two Brits move to opposite sides of the island and never speak to each other as they haven't been formerly introduced.

Now, what would happen if you put two Brazilians on the island? I think they'd watch football together buut sleep with knives under their pillows for fear of the other guy stealing their wallet in the night (see this post for more on why Brazilians have the lowest levels of trust for all of South America). Either that, or they'd discover they were distantly related, in which case they'd team up and start a successful samba school.

So, why the long preamble? Well, its just that how Brazilians get to know strangers is profoundly different to how Brits do it. For many Brits there is an expectation that small talk, although often a nusiance, is an essential part of social interaction. For example, weddings. There are always a few tables at British reception dinners made up of a handful of odds and ends friends and relatives who have to sit next to each other. By the end of the meal, Mr.X has discovered he shares a passion for tiddly-winks much like Ms. Y sitting next to him and Mr. Z has learned that he shares an office with one of Mrs.A's old school friends. etc. etc.

In Brazil, the situation is wholly different. At a wedding, all the family and kids would all come along and there wouldn't be set places so there would never be this need to confront people anyone didn't know. What I've noticed (by often being on the receiving end as a stranger in various settings myself) is that to get to know Brazilians you have to approach them in much the same way as Donnie Brasco did the mafia. Just keep showing up with people who can vouch that you're "safe" and after some time you'll be absorbed into the group and find yourselves doing the same things as everyone else. Equally, its possible you could hang around some Brazilians for a long time and never learn any details about their lives - you just happen to have a few shared experiences together. I have this sort of relationship with some of Rachel's friends - I'm definitely part of the gang on account of being married into the Barlow clan and a handful of them are even my facebook friends, but none of us have actually had anything like a conversation. Small talk has been absent.

Why do I mention this now? Last Saturday we went to a birthday party for a kid from Nelson's school. The usual candidates were there - Nelson's best pal Rafa and her Mum and one or two others that Rach has gotten to know. To my delight, I found that one of my ex-students, a lawyer was there with her husband. And then, one of her friends, also an ex-student turned up. They eye-balled me suspiciously for a while to the point where it was just getting embarrassing for me and for them so I crossed the balloon-infested floor to do "small talk". After some stiff handshakes and kisses they asked me how I was and what I was doing there. I explained my presence at this festa on a Saturday night and pointed out Rachel, Gloria and Nelson strewn around the corners of the room. My two friends/aquaintances shot me a quick glance as if to say "why are you telling us this? We won't be introducing you to our families". So, I quickly changed the subject to the weather or travel or something and moved on. We never spoke again all evening. Small talk was absent, and I have to say I missed it.

Things I love about Brazil # 69: live music. On Friday afternoon I took Nelson on an adventure. We recruited Tio Dyego and made our way onto the UFRN campus for the Sciene Week fair. Now, thoroughly accustomed to the fact that any Brazilian event doesn't have to do what it says on the tin, I wasn't sure what to expect and I thought it might be lucky if we saw anything sciene-related. As it happens, they were starting to take down some of the stalls as it was the end of the week but I, and Nelson, did get to see some cool stuff. I found out one interesting fact: UFRN (the State university of Rio Grande do Norte) had about 8,000 students in 1970, about 9,500 students in 1998 and now has nearly 30,000 - a testament to both how little education was prioritised until relatively recently (this stems from the colonial legacy - unlike the British, the Portuguese were not interested in educating their subjects) and also how much the government sees tertiary education as the key to Brazil's future as a competitive developing nation.

Most perplexing though, was how the sciene fair was dominated by two large stages for Rock concerts. Indeed, the evening performances by the acts on stage constituted the heart of the week´s events as the students themselves had been given the week off from studying to contribute to the whole hoopla. As for me, I was able to see, over a popcorn with Nels and Dyego, the start of a set from a pretty nifty campus band and it brought back fond memories of propping up dingy bars in York catching the latest wannabe act. In the end, as was the case with the local elections a few weeks ago and also with a recent Catholic procession that practically rearranged the paving stones outside the language school thanks to a bass drum, academia, debate, religion and a serious consideration of the facts very quickly give way to a party atmosphere where he who plays loudest wins. If heaven is a place where Brits will provide the hymn-writers, Americans will supply the electric guitars and Africans will be the singers then without a doubt we can expect the Brazilians to provide the walls of speakers on wheels.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Some final firsts: Obama, the economy and the Tampa Bay Rays. Last Wednesday I sat down and watched most of the final presidential election debate, a first for me. It was rivetting stuff and I found myself watching more of that than Brazil`s World Cup qualifier against Colombia which was on at the same time. Politics ahead of football? Another first for me. For me I thought Obama won hands down - he gave reasoned responses, appeared calm and in control and on top of his subject matter, was magnanimous but firm and presented his policy ideas with clarity. McCain appeared blustery and resorted to the rhetoric of fighting and conquering and often opted for listing ideas rather than providing a rounded policy package. Perhaps, McCain needed this as the polls show him losing - his approach was throw mud and the kitchen sink at a wall to see what sticks. I guess both styles of communication appeal to different sections of the populace but I was left more convinced than before of Obama`s credentials of being president. The CNN tracker of undecided voters responses to the speech as it was happening suggested so as well. I, for one, would vote for Obama - I have far more in common with his outlook than not - and I think the appointment of an African American to the presidency pours healing oil on a lot of America`s own history as well as it`s relations with the world outside it`s borders. Most Brazilians agree, although some folks here have voiced their concern that Obama may become an assissination target if he were to be elected.

If, as seems likely, Obama does become the first black president of the USA he has the enormous burden of a crumbling economy to sort out. In small ways news is trickling through to us here of how the credit crunch is affecting people we know across the globe. Brazil has remained relatively immune so far, a product, says Rachel`s Dad, of a history of huge monetary upheavels in the past and dictatorships freezing savings accounts. In other words, its nothing Brazilians haven`t seen before and they were never too keen on filing their money away in savings accounts or pensions for a rainy day only for somebody else to help themselves. Furthermore, Lula`s workers party, despite attracting investors and opening up markets, still have more clout to reign in their own market it seems. Certainly, the Brazilian banking system is not nearly so ubiquitous in the lives of its citizens as it is in the UK or the USA. That said, this week we had lunch at one of our favourite little restaurants called Sal da Terra. The proprietor and his family are friends of ours and attend our church group. He told me some of his larger suppliers who are linked into foreign markets are feeling the pinch and are starting to raise prices. The chain reaction impacts him , of course, leaving him a tricky choice of hiking the cost of the dishes on his menu or cutting costs elsewhere. So, this is the first direct example I`ve seen of the economic crisis affecting Natalenses.

There`s been a few firsts in sport recently too. Andy Murray won his first Master Series final, well done to him. Lewis Hamilton just needs to finish higher than 5th in the Brazilian Grand Prix next weekend to claim his first F1 World Championship. The Tampa Bay Rays are in their first World Series. The team, which is only 12 years old, are largely responsible for my interest in baseball. I watched them several times back in 1998 when I was living in Florida. Back then, they were dire and could only fill their stadium by a third so it was a case of watching them play more prestigious teams like the New York Yankees (in the same way that if you were a Derby County fan you would try and get along to watch them play Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal). Now, Tropicana field is packed and they stand a good chance of taking the game`s biggest prize. I'll be sure to tune into the first game of the World Series tonight. I`ve even twisted Rachel`s arm to watch the first innings with me so I feel like I have somebody to be excited with about all this. Go Rays!

And thereby concludes my posts about firsts...

Monday, October 20, 2008

The third first: Our first visit to the Bull festival (festa do boi). The annual bull festival has been in session this week in Panamarim, a small town nearby which doubles as Natal's southerly suburb. We took the kids along on Friday afternoon and a great time. "Bull" festival is an apt name as their are cows everywhere including some MASSIVE horned beasts who look like they share their genetic makeup with rhinos, bison or mammoths rather than their bovine counterparts.

All this was basically an excuse to see what Brazilian cowboys do. There was cattle auctions and best breed competitions and displays from the major suppliers of compost, cow urine, vegetables, fish, beef, cowboy hats, farm machinery and tractors. The last was of particular interest to Nelson, and perhaps surprisingly Gloria, who both happily passed 15 minutes sitting on a new Massey Ferguson pretending to tend their crops. As was the case at the Brazil shows Brazil fair I mentioned a few months ago, there was plenty that was not strictly relevant to the occasion's billing - noticably, swimming pools for sale and fake Nike baseball caps. They had a fairground too which Nelson loved despite the very real lack of health and safety procedures on most of the rides. For me, even more interesting than the astonishing smells and tastes accompanying the bevvy of snacks that were being roasted, fried and boiled everywhere, was just the chance to see Brazilians from the interior - real Potiguar folk, generally smaller and with darker skin - in their element displaying their cattle and wares proudly.

NOT QUITE A FIRST: The musical soundtrack to the north-east interior of Brazil is forró music - which features a heavy dose of accordians. The general consensus is that the old forró stuff is excellent but the new bands are very brega (cheesey). Playing after the bull festival on the Friday night were the forró outfit Deseja de menina, one of the brega-ist around. These were the guys who remade Robbie Williams' Angels as I mentioned (with a link to the video) back in May on this post. I would have given my right arm to go to this - just once to see a full-on cheesey forró show. But, sadly, I needed to keep my right arm so it wasn't to be. Next year, maybe.

On the subject of cheesey forró I recommend the following delight. I mentioned back here that James Blunt has become extraordinarily popular after his song Same Mistake was used as the theme team to a Globo TV soap opera. Well, the airwaves are still clogged with Mr.Blunt's warbles and his song has also been given the forró make-over by the most famous of contemporary forró acts, Aviões do Forro (Airplanes of Forró). Their version is better, in my opinion. Click here to be entertained and amused. And this is also funny - a forró remix of the same song but keeping James' voice.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The second first: Nelson's first cinema experience. I was not wholly convinced when Rachel piped up on Wednesday with the idea of the whole family, her folks included, piling along to the cinema on teacher's day holiday. I expected Gloria to cry all the way through and Nelson to get bored after ten minutes. But, in the end it seemed like a good idea, as we were going to watch the animated feature Fly me to the moon and internet reviews said it was pretty dreadful so I figured if we had to leave early we wouldn't really be missing out. In the end, Nelson - and Gloria for that matter - sat transfixed through the whole thing. The lad was visibly upset when the credits rolled and the lights went up: "Quero mais, Daddy. Quero mais!".

AMUSING MOMENT: Nelson sees the spaceship shed its rockets in space and in a voice loud enough for the whole cinema to hear declares: "Olhe! Quebrou ess... quebrou!" (Look! It broke. It broke!)

All in all then, a successful first...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A few firsts...

The first first: My first visit to INPE (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais). Thanks to one of the teacher's at the language school who organised it, I took 4 students on a field trip (well, a 20 minute walk) onto the campus of UFRN (Universidade Federal Rio Grande do Norte) where INPE have a base. INPE is to Brazil what NASA is to America, except on a much smaller scale.

I learned a whole lot from the hour-long presentation, given by a middle-aged, CPE-level, English-speaking engineer who went by the name of Alexandre Nowasad. Principally, I gathered some interesting insights into why a developing country like Brazil needs to be involved in the space race.

Brazil doesn't have it's own satellites but it shares a couple with the likes of China and the USA. They also have 10 offshore buoys (compare to the USA which has a whopping 300!) which measure depth, sea-temperature and weather patterns and Brazil has some fancy equipment at the South Pole amongst other places. INPE seem to have their fingers in a lot of pies, working with the likes of the the Brazilian Air force who launch INPE's satellite pieces, the private sector in testing materials and products in specialised conditions, with the Navy and also with various environmental agencies, governmental and non-governmental, as they try to map and account for the climate changes in the oceans and the amazon. The last point is crucial for Brazil. As our excellent host informed us, vast expanses of dense foliage still mask potential species of animals and plants and possibly some lost Indian tribes still in the jungle of Brazil's interior. Brazil's vastness makes it exceedingly difficult to govern efficiently - INPE are trying to help the country's elected officials have some idea about who and what they are officiating over. Also, given the controvesy in recent years concerning the destruction of the rainforest, Brazil needs to know what's going on inside its own borders for the benefit of future generations. As Alexandre succinctly put it: "We have to know whats in our own house if we want to protect it".

THE DUMMIES GUIDE TO INPE: As I'm no engineer or scientest I appreciate all the help I can get in understanding the intricacies of something like INPE. At one point Alexandre said: "Has anyone seen the film The Day After Tomorrow? Do you remember the satellitles, the buoys and the control room at the start of the film - basically, we do that for Brazil but on not such a big scale". Helpful.

A few more firsts tomorrow and through the week...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Beetle: the backwards Good Luck car? The side-panel reads... FOR ARE YOU sun a day is overfiown with warm the Memory will stop here to savor the sweet fragrance.
Amusing uses of English: Nelson's party present. Nelson had a party at school for Daniel, a buddy of his. As per usual he came home with a small box full of sweets. This time the box in question was a small metal car. On closer inspection I found it had been made in China and demonstrated some startling authentic examples of Engrish.

I recently wrote a big chunk on one of my other blogs about why the English language is funny - you have a read of that here, if interested.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Macaco Tião. Finishing in a respectable 3rd place in the 1996 Rio local elections.
Things I miss about England #33: Elections. Despite all the fun that surrounds an election in Brazil, I've became increasingly disillusioned (as I'm sure many Brazilians already have) with how the democratic process is carried out. Although British politics is by no means a model of how to organise power, my main objections with the Brazilian way are:

1. Candidates are not elected for real policies. The general rule of thumb is "say what you need to say to get in to power". Doesn't sound wholly unlike British politics but here there really is a license to say almost anything. In the local election here in Natal the third placed candidate promised to build a bridge from Natal to the island of Fernando de Naronha. Sounds like a good idea? Not when the bridge would have to be over 350 kms long!

2. When candidates do have real policies - their campaigns struggle to gain traction unless they flower them in populist rhetoric. One candidate from Recife, a Sr.Henry, and the preferred candidate of Rachel's brother and Dad proposed a solution to the problem of violence in Recife which is the worst in Brazil. Henry suggested bringing experts in from Colombia who had run a series of urban community projects working with young people that had produced astounding results there. So, why not in Recife? It sounded like a great idea, but as Rachel's brother told me, Henry rarely had the opportunity to talk about it and even when he did he opted for a fairly meaningless populist pitch as per the norm.

3. Debate is often avoided. Some Politicians prefer not to turn up to debates for fear of being made to look like idiots. This is what Lula did in the first round of presidential elections in the last presidential contest. As the big man of Brazilian politics the best way for him to maintain his popularity was not to say anything to anybody else. And, generally, it seems to me that electioneering at local level is all about noise, parties (the non-political kind) and music and not about a series of debates with other candidates as is (occasionally) the case back in the UK, or even door to door discussion with constituents. I recall on my first visit to Brazil seeing the national football team playing in Fortaleza. A politician standing for re-election had organised the occasion and used the match to do several laps of the crowd before the game started.

The harsh reality is all of this may stem from the lack of education among the numerically massive contingent of Brazil's poorest. Politicians want them on board and aren't losing sleep over a handful of university professors.

3. Nepotism and Corruption. As Pastor Neto, one of my students and a very important man in Natalense Evangelicalism, told me with respect to Christians involvement in Politics - the further you go into politics, the dirtier you become. In order to gain credibility Christian candidates have to form coalitions across the board and often end up palling up with some disreputables in the process. In his opinion, Christians should steer clear - an unfortunate conclusion when involvement in Politics would surely be a good thing. But, he has a point - how far can Christians meaningfully make a difference and keep their integrity? Probably, this is the question all Christians have to circle when they enter political life in any country.

Even so, nepotism and corruption is a frowned upon but generally an accepted part of the political process in Brazil. Rachel's brother was telling me that politicians who are not in office lobby for harder and stricter rules about who can work for an elected official (namely, not the guy's wife, kids, cousins and school chums) but, not surprisingly, as soon as those politicians are elected they forget their election pledges and appoint their next of kin to the treasury. A ticket to office is, as is the case across the globe in countless so-called democracies, a free lunch for the family, relatives and associates of whoever just got elected.

4. It's too noisy! Elections are just plainly a big din. After our busy weekend in JP we got back last Sunday and crashed into bed at 9.30pm. 25 minutes later and a cavalcade went by blaring music at top volume and setting off fireworks. I would have been annoyed if I wasn't just numb - this has happened so much in the last few weeks.

5. Candidates would rather vote for a monkey. This may seem funny or a collectors item in the history of democratic elections but in 1996 450,000 Cariocas (people from Rio) voted for Tiao, a monkey from the local zoo to become mayor. Tiao (pictured above) garnered 9.5% of the votes and came third, significantly way above many other human candidates. As a monkey is not allowed to vote or be voted for, all of the ballots were nullified. Tiao died a few years later, a famous hero in a famous city. Its all a good laugh, but it doesn't say a whole lot for the development of effective democratic processes in Brazil if people feel they can waste their votes in this way. We have our crazy candidates in the UK but none of them have got as far as an ape has in Brazil.
The Ney Lopes Jr Kombi. (Visible beneath the loudspeakers)

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Children's Day. The frankly ridiculous idea of giving children their own day has caught on in Brazil and that day was today. Yesterday, we went to the mall and they had a small troup of actors doing a (tame) take on the 3 little pigs. The bad wolf was dressed as Elvis and played electric guitar. Today, we went to another mall where they had clowns and magic tricks - birds and bunnies coming out of hats, that sort of thing. Nelson endured it all admirably...

Anyway, on Friday, as part of something Rachel organised through the language school a few of us went and spent a couple of hours with 35 orphans at a home we've been involved with. It's a challenging group of kids but Rachel and I were pleased to see they had more amenities and generally looked in better health than when we'd first come. We delivered presents as donated by the parents of students of the language school and we played loud and silly games and generally had a good time. Pictures are here on flickr and are now circulating in the slideshow in the sidepanel over here >>>>. To round off Children's Day/Weekend, we held a small and intimate dedication service at our church group for Gloria. We'll do the same when my folks are here at Christmas and all the family are together. Despite my frequently grumblings, I suppose children are pretty cool...

Things I love about Brazil #74: Elections. Last Sunday saw the culmination of the local elections, held simultaneously across Brazil on the 5th of October. Natal got a new mayor in the process - Micarla, the daughter of a famous TV presenter. I chuckled this week as I saw a poster hanging in the language school written by one of the lower level classes. In an activity where the kids had to describe people I read: "George Bush is boring, short and old. Micarla is short, chubby and interesting". That about sums it up, I guess.

There's a lot of razzmatazz that accompanies an election and some of it can be a lot of fun for the innocent bystander. Unlike in the UK where the primary tool of the local campaigner is the poster in the window, the most essential piece of equipment for the Brazilian equivelent is a VW Kombi with a loudspeaker on the top (see pic). From there begin the festivities, music, parties, flags-waving and general hubhub that certainly help make life more colourful. Brazil is a young democracy and, to be fair, they certainly make participating in the electoral process seem a great deal more enjoyable than back in the UK. As voting is compulsory, its something people can't simply ignore... and so, for all of the above I salute the energetic Brazilian democratic system and toast its health for the future.

Tomorrow, the bad news...

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Blog recess. Sorry for the delay in getting any "proper" posts on here. There's been lots going on and I've had a few writing engagements elsewhere so promise to get it back on track this week.

For now, if you're a fan of Premier League football. you might want to have a peak at a blog entry I wrote for on Brazilians in the Premiership. Click here for that.

Weekend away and adventures on the road. In part for Rach's birthday and in part for the chance to have a curry and a banter with some British blokes, we headed down to Joao Pessoa this last weekend. Rach got to see plenty of rellies all bearing gifts of chocolate cake and wotnot. Saturday evening was spent in the most excellent company of Andy Roberts, girlfriend Rosie and Marcus and Tamara Throup, Anglican missionaries to JP. As 3 British blokes of roughly equal age who like football and curry and are married to or dating Brazilians we all had a lot in common. The next day I was able to preach at the monthly English-speaking Anglican service. It was great to be singing songs in my mother tongue again and following the Anglican order of service was a treat; something I've missed from St.Mikes in York.

The weekend's major adventure came on the way back home. 2/3rds the way back to Natal and we stopped off at a petrol station to have a loo stop. We also changed drivers and Rachel sat down in the front seat only for the car to refuse her key and complete fail to ignite the ignition. Our spare key was in Natal, still some 45 minutes drive away, locked up in our apartment. Thankfully, my phone had 1 bar of battery so Rachel was able to make some calls. The people at the petrol station provided a number for a chaveiro (key guy) and it happened to be that he was driving past anyway (thank God!) and pulled up to see what he could do.

It transpired that our key had lost the coded chip which was unique to our vehicle - a security measure on Ford EcoSports cars. Amazingly, we found the chip on the ground outside - it had fallen out when I first stepped out the vehicle, but even after it was reinstalled the car still assumed we were robbers and refused to start up. The chappie got it working though and at a price too, but unfortunately we didn't have much cash with us with which to pay him. In the end, as the banks weren't taking Rachel's cards, we bought him petrol on credit at the gas station. Anyway, we made it home, and not too late - it could've been a lot worse and the two little ones behaved themselves very well considering. Also, how bad would this have been if we had stopped, as we often do, for a loo stop behind a bush in the middle of nowhere?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Rach is 28 today! Here's a short history of my exceptionally wonderful wife. Click here to see.