Thoughts from São Paulo

It’s 2 degrees outside. Fahrenheit.

Montana, it’s only October, would you mind waiting until December to do this?

I am firmly planted inside, wearing thick socks, hoping that my car will start for me to get to work later. In the meantime, I dust my negatives from Brazil in Photoshop and think back on my two trips there this year.

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First, I never imagined that in my life that I would find myself as far South and a place as foreign in my mind as Brazil. It wasn’t until I was seriously dating Logan that the reality that we’d go down there solidified. I’d eventually meet his family and his friends back home, wouldn’t I? I couldn’t imagine what it looked like, smelled like, what Portuguese really sounded like. What sort of animals would I see? Is it really that hot down there?

After spending over two months this year there I can firmly say that I love spending time there. By there, I mean the state of São Paulo, or south-central Brazil. Brazil is a huge country, roughly the size of the lower 48 states in the USA, so making big generalizations is foolish and sloppy. It’d be like bunching people from New Jersey and Wyoming together, which Americans know would be strange and potentially hilarious.

That being said, a few things became apparent to me.

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Most people are friendly and helpful. Not everybody (because they’re HUMAN), but most folks we met seemed genuinely stoked to let me try my sloppy, weird gringa Portuguese. I went shopping by myself in São Paulo for a few hours and all the stylists I met were funny and kind. I was able to ask for what I wanted in my size, ask questions, and reply, and while I know I speak like a child right now, I loved interacting with people. When I met Logan’s friends, a lot of them spoke really good English but those that didn’t were still so kind to me, even though I had a hard time communicating. We went to see a few bands at Al Janiah, and after one of the bands was done, Logan asked them some questions and then introduced me to the women in the band. I never once felt like somebody was annoyed by my questions or my slow pattern of speaking.

While at university in Switzerland that was not my experience: most of the Swiss people I met were too efficient and didn’t want to make the time for me to practice my Italian (I had one man literally say “it will be faster for us to just speak English” at a market in Lugano). It was frustrating going to bookshops, clothing stores, the grocery store, etc. because most people didn’t have the time or patience to let you stumble through. The thing is, in order to learn a language you NEED to stumble. My Portuguese is not great but it’s not bad, either, because I have been able to practice with real people on the ground, make mistakes, even embarrass myself a little (a lot).

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The food scene in São Paulo is unparalleled. It is a city of 20 million people and there are immigrants from every corner of the world. You want to eat Middle Eastern food in a Palestinian restaurant that has a staff made up of immigrants and refugees and later see an all girl punk band? (Al Janiah!) You want to eat incredible Thai food in a tiny joint where the owner speaks more English than Portuguese? (Thai E-San Restaurante) Do you want to eat Michelan-starred oxtail soup, mocoto, tongue, intestines? (Mocoto!) Do you want a meal that will make you need to nap for four hours after? (Feijoada will do the trick, it’s a specialty Wednesday and Saturday at a lot of restaurants.) Are you an expat from the States looking for a good burger and fries? (Meats or Hamburginha!) Are you just STARVING but also lazy and don’t want to walk more than a few blocks? São Paulo is the city for you. We ate dim sum, Lebanese food, comida de Nordeste (northern Brazilian food), a fabulous French dinner, classic kilo meals, hamburgers that were perfectly medium-rare with buns fluffy as clouds, and lots and lots of juices.

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There is more art than you can imagine being made, everywhere, by everybody. São Paulo is a massive city but everywhere we went on the metro, in Ubers, etc. there was street art. Giant murals, small tags (one particularly memorable tag all over the city said “Rice and Beans and Ganja”), epic landscapes, portraits, social criticisms. A stairwell hidden in the Pinheiros neighborhood memorialized Marielle Franco, who was murdered for being an outspoken female politician who loudly protested police violence and was probably shot by police. Live music, while hard to find, is there and flourishing. Jewelers, leather workers, painters, and ceramic artists have their works in so many galleries, shops, and markets.

We went to a few markets and I bought some gorgeous earrings made from imbuia wood by a wonderful artisan, a leather bag handcrafted by a wife-and-husband team, and had to steer away from the dozens of other stalls because I didn’t have that much money. São Paulo is also home to MASP and the Pinacoteca, both of which are world-class museums, one devoted to art from all over the world, the other completely focused on Brazilian art. Brazil is full of artisans to this day who do things in slower ways. Logan’s grandparents have a front door made of rosewood from a long time ago that is carved with beautiful flowers, and textured glass windows that I’ve seen nowhere else. Entire buildings are covered in tiles (tile and cement are big because they help keep surfaces cool in the omnipresent heat) and there are small companies in São Paulo that make tiles for homes in centuries-old ways. Art seemed to be woven into so many things everywhere we went, and the art historian in me felt so happy seeing it all.

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I have so many jumbled and half formed thoughts about my time there, but one thing I feel wary about is writing about the bigger situations and issues that are going on in south-central Brazil. There are similar parallels to the States in that young people can’t get good jobs, wages suck, a lot of people still live at home, there’s police violence, racism, sexism, and very real fears of climate change and the future. However, I don’t speak Portuguese well enough to be able to do these parallels justice and talk to people who live these experiences in the deep ways I want to.  I’m not prepared to paint complex social, political, and ethical issues in broad strokes without more research and talking to people who live those experiences. Even talking about Brazilian food delves into race, history, social structures, and class structures (a lot of what we think of as Brazilian dishes are Afro-Brazilian in nature, for example). With time, research, and patience, I would like to learn so much more about south-central Brazil, because I’ve gotten a crash course in traveling there that I don’t think many people get, thanks to Logan. 

 

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