Riogringa has a knack for making lists of 10. I love nice round tidy numbers but have never been very good at getting to them. My life is a little haphazard, if you hadn't guessed, and I frequently don't know where I am going until I get there, so I thought I’d feel a pretty good sense of accomplishment if I could manage to come up with a nice list of five (and not say, four or seven.) Small roundish numbers are sometimes the best we can hope for.
Actually, four years ago, when I was under the spell of a greater degree of culture shock I probably wouldn’t have been able to scratch out five Brazilian things I couldn’t live without. But time it seems has softened some of the edges of cultural disparity, much like a developing tolerance. It takes me a bit of thinking to remember what’s changed, what I'm flush with and what I'm lacking between my former life and my Brazilian one, but here goes:
A Few of My Favorite (Brazilian) things:
1. Dama da Noite
The other night as we were walking home from that savage gluttony known as the ice cream buffet, we got enveloped in a cloud of fragrance hovering around a small flowering tree. We stopped and dreamily breathed it in, drunk as Dorothy in the poppy field and I sighed and said, now this has to be one of my favorite things about Brazil. I think it is called Night Blooming Jasmine in English. It’s fairly common in my city and will stop you dead in your tracks when you come upon it. As the name suggests it only blooms and releases its perfume at night making it even more seductive and magical.
2. Carrinhos de Pipoca
The popcorn pushcarts. There is just nothing better than the 5 o’clock hour when the street vendors come out to satiate the snacking hunger of people after work and students on their way to night classes. You can get all kinds of street food in the evenings from pushcarts, from fried dough stuffed with dulce de leite to meat-on-a-stick, but the best by far is the popcorn. It is popped fresh and hot right there on the street and usually served with small cubes of fried parmasean cheese. And unlike the ridiculously sized, mystery-oil, movie theater popcorn, it comes in a perfect small portion (R$1) and smells fresh and sweet.
3. Agua de Coco
Actually now that I think about it, I could easily make a list of 20 food related Brazilian things that I couldn’t live without.. There are so many delicious healthy choices here (and more than a few delicious unhealthy ones), so suffice it to say, food in general is high on my list here in Brazil, and fresh green coconut water specifically. Cold coconut water (the clear water from young coconuts, not thick coconut milk) is probably the most refreshing thing you can drink on the beach or in the summer heat. It is also apparently a miracle cure for everything. It is high in potassium, low in fat, carbs, and sodium and has the same electrolyte balance as our bodies, so it is nature’s perfect sport’s drink. Apparently it is also sterile and can substitute for blood plasma in emergency IV field dressing (which would come in handy if you ever had to go into battle say, on Copacabana beach). It also has the same lauric acid that is found it mother’s milk and is really well tolerated by babies. And the best thing is it tastes really good. On a hot day nearly every corner of the city has a vendor. You can get a plastic bottle of it for R$2.50 (about a buck).
4. The Communal Beer
And yet another food related item on the list. This one is actually no longer applicable for me however because I’ve been on a gluten free diet since November of last year. But prior to that, I really loved the thermic-sleeved 750ml bottle of icy cold beer that is served at every butiquim throughout the country. I used to be a beer snob. I especially loved thick, dark, nearly room temperature, micro-brewed stouts. Brazilian beer is lighter than Old Milwaukee and it took me a while to accept it and understand its popularity. But on a hot night sitting at plastic tables on the sidewalk, cold and light is exactly what you want to be drinking.
One bottle is brought out at a time – occasionally two if you’re in a larger group – and dropped down into a plastic thermal urn. There is usually someone who takes on the unspoken role of the designated pourer, whose job it is to continually make the rounds, topping off everyone’s small glass. Large mugs or pints are nowhere to be seen. Child sized glasses that hold maybe 6oz are standard because otherwise the beer would get warm and flat before you could get to the bottom. When the bottle is up, it’s slipped out of the plastic jug and set on the side, a signal to the waiter to go fetch you another from a big refrigerator that carries the brand name of the beer and always has the internal temperature digitally displayed on the outside – usually -3 to -5C. Just at the freezing point.
At a lot of sidewalk bars, the empty bottles are laid down next to your table so you can keep a count on them in case there is any discrepancy with the bill. So many of these extra light cold bottles will be consumed on any given night that it is easy to loose track. If you’re in a slightly more upscale place where you don’t thrown the bottles on the ground, there are other techniques to keep track, like breaking toothpicks or tearing small notches in the white butcher paper on the table.
Anyway, I guess even more than the taste, what I like best about the beer is it’s communal nature. You and your friends decided on what brand, (not that there is any significant difference between them – actually that is a sure sign you’ve gone native, when you start discussing the essentially non-existent merits of Skol vs. Antartica) and then you share the experience of emptying the bottle. In the United States and elsewhere where the pint rules supreme, drinking is a very individualized experience. My tab, my giant mug of my beer to sink into, my choice to change to something else, my job to get the bartender’s attention to get me another. In Brazil having a beer in a bar is all about the group – and in many ways I think symbolic of the culture and it’s underlying solidarity. (Now I know I just skipped right over the famous individual chopp, but that is a drinking experience more associated with the upwardly mobile - and I guess we tend to stick more with the povão way of doing things.)
5. Government Support for Artists
Isn’t a country only as rich as it’s cultural life? Doesn’t fostering individual creativity actually inspire a higher degree, in the country as a whole, of innovation, flexibility, problem solving and entrepreneurial spirit, all of which are key factors in a keeping an economy dynamic? Brazil is spread pretty thin trying to solve its problems of poverty and growth but somehow still manages to throw artists a bone. C’s first record was made with a government program that encourages corporations to fund cultural projects for tax write offs. Last year he would have been awarded another project with direct government money were it not for a ridiculously small technical error in how he budgeted the project. It was par for the course really, because what would government support be without arcane bureaucracy. This year he’s working with a professional grant writer to make sure he doesn’t get bogged down for silly reasons again. But just because he didn’t personally get awarded a grant doesn’t mean we haven’t benefited from the cultural laws. A good amount of recordings he does in the studio are with musicians whose projects received funding. One of the arguments I often hear in favor of government funding for artists in the United States is that it’s the only developed country in the world that doesn’t provide such support. Well, apparently not only developed, but also developing countries recognize the value of artists. I hope the US dusts itself off, (right after it trusses Edward Liddy up and stuffs him into a locker), straightens out its financial messes and then does a serious reexamination of its cultural policies.
It’s the reason I wanted to move here to begin with. I find it funny when I talk about our “land in the country” because it sounds so bourgeois and snotty. Especially because we rarely get things right – that is, end up at the right place at the right time. Like, if only I’d pressed my family for a loan right out of college for a down payment on an apartment in my relatively undiscovered Brooklyn neighborhood, I’d be a millionaire right now. But with our sitío, we nailed it. Or at least C did.
He bought it – although he says he bought it for me. We were on what was essentially an extended first date. We’d only been seeing each other a few weeks, since a little after Thanksgiving and he was on his way to Brazil for a month. I had a week of vacation days to use or loose and a lot of miles racked up on the company credit card. So even though we were still a very new couple, I decided to jump right in and fly down to Brazil. It was a romantic whirlwind vacation. Sort of like a honeymoon right at the beginning of the relationship. He had planned to bring me up to Ibitipoca to show me the park when we ran into a friend of his who had just been through a divorce and was trying to sell the land her and her ex-husband had bought nearby. She needed money quickly, the dollar was really strong, and while the area was sort of popular, there hadn’t yet been the goldrush, landgrab that five years later would gobble up all the land around the park and drive property values sky high.
So at his friend’s urging, we saw the sitío. It was my first trip to Brazil, my first time in Ibitipoca and we were in the throws of romantic, new love and we found ourselves looking at this fantastical paradise with a waterfall and orange and banana trees and butterflies and hummingbirds and wild flowers growing everywhere. We stood there slack-jawed and I said, “you have to buy this.” And he put his arms around me and said, “only if you’ll be here to share it with me.” (I know, all together now... ahhhhhhh...)
I went back to the states and a week later he called me, still in Brazil, and told me he bought it.
Our courtship continued, engagement, marriage, we lost work, lost the lease on the famous Gowanus apartment, we moved around, tried to rebuild studios and careers and homes and all the while, the sitío, our little slice of paradise, hovered nearby, lulling us to sleep at night, calling to us. Those last years in New York, broke and shivering in our drafty Red Hook apartment, we would hold each other late at night, especially when the bills and the frustrations of never keeping up, and never getting ahead would overwhelm us, and we would fantasize over and over about the sitío. We would dream about building a house and gardening, about planting an orchard and making a corral for a dairy cow and a chicken coop. About getting a dog (the only thing on that list we have actually accomplished). Those fantasies were a big driving factor in finally bringing us to Brazil.
Although we still continue to find ourselves proverbially land-rich/cash-poor, and although our fanciful dreams are regularly smacked down by reality, we still are incredibly grateful and giddy and astounded by our luck that we actually have this place we can call our own. It is certainly my #1 favorite thing about living in Brazil – I probably wouldn’t be here without it.