April 13, 2009

Up in Smoke

We didn’t burn any literal figures of Judas on Saturday night, but we did burn a lot of bureaucracy.

My friend Juliana’s father recently passed away. It was very sudden. He was only 60 and it caught everyone by surprise. She’s now dealing with a mountain of legalities trying to sort out his estate. In emptying out his house, she collected 6 huge trash bags of paperwork dating back to the 1980’s. He had worked as a civil servant for the ferroviária and a lot of the papers had his CPF (social security #) and other personal information so in the absence of a paper shredder and in presence of a cool fall night and plenty of red wine we decided to make a bonfire.

It was good for her I think. People are buried very quickly in Brazil, usually within 24 hours and while Catholics hold a mass for the deceased 7 days later that tends to be as significant or even more so than the actual burial, there really does seem to be an absence of mourning rituals that help ease the transition for the family. We were up in the village when we got news in the morning that he had died the night before and that the funeral was being held that afternoon. We didn’t have time to get back for it. I asked if there was somewhere I could send flowers and the response was a bit confused. Flowers? For what exactly? They don’t do that here. Then we went to pay a visit to his house and I asked C’s aunt if there was any particular etiquette I didn’t know about - like do people bring a dish of food for the family? No, she said, we don’t do that here. It felt kind of strange not being able to do anything except offer words of condolence. But I guess death is like that. You can’t do anything. We are all completely helpless to the essential fact that every birth is eventually followed by death.

Burning up years of bureaucratic accumulation I think was a good cathartic exercise. And I felt happy to have at least something practical I could offer her by in the way of help. We tore open bag after bag and sent the papers fluttering into fire. It took us until well after 3am to get through all the bags.

Max decided to get in on the act and pulled out a box of papers that had been accumulating in his house for decades. He owned a video store back in the late 80’s and early 90’s and most of his papers were in relation to the store. For some comic relief, C started reading through some of the receipts for the store’s purchases and it sent us howling in laughter. Check it out:

Yes, it really truly is a receipt for $18,000,000 cruzeiros. Eighteen Million. The purchase of Imperdoáveis (Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven) alone cost $5,600,000 cruzeiros. And that's over 2 million for Pinocchio! This receipt is from 1993, right before the cruzeiro was flipped into it’s 3rd incarnation, the cruzeiro real – which would be the 4th currency in 7 years. The currency changes didn’t do anything to stem the rampant inflation that was increasing at a rate of 30% a month. They just kept changing the name and knocking off zeros so that the calculators could handle it. Bus fare alone cost 16,000 cruzeiros!

In looking around for details I read that at the time the currency was considered such a joke the central bank had a hard time to find mascots to print on it. No one wanted to be associated with it – the family of author Guimaraes Rosa (considered the Brazilian James Joyce) turned the central bank down when asked for permission to reprint his image. On the 5,000 bill they ended up putting a traditional looking character of a gaucho (a cowboy from the south of Brazil) on it framed by what were supposed to be mate leaves – although botanists protested that they were so badly drawn that they looked like weeds.

I also remember seeing in a exhibit at the New Museum in New York of Brazilian artists, one (I wish I could remember his name) painted on cruzeiros because they were worth less than the paper he would have otherwise purchased.

The cruzeiro lasted until 1994 when they finally got things under control with the current currency, the real. After scrounging around for some estimate on the exchange rate at the time – which was hard to pinpoint, with the inflation rising so rapidly on a daily basis – I did the calculations on Max’s movie purchases. In US dollars, that 5 million cruzeiro movie would have been around $70 USD.

We saved that receipt from the fire. If for nothing else then just to remember that crisis or not, things are relatively pretty darn good. But the rest we burned. Some things truly are better left in the past.


Stephanie said...

What a good idea! A lot of people see fire as destructive, the truth is, even in nature, it can be cleansing as well!!

$70 for THAT movie? Hehehe! Glad things have turned around!

I cant imagine not doing anything for the family of someone who's passed...I think it's the Mormon in me. I feel the need to casserole!

lovelydharma said...

I know! I felt the need to casserole too! It felt so helpless not having anything to do.

Yeah, $70 bucks. But that was for his store to purchase the rights for it too to rent it. DVD's are so relatively inexpensive, but back then those terrible VHS tapes were still expensive.

Evelyn said...

I remember the cruzeiro days and how confusing it was to have more than one currency circulating at a time! Thanks for the memory. Sounds like a great thing you ended up doing for your friend.



corinne said...

My first year in Brazil was 92-93, so I remember that crazy inflation. Somewhere I still have some 100,000 cruzeiro notes (at the time the bus was 64,000!)

I am thrown by Brazilian funerals too. So can send flowers, I have seen them at the vigil, but no food (which is just weird to me to the point where I make food and give it to the family anyway). I also find the actual burial terribly unconfortable. The ones I have been too have had no officiant, just the family wailing as they say last good-byes and then the coffin goes in the ground. I felt like a voyeur on very private pain.