We’ve been in Sao Paulo for 15 months today. I realized as I walked the dogs this afternoon that my view of life in Brazil is changing. I’m still a foreigner, but I’m beginning to feel a part of this life.
Walking the dogs is no longer a four-times-daily undertaking that I secretly dread. Our walks are getting longer, and what used to be our “long” walk is now our usual. And on the walks, I have begun to greet people I see every day: the gentlemen who sit at the neighborhood “bar” and watch the world go by (they intimidated me before, but now I just smile and wave, and they nod back), the homeless fellow who sits on a curb with his hand out or selling Halls by the packet (he calls the pups his meninas, little girls, and laughs at their kisses), the gal at the corner magazine stand who spends hours standing and smoking and talking to clients, and of course, our porteiros (with whom I am now trying to initiate mini-conversations, rather than the usual simple greetings).
This might seem silly to some people, but the truth is, being a foreigner is an experiment in problem-solving: everything is almost recognizable, but not completely. It’s the little differences that can be so awkward and frustrating. And people in the stores and restaurants here don’t function the same way as they do at home. If you ask questions, chances are you won’t get answers, not if the clerk hasn’t been tutored beyond the basics. This is especially frustrating in drug stores. It isn’t that they don’t want to be helpful; they simply don’t now anything. They aren’t trained to know things, but simply to do things. But ask them questions they know, and they’re delighted to help.
Language is a barrier that is slowly falling. In my head, things now begin to have more than one name. I chat to myself in Portuguese, especially when I know I want to say something to the porteiros, or just to practice the language. I’m even trying to speak it in my dreams. And when I walk or sit in a crowd, I actually listen to the voices around me, picking up the gist of the conversation, rather than just letting the sound wash over me like an ocean tide.
When we watch soccer or tennis on TV, or listen to the news, I’m actually understanding much of what is being said. I don’t just watch the game and let the sound blur, or ask Tom to translate the gist of the news. I’m tuning in, and it’s a great feeling.
Still, I feel like the folks with whom I interact think I’m pleasant but humorless. Humor is a level I have yet to achieve in Portuguese. When I do try to joke, I usually fall flat. Jokes simply don’t translate. When the day comes that I can be my true self in Portuguese, that is the day I will feel I am fluent at last.
This isn’t Kansas anymore, Toto, and while many things are similar, they are different enough to tilt my head sideways sometimes. Here in Sao Paulo, you don’t see strip malls with all the cookie-cutter stores, as you do in the States, where a mall will likely have a Home Depot, a grocery store, a Target, a few chain restaurants, and a Trader Joe’s. Where no matter what state you’re in, you find things that are familiar and comforting, even if culturally deadening. Here, there are no strip malls, but rather dissimilar stores wedged against one another on the same block with service garages, banks, lanchonettes (diners), and residences, with street vendors on the sidewalks.
As we drive around, we try to memorize where we saw that pet store, or the 24-hour veterinarian, or the tool store or bookstore. The majority of the stores along the streets are no wider than a two-car garage.
But size can be deceiving here, when it comes to storefronts. One of our favorite restaurants, the Frangaria, looks like a tiny sidewalk cafe, but when you enter, it opens up to a spacious, surprisingly wide dining room with thirty-foot ceilings. There’s no way you’d guess that from looking at the front.
After 15 months, we deliberately go out of our way to get lost some weekends, just to explore new neighborhoods and see what treasures they have to offer. This past weekend, we discovered Severo Gomes Park not too far away, a great place to walk the dogs, jog, or just enjoy an afternoon in the park with other families. Believe me, this is a treasure, a place we can lounge outside in lovely greenery, and not have to drive through hellacious traffic to get there.
We’re expanding our horizons here in town, and will often remark, “Hey, we’ve been lost here!”
We have two years left here in Sao Paulo. If my growth in these past 15 months is any indication, I will be a much stronger, more globally aware, more-intellectually stimulated person when we leave. To survive as a foreigner is to grow.
Despite its many faults (no more or no less than other countries), Brazil has much to offer, and I’m glad to be here.