Category Archives: New places

Bird, aeroplane, city

A view down the Esplanada dos Ministerios

As a monument to the brilliance of arrogance, it works, somehow. Brasília is a purpose-built capital city, like the US’s Washington or Australia’s Canberra, but with a communistic love of concrete and an embalmed retro space-age feel which means it revels in the bonkers in a way those cities never could. Walking around, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that joke when we realised ‘the future’ in Back to the Future was almost here – where’s that bloody hoverboard I was promised?

Oscar Niemeyer, the architect who planned and designed the whole city from its inception in the 1950s to today, is undoubtedly a genius. For one thing the whole city shaped like an aeroplane (although some say a bird), which, as far as I’m concerned, is reason enough to love it forever. The cathedral, from the outside immodestly individual, from the inside soars with light and calm in a way which could not fail to have impressed Christopher Wren and his sixteenth-century European ilk; the balanced beauty of Congress, with one down-turned dome-shaped construct for the House of Deputies and a mirrored up-turned bowl for the Senate, anchors the city to its governmental purpose with style and grace. But as Niemeyer was given a whole city and 50 years to play around in, one can’t help but get the impression of a kid let loose in a craft box – will they let me build the museum to look like a planet? It seems so…

And while Brasília is continuously impressive as you drive around, if you walk – not something which is either easy or encouraged in that city – up close the buildings are unfortunately reminiscent of the tower blocks thrown up in London at around the same time, to house citizens returning from war and bombed out of their former terraces. Fifties architecture is at once so brilliant and so ugly; it pushed the boundaries of the possible by re-imagining how we should live, but it did so with aluminium windows, which just do not look good five decades later.

The city has been well-maintained, however, in part because its daunting purpose and the pride with which it was inaugurated could not permit otherwise; President Juscelino Kubitschek won the election on a promise to build an inland capital, and lived up to the promise regardless of a remarkable financial burden and seemingly insurmountable technical issues. His face and words continue to adorn the city, and the bursting pride with which Brasília’s 50th anniversary was celebrated this year shows just how the achievement continues to mark the Brazilian consciousness. Whether that consciousness was more or less marked by the rampant inflation let loose by the slack monetary policy needed to build the city in the timeframe set – inflation which took a generation to tame – is debateable.

But as Brasília is part of Brazilianness, so the verve of its people has changed the city. It was built to the mantra that behaviour and lifestyle can be trained by surroundings, and that order in environment creates orderly people; but the irrepressible nature of its inhabitants means the city’s rectilinear goals have been gently but undeniably subverted. Satellite cities – stacks of ill-planned and under-provided homes and commercial centres, which can’t be translated in English to the genteel ‘suburb’ – cluster around the aeroplane’s wings as the homes of the vast majority of the city’s actual, working residents. The deep red earth from which the city was hacked out of an inland plain is omnipresent on pavements and shoes to this day. Markets cluster around major landmarks, workers lope across the ‘no-walking’ grassy spaces, and the Brazilian need to congregate and chat has created slightly uncomfortable but determined spaces to afford that. Niemeyer may have been a genius, but no group of buildings could tame such a need.

Indeed, my favourite thing about Brasília was something Niemeyer may have been influenced by, but which was well beyond his control. The landscape is almost completely flat, and so while buildings do get to 12 or 15 stories (although strictly no more), the sky is wonderfully, awesomely huge, and so so beautiful; I was there in rainy season, which meant that mountain ranges of clouds formed and shifted in evolutionary parody, playing with the sunlight to create unending glory. I can’t really imagine living in Brasília, although the natives, candangos, seem to love it – but sitting on a balcony in São Paulo, looking at my allotted three square inches of sky between the buildings, there’s a definite appeal.

I found Hackney!

It was only a matter of time, after all. But when wandering around the Saturday market in Praça Benedito Calixto, admiring the variety and quantity of crap on offer – vintage telephones, ’80s toys, comedy kids’ bibs, fourth-hand handbags, artesanial bread, antique teasets, records upon records upon records, hippy-dippy clothing – surrounded by hungover hipsters in rainbow Raybans, I suddenly realised where I was: the Brazilian version of Broadway Market, Brick Lane, or any other of East London’s much-loved (by me) markets.

As I write, I’m sitting outside São Paulo’s Cafe 1001, beset by pungent, er, tobacco fumes on every side, as said hipsters around me move on from the restorative coffee and seco de guaraná to the first beers of the day. This place is jumping, tunes blaring, standing room only (I’m sitting on a wall, as my samba-tired legs have demanded time out) as the city gears up for Saturday night. I think my first beers are a while away yet, as I couldn’t persuade myself out of bed until midday thanks to the loopyjuice that is caipiroska: packed full of enough booze and sugar to keep you dancing until the larger of the small hours, it is only the next day that you realise that the energy was an utter illusion, and in fact that the end of my third decade is looming near enough to ensure I’m a little, um, vague today.

It was not too far away from here that we stopped in an equally-familiar bar for a (definitively wise) nightcap on the way home: an unmarked door in a graffitied wall led to a semi-rescued, semi-condemned house with a distinctly temporary bar and even less permanent toilets. I was immediately transported to any number of Hackney’s less salubrious nightspots, not to mention one hilariously illegal nightclub in NYC’s Brooklyn – and the hipsters were of course out in force. Having added beer to the mix and realised that bed in fact was a sensible option – and that we were the oldest people in this bar by a country mile – I headed home as the first glimmer of sunrise touched what I could see of the horizon (which of course in São Paulo is just the tops of distant tower blocks, as the city reaches further than the eye can see in every direction). Brilliant.

Of course, there are differences between the two Hackneys: at the centre of the market here is a samba band, which means dancing of course, and the design shops have a distinctly Brazilian edge – hard to describe but the furniture and interiors here are world-class and individual. I spent a very happy half an hour earlier watching a troupe practise the world’s best-humoured martial art, capoeira. The weather is not great but to me perfectly fine, but the stallholders are huddling under blankets in protest at the rigours of a temperature of 17 degrees. Honestly…(Yesterday I had lunch with a Brazilian who pointed at the hazy but sunny sky amid a 26 degree warmth and harrumphed, “This is the problem with this city – how can anyone live under this cloud?” I assume he’s never been to England.)

I don’t know if the familiarity of all this is a shrinking-world phenomenon – the Raybans must be, I suppose – or if the young and free naturally like to colonise neighbourhoods with bars, markets and coffee shops and then spend their lives there, with each other, being cool. Whichever, I like it – might start flathunting.

(But – and hat tip to my good friend Ron Knox here – nothing beats London humour.)

On beauty

Maybe it is largely Gisele’s fault. Or simply because Brazilian women like tiny – and I mean TINY – bikinis, and 30 or 40 years ago, the willingness to bare that much bum flesh in public was enough. Perhaps there’s a small cohort of very beautiful and stunningly-accessorised Brazilian women who have very international lives, and who have perpetuated the myth globally. But you know what, here on the streets of São Paulo, they ain’t all that.

They wear very tight clothes, I’ll give them that. Unfortunately there’s a significant proportion of womanhood from anywhere in the world that just shouldn’t be wearing lycra, so the propensity for jeggings doesn’t do the whole any favours. I had to exercise a great deal of my luckily-deep reserves of stubbornness when dress shopping the other day to be able to buy the one I thought fit me, rather than the one the size below, which I could technically do up, and which the shop assistant appeared to think looked wonderful on me. It didn’t.

The feminist side of me admires the confidence, the ‘hell yeah, I’m hot enough for hot pants’ approach to life, even if groundless. I just think buy clothes that fit, not for which you need a spare tub of margarine just to get them on. I can’t think about how they get them off.

The confidence of course has significant downsides, in both genders. If your average 60-year-old saggy greying grandparent thinks nothing of a string bikini with postage stamps posing as panels of material, or pulling the wifebeater up to rest on the top of the used-to-be-a-pot belly, the better to show off the rolls and the hair, imagine what an actual fittie is like. However hot you think the washboard stomach and perfect tan is, it can’t begin to match how wonderful they feel about being able to take themselves home every night. And yes, the boys are much worse in the narcissism stakes.

Perhaps the international stereotypers have confused the geographic with the individual, and that the country’s undoubted and vast natural beauty has been supposed to infect its people, without a particular level of truth under the myth. Maybe it is just an ‘eye of the beholder’ thing, and they look at me and the other gringas and wonder why the hell we insist on wearing clothes two sizes too big. What one culture finds gorgeous, repels another, as Pacific Islander v Fashion Week approaches to dress size, or the Kiwi obsession with fleece as against, well, normality, proves.

But then I went to a beach I couldn’t help but find beautiful on Sunday, and every Brazilian I say that to snorts with derision. The city and industrial port of Santos might not be about to win any Condé Nast awards, but you know what, the sun was out, we swam in the sea, the mountains flowed to the ocean, the sunset was beautiful, and I had a bloody fun day. Maybe I’ll change my mind as I get to know the splendour of this country better, but right now, I don’t care. I think it is beautiful, and that’s all that matters.

Hard fun

The friend of a friend who introduced me to the concept of hard fun may have had other flaws, not least a patchy acquaintanceship with the truth and far too wide a hippy streak, but her easy acknowledgement of the fact that some fun things are bloody hard work was at the time cathartically pertinent and has since formed part of my somewhat amorphous set of mores and rationalisations for life. We were then in the queue for opening night at Space in Ibiza, a moment of really quite horrific stress, but with the prospect of a really very good night once we got inside. We stuck it out and am pleased we did, but the difficulty at one point seemed critical, with the fun very far away.

This morning was hard fun: we went to the Mercado Municipal and the streets around to explore and to shop. The market was a foodie’s paradise – every kind of cheese, meat, fruit, vegetable, fish, nuts, seeds, booze, spices, dessert, snacks and everything else you can imagine, piled on top of one another and really cheap. Highlights included the stall with five chocolate machines constantly churning white, milk and dark melted chocolate to pour on their amazing selection of fruit and significantly less healthy things; the live crabs strung together and waving at us in mute pleas for freedom; pieces of animal insides I didn’t even know existed, although I preferred life when I didn’t; cured sausage so spicy it made me cough like a back-street curry house vindaloo; fruit which I’m still very much learning to identify but which bears as little relationship to the anaemic and watery Tesco’s offerings as Sunny D does to anything not invented to outlast nuclear winter; and piles and piles of salted cod, bacalhau, which they just adore here and I tried in a bolinho (‘little fishcake’) which was delicious, if, as is the norm here, deep-fried.

Outside the market the streets were thronged in way which makes Oxford Street at Christmas look positively laid-back. Shops selling everything you could ever need but nothing you would ever want spilled out onto the street, with hawkers shoving the latest back-of-a-lorry wares in your face, shouts of ever more miraculous discounts competing for your overworked attention, people shoving and jostling for the inch of pavement you were under the impression you were occupying, and relentless, relentless sun beating down.  There was a street of shops selling nothing but thousands of beads, a ‘Feather Palace’ with suitably impressive plumage, plastic watches in every colour under the sun, a whole range of luggage, ranging from small coin purse to massive suitcase, in pink fake fur with ‘SEXY’ embroidered on it, a pile of fake dog shits, some of the most amazing fancy dress shops I have ever seen, and all the clothes you would ever require, as long as you’re happy in head-to-toe lycra. Everyone I know is getting Christmas presents from here, and there’s going to be quite the competition for the electronic, multi-coloured ‘WC’ sign, with the little boy’s wee in never-ending moving LCD glory. Que elegante, não?

Three hours in and my US army buddy pointed out that ‘Nos aparacemos zombies’, and indeed the resemblance was remarkable, down to the witless groan and a seeming sole ability to follow each other around blindly. I have had to come home to lie down for an hour before cracking on with the rest of the day before the sun goes down, which I’m determined to do as this week has been out-and-out cold, which is not why I moved to bloody Brazil. Tonight, a second attempt to get tickets to one of São Paulo’s legendary football matches, or much more staidly the theatre. I need to be keeping my energy levels up for this kind of fun.

Platonic dating

A few hours before, you start wondering what to wear. You want to look good, but as if such a look comes so naturally you don’t have to try – to be the transcendent ideal, but to appear quotidian. If you’ve arranged to meet for drinks, there’s the question of whether and what to eat beforehand – if you don’t, you might end up starving and / or plastered, which is never a good look, but you don’t want to leave the other person eating alone if they haven’t eaten – hardly convivial. There’s also the faintly awkward ‘so, where did you grow up?’-style conversation, and the determination for chat to remain dialectical – agreement is a better atmosphere. Finally, there’s the deeply uncomfortable goodbye: what do you say? How open-ended do you leave it? You don’t want to seem overkeen, but not standoffish either – the balance needs to be just right.

I think I’m beginning to understand how a serial Rules-adherent feels – well, apart from all the gumph about actually being the idealised creature like no other. I’ve spent the last week and a half meeting up with people I barely know, or simply don’t know, in a fairly intimate social surroundings trying to find out as much as possible about them in a short space of time in order to find out whether I want to spend more time with them in the future. I’ve done this before…

Tonight was the turn of Nate, an American working for a non-profit here that I met through ‘Facebook for wankers‘ (can’t claim credit for the nickname, but is apt), an online community of ‘like-minded people’ who all seem to run hedge funds and have yachts. No, I’m not sure what I’m doing on there either; still, it really has a life, this community. Members – I joined a week ago so I guess that includes me – genuinely seem to trust each other, and to be willing to take time out of their lives to welcome newcomers to the city. The modern day Brooks’s, I guess – the (in my case, false) lure of lucre.

And indeed Nate is a very interesting, well-travelled and thoughtful guy, and we had a very pleasant evening, so maybe denying the good of the website is unfair. He had a number of tips to share about SP living, and in a city like this such knowledge is invaluable. We could also bitch a little about the determinedly chi-chi community, which is among the best of ice-breakers.

Yet another different style of night out – in a very convincing French-style bistro with deeply charming waiters (the only thing the replica got wrong, then) and an amazing singer doing a mix of her own stuff and Nina Simone-style tunes in English and Portuguese. I had a very lovely salad, despite it being my second meal of the evening (I misjudged the eating-before consideration but rose to the challenge, somehow). The area – Vila Madalena – is rapidly turning into one of my favourites, with a plethora of great, if very different bars, restaurants and clubs (including one called Black Bom Bom – yes, black bum in Portuguese – which might be the one Plato himself would have been drawn to, particularly given it attracts a younger patron), crowded in on one another in a seemingly constant if determinedly laid-back street party.

This is of course much less unnerving than real dating – the stakes are lower – but there’s still the moment just as you walk into the bar in which you have to screw up all your courage to get through the first few awkward minutes. Conversational skills being exercised – when you can’t just gossip about people you know who are getting married / breaking up, or getting new jobs / being sacked, you do end up debating the future of print journalism. And given beggars can’t be choosers on the friends-in-this-hemisphere front, I’ll carry on – although the two-dinner immoderateness will have to end or the distance between me and the transcendent ideal will be all the greater.

City planning

My new (read: only) friend in São Paulo works for the US State department Latin American desk in military security. He’s here learning Portuguese because they kinda figured someone in his department should, Brazil being, you know, quite big, and they had some cash left in the budget so they thought, what the hell. Governments….plus ça change.

He’s a brilliant exploring buddy, though. Not least because he shares my determination to walk this unwalkable city – we were equally delighted by the tumbledown colonial buildings scattered amid the shiny highrises, the locals picking and sharing fruit with us, and the bar in a garage (why not?). We together admired the patchwork pavement, created by a simultaneously brilliant and bonkers municipal rule that the owners of each building are responsible for maintaining the pavement in front of it – the most inspired of which was hundreds of keys embedded in concrete for no reason: really beautiful, if inexplicable. But of course, those that can’t be bothered, don’t, meaning those looking up at the highrises can suddenly find themselves in a hole. In flip flops.

He also led the charge into the most backstreet of fringe theatres, determined to bring our communal Portuguese to bear in finding out from the beheadscarved and diminutive old lady at the front desk what was on, and when – a poetry reading Friday night at midnight (perhaps not), but more promisingly a film by a new Brazilian director on Saturday afternoon, which we’ve promised the friendliest crone I’ve ever met that we’ll attend. Equally promisingly, as we found ourselves in a less than beautiful area of the city as night fell and I began to feel a little uncomfortable, I remembered I was with a large and burly guy who tells stories which start, “When I was part of the forward troops invading Iraq…” and worried less.

But the scale of this place utterly overwhelms me. We walked in a more or less straight line for hours, crested a hill, and ahead of us more and more and more tower blocks. This city has no end, it seems. No-one knows it, I swear – this huge, amorphous, seething megalopolis has to be essentially unknowable, which makes the populace’s often-voiced frustration with the city government both deeply hypocritical and utterly understandable. How do you plan for anything this informal and…slippery? But if the government can’t, who can?

The change I would make, in magic-wand world, would be to preserve those colonial buildings – they’re beautiful, and mostly rotting, albeit entirely impractical in this city whose only choice to house its ever-growing and largely ungrateful populace is upwards. Back-seat governing: the last resort of the under-important, perhaps. And it isn’t as if I can speak Portuguese either.

The weather

At least there’s one thing I can fall back on – my weather vocab seems to be holding up better than more useful forms of communication, and there’s something about my pronunciation of basic Portuguese which makes most Brazilians respond with “voce e ingles, nao?”. Then I’m allowed to talk about the weather – I don’t want to challenge international stereotypes, after all.

And it has been a glorious first weekend, meteorologically speaking: blazing sunshine, 30ish degrees, but cooling in the evening so it is still comfortable to sleep. Or would be, if my new mattress didn’t have wood in it. Honestly, its a wooden frame with thin padding, covered to look like a normal mattress. That’s just cheating.

In other ways, my flat seems to be determined to balance out the weather. My Brazilian flatmates keep complaining about how dry it is at this time of year, but inside, the walls are seeping enough moisture to ensure I have little need to cover myself in the body lotion the girls keep telling me is necessary during these inter-seasonal months. Its a blessing, really.

Still, my return to student living means offering my roomies a beer bought in the supermarket has me marked out as one of the most generous people alive, which isn’t a bad start. If only I hadn’t bought the beers at the end of a four-hour-long exploration of the city, necessitating a fairly pricey cab ride back, I’d be reais-in right now.

Of course, the taxi journey was further complicated by me (duration of time here: 36 hours) arguing with the cab driver (duration of time here: 24 years, and he had satnav) in broken Portuguese because I knew where we were going and he, I decided, didn’t. I was of course wrong, but it was relieving to see that nothing really changes.

In more ways than one. I may have got more obstreperous in my old age, but when I happened across an awe-inspiring view across this amazing city, some impromptu samba in the park, and a Sunday market selling inordinate amounts of crap (which is of course my idea of heaven) with a few minutes of each other as I wandered around today, the thrill of it took me right back to my travelling days of yore. I would have loved it, even without the sunshine.