Monday, July 28, 2008

Life as unusual

Some days I feel such purpose in my stride, and other days I wonder, “What am I doing?” I’ve had a string of the latter days lately. It’s not to say I don’t want to be where I am, but more that I don’t know where I am. The feeling is a little unsettling, confusing and strange. Then again, that was the goal and, despite the uncertainty of the process, I believe in the certainty of the growth and the value of the lessons. Before I came here I figured that I would feel like I willfully threw my life in a blender. That is, today, the best way I can describe it—four months in and I am completely stirred up. This is a good thing, though sometimes I get a little queasy. Let’s call it motion sickness. I expected it, but I am also anxious for it to pass.

Attempts to navigate the unfamiliar waters co-exist with my other ongoing missions: seeking out new friends and experiences, creating a life here, and laughing now and then.

I mentioned Renato in previous posts. He’s the Brazilian I meet with twice weekly for conversation practice. I was really pleased that on our fourth meeting he creatively instructed me to meet him in front of Catedral Metropolitana next time, provided the day was sunny, because he had something he wanted to show me. The following sunny Thursday, he took me to Solar dos Câmara, a cultural-center/museum less than two blocks from my apartment. Tucked behind Palácio Farroupilha, the local House of Legislature, the building is considered the oldest residence in the city though for many years it has been used as a cultural and educational institution. Both the architecture and décor warrant a visit, but we also toured a photo exhibit and an old library housing these massive books of mid-19th century broadsheets. You can sit and thumb through them if you are so inclined which, given their age, seemed unusual to me. But Renato’s favorite thing to show visitors is the garden—a quiet and secluded semi-tropical paradise that feels miles from its real location in the middle of Porto Alegre’s government hub.

We sat in the garden a while and discussed the history of the building and the lifestyle of the political families that once resided there. He informed me that the women slept in an interior room without any windows and whiled away their days in the walled-in garden, to keep them safe, both from harm and from falling in love with suitors considered undesirable by influential fathers. I also learned that the nearby Praça Alfândega is so named because the river bank used to reach the park’s border (until the shoreline was set back by a few blocks to where the port is currently) and so that is where the customs office, or alfândega, was located. We debated the merits of Brazil’s newly enacted Zero Tolerance law (a recent development that issues stiff penalties to any driver that has ingested alcohol) and then some of the differences and similarities between the U.S. and Brazilian criminal justice systems. It was a delightful afternoon, and beyond local trivia I also learned a handful of new words.

On Saturday, I crossed a goal off my list: to go to the bus station with an overnight bag and take the first bus headed somewhere reasonably interesting. The next bus was to Bento Gonçalves, a town famous for its vineyards that I considered visiting last weekend. Unfortunately, crossing the goal of spontaneity off my list and the 6-hour round trip bus journey were the highlights of the excursion. I spent the night in an unremarkable city-center hotel, conveniently within walking distance of nothing interesting. And although I failed my only mission of attending a wine-tasting tour yesterday (a rainy Sunday), I did manage to enjoy a nice cabernet with a lovely Italian lunch before the ride home. It’s just as well… I plan to visit again, but next time I'll have booked accommodation in one of the charming, mountainside wineries. Having the company of a handsome lad with a car would be nice too!

And thusly, the time passes…
Boa semana,

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Things To Do In My 34th Year: “Eat wild boar.” Check.

Where to begin?
At this moment, estou muito cheia (I'm totally full!). I should say estou muito satisfeita, because in Portuguese you say you are “satisfied” instead of “full” (like the moon or a cup) but it doesn’t quite convey the intensity of how stuffed I am. I feel like I just had two Thanksgiving days in one.

This gray Sunday, I treated myself to lunch at Na Brasa, which I heard was the best churrascaria in Porto Alegre. Churrasco, if you're not familiar, is southern Brazilian barbecue. Numerous cuts of beef, pork, chicken, and lamb (traditionally) are salted and slow-cooked on giant skewers over an open flame.

I was seated at a table in the center of the restaurant next to the enormous salad bar and with a view of the churrasqueira na cozinha – dozens of meat kebabs rotating rotisserie-style over the fire. At first I felt intimidated by this placement, dining alone amidst a sea of families. “Better get used to it,” I thought, and then I made the most of my status as intriguing single foreigner by chatting with the staff that passed, learning the cuts of meat, a little futebol chatter, and bonding in general. A smile goes a long way, and in this case I was treated to a tour of the amazing wine cellar. Someday I want one just like it in my house!

Beyond tasting an assortment of the usual suspects, I ate a bit of javali (wild boar, which was tough and dense but flavorful) and avestruz (
ostrich, which was surprisingly beefy, rather than the chickeny taste and texture one would expect from a feathered former friend). I am writing to you now through my food coma – workin’ through the pain… err, the will to nap.

I’ve hit a groove, I noticed this week, as I went about my everyday business– lessons, errands, socializing, and exercising. I have a routine here. But more importantly to relay at this moment, I have good friends here.

Earlier this week while having coffee with the gals, they asked what I’d like to do to celebrate my birthday. I’ve had some disappointing ones in recent years and I tend to be in a dark mood around my birthday so I tried to be evasive. Nevertheless, Joanna, Victoria and Clair decided to make it their mission to change my mind and my experience. Last night I semi-reluctantly appeared at Joe & Joanna’s place to celebrate my 34th with an international cocktail party. Each of the guests, which numbered far more than I expected, brought something dangerous to mix and introduce, dishes to pass, and a warm smile.

I. Had. The. Best. Time.

Guatamalan Martin, Victoria, and Adam

Joe & Joanna (foreground) and Billy, Jennifer, and Stephanie (background)

Carlos, Clair, and Rafael

Fabio, Maria Luisa, and Bruno (oh, and Eduardo, outside!)

Jennifer and Victoria (on cleanup duty at 3:30 am)

My new friends set out to change my mind about my birthday and they succeeded. I felt warmed, welcomed, even celebratory about my “special day” for the first time in years. The multinational group sang to me (with candles in Joanna’s incredible homemade brownies and chocolate chip cookies) first in English and then in Portuguese (another first for me), and I simply had the most spectacular time.

What’s more, my new friends gave me the most thoughtful, knowing, gifts: gourmet chocolates, a book about Mario Quintana (whom Casa de Cultura takes its name from, remember?), and a dvd of a historical drama about the life of a family in Brasil’s southern interior. Despite loving all of these, the coolest of all was my new cuia and bomba—Victoria peeked in my day planner one day, unbeknownst to me, and saw that I was planning to buy one, and then took it one step further by having it engraved with “Loquinha Gauchinha” on the back.

That rules. That’s totally something I would do! I can’t say enough about how these three girls in particular, and all of my other new friends and acquaintances, surprised and delighted me yesterday.

I am a really fortunate person.

Beijos a todos,

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Premier of Galavanting

Just a quick post to say “Olá!” and tell you that my second piece is up at Galavanting, which made its official launch yesterday. Go browse around, boost their hit count, laugh a little. More hyjinx to follow, surely!

Also, over at Hyphenated-Disaster, Joe has posted a great recap of his experience in enemy territory at the Gre-Nal game. (Use the link to "Jo & Joe" under Friends on the left side.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Appreciating Stuff (like "The Lotação Guy")

I love The Strokes. They are a total sing-along band, and they always make me feel good.

I rearranged my living room, which took a minute and a half. I decided I needed better access to my homemade zen garden so by swapping the positions of the loveseat and table, I created a more welcoming space to sit, comb the sand, and ponder. Oh, and maybe to study too. I was planning to go to Bento Gonçalves for my birthday to drink wine and eat pasta. Instead, I decided to treat myself to 30 hours of Portuguese lessons. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Ha!

Victoria set up a group on Facebook for estrangeiros in POA (or locals that sometimes feel like foreigners). Through the forum I have “virtually” met Jennifer and Stephanie, from California and Georgia respectively. Both are moving to POA this week so the socializing might almost become too much to handle. Yay! We’ve already decided to have three weekly “standing offers”: Ladies Lunch Wednesdays at our favorite buffet, Friday Happy Hours at different nightspots each week, and First Sunday Churrasco (gaucho BBQ) at the beginning of each month. Cool, huh? I have a life again. Happiness.

I also met Renato a couple times this week. He’s currently working on his masters in electrical engineering, but relayed a life roadmap just as divergent as mine. We get along quite well and he’s a very patient conversationalist! At our first meeting we chatted for two and a half hours entirely in Portuguese—it was great but I definitely had smoke pouring from my ears when I left. We’ve settled on Tuesday/Thursday for our “language exchange” coffee sessions. So if my plan to combine these with formal Mon/Tues/Thurs lessons works, I will be closer to functionally-fluent in no time (though I think it wise to stock up on aspirin)!

I was sensing that the relocation luster was fading a couple weeks ago—so I’ve been trying to be more conscientious. I don’t want to take anything for granted—the architecture, the quirks of the people, or the riches of the experience. Or the sun! Today was beautiful (sunny and 70F) and it’s still the middle of winter. I walked around smiling, admiring, and appreciating. That’s what I fought two and half years for.

I appreciate the lotação. Porto Alegre has loads of city bus routes and even a modest metro line. But on rainy or lazy days, I rely on the lotação, super-speedy and comfortable mini-buses, to zip around town. The Rio Branco line conveniently stops just in front of my apartment every 5 minutes or so throughout the day. You hop on, take a seat, and signal the driver when you wish to hop off, paying R$3.10 ($2) for the pleasure. Let me tell you friends, after coping with the mess that is the Chicago CTA for so long, I am in the height of public transport bliss.

I digress. Today I also appreciated The Lotação Guy. You see, at the lotação stop by Mercado Público, where I catch my ride to Gerdau a few nights a week, I regularly see this young guy—and I always smile. He’s in his late 20’s I suppose, neither handsome nor unattractive, with boyish hair, a pronounced jawline and kinda crooked teeth—and probably the most infectious smile I’ve ever seen. He stands at that stop keeping a score of some sort on a notepad, periodically shouting out the lotação destinations to attract riders, and chatting with passers-by. He seems to know everyone and he’s always in a good mood. When I saw him today, I felt smiley (again) as I watched him from my seat on the bus. Later I thought, isn’t is nice to know that just with our good nature and a smile, we can impact someone—a stranger—when we don’t even realize it?

Sleep on it,

Monday, July 7, 2008

No soup for you!

I had an experience the other day that made me chuckle in its likeness to the classic Seinfeld episode, “The Soup Nazi.” There are loads of street vendors here selling churros, pão de queijo, assorted meat kabobs, and the Brazilian twist on the USA classic, the cachorro quente (hot dog). I was strolling along, craving sausage in a bun (like ya do) and actually pulled an about-face when I passed a cart with a tasty-smelling cloud. I approached the cart from what I presumed to be the customer side—opposite the vendorand looked at the different options. When I asked him if a particular type was apimentado (spicy), he ignored me. Hmph. Com licença (excuse me), I said. No reply. He didn’t even raise his head. I ducked down to make eye contact beneath the brim of his cap, and repeated, “com licença?” with a smile. He looked down again and, saying nothing, gestured with a clear irritation that I was on the wrong side of the cart. Apparently I was supposed to approach from his side. Forget that cachorro quente man! I’ll go to another cart, more politely attended, up the street! Unfortunately my shock and my Portuguese prohibited me from relaying the message, and I just walked off in a huff.

"I get by with a little help from my friends." I’ve had a busy week! (It deserves the punctuation.) Aside from a growing class load, my dance card has been filling up. Well, ok, not my dance card exactly, but my social calendar. After classes last Monday, I met Victoria, Joanna, and Clair at Livraria Cultura for a browse, a cafezinho, and a little lunch. I was struck by the “adultness” of our conversation—covering women’s issues from relationships to having children—because, somehow, it seemed so far removed from other chats I’ve shared with girlfriends. I was so absorbed in hearing the different thoughts and experiences of the group. I don’t know how to explain it…but it felt so…transitional. We were four women in our late 20’s to mid-30’s, from completely different backgrounds, discussing the same ideas and communicating the same desires and fears. The seemingly innocuous luncheon, when examined more closely, actually begins to obscure the linear thinking that indoctrination inspires. I hope and expect that, in time, only traces of my programmed reactions to certain experiences will remain. Well, at least that’s how it feels… and it’s kinda the Big Point to this sort of adventure. Anyway, I am really enjoying the company of my new friends.

I met Clair last week at Christiane & Roberto’s UN luncheon. She’s a German psychologist that met her Brazilian husband, Carlos, in Holland. They recently moved to Porto Alegre with their son, Rafael (now 8 months) to experiment with building a life here, much the same as me. Add another pair to the ECC group that’s building.

I shared a great meal with my newest friends at their apartment Friday night. We laughed our heads off in the kitchen when Clair related a story of an indignant laundry lady who was put out by the family underpants being included in the washing. We dined on a homemade chicken and vegetable casserole and a lovely salad with avocado (Thank you Clair!). The latter is notable because gauchos, being hardcore carnivores, don’t do salad like we (and apparently our German friends) do. Here, salad is three pieces of lettuce, two slices of tomato, maybe a few bits of onion or beets, and some cooked carrots. Avocado is reserved for sweet recipes, like smoothies, not savory things like salad or cheeseburgers. Likewise, it’s hard to come by home-style brownies, especially given the difficulty of finding ingredients like baking soda in the supermarket (though I’ve learned that you can ask a pharmacist - Como?). So I was particularly delighted that Joanna, responding to a comment I made about missing the old standby dessert, went all Julia Child (literally) and prepared a pan of from-scratch brownies. Yum. Incidentally, that was my piece... and I was being polite, refraining from diving face-first into the pan.

There has been other socializing toohanging out at Joe & Joanna's cool apartment and spending a sunny Sunday afternoon with tea and snacks in Redenção with Clair, Carlos, and Rafael. Tudo beleza.

It has been observed that I talk a lot about food. It’s true, ha! But it’s such an ever-present reminder that you are in a new place, given that I eat (at least) three times a day! Despite my drooling as I write about all these buffets and homemade meals, I have vowed to get back to my original plan of relying more heavily on the fruits and vegetables. Bring on the mini-pineapple!

I chose to shoot the abacaxi in front of my little garden. On the right we have a struggling hortela (mint) plant and on the left, the Little-Shop-of-Horrors-inspired manjericão (basil). Pesto anyone?

Bonus photos as a reward for your patience! One of my classes is in an office in Centro, in a conference room which overlooks Santander Cultural and Praça Alfandega. It’s a lovely green square that is edged by various museums and such.

Tomorrow I will meet Renato, a brasileiro that is working on his PhD (in what I don’t know) at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS, commonly referred to as “ooor-gz”). He wants to practice his English and is rumored to be patient enough to help me further my Portuguese. Coitado (poor thing)!