Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Brazilian”

Lost Samba – Chapter 14 – Binge gone bad in Teresópolis

Part20Teresópolis was an hour and a half away from Rio in the mountains and many of my parents’ friends had country houses there. When I was a toddler, we used to spend the summer in those hills and during one of our stays, an opportunity to buy an affordable plot of land in a remote place called Jardim Salaco came up. We went to see the empty empty terrain in a horse-driven chariot that took at least two hours to get there on dirt tracks. The trip was picturesque, we passed by farms and fields and went up hills covered with trees feeling the fresh country breeze under their shade and the hot sun while in the open. Meanwhile the driver kept whipping the poor smelly horse, which had vents on its eyes and sweat all over its body.

Dad could not resist the bargain and bought the land with a friend, a short, bald, lanky and slightly aggressive French ex-freedom fighter. After that, it took him more than a decade to decide what to do with that white elephant. However, in the meantime, his friend built a house there and, perhaps expecting that Dad would sell him his part, he invaded our side. By the time we woke up to what was going on, his family was using the entire plot as their own and this drew Dad’s attention to the situation.

We went up to evaluate how much the plot could sell for, but the result was the opposite. Despite the neighbour’s ugly house and his psychopathic German Shepard, Dayan, the beauty of the place convinced them to build a house and, who knew, retire there someday.

Sarah and I did not welcome that surprise decision, for us Teresópolis was a boring weekend destination where many Jewish people had houses. To make things worse the few houses that some friends had were miles away. To attract us, our parents went as far as putting in a pool, but we were past the stage of being content with splashing around in the water. In fact, things turned out quite differently: I was 14 and Sarah was 19, and when my parents went up on weekends, we would stay back at home unsupervised, with the dangerous freedom to do anything we chose.


The country house in Teresopolis

Sarah and I did not welcome that surprise decision, for us Teresópolis was a boring weekend destination where many Jewish people had houses. To make things worse the few houses that some friends had were miles away. To attract us, our parents went as far as putting in a pool, but we were past the stage of being content with splashing around in the water. In fact, things turned out quite differently: I was 14 and Sarah was 19, and when my parents went up on weekends, we would stay back at home unsupervised, with the dangerous freedom to do anything we chose.

Bizarrely, it turned out that Fred, the leader of my pot-smoking ring at the Escola Americana, had a country house close by. My parents were terrified of his folks after they said that they themselves supplied him with weed in order to avoid his contacting drug dealers. Nevertheless, they tolerated the friendship, as he was a neighbour who could make me decide to go up to Teresópolis more often. Also as his dad was a famous architect, the boy may come to grow out of his habits and become a valuable contact for my future.

One weekend, I went up knowing that he and the rest of the gang would be there. On the Saturday afternoon, I visited them and ended up getting so drunk that they had to call my parents. Drinking was something unseen in the family and they had taken a lot of care not to expose us to this vice, to the extent that, in my entire life, I never saw Dad even slightly drunk. When they saw me there, 15 or 16 years old, absolutely paralytic, they were shocked. The blame fell on Fred, with the suspicion that he had put something in my drink.

For them, this was a serious incident that affected profoundly the image that they had of me. My parents were not only immigrants to a new country they were also foreign to modern life, especially Dad. The contrast between that incident and the stoic 19th century-like atmosphere at home could not have been greater.

Dinners, for example, seemed to jump out of a Bela Lugosi film. When we sat down in the large dining room, at its centre was a big, dark, handmade, wooden table where there was always a Chinese bowl waiting for us filled with, sometimes not so fresh, apples, bananas, oranges, grapes and mangoes. This was because we began meals with fruit, as it was healthier to fill oneself up with them before moving on to the heavier food. Right above that still life scene, was a macabre chandelier lighting the room while we ate on the uncomfortable, posh looking chairs. The dining cupboards around us were also made of dark wood and the free parts of the walls held large classical paintings of Biblical scenes, with heavy, fake antique, golden frames around them.

Once everyone had finished with the fruit, they would ask me to step on the buzzer under my foot that made an annoying and loud noise in the kitchen. Dona Isabel would then come in with her awkward walk carrying a tray to clear the table and would then return with the main course. While we were eating, nothing was supposed to disturb the pomp: there was no television, no radio and no answering of the phone. When we were finished, there would be another foot buzz for the desert. After that, Sarah and I returned to Planet Earth while Mum and Dad would go to the living room to spend the rest of the evening in silence reading and listening to classical music.

It was during one of these dinners that they told me that a cinema college in the US or in the UK would be unaffordable. Despite the disappointment, the news was predictable. There were questions about the seriousness of my career choice: the ideas of advertising and of cinema were too alien for them, and my attitude at large did not help much. Maybe it would be better if I chose a proper profession such as engineering, law or medicine. My sister had chosen dentistry and was doing well at her university course, so why shouldn’t I do the same, seeing that I was effortlessly a good student?

Who needed an expensive American School with drunk pot smoking punks if I was not going to study cinema anyway? They put me back in the Brazilian system, the fifth school change in my short academic career. They had to do this as soon as possible because in order to get into a good Brazilian university, I had to pass a tough entry examination, the vestibular, for which the EA did not prepare.

The outcome wasn’t that bad: I could subvert their plans and study cinema in São Paulo later on. Of course, the Brazilian film industry did not come close to the British and the American ones but the subjects were the same and, with some talent and some effort, I could make everything work out.

Their approach to the new situation differed: the sermons about the importance of financial success became more and more pressurized. The conversations were conflictual and came down to two mature people with an agenda against one who was struggling to structure his own. They were trying to convince me about things that they did not understand but, the more I tried to explain my views, the worse the situation got. They were right to be worried – after all, that’s what parents do – but were wrong in their assumptions, at least with relation to advertising: this was a booming profession that paid very well.

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How to Piss Off a Brazilian

For those Brazilians afraid of what the “gringos” will say about them.

The Head of the Heard

A little while ago I wrote about how we are trying to get our son to say ‘please’ when he asks for things.  It seems to be more important than ever now as he often throws a tantrum at the first opportunity whenever he wants anything, but if we ask him to say please he will usually calm down.

It doesn’t mean that I am being polite when I say ‘please,’ it just means that I had it drilled into me at every opportunity when I was a child.  Most Brazilians, though, don’t have this habit drilled into them and so don’t say ‘por favor’ and if they do then they are usually being very formal.  So when they omit ‘please’ at the end of a request it doesn’t mean they are rude, it just means they seem rude to an English speaker.

When I wrote that post it got me…

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Does the true revolution start in Brazil?


Have you seen this pattern lately? People take the street in protest with no specified leaders in demonstrations against their rulers, all grievances and opposition movements become gelled into an amorphous angry mess, pressure is put on the government to step down. When they do the chaos continues until someone strong with pro-western/American credentials steps in to restore the order.

This happened in less subtle ways in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they got smarter and tried to bring regime change via stirring the masses through social media. With this came the successes of Tunisia and Lybia, now Egypt and perhaps Turkey and of course the tragedy of Syria, not to mention the several attempts to overthrow the Venezuelan government.

In Brazil they tried, but after  the country discovered that the CIA had been spying on several Brazilian public figures and that Uncle Sam had also been interfering in the country’s internal affairs, it looks as if this plan is doomed. Now Brazilians are starting to ask themselves who could be behind the Anonymous mask .

This is a very natural question. How can protests be so well coordinated across the country and indeed around the world in countries that have the common feature of not being not subservient enough to the “world order”? Whoever has a blog knows how hard it is to get oneself noticed online is difficult enough, what could be said about the resources needed to ignite popular and “spontaneous” uprisings using the internet? Not only funding is needed but also powerful brains.

Social media is around to amuse people, to allow them to connect with friends and other leisure activities, it takes a touch of genius to transform such platforms into powerful political instruments, but there is someone out there doing this. Why? What is the agenda? Who is this person? Why should he be anonymous? Is this the answer to the Extremist Muslim on-line Jihad and is there any connection/inspiration?

So many questions, so very few answers. Most Brazilian people have not fallen for the Anonymous ploy, and when such things happen new perspectives and fresh routes open themselves not only for Brazilians but for the world at large. May this shift happen now!!

Brazil vs Spain: a football showdown.


Tomorrow’s game is an important showdown for many football lovers. For some if Spain beats Brazil in the epicenter of Brazilian football passion, the Maracana, it be like the passing of the  crown of world football dominance from Brazil to Spain. For others, if Brazil wins the match it will signify  the coming of age of the Neymar generation where they will stop being a promise for the future and will become part of the Brazilian pantheon of football legends.

For the coach Felipao, or Big Phill, who has been in charge of this Brazil team for a little more than a month this will not be the ultimate test. He is a pragmatic man who is still building the team, his aim is winning the World Cup next year, not the Confederations Cup. When he won the World Cup in 2002 with Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo et Cie, his team had been appalling in the qualifying stages and he attracted a lot of enmity by not calling up Romario, the country’s top scorer at the time.

For the Spaniards the game will mean a lot, it is the jewel that is missing in this amazing team’s crown, They have won the European Cup, the World Cup but not the Confederations one, and more importantly they have never beaten Brazil especially, and doing this in a world class final in the Maracana will be something that they hunger for. They want to brush off the questions regarding Brazil’s football superiority,

Despite Big Phill’s pragmatism, the Brazilians will also want to win, loosing a final in Brazil’s major football temple in front of a gigantic crowd would be a disgrace they would not want to live with, neither the players nor the coach. With players who are still seeking international consecration there is the added stimulus of ranking upgrade.

As for the game, Brazil and Spain have shown themselves similar in one aspect, they have “on” and “off” modes. When they are “off” they are vulnerable, nervous and make mistakes like any other team but when they are “on” they are unstoppable. The Spanish team has been playing together for longer and technically they are superior:  more disciplined, more uniform in their talent and more seasoned in big competitions. But they have the disadvantage of coming from an exhausting game against Italy and many of the players will have the fear of facing the Brazilian yellow top in a competition.

As for our predictions; we think that Brazil’s “on” mode is wilder, less predictable and more creative which allied with the unique atmosphere of the Maracana will give Brazil the advantage. Brazil will win.

Brazilian protests – reflections on a confusion


The past weeks have been very revealing about where Brazilian politics stand. Although the rallies were not as big in size and in impact compared to decisive ones such as the Diretas Ja and the Fora Collor they showed what a large and influential portion of Brazilians are feeling about their politicians and their Government. President Dilma Roussef‘s camp now knows that before trying to project their country as an international power broker, there is still a lot of homework to be done.

The biggest novelty is that mixed with the denunciation of maneuvers that corrupt politicians have done to make themselves immune from public prosecution, discontent with overspending in the construction of Stadiums for the world cup and a plethora of other complaints that have accumulated over 10 years of Lula’s PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores) in power, there has been a strong right wing agenda of overthrowing the government lurking in the shadows. This anti-socialist sentiment has not been so strong since the days preceding Brazil’s military coup in 1964 and it is in the private comments and in postings in the social media that the true colors of what is happening have revealed themselves.

The fear of a government seeking to improve the conditions of its most destitute citizens, or worse representing them, is deeply entrenched among the Brazilian privileged who only five generations ago owned slaves. After the humiliation of having a working class president doing a better job than one of them in power by reducing social inequalities, by growing the country’s economy, by receiving international recognition and by indeed bringing the Olympics and the Fifa World Cup to Brazil; understating the achievements of the PT is no novelty in Brazilian wealthier circles. But now, as growth slows down it has become easier to rally public opinion from other classes and make up a critical mass to cause something significant and, who knows, bring the country back to its traditional class system while being subserviently attached to the “developed world”.

After years of relative tranquility, the left has also woken up and now in the social media and in the streets the debate is heated. So far the attacks, verbal and written only, have been against politicians and current and governments and we hope that the animosity will not escalate into hostilities between individuals or between organizations. Brazil has no history of civil war and its independence was granted by Portugal’s King in exile, so fighting to the bitter end for ideals is very rare. There have been internal armed conflicts in the past but they were either of militias against militias or, mainly, of the disorganized mass against government troops or in the sixties of paramilitary left wing cells against the armed forces.

Both the dangerous and the tranquillizing factors in this internal struggle lie in Brazil’s political immaturity. On the one hand, unlike the middle east, the demonstrations are almost a political continuation of the cathartic spirit of the football stadiums and of the carnivals. They are not angry despite the very rare cases of vandalism which are next to nothing when compared to what went on recently in London and a few years ago in Paris. The rallies happen in a good humored and family friendly environment, it is the educated middle class that frequents them after all. The danger lies in the naifness of protesting for one thing, against corruption, but being used for something else, topple the government.

On this topic we see a worrying tendency of wanting to overthrow the political class as a whole and install some kind of moral rule, which can only be compared to fascism or an Iranian style religious/moral autocracy. There are no political parties heading the protests only very suspicious “Anonymous” calls for actions, which makes us wonder who is ultimately behind these protests not only in Brazil but all over the world. These kind of world wide generic, internet based protests, that have caused political tragedies in the majority of the countries where they happened, are a new fact in Brazilian politics. We believe and hope that the young and far from perfect Brazilian democracy is solid enough to take the blow and will come out of this incident strengthened.

Diretas Ja, Fora Collor and the Brazilian Spring.


It was Karl Marx who said that when history repeats itself, it repeats itself as a farce.

As a politically conscious person, this is the third protest en masse against the Brazilian government that I have witness. The first one was the Diretas Ja, in the early eighties. This was a movement demanding the vote for president from the military regime. Slumping into economic hard times and after enduring fifteen years of dictatorship, the country was hungry for democracy and for regime change. Many of the politicians who the current protesters hate were the voices of freedom of those rallies, in particular the ex-president Lula who at the time a true working class hero who had defied the military by stopping the powerful foreign based automotive industry in Sao Paulo. Still a central figure in Brazilian politics he would disappoint the country when in power for refusing to prosecute corrupt allies. Much of the current discontent falls back on him, although one must never loose sight that the success of his left wing party’s governments may guarantee them a fourth term, they are the favorites.

The second wave of protests my generation witnessed was the Fora Collor! (Out Collor!) one, where the country united to oust its corrupt president. Fernando Collor had confiscated the population’s savings accounts in order to end hyperinflation while he himself was constructing mansions with public funds. The Brazilian nation was again in the streets throwing huge pressure for his impeachment and was finally successful, despite the many questions that remain unanswered. During the campaign, the first presidential race in 25 years, he was the young, good looking and energetic candidate who was brought in to hold the left’s certain victory after a series of catastrophic old school and right wing, military sponsored governments. His opponents were Lula and the late Leonel Brizola, two heavyweight champions in the struggle against the Brazilian privileged. After his victory, when Collor started to change things and excluded traditional power brokers from important deals, his former allies turned against him and opened the doors for the popular will to be fulfilled, generously supplying the press with all possible incriminating details and not moving a finger to save him. The final step in this episode was the very badly explained assassination of his treasurer, PC Farias, when he seemed disposed to talk to the press.

This year, once again, protesters flooded Brazil’s streets. The underlying theme was the same as always: impunity, corruption and injustice; plagues that time, new parties and new governments seem unable to eradicate, not only in Brazil but all over the world. The reasons are clear and need addressing and young people are the best to do the job.  It is very healthy that they are alert to what is happening and that they are renewing the country’s political blood. However there are questions, the biggest one is that we know what they are against but what are they proposing? what do they want?

Before there were clear issues: we wanted to vote for president, we wanted a corrupt leader who confiscated our savings out, but now what is it about? Trials? That suspect politicians should be tried and put into jail? That money should go to hospitals and schools instead to the construction of stadiums? A moralization of the country?

OK, Brazil is far from perfect; there are thousands of reasons to protests and a population has the obligation to stand against the wrong doings of their authorities, no one would ever question this, but it seems weird to us that a tropical “anonymous”  uprising should erupt in the wake of the failed Arab springs. OK, there are people being dislodged from their houses to build new stadiums. OK there is A LOT of money going into the wrong pockets at the moment, OK politicians have gone too far by voting laws that make them immune to public investigations. This is wrong and it is right to protest against this.

However there are other aspects to take into consideration. The first one is that, under the two previous administrations, apart from having paid out there gigantic external debt and having growth rates that popped the world’s eyes, Brazil has been derailing out of the American sphere of influence and is becoming an independent world power with ever closer ties to China, who is challenging the western formulas of economic administration . The second point to consider is that although the Dilma administration is being considered by Brazilians as too open to foreign pressure the truth is quite the opposite and that other parties would facilitate even further the intervention of foreign big money. Whoever has tried to do business with Brazil, or even tried to get working permits in Brazil, knows how protective its regulations are and one has to be very naive not to consider that there are powerful forces wanting to “open Brazil up” who would be very happy if the current ruling party changed or, even better, if the democratic regime that the Brazilian people managed to obtain though many sacrifices disappeared.

The fact that these movements, similar to the tragedy of the Syrian “spring”, do not have a defined leadership nor a defined goal other than destabilization, leads us to pose the following question: are they just spontaneous and innocent initiatives of nerdy kids wanting to change the world? We would like to believe that the answer is yes..

Lost Samba – Chapter 03/02 – Settling in Rio


Before moving to Brazil, Raphael and Renée met Paulo through a mutual friend in their house in north London. Paulo lived in far-off place that everybody had heard about, to which many were attracted, but where few had actually been: Rio de Janeiro. He had moved there from Germany before the war and the colourful stories that he told about his new country, its people, its beauty and its customs convinced my parents to come over for a visit. When they did in 1955, it was love at first sight and they decided to make the move. Brazil was an uncommon destination for a young Jewish couple: after the war they were supposed to move to Israel by ideology, or to North America, South Africa or Australia, which were more familiar in terms of culture and as promising in terms of opportunities.

Apart from his exotic address, Paulo had another peculiarity: he was a member of the Communist Party, a huge statement at the height of the Cold War. After my father came over to live in Brazil, they became best friends. Dad was far from being left-wing but their long conversations reignited memories of the political discussions in Yiddish that had been at the heart of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. During one such debate, Paulo showed off a watch made in communist East Germany, the GDR. Although it was unimpressive, Dad spotted what he felt was an amazing business opportunity. In the popular mind, “German” was synonymous with “reliable” and, coming from a communist country, the prices of the watches would be extremely competitive. They would surely sell like water to the emerging Brazilian lower middle class.

Dad soon opened an importation business in Rio. For an outsider, at first thought it might have seemed strange for someone who had two thirds of his family slaughtered by the Nazis to make a living through selling German products. Nevertheless, Dad was at ease with the no-nonsense approach so typical of Germans and he pragmatically tried to apply this state of mind to his own business decisions. In this, he was little different to most of his Jewish friends; despite all they and their close ones had gone through during the war they sill maintained their respect for Teutonic pragmatism and straightforwardness. As most eastern Europeans they continued to see Germany as an incorruptible and innate leader. While they may have physically left Europe, the old continent had never left them.

With a business up and running, a rented flat facing the beach and furnished in the best British style, the comfort of a live in maid and promising prospects ahead, the next step was to start a family. Sarah arrived in 1958 and, five years later, my time came.


Thirty centimetres taller than the average local female, a strong gringo accent and a wardrobe full of fashionable clothes tailored in London, for Brazilians, Mum came across as a powerful, adventurous and open-minded woman who was ahead of her time. This was easy in a place where respectable housewives were never seen out at night, not even in restaurants with their husbands. Her bikinis – in vogue in post-war Europe – showed her belly button. This display of nudity shocked many people at the beach and, more than once, lifeguards asked her to leave.

Mum was also one of the first women drivers in Rio, which attracted many comments, some rude and some in admiration. Neither of these two approaches disturbed her, as in Renée’s opinion Brazilians transformed into uncivilized cowboys as soon as they were behind a steering wheel. In the country that was to provide the world with Formula One racing champions such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, she took upon herself the mission of teaching the natives by example how to respect speed limits. Her car always ended up slowing down the fast lane, which put her on the receiving end of a constant flow of hooting and swearing from the drivers she had forced to overtake on the wrong side.

The attitude behind her driving was revealing. At home, she banned any novelty that suggested being more advanced or more forward than the image she had of herself. Because of this, our domestic life was stoic, almost puritan, with the occasional verbal and physical abuse when she lost control of things. There was no television, no comic magazines and no Brazilian or international popular music, be it jazz, bossa nova or rock ‘n’ roll. She also forbade sweets, chocolates, fizzy-drinks and pastries, insisting on a diet of generally tasteless, health-food.


Mum and my sister.

Dad was born in 1900 in the Polish town of Krosno, in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. Eastern European Jews considered the  Galitzers  as the peasants of their world while their fellow Austro-Hungarians looked down upon Jews from that region as being the peasants’ peasants. Therefore, in Dad’s mind it was a great social leap to marry into my mum’s well-established Golders Green family. Perhaps because of this, Dad went along with her rules. For him, his young wife – 20 years his junior – symbolized the highest expression of London’s refinement, a world that he wanted to belong to. However, he never really achieved this goal as, in so many ways, his thoughts and attitudes were lost in a time warp. He occasionally would let his world slip out in stories from his past: of the rabbi whose beard he had glued to the table while he was sleeping; the barn where he had managed to fool a Polish policeman searching for illegal alcohol; his grandfather, a wealthy anti-Zionist, who everyone came to seek advice; and a plethora of jokes, sayings and religious teachings from that vanished space-time that only lived on in his memories and in precious photographs.

For my Old Man, Brazil was an attempt at reinvention, but in his new life he could hardly have been more of an outsider. Not only was he a foreigner to Brazil, he was also foreigner to a life of middle class urban comfort and a foreigner by age and by experience to most of his social circle. The relative innocence and the joyousness in his new country contrasted with his hidden solitude and the disappearance of his former world, of which the last remaining thread of contact were his business links in East Germany, a Soviet satellite born of the country that had caused him so much pain.

Perhaps to maintain his sanity, whenever the weather permitted Dad reconnected to his universe on solitary dawn-walks along Copacabana’s oceanfront. At that time of the day, with no eyes on him, he was free to be himself. On his way to the beach, he shared the streets with the occasional maid sent out to buy the early-morning bread, with zealous porters cleaning the entrances to their precious buildings, and with packs of stray dogs chasing newspaper and milk delivery trucks.

Sometimes he took me with him and I enjoyed it. At that time of the day the early-morning mist covered the beach and the ground was still moistened by the dew that had settled during the night. We would walk at the water’s edge and talk mostly about existential issues where I would ask questions and he would answer them as easily to understand as he could. As the conversations became deeper and more interesting the haze dissipated while we left our footprints behind on the smooth wet sand.

We always went until the fishermen’s colony at the far end of Copacabana. Their base was one of the first constructions in the neighbourhood: an old wooden depot where they sold their catches to local restaurateurs and residents. Next to it, dozens of small fishing boats rested on the sand surrounded by nets where seagulls fought over the remains with skinny dogs, observed by sleepy donkeys and tied up goats. Around them were swarms of flies and a strong smell of salt and decaying fish permeating the air.

In groups of five or six, the fishermen would set out before sunrise while a small party would coordinate the activity from the beach, shouting and sending signals. By the time we reached the colony, the boats would already be on their way back. To haul them in, the men would lay tree trunks in front of their wooden vessels and then push those heavy wooden crafts until they came to rest on the beach close to the avenue. The daily act of catching and landing the fish was like a mini-festival. The fishermen always needed more people to help pull in the nets, and a gigantic human circle would form, trapping the hundreds of sea creatures leaping in all directions out of the water, gasping for air. Once the bosses separated the prize catches, they allowed anyone who had participated to take whatever they wanted. Sometimes I too made a point of claiming my own, but they always ended up in the rubbish bin as they were either too small or not good enough for our pretentious dinners.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 01/02 – A distinguished guest.

Breakfast taken, uniform checked and impeccable, Mum, Dad and sister dressed elegantly, we were all ready to leave. While the rest of the family set off by car, taking the fast route skirting the city’s beautiful beaches, I had to catch the school bus because I was the only actual student.

In order to pick up the other children, the old red and yellow vehicle took the side streets zig-zagging along Copacabana’s two main arteries, Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana and Avenida Barata Ribeiro. Long branches of lush trees offered shade to both avenues. Beneath them, trolley buses emitted loud and bright sparks as they passed under the web of electric wires held aloft by rusty posts. By eight o’clock, a mass of crowded public buses and bulky 1950s-style cars already jammed the avenues and the adjoining streets. Impatient drivers hooted for no reason and barefoot moleques – or street boys from the favelas – darted between the gridlocked traffic, pushing wooden carts so low they almost scraped the asphalt.

In our condition of posh little gringos, we stared at these boys from the bus windows with a mixture of envy and fear. Although those moleques were about our age, if given the opportunity they could easily – and would – beat up any of us. They worked at the feiras, or open-air markets, where the stand owners hired them to fill their carts with produce and deliver them to the porters of the customers’ homes and offices. These makeshift markets changed neighbourhoods every day, and wherever they landed, they combined pungent smells of fruit, meat and fish exposed to the hot sun.  Their odour and their unmistakable noise advertised their presence from many blocks away. From beside the fruit stands, powerful black men in torn shirts shouted out songs and rhymes to attract the madames: “Only today! Pretty women get a discount if they buy a half kilo!” – “Look at the fresh bananas, only 10 Cruzeiros a dozen!”.


The bus progressed slowly through the streets and at the various intersections, it met with smartly uniformed mulato policemen who controlled and directed the traffic through an artful mix of whistles, glances and hand movements resembling a rare bird’s mating ritual.
On that special morning of November 1968 there were to be no classes. In honour of the occasion, Union Jacks and Brazilian flags were everywhere and excitement filled the air. The cleaners had unbelievably wiped away the normal carpet of leaves and rotting fruit from the school’s huge playground. While a small crowd of guests gathered outside in the patio, a nervous buzz was building all around. We settled in our usual classroom and waited for the other classes to leave for the assembly hall where the event that the entire school had been anticipating for months was going to take place.  Our teacher, Mrs Feitosa, was an assertive blonde-haired woman from Manchester in her mid-forties who had married a Brazilian. Her make-up and her elegant dress did not diminish her authority as she closed our classroom’s door and stood in front of the blackboard.

“I want everyone to sit down and to listen carefully!”

We stopped whatever we were doing, fell silent and she continued.

“Good. Can you all hear me? Today everyone must be on their best behaviour. Am I clear?”

Mrs Feitosa gave us “the look” from behind her glasses and twisted her thin lips. As if by magic, each pupil thought our teacher was directing her evil eye at him or her so we were relieved when someone opened the door to say it was our turn to leave the building.

“Now, I want all of you to hold hands and come with me.”

Back out on the patio, there were now more parents and other adults were waiting, all dressed in their best clothes. As we passed by, they proudly waved and smiled at us, while at the same time they kept turning their heads to see if the distinguished guest had arrived.

When we had almost reached the entrance, we heard sirens and Mrs Feitosa looked back. We followed her gaze and saw the great moment happening: accompanied by her entourage, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, was entering the British School of Rio de Janeiro.

In full regal resplendence, the Queen, wearing a plain white dress and matching hat, was standing in an open-top Rolls Royce, waving and smiling at the crowd now gathered alongside the row of palm trees extending all the way from the school’s entrance gate to the playground. Moving slowly alongside were the most impressive motorcycles any of us had ever seen. As in a film, they were huge with roaring engines, enormous radio antennae and glitzy transparent protective shields. The sun was shining on the riders’ dark glasses and they looked like Hollywood stars in their leather jackets displaying the official emblem of the military police.

Mrs Feitosa broke our trance by telling us to enter the assembly hall and to climb onto the stage before the security staff allowed the grown-ups into the room. We were lucky because this was the best viewing spot. When the Queen entered, all chatter stopped and as silence filled the room, it was as though the power and aura of the British Empire had transformed the entire building into an outlandish place carrying the Kingdom’s importance and pomp. Prince Phillip followed behind the Queen and he stopped to chat with, of all people, my sister Sarah, who was standing amidst the section of the hall reserved for ex-students. Sarah was amazing: confident and polite.

The two students who had been chosen to take the leading roles in welcoming the Queen were English “thoroughbreds”, as everyone called that clique. Dressed in the style of traditional British aristocrats, the boy walked up to Her Majesty and in a chivalrous manner threw his  cape  across the floor, while the girl stood facing him. The girl then curtsied and the boy bowed, and when he rose he shouted out something or other that I did not catch. Whatever it was that he said, the Queen acknowledged her approval before turning towards my class.


Mrs Feitosa lifted her hand and we began to sing. Well-rehearsed as we were, much to everyone’s relief we sounded good. After the applause, there were presentations and speeches, the Queen spoke a bit, and at the end of the ceremony the school’s staff handed out royal teacups to the guests as presents. The festivities continued long after she left. If there ever was a golden day for the British community in Rio, this was it.

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Brazil and the future

ImageA country’s mission goes way beyond constructing stadiums and hosting mega international sporting events that move a lot of money but that have dubious benefits. A country’s mission is its statement, the way it can contribute to the progress of mankind. This sounds outdated in a world that honors dead leaders who said that “there is no such thing as society”, but is it really?

Out of all the big emerging countries, or B.R.I.C.S. members, Brazil stands out as a question mark, what is that country about? Is it just jumping in and out of the big stage, or is it there to stay? What will happen after the Olympics and the World Cup? Will the global recession hit it or not? Will the traditional corruption prevail or will the new way of thinking brought about by almost a decade of left-wing government guide its development?

With the possible exception of South Africa, differently from the other B.R.I.C.S. Brazil has no solid past to stand on. In many ways it is like a teenager among adults, which can be seen as a weakness but can also be seen as a big promise and a great strength. There is a fascinating civilizationary process going on there; a country is writing its history in front of our very eyes. Of course history is happening everywhere at every moment, but very few nations have such a wide range of choices as the Brazilians do.

Here we must separate current state from potential, there is a huge difference between what something is and what it can become, between. As any other nation under the influence of the western financial power, Brazil suffers from the mess. This has been the case since its foundation as a westernized country but politicians and thinkers in the highest echelons of the Brazilian establishment are aware of this and wish to walk away from this bad influence, like teenagers from dysfunctional homes who are aware that their “parents” are drunkards or drug addicts.

This is not a consensus, and is the source of the recent protests that swept the country. There are many who would happily go the easy way and allow the country to perpetuate a model that has been a source of easy profits for the richer and more powerful countries. This is what the B.R.I.C.S. boils down to; China, who has never fully digested western dominance, is leading the train but Brazil is an active member with the backing of several other Latin American countries.

Returning to the main subject, as we stated above, Brazil stands apart from its geopolitical allies not only in the physical map but also in the metal/cultural/spiritual one, and there where its potential statement and mission come in. Brazil’s melting pot is much more comprehensive and more effective than the one of its brother up north. There the mixture of African, European and indigenous didn’t and doesn’t happen. It may have happened on paper, they may have a black president, but in Brazil it has been happening for centuries in bedrooms and in maternity wards, more than eighty percent of its population does not belong to any specific race. There is no such thing as a Hispanic-Brazilian, a African-Brazilian, a Native-Brazilian or a Teutonic-Brazilian there are only human beings belonging to a population that is proud of residing in a beautiful country and of being part of a young and promising nation.

When we talk about promise we revert to two Brazilian thinkers that shone in the 20th Century: the world famous anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro and the tropicalist Jorge Mautner. Both point to the same direction: their country’s potential to accept all differences and to amalgamate them into something new and profoundly human. A place where happiness and peace are more important than wealth; the world’s promised land. Out of all the countries in the world Brazil has the potential of doing this and of setting an example.

With the big capitals of the west becoming more and more multi-racial and communication shortening the gaps between cultures and people we see mankind “Brazilifying” itself. We can only hope that Brazil finds its way to that special place and that it opens the gates to a brighter future for the entire mankind.

How the Samba Got Lost

ImageThe big question in our childhood in the seventies was, what will you be when you grow up? There was no doubt that whatever we chose as a career, no matter how far fetched the dream was, we were bound to make it big. We were the children of the country of the economic miracle, with two figure growth rates for consecutive years, three time world champion in football (or soccer). Brazil and the Brazilians were predestined to glory, this was a nation that had built its capital in the middle of nowhere and that was now constructing the Transamazonian highway which would open further opportunities for growth. The road towards development and wealth was unstoppable and the saying was that God was Brazilian.

I remember vividly a conversation with Marcio, a guy who would commit suicide five years later after several internments in mental institutions, where we discussed our future and had no doubt about the satisfaction of our kids of living in flats by the sea. As the bus passed a fun fair that had been constructed in Sao Conrado, night fell as our prophesies went from strength to strength.

As school started preparing us for university, and adulthood started showing itself up in the horizon, the economic conditions started changing and the unstoppable optimism was replaced by uneasiness and by a growing politization. This was the time of the “abertura”; the military were restoring civil freedoms, freeing political prisoners and allowing exiled politicians back into the country. The result was that the middle class shifted from raving about their future to indulging in an era of cultural enlightenment and personal flourishment.

The novelty of freedom and of open political discussions created what can be described as the “Brazilian spring”. As youngsters we were hit in full by this illusion and believed that our obligation was to question everything and to oppose any restriction to our rights and to other peoples rights. In the immediate spheres the greatest hurdle for our freedom were parents and the police and we took them on like puppies take on their owners.

Reality took some three or four years to bite in. These weren’t the sixties but by nineteen eighty three or four that dream by the Brazilian coast, of a free country with a free and sustainable future hosting suntanned and fulfilled citizens was over. The truth was that these golden years were provided by the military in order to create a smoke screen to cover up the economic disaster that was happening in the background.

Being a huge country with a politically naive population ruled by corrupt leaders who were protected by a military apparatus, Brazil was the perfect ground for economic hit men. These guys come representing big conglomerates with a case full of money and offer it to authorities in exchange for massive projects that benefit everyone except the population. These operations generate gigantic debts which are one of the most efficient ways for the money owners to suck in the riches created in the “real world”.

The results of this time bomb took by surprise an entire generation, and their parents too. Economic strife and personal hardship were not inscribed in the country’s DNA and until the mid eighties this was never in anyone’s radar. As the situation deteriorated so did the country’s mental health, crime and violence rocketed, cocaine abuse became endemic while the people and their government did not know how to deal with what was going on. The international community’s response could not have been worse, they sent in inspectors of the International Monetary Fund to tell the Brazilians that they had to undergo austerity measures to remedy the pains that their economic hitmen had caused.

This unexpected outcome of our formative years poisoned the air and affected personal relationships. People said sod it to who they were in order to climb out of the hole. Now they did not live for the dream anymore; they substituted that for pursuing the false promises that the system offered. A stamp of serfdom was put on their foreheads and the samba was lost.

It is sad to see this pattern happening again in countries that joined the European Union, and there is no doubt that the cycle has restarted in the Olympic and World Cup Brazil. Yes.. History repeats itself, and we ask until when will we allow people to steal our samba.

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