Florianopolis is a chilly California with graffiti. Located in the richest state in Brazil, Santa Catarina, it offers the best the country can, if you’re talking money. The German-descended here are like royalty in the rest of Brazil, their blonde hair and height translating to wealth and beauty. And it’s true; money drips from the cut of their jeans, the weight of their earrings, and the clack of their imported boots. It is a different Brazil entirely.
One of my first days I took a bus over a mountain to a beach called Santo Antonio. It was late afternoon, my favorite time of day, and I liked the way the sun glanced off the harbor’s boats, the cobblestoned streets, and the houses’ and shops’ clay roofs and bright facades. It was the first sunny day I’d seen after a weekend of rain, and it’s warmth despite the low temperature reminded me of being in college in Indiana. One year I had to take a class during the month of May, and my friends and I would lay in the cool, damp grass in tank tops and shorts to soak up every weak ray of sunlight we could, the sun our savior after another impossibly long winter. Back at Santo Antonio, a friend and I ate oysters and enjoyed the view until the sun dipped low in the sky, the wind came out, and it was time to go home.
At the end of the week I went to a party where I met a frat boy from the university I got my masters at. In the U.S., frat boys are the exact opposite of anything I would want to spend time with. Their polos, old man Dockers short shorts and boater shoes are enough to repulse, and that’s just the surface. This one was no exception, yet a frat boy in Brazil shifts perspective. We danced like Americans and could anticipate each others’ moves. I made stupid jokes and he could understand. I had a sense of humor again. We didn’t have to repeat ourselves. I sang a lyric of an American song, and he finished it without hesitation. I felt capable. I never thought I would say a frat boy was refreshing, but he was exactly that.
It’s become apparent to me this year how much personality affects the process of language-learning. I’ve seen my friends develop different skills with varying speeds, mirroring the English versions of themselves. The chatty ones have gotten fluent very quickly, but a broad vocabulary and grammatical correctness elude them until later. I’m on the other end of the spectrum, reading and watching dubbed Netflix more than making small talk, so I have a weirdly bookish and formal vocabulary with stunted fluency, which really isn’t that far off from how I am in English. My brand of language-learning gives others the impression that I’m one to choose my words carefully, as carefully as I probably should.
I saw an ex-lover in Florianopolis for the last time, unless the universe decides I should be punished. The last time I had contact with him he told me to fuck myself, called me a bitch, and blocked me on Facebook, the ultimate diss. His presence in Florianopolis was like a dark cloud. But then I saw him wearing a Pikachu sweatshirt complete with ears and heard he suggested manicures to my girl friend as an appropriate afternoon activity. I need to use more discretion about who I let insult me.
The other day, I read this quote in the book Reading Lolita in Tehran and was reminded of a conversation my mom and I had recently. “Azi, she would say, you are a grown-up lady now; act like one. Yet there was something in her tone that kept me young and fragile and obstinate, and still, when in memory I hear her voice, I know I never lived up to her expectations. I never did become the lady she tried to will me into being.”
In our conversation my mom was telling me something bad her friend had found out about her daughter, then made an offhanded comment saying she would rather believe her daughter was living the way she wanted her to than to know the truth. It makes me sad that I will never laugh with my mom about the freshly-manicured Pikachu boy or any other of life’s messy mishaps. I’ll continue with my “the weather’s great here”s and “I learned something really interesting”s and save the important stuff for my friends. It feels like a sort of mourning.
Florianopolis is my kind of Brazil. When living abroad, I’m not so much looking for difference as I am similarity, somewhere I can be comfortable making a home for myself. I find comfort in close beaches and easily-accessible eggs benedict with hash browns. But my friend was telling me about the boyfriend she has in Para, a state that’s more jungle than not, and I can’t deny the sense of adventure and exoticism that has. I picture the boyfriend lying around in a hammock that he made and strung between palm trees, smoking a joint, sweating, and weaving baskets out of palm fronds. I picture lazy days near murky rivers, strange fruit, mosquito nets, and feeling totally lost, in a good way. Florianopolis doesn’t offer a sense of exoticism, but a sense of home, which is infinitely more sustainable.