Leaving Rio

So much has happened in the past couple months that I would like to commit to writing that I’ve been putting it off, feeling overwhelmed by all of the emotions and events and decisions. But, I have a fresh, American-sized cup of coffee by my side and I’m sitting in a public-yet-comfortable chair, so I guess now is as good a time as any to try.

After two months short of two school years in Brazil, I have left for good. Three days ago I said an exasperated and overripe goodbye to Rio and all things Brazilian, and I’ve been basking in an American glow ever since. I got off the plane in Miami, ate a bagel and drank an unsweetened peach iced tea, and let out a figurative sigh. It’s refreshing to be home, as ultimately unsatisfying as this place is, for the brief time I have here before I head out again.

In a week, I will be flying to Madrid, Spain to work as an English teacher in a high school [insert cringe]. I think my students will be more like junior high age, rather than mature, heading to college age, which is intimidating, to say the least, and immensely stressful, to say the most. This is the price I pay to live abroad. However, it will be refreshing to knock about Europe again, especially with one of my oldest friends, who will be living with me there.

For the moment, I’m hardly thinking about what my life will consist of starting a week from now. I’m still too overwhelmed and content with all things home. A place where IHOP and Panera exist in abundance, where I can see my parents and sister whenever I want, where the desolate farmers’ fields and small-town, cheap shops just seem charming and familiar.

>>>>>

Onto the end of my time in Brazil, so I can close this bulging and expired chapter of my life. The month of August was a month of highs and lows. I went to a work conference in Sao Paulo that worked me in the art of caring less and letting go. It’s unfortunate to have to be calloused when naturally inclined to be anything but, but it’s a necessary skill to have, a muscle I flexed liberally that week.

The following week I went to Iguacu Falls for another conference, and my mood was immediately lifted. I spent it with a few good friends I’ve made this year. We made the most of our time there, sightseeing in a rushed and planned way I normally don’t like to do. We visited both the Brazilian and Argentine side of the falls, the movie Up in my head. The falls were grand, obviously, but also jungle-y, unlike oft-compared Niagara Falls. Coatis descended upon us, grabbing at our granola bars and bags. I got 11 chigger bites, a fiery, intense brand of itch I’ve never felt before and hope to never feel again.

We also visited Paraguay for a day, the India-like Ciudad del Este. I was struck by how different each country was that we visited during that trip, though they all share a border. Ciudad del Este reminded me of the movie Elysium. It was the dusty, crumbly, dangerous L.A. of that movie, the mall there being the celestial Elysium where only the rich lived. We walked around the mall for a while, ate overpriced hamburgers, sprayed French perfume on ourselves, and bought Jack and Goldschlager. Outside, it looked like a place you might have been able to buy organs on the black market, alongside chickens and knockoff Nike socks.

After returning from Iguacu Falls, I made a mental list of the things I wanted to do before leaving Brazil for good. I don’t plan on going back soon, if ever, so I had to make it count. I had been wanting to do stand up paddle boarding for the entire year, always envious of those carefree enough to paddle far into the ocean with only a board to support them, the water lapping over their feet. I have this irrational fear of the ocean. I want to be one of those people, but it’s just not in me. I will never not worry enough about sharks or jellyfish or barracuda or dolphins (yes, they can maim you too) or big fish to swim freely into the unknown. But, my last full day in Rio, I pulled up my big girl pants and did it. It was liberating and terrifying, and after a half an hour I started to think I was crazy, so I went back in, but I was proud anyway.

I had been wanting to climb one of the many climbable mountains in Rio, so a friend of mine and I finally did. We took a bus to the start of Vidigal, the favela at the base of the mountains Dois Irmaos, which overlook Ipanema beach. We took mototaxis up to the start of the trail at the top of the favela. We climbed through a person’s backyard and scrambled over a cement balance beam in order to reach the trail proper. I stopped on the balance beam for a breath and noticed a girl staring at me from the roof of her house. I waved, and she stared back, frozen and mean. The trail was embarrassingly tiring for someone as out of shape as me, but even with plentiful breaks, it only took about an hour and a half to reach the summit. The view of the Lagoa, Ipanema, and the Atlantic was stunning. We laid on the rocks, sweating and dehydrated, enjoying the view. The hikers next to us were eating pineapple that I had an animal craving for. On the way down, we had to slide on our hands and feet down parts of the trail that were slickest and steepest. We laughed nervously, feeling childish, like we were just caught playing in the mud. We jumped in the ocean afterward, and with our remaining funds split a beer on the beach.

I also visited a Salvador Dali exhibit at a cultural center in downtown Rio. Dali is one of my favorite artists, so it was a pleasure to spend some time with his work before my flight home. The center was full of public high schoolers on field trips, and I vacillated between hating them for being loud and irreverent, and being happy they were there at all to be exposed to such beautiful things. My favorite pieces there were Surrealist Composition with Invisible Figures and Memory of the Child-Woman, both dream-like and scary.

>>>>>

I ran into my building’s doorman as I headed out on my way to the airport. I had one enormous, broken suitcase, another smaller suitcase, and a backpack weighed down with textbooks. So, I was struggling. My doorman is this tiny person with a terrible attention span from the northeast of Brazil. He’s very friendly, and may also have an inappropriate crush on my French roommate, but that’s beside the point. I told him I was leaving, looking for a taxi, and without hesitation he grabbed my heaviest bag, the one he could easily fit into, and started rolling it down the street to a bigger street with more taxis passing. I followed him, yet again surprised by the generosity and friendliness I encountered every time I was starting to hate Brazil the most. Hauling those bags around in 95 degree weather had caused me to have a hate flare-up. I waved down a taxi, and he talked to the driver for me, something I’m still grateful for, even though I speak Portuguese. We loaded my bags into the car, and I was off, too tired to even look around one last time.

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July: Curitiba, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, Valparaiso

Never have I needed Xanax more. As a consequence of spending money like I’m Paris Hilton on the trip I went on in July, I’ve had to scramble to pick up as many tutoring jobs as possible in order to get out of the red. Has anyone every told you how fucking miserable it is to tutor anything? I must be a masochist, because I’ve been doing it for longer than anything, but it raises my blood pressure and dries my mouth out and exhausts me. Explaining what a noun is for hours to a grown adult and have her, in the end, tell you ‘to be’ is a noun, is a small sort of hell on earth.

But I believe it’s worth it. One of the goals I had this year in coming back to live in Brazil was to see other parts of South America, since last year I traveled exclusively through Brazil. The sole morale-boosting event in the doldrums of June was planning this trip. Two friends and I were to meet up in Curitiba, Brazil, the home of one of them in the south of Brazil, then travel together to Buenos Aires, Argentina, Montevideo, Uruguay, and Santiago and Valparaiso, Chile.

We came together and acted like overly sheltered kids during their first week of college. We started by drinking.

They drank too much. I drank too much. I had a hangover for 11 days in a row. Curitiba passed in 12-hour cycles: 12 hours inebriated, 12 hours recovering. We blurred at clubs, ate street hot dogs with two dogs in one bun and overflowing with chicken, we spilled them in cabs and ground chicken into the floor with our shoes. We slept on mattresses on the floor and couches that smelled of dog. A cigarette was always lit and someone was always coughing. We ate sushi and drank champagne for breakfast. We twerked on walls and played beer pong in bedrooms. The neighbors complained. We puked in strange toilets. We flew to Argentina.

I didn’t know much about Buenos Aires before landing there. I had flashbacks of both Sao Paulo in its enormity, height, and grit, and Rio in its colonial architecture. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that though I speak jumbled and slow Portunhol, people almost always understood me. I liked that there were so many bookstores and no lanchonetes. The girls wore thick-soled shoes and the men had nice faces. I drank the water and woke up at 4am, sweating and water poisoned. We stayed in a hostel with lice in the beds and overflowing toilets. A Chinese lady did all of our laundry for $12. We ate the most luxurious Armenian meal and I felt fully happy in that moment, under a haze of champagne and full of lamb and Greek yogurt.

We paused our time in Buenos Aires to take a 2-day trip to Montevideo. We went there by overnight boat, where we gorged ourselves on American make up and whiskey from duty free and where I promptly lost my debit card and only source of cash. I ate 4am McDonalds in the Montevideo bus station, my amount of upset increasing as my buzz faded.

Montevideo is a sleepy capital. Granted, we were there in their winter, but I liked that quality of it. It felt almost as if something apocalyptic had happened there. It also felt safe, which was a nice change after living in and visiting almost exclusively big, gritty cities for the past 6 months. There was something nostalgic about it, the wintery water, space, and flat landscape reminding me of where I grew up near Chicago. Even the outdated, sleepy hostel we stayed in reminded me of vacations to Michigan as a child, sleeping in dark wood bunk beds with heavy, plaid blankets.

Chile was my favorite. I came down with some sort of illness that I have no doubt was directly related to my inundated organs, so the drinking all but stopped and the vibe of the trip changed. The boys and I booked a 3-person room in Valparaiso, pushed the biggest bed against the wall, piled all the blankets on it and watched American movies dubbed into Spanish while we sipped wine. We had an odd, sibling-like fight involving biting and stabbing by bread. The power went out and we slept huddled there, covered in bread crumbs and blankets.

Valparaiso is a hilly, seaside town. We ate lunch one day in a restaurant at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. We climbed the cobblestoned streets and got out of breath. Street dogs sometimes scared us. A cat chased a dog out of a thin opening onto the sidewalk, and we followed where they’d come from down a dirt path a woman insisted was a road. We lingered in a brewery and were grateful for good beer. We decided to stay an extra night.

We finished out the trip in Santiago, a place with room to breathe. I was relieved. Pisco sours and ceviche abounded. We cooked dinner a couple of the nights. It was refreshing and relaxing to make something together. We accidentally did a wonderful thing and booked our last night in an apartment. We ate the best ice cream and fell asleep on a big, white, fluffy bed while watching Avatar. We woke in the middle of the night to return to Curitiba.

Returning to Brazil was harder than expected. Our flights were delayed, causing stress and other delays. We ate a depressingly expensive and tasteless dinner in a Brazilian airport and washed it down with piss water beer. Despite two of us speaking better Portuguese than Spanish, people had trouble understanding us. Compared to other South American capitals, Brazil’s didn’t match up. Having this new knowledge made me that much more loath to return to Rio.

A few days after coming back I worked a full day tutoring. I left at the end of the day to pouring rain. I’d forgotten my umbrella. I ran to the crosswalk to catch the bus, already soaked. I had to wait for a few minutes in the rain for the light to change. I hated everything. A woman dashed up to me and covered us with her umbrella. The light changed and we ran across the street.

I’ve gained a nationality: how I got Italian citizenship

Getting my Italian citizenship was a bitch. I couldn’t have done most of it without my dad, who tirelessly ran around Chicago fetching marriage licenses and death certificates for me while I was rotting away in Brazil.
I had a hard time finding information online about how to actually attain citizenship successfully, and the consulate website is thoroughly useless, so I thought I’d give a rundown of the process.

First of all, I had to find out if I was eligible. I am, because my grandfather was an Italian citizen when my father was born. If he hadn’t have been, I wouldn’t be eligible. If my grandmother was the one in my family who had Italian citizenship instead, I wouldn’t be eligible, because she was born before 1948. You can only claim citizenship through the maternal line if she was born after 1948. Bullshit, but better than not at all.

Next, I had to request new copies of all birth certificates in the blood line. That meant getting my Italian grandpa’s Italian birth certificate, which seemed difficult until a little-heard from Italian great uncle came into the picture and saved the day by sending it my way faster than I thought possible. It was the first birth certificate I received.

I then had to send out requests for the long form of the birth certificates of my dad (the son of my Italian grandpa), my mom, and my grandma. I also had to get my grandpa’s death certificate and marriage certificates for my parents and grandparents. There were spelling discrepancies in both my grandma and grandpa’s names. I got nervous after reading horror stories online of people who were never able to attain citizenship because of spelling differences between their name and their ancestor’s.

I then had to get all official documents apostilled by the states from which they were issued. An apostille is just a waste of a document verifying the actual document, which is already stamped and signed by all the appropriately official people.

From my grandma I got my grandpa’s U.S. naturalization document and old Italian passport. The passport wasn’t required, but I used it to prove that he did indeed spell his last name two different ways, as he did on one of the pages of his passport. I guess he was feeling creative.

Finally, the last step before being able to show these documents at the consulate was to get some of the documents translated into Italian, namely my and my dad’s birth certificates, my parents’ and grandparents’ marriage licenses, and my grandpa’s death certificate. My grandpa’s birth certificate was already in Italian and they didn’t need translations of the women’s birth certificates.

There were also a few forms I needed to print and fill out before going to the consulate. They were all available online. One was the application for Italian citizenship, another had to be signed by my dad saying he had never renounced his right to citizenship, and on the third I had to list all of the places I’ve lived in the past 10 years. Not an easy task.

I had emailed the Italian consulate whose jurisdiction I fall under to make an appointment months before. I had also called them. And called them again. There is a window of exactly two hours a few days a week when you can call to make an appointment at this particular consulate. My guess is that phone attached to that phone number is manned only half of that time, so it’s like playing Russian roulette trying to get a hold of someone. Once I did, a very short, brash woman told me I had to take the next appointment available, which was four months from then, when I would still be in Brazil and nowhere near Detroit. I had to call back months later to make the appointment. Still a four-month wait, luckily. I had a three-month window when I could have gone, so I had to time it right, and I did. I needed to send her a copy of my driver’s license, then I made the appointment for January 29th.

I was at the consulate for a surprisingly short amount of time. No one was there. I waited in the lobby for 15 minutes, then the very same short, brash woman I had been dealing with fairly inefficiently for months breezed in and took my stack of meticulously attained and organized documents. She started licking her fingers and flipping through them and throwing them into two messy piles. Luckily, I had Brazil to thank for teaching me how to deal with ridiculous bureaucracy and less than helpful attitudes, so I was ready to handle this notorious woman. I only spoke when spoken to. I answered in one-word grunts. I didn’t smile. I tried to listen to what she was telling her co-worker in Italian about the spelling discrepancy in my grandpa’s last name. Already knowing Portuguese enabled me to understand about 1.5 words. From what I gathered, it didn’t sound good.

She said as much in English, then said I would be hearing from the consulate. I asked when. She didn’t know. I left.

In May I emailed the consulate again, asking about the status of my citizenship application. They mentioned the spelling discrepancy and said they’d get back to me.

In June, I was wine drunk in Curitiba, eating pizza and getting molested by a dog, when I got an email saying I had been approved for Italian citizenship. They’re going to send an official certificate or something in the mail, I think.

The next and final step is to apply for my passport. I have to wait a few months to do it because apparently Italy doesn’t put all the new citizens’ information in for a while. Either way, it’s done. It was a two-year process, from getting the first document to becoming a citizen, and I’m relieved to finally and successfully be through with it.

(how an) INTJ travels

A year and a half ago, before I left for Brazil the first time, I had a boyfriend who didn’t get it. We had been arguing about me leaving, and after a particularly horrendous backpack shopping trip, he said, ‘Why do you like to live abroad? You don’t even like people.’

He was right about me not liking people, but not about the correlation between having a desire to travel and wanting to socialize. I’m an INTJ, which, for those of you non-MBTI-savvy people who have happened to stumble across this blog, means Introverted, Intuiting, Thinking, and Judging. It means crowds stress me out, as do repetitive music and loud people. It means I hate small talk and learning about things I have absolutely no interest in. It means adrenaline rushes are not for me and that trying new things is almost always scary. But it’s this last reason that motivates me to live abroad.

Something I’m noticeably bad at is living in the moment. This deficiency has helped me not get pregnant, overdose on drugs, or get a tattoo of a Chinese character on my ass, but it can also make me live completely in the future, a place that will never match reality. The future becomes the present, which is usually more disappointing than the future I had planned out. In the U.S. I have books full of lists and a routine that allows for over-planning. While abroad, I don’t. I have unexpected opportunities to do strange things with questionable people and I take them. I wander around and try to figure out another culture and language. It’s a challenge just to go to the grocery store or post office, and it makes me stop and notice in a way I wouldn’t at home. It’s annoying and new and uncomfortable and interesting. It wakes me up.

I felt guilty about this viewpoint at last year’s work orientation. Everyone was so bubbly and excited to learn how to dance forro and play samba and make so many new Brazilian friends while researching social inequality in the favelas or whatever. I was excited to drink caipirinhas on the beach and take things in stride, which, though I tried, I failed miserably at (but succeeded stupendously at drinking caipirinhas on the beach). I felt bad for not being enthralled with Brazilian culture. But then I realized I’m not enthralled with any culture, or really anything, except for about three people and books and kissing and the history of obscure languages. And that makes me a crotchety old hermit, but that’s ok. I’m allowed to live anywhere I want without a pat answer for why I wanted to live there.

When people ask why I chose to come to Brazil I say because I love Portuguese, which I do. I can see on people’s faces that this often isn’t enough of an answer for them, but it is for me. I’ve crafted a life here that I like. It includes starting a book club, attending a History of Portuguese class, and watching foreign movies at my neighborhood theater. I go to Starbucks and read. I speak Portuguese with other foreigners more than I do with Brazilians. I drink as much as I want and sleep in as late as I want on the weekends. I go to the beach and meditate and listen to music and people-watch. I stop to listen to violin players on the street playing Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat Major. I eat too much fried cheese on a stick. I travel around with reckless friends. We talk about sad things, smart things, stupid things; we laugh. It may be different than what others think it should be, but it’s enough for me.

I’m most of the way to spinster cat lady

It’s far too easy to let others determine your worth.

As my ruined relationships pile up and the list of those that I consider healthy versus those I consider ugly tips in favor of the latter, my poisonous instinct is to blame myself, wonder what’s wrong with me that I can’t keep those I want around.

I’ve made this mistake again recently. I could regale you with tales of our recent travels, the beautiful things we saw together, the things we learned in museums and read on buses, the general joy of traveling with someone you like, but none of those things are what stick in my mind. I think of the maniacal hope I let grow in me unchecked, and how expectations truly do choke out happiness. But that knowledge doesn’t stop them from growing.

I’m not old, but I’m old enough to be fucking exhausted by failed relationships. What doesn’t kill you makes you more bitter, calloused, and distrusting. Whenever I get excited about somebody new, I always think that I’ll sooner or later regret that elated feeling, because every positive feeling must eventually have its negative counterpart, and that it’s just a matter of time. I will never love as purely and stupidly as I did at 18, which sounds fairly emo, but is fairly true. Though I used to scoff at it, I’m slowly recognizing the merits of staying with your first love.

So I keep telling myself the girl-power mantras that I don’t really believe: you deserve more, he wasn’t right for you, you’re awesome, you just haven’t met the right person, just relax and have fun. I roll my eyes and go out, dance with strangers, drink too much; I play beer pong in my international apartment like I’m ten years younger than I really am, giggling and taking shots and generally looking like the poster child of a fun study abroad billboard.

And afterward, I smoke too many cigarettes and ponder too many things as I sit alone on my balcony, the fetid smoke curling through my neighbors’ windows. I keep coming back to how hard it is to make true connections with others, and how I hate myself for hoping when I do.

 

 

 

stress, the future, and inaction in Rio

In reading the book Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, I’ve been considering the course of my life, and all the possibilities contained within it. This is a particularly present thought because I recently passed the Foreign Service Officer test (your level of surprise couldn’t come close to mine) and completed the next stage of the application, the narrative essays. I thought a lot about the choices and subsequent decisions I’ve made so far as an adult in order to answer the essay questions. Nine years an official adult and I feel I’ve accomplished so little. I’m often told my life appears full of intrigue and adventure, when really I spend a lot of time living a mundane life, just in a country not my own.

This essay-writing deadline couldn’t have come at a worse time. When it rains, it pours, and all that. In the same week that my essays were due (and still unstarted), I had an altercation with my heavily-medicated landlord/housemate about her mentally unhinged live-in Norwegian boyfriend to whom she was simultaneously playing hospice nurse and lover. I moved out both because she suddenly became hostile and because of her boyfriend’s three-hour morning and night OCD shower ritual. In the ten days I lived there, I never saw his face. He hid from me and became agitated if I was anywhere within a 15-foot radius of him, which is hard to avoid in an apartment in the city.

Luckily, I found a new apartment, but when it came time to pay rent, my debit card wasn’t working at the ATM. I called my bank, only to be told that they had canceled my card without telling me because I had used it at a suspicious bank’s ATM. I told them that if I had to avoid all suspicious ATMs in Brazil, I would never be able to take out any money. They canceled it anyway.

My final stress was the requisite four trips to the federal police to register my foreignness in their system. I have now wasted days of my life there. After taking an expensive cab to reach this far-flung branch, I was informed that I had forgotten a vital document, and that I would have to return home to get it. I told my friend who was with me that I would kill myself. The federal police pushes normally mentally healthy adults to suicidal thoughts. I went home and returned with the document, only to be told that how they spelled my dad’s first name on my registration card last year was incorrect, so I would have to go to some bureaucratic building downtown to get my dad’s first name spelled incorrectly in the same way on my visa application for this year. I returned the next day to wait aimlessly for hours while they ‘worked on’ my application. I only got helped after continually going up to one of the worker’s desks to remind him that I was there, still waiting. I now have a shitty piece of paper as proof of all that effort.

Onto more positive things. I’m back in Brazil, registered, housed, and working. Orientation this year was even crazier and more tiring than orientation last year, but less of an overall shock to the system. I made three lovely insta-friends, which was a pleasant surprise at the least and a lifesaver at most.

My hunt for apartments coincided with Carnaval, so I was regularly crunched between grown men dressed like women and chickens and slutty Native Americans while riding the metro to the viewings. One portly apartment owner answered the door in her boyshort cotton underwear holding a  miniature chihuahua while her nine-year-old followed us through their dirty apartment, mountains of garbage piled against the walls. To view another apartment, I climbed to the border of a favela, then rode a rickety elevator up an apartment that looked more like a prison than a normal place of residency. The landlady opened the door to a man stirring a pot of rice. At first glance I thought he was mildly cute, then I realized I had hooked up with him last year during a birthday visit to Rio. I decided that wasn’t the right apartment for me.

Relationships between men and women here have been annoying me a lot again. I went to buy birth control at the pharmacy the other day, and the greasy, 20-something pharmacist smirked when I asked if they had a buy three get one free discount, like they do at some other pharmacies. “No, we don’t have anything like that. But for you, I’ll give a discount.” Wink.

I like going to the beach and watching the people. There’s inevitably a girl playing the weakly resisting victim of an ocean dunking by her flavor of the week. There’s screaming involved, some laughing, a little bit of cute kicking, nothing enough to hurt anyone. I guess I’ve never been a very good girl. It seems like so much effort. I was at a pool party once when I was about 15; a different time and place, but boys never change. They grabbed me to throw me in the pool and I let them. No screaming, no resisting-without-resisting, so it just became this awkward silent carrying until we reached the poolside. I would have jumped in anyway, so why fight it? That was the last time they did that. I’ve been realizing lately just how much my personality is defined by inaction, and I wonder if it’s a bad thing, but I don’t care enough to try to change it.

just when I thought I couldn’t get any sexier: adult braces and double jaw surgery

I had braces like any normal, American teen. After an especially painful three years filled with three expanders, chains, and a minor gum surgery, I told my orthodontist to take them off, because I was dismayed by the slow progress and wanted nice senior pictures. He acquiesced, and I was dazzled by my new smile, the first time in high school that I’d seen my teeth brace-free. My dazzlement was quickly dampened when I realized that my teeth didn’t touch in the front. By a lot.

BLTs from Subway, my sandwich of choice, had become a pain in the ass to eat. My misaligned teeth ripped them apart like a butter knife cutting a loaf of soft bread. My teeth were great pizza de-cheesers. One time, while eating dinner with a good friend, he told me there’s something different about the way I talk. Not quite a lisp, but like I’m trying harder to say the same sounds everyone else does. I lived like this for six years, then I went to a dentist in Rhode Island to get some cavities filled. She was the first person to tell me I needed to get braces put back on in preparation for eventual jaw surgery.

I was in total denial. Flabbergasted by her extreme suggestion, I took her warnings of tooth decay and jaw pain with an enormous grain of salt. It was upsetting to hear, but I thought she just wanted the money another round of braces would provide her.

Then my jaw started to hurt. It’s been a gradual process, but the way my jaw and teeth are aligned means my mouth is never properly closed, meaning it feels as if I’m constantly holding my jaw open. The joints ache, the pain creeping down my neck translating into constant severe muscle tension. The roundness to my teen face narrowed out, defining my cheek bones and the decided lack of a chin. That something was skeletally wrong with the way my jaw was set became more obvious.

I let how much all this bothered me build and build, until I went to an orthodontic consultation the other day, five years after seeing that dentist in Rhode Island and still thinking something as benign as Invisalign could fix it all. The orthodontist started by saying that I’m a beautiful girl and that there’s nothing wrong with the way I look, BUT. He said the moment he looked at the pictures the technician had taken of my teeth, he could tell I was a surgery referral. He explained that I not only had an open bite, but also an overbite and a cross bite. He pulled up the picture of my profile, something I normally die a little looking at, and pointed out in glaring detail the skeletal malformation of the lower half of my face. It’s strange to have someone talk about your face as if it’s a work of art, something to be critiqued and molded, scrapped and conjectured about.

I walked out of the orthodontist’s office, determined to carry out the professional persona I had cultivated while in there. I was crying before I hit my car, the loud, racking, dramatic sobs of a rom com protagonist when she gets dumped. It takes the news that I have to have my face pulled apart to get me in that many pieces. I called my very oldest friend and one of the only people I’ll cry around. Her sympathetic murmurs were comforting, but it’s a very lonely feeling to know that you have to pass through something that you alone can do, and that no one around you can help you shoulder the burden.

When I was 13, I loved watching graphic videos of surgeries. I was interested in anatomy, and wondered how they put people back together when they were broken. I could normally watch any surgery with a steely gaze, but a few turned my stomach, namely anything involving the face. One day I tuned in mid-surgery and had to waffle my fingers over my eyes. I watched as the surgeons completely disconnected the upper jaw from the rest of the patient’s face with a bone saw, then plucked the patient’s wisdom teeth out FROM ABOVE, something that still chills me to think about. They joked about how that’s not how it’s normally done, in case any viewers were scheduled for the following week. I remember thinking she must have been in some horribly disfiguring car accident that they would have to deconstruct her face so severely. It looked like it had been flipped inside out, then run through a meat grinder. Turns out, they were doing the exact surgery I would find out I needed 14 years later. I could throw up.

I have options: I could do nothing, live with this increasing pain and tension for the rest of my life and just deal with the consequences. I could get adult braces, an enormous blow to my nearing-30-year-old vanity, in an attempt to improve my bite. But the only thing that would fix it completely is surgery. That brings up questions of where and when and insurance. I leave for Brazil in four days, so none of this would proceed before that. But after that? It’s hard to plan for something this involved and long-term when my life, by choice, is so ephemeral in its certainty. I have no idea where I’ll be in a year, but it most certainly won’t be anywhere near my parents. Who will take care of me when the time eventually comes? Maybe I’ll try to snag a husband just to drive me to appointments and blend my food and pick the dried blood out of my nose. I’m worried I’ll throw up with my teeth banded shut. I’m worried the swelling will be so severe that I won’t be able to breathe. I’m worried the screws will fail and that my top jaw will come undone and fall out. This is a very unfortunate thing to happen to a hypochondriacal wuss with anxiety issues.

I’ll try my best to not ruminate on this as I embark for Brazil. I’ll enjoy my year as my jaw pain intensifies. When I look in the mirror, I’ll see a work of art that still needs a lot of work, a future surgical palate (no pun intended). I’ll cry, I’ll be at peace with it, I’ll cry some more. I’ll imagine kissing no one while in braces. I’ll wallow and be strong, hoping the cycle spends more time at the latter.

a death and the scope of a life

My last remaining grandpa has died. We weren’t very close; in fact, I mentioned being annoyed by him in my last post. I’ve seen him a couple times in the past several years, and there was always a mental, “Ugh, time to go say ‘hi’ to grandpa,” with an immediate twinge of guilt, followed by a roll of disgust as I smelled his 70 years of cigarette smoke and took in what that does to your skin from close-up.

But anybody’s death makes you think of the scope of a life and the brevity of mortality. His was no different. Wakes are usually an even more stressful event than a party for my introvert self, especially because there was no alcohol. I’m expected to sport the proper grieving visage as I accept near-strangers’ and actual strangers’ condolences all day long. The only people this is more awkward for is the strangers who are giving it.

My idea of a good ‘goodbye’ is none at all. I prefer to slip out of a party unnoticed or move to another country after a breakup. I would love it if I never attended another funeral in my life. Death is inevitable, but the fanfare surrounding it, in my opinion, is not.

I told my mom that if I die before she does, I want her to cremate me or donate my body to science. She was horrified by the idea. I just think the first is more economical–there’s no need to pick out a casket, pay for it, or find a place to bury the body I’m no longer using. The second would help future doctors hone their skills. I waver on the second option though, because the idea of medical students joking about my naked, dead body, a normal thing in light of the weight of such a job, makes me kind of sad.

Despite my feelings of dread surrounding wakes, this one showed me the importance of roots. I have made it my career to never grow roots, living in ten different places in the past ten years. And I’ve liked it that way: no one to truly miss, it’s guaranteed physical and emotional independence, which I thrive on. But I crawled out of my introvert troll mentality and talked to the near-strangers, and was appreciative of what they showed me.

I jumped in on a conversation my mom was having with a couple of these strangers. I heard the man say his last name, the name of a boy I went to school with who I heard had died of cancer a few years ago. I asked if they were related, and he said he was his son. I told him that his son and I had gone to high school together, that he was fun, that I was surprised to hear he had died so young. Miniscule things, but the truth. His dad told me how important it was to him to hear things about his son, that people had thought well of him, hadn’t forgotten about him. He told me that he had been in a terrible car accident a couple years before he died, that he was told he would never walk again. He worked for years to be able to walk again, only to die of cancer. He said he was still working through why God would allow that to happen to someone, that he would probably never would. I agreed.

I talked to a lot of old people who were family friends of my grandpa. I didn’t have a clue who they were, but they all asked if I was my sister, said they remembered me as a baby or a 7-year-old, that one summer we went to that lake with those families. I talked to the grandmother of the man my mom wants to hook me up with. Apparently we got along great when we were in kindergarten. Despite how annoying it is to be hooked up, it is refreshing to be remembered as a child. Most of the people in my daily life haven’t even known me for a year. It was comforting to be part of this big web of people, some I didn’t even know of, but who knew of me. It took a wake to bring to my mind just how intricately our lives are laced together. As I think about leaving for Brazil again in a week, it’s nice to be reminded that I come from somewhere, that I am part of this web.

My cousin told me that her children had been in the room with my grandpa when he died. I at first thought that for her sheltered kids, that was probably traumatizing. But she said she took them to the hospital at their insistence, even though she knew he was doing poorly. They fluttered around him, their little girl breath in his ear, talking about angels and heaven and gold and little girl things, and he died. I think that must have been a nice way to go.

if there were an antonym of homesickness, I’d write it here

If feels wonderful to be back in the U.S., but it’s getting old being in Indiana. If I didn’t have family here, I would make a point of ignoring Indiana and all the states surrounding it forever and ever, Amen.

I have never been a Midwestern girl. I’m tired of seeing old high school non-friends in Target and feigning interest in their depressing lives. I’m tired of seeing so much white-trash camouflage and jacked up trucks. I’m tired of being asked what church I go to. And I’m tired, as I was in high school, of the Dutch Reformed reigning as the only Protestant domination considered real Christianity by the non-thinking, ultra-conservative Dutch living here. I’m sick of so many blue eyes, but I do like the height.

My home accent has become grating and silly-sounding to my ears after 10 years away, yet I hear myself slipping back into it just for the fuck of it. This two-month interim between teaching jobs is a blessing and a curse, enough time to enjoy family and friends and ensure that I will not want to be here for another nine. On Christmas, the grandpa I see once every few years asked not how I was, but where my man was. When I said I didn’t want one, he told me that he’d have to take me into the next room for a long talk. I wasn’t sure on what level to be offended, but I gather he’s aghast that I wouldn’t have a man to play submissive wife to by the ripe old age of 27. What else would a woman be doing?

As grateful as I am for my parents and their generosity in letting me stay in their house for two months, I’m feeling their slight contempt at my existing here. The other day, my mom and I had this conversation as I loaded dishes.

“The dishwasher is running so much more now that you’re here.”

“Well, I am one more person eating off of dishes.”

“Several times a day.”

Would she rather I not?

Tonight is New Year’s Eve, my favorite holiday, and the best I could come up with is to hang out with a friend at a bar, which I’ll take. I don’t like to drive in snowstorms after drinking, both of which will be occurring tonight, but I’ve been told I’m “not allowed” to sleep at my friend’s house per her mother, so I will be taking that risk. I’m assuming my banishment is the cause of me typing “wtf” on her daughter’s Facebook wall three years ago (really). Old, meddlesome motherfuckers, get off Facebook and out of your grown children’s shit. Damn it.

I’m tired of living my life in my car. I make all private phone calls (so, all phone calls) and listen to all that music with those nasty curse words I want to in there. I am 16 again. I drive just to get out. My house is so quiet it hurts, and the smallest of secrets is a burden to bury. I would love to let go tonight, shrug off worries, make out with strangers, roll around in glitter, and reminisce about another year of life, which is what New Year’s is all about. But I have a feeling it might have to wait til 2015. Or at least until my first night in Rio.

 

reentry

My last days in Brazil crawled by in a characteristically Brazilian way. I worked, I sweated, I counted the days.

I got a massage that would, in my mind, help work out some of the year-old knots that had accumulated along my shoulder blades as a sort of you-made-it prize. Instead, I was told to take my clothes off in a fluorescently-lit room in front of two women. I did, and lay face-up on a glorified hospital gurney while a woman lightly rubbed lotion on 95% of my body, including my stomach and ass. My boobs were spared, thank God. She played relaxing music through her iPhone, which kept on beeping because she was receiving text messages, which she would then take a brief interlude to check. It was physically tiring keeping myself from laughing. I’d say it was still worth the 18 dollars.

What kept me going at the end was the English conversation group I held weekly. It was through these internally-motivated, bookish nerds that I felt true kinship with Brazilians for the first time since I had arrived in February. We’d all stay hours after the official conversation hour had ended, talking about plots and lyrics and thinking critically about Brazilian culture and its future. One of their grandmothers made a delicious brigadeiro cake for my surprise farewell party. I’m truly grateful for these people, and will have to remind myself when I move to Rio to seek their kind out, and not to get discouraged if I don’t find them right away. They don’t like to be the center of attention, but they become the center of my attention once I find them.

During the last meeting we had, I put a pile of books in the middle of the table. I told them they could take any they wanted, because they were too heavy to take back with me. They looked at me incredulously, swiped at them, voraciously read their backs, traded for others. They were ecstatic to receive them, because books are so expensive in Brazil. They told me of a man who had been sitting out in the main hallway of the university selling his own book collection for cheap because he was dying. They had bought them all up. I regretted not having more to give them.

And so I left. The weeks of counting down finally turned into days, which have all already passed. Every day I count down the days like that I am ignoring the present and counting down towards death. I think I hate that most about myself. My life is a series of counting down towards other, more promising things that eventually become the less promising present, replaced by some other sparkling future.

There is not one thing I miss about Brazil, and so my reentry couldn’t be easier. Everything right now is perfect: my family, my new nephew, all my favorite food, Thanksgiving, Target. It takes going away to appreciate what you had without trying, what you’ve always had. My hometown looks like District 12 and camouflage made a love child, but right now, I’m ok with that. I just hope that I’ll be ready to go back to Brazil in two months. It almost seems foolish, like I’m trying food for the second time that I’ve already tried and know I don’t like that much. But Brazil is a big place, and I’m willing to be swayed.

 

7 things Brazil does better than the U.S.

After living here for more than nine months, I’ve had my fair share of frustrations. But, as in all things, there have been pleasant surprises along the way. Here are a few things Brazil does better than the U.S., adding to my list of things I’ll miss when I leave.

1. Starting light, Tums. Yeah, those tablets you chew when you have heartburn or indigestion. It’s as if you’ve picked up a piece of chalk from your grade school blackboard and chomped on it. Just thinking about the sensation between my teeth makes me cringe. Here they have Eno, a powder you dissolve into water and drink. Think Alkaseltzer, only it tastes like pineapples or guarana. And it’s so much more effective; you’re back to new in just a few minutes, whereas with Tums, a 50% improvement is a good thing. Free advertisement, Eno. You’re welcome.

2. Sweets. Brigadeiro, goiabada, passoca, pamonha, pe de moleke, fresh, sweet juices. Just to name a few. I didn’t even have a sweet tooth, but I’ve grown one here.

3. Today I saw the new Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire, a week before it comes out in the U.S. But that’s not even the best part. I saw it in the VIP movie theater. These are a staple in malls all over Brazil. There’s a regular theater, but that’s merely plebeian for those of high society who are willing to pay a couple dollars more for the same movie. In exchange for those two dollars, they get to sit in leather reclining chairs (ok, let’s get real, probably pleather) and not wait in a long line for popcorn or beer, as they have their own food counter. The most important part of all this is that they don’t have to deal with the loud, cheap shitheads who normally flock to the theater on a Friday night. As their unavoidable chatter and mid-movie phone calls are a particular pet peeve of mine, I will never go to a regular theater again. Thank you, Brazilian classism.

4. I had health insurance before leaving the U.S. to work in Brazil, but even so, it didn’t cover all the vaccinations my company recommended. I chose not to get the yellow fever or hepatitis B vaccines because of their high price tags. I went to a public health center here and got them for free, no questions asked about my insurance or country or origin, no forms to fill out.

5. Brazilians are better at not doing anything. I get that American work itch; I go on vacation, enjoy the first day or two, then I get the urge to be productive, do something of worth, and going to the beach and not thinking about anything are not cutting it. Then I mentally flog myself for that illogical thought after looking forward to this vacation for months. I hate myself for never just living in the moment. Brazilians know how to do that, and it’s a trait I hope to pick up.

6. Speaking of the beach, Brazilians know how to love their bodies more. Or if their sentiments don’t quite reach love, at least they’re proud to wear whatever they decide to the beach. Which is usually a thong for women and something slightly larger than a speedo for men, regardless of age, body type, or weight. There are 80-year-old whales of women wearing thongs on the beach, and I love it. It makes me want to stop sucking my stomach in, go order another caipirinha, and people watch.

7. Finally, Brazilians know how to have more realistic professional relationships. I work at a university with professors, and students call them all by their first names. They get drinks with them. They friend them on Facebook. Some may call it unprofessional, but I like having an atmosphere where I can be myself and students respect me for who I am, not for the cold, professional front I put up because it’s expected by my superiors. It’s a cessation of a mental and emotional stomach-sucking-in, and it makes my life a little bit more comfortable.

winding down

This week I found out that I will be placed in Rio de Janeiro next year to do some more teaching, along with some supervisory stuff. I’m already picturing myself on the beach, acai in one hand and a pineapple caipirinha in the other.

In waiting the three weeks that turned into seven to find that out, I’ve been thinking back on my year in Rio Preto. I only have 20 days left, and yes, I am counting down, but I’m not dreading making it through the rest of my time here. It’s only a tactic to measure the time. I was asked recently why I’ve chosen to stay another year after what has seemed like a less than stellar year in Brazil already. And it’s true. First semester was a bust. I traveled at every opportunity and subsequently ran myself ragged to escape a life I didn’t like. I felt lonely and disconnected. I felt let down by a lot of people and things. I still feel that way sometimes.

But second semester has been a reprieve in a lot of ways. I’ve filled into the shape of the life carved out for me here. I’m used to the silence and long stretches of free time. I’ve filled it with Portuguese study and paper writing. I’ve had time to read books; so many books. I’ve had the time to put good effort into what I do, and not do things half-assed. I’ve come to cherish the interminable sunshine and my office hours spent with a cafe com leite and a brigadeiro. I look forward to chatting with my students during our conversation hours about American Horror Story and boyfriends and parties and the hum of daily life.  I’ve grasped onto the few Brazilians I’ve found to be genuinely interesting, insightful, and intelligent. They, along with a few good American friends here, are my lifeline.

On more negative days I look back on how I’ve chosen to live these past nine months, and I regret certain things. On other days I see it could have been no other way.

I spent this past weekend in Sao Paulo and was reminded that brief moments of happiness are in the transient, if only one looks. I watched a red convertible ride down Avenida Paulista with Santa in the front seat, waving at pedestrians. A woman drinking coffee next to me cleaned up her area, then politely smiled and excused herself before leaving. A tiny, glasses-wearing girl friend moshed with all the sweating men in black at a club decorated like a carnival. I ate a Mexican dinner with a mishmash of acquaintances and it was all a beautiful thing.

So yes, I’ve gained all of the normal, important skills. Greater self-reliance and awareness of my surroundings, how to communicate in Portuguese, how to get my way in another country, how to ignore the bullshit. But the small things are the ones I will hold closest.

bus people

This post isn’t about a trip, but rather something that’s occurred on almost every one of my trips: bus rides.

Bus rides in Brazil, at least in my part of Brazil, are fairly painless logistically. The bus shows up more or less on time, it’s more or less clean, and you eventually show up where you intended. It’s the people that add the element of unpredictability.

This post was inspired by my last bus trip, a three-hour ride from Araraquara, Sao Paulo to my hometown. The man next to me was snorting every 10 to 15 seconds, as if he were having an awfully difficult time trying to hock up a snot ball. There was a woman yelling on the phone in front of me as if it were some new contraption she wasn’t sure how to use. There was a two-year-old blabbering for every second of those three hours. But that wasn’t what got my attention.

What did was a man sitting across the aisle from me, clipping his fingernails.

He was old, and using one of those tools nail technicians use to cut off your cuticles when you get a manicure. His nails were thickened into gnarled yellow bone stubs. As I was staring at him, one of his larger clippings flew up into the air and hit the woman in front of him. She looked around, confused. He continued clipping. He then pulled out a nail file, his nail dust floating around the bus, being breathed in by the rest of us. His pinky finger sported a coke nail, or as I was told by a friend, a nail to pick his nose with. I’d like to think it’s a multipurpose tool.

Twice now on the way to Sao Paulo I’ve come dangerously close to being puked on. The first was by a little girl across the aisle from me. She was sleeping on her mom’s shoulder when suddenly a stream of chunky vomit gently fell out of her mouth and landed all over the seat, floor, her mom, and the unsuspecting victim sitting next to them. The mom and daughter left the bus at the next stop, leaving her enormous pile of puke on the seat and the bus smelling of stomach bile and hot dogs. The second was a not-so-little boy sitting on his mom’s lap next to me. He said the same phrase for 4 hours of the bus ride, and then started crying. I took that as a bad sign, but his mother apparently did not, until he projectile vomited all over them.

Another bus favorite happened on a local bus in Belem. It was packed full, and my friend and I were fortunate enough to have seats. She had the aisle, and a fat woman kept pushing her fupa into her shoulder. We thought the woman herself was being pushed, or that it was an accident in some way, but she just kept on forcing her gunkum into my friend’s personal space, and my friend kept on moving over, and in this way the woman conquered much of the space in and around my friend’s face.

I’ve heard stories of robberies and shootings on buses, but I’ve been fortunately enough to never experience anything dangerous. It’s usually just a lot of sweaty fat pushed against me until I arrive at my destination. Not even comparable to the horror of riding Greyhound, where you run the risk of being decapitated and eaten. Cheers, Brazil; you win.

top 12 things I never thought I would miss about the U.S.

Top 12 things I never thought I would miss about the U.S.:

1. Starbucks. Really just the cafe culture, independent of the brand. The pure joy of sitting in a busy place and not being required to talk to anyone while drinking something delicious and reading a good book. I miss using that as my thinking time.

2. Businesses being open during lunch time hours (except for the Columbia, SC post office–I never did understand that one).

3. American dancing. No, we’re not sluts, we’re just Americans.

4. American approach in a bar. Putting someone in a choke-hold and saying ‘give me a kiss’ from four inches away is reasonable cause to get you face slapped off in the U.S., and I like that.

5. American lack of touching. I like meeting someone new and having no part of their body touch mine, and then us saying goodbye and the same thing happening, which is to say, nothing.

6. Not being friend-requested by hundreds of people I don’t know. You’re the cousin of someone I accidentally bumped into on the bus? You one time passed me toilet paper under the bathroom stall when mine was out? I sat next to your mom on a flight from Salvador? Sure, please friend-request me, I’d like for you to know lots of personal details about my life.

7. Lawn mowers. People here burn fields down like I imagine my ancestors did. No wait, I think even they cut down grass with a machete or something.

8. Garbage disposals. I don’t ever want to touch mushed up pieces of wet food again. Call me prissy, fine, but it’s disgusting.

9. On-line banking. Need to pay your rent? Get in line at the bank, pay, get a receipt, scan that and send it to your landlord. Need to pay your electric bill, get more credit on your phone, and take cash out? Get in the 10-person line at the ATM and wait for everyone else to attend to their monthly banking before you.

10. Being rich isn’t that big of a deal. Lots of people are rich in the U.S.; I don’t happen to be one of those people, since I’m $60,000 in debt, but I’m not impressed by those who are. In my experience in Brazil, the class system is still very much alive. Insanely expensive gadgets are must-haves in order to impress your peers. The more money you have, the more you stand out and the more people are impressed by you, which is very important. Maybe some play by these rigid class rules in the U.S., but when I think of someone who would I think of old-moneyed people like in the Great Gatsby. Not real people.

11. Being blonde isn’t that big of a deal. Blondes, it seems, are more common than not, at least at the 75% Dutch high school I went to and at the University of South Carolina, where I went for grad school and where blonde bimbos reign supreme. I also happen to be blonde, so I fit in in the U.S. Here, on the other hand, unless I’m in the far south of Brazil, I stand out like a sore, 6 foot tall, blonde thumb. It’s tiring.

12. Everyday things being simple. Sending something at the post office, getting from point A to point B in my car, getting a cell phone working, having easy access to the internet, ordering food, going grocery shopping, finding an apartment. When I first arrived here, these things turned from simple, slightly irritating errands to stress-inducing, all day events.

I’ve gotten used to the Brazilian way, and the act of merely living has gotten less stressful, but these past eight months have made me crave home; not in a homesick way, exactly, but I miss doing things I’m used to. Six more weeks and I’ll have that opportunity again. I already have my Target shopping list made up.

top 12 things I’ll miss about Brazil

Top 12 things I’ll miss about Brazil:

1. Rio de Janeiro. Best beaches I’ve ever been to. I relaxed there for the first time in a long time.

2. Getting to wear a thong in public and no one cares.

3. Getting to wear leggings as pants and no one questions your sense of fashion.

4. Fresh mango juice. Fresh pineapple and mint juice.

5. Pao de queijo.

6. Brigadeiro with chocolate sprinkles.

7. Acai na tigela. With granola. And honey.

8. The relaxed culture. The only one who has expectations for me is me. My perfectionism has been challenged here, which I think is only healthy.

9. Places staying open past closing time without complaints. They technically close at 11 and you wander up wanting beer at 11:15? No problem.

10. Being an American is generally a good thing here. Something I can’t say for many other countries, where we’re seen on a spectrum from neutral to hatred. It’s nice not to have a negative stereotype stamped onto you the moment you meet somebody.

11. It’s an easy place to be a language-learner. Your Portuguese is always good, even when it’s bad, and almost everyone is willing  to try to understand you, even though you may sound like a retarded toddler.

12. It’s easy to make fast friends. I have less positive things to say about the depth of many people I’ve met, but Brazilians sure do know how to be friendly with strangers. It’s easy to show up in a place and have people to go out with within a week, and as a foreigner, that’s invaluable and appreciated.

Florianopolis, the opposite of exotic

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.

adaptability, high school, and shoulder-biting strangers: Sao Paulo and Rio

The past few weeks have been a rush. I fit a trip to Sao Paulo, birthday trip to Rio, and a conference at my work in in that time span. I’m tired, but feeling happier than I’ve felt in a while.

Sao Paulo was Sao Paulo: a wonderful rush. There’s never a lack of things to do there, as in any big city. Of all the cities in Brazil, Sao Paulo fits me best. I feel like I belong there. I ate Mexican food with Americans and Brazilians, went to a gay bar full of shirtless men, and drank over-priced caipirinhas. I went on a weird double date thing that ended in 5am roadside hot dogs and an awkward make out session.

Rio was tiring. Beautiful, as always, but I was there for my birthday while a bunch of my friends were in town for Rock in Rio, so I spent every minute of every day doing something, and drinking heavily while doing it. I got to eat macaroni and cheese, go to posto 9, and get threatened by the white trash Brazilian roommates of the friend I was staying with. I met some Europeans, which is always refreshing in this near cultured-less wasteland. I met the most bizarre Canadian on my birthday, and despite the fact that he was odd and not even nice, we had the most wonderful sexual chemistry that started with him biting my shoulder in public in the middle of a conversation.  He might have been a ginger; I couldn’t tell because his bandana wasn’t see-through. He looked like the kind of gringo you’d find in India, someone who had been traveling for years and was forgetting Western ways. I also got called a burglar by a wasted black Chilean. All in all, not a bad 27th.

I returned to Rio Preto just in time for my body to shut down/me to spontaneously give way too many seminar presentations. Is there any other way to give presentations in Brazil? But I got to present powerpoints with a cute raspy cheerleader voice, so it was all worth it. I also got to end the week by bumping into some French people at a bar, then going to a water park with them that weekend. The constant Rio Preto sun plus the water park hot springs is as close to heaven as I’m going to get here.

Onto some thoughts. I’m feeling content here. I’ve got a routine, I like where I’ve moved, and I have enough acquaintances that it distracts me from not having a close friend.

I have been thinking about that phenomenon here: Rio Preto is a city of acquaintances, mostly because of what people look for in friends here. A friend is somebody to do things with, like ride bikes or climb a mountain or play games. A friend is someone who is also entertaining: whoever can be the funniest or most ridiculous wins the most friends. So basically, it’s a lot like high school. Intelligence or good conversation is not part of the equation. Now, I’m not particularly adept at the latter, but I’m certainly better at it than the former.

As my time here dwindles (two months to go), I’ve been thinking about what it will be like to return home. I try to remember life with dryers, dishwashers, and snow. Reliable internet connection, punctuality, and people who have known me for more than eight months. I imagine myself rolling in a pile of my freshly dried clothes, thinking about how wonderful can be. I imagine sitting at Starbucks for as long as I want, drinking coffee because it’s cold, not just because I like the taste. I imagine screaming in my car just because I can. I imagine the joy of having someone bump into me and say ‘excuse me’, thereby acknowledging that I exist. I walk through altogether too many places here thinking I must be invisible, for surely people wouldn’t assault me with such gusto without a glance if they could see me.

My first thought is that I’ll do all of these things and rejoice while doing them, savoring the familiarity and downright American-ness. But I know that I’ll get back, and in that setting all of these things will just seem normal, and life will go on as if I’d never left. I’ll still think the fat, ignorant, country people of my parents’ town are annoying. I’ll still honk too much at bad drivers. I’ll still get impatient waiting for the dry cycle to complete before going to bed. I’ll still not like unloading the dishwasher. Humans’ ability to adapt to whatever environment they’re placed in is both a gift and a curse.

Brasília

Before I left for Brazil, my mom gave me a necklace with an inscription on the back that reads, “The journey has just begun.” I wear it when I’m overwhelmed by whatever dilemma I’ve found myself in to remind me that this is just the beginning, of everything. In six months, a year, five years, my memory of this latest stress will be long gone, and even my memory of this time and place will begin to fade, so absorb it while it’s here, because nothing is permanent. While I was in Brasília, I felt that sentiment without having to wear the necklace.

Brasília looks like an inhabited Mars. It looks like aliens came to Earth, tried to pass for Brazilians, and built their city in this manner. They didn’t do a very good job.

Let me start over. I love Brasilia, when not many I know do. I love it because of its vibrant red dust, prickly bushes, and flat landscape reminiscent of Arizona, my favorite state. I love it because it’s nothing like the Brazil I know, so it’s like meeting an interesting stranger. I love it for its space and sterility and organization. I find comfort in all of these things. You can feel that important things happen here. The majority of people wear suits and have badges, and I imagine they have jobs they can’t fully tell me about.

I didn’t feel unsafe in the streets at night. I could let my guard down, which I didn’t even know I had up. People don’t honk their horns; the traffic just slides by on the extra-wide roads, eerily silent. Brasília is known for its architecture, which is bizarre and ultra-modern. Other buildings were shiny black and intimidating-looking, in stark contrast to the graffiti-covered white concrete variety that’s the norm here. The dry, warm air makes you want to be outside, drinking a glass of wine on one of those sparkly rooftops with stilettos on.

In the 1950s Brasília was planned, then built in under four years, a feat I now consider even more impressive after getting to know the laid-back attitude of Brazilian culture. Picturing imported workers rushing to build a utopian city in the middle of the desert gives me chills. It’s like a science fiction book.

Personally, the week I spent there flew by and sent my mind into planning mode. The trip was with my job and was the marker of more than half our time here in Brazil, the majority of our work already accomplished. The opportunity to stay another year was offered. I have dreams about doing it, or not. But I feel a tug back toward Europe, and I feel a trip through Southeast Asia.

All I know is I’m not ready to go home yet.

July, Part 3: Maceió, Alagoas

“Never be so focused on what you’re looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find.”

This is from the book State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett, which I read voraciously during my week in Maceió. It was a week of giving up. I could say letting go, as that sounds more optimistic, but I’m a pessimist so I’ll go with the former.

Before coming to Brazil and during my first semester here, I had so many goals. I wanted to make a best Brazilian friend, learn Portuguese quickly and expertly, make myself at home in my city. I wanted a sexy moreno Brazilian boyfriend to teach me the words for parts of the body and show me Brazil through the eyes of a native, where life comes so much more easily.

None of these things had happened by July, and all that unhappiness followed by all that meditation and reading led me to one conclusion: I was bringing it upon myself by having unrealistic goals and standards for how people should be. This isn’t my home. People aren’t on time or even very reliable. Men lie shamelessly here. People make promises they never intend to keep. People are louder and step on your feet and stand in front of you without apologizing or moving. So I can fight it and be annoyed the rest of my year here, or just give up and accept it as an unideal reality.

Alongside this new revelation, I felt myself slipping into bohemian life while in Maceió, a lifestyle I always found alluring and very, very far from anything I would ever be. The beach was a daily destination, my skin growing dark and my hair light, dreading from lack of conditioner and caring. I didn’t know what day it was. The skin under my bracelets suddenly looked ghostly. I washed my underwear in the shower and wore dirty clothes for days and didn’t care. I thought after a month of travel I’d be exhausted by week four, but it only showed me that I was made for the beach. I made a mental pact to live on a beach in the future, no matter what it takes, but wondered if it would then lose its appeal. Maybe everything great in this world is only great because of its rarity, and therefore un-attainability.

On a tip from a Maceió-residing friend, my American friend and I watched the tide tables and headed out to the natural pools. These are clear, shallow pools formed by a sandbar two kilometers from shore. A man took us out there on a raft, the green ocean water lapping at our feet. We docked in a line of identical rafts and waded out to the sandbar. Children were playing, vendors were selling seafood, men were getting drunk. I bought a beer, then another, and my empty stomach plus the sun was a recipe for the lovely haze that came over me. We were told to avoid the ocean side of the sandbar, so we watched the waves crash against the coral, enticed by the danger. We did cartwheels and drank rum out of pineapples until, suddenly, our feet were underwater. I looked up and couldn’t see land, only waves crashing in what could’ve been 5 or 500 feet of water. I imagined what would happen if I got stranded out here, left behind by a negligent raft captain. I thought about sharks and jellyfish. I wondered if my atrophied arms could carry me back 2 kilometers against the current. I waited for the panic to set in, but it didn’t. I just headed calmly back to the raft we came in on, reveling in the warm pools as long as I could.

My last night in Maceió I found myself surrounded by Brazilian teenagers in our hostel lobby. Personal space was not a thing. My arms were touching them on either side, girlfriends were sitting on boyfriends, the temperature in the room was rising and all of them were laughing raucously at what seemed to be the funniest thing ever to happen in the history of the modern world, but was really just The Simpsons. I breathed in their soap-scented innocence and waited for the irritation that never came.

 

 

 

July, Part 2: Olinda, Pernambuco

The second leg of my journey led me to the northeast of the country, where I met up with my old high school friend who flew down from the states. Rio was a whirlwind and Olinda was the calm after the storm. I was left to pick up the pieces of my partied-out body and unsettled mind.

Every night before I went to bed in our quiet hostel, I would meditate. My mind quieted. I thought through some things. I prepared myself for the new semester and new experiences. I let go. I began reading a book that turned my mind toward Asia. I let that idea grow. I think I’ll go to Laos. Thailand too. Maybe India, if I’m feeling brave. I started studying Portuguese again, both on my own and in a class. I conjugated verbs and had entire mental conversations with myself over the macaroni and cheese my friend brought from the US. Never has such cheap food tasted so delicious. I sat, ate, and watched the palm trees swaying violently in the tropical storms, the deluge flooding the kitchen.

We found a cafe in the historic area of the city. Cobblestone paths and colorful houses led the way. It was if we had been teleported to a safe place, a place with water trickling over polished stones and a manicured lawn surrounding the square stepping stones leading to tables that were topped in paintings and flanked by heavy wooden chairs. It was an oasis, a reprieve from having to constantly be on my guard outside in metropolitan Recife.

As blondes, my friend and I drew more attention than we anticipated. A friendly bunch of old men stopped their dominoes game to ask if we needed directions, thinking we could be nothing but not from there. The cacophony of truck honks and sexual comments and unabashed stares was deafening. To be the object of desire in Brazil only requires that you be less than 80 and not obese, and even those criteria are muddy.

Ignoring these cries for attention, we walked up and down the beach, passing waves crashing on rocks, hippies selling their wares, and dozens of stray kittens eating an old cat lady’s food. It looked like vomit and it must have contained ketamine, because they just lethargically stared as we passed mere inches from them. Men smoked meat in shacks on strips of sand while fat women in thongs sweated on red plastic chairs. Men fished in the same water kids played in. Signs warned us to beware of sharks. I swam anyway, quickly and cowardly, on the same day a girl was killed by a shark five kilometers up the beach. I watched the video, watched the water bloom red and her being carried up the beach, leg turned into shreds of flesh, foot dangling.

One day we went to a beautiful and odd museum full of unlabeled old statues, armor, and nude paintings. There was an exhibit there about the Dutch in Brazil in the 1600s. What bravery, a bunch of blonde heads in a sea of palm trees and Indians, sweating as they tried to make a life for themselves. I found it eerie to imagine being in that exact spot 400 years ago. Without the buildings, it’s all just jungle, as easy to get lost in as the sea. While perusing the exhibit I saw a beautiful 18-year-old with the body of a varsity basketball player and shamelessly eye fucked him when his parents weren’t looking. He asked me for my facebook and the magic was lost.

We went to a street party one night, traditional music playing out of speakers set in a paint-chipped windowsill, people getting drunk off of cheap whiskey and light beer. People teetered in the cobblestone cracks while a crazy man harassed people and an old, toothless lady dressed in her Sunday best danced in the street for coins. A man breathed fire 15 feet into the air and walked on a cable suspended above our heads. We ooed and ahhed like a good audience while he hammed it up, pretending to fall. A girl puked while standing next to me and it splashed on my feet. An old ponytailed hippie from Iowa smelled flammable and started telling me how beautiful I was without makeup. I chatted with a guy with a google eye and kissed a stranger.