Monday, September 23, 2013

"Are You Single?"

So today I was set to polish up the second part of my blog post on what Brazilians think of British culture; but then I read a blog post that prompted me to delay doing that. The post in question was called ‘Wanna Have Sex On My Mattress?’ and it came courtesy of 'Rachel’s Rantings in Rio'.

The post describes a confrontation Rachel had with a horny homeless guy, one who rather charmingly invited her to spend some time on his mattress (Check it out here: http://rachelsrantings.com/?p=3411).

This account reminded me of a very interesting incident I’d experienced myself just a few weeks ago with a very forward Brazilian woman, and is something I'd like to share with you guys now!

I’m fully aware that the type of Brazilian woman I’m about to describe is rare here. In fact, women I've met generally don’t behave like this AT ALL, so the fact that one did totally caught me off guard. I’m sure you get this type of woman I’m about to describe all over the world, so it was just my luck to run into this one on a random, Thursday evening in Sao Paulo. She was definitely something else. Someone I'm sure her Brazilian sisters would NOT have approved of!

So let me set the scene for my rather surprising encounter:

I’d arrived at my student’s office a few minutes before our evening class, only to be told that he’d been called to an urgent meeting and had had to cancel. This meant I had the rest of the evening to myself, which I felt was a great opportunity to catch up on some of the Portuguese studying I’d been putting off.
Come on Portuguese, get in my head!

I can’t study at home, I don’t know why…but I just can’t. If I’m being honest I’m too easily distracted by my laptop and the lure of poking people on Facebook. So I decided to head to the nearest Starbucks and to study there, where I wouldn't be distracted…or at least, that was the plan.

After ordering my hot chocolate and bagging one of the sofa seats, I organized my books across the table and quickly got down to business. To my left I noticed a petite middle aged woman reading what looked (for her!) to be an over sized newspaper. Actually when I say noticed her, I mean I saw her out of the corner of my eye and carried on with what I was doing. She certainly didn't look strange enough to warrant a good look at.

Ten minutes later a guy came up to ask her for the time. As I looked up, I saw her folding up her paper and pushing her glasses down over the bridge of her nose, as if her answer depended on inspecting him properly.
“Sorry, I don’t know the time” she replied apologetically. She then threw her gaze over in my direction and as soon as we’d made eye contact, she repeated his question.

“It’s eight o’ clock” I told her, whilst also making sure to address this comment to this guy too.

“Eight o clock!” she repeated looking pretty taken aback. “Really, it’s eight o’ clock?”

After confirming that this really was the time and I wasn't lying, this guy thanked me and returned to his seat; having just set up what was to be a very memorable conversation between me and this woman.

“I can’t believe it’s eight o’ clock” she continued as she laughed to herself quite melodramatically, “I thought it was only seven! I'm so surprised!”

I smiled politely and returned to my books. I mean, I wasn't really up for engaging in a conversation with a woman who gets that excited about the time. Yet just moments after looking at my books I sensed she was still looking at me, and a quick look back in her direction confirmed I was correct.

"This stare makes you feel uncomfortable? Really?"
Her eyes were open pretty wide and were fixed on my face. She was looking quite attentively at me, yet curiously, she was in no way phased by the fact I’d noticed her staring.

“You’re not Brazilian, are you?” she enquired quite thoughtfully having taken off her glasses.

“No, I’m not. I’m from England”

 “Hmmmm” she said playfully whilst nibbling at the frame of her glasses.

“And are you single?” She asked me this quite assertively, only this time in English.

WHAAAAAAAAAAAT! I began to laugh. Who asks a total stranger that as their third question!?! I was genuinely surprised and my face did little to communicate otherwise, yet this only seemed to encourage her to continue.

“Well?” she repeated, reciprocating my laugh as if we were sharing a joke.

“Yes” I foolishly answered, “I’m single”.

“Me too” she hurriedly replied. From the expressive look on her face I sensed that she wanted me to be surprised.

I wasn't.

“Ask me why” she instructed.

“Erm…why?”

“Well” she said, now flicking her hair over her left shoulder as if she was on a modeling shoot. “I just don’t like Brazilian men, I prefer foreign men”.

After a few awkward seconds of her looking intently at me and me, well, with me looking anywhere but her face she eventually broke the silence. “And how long have you been in Brazil?”
"What? No, I always do this when I talk!"

“I’m a business woman” she continued, clearly forgetting she’d asked me a question just seconds before that would have given me the opportunity to talk. "I run a phone shop because people in Brazil LOVE talking on their phones”.

There were clearly no flies on this woman!

“Do you have a mobile phone?”

I’d not been asked this question since the late nineties, and without thinking I answered in the affirmative.

Then she nodded at me and whispered, “well...I have a phone too”.

She leaned into my desk to grab my pen and my Portuguese book. “I will give you my number” she said enthusiastically, perhaps believing she'd been too subtle up to this point. Seconds later she was scribbling her name and number in my jotter, next to the irregular verbs in Portuguese I’d been reviewing just a few minutes earlier. 

I really should have tried to stop the conversation from progressing long before she’d done this, but I was mesmorised by her. I couldn't quite believe how forward she was being, and a part of me wanted to see what else she was going to do to shock me.

Then as she put my book back on the table she took hold of my hand, which made it feel like what she was about to say next was going to be confidential. “Call me” she instructed; half speaking and half whispering.

The word “me” seemed to linger on her lips long after she’d said it, and again we sat in an awkward silence as I looked visibly stunned at her. 

If I’m being honest I was alarmed, curious and impressed with her brazenness all at the same time!
I then deemed it advisable to say my goodbyes and leave, and I managed to do so by feigning surprise as I checked my phone again. “Oh look, five past eight. I really should get going now. Well it was nice to meet you!”

"Hiya love!"
After trying to convince me to stay, she conceded that I really was going and got up to give me a hug. As I walked away from Starbucks I could feel her eyes staring into the back of me.

Was I flattered? Yes of course I was. Women tend to be on the receiving end of this sort of thing here in Brazil, but it doesn't really happen much to guys (well, at least not much outside of carnival).

Did I ever call her? Hell no! Beside the fact she looked like Noel Gallagher in a skirt with a bit of lippy on, she was clearly crazy. In fact, I’d go as far as to say she was probably just a minor head injury away from eating her own shit…but having said that, my encounter with her is certainly not one I’ll forget in a hurry!
 
Have you ever had an interesting experience with someone who has responded in a surprising way with you after discovering you are foreign? 

Monday, September 16, 2013

What Brazilians Actually Think of Brits

I thought it was about time for me to do something a little bit different with this blog post, and instead of giving my interpretation of Brazilian culture, I've instead decided to turn the tables and write a post on what Brazilians seem to think about British culture. If you’re British and think you can guess what Brazilians think about us, make yourself comfortable….because you might just be in for a bit of a surprise when you read this!

So over the years I have been asked some fairly predictable questions about what it’s like to be British, yet there have also been a fair few questions that have well and truly baffled me. So let me give you a run down on some of these right now, starting with how the Brazilians I've met respond to the one aspect of our culture that is undeniably British, our love of a good cup of tea.

Tea


“Oh look, it’s 5pm” one of my students once pointed out as our class was starting. As if to emphasise his
point he began tapping his finger on the face of his watch as he was saying this.

“Well yes, it is” I replied, after an awkward few seconds of wondering why the time was of such interest to him. I definitely wasn't late for class.

“Yea, 5 o' clock” he repeated enthusiastically. “It’s 5 o' clock”.

As soon as he said this he looked at his watch again, which also prompted me to look at it. Then I noticed him look back up at me, so I felt obliged to look at him in the hope he might elaborate on what he was saying. He didn't.

And when nothing more was said my eyes began to narrow, and I started to look at him suspiciously.

Perhaps sensing that this conversation was becoming a whole lot more awkward than it needed to be, he added “don’t you miss your country right now?”

I was confused by how I was supposed to answer this, but could see from the look in his eyes he was trying to encourage me to acknowledge something. I felt like an actor in a play who’d just forgotten my lines and was stood opposite someone willing me to remember them!

“Eeeerm” I began, “well I don’t miss it any more than I did five minutes ago. Why do you ask?”

I was baffled, and by the look on his face so was he; I could sense his enthusiasm was beginning to wane too. He then asked me quite hopefully, “well don’t people in England usually have a cup of tea in the UK at five o' clock?”

“Erm…no!”  I responded, wondering why in God’s name he thought this.

Well as it turns out, since this conversation I've actually been asked about this tea at 5 o' clock think on a number of occasions. I still have no idea where it has come from, but I know that many Brazilians believe it to be true. 

"It's five, drop everything already!!!"
Some people back home will enjoy a brew at 5pm, but it’s definitely not a tradition or a custom. People drink tea whenever they fancy a cup, which can be at any time of the day (especially whenever someone else offers to make it!)

Timing


Thinking about it now though, maybe this thing with the time has come from Brazilians assuming British people are incredibly punctual. “Oh Andrew, you’re so British!” said one of my friends as he arrived 15 minutes late at the bar we’d arranged to meet at. “I forgot you work on British time!”  

This quip was made with a mocking laugh and it did little to ease my annoyance, he knows I hate waiting. And I've even had a student walk into class ten minutes late and remark gleefully without even a hint of sarcasm, "oh look, I'm on time!"

No love, you're not!

But then over here Brazilians are notorious for working on a different concept of time. It’s as if they wear watches, but don’t seem to know how to read them…hence why they’re always late. And interestingly I've found that being punctual can be a great source of amusement for my Brazilian friends.

The first time I heard Brazilians talking about ‘British time’ I was quite surprised. Back home it’s the Germans we tend to associate with having great time keeping, not us Brits. So how we've got a bit of a reputation for being masters of punctuality I’m not quite sure.

Back to Tea Drinking


So I've already mentioned the question I've been asked about WHEN we drink tea, now let me tell you about another random question I was asked on HOW we drink it.

I was giving class in a student’s house one afternoon when right in the middle of our lesson my student’s mother knocked on the door. To my delight she came in holding a tray with not just a cup of Earl Gray tea on it, but also a plate of biscuits too. AMAZING! I did everything in my power not to bear hug the life out of this woman in appreciation. A brew was exactly what I needed at this moment.  

“Thank you so much” I said politely as I looked down at the generous treats on offer. However noticing that there was no milk in my tea I couldn't help but ask if it was OK for me to have a little to go with it.

My student’s mother only started to veil her surprise at my request midway through asking; “erm, so you would like some…some milk?”

She looked over at her daughter suspiciously, as if she might have been complicit in this sick ‘milk with tea’ joke.  “Would you like hot or cold milk in your tea?” she asked, clearly looking like she was stepping on new hosting ground with this question.

“Cold” I answered quite tenderly, before thinking how strange it is to see someone looking so bewildered at something that is so normal to me. After almost eight years as an expat, moments like this never grow old.  

But then if my student’s mother believed everything she’d heard about foreigners, she’d have probably expected me to have asked for hot milk. The reason I suspect this is because ‘hot’ is how many Brazilians assume I enjoy my beer. I've had many people ask me how I could possibly drink ‘hot’ beer when we’re in a bar; as if in the UK we stick a can of lager in the microwave to heat it up before drinking it.

But when a Brazilian talks about a ‘hot’ beer they’re talking about beer that isn't ice cold, which in a country as hot as Brazil is a bit of a necessity. But with the UK not getting too hot, ice cold beer isn't really as important. Whilst I’m on the subject of temperatures though I’ll tell you guys about another question I've been asked a lot recently, one related to the weather.

You’re Hot Then You’re Cold


So before I explain, let me tell you something you may or may not be aware of….Sao Paulo gets quite cold during the winter months. And when I say cold I’m talking about five or ten degrees. I’m sure this is being met with a few eye rolls right now from those reading in countries where it actually gets properly cold. Yet over here because the buildings are not prepared for Sao Paulo’s relatively short winter, this city can genuinely feel pretty cold at this time.

There seem to be no heating systems over here, no radiators, no nothing. In fact, despite living here for a few years now, every year I somehow manage to successfully block from my mind just how cold it gets.

Needless to say winter here in Sao Paulo is definitely not my favourite time of the year. Which I know will surprise a few Brazilians who assume I bloody love the cold.

“You must be used to this cold weather Andrew” many have told me, “because you’re British!”

And this really makes me question how tough they think my skin really is. I remember once (after being asked this question for the third time in the space of a morning) wondering if Brazilians actually think that during the summer I’m constantly sleeping in a huge freezer, because as a Brit genetically my body must need the cold! Well  true, I seem to be able to tolerate the cold better than some Brazilians do, but after three years here I’m not really ‘used to the cold’ of the UK anymore. And besides, there I survive the winter months by wearing a lot of clothes, sitting by radiators and drinking plenty of tea….I don’t survive it because my skin is like some sort of reptiles, the type of skin that gets off on the cold!

So I’ll wrap up part one of this post now. In part two, I’ll be discussing just what Brazilians seem to think about our Royal Family, crime, music, and our rather beautiful (cough!) British accent.


Are you an expat living abroad who has been asked some seemingly random questions about your own culture? Are you a Brit living in Brazil who can identify with some of these questions And can anybody shed some light on this five o clock tea drinking thing?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Haircut From Hell - The Sequel

About a year ago I wrote a blog post about an uncomfortable moment I had at my local barbers shop. Midway through having a haircut, my elderly barber distracted himself by asking me a load of questions (about being German, of all things!), and in doing so accidentally cut my ear open with his scissors.

Yea....it hurt! And the awkwardness that followed was definitely heightened by the fact that, at the time, my Portuguese skills were poor at best (The blog post on it is here: getting-by-in-brazilwithout-much.html), so I was unable to say to him what I really wanted to! Which on reflection, might not have been such a bad thing, because what I wanted to say wouldn't have been so plesant!


Well the incident I am about to describe wasn't nearly as painful, however it ended up being just as surprising. And again, it happened whilst I was sat in a barber’s chair.

So, let me take you back to a few weeks ago, when I walked into the barbers, only to be told by the receptionist that the guy who usually trims my barnet had moved on to pastures new. As I was being told this a rather strongly built, full bosomed woman popped her head up from behind the gossip magazine she was reading. Seeing the disappointed look on my face, she stood up up to vacate the chair her ample buttocks had been resting on, and announced quite firmly “well I’m free”.

Judging from the husk in her voice I was clearly very lucky to have caught her outside of one of her smoking breaks.

“Where are you from” she asked as she draped a gown over me.

“England” I responded. I'm pretty sure she didn't hear me though, what with her struggling to tame that pretty unruly cough she had going on. My answer prompted her to tell me that she was from the north of Brazil, why she came to Sao Paulo in the first place and also where she lives now. Then after exhausting that part of her life story she asked me; “And how long have you been here?”

“About three years” I responded, which then encouraged her to answer her own question and tell me about her family. I remember being amazed at how for the twenty minutes I was with her, she willingly divulged a whole load of stories about herself without the need to even be prompted.

About ten minutes into me being there though, she abruptly stopped talking at me and began contemplating the top of my head. At this point I'd already become accustomed to the sound of her relentless voice for a good ten minutes and so the unexpected silence that followed was actually a little unnerving.

My gaze moved from watching her cut my hair in the mirror, to fixing my eyes on her deadpan face.

“Well” she began, “there’s not much hair here, is there?”

She said this quite dryly, without so much as a flicker of humour attached to those words. For a few seconds I was genuinely lost for something to say.

“Sorry?”

I remember asking this more for the sake of saying something than for wanting to hear her repeat herself.

“I said", she responded, as if talking to a slow learning child, "not much hair on top, is there?”

Again I looked at her in surprise; I mean, what was I supposed to say to this!?! It clearly hadn't occurred to her that this was an inappropriate thing to be saying to me, a first time customer!

I mean, I know that my hair is not of a Rod Stewart thickness, but I really didn't expect someone who cuts hair for a living to be so surprised by what I've got going on up on top! And I certainly didn't appreciate someone wearing a green on green tracksuit talking down to me either!

Amused by her rudeness I began to laugh, and instead of her acknowledging me doing so she moved on from talking about my hair to herself again!

So as she continued with her story I started to wonder if I should be offended, or respect her for being so direct. I saw in her face that she clearly hadn't intended to cause any offense though; she was just saying it how she saw it. A little bit like a Brazilian Simon Cowell.

Although having been on the receiving end of his bluntness before, in comparison…well, this woman was definitely something else!
"Nope, never had that problem Andrew!"

The next day, when I mentioned this incident to my students they looked quite surprised. Yet as soon as I told them that this woman was from the north of Brazil, their faces brightened, as if what I'd just told them suddenly all made all the sense in the world.

“Brazilians from the north are quite different to those in the south” said one of my students. “Here in Sao Paulo people are always rushing around, and this is generally reflected in the way people interact with each other here. They're not so friendly in comparison. People in the north are a lot more open though, they have more time to talk and they also have more time to give advice. I guess that they are more personal with each other”.

'Personal', I remember thinking....well that is definitely one word to describe this woman who cut my hair!

And this got me thinking...in the time I've been here and attempted to get my head around Brazilian culture, I've often overlooked the fact that this culture extends MUCH further north than Sao Paulo and Rio. I am in no doubt that my barber's bluntness in no way reflects how everyone living in the north behaves (or even thinks about hair!) but I'm now quite curious to take another trip north to see if these people really are so different to their southern counterparts. I have one student from the north who is one of the politest people I've ever met, and he definitely doesn't adhere to this generalisation. But now I'm very curious to see if there is any element of truth to what my students told me....even if this means I'm going to feel more comfortable visiting the north of Brazil with a huge hair piece on!

What do you think? Are the people living in the north of Brazil all that different to those living in the south?