Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Encounter With An Angry Brazilian Football Fan

On the 16th December 2012 Corinthians beat Chelsea in the Club World Cup Final. It was a great game….or so I was told. You see, with the game kicking off on in Brazil on a Sunday morning at about 7am, there was absolutely no chance I was ever going to get up to watch it! As anyone who knows me will attest, I’m not much of a football fan. I'll happily watch big international games but I’ll only really go to watch club football in the bar to be sociable.

And, well, there is nothing sociable about a game that kicks off at seven in the morning!

Nevertheless, there was no escaping the noise of fireworks pounding against the morning sky as I attempted to sleep through the match (For more on fireworks going off during football matches, click here!). Enjoying my lie in was quite challenging, but I take my sleep very seriously and was definitely not to be deterred by the noise. At 10am when I eventually surfaced I checked the internet and discovered Corinthians had won, which I was pleased about because I knew how much the game had meant to a lot of my students who were avid supporters of the club.

So just after midday, myself and my housemate went over to Avenida Paulista for some lunch. As we ascended the subway escalators onto street above, we saw that hoards of cars were waving Corinthian football flags out of their windows. They'd won the game around three hours earlier, yet it was difficult to imagine that their enthusiasm for the win was waning at all. Horns were going ten to the dozen and the pavement was awash with people wearing Corinthian shirts, acknowledging each other with unrelenting grins and appreciative nods. I’d go as far as to say there was a real carnival atmosphere down here, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the midst of it all. I knew there would be people celebrating on Avenida Paulista, but I hadn't anticipated on seeing so many out to mark the occasion.

With the Sunday market we’d planned to eat at now in view, and my belly groaning at the sight of it, my friend and I attempted to cross the road. However we’d not been fortunate with our timing and only managed to get halfway across; so with cars passing both in front and behind us we waited for the lights to change on the little pedestrian walkway. I noticed that the cars were in no hurry to drive down this avenue, for many this was the place they’d come to complete several victory laps with other supporters. 

I can’t remember what me and my friend were talking about as we stood there waiting, probably how hungry we were or how passionate the Corinthian fans looked, but what happened before we even stepped off that small strip of pavement startled us.

Just as the lights were about to change to red, a car slowed to a stop in front of us. The driver (who had his elbow resting out of his window) was sporting a Corinthians shirt and had an arm full of tattoos, the type that look great on Beckham or that guy from Prison Break…but not really on anyone else.

“Oi, gringo!” he shouted over at me with a huge grin on his face. “Where are you from?”

I was a little surprised to have had my foreigner status identified so easily, but I smiled and instinctively answered “England”.

This prompted the woman in the passenger seat to crane her neck down from where she was sat to take a good look at me. She looked pretty rough with her hair scraped back into a harsh ponytail, but as we made eye contact she flashed me a warm smile, one I reciprocated.

“England?” asked the driver quietly as he continued to look at me. I noticed that the smile had long faded from his face and he was now looking sharply into my eyes. Then he looked down at his steering wheel thoughtfully. He was totally absorbed in what I’d just said. For a few seconds I was stood looking at this guy in silence, unsure of what he was thinking. 

Then he looked back up at me, and as if the link had just occurred to him, he half whispered and half said "Chelsea". There was a look of absolute disdain dominating his face. 

Then from nowhere he punched his horn, the sound of which made me jump a little. He looked at me again, this time more venomously and the woman in the car started screaming something at him.

“CHELSEA” he repeated aggressively, punching his horn for a second time, “CHELSEA?”

I looked over at my friend who then looked back at me and it was clear we were thinking the same;


“He’s not from Chelsea” argued my friend; “he’s from near Scotland”. I could almost see the panic in my friends eyes, we both sensed that the ticking time bomb sitting before us was about to go off. The driver began to shout something I couldn't quite catch to the woman in his car. She was shouting something back at him. I’d be surprised if either heard what the other was saying. Then he looked back at me and roared through gritted teeth;


With about ten cars now waiting behind this guy, I withdrew my gaze in time to notice that the lights at the pedestrian crossing had just changed to green.

They couldn't have changed a second too soon either because just as we stepped off the pavement and onto the road, the guy’s car door flew open and he hurled himself out of it. I was about halfway across the road when I turned back and saw that he was stood by his car door, fists level with his shoulders, screaming something at me in Portuguese that I didn't understand.

It was obvious from his body language that I didn't need to understand what he'd just said, he clearly wanted a fight.

Well I didn't, and there was absolutely no way I was about to square up to him.

I walked pretty quickly across the road and onto the pavement with the driver stood in the same spot screaming at me. He’d thought better of leaving his car at the lights to join me on the pavement for a brawl, but he hadn't given up on me having my face rearranged.

“Look at this foreigner, he is from Chelsea” he screamed at the people walking past us on the street.

“Somebody punch that son of a bitch”.

It didn't seem appropriate at this point to argue that I’d never actually been to Chelsea because he clearly didn't care.

Luckily nobody walking by took him up on his suggestion. 

Before long the guy got back into his car and drove off (not before eyeballing the shit out of me as he drove past of course!). "Andrew" said my friend “today you are from America, OK?”

I nodded, before starting all the false bravado a situation like this derives in order to save face. But behind it all I was a little shook up; he’d completely caught me off guard.

I really hadn't expected that this would have happened on my way to a street market to buy a taco and a can of coke.

How I remember this guy screaming at me!
I knew football fans were incredibly passionate over here, but his team had won. I didn't understand it. The students I talked to afterwards could offer little in the way of an explanation either, other than this:

“Corinthian fans can be pretty crazy, you’re best avoiding places they’ll be on match days”.

This remark naturally then led me to ask; “well if this is what people are like after a Corinthians game on a busy and fairly well policed street in Sao Paulo….how safe is it for foreigners to be around Brazilian football fans during the World Cup?”

In retrospect perhaps this question was a naive one, but like I said earlier, the world of football is one that's pretty alien to me. Each time I asked, the question would be met with the same firm shake of the head and a reassuring smile. I can’t really compare international football fans and club football fans apparently, because football fanatics generally show a lot more loyalty to their club team.

I've been warned off attending big club games here in the  past because they’re considered too dangerous. Many of my students have told me that they‘d rather watch games from the safety of their living rooms at home than risk going to the clubs grounds. Violence is common at rival club games, but many Brazilians I've talked to have looked surprised when I've asked about this extending to the international football scene.

Perhaps I've projected my own ideas on English football violence onto Brazilian fans? English football fans have a reputation for going overseas and fighting when the English team plays, and are pretty infamous for doing so during club games.

I’d never really separated the violence between club football and national football before, because for me football is football. Yet from the people I've talked to there certainly is a division in Brazil.

This has given me food for thought; because if you find yourself watching something on TV about how dangerous club football games are over here, it might be worth considering that this isn't really going to be much of a reflection of what to expect during the World Cup from the same football fans. It might be worth considering that those football thugs might not be bothering with the Cup at all. Instead they could well be just be planning to enjoy the games at home with their families, with a fridge full of beer and a belly full of barbecue...in their club's football shirt.  

What do you think? Is there as big a division between people who watch Brazilian club games and international games as I've been told? Is anyone expecting any of the trouble at the World Cup to come from football hooligans? Will Brazilians be as welcoming to foreign visitors as many here suspect? 

NOTE: For more posts on the reality behind living in a country known for its violence, click here. And if you’re coming over here and want to know the ways you could potentially be less of a target, click here.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Harry Potter Insults

A couple of years ago I took a trip back to the UK to attend a friend’s wedding. Just as I’d hoped, the day was extremely enjoyable, the weather was great and I particularly enjoyed catching up with friends I hadn't seen for a while. So the next day after sleeping off the excess of the previous day, I added some of my pictures to my Facebook page.

With wedding pictures you can usually expect a number of people to ‘like’ your pictures, particularly when it comes to shots of the bride. These ‘likes’ are usually accompanied by comments such as ‘absolutely gorgeous’, ‘beautiful’ or as I read once: ‘One word: Stunning Babe!’. You’re then likely to find that the rest of the pictures will have other playful comments written underneath, like ‘oh you scrubbed up well!’ or ‘everyone looks drunk’.

So a minute or so after posting my own set of pictures I envisaged getting a handful of similar comments.

But this wasn't to be.

In fact, I was very surprised to find my Brazilian friend had decided to add some borderline offensive comments to my album. So this friend is someone who likes winding me up nearly as much as I do him, and his comments would have been laughed off quickly had they been made over a few beers. Only they weren't made over a few beers, they were posted on Facebook!

He was particularly tickled that one of the female guests was wearing a large wedding hat. On reflection this hat was an over-sized, floppy thing that was pretty unique even by British standards. Yet it definitely wasn't out of place for a wedding. When it comes to British weddings, I’m pretty sure anything Lady Gaga has ever worn on her head is fair game, the rule is that there are no rules for what is an appropriate wedding hat.

 “Why is she wearing the sorting hat from Harry Potter to a church wedding? Kkkkkkk!” was the first in a series of comments I was scrambling to delete before anyone had the chance to read.

Clearly encouraged when he noticed I was deleting his comments as soon as he’d posted them, my friend continued to write the same comment under every picture of the woman wearing the ‘sorting hat’.

“Gryffindor, you are Gryffindor! Please go to Gryffindor immediately!”

After a few minutes I decided enough was enough, and I sent him an email:

“In Britain women wear hats like this to weddings, this is our culture. My friend will be confused about the ‘Harry Potter hat’ comments if she reads them, so PLEASE STOP!

And he did…. 


Fascinating Fascinators

It’s not just some of the hats that Brazilians find intriguing, but fascinators too. I’ll never forget watching the wedding of William and Kate on Brazilian TV with my Brazilian flat mate. He was very interested in what was unfolding on our TV screen, and his curiosity led him to ask me a number of interesting questions about the event; my favourite one being:

“Why are British women wearing carnival clothes to church?”

“Carnival clothes?” I repeated, wondering if this was a genuine question. After all, nobody had turned up to the Royal Wedding scantily clad and looking like they’d been dipped in a vat of glitter.

“Yes, with these crazy hats and feathers. This style really reminds me of carnival!” Clearly amused by his own joke, he started to laugh. “I never imagined women would wear things like this in England” he added, “They are a little crazy, aren't they?”

I guess wedding hats or fascinators at a wedding must look peculiar to the unaccustomed Brazilian eye, but I still felt it was my duty as a Brit to defend their choice of head wear. As I was about to do this though I glanced back over at the TV screen just in time to see one of the Princesses arriving at the church. She had what looked like a giant pretzel stuck to the front of her head, and after thinking about my response for a while....I conceded that I really should just keep quiet.

The Second Harry Potter Based Insult

A few years ago I sat and watched the final Harry Potter at the cinema with my outspoken friend Carlos. He enjoys winding me up to the point I am almost immune to the majority of whatever comes out of his mouth now, and before the film started I could have guessed the aspects of British culture he was going to pick up on. 

I responded to his comment about Brits driving down “the wrong side of the road because they are crazy” with a dismissive smile and instant amnesia. I also acknowledged his observation that “England always looks really cold, I could never live there” with a half-assed nod and a mouth full of popcorn.

But as the credits began rolling and the lights came up I wasn't ready for what was about to come tumbling out of his mouth. As I looked over at him to see if he wanted to leave straight away or to wait for the crowds to ease before leaving, I noticed that he was thoughtfully looking me up and down from his seat. He did this in a detached sort of way, like he was contemplating an exotic zoo animal for the first time. Then he broke his self imposed silence to direct a very bizarre comment at me.

“Andrew. Your clothes are EXACTLY the same as the people in Harry Potter!”

I’m not sure why I felt compelled to do this, but I took a moment to look down at what I was wearing just to check.

They weren't, or at least I didn't think they were.

“Erm….what?” I asked loudly, with a confused frown now dominating my face.

“Absolutely this!” he remarked defiantly, “even now you are wearing Harry Potter clothes! Just look, one hundred percent you look like a Harry Potter character. You look like a muggle!”

Why Can’t I Pass For Being Brazilian?

Living in the cultural melting pot that is Sao Paulo, I am constantly amazed by the ability some Brazilians have to pick me out from the crowd as being a foreigner. I discussed this in a previous blog post I wrote a few months back (looking foreign in Sao Paulo), and am still bewildered that people can do this so easily. When I asked my friends and students why I can’t pass as Brazilian, many have said quite insightfully…that I just can’t. 

They've not been able to put their finger on exactly why, but I have been offered some possible suggestions (including some suggestions from readers of the blog post). One is that my Portuguese accent is definitely not native, others have suggested that I walk like a foreigner; that I carry myself like a foreigner and some have even said it may be because of my foreign ‘style’ of dress.

I won’t lie to you, at first I enjoyed hearing people refer to me as someone with a ‘style’, it doesn't happen very often back home. The UK might be where Alexander McQueen, Tom Baker and Burberry herald from; but to be honest with you, when I go out I'm dressed more like a walking advert for the Fathers Day Marks and Spencer’s range than I do a cutting edge fashionista.

So when it comes to our style, I've now started to wonder if British people look more like Harry Potter characters to Brazilians than I’d ever really considered before....and I'm now looking at Facebook pictures of my friends weddings, and questioning why women look so eccentric at formal wedding ceremonies.

What do you think about the way British people dress? Do you think British women look strange at weddings?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What Do Brits Sound Like To Brazilians?

Last summer I was a few beers into a street party when one of my friends introduced me to a girl she knew. She’d done this in English so naturally I didn't think twice about continuing the conversation in the same language. However as I started talking over the music I noticed she was shaking her head quite sympathetically at me. “I’m sorry” she interrupted, “You are British? I studied American English so maybe this is why I’m not good at understanding your English”.

I gave her a reassuring smile and was about to repeat myself, only this time a little slower. But she interrupted me again with a smirk suddenly dominating her face; “I think I don’t understand you because you sound like you have a hot potato stuck in your mouth”.

I looked at this girl for a good few seconds in disbelief as I tried to process what she’d just said.

“A what?” I eventually asked faintly, now with the polite smile fading from my face. I was unsure if I’d just been insulted or I’d simply misunderstood what she’d just said.

Turns out, I hadn't misunderstood at all.

“I said you sound like you have a hot potato stuck in your mouth. You need to open it a little more when you talk because I can’t understand you!”

‘Surely she isn't talking about my delightful accent?’ I remember thinking to myself at the time. But she really was. I’m not often lost for words, but I mean, what is the polite way to respond to someone saying this? And I remember wondering just how it is even possible for someone to talk with a hot potato STUCK in their mouth?

Well as if she could read my mind, this girl fed my curiosity by simulating what someone in this rather unfortunate predicament would look and sound like. As she mimicked my British accent with this imaginary hot potato playing heavily around her mouth, he cheeks began to inflate grotesquely. As far as first impressions go this girl had exceeded in making a truly awful one on me. With it being clear that we were never destined to be great friends, I made my excuses and rejoined my American friend. A friend who has no problem understanding me....most of the time! 

I should point out that although this was definitely the most extreme experience I've had of someone reacting negatively to my accent, I do occasionally meet Brazilian English speakers who are so accustomed to American English that my accent proves to be very challenging for them.

I should stress that British English is certainly not always frowned upon over in Sao Paulo. One of the most popular chains of English schools here, Cultura Inglesa, is a school that focuses on the teaching of British English. From my own personal experience too I've had a lot of students specifically ask for classes with me because of their desire to be exposed to my accent.
And get this… a number of people have even said that they find my accent beautiful to listen to. I genuinely thought I was being mocked the first time I heard a student say this. You see, my northern-English farmer’s drawl isn't met with nearly the same level of enthusiasm outside the area of the UK I’m from.

Back there, because the Yorkshire accent is quite slow in comparison to other accents in the UK, I've been told that it makes us sound slightly uneducated (well actually I might have made up that part about people using the word ‘slightly’). However over in the parallel world that is also known as Brazil, I've has people describe my accent as charming, slow enough for them to understand and even (my favourite) sophisticated.

Yet within the UK we have a wide range of accents that can prove quite a challenge for some of my Brazilian students to understand. It would be all too easy to categorise how us Brits speak as simply being a homogeneous ‘British English’, but the reality is very different. This is something one of my students recently reminded me of in his first lesson back after studying at a US university. He told me that he was confused by a Brit he’d met on his course, one he’d assumed he would have had no problems understanding.

“I imagined after having classes with you I’d be able to understand British English. But I couldn't understand most of what the guy was saying. He was British but he didn't talk much like you at all”.

I gave my student a knowing look, and told him that there are some accents from the UK that prove challenging for me too. My mother for example is from a small village just outside Glasgow, and when I go up to Scotland I often have to have her help me out with translating what some of our relatives are saying for the first hour or so. We’re all speaking the same language, but it takes me a little time to tune in to their very heavy Glaswegian accent.

So I could feel my student’s pain, I really could….spoken English isn't always easy to understand when you take into account it has so many variations, even in a country as small as the UK.

However I've noticed three Brits over here with southern English accents who've managed to forge a pretty popular following over in Brazil. Randomly one of these includes Jo Frost (aka Supernanny, remember her?) who was a dominant fixture of TV schedules a year or two ago. Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson are also pretty popular here too. Oliver’s books are a continued presence in book shops over here, and after Nigella’s recent visit to Sao Paulo, she definitely cemented her popularity with the female housewives I teach by praising the nation’s beloved coxinha. 

Interestingly whilst the chef Gordon Ramsay might be a big deal over in the states and in his native UK, he has yet to leave nearly as big a mark on the Brazilian consciousness as his British rivals have. 
And on the subject of popular Brits in Brazil, it would be strange of me not to mention the country's music scene. Our music is one aspect of British culture that is frequently met with a great deal of enthusiasm over here. From The Beatles to Amy Winehouse, Elton John to the Stones, Led Zeppelin to Bowie, Queen to The Sex Pistols, George Michael to Adele, Black Sabbath to erm…One Direction. British music seems to have really resonated with a lot of the Brazilians I've come into contact with...which may or may not be down to these artists being able to really open their mouths when they sing!

Have you ever encountered any interesting reactions to your accent when going abroad?