Wednesday, November 21, 2007

No. 4

I leave at 7:14 every morning. I need 3 full minutes to slide open and shut the gate of PVC pipes and thin wire and careen down the steep, tropically damp cobblestone hill – past the banana trees, the nesting Brazilian blue crows and the one-eyed stray dalmatian-mut – to catch the bus at 7:17.

This morning, standing before my warped dime store mirror at 7:10, I found myself still wrapped in a damp towel without any idea of what to wear. But my pulse did not rise. Six months ago it would have taken off so fast, 4-letter words would have spewed from my mouth giving me a headache that would last the rest of the day. And finally, I’d say, “Screw it. I guess I’m just gonna be late. Again!”

In New York, not being dressed at four minutes till “time-to-go” would have been a perfectly valid excuse to leave my 20-odd expectant Hunter College freshmen waiting at their desks. This excuse was as legitimate as “death in the family” or the deliciously indisputable “train problems.” It was perfectly fine to be late when I had “nothing to wear!”

Yet this morning, I just put on clothes. And I still had two of the four minutes remaining, so I strolled down the hill a little ahead of schedule. It was all so easy.

In New York, leaving the house required emptying the entire contents of my closet onto the bed and lamenting my utter lack of clothing as the pile of “I cannot leave the house in that” reached ever closer to my 18 ft ceiling. But, alas, there was always one more train following shortly behind the one I’d just missed. And because of that, how many hours of my life – and how many other finite resources – had I thrown away without a second thought? It just seemed there was always one more of everything.

In Florianópolis, starting with the buses, the finite nature of things seems obvious. Against a landscape of oceans and mountains that seem never to come to an end, I can see the end of things. And something tells me, there’s an end to things everywhere. Even in the United States.

In the four months that I’ve been living in this half-constructed house on a hill with its precarious plumbing and electricity, its “charming” way of wobbling and tilting when someone comes in, I have seen proof that water and electricity are not “a given.” Sometimes I turn the faucet and water comes out; other times, it does not. Sometimes I flip a switch, and the room is lit; other times, it is not, and still other times, it is half-lit.

The other day as I was making my supermarket rounds, each one I visited was out of the item I usually buy from them. No tuna at Bom Jesus (even Jesus’s 5 loaves and 2 fish apparently have their limits); no mayonnaise at Chico’s, no tomato sauce at Bom Paladar. When I told my roommates that I couldn’t believe the coincidence, they were not fazed.

“When we were kids, the stores were out of milk more often than not. You’d hear from somebody that there was going to be milk at the supermarket on Thursday, and you’d get in line at six in the morning. The line would wrap around the store, and they’d only have one case of milk.”

The only time I had seen such a line was when the new Cabbage Patch Kids arrived at Richway just in time for Christmas in 1983.

The image of my friends, socioeconomic peers, waiting in line for a carton of milk – I hate to sound naïve (although pampered, spoiled American might be a more accurate evaluation, in which case I do prefer naïve), but I could scarcely believe it had happened in my lifetime. It sounded like the stuff of the Great Depression; it sounded Biblical.

The owner of a local café told me all the businesses in her shopping center had already received letters from the city warning of water and power shortages throughout the upcoming high season. There will be no choice then but to close the stores during this time, meaning that sometimes even income is not a given.

In Brazil, stores close. Buses don’t run all night. Things shut off. Things shut down. It is not a 24-hour world that bends around my every whim, and for that, I have had to learn to bend. And it is a stretch that these rigid joints have been needing for a long time.

Besides the obvious appreciation that has stirred up in me for the limited resources that I do have, I have a new outlook on perhaps one of our most precious resources: Time. In these moments in which something I need – water, light, a bus, a boat, a carton of milk – is all gone, I have been required to do something that was rarely, if ever, expected of me in the United States: wait.

In New York, the few times it’s required of us, waiting is strenuous exercise. To properly wait for a subway train, one must: 1.) sit on a bench, sigh loudly while taking three quick looks at the clock on your cell phone screen; 2.) stand and pace to the very edge of the platform; 3.) inhale deeply; 4.) hold all the air in behind tightly pursed lips while bending at the waist as far as possible so that you can see three stations down the tunnel; 5.) upon not seeing the train, exhale loudly while returning to an upright position; 6.) glance at your neighbors and shake your head to show them that you are very special and do not have time for this. The more experienced may add toe-tapping and tongue-clicking at intervals throughout the routine. 7.) If no one has taken your place on the bench, return and repeat. (And if someone has taken your spot, shake that head and purse those lips again.) 8.) When the train does arrive, jockey for a position on the platform in hopes that the doors will open right in front of you because the train will certainly be full and only have room for so many of the waiting passengers.

I have noticed that the locals here in Floripa do not wait as “aggressively” as my fellow North Americans. I remember folks getting punched and trampled in line during the Cabbage Patch Craze, yet I suspect this didn’t happen in the milk lines in Brazil.

The first time I missed the boat home, I was exasperated to learn that “ten minutes” late for one boat meant “fifty minutes early” for the next. In this time, I could’ve walked home. Hell, I could’ve swum. But I had an armful of groceries, so I sighed heavily and said, “Shit!” (in Portuguese of course, so then it’s not a bad word). But when I looked around me, I noticed no one else was perturbed to have a fifty-minute wait in front of them, and I was immediately embarrassed by my melodramatic show. Embarrassed to have shown that I thought for one second the boat schedule had anything at all do with me, that my sigh and slur would cause all the locals to suddenly realize the grave mistake the boat had made in leaving without me. They were going to regret this! They were going to pay!

So, as “when in Rome” has always been my Golden Rule of Travel, I decided to wait their way.

(Naturally, it’s easier to wait when we already know the boat will arrive in exactly 50 minutes – unlike a New York City subway that has no timetable we know of – it’s easier when we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. As a girlfriend of mine used to say, “You can always tell when the train’s coming because the tracks turn gold.” Surely, for me, that arriving train was indeed a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.)

I sat on a bench on the pier, hands folded in my lap, and I waited. For the first few minutes, my gaze naturally gravitated to the clock on the pier until I realized that my gaze was not controlling the speed at which time was passing (once again, I had to accept the possibility that I might just not be the center of the universe after all!), so my gaze sought out better views.

Yes, I understand that it’s also easier to wait on a pier in the sun with a view of mountains and the sea than to wait on a platform in a tunnel underground with a view of rats and graffiti testaments of what some “hoe” named Lisa did with some guy named Chad. But still, what if all that time I spent pacing through the tunnels of New York, I had spent just sitting and breathing instead?

Because since I’ve started to wait like the locals, I rarely check the time on my cell phone. In the time that used to be filled with such ticks, I stand still. And in not watching the time, there somehow seems to be so much more of it. There are so many things to notice.

The other morning, the bus stalled in a little traffic at the peak of a mountain. This would’ve been a good time to check my watch, but on this day, that didn’t enter my mind.

I leaned against the window and stared out. What’s called “a rain throttle” in Brazilian Portuguese had just begun – it’s a fast, very hard rain, the kind of raindrops that could hurt a person; they feel like a belly flop on your bare arms. Observing the world through one of these rains is like looking through a magnifying glass, only it doesn’t just increase the size of things, it intensifies colors, smells and sounds, too. The leaves on the banana trees were three times their usual size and three times as green. They pressed against the windows of the bus as if pressing through the screen of a 3D movie, as if the world outside the bus just wasn’t big enough to contain them, their colors and their size. Everything around me seemed enormous.

The moment itself seemed huge, something I could get inside and roll around in, like a gerbil in a plastic ball, rather than a flaming hoop to be jumped through. There we were stopped in traffic; the minutes remaining till my morning class were, somewhere, ticking away, yet this very minute seemed infinite.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

No. 3 (or "Say My Name")

In Atlanta, New York and Rio, there was always a part of me that wished I could hop on the stool at the counter of the local luncheonette located at some town’s only intersection, hearing the bells tinkling on the door behind me, and in front of me, the short order cook asking, “The usual?”

My happiest years in New York were the last few when I became a “regular” at my local haunts. The host at the Mexican restaurant, when he passed me on the street, would ask, “Where have you guys been,” if my then-husband and I hadn’t been into the restaurant in a while. And I was putty in the hands of the guy at the bodega when he started to call me mami; feminism schmeminism! – I was just thrilled to no longer be anonymous. When the Polish teen at the café got to the point that she was confirming my order – small green tea; two bags, right? – rather than asking for it, I thought I might just stay in Brooklyn forever. It was the traffic and the bright lights that had drawn me to New York, yet I came to like it most when it became quaint.

But nothing could have prepared me for the in-your-face quaintness of Florianópolis.

On the watertaxi, a stranger named Claudia struck up a conversation with me about the advantages and disadvantages of living in a place that’s only accessible by boat.
I said, “Well, I’ve only lived here about –
“Five weeks,” she said, cutting me off.
I couldn’t decide if we had met before, or if, perhaps, she had “a gift.” (I’m getting a strong five weeks vibe from you.)
“Do you live on Servidão Valagão?” I asked her.
“No, I work there. I saw you and the brunette [my roommate Lú] when you first got here. Do you two really go running every day?”

Another time, crossing the street, I ignored a stray “hello, girl!” because – who do I know in this town? Who would be saying hello to me? But when it got closer and louder, I turned.
“I bet you don’t even recognize me!” It was an older man, a grandpa type, with deep blue eyes, and crisp shirt and white pants.
Indeed I did not recognize him, but he sure was happy to see me. “Uhh – ”
“I see you found your way into town.”
It was the ragged fisherman who had told me I should take the bus instead of the watertaxi into town a few days before as I waited on the pier in the wintery darkness of 6am. (I live on the coast of a lagoon where the pavement ends, but I did not know at this time that buses came so far into my neck of the jungle.)

When you get on the watertaxi in town, you have to tell the captain where you plan to get off if he doesn’t already know you and your stop. After a couple weeks, I thought I had seen the whole rotation of captains, and I no longer needed to tell them my stop; as soon as I stepped aboard, they’d raise their eyebrows and say, “Pier 3?” One day, though, there was a captain I was certain I hadn’t seen yet, so as I put my hand in his to step aboard the rocking boat, I opened my mouth to say –

And he cut me off, “Pier 3,” he said without a question mark.

Had I seen him before? Had I spoken to him before? Apparently I’d put my hand in his and told him my stop, but there was no record of this exchange in my memory. New Yorkers do not use valuable headspace to record every face they see. Space – of any kind – is far too precious. We’ve got appointments to catalog. Hell, in New York, I had to plan three weeks out just to sit down to dinner with my dearest friends; I wasn’t going to allocate perfectly good real estate in my brain to the faces of every employee of the MTA. But here, a face is never forgotten.

No one else who boarded the boat told the captain their stop that day. There were about 30 of us, and there are 23 peirs along this coast. And the captain knows the face that goes with every single one of them.

It’s not that I never remembered the faces of the strangers with whom I commuted every day; it’s that in New York, everyone knows that you can’t let on. Only a certified stalker would lean over to the stranger on the bench next to him and say, “How was that pretzel I saw you eating at the corner of 57th and Lex yesterday around 2?” Yet here this is the stuff of daily conversation, and as for stalkers, they are the stuff of Hollywood movies.

And what if you knew that the guy you’d been eyeing on the 6 train for weeks was getting off at the next stop? You can’t get out of the way for him before he even stirs in his seat. Then he’d know that you knew he existed. And that would be embarrassing.

But yesterday, I was sandwiched in by the window on a full bus. The girl seated next to me, on the aisle, was talking the whole way to a guy who was standing in the aisle beside her. As we approached my stop – and I had not yet begun to stand or put my bag on my shoulder – she said to the guy, “Move over. This lady gets off at the next stop.”

I thought that I would ease right into this “simple” life – and in many ways I have, in the “a girl sure could get used to this” kind of a way – after all, I had come here to this so-called “simple” life from the “hard” life, the “mean” streets, so this should be easy, but there is nothing simple about remembering every face, every exchange.

And what’s even more difficult to swallow, is that I can’t do anything without everyone knowing. Claudia knows that I run. The fisherman knows when I’m in town and when I’m not. And every day, one student or another tells me that he saw me entering some supermarket or some café or waiting at some bus stop the day before. It’s not that I resent it. This smalltown life, this being a “regular” wherever I go – there’s not a café in town that doesn’t know how I take my coffee – is just as romantic and quaint as I had always imagined it to be. And most of the time, I love it. It sure has made this big move easier. It’s comforting to know that if I fell off the face of the earth, my absence might be noticed. Often in New York it entered my mind that if something were to happen to me, it might take a week for word to get to my parents. But what I often have a hard time with in the “high visibility” of this island, is that you can never shut it off. It is round-the-clock community – intimacy in fact – 7 days a week. Here, there is not another subway car to slip into if you see someone you know but don’t feel like making chitchat. You’d just draw more attention if you left your sunglasses and headphones on the whole time. It’s antisocial. And please, do not eat on the watertaxi unless you have enough for everyone. Seriously. I’ve seen people get on the boat with what looks like a month’s worth of produce only to give a quarter of it – in oranges, grapes and bananas – to any passenger who accepts. And they all accept.

Brazilians in general are more intimate in my opinion than North Americans. Personal space is smaller; they kiss you when they meet you and call you “flower”, they touch you when they talk to you, and they often repeat your name – in some circumstances, the sweetest word a person can hear.

In New York, in certain “cool” circles, you had to be formally introduced to a person three times before they were allowed to acknowledge that they remembered your name. Here, it’s “Good morning, Sonya,” at the gym, and “Have a good weekend, Sonya,” when I leave. It’s, “Hi, Sonya. The usual, Sonya? How are the classes going, Sonya?”

That repetition of my name – it could pierce through the darkest pair of mirrored lenses, but there is apparently a skeptical city girl in me: I lower my glasses and look out over them before I take them all the way off.

I came back to Brazil because I longed for community and intimacy. I longed for a place where I didn’t have to book dinner with friends three weeks out but could call them in the evening and ask what they were up to tonight. I longed for a place where passersby were not strangers but neighbors who called me by name. Yet these things have been the challenge here. While this intimacy usually feels like just the warm blanket I’ve been shivering for, other times I feel like the covers have been yanked right off of me and my body has been fully exposed. It’s one thing to long for an end to loneliness; it’s quite another to remember how to open up and let someone in.


The other day at the restaurant where I often have lunch, when I went to pay at the counter, I realized I had left my wallet at the table. “That’s okay,” the owner said, “You can pay after you eat. What’s your name?” I told him, and he wrote it on my bill and put it to the side with quite a few others. When I returned to the counter to pay, he pulled my bill out of the stack without asking me to repeat my name. I nodded to show him he had remembered correctly.

“You’re at home now,” he said, “We have your name.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Another Island: Intro

Welcome to Florianópolis. An island off the Southern coast of Brazil. Boy did I sure come here in a hurry. And it seems fitting that Florianópolis is where I landed to learn about patience.

After twelve years of getting anything I wanted in the tap of a toe or the click of a tongue – a successful freelance career, an adorable husband, and a cool loft in the coolest neighborhood in New York – my marriage ended, dates didn’t come as easily as I had remembered in my 20s, and, in short, I just wasn’t getting my way anymore.

No. 1
This is how things move here.

At the supermarket, there may be a line of five or six people behind you at the check-out, but the cashier won’t hesitate to converse with you, not while he rings up your groceries but, instead of ringing up your groceries. He’ll start to scan the barcode on a bag of cookies, then stop and study the bag, slowly, back and front, and say, “Are these any good?” leaning forward, resting his elbows on top of the little ledge that I once thought was for writing checks, but now, after a month in Florianópolis, I believe it was put there for cashiers to rest their elbows while talking to one customer and making six others wait.

“Yeah…I like them,” I hesitate, not sure how much I should encourage him for fear that the others in line might start to yell “C’mon, lady, hurry the f* up.”

He flips the bag over again and peruses the ingredients. “I’ve got an aunt that loves sesame seeds. Me – I don’t know. They sort of give me heartburn.”

“Mmm…” In my experience, “mmm” has always been a foolproof way to cut a conversation short.

“You’re one of those diet people, aren’t you? I see you’ve got here lots of whole grain stuff, and vegetarian, and low-fat, lots of vegetables.

“Yeah,” I nod.

“How long you been diet?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I guess I’ve always eaten this way.”

And finally, he scans the whole grain sesame seed oatmeal cookies and slides them down to the bagboy. Relieved, I look to my right to make sure all those waiting have noticed that the cashier and I are no longer conversing, that I’m no longer holding up the line. But then I see they aren’t even paying attention. There are no folded arms, or tapping toes, no intentionally audible sighs or clicking of tongues. It’s as if they’ve figured these conversations into their shopping time. Either that, or just no one is in a hurry.

I mentioned to a guy on the bus what street I live on, and he said a friend of his teaches yoga on that same street, at her house.

“Cool. Maybe I’ll give her a call,” I said, really just to be polite.

He raised a hand and furrowed his brow, “Slow down,” he said. “Let me tell her that your interested and ask her if you can call. I’ll give you her number tomorrow.”

Whatever, I felt like saying.

The next day on the bus, he presented me with the woman’s phone number.

“Thanks, I’ll give her a call. See when the classes are,” I said, still just to be polite.

“No, it’s not like that. You have to go slow. Make friends with her. Then ask her if you can join the group.”

Kind of like a cult, I felt like asking.

Another time, someone on the watertaxi told me a friend might be interested in English classes. “Cool,” I said, “Tell him to give me a call.”

“He’s not going to just call you and ask for English classes. You need to make friends with him first. Maybe have coffee, go for a bike ride, then approach him about the English classes.”

Sounds like a lot of work, I felt like saying.

I remembered my first time in Brazil in 1999. I walked into an English school that had placed an ad for teachers in the paper. I went straight to the front desk and, exuding confidence and warmth, I said, “Hi! I came to ask about the job.” In my peripheral vision, I saw my then fiancée (a Brazilian) lower his forehead into his hand, indicating I had made some sort of mistake. I reconsidered my words; no, the Portuguese grammar had been just right. Had I sat in something? Did I have something on the back of my skirt?

Later he explained to me, “You can’t just walk right up and say why you’re here. You’ve got to make conversation first.”

“But won’t they wonder why I’m here? Why I’ve just walked in off the street and started making conversation with them?”

“No, they won’t. And, otherwise, it’s…it’s kind of ugly.”

Ugly to get straight to the point? Unattractive to be direct? I had been trained my whole life to get straight to the point. Had been marked down on papers in my AP English class when they didn’t get straight to the point. Had been forced to memorize Strunk & White’s “Rule #17” of The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.” And I gotta tell you, these coffees, bike rides, making friends and making conversation – they all seemed like “needless words” to me. I am the daughter of a woman who enriched my vocabulary with words like dilly-dally, lollygag and meander – all preceded, of course, by “don’t.” In our house, my mother was known for her signature catch phrase, “Let’s hurry up and go, so we can get back.” (And her two smart ass kids – my sister and me – would always wonder, If getting back is what you’re worried about, why don’t we just not go?)

I was trained to fold my arms, tap my toes, sigh and click my tongue, too. I am the daughter of a man who calls one car in front of him on the road “a traffic jam”; one person in front of him at the bank is “a line” that he “refuses” to stand in. And after he was through raising me to be just like him, I rushed to New York where I spent 12 years, and in my first week there, I learned that so much as an “umm” before placing my order at the bagel cart was a surefire way to get a “C’mon, lady, hurry the f* up.”