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.
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.”