Silvio

To file under ‘who knew?’

My hair dresser of ten years died a few months ago. Of appendicitis. He was in his forties, fit, and much loved by friends, family and colleagues.

His sudden disappearance from Whatsapp was the first sign something was wrong. I had an appointment in two days and pinged him to confirm the time. No reply. On the day of the appointment I called the salon to double check the time. They said he had to have a minor unscheduled surgery and would be back soon. That was an odd answer. I called Brazilian bluff on that: the tendency to tell cheerfully optimistic stories in the face of grave situations. The more optimistic the people are, the worse the actual scenario, in my experience.

Brazilian optimism in the face of poor circumstances is well-expressed by this Whatsapp meme.

I worried for a few days, then called again to check in. Not to worry! He’d be back at work soon! Soon, what? Like a couple days? Who has unscheduled surgery that is minor? What could it be, a sudden toothache? An ingrown toenail? He fell down and needed stitches?

Still no noise on Whatsapp, which meant he couldn’t hold his phone. That wasn’t ‘minor.’

Then one day a photo came in on his Whatsapp: a photo of someone in a hospital (their face not in the picture) holding a sign encouraging blood donation. “Are you alive? What happened?” I wrote back, writing it in a half-teasing, half-serious tone. Nothing.

And then one morning I got a phone call from the lady who cuts my hair. That’s always bad news. Brazilians never phone me (at least) unless it’s an emergency of some sort. You can brace yourself just hearing the phone ring. Silvio had died. The conditions were unclear, but the funeral was scheduled for the next day.

Only later, after multiple versions of the story, did I find out what happened.

Apparently his brother had died of covid the week before he got sick, and he was quite worried about also getting covid and dying from it. He stayed home that week grieving his brother and also avoiding contact with people for worry of getting sick. So when he came down with some abdominal pain, and even when it escalated to fever and severe pain he didn’t leave the house to have it looked at. Only when it was so intolerable and his abdomen was reddened with infection did he finally go to the hospital. They did an emergency appendectomy but the infection had already spread and couldn’t be controlled by antibiotics. He died a week later.

I woke up sad thinking about him this morning, and out of curiosity looked up ‘deaths from appendicitis,’ since I’d never heard of anyone dying of it. Apparently a few dozen per year do, though.

Silvio showing off my sister’s lovely fresh hairdo.

Ant Tea

At night little ants climb into my electric tea kettle to drink. If I forget to rinse the tea kettle in the morning I end up with Mint Tea with Ants, the new specialty.

Smells

I love the smell of country air. In the mountains in Brazil, in the drier zones, the smell is a wonderful ever-changing palette of pine, juniper, herbs and flowers. In the damper zones, such as around the city of Rio, the moist earth and heavy foliage have their own distinct smell, accompanied by seasonal wafts of flowers, fruit and rotting fruit, rain, and salt spray. One of the most startling is the smell of the flowers of the Cannonball tree. The prolific flowers grow directly from the trunk, enveloping the tree in garlands of pink. The flowers smell like roses, though without the delicate timidity of many (hybrid?) roses.

Fotokannan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Shrek

We were waiting by the stables for a rental horse ride in rural Brazil. When we arrived a competent looking man was leaving, and said our guide was running just a bit late. “Late like ten more minutes or half an hour?” I asked. “Oh, not half an hour. Maybe ten minutes!” I assumed he had a terrible sense of time and was also being optimistic and tripled the estimate.

About 20 minutes later a man stomped through the gate. He was broad-shouldered and neckless. As he climbed the short driveway he swung his clenched arms in the air and gave a couple of howling roars. I assumed he might be a non-verbal disabled man, perhaps a relative of someone who lived nearby. Once he reached us he stammered some not terribly coherent conversation. It took a few minutes to understand that this was our guide. We frowned at each other in great doubt, but sat patiently near the stables while he stomped around swearing (gently) and howling at the horses, who were not interested in being in a hurry.

By day two we had become accustomed to his alternating grunts, howls, roars and conversation. He appeared to be, after all, someone of fairly normal mental function and good intentions, and the odd noises were simply his enthusiastic expressions of frustration when any minor difficulty was met. He was also, perhaps, socially awkward and shy, and so he seemed much more normal by the end of the second day when we drew him out with friendly conversation about horses, the weather, the route, and so on: “What is this plant good for? Does it have fruit?” I asked. “It’s good for giving thorns,” he grumbled.

In any case, we soon decided he reminded us totally of Shrek. And once that image was in our minds we couldn’t shake it, so Shrek he will remain.

Carpet

The in-laws house is carpeted almost wall to wall. With the exception of the bathrooms, kitchen and dining room, and, oddly, the formal living room, there is only plush, soft, beige carpet.

I was raised with an inexplicable loathing of rugs and carpets. Small rugs existed solely to slip or rumple at an inopportune moment, casting you to the floor writhing in pain from a sprained ankle or broken limb, or perhaps scalded near to death by the hot tea you were carrying when you fell. I have never seen this happen, but it must have happened to someone in my extended family for the fear to be so strong.

Larger rugs, including wall-to-wall, served to collect dirt, fleas, and other disgusting things, and were to be avoided at all costs. This made little sense. For millenia the peoples of northern cultures have counted on carpets of various sorts to protect ones poor toes from frigid floors, to keep out drafts, or simply to make a room beautiful. From whence came this 1970s counter-counter-culture that rejected traditional rugs along with trendy shag carpets, insisting on slick wood or tile floors? Or linoleum, in a pinch? I have no idea.

Rugs aren’t common in places I’ve been in Brazil, excepting small area rugs that can make a sitting area more luxurious. We covered the painted concrete floors of our apartment with colorful rugs, and that has been great for acoustics as well as pleasant bare-foot walking. One learns where they are and doesn’t trip over them. Besides, they are heavy enough to stay in place.

In some places it has been the custom to drape tables with heavy carpets. Here’s Saint Jerome at a table covered with a carpet. Not so common these days where I’ve lived, though I’ve come across it now and then!

Saint Jerome, by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Fungus

I don’t like truffles. Norcia, Italy reeks of them. It was an awesome town to visit. I think I recall they even sold honey with truffle in it, which is either an offense against the honey or the truffle, but seems to have enough popularity to warrant keeping in the shops. In any case, go one day if you can, and enjoy the thick odor of truffles, wild boar sausage and aged cheeses while walking in a medieval village. Here are some examples: https://cosedelposto.com/collections/specialita-al-tartufo

For that matter, I don’t like seaweed in my egg, which I encountered in Wales. If you do like that sort of thing here are some great recipe ideas: https://beachfood.co.uk/recipes.php

Things I didn’t used to like but now do like: olives, brie-family cheeses.

Things I didn’t used to like and still don’t really like very much, but can eat if necessary: okra, sushi, seafood in general.

Italy, Villanova, Etruscan, 7th-6th Century BC - Vessel in the Shape of a Wild Boar - 1977.42 - Cleveland Museum of Art

Midwesterners’ storm sense

We were visiting the in-laws. The weather forecast a severe storm in the next few hours. The horizon was already darkening and the topsy-turvy gusts that precede storms were ringing the neighbor’s wind-chimes and rushing through the maples.

There was another tumult besides this: the in-laws out in the yard bringing in the trash cans and the patio furniture. The flurry of activity subsided after 20 minutes, and we laughed about how if you grow up in the tornado states you get things organized fast when a storm is coming and get down in the basement while it blows over.

I remember many summer afternoons or evenings huddling in basements, bathrooms or under tables.

Jesus sleeping in the storm, from the Hitda Codex