Foreigner

Living in Brazil has been an exquisite balance of joy and pain. I think it went through some predictable phases. At first I had no idea what was going on because I couldn’t speak the language. Then I realized I could speak well enough but still had no idea what was going on because people here just have completely different choice-making mechanisms than North Americans do. Then I tried really hard to fit in by adopting all of the local customs to the best of my (poor) ability. This caused a nervous breakdown. I gave up. I now happily live here, being my own weird self, refusing to participate in the optional parts I can’t bear, relishing the parts I love, and being patient with unavoidable necessities.

My husband and I have long joked that you can cooperate with life in Brazil, or you can leave. You can’t change the way things work here. Brazilians may complain about the details here, too, but no one really wants to do anything about it. It’s like people in Chicago complaining about cold winters. Duh? Or people in New York City complaining about slow cross-town traffic. Duh!

Once one has sufficiently abandoned all the strange ideals we were taught were important back in the United States, life is really quite lovely here. It’s kind of cool coming to realize that some things you were taught were important are, but most aren’t. I am happy to have been converted to some new beliefs, such as the belief that lunch with family is one of the most important activities a human being can participate in. Another is the belief that a proper lunch should last several hours, at a minimum. Ideally it just runs right on into afternoon snack and then supper. In fact, eating six times a day is nearly obligatory. And cake is likely to be served for most of those meals.

The cleaning lady who works for us once worked for a Canadian family who maintained a severe northern health-food diet. Food was to be eaten only on a specific schedule, and consisted mostly of high-fiber crackers, apples, lettuce, and other delicate, low-calorie items. The family thought Brazilian food extremely unpleasant and would not allow it in the house. This story came to light when I noticed she had become unusually gaunt and inquired about her health. We came up with a strategy for feeding her extra rice and beans on the days she worked with us, so that she wouldn’t waste away on the days she worked for the Canadians. I assured her this was not uncommon dietary fussing on the part of North Americans, but certainly not standard either.

I probably could just write about food. It’s such a central part of social life here that nearly all my confusions as a foreigner have been food-related. It runs the gamut from not knowing how to eat things properly (the olives! the bananas!) to not liking the food choices (my God, not more cake!) to being frustrated with the timing of meals (are you sure we can’t just stand up and gulp some coffee and toast? please?) to enjoying an eight hour ‘lunch’ with friends (my God, it’s really possible to just enjoy each others’ company and not have to hurry up and go anywhere! pass the wine!).

In any case, it seems to simply take some years to find ones way of fitting in somewhere. Long enough that I’ve thought I certainly wouldn’t want to start all over again somewhere else!

Not foods

I can’t stand truffles. I know I should like them – they are fancy, expensive, sought-after, and so on. But they smell horrible. They must be the kind of thing one has to acquire a taste for, like strange old cheeses, yogurt, aged meats, strong drinks, cilantro, dill and other unusual flavors. It took me ages to learn to like olives, and longer still to be able to eat sushi (which I still find somewhat revolting, but I like the associated things like pickled ginger, miso soup, and edamame, which helps).

Our only favorite pizza place has stopped delivering. I’m rather heart-broken. It was one of a very few places I really liked. I went out to the dentist today and half the shops I passed were emptied and closed, rent signs hung on their doors. It’s quite sad to see the empty streets and galleries. I suspect it will take years to recover, assuming the next months don’t bring more disasters.

Who cut the cheese?

An ash-covered Tropeiro cheese from Minas Gerais, after suffering an unhappy week in shipping.

A cheese arrived by mail yesterday. It had spent a week in transit due to virus-related transportation delays. It was gray and moldy and wrinkled, and the strong cheesy smell of it easily escaped the thick layers of plastic wrap and cardboard which secured it, growing stronger as I cut them away.

Following cheesecare instructions I gently scraped away the white patches of mold with a bread knife. Then, not following cheesecare instructions, but personal experience, I put it on a plate in the fridge with a ventilated cover over it. Last time we had one of these cheeses we kept it in the cheese cage, but the temperatures here are quite warm and it sweated oil from the cut side. The texture was less than appealing with it being warm and oily like that. So this one will stay chilled.

I remembered a childhood expression while cutting this cheese. “Who cut the cheese??” was giggled on the schoolbus if someone farted, or when we passed a farm and a waft of manure-scented air came in. But I remember clearly that until high school I only ate Kraft American Cheese, the kind that came in a brick in a cardboard box. It had no smell. I don’t remember ever encountering a cheese with a cheesy smell in childhood. So the reference in the reaction to stinkiness was rote, learned from some generation who had known farmhouse cheese, perhaps?

When our high school French teacher decided to have a French Culture Day in class, she brought in brie cheese, a baguette, and perhaps some other things I have forgotten. She played a famous song on a tape recorder and sang along with it, embarrassing us. She was actually French and I think we all found her a bit intriguing and startling, though she was well-liked. Anyway, I remember everyone in class trying the cheese and most being rather horrified by the strange bitter taste, fungus-covered exterior, and rank smell. After high school I think I moved up to eating cheddar, but not much else. It took me decades more to attempt gorgonzola and other strong or moldy cheeses.