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.

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!

Come spend the day!

Detail of a tapestry showing the visit of the Most Holy Virgin to her cousin Elizabeth. She stayed a while!

One of the many strange things I’ve adapted to in Brazil is really long visits. I was so used to the all-business, in-a-hurry, let’s-not-overstay-our-welcome kind of visits I knew in the US that it’s taken me years to acclimate to the pace of visits here. This week’s spate of post-quarantine visits included:

  • Six hours with a dear friend: 3 hours of cheese, salami, olives and wine; followed by a one hour walk to digest and pray a rosary, then two more hours eating beef stew and talking.
  • Five hours with another dear friend a few days later: lots of conversation; coffee and cake; more chatting, taking photos, and hanging out; turning down the invitation to stay for dinner (tripe stew…I couldn’t do it).
  • Eight hours with another dear friend the day after that: several hours of conversation, several hours of eating, more talking, more eating, and a good long time spent looking at beautiful art books.

I was telling another friend about it later and she said the customs that she’s known are a) the ‘come for lunch, stay til dark’ visit and b) the ‘come spend the day while the husbands are at work’ visit.

I was marveling at the quality of time one gets with a friend when one spends all day, and not all day running around going places and being seen and so on, but just sitting at home talking. With that kind of uninterrupted attention to each other you really can delve into long stories and wandering musings. The friendship gets treasured and pampered and polished and cared for. It seems to me to put priorities straight. God gave me these friends to love and be loved by. Generosity and gratitude seem much better responses than fussing about whether I’ve checked off three more to-dos on my to-do list.

Then again, I’m a gringo, so today there were no more visits and I fretted over my to-do list. But I do think most everything on it, barring a few bills to pay, can be done tomorrow with no harm to anyone.

Dear friends

Now and then I catch up on Facebook, and a few posts down comes that showcase of People I May Know. I spent a while browsing them tonight, and they are an interesting assortment.

I know her…I think. High school? No. But the name is familiar, even if the face is not.

I know that face. From where? But the name…doesn’t ring a bell.

Oh! There she is! I haven’t seen her in ages. But should I friend her? We were never very close and don’t have much in common.

Um. I knew him, but he seems to have taken a turn for the weird. Not interested in reconnecting.

Oh my! She was one of the kids I made videos for when I had a horse show video business. Now grown up.

Hm. Same last name as my cousin…but I don’t know them. Must be in-laws of cousins?

It’s surprising how many people stick with one focus or job or activity all their lives (still riding horses! still playing with that band! still working in IT!), and how many go from one thing to another. I admire the former a bit, but I’m one of the latter a bit.

Well, I didn’t add more friends. Trying to keep the information stream under control. But it was fun seeing so many people I might know.