bre’r rabbit taught me a thing or two

The wonderful and perverse thing about my carioca friends is that most of the time they seem to want to torture me. Rather, if I announce that I don’t like something – Roberto Carlos, jaboticaba, strange animal parts, Brazilian baked goods – they will go out of their way to provide me with more in the hopes that I’ll change my mind. You’d think it would work the opposite way.  “Oh, you like popular music from the 20s and 30s? Come to [insert show here]! This is so great, we can explore our mutual interests!” Alas, those reactions are few and far between. The extent of this can be perfectly expressed by the ratio of the number of chicken hearts I have eaten to the number of Noel Rosa listening parties I have attended (but, then again, you can’t divide by zero).

And I will freely admit that it has not been all bad. I still regard Roberto Carlos with a mix of horror and fascination (and am now fearing that this post will lead to me being dragged to see a Roberto Carlos cover band); I have yet to try life-changing jaboticaba; and I would really be okay not consuming any more chicken ventricles. But let the record show that I have now had excellent bolo in Brazil.

But I find myself wondering, in the vein of the Uncle Remus stories, how far I can exploit this cruel-but-kind tendency. Let’s try this: hey, guys, you know what I really hate? Antiquarian Brazilian bookstores. God, they’re so awful, I would really throw a fit if someone tried to take me to one of those. And if someone gave me tickets to see João Gilberto in the Municipal, I’d haul off and punch them in the nose. That guy is the worst.

[sits back and waits]


who remembers chico?

“On this day in 1952, Brazil came to a stop.”

That was my fun fact of the day on Tuesday. I don’t know what sort of reaction I was expecting to get out of people, but when I told my rowing instructor as he was helping me into the boat, his face suddenly got very grave. I felt the need to offer up supplementary information.  “On September 27th, 1952, Francisco Alves died in a car accident on the way back from São Paulo.”  He was staring at me with a very serious expression. I was about to offer more details when he cut in. I thought he was going to reveal that he was a long-lost relative of Chico Alves’, or that he was Chico’s biggest fan. Instead, he put up a hand to shush me and said, almost in a whisper, “There is a bee on your shirt.”

I shooed it away and he launched me off onto the Lagoa; we spoke no more about Chico Alves. But I had all of a blindingly sunny spring morning, rowing in little circles, to think about the events of September 27th, 1952.

“The sorrowful, fateful news took hold of the city:  Francisco Alves has died!” bellowed A Manhã. “Weep, people of Rio; weep, people of Brazil,” wailed o Diário da Noite. On September 29th – this day in 1952 – the funeral procession stretched on as far as the eye could see, confounding journalists’ capacities at estimation. I could try to give a sense of the feeling of loss that wracked the country, but I think that O Dia does a better job than I ever could:

To the son who translated the extent of its sensibility and romantic lyricism, the city gave the posthumous worship that he deserved. Francisco Alves was, without a doubt, the greatest popular singer born on these shores, interpreter of the pure poetry that springs up in simple souls and expands itself in stanzas of profound sentiment. From his gifted throat flew the most lovely melodies ever invented to express collective sorrows and joys. And the records that captured the magnificent troubadour’s harmonies permitted that miracle of touching consecration. The man died in the frightful accident that cut the thread of his life, but his spirit, his soul, remain in the marvelous voice preserved for perpetuity. The homages which the stations paid to the prodigious singer gave the impression that the wreckage… gave off the splendid, vibrant sounds which filled the air of the metropolis and the whole country, as if affirming the fragility of death before the force of genius. And in the moment Francisco Alves descended to his tomb, across the country could be heard that sentimental, that most Brazilian of voices…
O Dia, September 30, 1952.

It’s been nearly 60 years, and for most people those wounds seem to have healed. But I found myself retracing the steps of the funeral procession and making my way back to São João Batista to see if anyone besides an American music researcher would come to remember o Rei da Voz. Continue reading

nosso malandro

Part of our cultural patrimony.

Saying that something is untranslatable is the recourse of the inept translator. Nevertheless, I will confess that I’ve been sowing nothing but confusion whenever I try to explain a term which seems self-explanatory in American English. I don’t know if it’s me, or them, or if I’ve hit upon English’s version of the malandro, but I cannot for the life of me make Brazilians understand what a frat boy is.

“Like a Mauricinho?” someone asked. Mauricinho – review time – is the Brazilian term for a posh preppy kid. Visions of Princeton Lawnparties flashed into my head, but I had to dismiss them. The first time I was confronted with the task of explaining the frat boy, I had a computer in front of me; I ran to Google Images, but none of the results helped. Even Urban Dictionary failed me.  My explanations only seemed to confuse Brazilians more. Frat boy can mean anything from a douchebag in a salmon-colored polo to a sweaty meathead in a tank top throwing beer on everyone. Blank looks. “Are frat boys popular?” Popular, mas chato. “How is that possible?” I gave up and ended up emailing them an article from Salon from 2001 that talks at length about George Bush. Am I totally off base? Is the frat boy a definable quantity? For me, it’s like the famous definition of pornography: I know a frat boy when I see one.

Ah, but the confusion cuts both ways. While the malandro may be overanalyzed to death, I’ve recently learned of another male Brazilian archetype that I am at an utter loss to translate. Continue reading

delicadeza no engenhão

It couldn’t have been otherwise.

The 21 years in which Botafogo went without winning a single title are one kind of tragedy; one could argue that Sunday’s game was one in the much purer sense, if on a massively smaller scale. First act ends up, second act takes a gut-punching nosedive. Unity of action, unity of place, and unity of time. Aeschylus would have been proud.

What brought it on, of course, was our hubris.

This may be a perfect storm of victim-blaming and magical thinking, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that our collective optimism had somehow altered the atoms of the alvinegro universe. Our ascension felt like a fait accompli. The only question that remained: would it be by 3×0 or 3×1? Trivial details. The Brasileirão could end then and there, for all we cared.

The team came onto the field under a shower of confetti, glitter, and black-and-white balloons. A toothy alvinegro zeppelin did loop-de-loops around the stadium, and Fúria Jovem threatened to shake the east wing into pieces. The speakers leaped to life, blaring a distorted version of – was it? – “The Imperial March.” The black and white army, goose-stepping onto the field; for a split second I saw stormtroopers.

The picture was all wrong. Rather, it was perfectly clear. The overconfident team playing at home, poised to steamroller the opponent in a shower of balloons and shut down the championship right then and there. If it were a Disney movie, we’d officially crossed over from Lovable Misfits to Stuck-Up Rich Kids. Sure, São Paulo is one of the richest clubs in Brazil; I don’t mean that literally. On that Sunday afternoon, in the dramatic arc of the game, we became the Evil Empire, Cobra Kai, and the Hawks all rolled into one. Continue reading


The horrible thing about people saying I have perfect Portuguese is that almost immediately afterwards – especially if that’s how I’m introduced to someone – I tend to get so psyched out that I start speaking like a POR 108 student on the first day of the subjunctive. (Glory, hubris, and a heart-wrenching fall: uncomfortably similar to the last two football games I suffered through.) My linguistic fluency, which continues to be shocking when juxtaposed with my impressive whiteness, gotten to the point where many Brazilians feel the need to challenge me on it. Last week I found myself facing down half a dozen Brazilian friends who were searching in vain for words in Portuguese that I didn’t know.  We went through a long list, including the words for “disparate” and “kidney,” until they hit on the words for “saline solution” and “walrus”. Congratulations, guys, you’ve expanded my vocabulary! The next time a walrus flops up on the beach in Leblon desperately needing to change out its contact lenses, I will be fully equipped to explain the situation.

Cat sound!

A linguistic peculiarity, too short to merit its own post:  Portuguese appears to have no word for hissing – as in, angry-cat sound. I discovered this when I was trying to describe the time that a raccoon got into the house through the basement (long story) and suddenly ran up against that lexical lacuna. How on earth must they translate the sound effects in the Catwoman comics, is my question.


“Faça isso não.”

This is yet another linguistic quirk in Brazilian Portuguese, which I like to call the inverted negative fake-out.  When Brazilians are telling you something in the negative, they won’t always put the “não” up front, to the extent that it comes almost as a psych-out. “Pode sentar lá não.”  For the first 75% of that sentence, you’re led on in the vain hope that you can, in fact, sit over there; then comes the sting of rejection.  It is, and I say this with the utmost affection, like Borat trying to learn how to be sarcastic. This shop is abertanão; that bus passanão; this suit is blacknot.

My posts about language have been somewhat controversial (and I say that having written actually controversial things). Either readers are amused (intended effect) or offended, or believe that I am seriously obtuse (also possible) and then send me long emails trying to explain that “tudo bem” is an idiomatic phrase and that it’s not literal and if I need help with Portuguese grammar they would be happy to give me lessons (seriously). Considering starting off every post with some sort of subtle signal that humor is being employed. Another possibility: just ending every commentary with a big LOL JK. Continue reading