baby steps in white gloves

The sensations of thesis research are highly agreeable. I know I’m a big deal at the Institute now because they’ve given me white cloth gloves, not the disposable kind — they leave your hands with an unpleasant memory of stickiness and make your nose itch immediately after you’ve put them on. White gloves make everything more elegant, even if after turning several hundred manuscript pages the fingertips go a little greyish.The manuscript pages are small, perfectly cut, ranging in color from clean white to café latte, written with at least four different typewriters over the course of 60 years. The ink is black, blue, and grey. The air in the research room is dry and bright, and every couple of minutes the A/C roars on and makes it acceptable to whisper. The archivist wears a hospital mask, but I prefer to breathe in a bit of historic dust.

Every few hours I go outside to the garden to take in some fresh air, walking around eavesdropping on the tourists and the birds. Lunchtime is obscenely, tropically long, so I bring books and pick a bench facing Dois Irmãos. Yesterday afternoon the breeze kept dropping tiny white flowers on the pages of Cesare Pavese’s diary (fantastic except for when he’s a terrible, terrible misogynist, which are parts that I choose to ignore). By the time I finish for the day the stars are already out, and the walk back down the hill is lit by streetlamps. I have to cross PUC’s campus to get to the bus terminal, and I always quicken my pace a little.

Read 526 pages today, most of them in French. The Acciaiuoli, Guise, Cavalcabo, Lancia, and La Marck, to name just a few. My favorite for the day: the Tremoille family, including Gui VI de la Tremoille (1343-1397), le vaillaint chevalier, and Georges de la Tremoille (1382-1446), despotique, rapace, inépuisable en fourberies. 


fan mail

Snaps to the friend who pointed out the Reader Response to my Folha column, which contains the rudest compliment I’ve had the dubious pleasure of receiving recently:

Sense and Sensibility
Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, a 20-year-old “gringuinha,” has made a remarkable analysis of our “Brasilzão” (“A sensibilidade dos brasileiros”, Tendências e Debates, yesterday). Of course there are criticisms to be made, but, coming from a post-adolescent, it is truly admirable.
–João Guimarães de Barros (Goiânia, GO)

Razão e sensibilidade
É notável como Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, uma “gringuinha” de 20 anos, fez uma síntese desse nosso “Brasilzão” (“A sensibilidade dos brasileiros”, Tendências e Debates, ontem). É claro que há reparos, mas, tratando-se de uma pós-adolescente, não há como não admirar.
–João Guimarães de Barros (Goiânia, GO)

Let me register my disapproval of the use of the following terms in reference to my person:

  • gringuinha
  • post-adolescent

That is all.

it’s good to be back

Incredibly, the first day back in Rio lived up to months of feverish Buenos Aires speculation and longing. Miraculous good weather, a bike ride from Leblon to Santos Dumont without crashing into anyone, beach lolling and wave-jumping, walks along the Lagoa, and a ludicrously gorgeous sunset seen from Urca [pictured]. I should say that I am suffering from slight blog exhaustion [blogaustion], so at least for a few weeks I’ll be posting less frequently. I have to retool my blogging style in general, it strikes me; my time in Rio is no longer a process of discovering the city, a one-off adventure, but rather something else entirely, and so demands a different approach. Let me think about it while I finish off these bolinhos de bacalhau.

in which i open my mouth again


Folha de São Paulo, May 24, 2012, p.3

[english version]

When the Folha wrote to me asking for my “impressions of Brazilians,” I felt a sort of resigned déjà vu. It wasn’t the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last, that Brazilians have asked me what I think of them. But before I open my mouth (or pull up a Word document), the first thing that crosses my mind is always another question. Why do you all care what I think?

Throughout the six months I spent in Brazil, whenever I talked with people about my research, I sensed a sort of mutual incomprehension. Cariocas seemed mightily confused as to why on earth I would come all the way to Brazil to study Rio’s popular music in the 1920s and 30s, or why an American would major in Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures. I returned the skepticism with equal vigor. For my part, I wondered why everyone wasn’t studying Brazil, or why the bookstores had such small sections of “Brazilian Literature,” for that matter. None of it made sense.

What I found the strangest was the way that Brazilians would react to praises of their culture. When I said that I loved Clarice Lispector, or that I’d come to research Francisco Alves, this was taken with inordinate joy and surprise. “This American came to study Noel Rosa!” bellowed one stranger in a Copacabana bar, and a small crowd gathered round to gawk and interrogate. It was as if people didn’t believe that Brazil was interesting enough to merit serious study. My curiosity was a sort of blessing from on high, which could sanctify Brazilian culture as part of the Universal Canon. “Princeton has classes on Brazilian literature?” Of course it does. I’m taking a seminar on Machado de Assis next semester.

On the other hand, when I felt daring enough to say that I didn’t like something about Brazil, the reaction could often be overwhelming. Again, my opinion was rarely taken at face value; either I was informed in no uncertain terms that I had no idea what I was talking about nor the right to judge, or people fell over backwards agreeing that yes, I was right, [X] was completely terrible and incidentally [X] symbolized exactly what was wrong with Brazil, this is why we need outsiders to come and tell us what our problems are. Continue reading