By Michael Marsden
I’m English, I live in Rio de Janeiro, and my relationship with Brazil has its ups and downs. We’ve been together for five years and, like many couples, we have good days and bad days.
Some of the things that happen on bad days will be familiar to other foreigners living in Brazil. I suspect, however, that when many other people have bad days they manage, unlike me, to remain good-humoured and keep their sense of perspective.
If I had to imagine my worst possible day in Rio, it would have to feature a queue in a bank. Not just any queue, but an immense, endlessly twisting anaconda of resigned-looking cariocas. There would be five counters, but only two clerks. Two other bank employees would tease me by loitering tantalisingly close to the empty counters, poised to alleviate the human suffering in front of them, but then wandering off out of sight, never to return. I’d mutter self-righteously to myself about disorganisation, and about Brazilians’ passivity in the face of third-rate service.
When finally leaving the bank, my bom humor already exhausted, I’d be ready to let the slightest thing irritate me. Knowing this, someone would drive past in an expensive car and nonchalantly throw a tin can out of the window. Suddenly I’d have to suppress one of my unhealthy neo-colonial fantasies, the one in which I’m the authoritarian governor of Rio decreeing draconian punishments for littering and other minor eco-crimes.
Later, at home, I would turn on the TV and be confronted by the ample form of Faustão, relentless in his appeal to the lowest common denominator, a man always ready to throw his considerable weight behind the forces intent on dragging Brazilian TV ever downwards. Like other sufferers from Faustophobia across the nation, I’d struggle with the urge to throw a heavy object at such a temptingly wide target.
The day from hell would end with a condominium meeting in the building where I live. Everyone would talk, very loudly, at the same time, and it would take all night to reach a conclusion. The conclusion would be that decisions about most items on the agenda would have to be deferred until the next meeting. At least a couple of residents would say astonishingly mean-spirited things about the porteiros, or about their empregadas. I’d take the opportunity to silently condemn the Brazilian middle-class for its disdain towards the underprivileged majority (I also generalise a lot on bad days), while reassuring myself that I’m an enlightened outsider untainted by local prejudices.
As I said before, I don’t think I handle bad days in Brazil very well. On such days I’ve been known to look back across the proverbial fence to England, which I still call home, and tell myself that the grass is much greener on the other side. Actually I do think there are many good things about my country (and not just beer and curry, the banal examples that always seem to spring to mind), but usually I know better than to try to idealise it from a distance.
On the whole I manage not to pretend that spending time in English banks is a spiritually uplifting experience, or that my country is a shining example of social solidarity, or that there isn’t any rubbish on British TV. (Just think of Jim Davidson or Noel Edmonds. If you’re not British and don’t know who they are, just be thankful.)
Actually, one of the most negative aspects of England is something I was only vaguely aware of when I lived there, but which my time in Brazil has made glaringly obvious. I’ve flown home from Rio six or seven times, and upon arrival I’ve always been struck not just by the pale and flabby appearance of most of my compatriots – my country urgently needs about forty million sunbeds and exercise bikes – but also by something more disconcerting. Compared with cariocas, an awful lot of English people look vaguely displeased, disgruntled, or just downright miserable.
Of course appearances can be deceptive, and not all the people in the airport with long faces are as morose as they appear. But even leaving aside superficial impressions, there are still some ways in which a lot of my compatriots compare badly with most Brazilians. Whenever I go home I’m always struck by how unanimated and undemonstrative many English people are. A certain difficulty when it comes to expressing emotion also probably explains the remarkable penchant for understatement and indirect communication, and – though I still love the British sense of humour – the overuse of irony. Nowadays I tend to find these characteristics exasperating, mainly because they seem so unnecessary. Deep down English people have as much passion and calor humano as Brazilians or anyone else, so why do so many of them have to hide it behind defensive walls? (After five years away, can I get away with using them” and not “us”?)
If I could export one characteristic of Brazil to England, it would be the pervasive exuberance of the people. Of course, to talk about Brazilian exuberance or alegria is to run the risk of using clichs, so numerous are the banalities have been said and written about these qualities. (Indeed, I probably could have stolen “pervasive exuberance” from the back-cover of a guidebook to Brazil, but I promise I didn’t.) Alegria can also be something of a dangerous theme – surely we’ve all heard someone try to dismiss Brazil’s social problems with the assertion that most people here are “poor but happy”.
And yet the exuberance continues to enchant me here, even more than the sensuality in the air or the stunning backdrop to the city. It’s the main reason I’m still around, and the main reason why, whenever I fly back here from England, I share the reaction Tom Jobim described in Samba do Avião: my soul sings when I see Rio de Janeiro. And what’s more, from an altitude of ten thousand feet, there isn’t a single bank queue to spoil the view.