Meet Steven Engler, from Canada, who has been travelling to and working in Brazil during the last 20 years. Read the following interview where he tells us about his most memorable experiences from Brazil and gives some useful advice to newcomers.
1. Tell us a little about yourself, where are you from, what do you do etc.?
I was born in Prince George, in the interior of British Columbia, Canada. I grew up in Hedley, Meadow Creek, Penticton, Creston, and Princeton (with a year of high school in Brazil), studied at Universities in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montral, and taught/researched (Philosophy and Religious Studies) in Vancouver, Montral, Camrose, Edmonton, and Calgary. I am in Brazil on a two-year leave from my job as a Religious Studies Instructor at Calgary’s Mount Royal College. That means, in Brazilian terms, that I’m from Prince George, and, in Canadian terms, that I’m from Calgary.
2. When did you arrive in Brazil and what brought you here?
I first came to Brazil in 1978-79. I spent a year as a Rotary exchange student in São João da Boa Vista, a small city in the interior of São Paulo near the border with Minas Gerais. I learned the language and loved the music, food, climate, and social life. I returned in 1982 to spend six months visiting friends and traveling the country: up the coast by car, bus, and sailboat from Rio to Belm, by boat to Manaus, by bus to Porto Velho, by train to Campo Grande, and then down into Paran via Asunción, before returning to São João. I kept in touch and exchanged visits with friends over the intervening years.
I am currently spending a year as a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, supported by a grant from the Fundaão de Amparo Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP). I am also an adjunct researcher at the Centro “Cardeal Arns” de Estudos Interdisciplinares (CECREI) at the PUC/SP, working on relations between science and religion. (I was interviewed on Rede Vida recently discussing this subject.) I have been teaching, serving on thesis committees, researching, writing, and attending and speaking at conferences. Brazil is one of the best laboratories in the world for the social scientific study of religion and its relations to other aspects of society.
3. What were you first impressions of Brazil?
That first day, in August of 1978, was filled with disconnected impressions of newness and difference, seen at first from the windows of a car: rich red soil; a thousand shades of green; overloaded Mercedes-Benz trucks with brightly painted wooden rails clogging the narrow highway; the brilliant sunlight, heat, and humidity; an endless stream of Volkswagen fuscas, Braslias, and kombis relieved by the occasional Chevette or Opala; mysterious trees and bushes, many flowering yellow, red, or pink; insane motorcyclists passing and being passed on the edges and in the centre of the asphalt; neat rows of coffee plants and the jumbled bamboo chaos of cane stalks; horse drawn carts on the shoulder of the road; bloated clouds that seemed both larger and more distant than the clouds of home. My host family picked me up, and none of them spoke a word of English. The Portuguese lessons began right away, with much pointing and waving of hands. My pocket dictionary was passed around the car from hand to hand, and we lobbed isolated badly pronounced words back and forth like kids at their first tennis lesson. Above all, I remember the cool and calm of the room I was shown to when we arrived, and where I was left in peace for an afternoon nap: a room with dark parquet floors; floor to ceiling closets; a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall; two fragile-looking wood-frame beds, each with one thin red-checked blanket; and a view out over a tiny yard with a lone papaya tree and a whitewashed wall, and beyond, palm fronds floating in a sea of red tile roofs.
4. What do you miss most about home?
I miss the obvious things: friends and family; the qubecois dimension of Canadian culture; hockey on TV; the bright colours of autumn leaves; the faded green of ponderosa pines; the Rocky mountains in the distance; the silence of snowy morning streets; walking by the Bow River; the smell of lilacs in June; big skies and summer thunderstorms; not to mention more personal space in public, an intelligible grid of city streets, and well-funded university libraries.
Like anyone living abroad, I miss certain foods that are hard or impossible to find in Brazil: Montral-style bagels, dark rye bread that isn’t sweet, Morning Glory muffins, cheddar and feta cheese, vegemite, quality tinned tuna, Boddington’s bitter and Calgary’s own Traditional Ale, crisp romaine lettuce, and, of course, fresh apples and blackberries. After several months here, I have found the feta and versions of or substitutes for a couple of the others. All in all, though, the joy of eating Brazilian foods far outweighs my saudades for the foods of home. Beyond the things all foreigners seem to love (feijoada, churrasco, guaran, and caipirinhas) I am thinking here (my mouth watering) of pão de queijo, bolinhas de bacalhau, carne seca, mandioca frita, cerveja Original, atemóia, doce de abobura com coco, torta paulista, pamonha (“pamonha de Piraicaba!”) and rosquinhas de coco.
I find myself missing a bunch of less obvious things as well, things like waiting for an almost empty bus on a frosty morning, bilingual food labels, making right turns on red lights, and the mix of French, Mandarin, Hindi, Arabic, Cantonese, Urdu, Russian, and other languages (occasionally even Portuguese) that you hear on Canada’s urban streets. I occasionally hear snippets of Spanish or English in São Paulo, but there is definitely a more imposing linguistic monoculture in Brazil. I also miss finding a well-stocked science fiction section in the bookstores. Stephen King (!) and Erich von Daniken (!!!) are easy to find in the ficão cientfica section, if there is one. But I suspect Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s was slightly misshelved.
5. What has been your most frustrating experience in Brazil?
Having consumed enough “chair tea” to last several lifetimes, I no longer consider frustrating the cavalcade of Kafkesque glitches, pitches, hitches, and switches that bedevil such tasks as registering for an R.N.E., opening a bank account, or dealing with cell phone companies. That’s just life. Frustration is the more subtle experience of never quite being able to read all the social and linguistic signals that determine the flexible, improvisational, and intensely personalized interactions of day-to-day life. (Back home I know the rules. Back home there are rules.)
6. What has been your most memorable experience in Brazil (specific incident)?
One of my most memorable experiences in Brazil was watching the 1982 World Cup and Brazilians’ reactions to it. I was in São Paulo for the penultimate game and was blown away by the carnaval that exploded on Avenida Paulista after that victory. That was my first experience of the power of a Trio Eltrico cranked up to 110 decibels. I felt an even greater impact while out walking at the moment the final game ended, in tragic defeat at the hands of Paulo Rossi and the Italian team: dead-quiet streets, no traffic, and an elderly man crouched against a wall sobbing openly. I could almost see a lone tumbleweed rolling down Paulista to fetch up against a tattered Brazilian flag hanging forlornly from the window of the one car on the street, the driver respecting the red light as if it finally meant something. The 1982 team was amazing, yet failed so miserably. As I write this (not long after the Edmonton Oilers sadly failed to win this year’s Stanley Cup), I am gearing up to cheer for Brazil in their next game, wearing my canarinho, filling up on popcorn, and waiting for the city to erupt in sound after every Brazilian goal. I hope this year’s team, tão badalado quanto, makes up for ’82;.
7. What do you most like about Brazil (in general)?
I like the easygoing, open, friendly social relations. Brazilians (to judge from the circles I move in) are less judgmental (more accepting of people for who they are, not to mention accepting “traffic” as a great excuse for any lateness), less hypocritical (running people down behind their back is more public here, which makes it easier to deal with and to dish out in return), and less self-righteous. (This last point in interesting: I have seen everything from this characteristic to government corruption blamed on Brazilians’ “insecurity” when comparing themselves to the “first world”, but I think this is patronizing and simplistic.) Whenever I return home after spending time in Brazil, many of the greetings and smiles that Canadians offer seem insincere. In Brazil, when I ask how someone is doing, they actually tell me, which made me quite uncomfortable at first. Many of the “negative” aspects of Brazilian culture and institutions (especially the badly functioning impersonal “system”) have the positive side effect of emphasizing this importance of personal relations, and of creating spaces for these to work themselves out at their more leisurely pace. Of course, it can all get a bit intense at times. Sometimes I almost miss the supercilious and painted-on smiles of casual workmates and Starbucks clerks back home; after all, they emphasize the privacy of my personal space, making it clear that most of my fellow Canadians are quite happy to preserve our mutual distance. (You ignore my back, I’ll ignore yours.)
8. What is your favorite restaurant/place to hang out here?
My favourite place for chopp and petiscos is the Tekinfin in São João da Boa Vista. The food is good, the chopp gelado, and, of course, the company is great. I still have many friends in São João, and my girlfriend is sanjoanense. I have been going to the Tekinfin (more off than on) for many years. It is a loud place, apparently designed, as many Brazilian bars and restaurants seem to be, to maximize the echoing frenzy of excited voices. A thick coating of ice forms around the case that holds the taps and around the thick pipe that delivers the chopp down from the floor above. I find it refreshing on a hot day just to stare at the pillar of ice. The bar opens out onto the sidewalk, where a half dozen tables encourage passers by to stop and chat.
I find that the trick with places like the Tekinfin is to succeed in heading off the waiters as they try to plunk down another choppinho when you are finishing off what you, naãvely, imagine to be your last. They swoop in silently, almost invisible, and deposit a fresh chopp beside any glass that has reached the point of being less than a quarter full. You don’t order another beer; it just appears. Barring catching them at the exact moment of their miraculous apparition, or sending an unwanted full glass back, the only solution is to place a coaster over the glass as a sort of white flag, thus admitting defeat, with a meek “Please, sir, can I have no more?” I prefer to soldier on, hoisting a glass to the waiters when they win yet another another round. (Fortunately, there always seems to be a full glass at hand to toast their victory.) Someday, I may be sufficiently acculturated (or sober?) to see them coming.
9. Do you have any funny stories/incidents to tell about your time in Brazil?
I had an interesting Portuguese lesson once, talking on the phone to a fellow high school student during my first year here when I was just learning the language. I said something that she found amusing (quite a challenge given my limited vocabulary). She laughingly told me that I was “um barato”. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to show some gallantry, and to demonstrate my grasp of masculine and feminine word endings, I replied suavely that she was “uma barata”. The complement fell a bit flat, given that she called me a hoot and I called her a cockroach.
10. What difference between your homeland and Brazil do you find most striking?
There is a polarity in Brazilian social interactions that continues to surprise me. On the one hand, there is a wonderful warmth and sociability among family, friends, and social connections. On the other hand, there is an incredible lack of respect for people outside that immediate circle, in anonymous situations like driving in the streets, dealing with nameless functionaries, or jostling for position in public spaces. I don’t mean to suggest that Brazil is better or worse than Canada on these or any other counts. The countries are just different, for a variety of complicated reasons.
Brazilians are individualists in public spaces with good cause. Family and personal relations work; the government and the “system” don’t. One offshoot of all this is a lack of trust: lack of trust that the system will work, and distrust of people outside one’s circle, both views often quite justified. One of the things I miss, living in São Paulo, is people accepting with appreciation (rather than suspicion, gloating, or derision) my polite offers to open a door for them or to allow their car a space in front of mine in traffic. Always the polite Canadian, I have opened doors for people on four continents, and only in Brazil do (a few) people look at me suspiciously and refuse the offer, as if such unusual behaviour on my part might indicate a desire to get in behind and pick their pocket. In one way it is amusing, but there is a vicious circle here. If I don’t think it worth my while to be polite to strangers, why would I expect them to respect me? If they don’t respect me, why should I be polite to or trust them? I open doors to strangers in Canada because, as a general rule, my experience backs up my confidence that they would do the same for me. If I had grown up in Brazil, this would not have been my experience. (But I would definitely be better at working the jeitinho.)
All in all, it is a lot more interesting and pleasurable to slowly catch on to the Brazilian way of doing things. I find Canada a little too cold, in more than degrees Celsius. In social and personal terms, I prefer life in Brazil (close social relations are more social here); although in professional and impersonal terms, I prefer life in Canada (distant social relations are more respectful and dependable there). I like both the calor humano of a Brazilian casa and the cool politeness of Canadian streets. Too bad it’s such a long commute. But Brazil’s positive and negative extremes (the sociability at home and the impersonality away from it) are flip sides of the same coin. All in all, as a Canadian circulating in the Brazilian social economy, I am more than happy with the exchange rate.
11. How is your Portuguese coming along? What words do you find most difficult to pronounce/remember or are there any words that you regularly confuse?
I speak, read, and write well. (I have taught graduate courses, spoken at conferences, and published academic papers in Portuguese.) But I still can’t tell where the line between “ali” and “l” is. (English distinguishes neatly between “here” and “there”, and I unconsciously transpose this dualistic logic into the more flexible Portuguese scheme, asking how things are going “l” when speaking to someone on the phone, for example, instead of the correct “a”.) I was at a party a couple of months ago and-switching into learning mode-I asked my girlfriend if the cake (about 4 metres away) were “ali” or “l”. She and two other women in the circle, all Brazilians, agreed that it was clearly “l”. Then I asked if the people standing just this side of the cake (about 3.5 metres away) were “ali” or “l”. Clearly “ali”, everybody agreed. So I walked around for a couple of weeks thinking that “l” starts at 4 metres, until a different conversation proved this too to be wrong. It’s all relative. But I still haven’t figured out what it is relative to. (Maybe I should start asking Brazilian children where things stand, as they seem to pick up this subtle distinction quite handily.)
12. What advice do you have for newcomers to Brazil?
Brazilian culture is personal. It is easy to have a superficial connection with Brazilians but hard to know them well. (I don’t claim to know more than a handful at all well. I feel like I am just past the phase of breaking the ice, having known my soon-to-be-in-laws for a quarter century.) This leads to a lot of stereotypes, as outsiders judge public faces and behaviours, not what goes on in hearts and homes. Unless you commit a big chunk of your life to this (or any foreign) culture, you come away with a narrow and misleading picture. Of course, this is only a problem if you fail to recognize the limitations of your experiences. (In practically terms [seriously!], I recommend spending a few months with map of the world turned “upside down” on your wall to see the way the world really looks.)
13. What are some things that you would recommend for a visitor to do in São Paulo (or anywhere else in Brazil)?
I suggest going to the nearest padaria, ordering a cafezinho and a pão de queijo, and asking the Brazilians gathered around the counter about places to go and things to do. There is invariably someone who speaks enough English to get the ball rolling, and on that path you will gather moss no more .
Are you a foreigner who has lived in, or is living or travelling in Brazil? Are you a Brazilian who has a lot of contact with foreigners and/or lived outside of Brazil? Are you interested in telling your story? If you would like to volunteer for our interview series, or if you would like to recommend someone, please send a blank email to email@example.com with “Interview” in the subject. We will send you the interview questions by return email.
To read previous interviews in the Brazil Through Foreign Eyes series click below:
Richard Conti – USA
Zak Burkons – USA
Ann White – USA
Monde Ngqumeya – South Africa
Johnny Sweeney – USA
David Harty – Canada
Bill McCrossen – USA
Peter Berner – Switzerland/Brazil
Ethan Munson – USA
Solveig Skadhauge – Denmark
Sean McGown – USA
Condrad Downes – UK
Jennifer Silva – Australian
Justin Mounts – USA
Elliott Zussman – USA
Jonathan Abernathy – USA
Steve Koenig – USA
Kyron Gibbs – USA
Stephanie Early – USA
Martin Raw – UK
Sean Coady – UK
Hugo Delgado – Mexico
Sean Terrillon – Canada
Jessie Simon – USA
Michael Meehan – USA
Thales Panagides – Cyprus
Tammy Montagna – USA
Samantha Tennant – England
Ron Finely – United States
Bob Duprez – United States
Peter Baines – England
Youssef Bouguerra – Tunisia
Van Wallach – USA
Lesley Cushing – England
Alexander von Brincken – Germany
Hank Avellar – USA
Ed Catchpole – England
Penny Freeland – England
Yasemin de Pinto – Turkey
Amy Williams Lima – USA
John Naumann – England
Marsye Schouella – Eygpt
Rita Shannon Koeser – USA
John Fitzpatrick – Scotland
Liam Gallagher – Northern Ireland
Lorelei Jones – England
Adam Glensy – England
Tommie C.B. DeAssis – Japan
Aaron Day – Canada
Graham Debney – New Zealand
Silke Tina Tischendorf – Germany
Tanya Keshavjee Macedo – Canada
Frank de Meijer – Holland
Carl Emberson – Australia
Kim Buarque – Wales
Damiano Pak – South Korea
Jonas Helding – Denmark
Pari Seeber – Iran
John Milton – England
Ken Marshall – Australia“