Meet Walt Kirspel, who was born in the USA. After travelling and working in Brazil he finally decided to move here. 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 am a 54 year old citizen of the USA. My career was in information systems, specializing in Warehouse Management Systems. My primary fields of expertise were Radio Frequency (RF) systems. First in bar code technology. The last several years in Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology.
I spent a considerable amount of time during 2000 and 2001 on a project in Mogi Mirim in the state of São Paulo. This was my first exposure to Brazil. During this period I met my wife Selma, a Brazilian citizen. We were married in January of 2003. From late 2002 until December of 2005 we lived in Woodstock, Georgia with her son Felipe, 15. I also have a son Travis (23) and daughter Amanda (20) by a prior marriage. Travis is a restaurant/bar manager. Amanda is a culinary student at Le Cordon Bleu.
2. When did you arrive in Brazil and what brought you here?
In February of 2005 I underwent quadruple bypass surgery. Upon my return to work I learned that the manufacturer I had been employed by for the past 20 years was going to reorganize and reduce it’s workforce in the USA by approximately 33%. Ironically much of the work was going off-shore, to Brazil, China and Russia. As the sole employee based in Atlanta, I was a target. Tough year, eh?
The prospect of finding new employment, particularly at the level of management I had attained, was not attractive. So I opted to take a package and retire. Much earlier than I previously anticipated. Or had planned for.
My dream had always been to retire to the beach. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to be exact. But the math didn’t add up. I couldn’t retire on my pension and live comfortably in the USA. Selma and I had always talked about the praia” in Brazil as another option. That option might allow us to retire in 2008 or 2009. When the reorganization presented this “opportunity”, we said “Why not now?”.
We decided on Guaruj because we were very familiar with this area. We had vacationed here many times. Selma is a native of Bauru so remaining in the state of São Paulo was a plus. And the proximity to international airports with service to the USA was important. My older son and daughter were remaining in the USA. So we purchased a cobertura in Guaruj several blocks off the beach. I retired the morning of December 31st, 2006. That night I was on the plane to Brazil. We moved into our new home January 13th.
We spent the first 3 months remodeling. Someone once told me I was crazy to retire and move to another country at the same time. In fact on the same day. Two significant life changes at the same time were too much stress. If this is an unwritten rule, we can now add Kirspel’s Corollary. Never retire, move and remodel at the same time. Never. But we are settled in now. And have finally begun to enjoy retirement at the beach in Brazil!
3. What were you first impressions of Brazil?
Actually, not good! I arrived at our factory in Mogi Mirim for the first time on a Monday morning in 2000. I had my first Brazilian meal in the factory cafeteria. That night I was sicker than I have ever been in my life. For the entire week I was sick. Sicker than you can imagine. Food poisoning. From my very first meal I ever had in Brazil!
And my first impressions of the city of São Paulo were not good. I would usually see it on Monday when I flew in. And Friday when I flew out. We would spend hours on the Marginals of São Paulo. Stuck in traffic. Passing favela after favela. My opinion of São Paulo was not good.
And then I met Selma in Campinas. On our first date she asked “do you like São Paulo?”. My response was very negative. So she asked “What are your experiences in São Paulo?”. All I could do was describe was the Monday mornings and Friday afternoons on the Marginals. Her reaction was “How can you be so negative about São Paulo? You know nothing about it!”. So over the next few years she gave me an education on the city of São Paulo. She was my tour guide. And I not only fell in love with her, I feel in love with the city.
It just goes to show, don’t judge a book by its cover. Or in this case, its Marginals!
4. What do you miss most about home?
Easy! I miss my children. Travis and Amanda. Travis was here several years ago in Guaruj when we vacationed. Amanda was actually here the first week of this month. Both love it here. Amanda especially loves the restaurants and the ethnic flavor of São Paulo. She was surprised how much it reminds her of New York City with all the ethnic neighborhoods.
Speaking and conversing in English. I miss communicating in my native tongue. I love Brazilians! I truly do. But sometimes it is nice to hear your native tongue.
Nachos with sour cream and jalapenos. I can’t buy sour cream here. Although we are learning to make it. And jalapenos are severely overpriced. So we are going to grow our own.
The Sopranos. When will HBO finally show the new season? And I don’t like the one week delay on American Idol.
My Atlanta Falcons. But I am able to watch my Atlanta Braves at www.mlb.tv. Although this season they are not playing that well.
High speed internet. I really miss high speed internet. Not what I have from Terra and Telefonica/Speedy here. It is slow. Very slow. This reminds me of my days using 300/1200 baud modems.
5. What has been your most frustrating experience in Brazil?
I am frustrated here working with the customer service departments for major utilities like Directv and Telefonica. Customer service with these folks is sometimes an oxymoron. Completely useless. And excuse me, but incompetent. This surprised me. As I was used to the Brazilian way of waiters and store clerks who were always very helpful. Extremely helpful. But with Directv and Telefonica comes a lesson in Procon. And the workings thereof.
6. What has been your most memorable experience in Brazil (specific incident)?
Two very memorable experiences. The first was bringing in the New Year of 2002 on Copacabana Beach with 2,000,000 of my new best friends in Brazil. What a night that was. What an experience. We took the night in directly in front of the Copacabana Hotel. Only as we were leaving did I realize that all the beautiful women that surrounded us had voices deeper than mine.
The second was the night of January 13th 2006. Sitting on the roof of our cobertura in Guaruj. By our pool. Looking up at a beautiful night sky and the stars of the southern hemisphere. And realizing how far I had come in the past few weeks. The immensity of the move we had made. And the life changes that had occurred. That moment was incredible.
7. What do you most like about Brazil (in general)?
Diversity. That is what I like most about Brazil. The diversity of people, cultures, land and food rivals that of the USA. No other place I have visited in the world has the diversity one finds here. It is truly beautiful.
And it has allowed me to live out my dreams. To retire to a beautiful beach with a beautiful wife and live life to it’s fullest.
8. What is your favorite restaurant/place to hang out here?
Our favorite restaurants in São Paulo – Famiglia Mancini, Restaurante Tako and OK Churrascaria.
Our favorite restaurants in Guaruj – Any Restaurante Avelino’s, Restaurante Rufino’s, Pizza Micheluccio.
9. Do you have any funny stories/incidents to tell about your time in Brazil?
My second trip to Brazil was almost as memorable as my first. I was scheduled for a trip to another factory in Porto Alegre. As luck would have it, what should have been a 9 hour flight to São Paulo became a 20 hour trip. Equipment problems. So I missed my connection to Porto Alegre.
It was only my second time in Brazil. My Portuguese was terrible. Non-existent. I got nervous over when to use obrigado and when to use obrigada at this point. I understood sim and não and that was about it. I went to the ticket counter to rebook for another flight to Porto Alegre. Expecting the worst. But as I later learned, Brazilians typically know a little English and are always willing to help. So I did much better with the clerk at the counter than I expected.
All was going well. Until he asked for my passport. Immediately upon opening it he got a bit excited. He looked at me and said “Joe Vee”. Hard to confuse “Walt” for “Joe”. I am quite confused at this point. But he is looking at me with a huge smile. Repeating “Joe Vee”… “Joe Vee”. I give it my best “huh?”, and hope that this translates in any language. He points to the passport and says “Joe Vee, Joe Vee, you are from New Jersey!!! Do you know Joe Vee?”.
Then it dawns on me! “Joe Vee”. “New Jersey”. Jon Bon Jovi. Bon Jovi is from New Jersey. He thinks I might know Jon Bon Jovi. Someone had once told me Bon Jovi is big in Brazil. I hadn’t realized how big. Until now.
But the story doesn’t end there. It occurs to me to pull this guy’s leg a little. To have a little fun. So I say to him “No, I don’t know Bon Jovi, but I know Bruce pretty well”. He looks at me quizzically. “Who’s Bruce?”. And I keep a straight face and say “Bruce Springsteen”. Thinking I will impress the guy. But no. He says “Who is Bruce Springsteen?”.
That let the air out of my sails. For someone born and raised in New Jersey, someone who spent every summer on the Asbury Park boardwalk, someone who spent more than a few nights of his youth in the Stone Pony, BRUCE IS THE MAN! But sadly not in Brazil. Bon Jovi is the man.
Of course I shouldn’t be surprised. If I told Selma that Elvis was the king, and not Roberto Carlos, that would be the start a long argument. An argument I am sure I would lose. Or regret that I won!
10. What difference between your homeland and Brazil do you find most striking?
I would have to say the apparent lack of a middle class. There just doesn’t seem to be one here. You are either wealthy, very wealthy. Or you are poor, very poor. And the ratio of wealthy to poor seems to be about 10% wealthy to 90% poor.
The level of security is also very different. Even Brazilians don’t feel secure here. We lived in the suburbs of Atlanta. And rarely locked our doors. Here our home is protected like a fortress.
And the infrastructure lags way behind. Particularly with streets and highways.
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 am someone who failed French-I three years running in high school. Foreign languages are not a strength. When Selma and I first met I worked hard to pick up the language. I purchased every computer based language package I could find. The Rosetta Stone series was my favorite.
And although Selma took English classes here and in the USA, Portuguese is the language we use to communicate. We do just fine because she speaks slowly and clearly. So we have don’t have a problem. But I still have problems understanding other Brazilians. Particularly if they speak very quickly. I have problems delineating where words begin and end.
I also have difficulty with the different pronunciation of Portuguese letters. I vividly recall the time two Brazilians friends suggested we go watch hockey. Born in New Jersey, I am an avid hockey fan and was quite surprised that there might be interest here. Imagine my surprise when we arrived at a bar playing rock music!
12. What advice do you have for newcomers to Brazil?
My first suggestion is to do everything you can to learn the language. The first year I worked here I did little to assimilate Portuguese. It wasn’t until I met Selma that I had the desire to learn. I wish I started earlier.
My second suggestion is to remember that this is not your homeland. This is not your culture. Accept the differences. Embrace them.
And my last suggestion is to try everything. Be open to new things. Be open to new places. Be open to new people. Explore! Enjoy!
13. What are some things that you would recommend for a visitor to do in São Paulo (or anywhere else in Brazil)?
I would recommend that they take in the beaches for certain. I have been to many of the beaches in the USA. Including Hawaii. I have seen them all. But the beaches here are especially beautiful.
In São Paulo I would take the time to explore the different ethic neighborhoods. The bairros. The diversity and ethnicity of São Paulo truly rivals New York City. I was born and raised 30 minutes from New York City. São Paulo reminds me of the “Big Apple” more than any other city I have visited.
And I would definitely suggest a visit to the Mercado Municipal. The place is a real treat. As is the street fair in the Placa da Republica on Sunday.
Lastly, travel and see as much of this beautiful country as you can!
You can contact Walt by email at email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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:
Priya Guyadeen – Guyana
Caitlin McQuilling – USA
Nicole Rombach – Holland
Steven Engler – Canada
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“