Brazil Through Foreign Eyes

June 8, 2007

Meet Timothy Bell, from the USA, who has travelled to Brazil several times and is currently working here. Read the following interview where he tells us about some of 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’m an American, from Texas (Dallas). After finishing my master’s degree in 1983 I went to Europe on an old-fashioned grand tour” and ended up staying in Germany. I studied for a while at Goettingen University, worked for a number of years as an orchestra musician (violinist), then went freelance as a translator and journalist. In 1992 I landed my present job teaching practical English and American studies at Erfurt University in the German state of Thuringia.

2. When did you arrive in Brazil and what brought you here?

I first came to Brazil in 1995 for three weeks, at the invitation of my Brazilian friend Ricardo, who operates a language school in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais. I had a great time and he invited me to come back and teach at his school if I were so inclined. I was, but it took a while. So last October, when I embarked on an 18-month leave of absence from my job in Germany, I went first to Australia and then headed straight for Brazil. I arrived at the end of January, got off to a good start with several days in Cabo Frio, and am now settled in for two semesters in Juiz de Fora. I knew instinctively that it was time for a change, and that Brazil would provide just the kind I needed.

3. What were you first impressions of Brazil?

My first impressions twelve years ago were mostly positive. I was a foreign visitor being given the royal treatment by my friend and his family. I hadn’t even been on the ground in Rio for two hours before I was whisked away to the top of Pão de Aucar to be overwhelmed by the resplendent view. My initial impression of Brazilians was of a very hard-working people – I’m told they are the hardest-working Latin Americans – who nevertheless know how to take time off and enjoy themselves, unlike most people in the US. On the negative side, I was struck by the very slow progress in environmental awareness and by the fact that pedestrians apparently have no rights: motorists don’t stop even for someone in a pedestrian crossing, and cars will suddenly dart from hidden ramps and driveways without the least bit of warning. It took me a while to learn this – the hard way – because in Germany motorists must always yield to foot traffic.

4. What do you miss most about home?

What with the current political climate, the only important things I miss about the US are the few friends and family members I still have there. What I miss most about my second home, Germany, are a heightened concern for the environment, cities that can be easily negotiated by bicycle and the best beer in the world.

5. What has been your most frustrating experience in Brazil?

When I went to the Federal Police headquarters to get my visa extended, I was turned away at the gate because I wasn’t wearing long trousers. Although my shorts extended well below the knees, a nasty little officer insisted that they were “Bermudas,” which are strictly forbidden. I had to go home, change clothes and come back, making the whole business take five times longer than it should have taken. My Brazilian friends all said “Typical! The worst thing in this country is when you need the police for something.” Interestingly, the rule does not apply to women – or at least isn’t enforced in their case. Should we wonder why?

6. What has been your most memorable experience in Brazil (specific incident)?

So far my most memorable experience was a trip to several of the colonial towns in Minas Gerais. Just walking the streets of Ouro Preto was fascinating, and I was very impressed by Aleijadinho’s magnificent sculptures at the famous basilica in Congonhas.I hope to visit all the cidades históricas this year.

7. What do you most like about Brazil (in general)?

I know it sounds like copy for a tourist brochure, but I responded immediately to the unique sensual atmosphere of the place, from the special qualities of sky and sunlight (special, that is, to someone who has spent more than two decades in cold northern climates) to the flavors of fruits and vegetables I never encountered in the US or Europe (maracuj, caj, taioba). But what I like most about being here is the way many Brazilians are impressed that I want to be here. They seem to really appreciate it when a foreigner wants to learn about their country and immerse himself in their culture.

8. What is your favorite restaurant/place to hang out here?

On returning to Brazil this year I was disappointed to learn that my favorite restaurant had closed down, a place in Rio de Janeiro called Peixe Frito, which had the best seafood buffet I have “experienced” anywhere. My favorite place still in business is also in Rio – a bar/restaurant called Vincius in Ipanema. It’s directly opposite a slick-looking bar called Garota de Ipanema, which is usually packed with tourists because that famous song and its composer Tom Jobim are well-known everywhere. But only Brazilians know about Vincius de Moraes, the wonderful poet who wrote the lyrics for “Garota”. So I just cross the road to the place named after him, where the atmosphere is more relaxed and personable and I don’t have to fight the world for a table.

9. Do you have any funny stories/incidents to tell about your time in Brazil?

Once at a bar on the Praia do Forte in Cabo Frio, I ordered my very first caipirinha, which I promptly sent back because there were ants floating in it. The bartender looked puzzled and promptly made me another one, which had even more ants. For a while he and his co-workers were laughing it up and speculating on how this breach of hygiene could have occurred. In the end they made four caipirinhas before discovering that the ants were everywhere in the bag of sugar they were using. I told him to forget it and just give me a beer, but he sent someone out to get more sugar and insisted on presenting me with an ant-free caipi at no charge. That’s my kind of bartender – one who aims to please.

10. What difference between your homeland and Brazil do you find most striking?

The attitude towards politics. Brazilians just take for granted that most politicians engage in corruption, so they are rarely disillusioned. In the US people seem willing to give even the worst “lying liars” the benefit of the doubt and are only disabused of their trusting attitude with great difficulty. However, once a corrupt American politician has been exposed and indicted, his or her career is over. Brazilians, on the other hand, will continue to re-elect someone convicted of crimes if he or she delivers on promises made to constituents. They probably think, “They’re all rotten, so we might as well elect the rotter who helps us out.”

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?

It’s not coming along as well as I would like. At work I’m surrounded by English teachers who are happy to have a native speaker to practice with. So while reading books and newspapers is no real problem anymore, my speaking is lagging way behind and I may have to blackmail some Brazilians into helping out. I’m one of those who learned Spanish first, and I find it both a help and a hindrance. Just when you think your vocabulary transfer is working and you can relax a little, Portuguese will double-cross you and you’ll be surrounded by false friends. I’ve realized that the best thing is to learn it as a totally new language and be glad when it overlaps with Spanish and saves you a few steps. My biggest problem in phonetics is remembering to pronounce the “R” in the back of the throat when necessary; I always want to say words like rio and carrinho the way I learned them in Mexico, and I still need a running start to pronounce ronronar. As for mixing up words, I still have problems distinguishing chuchu and Xuxa, the name of the famous children’s TV personality. You can imagine the embarrassing gaffes I’ve made by confusing a woman with a vegetable, especially a vegetable used in some of my favorite Brazilian dishes: chuchu recheado, sufl de chuchu – you get the picture.

12. What advice do you have for newcomers to Brazil?

Some things you’ve heard before but which bear repetition: cultivate patience, learn as much Portuguese as possible and let the place have its effect on you. Also, check your drinks for foreign bodies, look in both directions five times before crossing a street and, if you’re a man, make sure your legs are covered to the heel when you visit the police. (If you’re a woman, do the opposite.)

13. What are some things that you would recommend for a visitor to do in São Paulo (or anywhere else in Brazil)?

I haven’t been to São Paulo yet, but I do want to check it out while I’m here. From my experience so far I would say do some serious exploring in Rio de Janeiro – it’s a wild and amazing place, for all its problems. The superb coastline around Arraial do Cabo, the Serra dos Orgãos National Park and the historic cities of Minas Gerais are all worth the time and effort it takes to reach them.

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 gringoes@www.gringoes.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:

Paul James – USA
David McLoughlin – Ireland
Pat Moraes – USA
Richard Dougherty – USA
James Weeds – USA
Tom Sluberski – USA
Peter Kefalas – USA
Sylvie Campbell – UK
Kathleen Haynes – USA
Matt Bowlby – USA
Alan Longbottom – UK
Eric Karukin – USA
Eddie Soto – USA
Kieran Gartlan – Ireland
Bryan Thomas Scmidt – USA
Emile Myburgh – South Africa
Bob Chapman – USA
David Barnes – USA
John Milan – USA
Chris Coates – UK
Matthew Ward – UK
Allison Glick – USA
Drake Smith – USA
Jim Jones – USA
Philip Wigan – UK
Atlanta Foresyth – USA
Lee Gordon – USA
Carmen Naidoo – South Africa
Lee Safian – USA
Laurie Carneiro – USA
Dana De Lise – USA
Richard Gant – USA
Robin Hoffman – USA
Wayne Wright – UK
Walt Kirspel – USA
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

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