Meet Ethan Munson, from the USA, who has travelled a lot in both the USA and Brazil. Although he still lives in the USA he spends time with his girlfriend/fiance in Rio. 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.?
My name is Ethan Munson. I’m an American, about 50 years old, and divorced. I am a professor of computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I travel a lot outside the US because I organize various conferences on computer software for documents.
I currently live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but have also lived in Boston, North Carolina, and various parts of California. Since people from outside the US rarely know anything about Milwaukee, I’ll say that it’s a large city (1.5 million in the metropolitan area) best known for heavy manufacturing and beer brewing. It’s about 150 km north of Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan. While the weather is not horrible by US standards, most Brazilians cannot even begin to imagine how cold and long winter in Milwaukee can be.
In Brazil, I now mostly stay with my girlfriend/fiance in Resende – RJ. I have traveled to most of coastal Brazil, but have yet to see the Amazon and large parts of the interior.
2. When did you arrive in Brazil and what brought you here?
I started visiting Brazil in 1999 for two-week trips where I would attend an academic conference in one week and do some tourism in the other. I love to travel and Brazil has a nice balance between the exotic and the familiar.
Brazil has good computer science researchers and I have colleagues in various places, but especially in Rio and in São Carlos, a modest city in the interior of São Paulo state. In 2004, I was able to arrange to spend 6 months in São Carlos, doing research and planning a conference.
3. What were your first impressions of Brazil?
Brazil was the first developing country that I had visited for any length of time since a childhood trip to Mexico in the 60s. My first visit started in Goiania and ended in Rio. I loved the relaxed lifestyle and the pervasive friendliness. I was also struck by the way that many large buildings are open-air, by the electric chuveiros, and by the flexibility” of schedules.
Also, my first trips were as an “honored guest” at meetings, so I was usually assigned an English-speaking guide. This was a tremendous help, because it was clear that Brazil outside of Rio and São Paulo would be difficult to visit for someone without any Portuguese. I’m a bit too shy to do the “chicken dance” that an earlier writer described, just to make sure that my sandwich will be made of chicken.
4. What do you miss most about home?
Many things. I miss the efficiency and directness of American social and business interactions. Americans are quite friendly overall, but we don’t waste time on excessive social niceties or on bureaucracy. Socially, Brazilians can take a long time to get to the point of the conversation. And Brazil is bureaucratic and inefficient, though sometimes you get a very high level of personal service in the process. I miss the variety of restaurants in the US, though maybe it’s just that the set of choices is different here. I miss finding really high-quality household items (sponges, dish detergent, boxes of plastic wrap with a cutting edge built in). In São Carlos, it’s hard to find really good wine. Brazilians seem to think that wine is supposed to taste acidic.
5. What has been your most frustrating experience in Brazil?
It happened outside Brazil, but getting visas has been a real pain. To get my two short-term work visas, I needed documents from Brazil. These are always late arriving, so I’m always making the visa application at the last minute. Last year, at that last minute, I had to postpone a flight for half a day because the application was rejected twice before finally being granted on the morning of my planned departure. At least one of the rejections was for lack of a document that was deemed irrelevant when the visa was finally granted. Finally, when I applied for a new tourist visa, I had trouble getting one *because* I had been visiting Brazil so often. They thought that I must be trying to cheat and work in Brazil while visiting on the tourist visa. And yet my work visas were always for research without any compensation attached. Argggh!!
6. What do you most like about Brazil (in general)?
I like the easy-going ambience. I like the sense of possibilities here … Brazil has not finished growing and it is easy to picture how the country could “grow up” to be rich as well as beautiful.
7. What is your favorite restaurant/place to hang out here?
Near Resende, in Penedo, is a lovely and sophisticated restaurant with world-class food called Vernissage. In São Carlos, Chez Marcel is run well by a sweet man from Belgium, via South Africa. The presence of two universities in São Carlos means that there are lots of nice bars and choperias.
8. What difference between your homeland and Brazil do you find most striking?
In the US, labor is expensive and things are cheap. At times, it can be hard to get served because retail businesses are staffed thinly. Brazil is the reverse. Stores and lanchonetes, especially in the big cities, have ridiculous numbers of employees just standing around, waiting for customers to enter. This difference shows up in almost all aspects of life.
I am also struck by the number of half-completed buildings here. You see the same thing in the US, but it’s not common. I think this difference is explained by the ease of finding business financing at reasonable rates in the US and by the slothful practices of the Brazilian legal system in resolving bankruptcies.
On the personal level, Americans and Brazilians differ in how they approach the concept of “love”. Each culture is right and wrong in their views. Americans tend to underestimate the importance of physical love, because they focus on idealized ideas about companionship and romance. They get sexual frustration as a result. But on the good side, they understand that a successful marriage requires partnership and open communication. Brazilians correctly know that physical love is essential for a happy life and helps keep people together, but they often get so caught up in the “conquista” and the pleasure of a “beijo gostoso”, that they don’t even try to find out if they actually like the other person. They get years of conflict and infidelity as a result. It may sound as if I’m talking only in euphemisms … but I’m not.
9. What advice do you have for newcomers to Brazil?
If you will stay in Brazil for an extended time, you must learn basic Portuguese and more is better. For tourists, I recommend just learning how words are pronounced (the treatment of the letter R drove me nuts at first) and about ten words/phrases: e.g. “Sim”, “bom dia”, and “banheiro?”.
Brazil is much more class-conscious than the US. Even large cities seem small, because most people circulate in a small world made up of people of the same social class. They go to the same restaurants, bars, shops, and parties. This is charming, until you see the disdain that the poor receive from those more affluent.
Brazilians are also very concerned with appearances. It is common for people to say “I would never be seen doing that” (in some form or another), when in point of fact, they do exactly “that” on a regular basis, either behind closed doors or in another city.
10. What are some things that you would recommend for a visitor to do in São Paulo (or anywhere else in Brazil)?
1) See Foz do Iguaa. Like Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Poor Niagara!”. Visit both sides: Brazil has the best view, Argentina gets you more “up close and personal”.
2) Visit any city in the Northeast and go to a beach outside the city for the day.
3) In São Paulo: visit the Pinacoteca do Estado (for me, better than MASP); walk in Parque Ibuapuera; eat at one of the many fine, fine restaurants; go out at night to one of the slick bars and have fun with a crush of people around you.
Are you a foreigner living in Brazil, or 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, or if you would like to recommend someone, please send an email with contact details and a brief description of yourself to email@example.com
To read previous interviews in the Brazil Through Foreign Eyes series click below:
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“