By Steven Engler
June 12, 2007

Here is the second part of Steven’s article, which examines what is uniquely Brazilian. To read the first part click the relevant lick at the end of the article.

There are a number of things that strike me as particularly Brazilian. Many are found in other countries, but the combination is uniquely Brazilian.

The first thing that strikes me about Brazilian restaurants and coffee shops is how people choose to seat themselves. As a Canadian, I like space and I like a view. If I go alone into a coffee shop, I will choose a table that provides a certain space away from other people. Also, if given the chance, I will choose a seat that allows me to stare out a window into the street, people watching, looking at plant life (or snow drifts), checking out the general state of movement… Brazilians go the other way. Whether alone or in a group, they will choose to sit right beside other people, even if that means crowding together when the rest of the restaurant is empty. No one wants to be the first to sit in a room or section that is currently unoccupied (where I would consider that something of a triumph or distinction back home in Canada). (Similar space issues are visible in cinemas. If I go to a movie in Canada, I would never sit right beside someone else in a row: you always leave an empty seat between you and the others, to respect their space and claim your own. In Brazil, people occasionally leave that space, but they more often just plunk down in the seat next to you. My first reaction is to feel that my” space has been invaded. Maybe they feel they would be insulting me if they left the space. Maybe they are just realistic that cinemas tend to be fuller here.) In addition, upon entering a coffee shop with wide bright windows giving a fine view of the street, Brazilians will sit with their backs to the window so they can watch the other people in the room. Sometimes a couple will both sit on the same side of the table, backs to the window, so that, side by side, they can be part of the scene.

This cultural difference works out well for my Brazilian wife and I. We sit across from each other, both in the “best” spot: she gets to watch the crowd, and I get to relax and enjoy the view. Of course, this means I have to turn around every once and a while to surreptitiously check out some social detail that my wife considers worthy of comment: the fact that the guy, at a table with two women, is the only one who does the talking; the former national women’s basketball team player who lives in our neighbourhood and eats at the padaria regularly; a little girl as she plays with her granola without adequate parental supervision; the interactions between various couples; the fact that one of the waiters is friends with the people at a certain table and is offering them a different level of service. I tend not to comment on events in the street, though I find certain details endlessly fascinating: kids selling strong, sweet-smelling balls of sandalwood root; the stark ribs of stray dogs; whether or not the similarity between the green awnings of two bars across the street indicates that they are part of the same establishment; how the magazines displayed at newsstands serve as an indicator of the socio-economic status of neighbourhoods (for example, Caros Amigos, a very sharp monthly of intellectual analysis is only featured in places like Vila Madalena, where it is published, and Higienópolis); and, of course, how motorcycles navigate tricky intersections, improvising odd ways of cutting across lanes, up on sidewalks, back between stopped cars going the wrong way in the side street, then cutting back across on-coming traffic to continue on in the same lane they started out in, only a couple of car lengths ahead. Perhaps there is a trophy given to the Brazilian driver who, each year, manages to risk their life to the greatest possible extent while accomplishing the least in terms of getting where they are going with any greater efficiency. Maybe Silvio Santos should redo the British show, World’s Worst Driver.

Part 3 next week…

You can contact Steven at

Previous articles by Steven:

How to Know You Are in Brazil Part 1
Brazil: Politics and Pop Songs
Brazil: Driving São Paulo Style
Brazil: Radio São Paulo Part 2
Brazil: Radio São Paulo Part 1
Brazil: Saints and Sacred Sawdust
Brazil: Cachaa and Tubanas
Brazil: Of Angel and Popes
Brazil: The Perils of Translation
Brazil: Sweets and Street Sounds
Brazil: Marchinhas and Coconuts
Brazil: Beaches and Borrachudos
Brazil: Politics and Pop Songs
Brazil: Beauty Is in the Eye of the Fan
Brazil: The Sidewalks of São João

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