The Litany Against Beers: Sampa Edition

Culture, Uncategorized

My mom likes to tell the story of the first time she and my dad went to Europe together. This would have been in the early nineties. Dad had been asked to give a lecture on hospital administration in Prague, and after a few days there, the two of them would go to Paris. Good friends of theirs, ostensibly more worldly and better traveled at the time, warned then: keep your wallets close, and for god’s sake, watch out for the pickpockets and gypsy children, especially in Paris and especially around the Louvre. “We didn’t see any gypsy children,” Mom says. “I guess they must have been in school.”

The grand tradition of Anglo-American skittishness regarding the dastardly habits of their foreign hosts dates at least to the days of the Victorian grand tour, and more probably back to times before the -American could even be appended to the adjective. Although English-speaking societies have been and remain remarkably violent and larcenous by any reasonable standard, our self-applied sense of good order and judicial legalism stands in stark, if artificial, contrast to the various and sundry darker and/or more southerly people, whose principle economic activity consists of waving a newspaper in the husband’s face while some nimble youth ganks the wife’s wallet.

Thus as I prepared to join a group of Americans for a business forum down in São Paulo, the “travel warnings” began trickling in. They began with the sorts of innocuous precautions that any tourist ought to take in an unfamiliar city: be aware of your surroundings; don’t set off heedlessly down dark alleys; if you do encounter a problem, which you probably won’t, be cooperative. Well, that advice is just as good in Pittsburgh, one of the few wild-western cities where I’ve ever had my wallet stolen.

But they quickly escalated. Most of my traveling companions were seasoned international travelers, but only by the standards of businessmen, which is to say that their visits to other parts of the world consist of Marriott points, hotel bars, and restaurants with English menus. It’s easy to blame them for this, to think that the aversion to anything resembling the actual life of the city and country you’re visiting is an individual character flaw on the part of a gang of rich, ugly Americans, but in fact a whole industry has grown up to warn rich gringos off the dangerous path of having too actual a time in another land. Like the rest of our economy these days, it’s a form of highly refined rent-seeking, a multimillion-dollar business that collects money and kudos in exchange for warning Americanos that they are all going to die if they wander too far from the pool and the $20 caipirinhas.

We actually got a semi-official US State Department briefing on our first day in the city, and it ended on a note of hysteria, in which businessmen were being gunned down for their watches and the nicer restaurants suffered regular invasions of Pulp Fiction villains demanding that everything be put into the bag. One anecdote involved a European getting his head blown off in the exclusive Jardims neighborhood because the thieves wanted his $100,000 Patek Phillipe. That we live in a world in which such an accessory even exists is enough to put a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist like me in mind of some hasty reconsideration. Why not buy a $100 watch, itself an incredible luxury in almost any part of the world, and give the other $99,900 to charity? Well, I get the feeling the anecdote was fake anyway. Certainly the Brazilian guys in the room were exchanging frequent glances, and you sensed a vague but palpable embarrassment from them.

When it all ended, some of the Americans were literally afraid that crossing the street to buy cigarettes at the little shop beside the fucking Starbucks  would be tantamount to a game of Russian roulette. Some managed to get out and explore anyway, but a lot barely left the block in the end.

What a shame, because I liked the city quit a lot. Oh, it’s ugly as hell, an unimaginably immense and almost defiantly slapdash sprawl of mid- and high-rise concrete blocks that spreads beyond the horizon like a pale, mossy scab. The occasional encounter with a human-scaled building shocks. Even more so than our hastily built North American cities, Sampa has grown by paving over and building on top of its own past. The ride from the airport (technically in a neighboring city, but part of the same endless urban agglomeration) is shocking; it makes New York look like a garden suburb, and it takes well over an hour to get to the center city even without traffic.

But there was a great energy in the city, an indefatigable atmosphere of a party. It reminded me a lot of Madrid, another city that is also, by comparison to its more tourist-friendly counterparts, just big and anonymous and architecturally ill-defined. We were also warned that no one spoke English, which wasn’t at all true, and having learned a couple dozen phrases in Portuguese as well as shameless cobbling together my decent French with my hazy memories of Spanish and Italian vocabulary, I found it was no trouble to communicate. Quero onde fica cozhina Braziliero autêntico? is surely neither the correct nor the gracious way to ask where to find a real Brazilain restaurant, but it works.

I ate remarkably well; a group of the 10 less paranoid Americans went to a highly recommended local joint called Dalva e Dito where we had fried manioc and piles of beautiful oysters and little empanada-like thingamajigs filled with dried meat and pumpkin and something like vatapá–a thick fish stew–and giant pieces of beautiful beef with the most beautiful egg I’ve seen outside of Italy. We arrived obscenely early–about eight in a country that doesn’t dine until nine at least, but it afforded us a big round table in the middle and a view of the open kitchen as a whole corps de ballet in white coats prepared our meal. By the time we got to dessert, the place was full; it was lit with that dimmed incandescent light that makes everyone look like a Rembrant of themselves. We were all drunk, and I was convinced that I was actually speaking to the waiter in Portuguese. Onde posso encontrar os gays? He smiled and told me Rua Frei Caneca. I then vaguely recall an papaya ice cream, something like flan, and some kind of red candied fruit, followed by a wild cab ride home.

Later I managed to find some of the finest sushi I’ve ever had, an omakase sort of thing that didn’t want to end, and I went to the huge municipal market and ate one of those famous Mortadella sandwiches, and on the last night I walked across the Avenue Paulista to Frei Caneca. The sidewalks were crowded with kids, skaters, punks, hipster boys leaning on each other, muscle dudes positioned in the bright open windows of restaurants laughing at what I imagined were queeny jokes, girls with hair buzzed on the sides, pretty straight couples, and the indecipherable music of all those dozens of restaurants. “Don’t wander alone into a crowd,” they’d warned us, but the only people who tried to get into my wallet were the cute waiters trying to get me to stop for a snack and a drink, and the only fear I felt was that I might stay out too late and miss my bus to the airport the next day.

16 thoughts on “The Litany Against Beers: Sampa Edition

  1. Sounds like a cool city. But doesn’t asking for an “authentic” Brazilian restaurant irrevocably mark you as a bobo of the first order?

    1. LOL, that’s fair enough. The anecdote was really just to note that even a little broken speech can get you a long way if you make the effort. Meanwhile, I just wanted to have rice and eggs with a beer, and was unable to articulate a sophisticated series of academic caveats to avoid the problematic discourses of authenticity in the postcolonial world.

  2. From the emphasis on food in that post, it would seem that you aspire to be Brazil’s de Toqueville.

    No – not de Tocqueville.

    de Toqueville.

  3. Jacob, nice post.

    I’ve lived here for 13 years and have to say almost everything you say is true, including the bit about the European having his head blown off. (Last year, some poor Italian guy was killed here just days after arriving when he couldn’t understand the bandits demand for his watch, or whatever.)

    The problem is that the overblown warnings on safety miss the point. Any big city is dangerous if you let it be. The thing with SP is that if you’re in the expanded centre – and that’s where almost every single tourist or visitor will be – you’re pretty safe. Just don’t be stupid or lazy or draw too much attention to yourself and you’ll be fine.

    It’s not just foreigners, though. Brazilians live in fear. They don’t need to.

    Cheers, Andrew

  4. One can get pretty far not speaking the language. When I accidentally found myself in Belarus and needing a transit visa to leave the country, a Russian woman waiting in the train station with me, in spite of not a word in common, figured out we were in the same boat. She found someone to (illegally) exchange money for me and took me with her to the visa office in Minsk. A teenager we met on the train (who spoke only Belorussian) filled out the forms for me and got whatever cashiers check equivalent the bureau needed from the bank. On the final leg of our journey, deciding (justifiably) I was completely helpless, the woman escorted my to the lav to show how it worked. My stop came first and she was very concerned I didn’t already have place to stay, so she gave me a phone number, I gather to whatever friend or relative she was visiting in Lithuania.

    As an aside, it’s worth comparing my experience in the “last dictatorship of Europe” to those unfortunate enough to find themselves in Stati Uniti without the right papers.

  5. Much, much closer to ‘home,’ …you just reminded me of a late night trip, with a ‘black’ male, made for cigarettes for the two of us, to the circular area bordered by Negley (sp?) Ave. and the Highland Park neighborhood, in East Liberty; which, at least at that that time and hour in the early seventies, was populated mostly by ‘black’ americans which the predominance of caucasian Pitt’s bergers were clearly afeared of being ‘stuck’ amongst’ with ‘no back up.’

    There was a homeless ‘white’ male, clearly overwrought by circumstances …. who ….. for whatever reason I intuited ….. did not seem to me to come from abject poverty circumstances, and was familiar to most (Pitt’s Berg, PA, being a rather tiny “City”) who traveled by bus or frequented (as pedestrians) dawntawn Pitt’s Berg. ….. He visually appeared to be willing to do physical harm upon slight provocation, or even minimal disturbance.

    Anywho, I pulled up in front of what was then called The Pipe Shop (as in cigarettes, cigars, and legal pipe tobacco) noticing that he was heading in that direction, on the opposite side of the street.

    That side of the street, ….. which had been somewhat busy with ‘black’ folk …. near immediately CLEARED ……… and soon thereafter …the side I was parked at …immediately cleared (via fear of angry Anglo, knowing Anglos were always protected in the Berg, before anyone else ) as the disturbed male, walked over to my car window and …. asked me for a light … and then disappeared from sight…. into the night. … Going on in my mind, …he was an Anglo outcast (amongst millions of others)….by his own (in my mind, not poor) Pedigreed Anglo Family. Not at all to say! …that Black$’ are not guilty of $imilar crimes against ‘their own kin.’.

    It was ‘hilarious’ …in a thoroughly disgusting, sad and horrendously bleak way: the ‘black’ folk lived in fear of Anglos in their own neighborhoods, let alone being caught doing commerce, and spending their minimal in come$…….in an ‘Anglo’ community.

    1. No doubt, whatever areas in that berg that ‘blacks’ are now being confined to (as I understand it the old Civic Arena (right off of Grant Street) ‘ghetto’ area, for example, has long since been ‘gentrified’), might be near parallel to that Madrid experience for you, Jacob, …. right in Pitt’s berg, PA, U$.

    2. oopsie, …I failed to take the time needed to reflect …when I uttered:

      going on in my mind, …he was an Anglo outcast …

      if I had’ve taken that time, I would have written (at the very least):

      going on in my gut, at my primitive core, …he was just (yet another) an ‘anglo’ outcast … …

      1. looking back up.. just a pinch , hello ag. diane , i’m starting to get something of colo’ring … in font and more than .. of why .. . said always more feral.. .

  6. son jacob, .. reading a little , i see the little mer bucks mention ..,have you figured out the whol’ foods yet ?

  7. Hmmm, Jacob, I just read your Twitter update note, in the left column of this page. Really? please say you were talking tongue in cheek here:

    Being right about every foreign policy matter for the last 15 years guarantees a person a satisfying but low-paying non-profit career!

    if you actually believe that being consistently right on foreign policy matters (I took that phrase to mean underrstanding what the actual outcomes of “foreign policy matter”s would be, in terms of real damage) guarantees a person any job – let alone a: a satisfying but low-paying non-profit career! – you really need to buy some walking boots (actually, quite a few pairs of them, along with clothes and personal items suiting all of the elements) and personally travel (by foot) and converse with others (one on one, in person, face to face and OFF LINE), in devastated neighborhoods across the “united states”, let alone across other countries.

    1. hmmmm, Career, plz ?

      How about being permitted not to die far before one would’ve otherwise, had they been living in an actually humane economic system (which is, most assuredly, an oxymoron)?

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