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.