from Sandy Needham

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Brazil Dispatch 17

March 27, 2008
The thing I really like about my ‘sabbatical’ in Brazil is the chance to ignore the clock and usually the calendar. These are just two more of the versions of liberation here for a person who usually had too much to do in too little time. That made me anxious. I do keep track of the days in order to water my various house plants properly – a rhythm that lovingly imposes the grid of the week on my schedule. Marcos waters the dozens of outdoor plants regularly. Even though I lose a plant here and there, I am adjusting to the role of plant guardian – new for me – where I can see that my watering and care in cutting off brown edges caused by the sea-salt ‘maresia’ give the plants their crucial self esteem.

We had ringside seats for the recent lunar eclipse. As the earth’s shadow crept over in a textbook arc, I couldn’t help but recall my favorite test question ever. My Astronomy professor at Northwestern was the adorable and brilliant astronomer, J. Allen Hynek, of Sputnik tracking stations, Project Blue Book, and “close encounters of the third kind” fame. Not only did he entertain us regularly with UFO sighting submissions and hilarious anecdotes to illustrate some phenomenon of physics, but he put the following question on a final exam: What do you have when the sun goes between the earth and the moon? A)a solar eclipse B) a lunar eclipse C) a particularly hot day.

Newton has begun to mismatch subjects and verbs in English lately, I imagine from hearing my mix-and-rarely-match Portuguese verbs. He continues to be questioned about his nationality with an unrecognizable Portuguese accent and some hesitation with Portuguese vocabulary after 28 years in the US. As I corrected his English once again the other day he lamented, ‘I’m just a man without a language! I’ve got three countries, but no language.” I have little hope for mastering Portuguese, partly because I can usually manage to communicate, if incorrectly, and I finally have all the time I want to read and write in English. Besides, the verbs are famously discouraging. After waiting for my turn at the counter to buy cheese, a man appeared out of nowhere and the clerk started helping him. Summoning the best of the feminist, assertiveness training tradition, I spoke right up with an air of justified indignation, “Eu estou próxima,” wishing to say “I am next.” Unfortunately, this idea requires the use of the “to be” verb ‘ser,’ being in a more permanent state, not the “to be” verb ‘estar’ which is for more temporary states, like being next in line, one would think. What I said with my nostrils flared amounted to “I am next… to the counter,” for example, or “I am next to the ham.” The man walked away.

I realized I should describe the city of Natal a little better after my mother was surprised that we could get new eye glasses here. I know that our tiny town by the beach, Pium, sounds totally third world, which it is, and that the bureaucracy problems and lack of roadwork sound third world, which they are, but Natal is a modern city of 700,000 people. Besides the many European tourists who are usually around Ponta Negra beach, there is a reasonably sized population of tremendously wealthy natives. Not ot be confused with 'indigenous,' this population tends to be whiter. They are concentrated in a particular part of the city called Petrópolis, with shops that are prohibitively expensive and great restaurants we add to our other favorites around Ponta Negra. As is usual for the third world (and has been coming to a neighborhood near you in the USA ever since Reagan), the division of wealth is dramatic here. These wealthy natives do not impress me much – you’ll recall they are our one-month-a-year neighbors at Cotovelo Beach. Perhaps being so rich among so many poor, they keep to themselves and are outwardly quite snobby, even in fancy restaurants. I am sure they are decent folks if one gets to know them, but I have been told by people who have rented out beach homes that among the rich are people who feel so entitled that they trash the houses and don’t always pay. The simpler, browner working natives of Pium, for example, are noted for their integrity and good manners. Natal has good medical care, and most anything is available for a price. We had a very nice eye doctor for our glasses and a nice place to buy them in a huge mall. We just had to wait a while for the lenses, from the city of Recife – south of here - to get sent down to Rio for the anti-glare feature and make their way back. Oh, and when we tried calling about them, the store’s listed number was a fax line, so we couldn’t talk to anyone. What does typify Brazil is the juxtaposition of something like a beautiful high-rise apartment building and something run-down, or a chic store and a two-week wait!

We finally put the street sign I made back up. I had left the background the natural wood so the sign would stand out when attached to a realtor’s white placard at the corner. Once that was ploughed down a day after affixing the street sign, I was stuck with a not very readable black-on-brown and an available fence post not all that close to the corner. Now every time Newt and I drive by, all we can think of is a cross trying to say, “Here lies Tereza Bezerra Salustino. R.I.P.” At least no one has torn it down yet!

My reading avocation has been very rich. I had Elise and Jake bring me some books I ordered off a list of reader’s favorites on National Public Radio ’s website. I just loved A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute –author of On the Beach. The PBS miniseries of this story back in the ‘80’s was one of my all-time favorites. Turns out that immediately after my going on and on to Newton about how romantic and wonderful the book is, he flew off to the US sitting next to a woman who wrote a book about women prisoners of war. She was on her way to a convention of an organization founded by the American woman featured in Ken Burns’ "The War" series who spent a chunk of her childhood at a Japanese prison camp in Manila. When a fellow passenger asked the author how she got interested in this subject, she replied that the book, A Town Like Alice had inspired her interest. Imagine the surprise of such a coincidence...the book was written in 1950.

I followed that with Evelyn Waugh’s WWII trilogy, Sword of Honour (Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, Unconditional Surrender). The straight-faced British humor is marvelous amidst the outrage of war waged by silly old men who have little regard for reality. Strangely enough, my next book – Denis Johnson’s wonderful mega-novel about Viet Nam, Tree of Smoke – had unexpected similarities, minus the humor. After such large doses of war I came to the conclusion that men need to be kept very busy competing in athletics, debate, cards, marbles - anything - so they stop messing up other people's countries and killing people.

Desperate for something life-affirming, I am now reading Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. While his raw passion for nature, art and humanity are truly moving and heartbreaking, where the soldiers became too numb to function, Van Gogh’s sensitivity is too intense to function (beyond creating the most beautiful, breathing paintings in the world!). Think I’ll try some steamy pulp fiction next!

The rainy season is getting underway ahead of April here, but only at night, so far. More bugs are enjoying the indoors already, and the heat is now humid. Newton will have his final surfing lesson tomorrow, then must trade his new “hot dog” surfboard for a more prudent, longer board as he used for his lessons – if he plans to actually ride any waves. These 16-year-olds with the six-pack stomachs make it look too easy to weave around the waves on tiny pointy boards!

Hope you are seeing signs of spring each day -


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