Monday, September 7, 2009

My Brazilan Skin

I had not been back to Brazil in two years. Long time. But after I had been back a day or so, it felt like home again. Sort of like home feels when you have been gone for a while. You don't know the latest political scandal that people are talking about, but the air smells good, the language feels comfortable in your ear and mouth, the little details of a typical street scene make you smile in both recognition and pleasure. I slow down my feet and speed up my ear, so I can try to catch everything because every little detail is interesting: what has changed? What is still pretty much the same?

I had several levels of Brazilian home-coming this time. The first, the three days, was just being back in São Paulo. My hotel was quite close to where we lived in 1989-90, so it was a constant feel of pleasurable deja vu, to recognize that most things really had not changed that much in 20 years. The way that little service shops, like tailors, are still tucked into side streets. The way that people bustle into corner restaurants for a snack. The way people walk on the street and greet each other. The familiar buildings and streets. Things do cost more there relative to their dollar value. I decided I did not want to pay what it took to eat in several places that would have been quite affordable 20 years ago.

The second was specifically spending a couple of those days in São Paulo at the University of São Paulo (USP), meeting with people and using the library to catch up on Brazilian media books and magazines that I can't get at UT. The Benson Latin American Collection at UT actually has an astonishing amount of the things I do need, but they can't afford every academic journal on communication in the Lusophone countries or business monthlies on cable TV. USP is huge and nicely green, as you can see in the photo here of a path near the the communication school (shown in the next photo here) has quite a bit bigger footprint than the one at UT, which mostly means we at UT are way overcrowded. I taught at USP 1989-90, so the communications school has a pleasant familiarity to me, too, and there are some nice new touches like a nice restaurant for faculty and grad students a few blocks away. I was there mostly to get a research project on digital inclusion moving and to see if we can revive our exchange of faculty between the schools. I made progress on both, so we will see how things go.

The third nice level of being back was going to the annual meeting of the Brazilian academic communication research association INTERCOM. I have probably gone to at least ten of these since 1981, when I went the first time to discuss my new completely dissertation research on Brazilian television. So I saw people I have know literally since then or even before. Sandy says academic meetings are a lot like summer camp for grown ups. You get to see your friends, in this case for me a somewhat specialized but remarkably close set of friends that I had not seen for a couple of years. (The photo shows a couple of them, Anamaria Fadul and Sonia Virginia Morreira , as we had lunch in cafeteria at the Universidade Positiva in Curitiba at the meeting.)
You get to do interesting things like presenting your own research or listening to interesting new things being done by others. (This really is fun if you are a bit of a research and culture geek.) In my case, it was a great, quick way to catch up on a lot that is being done in Brazil right now. A great package of things to do for a couple days -- and you thought summer camp was gone forever.

The fourth thing was a bit of surprise at how some things are indeed changing in Brazil. Since the public universities cannot keep up with the demand, new private schools are springing up like crazy in Brazil, some good, some bad. The one hosting us in Curitiba was the Positive University, owned by the Grupo Positivo who are started doing private schools, like some of the private charter school chains in the US, with similarly positive results, then branched into curricular materials and school books, then computers and learning software, and now universities. It is funny how the main Positive School seems pretty normal for a charter school, but a bid odd for a major university to be the Positive University, whose symbol is a big thumbs up.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

One Afternoon at Habib's, or When Old Telenovelas Never Die

After a couple of meetings today, I went book and DVD shopping at one of my favorite bookstores in the world, Livraria Cultura, which has five different spaces -- one bigger than your average Borders-- in a small mall on Avenida Paulista. So many new books on Brazilian media that I got footsore standing and looking at them. So I took a break, going kitty corner across from the back corner of this mall on Rua Augusta, to another of my favorite places, one of the world's most interesting fast food joints, Habib's, which serves good, cheap Lebanese fast food: kibes and esfihas instead of burgers, although they will sell you a burger and fries, if you must. Not much to look at, as you see here, but a lot of good places aren't.

Sitting there happily munching a small snack, I noticed that everyone in their dining room was more than usually glued to the large TV hanging from the ceiling, so I glanced up, too. And what was showing but a rerun session (TV Globo calls mid-afternoon reruns the "Vale apena ver de novo" -- "worth seeing again"-- series) of Sandy's favorite telenovela, which features an Indian girl who is apparently the reincarnation of her boss' long lost (murdered it turns out) and beloved wife. Here you see her and a friend looking at the soon to be boss' house, to which she is curiously drawn. He breeds and creates roses, so she is further drawn to his greenhouse.

So then before long I was literally watching one of THE crucial scenes of the whole nine month telenovela, where the girl is strongly, inexplicably drawn to the one rose that he created for the lost wife. They are indeed destined for one another TahDah! (although it takes MONTHS for their seemingly pre-destined romance to work out--but that is indeed how this genre works).

Some things are just too overwhelmingly melodramatic to die! The whole restaurant clientele, except the ones actually working, was raptly watching this scene. So it is pretty clear that Sandy's tastes run close to the core of what rivets the Brazilian audience most. (I have to admit that I kinda like this one, too.) One of those moments where personal life and our lifelong, ongoing ethnography of media and Brazilian life completely merge. Cheesy but cool.

Back to São Paulo

When I woke up in the plane this morning over Brazil, I popped an eyelid open and looked out the window at the sunrise over the clouds. (Couldn't resist snapping a picture with my trusty iPhone -- the Brazilian guy in the seat ahead was doing the same thing.) I was already filled with anticipation. Brazil really feels like a second home country to me. I get excited thinking about the people I know, the fun of speaking Portuguese again, the fun of catching up on what is going on, even the food.

It is wonderful to get back to São Paulo for a couple of days. I have been here a lot off and on over the last 33 years, including living here 9 months in 1989-90, and teaching at the University of São Paulo. I get hungry for a taste of big city life now and then, even thought Austin is certainly easier to live in.

The city is much too large and sprawling, when you look at it from the air, as in this photo, flying in, it is overwhelming. It goes on forever before you even land. A number of people argue that huge Third World metropolises, surrounded by rapidly growing slums, are one of the main faces of the world's future. Planet Slum, one book by Mike Davis, calls it.

The surprising thing is how green small parts of it can be. People cultivate trees or at least a few shrubs between buildings. The green is almost more delightful, sandwiched into such a sprawling mass of concrete, as the view from my hotel window, at the very nice but trendily and oddly named -- Golden Tulip Interactive, shows. The breakfast room looks out onto the garden by the tree -- a nice oasis.

So time to go walking in the city, enjoying a little observational update a la de Certeau, as I walk to meetings and get re-acquainted with one of my favorite cities.