Gastronomy and Analogy

Trip Start Aug 19, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Sao Paulo,
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

So if it's possible to fall in love with something that isn't a person, then I'm afraid I've got whatever freaky condition that would be: I think I'm in love with Brazil.  

Well, maybe saying that I'm in love with Brazil is a little strong - it's not crazy like this.  But the longer I spend in Brazil, the more I realize that most everything about this country is pretty f-ing awesome.

I arrived in Sao Paulo early on November 12 after taking an overnight bus from Curitiba (to where I had to return after Ilha do Mel in order to get a connecting bus).  During my first hour in Sao Paulo - this was between 7 and 8 in the morning - I felt exhilarated and overwhelmed in a way that only happens when you are in busy metropolis like Sao Paulo. There was an energy about Sao Paulo - one that was welcome because I hadn't gotten that intoxicating city rush since I left BsAs.

Before I got there, I got a lot of mixed messages about what SP would be like (btw, I prefer to use SP rather than "Sampa" because I don't really like the sound of "Sampa") -- at best, it was described to me as NYC-like and at worst, Detroit-like (no offense to The D).  I was asked repeatedly why I would bother with SP when there are a zillion other places in Brazil that are far more interesting than urine-soaked, sweat-crowded Sao Paulo.

I've found that most Brazilians (especially those I met in SP who are well-traveled) realize that most 'Merricans don't know anything about Brazil.  They don't, however, seem to see it as offensive when folks know nothing about their country because Brazilians are, on the whole, warm and friendly.  And being such friendly people, a lot of folks actually go out of their way to level with you - they try hard to analogize their cities to yours.  

Aside from the fluke description that SP was like Detroit (again, no offense to The D), I think that the most interesting analogy I've heard so far is: NYC is to LA as SP is to Rio.  When I got to SP, I hadn't yet been to Rio, so the only part of the analogy I could try to understand was the SP =? NYC bit.  After spending a few days in SP, the analogy didn't seem too bad at all.

But as good an analogy was the SP=NYC, it really wasn't.  While I was in SP, I got into a conversation with a woman living in SP who appeared to be somewhere deep in her 40s.  She was from NYC, was a cab driver there for a number of years, and still held a lease to a rent-controlled apartment in the East Village, which she had sublet (one of the archetypal New Yorkers, I thought: one who would never let go of a rent-controlled apartment, choosing only to sublet it for any number of years because she knows she will eventually return to it - the only way anyone would get that apartment from her is to pry the key off her cold, dead hand or to demolish it altogether with developer-dollars once the real estate market comes back).  When I asked what she thought of the SP=?NYC analogy, she let slip out an involuntary half-second-long chuckle - in the process, her formidable midsection bounced up sharply and created a rippling effect that caused the backs of her arms to jiggle a little.  She did admit that some parts of SP reminded her of NYC from the early/mid-1980s while other parts reminded her of NYC from the early-1990s.  But in general, she didn't think that SP was at all like NYC.  I agreed (though I can't really say I am an expert in either city).

To me, SP was something totally different. Something I haven't seen before.

SP is a big city.  Huge, in fact, so it has an omni-present buzz about it no matter where you are within it.  It has a very creative feel - you can tell by its appreciation for the arts and by its fashionable residents - the Paulistanos (note: be careful about the usage of "Paulistano" and "Paulista" when in SP - it's kind of like saying someone is from NYC vs. someone who is from New York State - very different things, obviously).  And it very much likes to think of itself as the cultural capital of the country.  In these respects, I can see how there are some similarities with NYC.  But that's really it.

I stayed for a couple of days in a hostel in the Pinheiros neighborhood, which is kind of a trendy area that sits between Jardins (where the posh live) and Vila Madalena (where you can find 20-somethings of both yuppie and hipster varieties).  These areas were certainly very nice and comfortable and safe.  There were lots of fancy shops in Jardins, lots of art galleries in Pinheiros, and lots of hip-happening bars/clubs in Vila Madalena.  After a couple of days, I sort of felt like I got an idea of those neighborhoods and I was looking for more - I was looking for that same exhilaration that met me at the bus station. Plus, I really wanted a little space for myself, which I wasn't getting in the Pinheiros hostel.

I eventually found a room in someone's house in the downtown area.  I was told to stay away from there because it was supposedly dangerous.  I'm sure it had its issues, but luckily nothing happened to me while I was there.  Anyway, I was so glad I decided to make this change because I think the most interesting parts of the city are in and around downtown.  I found what I was looking for.

When I moved to the downtown area, I was struck at how beautiful the city really was.  It's pretty hilly (after all, SP is situated pretty high elevation-wise in some mountain range) so it wasn't flat and boring - figuratively and literally.  In the central part of town, where there were quite a few large hills and valleys, the higher-situated areas were connected to each other with bridges, even though the buildings continued on down the faces of the hills.  When you were walking across the bridges connecting the tips of the hills, it seemed like you were, at the same time, inside of the city and looking down upon it from a great height.  Pinheiros, Jardins, and Vila Madalena were nice, but they seemed very similar to other middle-to-upper class neighborhoods in any metropolis.  In the center of town was old SP.  With its old buildings, its big-ass churches, and its dirty (read: real) masses.  

I spent a lot of time in the various street markets in SP.  There seems to be a good street market culture there - I believe that there is a street market somewhere in the city every day except Monday.  Admittedly, many of them were no different from others I've seen, but nonetheless, lots of folks seemed to source their daily bread/fruit/veg from their closest once-a-week market.  The best bits of the markets for me (since I don't really buy stuff anymore) were the food sections.  

I basically ate my way through SP during the four/five days i spent there.

I tried any and every kind of street-meat - my favorite was the dumpling-the-size-of-your-fist at one of the Japanese markets.  But the food at the street markets wasn't the end of the culinary paradise that is SP.  The city had it all (well, not all, but a lot) - japanese/chinese/korean, middle eastern (mostly lebanese), indian, and of course, brazilian.  After spending so many weeks in food-bland Argentina and Uruguay, my gastronomic prayers were finally answered.   I think I went a little overboard (i.e., over budget) but it was well worth it, particularly the all you can eat sushi for ~$35.

I doubt the food will be as good or varied when I move onward from here, but I can't say I didn't enjoy it while I had access to it.


But the true poesia of SP (and all the other bits of Brazil I've seen so far), which in my mind makes it truly different from any place I've seen before, is its people.  Not necessarily because most are warm and friendly (as I mentioned before) but because there are so many different kinds of people here…and they mix.  People-watching was immensely enjoyable in SP - particularly downtown - because it was jarring to my North American pictorial sensibility of family - that is, lots of families in SP were mixed races of all combinations and permutations.  And with all that mixing of gene pools, it seemed that many of the resulting (fully-grown) offspring have jackpotted the genetic slot machine.  There were even few that looked like different species altogether - meant in the best possible way - that I could just not stop staring…to the point where I felt a little creepy about staring so hard.  (That's not to say that the opposite end of nature's genetic trial-and-error didn't also exist, but I think Brazil is further along in the evolutionary process than North Americans are.)

This is what was different about SP - it wasn't just nice, it was also pretty and cultured - a booty and a brain.

The way I see it, the only downside to SP is that it is a little expensive, which is probably why it won't ever get an influx of refugee-hispters the same way Prague>Berlin> BsAs>Seoul had over the past 20+ years (my vote is still for Bogota as the next big thing - although I think more and more people have already figured this out).  Wait, now that I think about it - this is all the more reason to put SP at the top of your list of places to visit: 

You. Go. Now.


Reading list: Still High Fidelity.

Playlist:  For this entry, I am calling the playlist a Mix Tape (I am, after all, reading High Fidelity at the moment - although I should really take some advice from the book and stop relaying my thoughts and feelings through song - that's kind of lame).  Anyway, it is a 90s mix tape.  I was listening to a bunch of sad stuff and I needed to make myself happy, so I made this mixtape of 90s songs that make me happy every time I hear them (some of these i haven't heard in years).

Side A - Laydeez
1) Fine - The Cardigans (The kind of song that might be flattering and/or appropriate when this is the first song on a mixtape that you get from a girl when you're16.)
2) Long Island - that dog (…and when you're 19. Note that in my head I replace "Long Island" with "The 'Dena".)
3) Get Enough - Ivy (…and when you're 24.)
4) That's Just What You Are - Aimee Mann (…and when you're 27.) 
5) Live As You Dream - Beth Orton (…and when you're 30. Plus, if you're still getting mixtapes from girls your own age when you are 30, you are too awesome for words.)
6) Hidden Track: Feelin' so Good - Jennifer Lopez (no comment here - can't help which songs make me happy)

Side B - Dudes
1) Sick of Myself - Matthew Sweet (Reminds me of being 15, when crushes still existed - and they were epic.)
2) Trigger Cut - Pavement  (Reminds me of being 16 or 17 and listening to Y107 on either Saturday or Sunday afternoons because there was a DJ that used to play this song during his shift.)
3) Radiation Vibe - Fountains of Wayne (Reminds me of when I was 18 and my whole life was ahead of me.) 
4) To Live and Die in LA - Makaveli/Tupac (Reminds me of when rap was fun and of home, even though the LA in this song is not really my LA. See also: Regulate by Warren G.)
5) The One - Menswe@r (Reminds me of every song that I liked after hearing just the first 15 seconds. Also reminds me of all the guilty pleasures in life.)
6) Hidden Track: Your Woman - White Town (Reminds me of fun times had ditching school in a certain green car - which only those of you I know from high school would know.)


Until next time.

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