Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Working hard, or hardly working?

A few years ago I made a promise to James that I would write him a book. It seemed like a good idea and also rather easy, seeing as his favourite book at the time was something like That's not my Penguin. Then he moved onto The Gruffalo and my offer seemed more challenging, but still achievable. Now that he can happily wade his way through a Percy Jackson or Alex Rider with ease, the task has become rather daunting and I'm hoping he doesn't come across Dostoevsky any time soon.

So I really ought to get started on it soon. For years my excuse was that I was looking after David and I really didn't have the time to write. Once he goes off to school all day, I would say, then I can write. Well, he's now in school all day and for the first time in nine years, I have no excuse. Apparently, "I really can't be bothered" doesn't count as an excuse. As a matter of fact, the reason I started this blog was as a way of reminding myself how to write and I have to admit to rather enjoying it. Maybe writing a novel won't be anything like as daunting as I imagine. Maybe.

And while I've been faffing around trying to rekindle my mojo the rest of the family have been quietly getting on with their own endeavours without any need for the right mood, or the right space, or any of that other stuff you apparently need to be truly creative. Okay, perhaps not quietly, but getting on with it, certainly.

David is busily learning to read at the moment, with the help of the wonderfully named Jollyphonics. This seems to involve learning two new letters every day by giving each sound an accompanying action to remind you of it. S comes with a wiggling of the arm, like a snake, A involves brushing something off your arm, M involves rubbing your tummy, etc. I can't wait to see him act out his name - I'm expecting something like a little cheerleading dance.

"Gimme an i..."

David has also been improving his personal and social skills. He no longer thinks of himself as a train (although he still runs as if his arms are traction rods) and he has been busy making "best friends". We thought it was sweet when he announced that one particular boy in his class was his best friend. Then it was one of the girls. Then it was a girl from one of the other classes. Then a girl from the year above. Then James' best friend was his best friend... and then it started to get surreal. For a time one of his toy cars was his best friend, then a funny shaped stick. Here he is hugging last week's best friend.

James, needless to say, immediately installed himself as the maths genius of his year and already the only real competition he has comes from his teacher. But surprisingly, maths is no longer his favourite subject having been pushed into second place by humanities (in my day we called it history and geography) which seems to be a strange mixture of topics. This half-term they're studying water, next half-term will be The Second World War.

His football is no better though, despite now being in the world's most football-obsessed country. At break-time and lunchtime he has the option of chasing after the pigskin along with forty or fifty other boys, but instead he has chosen to align himself with the nerds and seems to spend all his spare time studying practical aerodynamics (making endless variations of paper planes) or discussing game theory ("what's your favourite game on Club Penguin?")

For Helen, life out here has been nothing but work, work, work ever since we arrived. Sometimes it's writing an article, sometimes it's dealing with office admin and endless bureaucracy, sometimes it's networking or interviewing people, then it's all three put together. And that's just Monday, the rest of the week is much busier! Still, she does get to look sharp while she's doing it, and she's taken far more seriously than her tracksuit-attired husband.

She's also been practicing magic while she's out here. Simply by repeating the magic phrase, "I write for the Economist", she's succeeded in opening locked doors, making important people appear in restaurants and even transporting herself into the presence of politicians. For example, here she is with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula to his buddies), clearly sharing some private joke about an integrated public transport infrastructure policy for São Paulo, or something similar.

As Lula is currently the most popular man in Brazil, I'm wondering how much more magic we can create by showing the photo to everyone we meet. Now if only I could photoshop in Pelé on the other side of her...

So there you have it - our working life in a nutshell. As you see, it's not all sun and fun out here - not all the time, anyway. Sometimes even in paradise there's a stuffy room and a desk and a laptop and a small child telling you your attempts at humour are really, really lame.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Breakfast at Santa Maria's

Saturday has come round once more and it's rapidly becoming my favourite day of the week. For a start, it doesn't begin at six o'clock! On Monday to Friday, I have to get up at this unearthly hour, wrestle two unwilling children out of their beds, force some food into them and nag them into their school uniforms before propelling them through the neighbourhood as fast as their little legs can carry them and deposit them at the school just in time for James to start his morning tutorial at 7:45am.

On Saturdays however, I can try and ignore the cries of my children until eight o'clock or so. Why, by the way, do children spend five days a week begging for a lie-in and then refuse to have one just when you would like them to? Anyway, once we're all up and running, we abandon the house and head off eat a breakfast someone else has prepared for once.

Emporio Santa Maria is a lovely building about fifteen minutes' walk from the house (or ten if you're really desperate for that first cup of coffee). It's actually a fancy supermarket, swish wine shop, sushi restaurant and cafe all rolled into one and on weekend mornings they do a huge and very reasonably-priced buffet breakfast where you can, if the urge so takes you, eat enough to last you the rest of the weekend.

Today I was somewhat restrained, calling it a day after only two freshly-squeezed orange juices, a plate of melon, watermelon, kiwi and grapes, three pão de queijo (cheese buns), two chocolate croissants and three coffees. The rest of the family also worked their way through melon juice, omelette, sausage, bacon, chicken pie, chocolate tart, strawberries, three different types of cereal involving way too much sugar and chocolate, yoghurt and chocolate milk. And you get to do all this sitting on a huge comfy sofa and you can stay there for as long as you want. Now that I think about it, I'm really not sure why we only do this once a week.

Usually, once we're unable to eat any more, we head off to a park down the road to let the kids burn off some of their newly-acquired calories. It's full of climbing frames and swings for children and exercise machines for the grown-ups (and James). Today we skipped the park however as it wasn't particularly sunny and we sent the boys off to get their hair cut. They've needed one for a few weeks now, but we've been holding off in the hope of getting our hair trimmer back. Sadly, although our possessions have been in the same country as us for about three weeks now, the long and complicated process of getting them through customs has only just begun and it will be at least another three weeks before we can even hope to get our hands on them. By then the children would be looking like hippies so there was nothing for it but to cough up the £50 it costs out here to get them both a quick trim.

I was all in favour of getting them a haircut that would last them till Christmas, but I was over-ruled by the more conservative elements of the family (everyone else!)

After haircuts and shopping (I go shopping nearly every day here as the fresh bakery produce is worth the effort) it's back to the house for a few hours of entertaining ourselves with our favourite things...

Helen had a little nap (though to be fair she did share the bed with a pile of newspapers and a Portuguese dictionary), David spent a pleasant half-an-hour singing along to videos on the Thomas the Tank Engine website, James disappeared off somewhere to work his way through a pile of one-sided paper, either inventing complicated new games or churning out yet another batch of paper planes and I decided to sit here and tell you all about it.

After that we thought we'd risk the weather and pop out to our local park for a bit. These days it rains pretty much every day, usually during the late afternoon and for anything between twenty minutes and several hours and it was already looking grey and ominous before we set out. However, a successful and dry trip was achieved, some more calories were burnt off by the active half of the family and some good conversation was enjoyed by the more sedentary half.

And now the day is winding down. The children are (rather bizarrely) enjoying an old episode of Supernanny, Helen is back to work because journalism is no respecter of the weekend and I'm looking forward to spending a couple of hours cycling through 99 channels of Brazilian TV and playing some pointless games on the iPad.

Culture can wait till tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Domestic Bliss

Life goes on. We do stuff and pay the bills and from an organisational point of view, we're still heading in the right direction, albeit at a rather more sedentary pace than we would like. Rumour has it our possessions are in the same country as us now, having arrived at the port of Santos not quite two weeks ago. Still no word on when they'll be released by customs however but if we hear nothing for more than another week or so I think I'll send James down there to let them have a dose of his constant requests for his Wii. I'm sure after a while they'd do anything to make him stop. I certainly would. And I use the word "requests" in its most generous sense!

We now have a car. It's a Chevy, which sounds cool, but when you add Zafira to the end it takes away some of the magic I feel. Here it is being proudly molested by a pair of wannabe racing drivers with grubby hands.

Of course, I have no intention of ever driving it you understand, it's just that it comes with the job and it has to be parked somewhere. Actually, we do intend it to be driven, just not by us. We've found ourselves a weekend driver, or motorista, who will basically drive us anywhere we want to go for R$150 a day, whether it's in São Paulo doing the shopping or visiting friends, or even if we want to pop off to the beach for the day. He'll even take us there on Saturday and bring us back on Sunday if we want, though I'm not sure what he'll do in between.

So yes, after only two months our strong determination not to have any domestic staff has crumbled completely. We're even talking about getting a cleaner as well, though it would only be for one day a week and I think we can justify that on health and safety grounds seeing as how our house is an absolute pit right now. Sadly there's no one to blame for this except myself as the other three are out all day and I'm the only one free to keep on top of the chores - though that being the case I do wonder how the place can get so filthy so quickly so often. And if we do get a proper cleaner, maybe she can show me how it's done, though I suspect the answer is actually quite simple... try doing some!

Not today though. It's already 2.00pm and I'll be off to collect the boys from school soon, and this is not something I like to miss - it's just too much fun. From about 2.45 onwards, the big bullet-proof 4x4s start arriving and clogging-up the streets around the school. Once they get close enough the drivers (and that's as in motorista, not parent you understand) will try and find somewhere to park. The lucky ones will be able to get out and stretch their legs and chat to the other drivers and bodyguards who all stand in a big, muscular group of dark suits and sunglasses and earpieces along the side wall. The unlucky ones have to wait in the traffic jams.

I would have put in a photo of the bodyguards, but I'm not sure they would have been too happy about being photographed and most of them look like they know perfectly well how to deal with the paparazzi!

Meanwhile, the maids will all pop out of the cars and stand in a tight cluster beside the barriers, waiting to nip in, grab a child and nip out before their driver has been moved on and had to drive around the block (which could take up to an hour). The maids are easy to spot because they wear white. White jeans, white tee-shirts, white sweatshirts. Now and then, you get the odd one who clearly works for enlightened employers and is allowed to wear whatever she likes, but they're still easy to spot because they're not wearing designer dresses and high heels like the actual mums who bother to turn up in person.

The mums are there to be seen. After all, if you're spending this much on your child's education, you want to let people know you're doing it. There's a lot of air-kissing and waving of hands and talking loudly and checking their mobile phones while the maid, who's been brought along as well, goes off and actually collects the child and makes sure they get remembered. Then they can all pile back into the car with the driver and/or bodyguard and head home to eat whatever the maid has already prepared for dinner - unless the maid doesn't do the cooking because the cook does.

Of course I'm being unfair. There are plenty of parents who aren't anything like this. James and David have made many friends and every single parent we've met has been friendly, unpretentious, helpful, generous and bilingual. I spend a lot of time waiting around after school because my children refuse to go home and insist on playing with the other kids and we're constantly being offered food, drink, ice creams, magazines, toys and conversation for as long as we want to stay. Yesterday, I didn't leave until 5.00pm and even then there were tears and complaints. I like to think this is because their new friends are so nice, not because they hate going home to a dirty house still lacking any possessions.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Here comes the rain at last

Yesterday was September 7th - Dia da Independência here in Brazil. It's now been 188 years since the guy on the horse in the famous painting said "you're not the boss of me!" to his dad and became Emperor. There was, of course, a lot more to it than that - rousing speeches, armed uprisings and that sort of thing - but it was all a long time ago and not what I want to write about. Anyway, needless to say it was a public holiday and there were, I believe, marches and processions planned including some stuff here in São Paulo. So of course it rained.

And boy, did it rain! It was gloomy and overcast when I woke up (thankfully later than my usual six o'clock thanks to the schools being shut) and then at around eight o'clock we started to get those big, slow, greasy raindrops that tell you to find somewhere with a roof pretty damned quick. And then it got heavier, and heavier, and it just forgot to stop. Except, by a happy coincidence, for about an hour over lunch while I was nipping to the shops to buy some food.

What a blessing it was. It's actually the first rain we've had since we arrived on July 17th. Literally, not a single drop has fallen in seven weeks and on top of the dryness we've been having an unseasonably hot winter with temperatures on occasion reaching over 30º. So it's great that the air is now much fresher and that terrible stench of pollution we usually wake up to is thankfully absent - at least for the moment. There's a very pleasant breeze and a fair bit of cloud today and I might even have to put on my fleece to go and collect the kids from school. Oh, hang on... the sun's just come out. Perhaps not.