Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Art from the heart

This week I'm not writing about Brazil. Instead, I'm taking the opportunity to show off the artistic talents of my children, partly for the simple reason that I'm hugely impressed by them and partly because I wanted to take a break from writing about Brazil. It's been a singularly unremarkable week and after last week's ramblings you could probably do with a break from my contrived comparisons between here and there.

Let's start with David, who is kindly providing the illustrations for this week's post. Not long before we moved out here I stood for an hour-and-a-half in a queue outside Cambridge's Apple Store in order to buy an iPad the day it was released. I'd wanted one ever since I'd first heard about them and I just knew it was going to be fantastic. Music, films, books, games... Everything I could possibly want in one neat little package. What I didn't realise, however, was that its primary function was actually going to be as David's personal sketchpad.

We found a few different drawing packages - nothing more expensive than 59p - and it took him no time at all to learn how to open them, work his way through all the available options for size, colour, style, etc, undo and edit and even to save them for future reference. Eventually, he even came to understand that saving each picture once was all that was necessary and having twenty copies of each picture really did take up a lot of memory.

Of course, David could paint perfectly well before we bought the iPad and has been producing carefully painted and interesting pictures ever since he could hold a brush. He's clearly the most artistically talented member of the family, though sadly this is no great compliment as the competition is risible - although to be fair, Helen is something of a demon when it comes to walls and skirting boards. But being rather unsentimental parents, we've kept no more than about four or five works from David's 'acrylic on paper' period and none at all from his more experimental 'mixed media on vinyl floor tile' period.

And that's the real beauty of the iPad as an artist's tool; it's convenient, clean, dries instantly and comes with its own storage facility. But at the same time, it still allows David to use his fingers in a way that painting on a standard computer with a mouse doesn't, and somehow that seems a bit more like 'proper' painting to me.

In actual fact, he's stopped doing so many iPad paintings recently and has gone back to pen and paper. This is partly to copy James, who still spends a lot of time designing maps and assault courses and alternate galaxies, but now does it in super-fine detail with his new Stabilo pens, and party because he's now discovered that the iPad also has games on it. Games where you can drive trains, no less! Compared to that, painting - even painting trains - just doesn't cut it.

James, as usual, has been displaying his talents through his music. He has started guitar lessons once more and his new teacher is great. Not only is he hugely impressed with James' ability (and what sort of parent wouldn't be won over by that?) but he's also discovered the knack of constantly correcting James without James getting stroppy and answering back with snide comments as happens whenever Helen or I try it.

Here he is playing one of his new pieces.  It's called Stony Creek Blues.

And when he's not playing guitar, he's singing. He was invited to join the junior choir and has been having great fun going to practice after school on Tuesdays. It helps that choir is taught by Mr Murphy, who happens to be James' humanities (and overall favourite) teacher and I'm sure a fair bit of his commitment is an attempt to impress Mr Murphy.

Last week they gave their first public performance and we were treated to three songs. The first was The Prep Song, a predictably saccharine little ditty extolling the virtues of the St Pauls seven to eleven year olds. Still it was nicely sung. The other two songs were the Canoe Song and Down in the Jungle - both much livelier and more fun, both for the singers and the audience.

Next up will be a carol concert I believe. James has been practicing Once in Royal David's City and apparently the best male singer gets to do the first verse as a solo. James is being considered for the task, but is very unconfident and isn't sure he actually has the guts to stand up and do it. Later on, when he gets back from school, I'll see if he'll let me film him giving it his best shot.

Well, he did, and here it is.

So there you have it. Proud parent corner finished. I'm sure those of you with children of your own are now probably saying something along the lines of, "meh, my little Johnny/Janey could do better than that when they were two years old," to which I respond with, "go get your own blog then."

This one is almost exclusively for the grandparents.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Compare and contrast

Last Sunday afternoon was both sunny and dry and as the two don't generally come together very often at this time of year we decided to make the most of it and spend a little family time in our local postage stamp of greenery, Praça Gastão Vidigal. It turns out, by the way, that Gastão Vidigal is a name and not, as I had previously assumed from context, portuguese for 'the dog's toilet'. But canine faeces aside (or underfoot in David's case) the park was looking lovely after its recent makeover. The kiddies' play area now has a new fence to keep dogs out and the equipment inside has been given a much-needed overhaul. Some of the more barren patches have been replanted, paint and varnish has been liberally applied to many things and there is now a scattering of signposts blossoming out of the grass which say something along the lines of, 'It's your park - why not try looking after it for a change!'

All in all, a lovely place to spend a very pleasant half-an-hour. But any longer than that and the place starts to lose its charm. There really isn't much to do there if you're not four years old and still find it immensely pleasurable to climb up one way and slide down another. James tries, spending his time excavating complicated tomb complexes in the sandpit, but even that gets boring after he's deliberately collapsed the roof on his team of imaginary archaeologists for the second time. So we find ourselves going to the park less and less often these days, preferring to find entertainment around the house instead. Admittedly, now that we have our possessions there's a lot more to do indoors, but the lack of convenient, interesting and free outdoor spaces is one of the things I'm missing most from our life back in Cambridge.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not getting homesick. Of course, there are many things I miss from our life in England - it was less bureaucratic and a lot cheaper for a start and most people could generally understand what I was trying to say - but life out here is interesting and challenging and it has forced me to climb out of the rut I was happily plodding along in back in Cambridge and that can only be a good thing. I would, however, disagree with anyone who says a change is as good as a rest - this change has been physically and emotionally exhausting and I could really do with a nice long rest right about now - but it has certainly been as good as a motivational kick up the backside.

For one thing, I'm writing again. For now it's just the blog, but I've been making notes for my long-promised novel for James and will probably start work on it soon. I've been teaching myself to come and sit at the computer and start typing rather than play games and now I look forward to working in a way I haven't done for a long time. Having said that, I've now been struggling with this blog entry for three days, trying to decide what it is I actually want to say. It was going to be a broad sweeping comparison of the two countries and how we've changed our way of life to suit our new home. Then, when that seemed like way too much, it was going to become more of a list of things we miss, possibly with a discussion of why. Now it seems like a much better idea just to see what photos I have available and throw some text at them to see what sticks.

One thing I did want to write about though, and which has come as something of a pleasant surprise, is how little I've been missing my friends and family. I don't, of course, mean that I hate them all and I'm glad I'm finally on the far side of the world from them. What I mean is how easy it is these days to keep in regular contact with everyone. The last time we lived abroad, in Finland from 1996-98, contact with home was limited to an expensive phone call once every couple of weeks to my parents and the occasional letter (you know, in an envelope, with a stamp) to friends and relatives. Now I'm Skyping my parents every weekend and seeing much more of them than I ever did when we lived in Cambridge! I'm having ongoing email conversations with friends on a daily basis, I'm chatting on Facebook to people I haven't seen for years... honestly, I'm more socially active now than I ever was back in England.

But possibly the strangest connection I've managed to maintain has to be with the book club I was in back in Cambridge. Five-and-a-half thousand miles is a bit too far to go for our monthly meetings, but I've made a real effort to stay in touch with the others and I make sure I still read the same book as they do so I can send my views by email on the day of the meeting. Getting hold of the books is proving to be less of a challenge than I'd thought as well. So far, I've been able to download one from the iTunes bookstore and get hold of the other two from the kids' school library, but once they start choosing really obscure stuff I may have to skip a month. Buying books on Amazon is (ironically) not really an option as the import duties are so huge and the local bookstores that do stock books in English tend to stick to the popular classics and teenage fiction. I do still miss the conversation, but perhaps I could persuade them to send me the sessions as podcasts!

As for all the other stuff I miss about England? Well, there's not that much really - especially since one of our friends out here has just returned from the UK bringing me three large jars of Marmite and another delivered a Red-Cross parcel of Ibuprofen and curtain rings (the former is nigh on impossible to get in any sort of sensible quantity or delivery system, the latter only seemed to be available at £3.50 per ring!) In the words of Helen... "Oh for a John Lewis!"

But mostly, life out here is just different. Some things are worse than in England, some things are much better. It seems to me that the best way to be happy is just to accept Brazil for what it is and not try and make it like England with sun.

Less dog poo would be nice though.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sunday Service

Well, we now seem to have our Sunday mornings sorted out. Unlike Saturdays, which are all about sitting around eating lots and stocking up on a day's supply of caffeine in a single sitting, Sunday mornings are all about culture. There's a little museum about five minutes walk from the house called the Museu da Casa Brasileira (museum of the Brazilian house) and we now pop in there whenever the weather is nice and sunny.

To be honest, the museum itself is no great shakes. It's about four rooms big and houses a collection of old furniture. One of the rooms contains all the really old stuff, although really old only goes back about three hundred years, and once you've seen one old chest of drawers, you've pretty much seen them all. The other rooms are more up-to-date and contain a few objects which are, presumably, Brazilian design classics from the 1960s. There are a few oddly-shaped chairs, a couple of over-ornate lamps and some intriguingly pointless tables, usually with fewer than the normal number of legs.

But the reason for enjoying the museum is not the exhibits, but the building itself. It's a beautiful old mansion, set in its own grounds and is easily the oldest building I've seen out here so far. But more importantly for us, it possesses a really nice little garden, open and sunny in the middle but with a winding path around the edge which is shaded by an interesting collection of trees from around the world. It may be pretty pathetic when compared to the Botanic Garden in Cambridge (which was our previous recreational park of choice) but to have any sort of green space, devoid of cars and dogs, within five minutes walk of the house here in São Paulo is really quite amazing.

There is also a nice little cafe/restaurant attached to the back of the museum which opens onto the garden so you can while away many a pleasant hour enjoying a lovely refreshing juice and just staring out at green things for a change. That's assuming you've gone there without the children. Otherwise, you can spend your time wandering round the garden as the guardian of armfulls of curiously-shaped sticks and twigs while your coffee goes cold back at your table.

The other good thing about the museum, and the reason we go there on Sunday, is that they host concerts on Sunday mornings. They have a performance space, covered, but also open to the garden, which can seat about two hundred people and when the music sounds promising the place is packed. The first time we went we were treated to some jazz which was a little bit too loud and a little bit too free form for my taste, and as the weather wasn't great there were not so many people there.

Last Sunday we had a small ensemble playing baroque works in a traditional manner and the place was full. But it's all quite informal so you can come and go as you please and get up and wander off into the garden if you want, or sit and have an early lunch while you listen. Next week, we have a solo guitarist and we'll definitely be going to that. We may even stay on for a bit of lunch and some twig collecting afterwards.

And while we're on the subject, the boys have been enjoying their own forays into the world of culture today. James spent the morning on a school trip to the St Paul's Episcopal Anglican Cathedral, where he got to meet two Royal British Legionaries who saw active service during the Second World War. The point of the trip was to learn something about the war from first-hand sources, but also, as it helpfully points out on the trip information sheet I'm copying this from, to improve their listening, interviewing and information gathering skills.

So we packed James off with a camera and let him take his own photos and here are a couple of the better ones.

But meeting the veteran was clearly the best thing that's happened to James all week. Having casually asked him what it was like I was treated to a ten-minute recap of every single little detail James could remember. He was particularly impressed with Michel (he was French) as it appears he spent several years as a teenage spy - very Alex Rider-esque - and as far as James is concerned, it doesn't get any better than that.

And while James was off honing his interview techniques I was being entertained by David in his class performance of The Ugly Duckling. Sadly, due to the fact that flash was not permitted, my photography today was no better than James' and I haven't really done the performance justice.

The yellow t-shirt was our one pathetic attempt at a costume and it was refreshingly pleasing to see that the other parents had clearly gone to about the same level of effort as us. The head pieces, however, were fantastic.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The week in pictures

Wednesday morning 10am.

Moment of truth.

On your marks, get set...

147 bundles of joy.

Not everyone made it out in one piece.

My best friend!

Love is...

Words. Lots of words. In English.

No more plastic plates for us!

Home, sweet home.