Friday, December 24, 2010

The Queen of Clubs

Planning for Christmas has not been easy this year. We're flying home in January to spend a week in each of Ireland and England, and both sets of relatives have kindly decided to postpone their own celebrations until we're there. So we get to have two entire weeks of over-indulging and over-spending and I only hope I'm up to the challenge! But as we're not leaving Brazil until Jan 6th, this leaves us with the tricky question of what to do with ourselves until then.

Our first plan was to do what nearly everyone else is doing and head to the beach. However, the problem with this is that nearly everyone else is doing this and so the beaches are heaving. It's basically standing room only, plus it's baking hot, plus it's upwards of three-times as expensive to do it now as at any other time of year. Just try and imagine the scene... now imagine it with two children.

Plan B was to go inland, up into the hills where it's cooler and the air is fresher. There are quite a lot of small towns there which offer peace and quiet and their own version of an Alpine getaway, with chalet-style hotels and quaint little shops selling things like Swiss chocolate and posh cheese and whatever else you can buy in Alpine villages. Sadly, the cost of the hotels is also Alpine, rising to Himalayan over the Christmas period, but even despite this they all still managed to sell out in November as far as I could tell.

So we were left with Plan C - spend the holidays in São Paulo and just keep reminding ourselves that our true Christmas was coming in January. At least, as we were informed by another non-traveller, São Paulo is a lot nicer with eight million fewer people in it. Everything is still open, you just don't have to queue, or wait, or make reservations for it.

However, to sweeten the deal even more, we finally sorted out joining a club. The club, or clube as it's spelt out here (pronounced cloobie) is a cross between a sporting complex and a social centre, set in generous grounds and nicely hidden away from the riff-raff by a huge great wall all the way around it. Some are modest affairs and offer the basics of a gym, football pitch, a swimming pool or two and a few tennis courts and then a couple of places to sit and eat. One or two of the bigger ones would give Disneyland a run for its money.

As it happens, we have two within ten minutes walk of the house and one of them, Clube Pinheiros, is possibly the biggest and most exclusive in town. It's also appears to be the most difficult to join. Well, actually, that's not entirely true. It's quite easy to join. All you need is big pockets and you're in. Basically, this is what you need to do. First off, you have to buy a titulo. This is like membership and you can buy it from anyone willing to sell you one. Fortunately, there always seem to be plenty of people offering theirs for sale and the price is negotiable between the two parties. Our inquiries would suggest that one will cost you about R$20,000 (£7,655). That is, of course, just for one of us. We would need four of them for the whole family. Of course, when we leave in four years' time, we could resell them and hopefully make back most, if not all, of our outlay. So it may actually cost us no more than four years' worth of interest on £30,000.

Next up is the joia (the word means jewel). This is, quite simply, a gift to the club. It's non-returnable and gives you nothing except the satisfaction of having contributed towards the welfare of the club and its owners. This is R$22,000 (£8,420). Per person. Still, after that, things come down in price quite substantially. The monthly fees are then only around R$700 (£268) and that's for the whole family. And on top of that there are individual fees for certain activities and classes, but at that point you probably wouldn't even notice another few hundred reais dripping out of your wallet.

So, unsurprisingly, Clube Pinheiros is not going to be receiving our applications for membership. Fortunately, however, there is a second clube just around the corner from Pinheiros and although it's on a more modest scale, it's still ideal for our needs. And it doesn't require us to clear out the bank account in order to join. It's called Hebraica and as the name might suggest, it's a Jewish club - although clearly they're happy to accept godless heathens onto their books as well as jews.

So far we've been members for four days and Helen has been there on every one of them, come rain or shine. I skipped the second day because I got a bit too much of the shine on the first and was glowing a little for a while, but the boys have been loving the chance to play in any one of the five swimming pools we now have access to. And when we've finished messing about in the water, we can go and play in one of several play areas there are, or kick a ball around, or go for a jog, or whatever we feel like, until we're ready to visit one of the two restaurants or numerous snack bars there are dotted around the place so we can pile back on all the calories we've just busily burned off. And if, after all that hedonism, the urge for more cerebral persuits comes upon us, we can avail ourselves of the library, complete with sound-proofed children's area, or even the on-site synagogue!

I think Christmas week will be a lot more pleasant thanks to Hebraica. In fact, I think the next four years will be greatly improved because of it and I feel I ought to say here and now that it was only thanks to Helen that we actually became members at all. My view was that the whole thing was too much grief to sort out and that the kids' paddling pool was all we really needed in the way of recreational aquatic facilities. Hopefully, she'll not feel the need to remind me of this every time we visit.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Funfairs and fazendas

This week I got to do something I've been wanting to do ever since we arrived in Brazil - go to a children's party.

I'm no stranger to children's parties. I've enjoyed or endured plenty in my time, and have even been known to host the odd one myself on occasion. They're pretty straightforward affairs really. You get a bunch of kids, feed them some unhealthy snacks, make them run around until they feel sick and then give them a slice of cake and pack them off home to pester their parents until the sugar high wears off and then sleep through most of the following day.

Alternatively, you can hire one of those helpful little venues which go by the name of Chucky's, or Funky Fun House, or Happy Hal's House of Happiness, where an entire pack of children can be over-excited and over-fed on an industrial scale and where someone else gets to do the cleaning up afterwards. All you have to do is work the extra shifts to earn the extra cash to pay the extra-large credit card bill that will make it all seem like a really bad idea two weeks after it's all over.

In Brazil things are pretty much the same, except more so. Children's birthdays are a big deal out here and as a lot of the parents at St Paul's are, shall we say, quite well off, a lot of the parties are lavish affairs more akin to society balls than children's parties. Even for the younger ones, a typical party will be huge, with blanket invitations going out to everyone in the year, as well as friends from other years, or from outside school and a large part of the extended family as well.

They're not all like this though and while the one we went to this week was on a much larger scale than anything I was used to from England, it was, by St Paul's standards, probably a rather modest affair. And unlike most of the invitations we've had to date, this one was actually from someone we knew and whose daughter - the birthday girl - was a good friend of David's. It was at a place called Spasso Splash and this is where all the photos are from. Basically, it was an entire indoor activity centre, complete with roller coaster, chair ride, tirolesa (flying fox) and various other similar things. There was an area full of computers and games consoles to entertain the older kids and a special soft-play area for the very little ones (and David who made the ball pool his own personal domain).

And food. So much food. Whichever way I turned there was almost always someone offering me some tasty-looking snack to eat, or a soft drink to wash it down with, or a glass of Champagne to wash the soft drink down with. I started quite modestly, accepting the occasional mini pizza or pão de queijo but after a while I realised they had these little baskets you could stuff full of snacks so you didn't have to be constantly trying to take a snack with one hand while balancing your glass of Coke in the other. After that over-indulging became really easy. By the time it came to the cutting the cake I was full, and could barely manage to finish the three bits of cake I found myself presented with.

Sadly, this was about the time david finally plucked up the courage to go on the roller coaster ride and I was, of course, required to go with him as James was far too bust playing on the computer to do it for me. However, after five times in a row, even David agreed it was enough and I was able to escape before either my stomach or my back had time to take their revenge. I am such an old man. But at least I didn't fall fast asleep in the taxi on the way home like everyone else!

So, that was my first taste of a children's party Brazilian style and I have to say I enjoyed it quite a lot; clearly not as much as David who promptly announced he was going to have his party there as well, but enough to be happy enough to take my kids along to more of them in future. There is a small voice of conscience in there somewhere telling me it's a bit cheeky to let my children enjoy all this hospitality when I know perfectly well I shall not be reciprocating when the time comes, no matter what David says. But there's also a cynic in there and he has a louder voice and he's telling me that as long as complete strangers are happy to invite my children to their parties, who am I to stand in their way?

Anyway, that's not all we did this week. We also spent a very enjoyable Saturday out at the fazenda (farm) of some of our friends, Nick and Isabel. Actually, the fazenda belongs to Isabel's parents, but they had it for the weekend and offered us the chance to escape the city and breathe some fresh air for the day while sitting by the pool and eating some delicious food. What kind of complete fools would we have to be to pass up an offer like that?

I won't bore you with all the details of our day - it will just make you jealous - but needless to say it was fabulous and only the need to get back home to put the boys to bed forced us to leave. But one thing I do want to talk about is trees.

Nick took me on a little tour of the place and showed me all the different things they had growing there and being a complete city boy I was totally awed by what I saw. Things just grow here in Brazil, just like that. If you throw away some seeds and they happen to land in some soil, they start to grow. The problem here is not getting things to grow, but getting them to stop. I know this because we've just had the gardener in at home, cutting and trimming and rediscovering bits of the garden that have been hidden for months by plants that simply weren't there when we arrived in July.

Anyway, I decided to include some photos of some of the stuff I was shown on Saturday. Believe me, they were so much more impressive in real life.

Easily the most impressive one in my opinion were the lychee trees. In England, lychees grow in Sainsbury's, in little packs of ten or so, and cost an absolute fortune. Here there were four trees completely weighed down by clumps of lychees - maybe a hundred bunches or so on each tree - but sadly they were all about one week away from being ripe enough to pick. Also, rather hopelessly, I seem to have forgotten to take any photos of them. So here is the fabulously textured bark of a cork tree - shortly before David ripped it to pieces trying to make his own cork!

Other delights were several rows of coffee plants - just imagine growing your own coffee - mango trees, banana trees, avocado trees, the aforementioned cork trees and a couple of others that are a bit more exotic. The first is the jaca, although it is more commonly known as jackfruit outside Brazil. The fruit is huge and bobbly and although we did pick one, we actually forgot to eat it so I can't tell you what it tastes like. Sorry.

The other is called jabuticaba. It produces small dark berries that look a bit like cherries, but the strange thing is that instead of growing in bunches from the ends of branches like normal fruit, they grow on the actual trunk and branches of the tree and make it look like the tree has some terrible fungal infection. The berries are actually very nice though. You bite into them, suck out the soft white insides and then throw away the outer skin. I did take a photo of this one, but as it had been picked clean about a week before, it looks really uninspiring - look it up on google images if you really want to see one if full bloom. Instead, here's a photo of a couple of labourers employing traditional logging methods.

And as usual, at the end of the day, it was left up to the men to carry all the stuff home...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Further advent-ures

Christmas is coming
The goose is getting fat
So please put up some ludicrously over-sized decorations
And other stuff like that.

Yes, it's that time of year again, but this time it's not like the last time. While I read daily reports from the UK, suffering its coldest November since whenever and its earliest snowfall since who-knows-when, I'm sitting here desperately glad that the repair men have finally come round and fixed the air-conditioning so that the kids can have more of a chance to sleep at night. Right now, beside an open window, the breeze is lovely and cooling, but once it dies down you start to understand what 36 degrees of centigrade really feels like.

And what it doesn't feel like is Christmas. I realise a large part of the world has Christmas in the middle of summer - that's fine. Way back when it may well have been a pagan ceremony to celebrate midwinter, but ever since baby Jesus came along it's been a December thing, not a winter thing, and it would just be way too complicated to try and divide the world into December Christmas-ers and June Christmas-ers depending on which side of the middle they were. And pointless as well. Honestly, out here we don't need a festival to celebrate surviving another winter - we just need an extra jumper for a couple of weeks.

So here we are with a sweltering Christmas on its way and poor old Santa still has to wear all his winter woolies. When the day actually arrives, it's possible he'll pop down to the beach in his baggies and havaianas and distribute his largesse between games of beach football, but for now the only one I've seen in the flesh is stuck in the shopping centre pretending he's still up in the Arctic, ho ho hoing his way to the air-conditioning unit as often as possible. He does, however, possess his own, reasonably impressive beard.

But what the Brazilians lack in atmosphere they more than make up for in enthusiasm. No sub-tropical heatwave is going to stop them partying like it's minus five, and like a lot of things out here, the better something is going to be, the bigger it needs to be. This is why we have giant Santas all over the place, or giant trees decorated to within an inch of their lives and wedged into shop entrances. I've seen fake presents, fake snow, fake grass, and I've even seen Santa on a bike!

But the two clear winners in the vulgar Christmas decoration competition have to be the following - both courtesy of Shopping Iguatemi, which is our local, very upmarket, retail outlet.

The first is outside by the entrance and is clearly designed to supplement the security guards who patrol there. It's terrifying. It was bad enough when they first put it up and there was only one dog, but after a few days they added the trumpet-playing trio and turned the whole thing into a grotesque - and somewhat confusing - tableau. Quite why Santa has a saxophone is beyond me - he never did when he used to squeeze himself down my chimney - but then he never brought along a dog with a plunge detonator either so maybe it's a Brazilian thing.

On first seeing it, David refused to go anywhere near it in case Santa trod on him and squashed him. "Is he going to come alive at night and attack me?" he asked. I should, of course, have replied, "Don't be silly, he's just a giant model." But what I actually said was, "Don't worry. Even if he comes alive there's no way he can get into your bedroom. He'd never be able to get over the electric fence." David accepted this and then suddenly looked shocked. "But there's a man who sleeps on this street. Santa will squash him and kill him!" As you see, the spirit of Christmas is alive and well in this household.

But giant killer Santa and his pack of canine terrorists pale in comparison with the main display inside the shopping centre. Here they've set up an entire railway platform, complete with train, flying sleigh, obligatory giant teddy bear and a huge collection of Christmas-themed figures. But although there are some two dozen figures, there are only three or four characters - the old bearded man, the jolly old lady, the happy children - so the whole thing ends up looking like some terrible failed cloning experiment from Madam Tussaud's.

Sadly, my few photos will not do it justice as it's impossible to capture the whole thing in all its overblown glory. But try and imagine it. One or two of the clones are motorised so they actually wave their hands or turn their heads as you watch and the entire experience is accompanied by a perpetual soundtrack of Bing Crosby and his ilk crooning away in the background.

And not to be outdone, the arrival of Chanukah has provided the local Jewish community with their own display in the form of an oversized menorah, surrounded by a host of giant dreidels (thank you wikipedia) which are, unfortunately given their basic function, stuck in place. And honestly, the whole thing is far too modest. How is my son going to be terrified by giant killer dreidels spinning him into oblivion during the night when this is all he has to work with? And not a single animatronic rabbi to be seen anywhere!

To be fair, Brazil does not own the monopoly on ostentatious Christmas displays. Far from it. Although the shops and shopping centres have gone to town on their displays, individual houses have so far remained fairly unadorned, with not an inflatable roof Santa in sight. It's possible it's still a bit early for anyone apart from the most rampantly commercial elements of society to have given much thought for Christmas, or maybe it's the fact that you can't really see much of a house from the street around here so ornamentation designed for passers-by is a bit pointless. Who knows? I'll see what happens over the next couple of weeks.

But one aspect of the build up to Christmas which does seem to be lacking out here is the Advent calendar. Last year, in Sainsbury's, you couldn't move for Advent calendars for the whole of November, but so far I haven't noticed any. Certainly there are none in the supermarket. They might be selling them in the specialist chocolate shops, but as I can't even afford to walk past them, let alone go in and look around, I think I'll conveniently choose to decide that they don't either. And besides, neither of the boys has remembered what they're missing yet and almost certainly won't until James reads this tomorrow and starts his campaign of complaints!

Update: campaign of complaints cunningly avoided by the timely arrival of two advent calendars. And not from me, I should point out, but from James' friend Christian who acquired them on a recent trip to the UK. So, that's the pre-breakfast chocolate cravings taken care of. Next on the jobs list is to decide where we're actually going to spend Christmas itself; here in town, up in the hills, or down on the beach? Ah, decisions, decisions...