Friday, February 25, 2011

Lessons to be Learned

Life out here is not always easy. Or well organised. Or cheap. However, I really don't want to spend the next four years writing a (more or less) weekly blog in which I do nothing but catalogue the trials and tribulations of the previous seven days, even though I generally find that a lot more fun than trying to find something positive to say. So although this week involved several days of sitting-in and waiting for people to turn up and then having to pay them vast amounts of money once they did, I'm not going to write about that. Except to say that we now have a wonderful new water filter installed, and no rat slowly and painfully dying behind our fridge.

Instead, I thought I'd write about something nice. It's quite minor really, in the grand scheme of things, but I think it's the little things like this that we'll look back on in years to come and remember as being part of what was so good about being out here. Basically, all I want to do is tell you about two of the ECAs (extra-curicular activities) that James is doing and how much he's enjoying them.

First off is chess, which he's only been going to since the start of this term but which he's settled into right away. James is an enthusiastic chess player and has been playing on and off for a few years now. Needless to say, he picked up the rules straight away, but after an initial burst of interest, he quickly got bored and preferred to use the board and pieces for making up his own games. However, in Ireland he has a grandfather and several uncles who are all accomplished players and who were always happy to play against him whenever we were visiting. And not just play, but also talk to him about chess; show him where he was going wrong, where he could have made a better move. And last Christmas he sat there fascinated as Gus talked him through one of his favourite old games move by move. (It was this one, by the way). At which point Johnny came in and began a discussion on how it could have been played differently. James loved every minute of it!

So I was delighted when he said he would like to take up chess as an ECA at school. Now, most schools have a chess club and it's usually run either by the one teacher who actually knows the rules, or by an enthusiastic parent who used to play and is happy to spare a bit of time once a week to let the kids have a bit of fun. This was, in fact, the case at both James' previous schools. At St Paul's, however, we have something a little bit better.

This is James' chess teacher.

Having my son taught chess by a Grandmaster who is also possibly the best player on the entire continent of South America is pretty impressive in my book! Of course, I don't know what he's like as a teacher, but from what I can gather from James, only half the session is actually playing, the other half is working on problem sheets and discussing tactics, so it certainly sounds as if he's seriously aiming to create Brazil's next generation of champions.

Yesterday, he asked me if I would be interested in receiving information about competitions and tournaments James might like to go to outside school. To my shame, my reply was not, "wow, yes, of course" but rather, "do you really think he's good enough?" Honestly, have some faith, Dad!

Finally I've joined that exalted group of chess players - which also includes my own father - whose pre-teen children can easily beat them while reading a book, or watching television, or chatting incessantly at the same time. And I now realise just how annoying that can be. Belated apologies, Dad.

The other ECA that James is really enjoying at the moment is his guitar lessons and it's all due to the efforts of his new teacher, Eder Francisco. Eder is not only a great guitarist, but also a very astute and patient teacher who was clearly delighted when James turned up. Here was someone who could already read music, was keen to learn, could play the sort of music that Eder was interested in teaching him and on top of all this was well-behaved during lessons (and not just because Helen often sits in). It works the other way as well. James loves his guitar lessons and is delighted with his new teacher. He does what Eder asks him and takes correction without complaint - unlike when I try and am met with a barrage of refusal and criticism.

And being the musical wasteland that I am, I'm not much good at noticing all the subtleties of James' playing, but Helen assures me he is a lot more confident in his playing these days and is really beginning to feel his way through his pieces rather than simply playing them. And it's not just playing technique James is picking up from Eder, but teaching methods as well. As I mentioned in a previous blog, James is now teaching me to play guitar and I'm quite sure that when he sits with his head in his hand and interrupts my playing with "again!" whenever I play a wrong note or hesitate too long it's Eder he's copying. Still, if it works for him, maybe it'll work for me as well.

Last week James got to play in one of the school's lunchtime concerts for the first time. Even though the concerts are fairly small-scale affairs, mainly for the benefit of the performers' parents, Eder took it very seriously, giving James some extra lessons in the week runing up to it in order to make sure that James would do them both proud. Sadly, it's not the best of recordings, but it does give you some idea of how well he played. Eder was so pleased he gave James a hug afterwards and it's a sure sign of how much James likes Eder that he actually let him - even though there were people watching!

These days we're getting to see a much happier and more confident James and while it's obviously not entirely due to his ECA teachers, they're certainly a big part of it. Let's hope it continues.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

These lines, from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, have absolutely nothing to do with Brazil. They are, however, extremely appropriate for me to use as a starting point for this week's blog.

Firstly, we did have water, water everywhere today. After a couple of weeks of relatively light rainfall and just as I was beginning to think we'd seen the end of the rainy season, it returned with a vengeance this afternoon. And unsurprisingly, I was caught out in it.

I went to the school late today as David was ill at home and James had after-school chess. It had started to drizzle before I left the house so I wisely set off with two umbrellas but actually made it to the school with nothing worse than slightly damp shoes. Twenty minutes later, when we were ready to come home again, James and I were treated to the heaviest rain I've seen since arriving in Brazil - and believe me, that's saying something. There was no way we could even consider setting off for home, even with umbrellas. So we waited around at school enjoying the sight of water bubbling up over the edges of a drain cover that clearly couldn't cope. Then part of the canteen roof collapsed under the weight of water leaking in from somewhere. James had never had so much fun inside school!

When the rain turned from plain silly to just heavy, we decided we may as well trust to the umbrellas and try and make it home in time for tea. Twenty metres down the road and I realised the problem was not going to be the water from above so much as the water from below. I couldn't see the kerb. After a few more metres I couldn't even see the pavement I was walking on. By the time we got as far as our favourite local park, I couldn't even see most of the park. James was yelling with glee as he waded through knee-high water, begging me to keep going to where I could see cars slowly disappearing. I was happy to disappoint him.

When we arrived home James and I did the only sensible things we could think of - he went and had a shower and a change of clothes, I grabbed my camera and headed back out. By now the rain had pretty much stopped and despite a few misgivings about exactly what it was I was wading through, I headed out until the dirty water was a good deal higher than my knees just so I could capture the moment. I think the results were worth it.

And I was pleasantly relieved to see that our house was on high enough ground to avoid the danger. We did have a leak out back which ended up creeping in somewhere and pooling onto our dining room floor, but that was it. No gushing gutters, no sandbags at the front door...nothing. I would like to think we'd taken this into consideration when renting the place, but the truth is we could so easily have been in one of those lovely houses round the corner which now have a metre of recycled sewage wandering around their living rooms.

All of which makes the petty complaints in the second half of my blog seems somewhat fatuous. However, I'm going to make them regardless. I am fed up with all the time-wasting and waiting around I'm having to do because of organisational incompetence. It's not just me, it's Helen as well, but she vents her rage on her Facebook page so you can follow her own exploits there. I don't know whether the incompetence is a result of the onerous and generally pointless bureaucracy there is in every aspect of life in Brazil, or whether the bureaucracy is an attempt to counteract the rampant uselessness of organisations and their employees.

As an example, let's look at Brastemp. They are the giant of Brazilian kitchen appliance manufacture and supply and they are currently under agreement to supply us with a water purifier. Up till now we've been using the water filter built into our fridge/freezer, but in recent weeks the water has been coming out so slowly it's currently taking seven minutes to filter enough water for a full kettle. So, we decided to contact Brastemp and get a new filter. As our landlord had one previously, the process is extremely simple. The water supply is already there, the power is already there. All we need is the filter.

So. We called them on a Friday. They said they'd be round for an initial inspection on the following Tuesday. They then emailed to say it would be the Thursday instead. Any time between 8:00 and 18:00. Sure enough, a very nice technician arrived on the Thursday, spent ten minutes lying to me about how good my Portuguese was (bless him), fixed a small tube to the water point, took a photo of it (presumably to prove he'd done the work rather than because it looked so nice) and then clearly explained that the actual filter would arrive - in his own words - amanhã, ou sábado, ou segunda-feira (tomorrow, or Saturday, or Monday).

Well, I waited in all day Friday. Nothing. Saturday. Nothing. Monday. You guessed it - nothing. On Tuesday we called to be told that the technician had gone off without the right paperwork so it would now be Friday. They didn't bother to tell us this until we phoned and we're not free on Friday. So it will now be Monday. Any time Monday between 8:00 and 18:00. Possibly. I'm not sure what bothers me more, that it takes two-and-a-half weeks to get a water filter installed or that a company has so little faith in its own employees that it doesn't trust them to fit the pipe and the filter and sort out the paperwork all at the same time.

In the meantime the existing filter is still giving us drinking water one drop at a time and, at this rate, may well give up completely over the weekend, thereby bringing me nicely back to the second half of Coleridge's quotation and finishing off the blog rather well, I feel.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

São Paulo

It was business as usual for me and the boys this week. The typical day goes something like this...

I struggle out of bed at six o'clock, wake myself up with a shower and head downstairs to make a variety of different breakfasts. At six thirty I go and wake up the boys if they haven't already dragged themselves downstairs (this does occasionally happen, but usually they only bother to get up at six on the weekend when they don't actually have to!) For the next half hour we generally have a reasonably pleasant time, eating and drinking and finishing off the homework we should have finished the previous day.

After that, the nagging starts as I try and get both boys to brush their teeth, then brush them again properly, then get dressed, then get dressed in the proper clothes, then put their shoes on, then put their school shoes on instead, then make sure they have everything they're supposed to in their school bags, then collect up all the stuff they've forgotten to put in their school bags and do it for them. And all this has to be accomplished in twenty minutes, after which we can finally set off for school.

The first leg of the journey is a race to the front door, followed without fail by some variation on the following conversation:
"First the worst, second the best."
"No. First the best, second the loser."
"Well I was first then."
"No, I was first. You didn't touch the door."
"Dad. James is being mean."
"No I'm not. He was first the worst."
"No, Dad was first the worst. I'm second the best, you're third the one with the hairy chest."
"Stop, both of you! I don't care who was first. Now, out you go or we'll be late. Other way!"

Strangely, after all this, the fifteen minute walk to school is nearly always a pleasure. It's our opportunity to have a nice chat and answer all those difficult questions children like to ask their dad...
"Can I go round to Francisco's house after school?"
"How many days is it until my birthday?"
"Are there any black holes in Brazil?"
"What do you think is better, a dragon with strength 2 and poison 2, or a zombie with strength 1 and berserk and regenerate?"
And when I occasionally get the chance to say something myself, I'll take the opportunity to explain why the English won the battle of Agincourt or some other similar vital piece of information.

After dropping them off, I'm free to head across the road to the local supermarket, Pão de Açucar (sugarloaf) and pick up the day's provisions. I generally stop off there most days as there's usually a few things I need and I like to get fresh bread for lunch. It's then eight minutes back to the house (notice that it's half the time without the kids in tow!)

And then the day is my own. Six-and-a-half hours of non-stop, child-free fun. Actually, it sounds a lot better than it really is. There's usually a fair bit of domestic admin to wade through and this often involves a trip out to the shopping centre to pay bills, get cash or pick up those things I can't get at the small Pão de Açucar. Otherwise it involves sitting in and waiting. Waiting for the meter reader, or the alarm fixer, or the documents courier, or the gardener, or the air-conditioning service engineer, or the domestic pest control team (so far just mice and termites). I think this is why people have maids - so that there's always someone free to answer the door.

But once these things are out of the way, it's down to some serious writing. Just as soon as I've checked my emails, had a browse through Facebook, maybe played a little game or two. But then it's down to writing. The blog comes first though. I'll give it some thought, do a few paragraphs and then when I start to run out of steam on that I'll finally move over to the new book I'm doing for James. Except that it's coming up to lunchtime. So I'll take a break for nice fresh buns (with the Marmite I haven't actually imported) and a nice pot of proper American-style filter coffee. Out here, they tend to like their coffee very small, very strong and very bitter - not my cup of tea at all! - so although it might be nice to sit in a friendly cafe and watch the São Paulo world go by in an artistic/creative sort of way, I never bother because I'd rather work my way through a litre of smooth caffeine made by someone who knows exactly how I like it.

Anyway, by twelve-thirty I'm done with lunch and I really do have two hours of uninterrupted writing time. This is probably why I've finally managed to begin my book. Actually, I've begun it five times but I feel confident I'll move beyond Chapter One fairly soon.

I'm back at the school for three o'clock to collect the boys and wait around for an indefinite length of time until I can get them back home. Some days, we're out of the gate by quarter-past three. Some days we're still there at four. And James now has after-school activities three times a week so it's not that unusual to only be getting home at five. Which is quite handy really as it means I don't have to worry about how to spend my late afternoons - I just seemlessly go from childminder to chef and start thinking about what to give them for tea.

Tea is always a pleasure in our house.
"What's for tea, Dad?"
"Yick!" says David.
"Urgh, not fish," says James. "I hate that. Why do we always have to have that?"
"We don't always have it. We haven't had it for ages."
"Grumble, grumble, grumble."
And now substitute for 'fish' almost anything else you can think of - it tends to work the same way.

What we all do for the rest of the evening varies depending on mood and availability. If Helen is free, she does guitar practice with James. If she's not, I'll give it a go, though this is not such a good idea as I know next to nothing about playing guitar or reading music and James reacts to my suggested criticisms accordingly. In an effort to avoid the regular nagging sessions that develop at these times, I'm getting James to teach me how to play. And I have to say, he seems to be a much better teacher than student! Sadly, me too.

Apart from that there's a variety of other things that usually get done. Homework. Washing up. Jigsaws. Reading. Showers. Even, occasionally, some tidying up. We try to get David up to bed at seven o'clock but it almost always ends up being nearer half past. We try to get James up to bed at eight o'clock but it almost always ends up being nearer nine. I try to get myself up to bed at nine-thirty but it almost always ends up being eleven, though I can't for the life of me work out where the time goes. And then suddenly I have to get up in seven hours and do it all again!

Rio de Janeiro

Given that picture of domestic bliss and harmony, you'd think Helen would never be able to bring herself to go away. However, last week she did just that, abandoning the sticky heat of São Paulo for the even stickier, even hotter Rio. She was only there for three days, but during this time she managed to spend two-and-a-half hours in a helicopter, visit an FPSO (Floating, Production, Storage and Offloading) platform, visit the world's deepest wave tank, meet the president of Petrobras and even go off and do a spot of sight-seeing as well.

But more importantly, she got to wear some fabulous orange overalls and a big white hard hat - though this was not while she was sight-seeing I should point out. Rio may be dangerous, but it's not that bad. And she got to get sticky oil all over her hand. Boy, it doesn't get much better than that!

She's been to Rio a few times now and each time she comes back she says, "we have to go there. It's so much nicer than São Paulo." Sadly, it's also so much hotter and the children are not the sun worshippers their dad is. Also, all our holiday has so far been used up back in Europe and the next time the children have any time off school is for Carnival - which, unless you're twenty-five and childless is so not the time to visit Rio. So it will be a while yet before I get to see it for myself. In the meantime I get to look at the lovely photos.