Saturday, October 29, 2011

Crazy paving: or the perils of paulistano perambulation

Brazil is home to some of the most stunning pavements I've seen outside Barcelona...and Pompeii. The famous calçadas of Rio de Janeiro's beach fronts are a wonder to behold, not only because they are so long and visually stunning, but because they are also well built and incredibly well maintained. I've used this photo before, but here it is again, just to illustrate what I mean.

São Paulo, on the other hand, is home to some of the worst pavements I've ever seen. Generally, they're not so pretty. Generally they're not so well maintained. But their biggest fault (speaking as someone who has to walk along a fair few of them every day) is that they're not so uniform.

Out here it seems to be the case that the pavement belongs to, and is the responsibility of, the property it runs along the front and/or side of and not the responsibility of some overarching body like, for example, a local authority. In theory this seems like a great idea. People won't want their beautiful house or shop to look a mess by being stuck behind a grotty stretch of pavement - especially if they're also liable for any injuries caused by tripping on loose stones - and so they'll make sure it's kept in good order, so saving large amounts of taxpayers' money from being swallowed up on endless repairs every time someone else has come along and dug the whole thing up to replace a pipe or cable that wasn't buried properly in the first place.

This is why big, expensive buildings like Shopping Iguatemi, our local upmarket shrine to over-indulgence, has a big, expensive and meticulously maintained pavement running right around its six square miles of mercantile floorspace. (Yes, I know it's not really that big, but I couldn't find the exact size when I needed it. But it's big, okay. And it has a lot of pavement.)

But turn the corner and go up Alameda Gabriel Monteiro da Silva - which is the street next to ours and which is little more than a one mile long opportunity to overpay for unnecessary things you never really wanted anyway - and the pavements become, literally in some cases, an artistic extension of the boutique or gallery to which they belong. And never mind that your neighbour has a beautifully detailed mosaic to entice in his customers, if you want a dirty great slab of dark concrete outside your place, then you go ahead and lay it.

 And as for the pedestrians? Stuff 'em! What the hell are they doing walking anyway? That's no way to do your shopping. They should be driving, preferably in a big car so they can fit in all the stuff they're going to buy that they don't really need. And that's why so many of the pavements aren't even flat, but are sloped, to allow cars to drive up and park on them. But not all. That would be far too convenient. Some of them still have a curb, or are slightly raised, because they have parking round the back so as not to spoil the view of the front of the shop.

So a gentle stroll down the road now involves frequent changes in texture, height and angle, sometimes as often as every five metres or so, and while I should probably just shut up, stop complaining and enjoy the rich variety and artistic merit of my underfoot surfaces, I find that doing so beside a road full of speeding vehicles, in the pouring rain and with two children, four bags of shopping and an umbrella is nothing like as easy as it sounds.

And that's assuming all those different pavements really are as well maintained as they're meant to be. Sadly, I have come across the odd one or two which could, perhaps, do with a little smoothing out at the edges.

But one thing that pavements certainly are out here is washed. And sadly I do mean washed, not cleaned, as the daily efforts of thousands of people and millions of gallons of water is completely pointless in a city of twenty million people and ten million polluting vehicles. This doesn't seem to stop them though. There they are, every morning, with their hoses and brushes and (on occasion) even scrubbing brushes and buckets of soapy water. Sometimes you can even see the difference afterwards - a slightly lighter patch of stone here and there - but usually not. They just make it wet and slippery.

And quite often I've see someone with a pressure hose, pumping water out at goodness knows how many psi, chasing individual leaves off their pavement and into the gutter where the flood of water they've been drowned in will carry them off somewhere until they can be someone else's problem. And as if that's not bad enough, five minutes after the pavement is dry once more, the wind will deposit another load of leaves all over the place and then a bit later on in the afternoon there'll be a torrential downpour which will soak everything anyway.

To be fair to the Brazilians for a moment, and as you know from my blog about gardening a few weeks ago, battling to keep nature in check is something of a full-time job out here. It only takes a few weeks of lazy maintenance before the Atlantic rainforest has overpowered your pretty little lawn or you have an entire food chain competing for first dibs on your rubbish. So it's no surprise people out here are so obsessed with cleanliness. They like their bodies to be clean. They like their houses to be clean. And clearly, they like their pavements to be clean as well. Speaking as a filthy foreigner, I say yeah, okay to the first, up to a point to the second and really, get a life to the third. Honestly, I don't need my pavements to be spotless and germ free.

But I would like them to be easier to walk on.

Come and join me for a stroll down my street

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Washout. Eat out.

As you've no doubt noticed, I've significantly reduced the number of blog entries I'm writing. From a high of almost one a week, I'm now providing you with barely one a month, it would seem. There are two reasons for this - well, three if you include inherent laziness - and the first of them is that after weeks of false starts, I finally got going on the famous novel I promised to write for James. I then came to another grinding halt when I tumbled down a plot hole the size of a small moon (it's a sci-fi novel) but at least I managed to churn out several thousand words before I did and now it just needs a fairly comprehensive rewrite of a couple of chapters or so and I'll be back on my feet and heading off to Mars.

Sadly, it would appear I'm not exactly a master of multi-tasking and when I'm writing the novel I can't think of anything to write in the blog and suddenly I find another week has gone by and once again I've told you nothing about life out in São Paulo. Well, while the novel is wallowing in low orbit I thought I'd take the opportunity to give the blog another go.

But the novel is only one of the reasons the blog has suffered. The other is that São Paulo is doing its best to be rather dull at the moment. Today, for example, I was woken up by the rain hammering down on the driveway just outside the window. It settled into a miserable drizzle but was still so heavy that we decided to abandon our usual trek out to Emporio Santa Maria for Saturday breakfast and just sat around the house instead. It's now three o'clock in the afternoon and it's still raining heavily. Once or twice it eased slightly, but once or twice it also turned into a downpour. There is no wind and the clouds are black - this is going to continue for a long time yet. Helen has abandoned the day and gone back to bed with an iPad, a pot of tea and a pile of Ruth Rendells. James and David are so bored they've even got bored with annoying each other and are now being reasonably pleasant to one another for a change.

Actually, as I listen, James is currently watching an old episode of Hornblower and attempting to explain the plot to Angela, who comes in once a week to clean the office. She speaks no English and James' portuguese, although a good deal better than mine, is being sorely tested with explanations of the intricacies of Napoleonic naval warfare. They're chatting away though so he's obviously making a pretty good job of it. David, meanwhile, is building a galaxy out of Lego.

This week has been half term and although not every day has been as much of a wash-out as today, the weather has certainly been no help. It's been too cold to go swimming, to wet to play in the park, most of the boys' friends have either been away on holiday or busy doing their own thing and apart from one afternoon play date for James, we've been on our own for the whole week. I think at this point we're all quite desperate for school to start again.

The rest of the weekend is a little more promising, however, and I think I'll stop here for the moment and come back tomorrow once we've done something a bit more interesting than stare out at the rain...

Now imagine this for 36 hours

...Well, it's now Sunday night and I've done a fair bit of staring out at the rain today as well, but mostly from inside someone else's apartment, right at the top of a very tall building with fabulous views of a fair bit of the city (whenever the rain was light enough to see further than the next street). And finally, now that the weekend has come to and end, so has the rain. Typical.

Anyway, half term has suddenly picked up. Today was nominally a play date for David, but we were all invited and we enjoyed a pleasant late morning/afternoon of chat with another ex-pat couple and were treated to both brunch and lunch - and invited back for a barbecue when the sun comes back. Now that's my kind of a play date!

And yesterday evening Helen and I abandoned the kids and went out to dinner (for only about the third time ever) to a somewhat more upmarket food joint than we're used to frequenting. For those of you who know São Paulo, it was a Figueira. For those who don't it was one of São Paulo's better known restaurants and is situated on the wonderfully named Rua Haddock Lobo - which has to be worth a visit just for the name alone. Anyway, Figueira Rubayiat, to give it its full name, is a large restaurant which has been built around a massive, 130-year old fig tree which dominates the entire space. Sadly I forgot to bring my camera so you'll have to make do with a stock photo I've filched from Google, but it gives you a good idea of what the place is like.

And the food, apparently, is superb. I say apparently, not because mine wasn't, but because I am absolutely no judge of these things. Good food is wasted on me. If they'd brought me a Marmite sandwich instead of my seafood paella I probably would have been just as happy. However, they did bring me a seafood paella, and boy, did they bring me a lot of it. They set up one of those mobile trolleys beside the table and I watched as the chef filled my plate with various things with shells and exoskeletons. Then he piled up a load of rice and stuff in the middle until it began to resemble an emerging volcano, then he dumped a load more crustaceans on top and handed the whole thing across to me with a merry bom apetite.

Fortunately, I do have a bom apetite, but I have to confess to being defeated by my dinner on this occasion - although in my defence I'll say that I was conscious of having to keep some space for dessert. Working your way through a long and detailed dessert menu is one of life's great pleasures - even when it's in portuguese and you're as fussy as I am. Once I've eliminated all the delicate sorbets and fresh fruit whatevers I'm usually still left with a good three or four choices which include the word chocolate at least once and weighing up all these possibilities is a big part of enjoying the end result.

But on this occasion I got no further than the very first item on the menu: Chocolate Nemesis. Apparently this is a well-established recipe from River Cafe but to the best of my knowledge I've never had it. Clearly it was a challenge. In the past I have been singularly unaffected by a collection of Chocaholic Delights, have survived countless Deaths by Chocolate and put away numerous Ultimate Chocolate-Lovers This-and-Thats and clearly the time had come for my chocolate hubris to meet its chocolate nemesis.

I survived. Even though they brought me two slices, with ice cream, and even after my cauldron of paella I managed to clear the plate and was just putting the last mouthful to bed as Helen said, "oh, that looks nice, can I try a bit?" Oops. So, hubris intact and belly distended, I waddled off home determined to spend  a bit more time at the club and a bit less time in the kitchen for a while. But it's funny how things always look different after a good night's sleep.

Some things, perhaps, but not the rain. That still looks the same as ever.

Monday, October 3, 2011


Spring is in the air... and in the trees and all over the ground as well.

Someone once told me that here in Brazil, if you throw away an apple core then before you know it you'll find yourself with an apple tree and I can well believe it. Stuff just grows out here and especially, it would seem, in my garden. The problem is not getting it to start, it's getting it under control once it's taken root. I tell you, if John le Carré had set that novel in Brazil, the hero would have had his work cut out for him just living up to his title.

Okay, I actually thought that was quite clever, but for those of you now trying to work out exactly what Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy has to do with my overgrown greenery I'll point out that le Carré also wrote The Constant Gardener. Get it now?

Anyway, it's true. Gardens out here take a lot of work if you want to keep them under control and looking nice, and from what I see as I wander around this particular part of São Paulo, people like their gardens to look very, very nice - the area is, after all, called the Jardins (Gardens). But then most people who live around here also have the perfect solution, which is to get someone else to do your gardening for you. After all, if you have a maid or driver (or both) on hand, you may as well get them trimming the hedges and watering the pots whenever they’re at a loose end.

Sadly, I don't have a maid, or a driver - or even a penchant for gardening for that matter - and so my garden is nothing like the much-loved and carefully-manicured oases of my neighbours. In fact, there are certain parts of it that I know for a fact haven't been visited for well over a year now. And when you remember that we're talking about nothing more than a large collection of pots and an area of lawn the same size as our bedroom, that's somewhat lax on my part.

I do water it occasionally - whenever I remember before it's pitch black outside - but as far as I'm concerned, if it rained during the previous fortnight, then the garden will be fine. And if it didn't, it's bound to rain again within the next fortnight so there's nothing to worry about. And yet the thing is still thriving. Weeds are stretching up strong and bold throughout the lawn, the trees out front are so tall now they're starting to interfere with the infrared security cameras and there's a vine that's made it all the way up the pole to the power cables and is probably part of the local grid by now.

Last year I accidentally killed off all Helen's daisies by failing to realise they even existed until they no longer did. This year, they're back! We have a spindly little tree in a pot out back. Until recently it was nothing but twigs but suddenly I look at it and it's blossoming - literally - and is threatening to provide us with a seriously impressive crop of pomegranates. And the list goes on. Palms… zoom! Ferns… whiz! Herbs… well, okay, the herbs weren’t my finest hour, but they’re not actually dead yet, which is pretty impressive in itself, I think.

So, now believing that my fingers are naturally green and not just that way from all the leaking felt pens, I’ve decided to embark upon a little horticultural project on the grounds that no matter how badly it goes, the end result will probably still live to tell the tale. Basically, it involves grafting orchids onto the trunks of trees. Surprisingly, this is done quite a lot out here. Maybe it’s done quite a lot everywhere. Maybe that’s actually how orchids are supposed to grow. I have no idea. I thought they grew in little pots along with their own instruction booklet and a sachet of liquid food.

What you do is take the plant, wrap the roots in coconut fibre and then literally just tie the whole thing to a tree trunk and leave it. I suppose you probably have to water it from time to time as well, but everything else, the plant does for itself. Surely, even I can manage that?

There’s just one problem. We don’t have any trees in our garden big enough for the job. What you need is one of those good, solid things that’s been around for decades and can easily cope with a couple of parasites hanging off its trunk. The best we have is little bigger than the plants I’m going to stick on it and I suspect it will end up looking faintly ridiculous. Also, it’s tucked away in a corner where we’ll never really see the orchids anyway. Still, this is not going to stop me…

…well, I’d call that a limited success. Sadly I broke one of the stems trying to get it out of the pot so what ended up being tied to the tree was just a few leaves and a load of roots. The second one worked fine, except that I probably could have done with a spare pair of hands to help hold everything in place while I tied it. Still it’s there now, tied down to within an inch of its life with one of James’ old shoe laces. It may not look pretty, but it’s certainly not going anywhere in a hurry.

But now I come to think of it, I forgot to water them afterwards. That was yesterday, and as it’s 27 degrees today and set to get hotter over the weekend, perhaps I ought to give them a little drink before they shrivel up completely.

Anyway, this is what it should look like if you do it all properly.

And fortunately, for those whose gardening skills aren’t up to even this level of competency, Brazil offers an alternative. It’s called a árvore do jardineiro preguiçoso and as you can see, it produces a slightly odd-looking but very easy-to-maintain flower all on its own without any intervention whatsoever. Now that’s my kind of tree!