With apologies to my mom

JBWorkCarnaval2Dancing with the Devil in the City of God launches on Tuesday; Wednesday will be my first public reading at Boston’s Porter Square Books. Nervous and excited doesn’t quite capture how I feel: this book pulls together experiences of a lifetime, touches on very personal questions of belonging, and is about a city, and country, to which I have the profoundest of connections.

It’s also the book of a journalist, and it is written as such. As the old newsroom saying goes, if you mother says she loves you, check. That’s what I did. Once I landed in Rio, I took all the upbeat things I’d heard– the headlines about Brazil’s economic boom, its surging middle class, plus all the talk of the legacy that would be left by the World Cup and the Olympics — and began to sift through them. That’s journalism.

As a Brazilian — albeit one that had spent a total of 30 years abroad — I was also immune to the romanticism that fogs so many foreigners’ views on Rio. Yes, the place is a tropical paradise complete with palm trees and Technicolor sunsets, but the cute black kid selling popsicles on the beach isn’t a great photo opportunity: he’s a symbol of our gravest failures. I don’t see incompetence and disorganization as charming and excusable downsides of the colorful Latin Character (excuse me while I roll my eyes – I’ve heard this one so much), but as hurdles that stand in the way of good governance and allow corruption to run rampant.

So, although Rio is gorgeous and Carnaval is fun, the book I wrote doesn’t have a list of the top ten beaches, or insider’s tips on how to survive seven days of partying in the streets, though you may get a few good ideas. It’s true, I often stayed up late with a caipirinha or two, and broke up a scorching day with a dip in the ocean and a long drink from fresh coconut. Who wouldn’t? But as I moved through the city, I was reporting: how did the Bay turn into a toilet overflowing with untreated sewage? And what of that promise to clean it up by the Olympic Games? And all this talk of making Rio safer, safe for the Olympics — was the city safe? Safe for whom? At what cost?

I asked because it was my job, but also because these were my own questions. As a Brazilian, I needed to know. The answers I found often left me furious, thoughtful or laughing out loud. Much of the time, they weren’t what I’d hoped for. I wanted better for Rio, for Brazil. So much of what I wrote was critical.

And that’s what got me in trouble.

It happened during one of those long Sunday lunches with the family, at that point when everyone is full, flush with warmth and wine and the kids are napping, so the adults can push back their chairs, nibble on desert and talk a bit. I was ranting about the Olympic Golf Course — built on what was protected land, pushed through by the mayor during those high summer days between Christmas and New Years when no one is paying any attention.

My mom turns to me, puts down her fork, asks if this would be in the book. It would, I said. And the stuff about Vila Autodromo? Yes, that too.

“Why can’t you say something nice?” she asked. She wasn’t joking; she was mad.

This sensitivity isn’t particular to my mom. As anyone who has ever written about Brazil knows, Brazilians are sensitive to criticism about their country, and react defensively. This includes my family. This is especially true when it will be seen “lá fora,” out there, by foreign eyes. And for a Brazilian to do it — well, it’s in poor taste at best, if not downright treacherous. Foreigners who care about Brazil will also jump to its defense: Write about pollution and someone will argue that other countries are polluted too. Write about corruption or corporate malfeasance, and Enron will be resurrected. Deforestation brings up arguments that the United States and Europe have already torn down all their forests.

So mom: I’m not picking on Rio, or Brazil. Journalism is a service, and I do it in Brazil as I did it in the US: because it is my job, and because I want to see improvements. What I write is a reflection of my hopes, not my disdain, whether it is about a river destroyed in California, or a stream-turned-sewage-canal in Rio; or about pollution in Brazil’s water or pollution in American National Parks.

Holding my own country to different — lower — standards would be the real offense. I expect more, not less, of Brazil.

The Sound of Swiss Silence


In Rio, silence had been elusive, sought-after; the screech of bus brakes, the tinny whine of motorcycles, the amplified kiddy-music of children’s birthday parties were constant, wearying company.

Cariocas love sound; even in places where others go to be away from noise, they bring noise. They clip iPhones to their shorts and play them as loud as possible while hiking in the woods; they bring radios to a deserted beach. Noise has only positive connotations to them; it means fun is being had, life is being lived to its fullest.

Finding a moment of silence in the cacophony of the city required effort, and earplugs. When I found it, it was a balm, and it was never enough.

It took me one afternoon alone at home in Switzerland to get enough. And more than enough.

My now-husband — I’ll call him Dr. G — had arrived three weeks earlier, and had sublet a cozy apartment in Oerlikon, a suburb north of the city center. It was a lovely place in which to start life in mid-winter Switzerland: warm, cozy, and fully furnished, with a porch looking out onto bare, snow-laden trees. It certainly beat the empty apartments and camping mats that have been my lot for weeks or months following other moves.

But how can I describe the carefully-tended silence of a Swiss suburb in the winter? It is like trying to explain the many flavors of an old family recipe, an elaborate dish rich with flavor, resonant with meaning. The Swiss have been honing their silence for generations, centuries. It involves intricacies like when you can do a load of laundry (the chug of the machine can disturb a neighbor) and rules against setting out your recycling on Sunday because the clink of bottles would disrupt the day of rest.

But I’ll try.

Take the silence of the suburb you know best. Carve out that slice of calm in the middle of the afternoon when there are no kids, no birds, no cars out. Remove the distant hum of a freeway, the muted bass of a far-away stereo playing through an open window. Add layers and layers of snow. Add double-paned windows everywhere, and impeccably constructed buildings that never. even. creak.

During my first afternoon home alone, I discovered silence had depths I had not fathomed. It had shape, and presence, and weight. It could be crushing. Or funny. I could actually hear myself chew. Gross. Did my stomach always growl that loudly?

It played tricks on me, like a mischievous Swiss imp. I would swear I heard my phone buzz, faintly, though I had no phone plan and as yet, knew no one with reason to call. It was as if my ears, unused to such vast expanses of empty, were trying to provide themselves with distractions.

Inside: Silence. I opened the window. SILENCE. Plus COLD. So I closed the window. I hummed, overly conscious of the tiny modulations in my voice. I tried to read. The silence poked at me like a bored child, demanding attention. It made concentration impossible.

I gave up and did that very Carioca thing, the gesture that would always make me roll my eyes in Rio: I turned on the stereo, and left it on. Not because I wanted the music, but just to break the silence.

On being prepared

There’s a lot of advice out there for those moving to a new country. In fact, there are a lot of helpful blogs with checklists, one-year plans or six-month plans, plus legal, tax and visa tips. If you prepare, the process can be smooth, organized, painless.

I wouldn’t know about any of that. When I left San Francisco for Rio, I had three weeks’ warning, and barely enough time to rent my apartment, sell my car and give away my books. Preparing to move from Rio to Zurich proceeded in the same frenzied, last-minute way. The to-do list for our last few months in Brazil, insofar as there was one, went sort of like this:

*November: throw wedding party for 150 family members in Minas Gerais. Then throw another one in Rio for 150 more family and friends. In between, desperately try to sell, give or box everything in apartment.

*December: spend the month in Colombia exploring the Caribbean coast, the astonishing Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (think the tropics meets snow-covered peaks) and the Colombian Central Andes.

*January: More desperate packing. Close Rio apartment. Leave for the Amazon; spend two weeks following the TransAmazon Highway — highway being a misleading name for this muddy, rutted track through the jungle — while reporting on illegal gold mining and interviewing men who were recruited to go into the forest during World War II to collect rubber.

February 5: land in Zurich.

I can’t recommend this approach. It usually means arriving wherever you’re going without half the things you wish you’d brought. But do I wish I’d spent less time hiking the Andes/celebrating with friends/camping out in the Amazon and more time crating my stuff into labeled boxes? Not at all.

Rio to Zurich

Rio to ZurichAs the airplane prepared for landing, I strained to make out the landscape below through the white blur of a mid-winter snowstorm. The staggered flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Zurich, Switzerland (through São Paulo and Frankfurt) had taken nearly 24 hours; I was groggy with lack of sleep and the strange, untethered feeling that comes from taking big leaps across time zones.

The fog and swirl outside my window matched my own nebulousness. I’d never been to Zurich, never read a book about it. I had no Swiss friends. The vague outlines distinguished through the small, round window were all the information I had about this place that would be my new home. With no solid details on which to hang my expectations, Zurich seemed make-believe, a life-sized snow globe into which I was landing with two large suitcases and my laptop.

The plane taxied to a stop. The disembodied voice overhead reminded passengers to gather their things, “aware that contents in the overhead compartments might have shifted during the flight.” Through my gritty-eyed exhaustion, I felt the surge of adrenaline. I recognized this feeling, the alertness that comes with starting a new life, charting new terrain. It was familiar, reassuring — an idiosyncrasy of mine, this comfort with newness that was born of having moved so often in my forty years that the state of transition itself felt a little like home.

I’d made my last move just over four years ago, leaving the United States, where I’d covered immigration for the Associated Press from San Francisco, for Brazil and my dream job: Rio de Janeiro correspondent. Brazil was home, in so far as I had a home. I had been away for more than two decades, but it was where I was born, where people looked like me and spoke the language I shared with my family. It was there my parents had settled after many years abroad, and where my siblings were raising their brood of five curly-headed kids.

Those were not easy years; Rio brooks no indifference. The city I found was habitually amazing, frequently infuriating, and often left me feeling more foreign than ever. But even as it goaded me to fury with its bureaucracy, its faulty sewage pipes, its jarring inequalities, it reclaimed me.

The more I had struggled with the place, the deeper the tendrils of belonging had worked their way in. Even the indignation over inefficiency, corruption or worse that sent me raging over the morning paper was born of a growing sense of ownership. I knew Rio’s stories, its people, its streets. For the first time in my adult life, I lived in the country of my citizenship, and for the first time, I cast votes for mayor, for president, feeling the weight and the satisfaction of being part of a place, responsible for it.

This change became clear when, three-quarters of the way through writing Dancing with the Devil in the City of God, I realized I had inadvertently switched from referring to Cariocas as “them” to speaking about “us.” Simples assim, just like that, it happened: I was home.

When my partner, an American academic on a visiting professorship, got the email offering him a research gig in Zurich, we were sitting in our Rio living room. The wall-to-wall windows were open to the lush green hill outside, and white sailboats bobbed on the bay that opened to the left. The bald dome of the Sugarloaf looked down over it all.

Neither one of us had planned a move to Europe. We had no connections there, no family. Neither one of us could speak German, much less Züridüütsch, the local Swiss German dialect. There was no place that seemed as removed from Brazil in any terms we could think of: culture, weather, politics, economy, environment. We started laughing. There was nothing to talk about. Of course we’d go.

Having found a home meant one thing: it was time to move on.