Sunday, 26 June 2011

Why Not To Shop In Brazil

International journeys starting in Brazil are exempt, thanks to some abnormally brilliant Brazilian law, the normal baggage restrictions of international airline travel.  So, while economy passengers on all other global routes are only allowed two paltry 23 kilo bags, those flying from and to Brazil get to max out their two bags to 32 kilos a piece, without paying excess.

I customarily fill every last milligram of my allowance - and that of my kids - with the fruits of an obscene month-long European shopping spree.  Usually a roof-box and trailer are required to get us to the airport with our 200 kilo load at the end of the holiday.  I justify it as a means to save money, because I essentially buy the non-perishable goods required for entire year, from nappies and toothpaste to christmas and birthday presents, and avoid buying anything aside from groceries in Brazil.  It's just too expensive to shop here, and I'm pretty sure I almost compensate for the cost of the flights.

If the price of goods wasn't enough, the exasperating purchasing process here is enough to dampen the  appetite of even the most rabid shopaholic.   First off, many Brazilian clothing stores follow the fifties' shop model, with many goods behind a counter manned with overly helpful assistants.  You can't just browse the racks to find stuff yourself.  Instead, you are obliged to be 'served' by a girl with a massive grin and a name that for some reason she thinks you need know, who will fetch what you request along with a collection of garments you wouldn't be seen dead in.

If you do decide to go ahead with a transaction, you must be prepared for the multi-hooped circus act that is checking out.  It usually works like this:  The assistant who has been serving you will issue you with a numbered ticket and ask you how you want to pay.  (If you pay cash you will probably get a 5% discount).  She will send you (without your goods) to the back of the store to the cashier, an invariably dour looking woman sitting behind a glass screen.  Do not be surprised if this lady asks you for your vital statistics, such is the detail of personal information that is required even to buy a pair of socks.  She will also ask you if you want to pay upfront (a vista) or in multiple interest-free installments (parçelado).  Once you pay, she will duly stamp your ticket 'PAGO' and send you to another area of the shop to pick up your goods, which in the meantime have been bagged up.  It's a frustrating, inefficient system that can mean 3 different queues, and requires 3 times more staff than necessary.

But for newcomers to Brazil, the frustration can set in long before you even set foot in the store.  In order to shop you obviously need access to your money.  Sound simple?  Far from it.  Opening a bank account is the first hurdle, and can take months while you wait for your official residency ID.  But even with that first box ticked, you have two more hurdles: getting into the bank and operating the cash machine.   You can take nothing for granted!  When I first arrived in Sao Paulo, I tearfully aborted the first two attempts to get into the front door of the bank.  I couldn't yet speak the language and was intimidated by the metal-detecting revolving door and the armed security guard shouting instructions at me from behind his bullet-proof screen.  I just didn't understand what I was supposed to do (remove everything from my handbag and put them in a transparent container in the revolving door).   It sounds pathetic, but I just turned around and fled! 

And the cash machine amazes me every time to this day  Withdrawing cash is akin to dancing the hokey kokey:  You put your cash card in.  You pull your cash card out.  In, Out, In, Out and shake it all about.  Do the hokey kokey and your turn around.......Seriously, I have to put the bank card into the machine and take it out again a total of three times just to withdraw a tenner.  I have to punch my pin code in at least twice, and even that isn't straight forward - it's in a type of code whereby you press one button if the digit you want to input is a 1 or a 3, another if it's a 5 or a 7, another if it's a 9 or a 0 etc. (If you don't manage, you can always resort to using your cheque book, but I've lost count of the number of times my signature has not been deemed to match the one the bank has on file. )

Sigh....what a moaning Minnie post.  I think it's because the annual holiday is so close I can almost touch it.  Bring on that shopping spree.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Does My Kid Need Therapy?

I was called into school today to have a meeting with the school psychologist to discuss Little Bear's behaviour.  The tiniest little upset can set him off like a firework; screaming, shouting, kicking, hitting and spitting.  It's a pretty regular performance at school, and she was curious to know if he did the same thing at home and, if so, how we handled it.

Six weeks ago I was not handling it.  At all.  I was in despair.  He was throwing fits on a daily basis and i was trying every strategy known to modern and cave-dwelling parents alike.  I tried ignoring the behaviour but that made him worse.  I tried Time Outs but they don't bother him.  I tried smacking him but that just led to escalating tit-for-tat physical conflict.  I tried positive praise but that just enraged him.  I spent nights researching Aspergers and child bipolar disorder trying to figure out what his problem was.  I cried and felt like a terrible mother, not least because I found myself wondering if I still loved him.  I just couldn't understand how a four year old with a loving, attentive family could be so unhappy.  It was breaking my heart. 

But about a month ago there was a shift.  We decided to try a weekend without turning on the computer, so that we would be less distracted and more engaged with the kids.  It was so much fun that it is now a firmly enforced family rule.  Around the same time I also made a conscious decision to give Little Bear more 'colo', which is a wondeful Brazilian word that amounts to cuddling and holding someone like a baby.  Guess what?  In the last four weeks we haven't had a single episode of the same magnitude, at home at least.  He's being utterly adorable and sweet and happy most of the time.

For me, it was case closed.  But today the school psychologist was recommending we should take him for an evaluation with a child therapist to see if we can figure out what is bothering him.  I have my own theories; jealousy of his younger sibling; anxiety about growing up (and even death) and a desire to go back to being a baby, all of which manifest themselves in massive attention-seeking fits replete with baby behaviour.  See, I've got it all figured out myself.  Why do I need to take him to someone else to corroborate my theory?

Truth is that we Brits are not very comfortable with therapy.  I don't know a single British friend of mine that has ever been to a therapist, or taken their kid to one.  The therapy culture of countries like the US and Brazil is a source of total bemusement to us.  It's just not something that we do.  And if we do, I suppose we don't talk about it.  (Do you even get psychologists in British schools?  You certainly didn't in my day).  Of course I think that some people have some serious issues to figure out, but it seems like some people go to their therapist to indulge their precious egos for an hour, talking about how they feel about their broken nail or the boyfriend that just wasn't that into them.  The Brits on the other hand like to figure things out by themselves.  We're just not that dramatic or touchy-feely.  Stiff upper lip, Dunkirk spirit and all that.

Whether or not I take Little Bear to the therapist remains to be seen.  As for me, why would I pay to speak about myself for an hour when I can just spend an hour writing a blog post for free?  Thanks for listening.

Monday, 13 June 2011

5 Things We Love To Hate About Brazilian Birthday Parties - And How To Get Over It

Brigadeiros: Late Night, Anyone?
1) The Time of The Party: 
You may as well just get used to the fact that ninety percent of the invitations you receive will be for parties that start when your kids are normally in the their pyjamas and end when you are normally in yours, and on a school night to boot.  No use tut-tut-tutting.  Brazilian kids go to bed late and there isn't any amount of head shaking and finger wagging that is going to change that.  I get over it by simply not going to those parties.  Believe me, going to a mere one in ten of them is more than an adult can handle without medication anyway. 

2) The Sweeties:
As if trays of Briga-deiros, and the promise of cake aren't enough, a table full of sweets is in order.   I take one look and hear that scary horror music from Psycho.  It's a  multi-coloured minefield of hysteria-inducing, teeth-rotting, choking hazards.  The truth is that Brazilian sweets haven't undergone the same do-goody makeover as in the UK, with their enlightened natural colours and flavours.  Here it's old school, like when we were four, but probably worse.  Get over it by feeding your kids a truly self-righteously healthy meal before you arrive. Something with quinoa and spinach and salmon will do. Then, when they do go to the table, steer them towards a really big, hard lollipop that will keep them licking for the rest of the party while other kids scoff the rest.  When you get home, scrub those milk teeth like Tinkerbell's life depended on it.

3) Health and Safety
This one's for Mr Becoming, who spent most of a party this weekend doing a safety assessment of the "Biggie Play" (those multi-tiered play areas invented by Ronald MacDonald) and the climbing wall (no helmets and lackadaisical monitoring).  He was worried about falls and accidents.  My concern didn't amount to more than a passing curiosity about how often the ball-pit balls were cleaned.  I got over it by looking the other way and thinking pretty thoughts.  There's nothing so bad in life that can't be made better by alcohol hand gel and a positive outlook.

4) Inappropriate Games
Killing Machines By Day.  Bed Wetters By Night.
These party venues cater for a wide age range so it is inevitable that there are some things that are not for the smaller children.  It is also inevitable that the father of the small child will allow said child to participate in these activities even though they know it will make the mother of said child apoplectic.   Take, for example, the shooting of zombies in a violent and graphic video game.  I'm still getting over this one actually and would just bury the memory if it weren't for the fact it was, in Little Bear's opinion, the best bit of the whole party and he won't stop talking about it.  If total denial doesn't do the trick, the advice would be not to take Dads to birthday parties in the first place.

5) The Birthday Cake Ritual
The cake at a Brazilian Birthday Party is presented on a long table decorated with figurines that reflect the party's theme, in front of a decorated thematic banner.  The theme is usually a Disney Princess or a Super Hero.  These tables are an all-singing, all-dancing symbol of so much that is wrong with today's society; bad role models, commercialisation, yawn, yawn.  Get over it by only going to Hello Kitty themed parties because it is impossible to feel angry at Hello Kitty.  She's just too blooming cute. 

Saturday, 4 June 2011

British Queen's Birthday Celebration In Rio

Went to one of those peculiar ex-pat events today that I love to hate but secretly adore for their weird comedy value.  It was a tea-time celebration of the Queen's birthday hosted by the British Commonwealth Society of Rio de Janeiro, held in the hall at The British School.

Flat fluorescent lighting; Lots of old folks; The palest looking group of people I've ever seen in Rio; Patriotic balloons and union jacks; A vicar; A pianist;  Cups of tea; Scones with jam and cream;  Children in fancy dress (Little Dove won the prize in her Queen's Guard pyjamas); A faulty public address system; A raffle; Warm pro-seco; The National Anthem.  You get the picture.  It was like walking onto the set of a wartime sitcom. 

It was the first time the BSC had held this event for families, in an attempt to attract a 'younger' membership.  Here's a picture of the cake.  Love the unintentionally cool 'you majesty'.  They put the cake on the stage, where two seconds later a toddler dressed as Batman trod on it. 

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Four Year Old Prodigies - Better Believe It

Aelita Andre - Four Year Old Prodigy (not mine!)
Did you see that video of the child prodigy abstract impressionist whose first solo exhibition is opening this week in New York? She is no more of an artist than the next kid, but what a lucky ducky to have such a cool studio space, an apparently limitless budget for acrylics and a collection of punky princess clothes that mommy lets her trash.  Makes me feel a bit square for insisting my kids put on their plastic aprons, sit at the table and not spill their thimble-fulls of finger paint.

"Do not spill your thimble-full of finger paint!".  Say that ten times, I dare you.  With tongue-twisting skills like these, little wonder I birthed a prodigy of my own, of the existential philosopher variety.

Tonight's dinner time question was "What does it feel like to be dead?", but Little Bear's most common question is "Does that exist?".  He's trying to figure out where the line is drawn between reality and fantasy, and asks this in relation to anything from monsters, angels, knights in armour, the Easter story, jellyfish and fairies to ghosts.  These things have pretty straightforward answers - they either definitively do, definitively don't or nobody knows so you can just decide (and I'll let you decide which falls into which category).  But things start to get complicated when he points to representations (or misrepresentations) of things in photographs, magazines, billboard ads, films, TV programs and illustrations.  I find myself embarking on lengthy attempts to demystify the film industry ("That's an actor darling, pretending to be someone else, telling an imaginary story that was written by a writer, filmed by a cameraman" etc) or the advertising industry ("That's a photo of something real, photo-shopped by a graphic designer and made into something pretty unreal" etc), but my responses always fall short of his complete satisfaction.

We went to the Instituto Moreira Salles recently (our default rainy day in Rio routine) to see an exhibition of video portraits by Robert Wilson.  We're talking high-res flat screens with what appear to be stills of celebrities, until you notice that parts of the picture change.  Little Bear was completely entranced (so was I by the way, especially by the work featuring Brad Pitt in his underpants ) and of course he asked 'Do they really exist?".  My explanation was that yes, it was a real person who really exists, and this was a video of them.  When little bear wondered 'How do they eat?' I realised that he thought the people were actually stuck in a box up on the wall, behind a glass screen.  And why not?

That's what is so genius about all four year old kids; their total ignorance.  They haven't got a clue about what is likely to be real, what is clearly not, or any of the practical reasons why Brad Pitt wouldn't really be stuck in a box in the gallery.  They don't know how things should or shouldn't be done, and no concept of any of the boundaries that separate their imaginations from the world around them.  It must be magical living in a world where everything seems possible - including four year olds having their own gallery shows.  Prodigies or not, they have a lot to teach us...not least that it's okay to for them to get paint all over their pretty clothes.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Things To Love About Cold Rainy Weather In Rio

Break out the Cosby's COLD!
16 degrees might be the temperature of a pleasant spring day in Aberdeen but here it is considered freeeeeeeezing.  Coupled with the incessant rain, the cold front is enough to bring out a tropical variant of SAD in most people, but here I am to give you six reasons to enjoy the climate:

1) YOU HAVE AN EXCUSE NOT TO DO ANYTHING:  In Brazil the rain is a perfectly valid excuse not to do anything or go anywhere.  Apparently this extends to your place of work, especially if that happens to be my house.  The first time I heard a maid play the rain card to explain an absence I was dumbfounded.  Since, I have come to expect it.  Sure enough on Friday morning as it rained cats, dogs and the full gamut of domestic pets, I got the no-show call from The Help.  I've adapted pretty well to the rain excuse myself, and have used it this week to ditch yoga and spinning classes (pretty pathetic since the gym is about 20 metres from my front door) in favour of watching Barbie mermaid films.

2) IF YOU DO ANYTHING AT ALL, IT WILL BE AN ENHANCED EXPERIENCE: Given that most people will NOT be venturing far from home, anything you do decide to undertake will be all the more pleasant.  When it rains, the illegal vendors who clog up the pavement with their pirate DVD and remote control stands stay away so you can actually navigate your pushchair from A to B without going mental.  I took my kids to swimming class this week and they had semi-private classes since most other children had been kept at home lest they get wet and cold, and shopping at the Hortifruti in Catete was actually bearable because the fogeys who usually shuffle around the shop were all shivering under polyester blankets somewhere.

3) IT'S EASY TO MAKE FRIENDS: If you are new to Brazil and you want to meet other expats, put wellie boots on your kids and take them to the park to jump in the puddles.  Without a shadow of a doubt, the only other children you meet will be other foreigners. 

4) YOU GET TO COVER UP: All that chocolate left over from Easter and in the last few weeks I've acquired enough spare tyres to set up my own roadside borracharia.  It's wonderful to be able to hide it all under sleeves and long layers, without the pressure of having a bikini body ready to break out at any moment.  Liberate the body hair and revel in items of clothing salvaged from the 'cold clothes' box at the back of the wardrobe; garments that contain wool yes WOOL (mental note: remember to remind The Help how to hand wash and dry cashmere) and pashminas and socks wonderful socks.

5) YOU GET TO SEE SOME PRICELESS KNITWEAR:  If the average Brit possesses one baggy-bottomed bikini and twenty jumpers, the Carioca has the inverse.  The knitwear you see when it gets 'cold' here defies belief.  Snuggly clothing, because it is rarely used, apparently lasts for generations,  and is therefore excused the whims of fashion.  You see people wearing patterns and colour combos that would make Bill Cosby proud.

6) IT MAKES YOU FEEL AT HOME: Don't we all love that chilled to the bone feeling that is rewarded by a nice toasted crumpet and a face-burning sit beside the open fire?  This cold, wet streak makes me feel right at home.  Most of all it reminds me why I'm glad I don't live there...

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Facebook Saves Lives: In Defense of A Social Media Habit

I have this dear friend.  I was her bridesmaid and she was mine.  Back at school she was an 'influencer'.  She was intelligent, worldly wise and clued-up about music and pop culture.  She introduced me to Paul Simon (see how cool?) and together we laid eyes on a CD player for the first time.  At eleven she stated she would be a lawyer, and sure enough she became a total hot shot.  Then she added being a super-mum of three under-threes to her CV.  With all her achieving and reproducing, she let being plugged-in slide down her list of priorities.  She simply didn't 'Facebook'.

I almost choked on my chocolate egg (is there no end to the Easter chocolate?) a few days ago when I saw her name pop up as a recommended Facebook friend.  I quickly fired off an invite and rejoiced that I'd finally be able to keep in touch with her better.  I got her (email) response today:

"I do NOT understand why people like Facebook. I just hooked up again to see someone’s photos and I just cannot believe the information people put on it.  It is the end of privacy as we know it. AND surely no-one with a job has time for it.  If you didn’t have full-time help, I’m sure you wouldn’t bother!!"

OUCH! I felt like I'd been punched by the angry, chocolate-egg-laying Easter hen looking for its stolen babies.  Sad and Hurt.  It wasn't the insinuation that Facebook was my distraction from filing my nails while a maid took care of my children and a husband polished his nose on the corporate grindstone that got me.  I take her opinion personally because it is a total dismissal of one of the things I prize most.  Being an expat mother raising young children in a country where I have no family members, in a city where I haven't known anyone longer than 18 months can be a lonely undertaking.  It is difficult to keep friendships alive when you have been away for many years, but impossible to operate in life without them.  I need my old friends so I need Facebook, and I need her to be one of my Facebook friends.
Of course I am making wonderful new friends, but I crave being with people who really know me and care about me, opportunities for which are few and far between.  Every year more people have babies and fewer people visit. (The same friend only half jokingly promised she would come to visit when her children were at boarding school, in about 12 years time!) I hate that I don't know my friends' husbands better, that I have to think twice to remember their kids names, that I don't know what they thought of that TV program last night, what music they are listening to or what they are cooking for dinner.  Facebook helps fill in these spaces, with an insight into the trivial day-to-day treasures of life that get overlooked when you meet friends or cousins for one afternoon a year, and the events of the past 12 months are reduced to significant events like job changes, new houses, new children.

To set the record straight I do work.  Maybe not as much as I could, but I'm not totally idle.  I also know plenty of successfully employed people that are very active on Facebook.   As for the full-time help thing, I'll just say that time is like money - you use every penny that you have.  If I have paid 'help', it is so I can get more done, and do it better, not to free up time for Facebook.  Anyway, I think that Facebook saves me time in the long run.  It allows me to know what's going on with the people I love all over the world, quickly and easily.  All the hassle of attaching image files to cookie-cutter family emails is removed.  I also belong to an amazing Facebook group of about 100 expat women who live in Rio.  I can post anything related to living Brazil, especially concerning raising children, and get an answer within seconds from a handful of women that have gone through the same experience.  In the absence of family and old friends, that type of virtual support network is precious indeed. 

And just because Facebook friendships are so easy and convenient doesn't make them any less meaningful.  Of course it's not as great as actally seeing people, but surely it's better than nothing.  If anything I think Facebook has extended the love....renewing old friendships, nurturing new ones.  But maybe for this friendship I might just have to go old school and pick up the telephone.  Thank God for Skype...that's a whole other addiction.